One Girl’s Great New Zealand Grape-picking Adventure

March is New Zealand’s September.  Days become noticeably shorter, light begins to shift and the mornings take on a new found crispness.  For the first time in five months you jump out of bed and straight into your fuzzy warm robe and slippers.  You wrap up and immediately get the hot water kettle going, anxious for the sun to work its incubating magic.

This is what the end of summer feels like, in March.  I don’t get it, really.  My whole being is off kilter, my Norths and Souths flip flopped.  Here, South is cold, North is warm.  Christmas is in summer and Easter is in autumn.  A few weeks ago it was back to school for local kids.  I can hardly keep up.  My mind continues to reset itself to a new calendar while my body picks up on the subtleties of change.  That air of promise and newness that September holds?  It’s palpable and very real.  I always equated it to the nostalgia of sharpened number two pencils or the beat of a snare drum at a football game.  I thought the feeling was synonymous with September, less about the actual season.  But it isn’t.  That settled feeling fall has, the atmosphere full of promising change, it’s real.  It happens.  Even in March.  Even without football.

Like September in the Northern hemisphere, March in the Southern hemisphere means harvesting, in this region especially.  “Sunny” Hawke’s Bay, is known for its Northern California-like temperate climate.  Citrus plants produce year-round and everything grows like mad thanks to the perfect blend of super-intense sunshine and just the right amount of rain. Apples, pears, peaches, corn, bell peppers, nearly everything is ripe and ready.  Especially the grapes.  They dangle like gems, row after glorious row of leafy vines, striating the surrounding valleys and hillsides.

And just like California, they make excellent wines here.

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It’s ironic to me that in all my ten years in Italy I never once picked a grape but the first time I’m in New Zealand, I get myself a grape-picking gig.  I’ll be picking for a winery called Te Mata (pictured above), working alongside local pensioners (how hard can it be?!) as well as traveling tourists looking to make a buck on their holiday.  The locals do it for extra pocket change, seeing it as a chance to socialize, not because they actually need the money.  And because “the money” is no more than a pittance, I have my suspicions that the tourists do the work for the same reason I will be, purely for the experience.  (There certainly won’t be any free wine out of it!)

If the weather continues as is, we will start March 11th.  This means a seven o’clock start and a six o’clock finish (I think).  This means I’ll wear my oldest clothes with holes in them, freeze my bum off for a few hours in the morning, sweat in the midday sun, scarf down a quick sandwich during our half-hour lunch break before counting down the hours to quitting time.  All this, every day, for SIX weeks; rain or shine.  (Weekends too!)

Needless to say, I’m a bit concerned.  I’ve never done anything like this before and I’ve certainly never done “hard labor” before.  (Unless you consider waiting tables at a steak house while in college “hard labor.”)  I’ll be wearing gloves, for Pete’s sake.  My hands are probably going to go into cramp spasms.

When I told my mother I’d be picking grapes for six weeks her response was dry.  There was no hint of excitement in her voice, no admiration for my sense of adventure.  It was just a flat,  Let me know how that goes, Regina.  This response is such a classic mother-daughter technique.  I muster some courage to do something probably pretty stupid and not at all a valuable use of my time and my all she has to do is sigh to remind me who I am.  One huff made by my mother and I’m immediately reminded of how ridiculous an endeavor this might prove to be.  She knows it and I know it: I have no business going out there and picking grapes.  It might sound romantic, but really, we all know the truth: I’m going to hate it.  Still.  I’m doing it.  For reasons mostly unknown, even to me.

For some reason, my mother’s comment reminds me of my youngest sister Jenny on her first day of kindergarten.  She was so excited to be heading off on the bus, her first full day of school.  In the afternoon when she got off the bus and my mother asked her, “So, how was it?”  My sister snarled back, “We didn’t even get a snack.”  Luckily, we have all this on video.  Jenny stomps down our street, literally dragging her purple backpack behind her while my mother follows slowly, chuckling on tape.

So let me just say, for the record (and especially if you’re taping this, Mom), I’m not going into grape-picking with the naivete of an excited kindergartener on her first day of school.  I don’t expect to get any snacks (besides all the grapes I can eat) and I don’t expect I’ll really even like it.  What I do expect, is to come home with a lot of red stains, tired hands and perhaps a little perspective.  I might even be fortunate enough to come home with a lot of good stories which I plan on posting right here for your reading enjoyment.  Wish me luck.  (And please Lord, no rain.)

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