Sunday, May 31, 2009


Scattershooting while wondering whatever happened to Mia Sara.

A few random thoughts:

-The Letters to the Editor section of a small town newspaper is one of the most (unintentionally) hilarious and entertaining reads you can find.

-Heard "Look Away" by Chicago on the radio yesterday, and it really took me back. That sappy bit of 80's cheeseball fluff was the official "break-up" song of the fifth grade, and the soundtrack to my first broken heart. Look away, Julie Eldridge, look away. ;-)

-Cadbury makes some good ice cream. Caramello is my fave!

-My car wouldn't start two days ago, and I have yet to do a thing about it. Walking to the grocery store is good exercise.

-As of last Thursday, I can add 'driving a tractor' to the Other Skills section of my resume.

-Just discovered that I can watch every episode of this season's LOST on TVNZ's website. Sweet!

-Not counting this one or the one entitled "Is it Weird?," I've inserted a line (or variation thereof) from the Shawshank Redemption into my last five blog entries. Can you find them?


Saturday, May 30, 2009

More fun than a barrel of something

For the past four weeks, my services have been appropriated from the vineyard, and I've been working in the winery. My official job title is Cellar Hand, but I'm more affectionately known as the Barrel Monkey. Basically I have taken the barrels from storage, washed the barrels, stacked the barrels to dry, re-stacked the barrels in the cellar to be filled, and finally filled the barrels with the 09 Pinot. Did I mention that each empty barrel weighs about 50kgs? That's 110lbs. I thought repeatedly lifting 10kg bins of grapes was a workout. That was until I had to create stacks of barrels three high! My first day maneuvering the barrels was quite reminiscent of my first day ever at the vineyard--some three months ago--in that when I got home it took a considerable amount of will just to summon up the energy to take a shower. And I was in far better shape after harvest than I was when I first got here. There's no possible way I could've done the Barrel Monkey job right off the street. I wouldn't have had nearly the strength or stamina required. But it seems that every job I've had here at Rippon has had the effect of preparing my body for the next, more physically demanding one. Pulling out the nets was hard, but it got me in shape for the Monitor job during harvest. Being the Monitor was harder, but it got me in shape for the Barrel Monkey job. The Barrel Monkey job was harder still, but now I'm ready for just about any physical challenge my Employers could possibly dream of throwing my way.

Because, you see, I'm now, without question, in the best physical shape of my life. I tipped the scales this morning at 180lbs--some 30lbs lighter than I was at the beginning of March, and some 45lbs lighter than my all-time high of 225 back in early 2008! I haven't seen the scale south of 190 since my freshman year in college. Oh, and muscles. Holy crap, I've found muscles I never knew I had. Anybody wanna arm wrestle?
I think 2009 will ultimately see Rippon Vineyards produce a good Pinot Noir, but we'll have to wait 18 months to find out. What is already apparent, however, is that (at least in my opinion) they're responsible for the best vintage of Steven Bearden to date!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

An offer I can't refuse?

When Charlie first hired me over the phone back in February, it was based solely on the fact that I knew one of "The Texas Boys." My initial employment period was to be for five weeks of pre-harvest work, with the condition that if they were pleased with my performance, they'd keep me on for the three weeks of harvest. So, at most, I was looking at a possible eight weeks of work. I'm now one day into my 12th week. By week two, Charlie told me they were sufficiently impressed with me that they'd be happy to have me stay on for harvest. By week five, she offered me a full-time, permanent position. She said they loved my work ethic, attitude, and enthusiasm, and felt I would make a good addition to the permanent Team. What's more, she said that Rippon would sponsor me for residency when my current work/travel visa expires come January!

I like it here and I've decided to stay...

...through winter that is. I haven't accepted Charlie's offer (yet) but I agreed to stay on through the winter and give it some serious thought.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Is it weird?

Is it weird...

