I spent the better part of 2013 living in Central Otago as a winemaking intern, and for the first couple of weeks lived in my mentors’ shed, working in the vines and cooking for my keep. I arrived in what I would learn was a ‘defining year’, marred by early inversion frosts that decimated many of our neighbour’s first growths — the only growths that can attain suitable ripening, this far south of the equator. These are the years where the mettle of the winemaker can make or break a label, and it was my first step on a journey into (and out of) the wine industry.
I wrote this on St Patrick’s day, a couple of weeks after I moved into the Valli Gibbston Block, to try and describe the reality of what a winning winemaker is when he’s at home.
I wake without precedent in the dark morning hours, four AM, to a strange sound — it’s been earthquakes before. Not today. This sound is softer, gentle and inviting for my burrowing deeper into the duvet. It takes me a few moments to realise that the sound is rain. It is a sound I haven’t heard in weeks, not since long before I arrived in the valley from a long way away.
My phone lies next to my ear in the dark, I grope for it along the cotton sheets, fingers scuttling to find the home button, squinting as the artificial light floods the small shed in which I sleep. Just as quickly I turn it off and return to blissful darkness… the rain lulls me back into sleep. There are a few hours left of silence and muted pattering on the sleep-out roof, before the day’s work begins.
The knock is as sure as the mountains outside my front door step, muted and expectant. I rise automatically and pull on my jersey and leggings, padding bleary-eyed across the deck to the french doors of the shearing shed, now converted to a home on a vineyard. The garden is symphony of rain drop-beats on leaves and I slip through the door into the kitchen. Nicole, as always, is up and the moka is bubbling on the stove. We whisper together about the rain. It’s an omen, but we’re not sure of what. The tone isn’t foreboding. It’s a change. Yesterday our legs and arms were caked in the dust of the road and baked in the rays of the sun — today we’ll stay inside and let the vines drink the sky dry just as the pub’s kegs. It is St Patrick’s day.
There’s a light on in the bathroom so I guess Grant is already up, warm light spilling into the grey open plan kitchen-living area, the happy sound of a hot shower faintly calling across the room. The faucet shuts off just as the coffee pot starts to whistle, and suddenly the bathroom door swings open to reveal the master winemaker himself, freshly scrubbed and wrapped in a blue and white striped towel from the waist down. Cheerful eyes regard me from behind thick glasses. He stands proud but without ego.
“How, mouse!” Taylor exclaims. I’ve been called the ‘house mouse’ ever since I moved into the little shed just a week or so before, and it’s my favourite endearment. It began when I first arrived, having turned up on the doorstop of the shearing shed and offering my cooking and cleaning services in return for an education in winemaking from one of New Zealand’s best. Poor, scrappy, and my entire life squeezed into the back of a 1989 Mazda MX-5 (red, affectionately called “Jupiter”), hopeful that this would be my start in the wine industry. I was desperate to prove my worth in the world, and Grant and Nicole took me in without any ulterior motive, much to my initial skepticism and eventual delight.
The morning after I arrived I snuck in to set the coffee going so it would be hot and fresh for when the winemakers rose, and in the dark hours I nearly caught my big toe in a mousetrap by the stove. ‘There’s a MOUSE in my HOUSE!’ I heard an amused exclamation from the master bedroom. And so, I became ‘mouse’. I’ve never been referred to as something small and quiet before — my five-foot-eight frame and outspoken personality has usually seen to that. But here in this house I have nothing to prove or impress upon anybody.
“Good morning!” I reply, brightly. The coffee is poured and the winemaker disappears into his room to dress. Nicole and I speak of things I forget now. There are dishes littering the kitchen bench from our celebrations the night before with our next-door neighbors, and we begin the slow process of putting them away, moving silently and harmoniously in the small mezzanine space. Grant appears in the same clothes I’ve seen him in almost every second day, except of course the days he has to ‘schmooze’ and present keynote speeches to rich Australian businessmen in Queenstown. A pair of blue levi’s and a button-up hiking shirt. His Chucks are by the door on a burlap sack.
