Rural Support Trust chair Neil Bateup says there is a lot of apprehension among farmers about the future as they follow and experience the disruptions caused by Covid and also by the war in Ukraine.
While some industry members say that will impact their ability to hand harvest quality wines, and leave wineries short on cellar hands, companies are swiftly adapting to look local. “Often we lose a lot of young winemakers to overseas wine growing areas,” says Hawke’s Bay Winemaker Daniel Brennan of Decibel Wines. “I think there are many folk still in the country who can help, but this impacts larger and smaller wineries in different ways.”
Astrolabe Winemaker Simon Waghorn is taking precautions to ensure machine harvesting can be done on hand-pick blocks, “if necessary”. That means checking machinery access to the blocks, and compatibility of row spacings and topography to machine harvesting, he says. He hopes workers stranded in Marlborough from last harvest may be allowed to work in the vines or winery for vintage 2021. “Otherwise, it might be a case of all hands to the pump, with office staff or permanent vineyard staff and growers press-ganged into cellar work.”
Either way, the company is looking to reduce the throughput of hand-picked fruit in the winery, “as it is more labour intensive and disruptive to winery workflow”, he says. “We don’t want to exacerbate the issues of staff shortages.”
Nicola Crennan, External Relations Manager for New Zealand Winegrowers (NZW), says the looming threat of a seasonal labour shortage offers plentiful career opportunities in both vines and wineries. “NZW is aiming to help members attract new workers to the wine sector to ensure there are sufficient personnel in place to grow and bring in the 2021 crop, and beyond.”
The industry body is also lobbying Government to offer visa flexibility to seasonal vineyard staff and skilled winery workers who came for vintage 2020 and were stranded in New Zealand by Covid-19. “We know there are many New Zealanders who will need jobs, but we don’t think there will be enough to fill the gap. Experienced international workers will be vital to help train and supervise harvest and vintage workers.”
NZW has issued the 2020 Approval in Principle (AIP) letter of support and encourages employers to apply for AIP status as a way to employ international vintage specialists already in New Zealand, says Nicola. “Immigration New Zealand has also restarted processing essential skills visa applications for people already in New Zealand, so that is another option to add to your vintage workforce.”
The border closures will impact on the employment of Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme workers from the Pacific Islands, who have become a mainstay of the vineyard labour pool, through the growing season, harvest and winter pruning. Up to 7,500 RSE workers remain stranded in New Zealand, having come in for the 2019/2020 summer and winter season. Nicola welcomes recent repatriation flights to Pacific nations, saying “we hope all the workers who want to get home are able to”. NZW is also working on a plan for employers to be able to provide managed isolation and quarantine facilities, once the border is able to open for returning RSE workers.
Meanwhile, it is developing a case study for a border exception for skilled vintage workers, who, to be deemed as an ‘other critical worker’, need to have unique experience and technical or specialist skills that are not readily obtainable in New Zealand, she says. “We are working on that as a priority and will keep members updated on its progress.” NZW is also creating reliable 2020/2021 workforce supply and demand data, so wineries can predict accurately what labour is available to meet their needs.
Clive Jones, Winemaker for Nautilus Winery in Marlborough, says he may need to review the hand pick programme at Nautilus for next year, subject to labour availability.
“I certainly see this as quality compromise but, given a lot of our hand pick happens early in the season, I am confident we will be able to get the majority done,” he says. “We use a contract gang and will likely have to take a cooperative approach with other wineries to ensure fair access to the limited labour supply.”
It seems “very unlikely” the border rules will relax, meaning any potential overseas vintage workers would have to be in quarantine for two weeks prior to starting work, he says. “Given we only need these workers for about six weeks, it seems unlikely that the extra cost and time for quarantine will be justifiable for both us and the worker.” Clive hopes visa extensions will be granted to some workers stranded in the country from last vintage.
“This seems a very practical solution but will need support from Immigration. The majority of our vintage team is usually from New Zealand but one or two experienced internationals helps out a lot.”
Over in the Wairarapa, one of New Zealand’s smallest wine regions, Nga Waka Winery General Manager Mick Hodson predicts Covid-19 will have little impact on the 2021 harvest and vintage work following.
“We are sorted for winery staff and are confident that our contractors, Wall Horticulture, will be able to supply the staff we need for hand picking.”
Hawke’s Bay winemaker and niche Chardonnay producer Tony Bish says premium and super premium Chardonnay grapes have to be handpicked, so he plans to beef up his team of family, friends and local volunteers, RSE workers are in short supply.
Decibel’s Daniel Brennan says there are “phenomenal machine harvesters” that will help take the pressure off, “but there will always be premium wines and vineyards that can’t use machine harvesting, like our Martinborough Pinot block, and we’ll have to rely on hand pickers”. Pruning and spring work labour force is not currently an issue for Decibel, he adds.
“Of course, Mother Nature is a key factor. If we can basically pick whenever we want, then it probably won’t be an issue. In fact, we had easier access to pickers in Martinborough in 2020, when the weather was perfect during lockdown, than we did in 2018 when there was intermittent rain.”
Building a workforce
New Zealand’s wine industry has an opportunity to find the silver lining in Covid-19, says Nicola Crennan. “That is to build our workforce capability and attract talented people who may not have otherwise thought about the wine industry as a career.”
Government is sending “strong signals” to the wine industry to look to the New Zealand workforce to meet seasonal labour needs, she says. “Based on this, we believe that the high border exceptions threshold will remain. We have to rethink parts of our workforce, and become more self-sufficient in terms of personnel.”
NZW is talking to training institutes and universities, “who are as excited as we are about the amazing courses and careers we can offer to New Zealanders”, Nicola says.
“Producing New Zealand’s world-class wines creates numerous career opportunities, and people could get a taste through helping out with harvest or vintage.”