...that I don't have (and never have had) a key to the house in which I live because the door is never locked?
...that I'm now suprised when I DON'T run into someone I know at the grocery store?
...that on a clear, sun-shiney day the first thing I think is "ooh, it would be a good day to hang the washing?"
...that I filled up my car over a month ago and still have more than a third of a tank left?
...that it's less than a five-minute walk to the homes of most of my best Wanaka mates?
...that now, every so often, I get an extra stamp on my Brewski card (buy 9 and your 10th is free) at my favorite watering hole because I'm a "local?"

Nope! All just part of life in small town New Zealand.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Party Time! Excellent!

So we finished up the picking on a Thursday afternoon--the last two hours of which in a torrential rain--and I delivered my final load of the harvest (#117) to the winery at approximately 5:20pm. Two days before, I had bet Ned we'd have 120 total loads for the harvest. He bet 115. His guess was one closer than mine, so yet another pie is coming Ned's way, and my 0-fer record on the prop bets is still perfect.

After my last load had been delivered, the entire crew came up to the winery to celebrate the end of harvest by sampling the first two jugs (approx. 5 liters each) of Bret's legendary Harvest Ale, the balance of the two kegs to be enjoyed two days later at the official Harvest Party.

The party was to start at noon on Saturday and last until the last person left--which could be sunrise the next day for all anyone cared. I had to come in at nine to do some work in the winery before hand. The first thing Nick says to me (after the obligatory "good morning" of course) was "Okay, get your kit off?" You know you're in for an interesting day when the first thing your boss tells you to do is take off your pants. Easy folks. No, I do not have a sexual harassment case now pending against my employer. They had pumped the juice from one of the fermentors, and into a settling tank, before my arrival, and it was my job to "dig out" the skins from the fermentor to be loaded into the press. The only way to do this is to jump into the fermentor--which you can't very well do in socks, shoes, and pants. I had a pair of athletic shorts (that I now keep at the winery for just such occasions) to change into, having learned from my first experience in a fermentor (doing pigeage a couple weeks prior) when I had nothing but my Under Amour boxer-briefs to guard my modesty. Should you find yourself someday enjoying a bottle of 2009 Rippon Pinot Noir, keep in mind that it can't be said that this product has been untouched by human feet. In fact, it may interest (or repulse) you to know that most (if not all) quality boutique red wines have at some stage in their production been touched by human feet.

What to wear?

It had been decided on Thursday evening that the Harvest Party should have a silly dress-up theme. I had, however, been unable to procure an outfit between Thursday evening and Saturday morning so I was in a quandary. No worries. After digging out the fermentor, Nick took me up to Lois' house to raid the party closet. Fancy dress parties are apparently not uncommon in this little hamlet, and the Mills family has accumulated quite an assortment of dress-up wear. I chose a nice little lederhosen/sweater/pageboy-hat combo for my ensemble. It was a bit chilly out so I opted to keep on my polypropylene long johns rather than sport the traditional knee-high socks that normally accompany lederhosen. No matter, it was still a well-received outfit--some might say, the best at the party. I mean, someone could've topped me with a pair of fuzzy britches, a la Raquel Welch, but noone did.

Party supplies

Turns out the Harvest Party is not only for the harvest crew. Other invitees included: anyone who'd done any work for the vineyard over the last year, family friends, neighbors, suppliers, other winemakers in town, and local restaurateurs who sell Rippon wines in their establishments. It was quite a crowd--I'd say close to eighty. Even with all those folks, we were want of very little. There was probably enough food to feed twice the number in attendance (a common practice at NZ parties I've attended). The fare included a spit-roasted lamb, tomato basil soup, couscous with beetroot, New Zealand green mussels, roasted pumpkin, butternut, and acorn squash wedges, and fresh bread with real Kiwi butter. And as far as liquid refreshment was concerned? The party was at a flippin' vineyard/winery. Trust me, we had no worries on that front!