Nicole and I ride the push-bikes from the alcove outside the office door — it’s all the same building, divided into corners for different functions, this corner is the office and that corner is the kitchen and so on — down the bike path along the highway to a little slate-walled shed where the Organics Man has parked his van and sells fresh produce from the valley and others adjacent. I sit on the freshly softened grass as she buys raw milk and reed avocados, limes, and talks to the man of our fishing trip to Stewart Island, and their 800-gram tomato that earned herself and Grant a small column in the local newspaper, and the weather, of all things. We return home to find Grant has already cleaned the kitchen and his eyes are open, more alert after his coffee, and ebulliently reports what we can already see — a large dent in the dishes has been made. And the coffee has been poured — “Oh, it’s my favourite mug!” we all declare as the mugs are distributed. Mine is a vintage white mug with the shape of Oregon on it and a green heart. Nicole’s has pictures of a woman with varying degrees of fifties hair-dos. Grant has a Vanagon VW mug (his usual is a hand-painted one that says “Friendly fucking farmer!” on it, and a stick-figure face with his trademark curly hair and glasses). He’s mindful to remind us we are nothing more than fancy farmers, and I’m proud of that, because there’s something to be said for a life working on the land. I spent most of my life trying to grow roots in a country borrowed from my father, so this is my way of reconnecting with the place I’d longed to call home since being ripped away from it as a child. Cultivating a life that is mine, no one else’s.
Now that coffee is in hand and mugs are with their rightful owners (or borrowers), we pitch back into the dishes, our conversation relaxed and sporadic until Taylor launches into one of his famous jokes.
The man is a genius. If you’d known nothing of his accomplishments, even five minutes in his presence would confirm as much. He is a man who talks in wide ranges between loud and soft, fast and slow, high pitch, low pitch and everything in between. His jokes and stories are emphatic and meaningful, and whilst sometimes frustratingly slow-moving, they are punctuated with just enough careful pauses and quick fillers that you want to keep listening and you are always greatly rewarded if you do. His voice commands an audience not simply because of who he is and what he has to say, but because behind his eccentricities is a clever charm and great kindness, a lack of pretense rare in somebody who regularly has to fend off the attentions of individuals who want nothing more than to be a part of that audience. He is a man physically, emotionally and intellectually present at every occasion — he leaps about the kitchen and acts out the three pieces of string who ride into town on horseback and are thirsty for a beer, and I move out of his way with a dishtowel and saucepan in hand, dripping on my bare feet. Nicole is scrubbing the fruit bowl and looks over to me, grey eyes sparkling, shaking her head with a wry smile as I shake with simmering laughter. She’s heard this one before.
The punchline is delivered with alacrity. I throw back my head and howl, Taylor leaps off the step into the sunken living area, index finger suspended in mid air, already thinking forward to the next shared experience. His gray woolly hair is the only giveaway to his half-century age, as he moves with all the energy of somebody a third his years, and I suppose he is in his prime. He turns from the CD player and watches us expectantly, and I watch him back, ears pricked — Nicole looks on, warily. She knows what he’s capable of. A raucous of guitars, a long knife of hot southern strings erupt, spitting magma sound waves into the living area. His face is that of a schoolboy whose cricket ball broke the principal’s window. My smile grows wider, I like this sound.
Nicole is shaking. A woman possessed — I’ve never seen this side of her before. Where she otherwise speaks in low tensions, commanding authority and dominion, but only ever the sharp edge of a solid Rhode Island sweetness, much like rock candy or salted caramel. She’s always very matter-of-fact, fiery and solid. That’s until she leaps off the stair, head back, arms in the air and hands wide, dancing like a demon, wanton rhythm tearing up the Persian rug and the shaking in the house and the music reaches a crescendo. I laugh, and Grant stands watching his lady, VW mug suspended in the air. There is a slow smile bleeding onto his tanned cheeks. It’s a side to their relationship I see glimpses of here and there, casually thrown into the tornado of business and hard work demanded by the imperious nature of managing a vineyard. Their work is a labour of love, labour with the ever-undercurrent of love — for what they do, for who they do it for, for the place they live and the people they share it with.
The track changes.
All too suddenly it’s back to business as usual, Grant steps up to his computer in the office-corner, responding to the business e-mails of the day. “What complete and utter nonsense,” he growls indignantly at an article sent to him from America — some master sommelier is denouncing the credibility of food and wine pairing. In turn, we look over his shoulder at the article and howl in outrage, and ‘what is he thinking’s, cries of contemptuous rhetoric in the kitchen.
