It was 1999 and – for various reasons that I now understand to be a lifelong curiosity with things in general – I had just swapped from writing about surfing to writing about food and wine. While looking after listings for the food and wine section of an entertainment website I had started to attend the odd wine tasting. Something piqued my interest.
A friend knew a winemaker who had a winery about an hour out of Melbourne, if I wanted to have a look around. It was good timing because vintage had started and, if I was game, I could go up for a weekend and help out. Just wear something old, he said, and don’t worry, they’d show me what to do.
I walked into the new winery set on a slope in the Strathbogie Ranges on a bright and bracing autumn day. “Slaves!” said Sticks with his hands in the air as if he had won a bet. I was told that not only was he a giant (‘Sticks’ is winemaker Rob Dolan’s nickname because he is as tall as a Sequoia), he was also a good-humoured kind of bloke. I thought he was joking.
I was quickly absorbed into the industry of vintage. I remember music echoing through the winery, sometimes competing against the sounds of machine presses and crushers; the gushing purple wine – fire hose thick – pumping over a tank of crushed grapes as vivid a purple as I remember; scary looking steel presses; and the tension that built as crates of grapes wobbled on forklifts and the urgent beeping of moving trucks.
The smells were bold and organic and belied the industrial set up of the winery – pungent yeast, fresh grapes, cedar and oak. People spoke of nightshifts and of sleeping at the winery. It felt part adventure, part festival.
That night at the local homestead, the winemakers and cellar hands – of which I was now one for at least another day – ate dinner together. The wine was the most important dish; its needs more considered than those of the guests. I just listened as they spoke of it, made space for it and matched everything to it.
The slog continued the next day as I stood on a plank across an open fermenter, willing my waning and shaking arms to push a foot deep cap of grape skins back down into the fermenting broth. And I sat for what seemed like hours on a crate at the door in the base of a tank, holding a hose the size of my leg which pumped wine back over grape skins. It was like cleaning out the tea leaves of a giant’s teapot.
In between these jobs, I swept excess water into drains in the winery floor as fast it came back in. My clothes, which I had long ago stopped trying to keep clean, became wet and sticky with grape juice. The creases in my hands were highlighted with the dark stain of crushed grapes.
Late in the afternoon of my second day I was sitting on the walkway of an outdoor tank that stood taller than a house. Set on the hill, it felt much, much higher, as though I was suspended in mid air over the wide, open valley. The sun was soft and the shadows long. Looking across the land peppered with large grey boulders, I felt I had just stepped into something that had me so curious I didn’t even know where to begin to understand it.
That afternoon I got a ride back to the city. With wine-stained hands and still wearing my work clothes, which were marbled with red wine, I felt like a soldier returning from a mission. I was proud of the evidence of vintage even though the stains seemed silly in inner city Melbourne as trams rattled past and people spilled from Sunday sessions at the pub.
As I walked the last blocks home I made a detour to the local bottle shop, determined to make whatever had just happened to me last a little longer. Scanning the rows and bottles with little idea but the greatest of intentions, I made the most generous offer I could – I handed over my last $20 and bought the most expensive bottle of wine that I had ever owned.