Some see the glass as half empty. Some see the glass as half full. If I see your glass half full, I fill it up! During all the post-lunch toasts (of which there were many) it was my duty to keep everyone that was drinking Harvest Ale all topped up--a job at which I excelled by the way. You see, Bret taught us the proper pouring method on Thursday night to audition us for the post. And it seems I was rather adept at the task--which isn't inherently easy given that a full five-liter jug is not light. The way you do it is hook your right index finger into one of the loops at the neck of the jug, raise your arm so that your palm is facing away from you and the jug runs along the back of your hand down to the outside of your elbow. When you're ready to pour, simply lower your hand and raise your elbow. A true pro can do this with his left thumb tucked into his suspender with his left elbow pointing straight out to his side, his chest puffed out like a peacock, and his head back and proud. It took me a couple jugs, because one's initial instinct is to lower one's shoulder when pouring, but I got it down and attained my "pro" status by the end of the toasts. It was a great job to have too because the guy with the beer is much beloved; and I rather like being much beloved--it's nice. Plus, my duty gave me a built in excuse to approach and visit with everybody at the party--including a couple of cuties I might not have otherwise approached. It's good to be the king...of beer.

Barrel Racing

After virtually everyone at the party had been toasted three or four times each, the next item on the agenda was the barrel races. This was an absolute highlight. The four relay teams were determined as follows: those with hats and ties, those with hats but not ties, those without hats but with ties, and those with neither hats nor ties. I was a hat/no tie. The way the race works is two teams square off at a time, with one racer from each team poised over his/her barrel waiting for the signal from Charlie to begin. Once the gun (Charlie's two-year old son, Fred, saying "bang") goes off, the racers roll away. Each racer has to roll his/her barrel past the midpoint barrel, down to, and around, the far barrel and come back, stopping at the midpoint barrel, where Ned and Bones are waiting with full glasses of beer to be downed be each racer before crossing over the start/finish line and passing the barrel off to the next member of the relay. The race featured a few unorthodox rolling techniques, some good collisions, a close call or two for Ned and Bones, our faithful beer pourers, and more than a few great laughs. We lost our semifinal round to the hats/ties, but we took the consolation, third-place race over the other semifinal losers: the no hats/no ties. The no hats/ties took the overall crown by just edging out the hats/ties in a thrilling photo finish. And there was much rejoicing!

After sunset

By the time the barrel races wrapped up, the sun had gone down and the DJ had arrived--it was time to turn this mutha' into a dance party! Well lubricated with beer and wine, we dancing machines lasted long into the night. But we also worked up a bit of an appetite as a result. Luckily for us, the lamb, which hadn't yet been carved up completely, had been stashed away for just such an eventuality. Nick (the big boss man) and I were on the job. We shovelled out some coals from the fire and set the spit back up. Then Nick, armed with knife and tongs, and I, armed with a torch (flashlight) proceeded to find, and carve up, all those yummy good bits still hanging on the bone in order to feed the hungry, dancing masses. Being the carvers, it was our prerogative to invoke carver's privilege (which we did a number of times) to tax all the best bits! After getting every last morsel that could be gotten from the lamb, it was back to the dance floor (read, picnic tables) for a couple more hours.
Sleepy time
I came to the party knowing full well I would be in no shape to drive home by the time it was over. So, I came fully prepared to sleep in my car--having that morning folded down the back seats of the Chariot, laid my foam mattress in the back, and spread out my sleeping bag, my wool blanket, and my duvet. Thankfully, however, it never came to that, because even with all those covers, I reckon I still would've frozen my buns off had I camped out in the Chariot for the night. My friend Brent, who doesn't drink, was able to give me a lift home, and I was able to crawl into my bed at about 4:00am. It was a grand party (all sixteen hours of it), and I think good times were had by all.

Needless to say, mine was an incredibly lazy Sunday. Actually, come to think of it, I was still moving pretty slowly come Tuesday. I've learned that you might still be able (from time to time) to party like you're 21 when you are, in fact, 31; but you sure can't recover the next day like you're 21! Headaches hurt!