“Didn’t he pass high school biochemistry?” I add. And then it’s forgotten soon after he calls, “Hey, listen to this,” and plays us another Nick Cave song on YouTube. Nicole instructs me to set the breadmaker going for dinner and I obey, as she begins to prepare lunch.
The music trails off and the kitchen is clean as Nicole ducks out into the rain, wearing a grape-purple rain jacket, colander in hand. “I’ve got a great idea,” Taylor exclaims conspirationally, disappearing into his room, back to the CD player. I see the flash of a CD sleeve — it’s Enya’s Watermark. Nicole hates the track. This is a fact both of us learned for the first time when I sat down to play it at Taylor’s $20,000 German upright. He’s got this grin on his face that we see at least four times a day, usually in anticipation of a joke being told, or a pun being made, or when he’s just darn pleased with himself. Never about work. He’s never pleased about the work he does. A perfectionist if I ever met one, perfect by everybody elses’ standards but his.
The beets from the garden are huge and rich-coloured, coated with silvery dried dirt from when we picked them days ago on Topless Gardening Tuesday. I’m scrubbing them clean, brilliant deep magenta showing up and bleeding under my fingernails. Nicole returns from the garden, the patter of a thousand raindrops on thirsty leaves amplified as the door opens and a whoosh of cold air enters the house. She stops dead on the stoop — I don’t have to look to know she’s giving Taylor one of her trademark pouts. They are both withering and amusing altogether, and I smile to myself, observing Grant feign innocence from where he stands in the centre of the rug. The music stops. It’s reel time.
“I got a real reel,” I say, placing the last of the beets in the colander in the sink and drying my hands on the towel draped over my right shoulder, hopping down from the kitchen to pick up my iPhone from the coffee table. I plug it in and the music starts, all fiddles and pipes and rhythms. “We got beets, and now we got beats!” I brush my hand over the lid of Grant’s Schwertzen piano. A solid rosewood upright I attempted to tune the day before with nothing but a pair of pliers, an ear for pitch and some nerve. Atop the piano there’s a bottle of Pisco Control the neighbors brought over to make daiquiris last night, fresh with strawberries from the strawberry patch just a few metres from the front door. There are some tasting glasses leftover from the nineteen Australian businessmen who came to taste the wine a few days past, an incense burner and some candles. Casually left on the corner is a wide-bowled crystal trophy about two-feet tall. It’s the IWSC trophy, awarded for the best Pinot Noir in the world. Next to it is a newspaper clipping about their 800-gram tomatoes — it is the clipping, and not the trophy, that gets passed around the most.
TIME Magazine did a feature on Grant as a pioneer of New Zealand winemaking — the clipping, somewhat crinkled by the weather, is posted in the long drop at the end of the longest row of his Gibbston block. Knowing Grant’s humour and humility, I’m sure it was no mistake that his grey-eyed image stares out at you from the back wall of the out-house. It’s very difficult to maintain any idea of self importance while baring your ass to New Zealand’s most awarded winemaker.
Nicole and I tap our feet and fingers, slap our thighs to the music, moving in rhythm around the house. Getting things done. Today is rain day — a day free to stand to our full height, not bent double in the rows, squinting in the sunlight. I vacuum the rug and she beats the cushions out the front door, and we call out the names of vinification terms — “Delestage!” is replaced by “Chaptalization!” just as the armchair is returned to its spot in the corner furthest from the office. Not long after, Grant is sat in it. He has his Banjo, muttering nonsensical litanies against the difficulties of learning to transition from the C to the G chord. The tea pot is filled, plates are set on the table. We gather and sit, munching in quiet companionship. The tortillas are green for St Patrick’s day. We don’t speak for a while. Our silences are conversations in themselves.
Finally, Taylor stands, more work to be done. We’re used to this now, Nicole and I sharing knowing looks over our respective favourite mugs, now filled with fragrant Earl Gray. The master winemaker stretches and throws open the front door. “HAPPY NOW?” He bellows affectionately out of it, in the direction of his vines, only a short yelling-distance away. The merry sound of a hundred rows of canopy drinking their fill is his response.
In barely two months they’ll begin their journey to becoming some of the world’s best Pinot Noir. Happy: why wouldn’t they be?