Thursday, 16 December 2021 16:30

Cellar Rockstars: Experienced winery staff gold this vintage

Written by  Sophie Preece
Matt Mitchell and Rodrigo (Rocky) Calandria Matt Mitchell and Rodrigo (Rocky) Calandria

Rodrigo Calandria's first New Zealand winery experience was filling vast gabion baskets with rocks at Marisco, during a working holiday from Argentina.

Fast forward three years and Rocky - a moniker earned in those boulder stacking days - is a full-time member of the Waihopai Valley winery's cellar crew, made even more valuable in a year when experienced winery staff are truly thin on the ground.

Winery General Manager Matt Mitchell says Marisco started recruiting for the 2022 vintage early, with a much more "multi-pronged" approach to advertising roles, "using every media outlet available to use". They have also tapped into any opportunities offered with Wine Marlborough or the Ministry for Social Development.

While each of those prongs has yielded some results, the vintage labour situation is worse than 2021, when there were more international cellar hands still in the country, following the 2020 vintage. "This time around we would have about 50 percent of the people we are looking for. Of those 20 people, we would be lucky if we had three or four who had done harvest previously," he says. "The experience level is incredibly low."

With that in mind, the induction process for vintage 2022 will be heavily biased towards training, Matt says. The abundance of green recruits will put a lot of pressure on permanent staff like Rocky - who returned to Marisco for the 2019 vintage, and again for 2020, only to be stranded by Covid-19 and given a full-time role. The experienced crew will do less physical work and more supervising, "of this largely inexperienced team," says Matt. It will be a "nervous time" for them all, with cellar hands dealing with raw juice "that has incredibly high intrinsic value", he adds.

But he is grateful that the Marisco wineries have been build with design and technology that reduces the staff requirement and ensures easy transfer of juice. "We are lucky that minimising staffing requirements and simplifying job set were a focus when the building was designed; and at times like this these things pay dividends."

The 2020 vintage, which saw Marisco lose half its 40 seasonal workers by the end of harvest due to the pressures of the pandemic, showed what could be done with a smaller crew, Matt says. "It really brought home to us that if the remaining 50 percent are committed to doing a good job, we can work on."

Outside of recruitment pressure, the winery is working on different scenarios and responses under the Government's traffic light system. "There's no doubt Covid will touch the wine industry at some stage during harvest," Matt says. "So, we are having to think about how that will impact... How do we mitigate risk and what sets use up to be in the best shape we could be in?"

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