Friday, May 8, 2009

Drinking and gambling: just your regular workday activities


Do you know how many times in my former job I would've loved to knock back a cold beer or a glass of wine at lunch? I don't either, but I can tell you it was more than five and fewer than 7,542. Not that my former job drove me to drink (alot), it's just that sometimes a little indulgence during the midday meal is just what the doctor ordered to lift one's spirits before heading back to the grindstone/keyboard/grapevine/whatever.

Well, one of the distinct pleasures of working the harvest at Ripppon Vineyards is the lunchtime libations. Lunch, in and of itself, is worth writing home, or in this case, blogging, about. Lois, the owner of the vineyard and the mother of the Head Winemaker (Nick) and the Vineyard Manager (Charlie), cooks lunch for the entire crew every day. And a good cook she is too. She always makes it so there's plenty available for seconds, and seconds are had by all. But the true treat of the noon-hour break is that accompanying our feasts are always several bottles of wine. Nick likes for the crew to have an idea of the final product that will result from the day's labor. So, if we're picking Pinot Noir one day, we'll have a previous vintage Pinot with our lunch that day. If we're picking Osteiner; we'll drink Osteiner. Picking Gewurztraminer; drink Gewurztraminer. Riesling; Riesling. You get the idea. In addition, Bret, the Assistant Winemaker, happens to be a master brewer; and from time to time, he'll bring out a couple jugs of his famous Harvest Ale for us to partake. You know, I think it really adds something to the (pardon this wee bit of corporate-speak here) "Teambuilding" when you can pour a glass of wine (or beer) for your coworkers, clink your glasses together, and toast each others' health with a hearty cheers/salud/slancha/prost!

Of course, given that my actual job during harvest involves driving the truck, one small glass is my lunchtime limit.


Let me tell you a little about Ned. Ned is year-round, full-time staff at Rippon. He's in his early sixties and enjoying the sixth year of his second career growing grapes after thirty-some-odd years as a school teacher. He's as strong as an ox and tough as nails, and as gentle and kind a man as you'll ever meet. He's been my mentor out in the vines for the past two and a half months; and it's been my distinct pleasure to work with him and learn everything he's had to teach. Ned's as straight-laced, salt-of-the-earth as they come. No outward vices. He prefers a night in reading a book or watching BBC World News to just about any other activity. And a big exciting weekend for Ned is a trip to Dunedin to see a movie in a theater. So, you can imagine my surprise when harvest started and, all of a sudden, Ned's a betting machine!

Apparently, proposition bets are a harvest tradition; and let me tell you, nobody likes a good prop bet more than Ned. When Ned thinks of something to bet on he rubs his hands together excitedly and a devilish grin appears at the corners of his mouth before he lays his proposition on us. Sometimes if I'm on the fence on whether or not to take his action, he'll goad me into it by saying "C'mon Stevie!" Ned is one of only three people ever in my life that I've allowed to call me "Stevie" with no hard feelings, by the way.

So what do we bet on? Just about anything. Who will be the first person to lose a full bin of grapes off the back of a moving vehicle: Ned or Amy with the four-wheeler/trailer combo, or me with the truck? How many days will harvest last? How many total loads will I take up to the winery during harvest? Who will be the first picker to cut his/her finger with the clippers? Can Lewis go a full minute without talking today? Will we have to jump start the Bedford this morning? How many bins will we get off of the Rieslings in H Block? Will anyone be dumb (drunk) enough to try and jump over the Harvest Party fire this year? Will it rain this afternoon? They're as good a things to bet on as any, I suppose.

And the currency for all these wagers? Pies! You heard me. Pies--specifically, ones from the Hammer and Nails Bakery (the best in town, I've been told). I'm already into Charlie for a sweet chocolate fudge pie (for dropping a full bin off my truck) and into Ned for three savory steak and kidney pies (for bets I can't even remember at this point). Alas, I don't seem to be very good at these bets and I currently don't have a single pie owed to me. No matter. When I go to the Hammer and Nails to purchase my payoffs, I imagine I'll pick up a little something to nibble for myself.

So, you think you'll be tempted to order that drink at lunch tomorrow? A pie says you will!


Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Harvest Time!

No time to sit back and unwind. Nope. Things shift into a whole new gear when it's time to make the doughnuts, er pick the grapes. So much so, in fact, that come harvest time, Charlie hires a dozen pickers (from all over the world it seems) to get the job done. This hiring results in a more than doubling of the size of the Rippon Vineyards staff, and makes the ritual morning greetings exponentially more enjoyable! To Brent (the only other American) I say: "howdy." To Antoine and Camille (our Frenchies) I say: "bonjour mon amis." To Christina (Colombian) and Augustin (Peruvian) I say: "buenas dias mis amigos." To Simon (German) I say "guten morgen." To Lou, Alana, Chris, and Kathy (all Kiwis) I say "g'day." For my Aussie friend Tim, I throw in a "mate." To Emily (Canadian) I always present my greeting in the form of a question: "It's a good morning, eh?" And to my Scottish friend, Lewis, I quite deliberately say: "Top 'o the marnin' to ye," to which he replies: "I'm not bloody Irish, you wanker!" Ahh, the day can't really begin in earnest until you've raised the hackles of a Scotsman! I've mentioned that this motley collection are Pickers. Their job is to--well I hope you've put this one together--pick the grapes. They snip the bunches from the vines and place them in plastic bins. When the Pickers fill their bins, they leave them under the rows to be collected by the Porters.

Ned and Amy are our trusty Porters. They motor along through the rows on their four-wheeler and trailer, collecting all the full bins left by the pickers. They then deposit them at the head of the rows to be collected and transported to the winery by the Monitor. I am the Monitor! No, I am not a civil war-era iron-clad battleship, thank you very much. I am the record keeper of the harvest. It is the Monitor's job to keep track of such things as the total number of bins per load, number of bins picked per row, type and clone of grape, block and parcel of land, and number and time of load. For example: Load number 12 was delivered to the winery at 8:45am and consisted of 54 bins of Pinot noir (clone 777) grapes picked from block A, parcel 6, which is six rows long, giving us an average of 9 bins per row. The powers that be assumed (correctly as it were) that such a job would appeal to my meticulous nature. I have my own little clipboard and everything! Oh, but hold your horses dear readers. Lest you begin to think my role purely bureaucratic in nature, let me nip it in the bud and correct your faulty line of reasoning forthwith. Actually, mine is not only the most meticulous job of the harvest, it is also--and by a long way I might add--the most physically demanding. I have to lift each and every 10-15kg bin onto my truck from down in the vineyard and then again from my truck onto the sorting table up at the winery. With an average of 40-50 bins per load and about 12-15 loads per day, the "Kay Gees" (or "Ell Bees" for you lot still on the Imperial system of measurement) add up! Nick did the math and figured out that I lifted 3.5 metric tons of weight onto the sorting table one day. That means I lifted 7 metric tons total that day, because I lift every bin twice--once onto my truck and a second time onto the sorting table.

Back on my first day at the vineyard two months ago, I thought the job putting out the nets was tough. That was nothing compared to this job. There's no way I could've done this job in the shape I was in a couple months back. No frickin way! But, luckily enough for me, I'm not in the shape I was in a couple months back. I'm actually quite fit now, thank you very much. I've never been, and probably will never be, what I'd consider "buff." However, I've turned into one lean, mean, grape-lifting machine! My 34-inch waist jeans now fall straight to the floor unless I've got my belt cinched up to it's tightest setting. And my shoulders, chest, and arms are noticeably bigger than they've ever been in my life. I gotta tell ya, I kinda like the new me!

Well, harvest has been going on for three weeks now, but unfortunately my computer chose this same time to crash and burn on me; and I haven't had much energy at the end of each day to trudge down to the internet cafe to update the blog while it's been at the repair shop. Thus, there is a substantial backlog of blog fodder concerning harvest. I got my laptop back from the computer repair guy today, hence this entry. However, in the interest of my sagging eyelids, I will take this opportunity to bring it to a close. More to come, faithful readers, I promise.