In February of this year, I quit my job at the honey factory in Bairnsdale on the east coast of Victoria, and moved to Myrtleford in the northeast, after landing a job at a winery. For the next three months, I would work as a cellar hand for the vintage season. This was the best decision I could have made, and led to me making the best personal and professional memories so far in Australia.
I had planned to take a week off between jobs, enough time to pack all of my stuff up, visit Melbourne for a few days, and get situated in my new spot. Victoria had other plans though, and went into a snap five day lockdown, which wasn’t uncommon at the time, meaning I stayed in my hostel for most of the week. It ended up being okay because I got to relax and enjoy my last days in Bairnsdale, exploring new walking paths and shops. But when I could, I was very ready to leave. I loaded all of my stuff in my car and headed for Melbourne. I dropped a few bags of stuff at the op shop, did a little bit of shopping, drove to my friend’s parent’s apartment I was staying at, got takeaway, and watched a movie with dinner. I was excited and nervous for my new adventure, and happy for a comfortable bed for the night. After breakfast in the morning, I made a few stops, but for the most part headed up the highway and arrived in Myrtleford. I had a similar feeling when I had arrived in Bright a few months earlier, of being so in awe or the natural beauty, forests of pine trees, climbing mountains, and rolling hills. But this time it felt different, and I remember breathing a sigh of relief, as if I knew even before it started that I was about to begin an amazing chapter.
Other than having consumed a few bottles of wine over the last few years (ok perhaps more than a few), I didn’t know much about the wine industry or how wine was made. As a child, my parents had gone on several road trips with a group of friends, visiting wineries all across California, Oregon, and Washington. So I had the nostalgic memories of growing up around oak barrels in cellars, combined with their knowledge of varieties of wine and which best pairs with a certain food. I also had this romanticized dream to work at a winery, where I would be frolicking through vineyards, and sampling wine in the sun all day long. Fortunately, I had been adequately prepared for this job. Rather than frolicking, I would mostly be dragging hoses from tank to tank, transferring juice, and then cleaning the empty tank, and that was essentially what I ended up doing. But whether it was the deep desire to learn a new skill and become slightly more familiar with the winemaking process, or the wonderful group of people I was working with, I absolutely loved the job. I don’t know if I can go so far as to say this was my favorite job ever, but certainly in Australia, without a doubt.
I worked with a group of about ten, mostly older, Australian men who had worked at the winery most of their lives, in two twelve hour shifts, to crush, press, transfer, make additions, ferment, and eventually make a finished product of a bottling wine. I worked the night shift, usually from 10am-10pm, which turned into 12pm-12am after one too many fourteen hour days. Our team consisted of two full timers, and three casuals, including one guy who had come back to work at vintage for most of the last ten years, and one other girl who was nearly as inexperienced as I was. But during the day, when the shifts overlapped, we worked with everyone, and I really value the friendships and working relationships I made with everyone.
For those interested, grapes get delivered in large bins from various vineyards. They get crushed in a big machine to remove all stems and twigs and non-grape items, and then get pressed to extract as much juice from the grapes as possible. Red wine gets pressed with the skins on, white wine without. Red wines grapes get pumped through a six inch hose to a tank, where they sit with the skins. Grapes without the skins have the juice extracted, and transferred via a three inch hose to a different tank. Tanks ranged in size, from a couple hundred liters to 147,000 liters. Different types of acids, carbon, and bentonite are among the most common additives that go in the early stages, and then more organic additions often go in later, such as skim milk or egg whites. I didn’t do any of those so I don’t know when or why they get added. I’m also not entirely sure what each type of additive does to the wine, but I know that there are countless samples taken and lab tests run, making sure all chemical levels are within range of drinkable wine.
Juice will get transferred many times before it becomes wine, and what’s left in the tank are lees or floating lees, residue from the additives or juice. It gets filtered further to remove all impurities and imperfections. At some point it’s fermented, adding yeast in a very specific way to actually turn it from juice to wine. Unless it’s a Prosecco or other sparkling wine, the ferment is broken with sulfur, at which point it will undergo more lab tests, and possibly more additions, until the winemaker likes the taste and flavors. The finished product gets loaded on a tanker and sent to the bottling factory, where it’s then dispersed to whatever supermarket it’s going to.
This is a very rough outline of how wine gets made, based only on my weak experience of one vintage lasting three months, written down seven months after I did the work. So probably not entirely accurate, but that’s the gist. It wasn’t glamorous and usually wasn’t exciting, and most days was hard and exhausting work, both physically and mentally challenging, made even more so in extreme heat or rain. But like I said, this was the most rewarding and wonderful experience, even more so than I could’ve hoped for, and I loved it so much so that I’ll be working another vintage this coming season.
The people I had been living with in Myrtleford since February had been involved in the winery for decades, and were generous to allow me to stay with them even after my work for the winery ended. They are the most lovely couple, and I think our arrangement worked perfectly. I had the whole basement to myself, my own entrance, enough privacy but also enough desire to spend time with them. I don’t think I would have had such an amazing time in Myrtleford and northeast Victoria if not for them.
I worked at the winery from the end of February to the start of May 2021, when vintage was pretty much over, although in hindsight I probably could have stayed longer. But knowing I wanted to stay in the area, and knowing I would soon need another job, I reached out to my friend who had lived in Bright last year. She had worked at an apple packing shed, and while she hadn’t made it sound like a dream career, I knew it would be an easy option for work. So I called up the apples, gave my two weeks notice at the winery, and was set for my new job. After a brief one week interlude between jobs when I had the flu, I was on my way each day, 40 minutes each way, to pack apples in a giant warehouse. That’s apples the fruit, not the phone.
Now you may not have ever thought about how your fruit and vegetables gets from the field to your table, but all I can say is, please wash your produce. Not to say that we were unclean, but just the amount of hands that touch your fruits and veggies before they’re in your home means you should at the very least give them a rinse. The apples get picked from whatever orchard, mostly on site but also shipped in. They get sorted into bins by size, first getting their leaves removed by hand on a quick moving conveyor belt. This is also when the preliminary moldy ones get removed. They they then sit until they’re needed, which could be days or months. We packed per variety and per size. Granny Smith are the green ones; Pink Lady, Red Delicious, Gala, and Fuji among the most common red ones. They get a soapy wash, and then wax to make them nice and shiny. And then they fall at the packers hands. One person is feeding trays onto one end of several conveyor belts, with little apple shaped divets according to current size. The apples get dropped at the other end of the belt and we start packing as quickly as possible. Stems all go in the same direction, red side up. Some apples have to be near perfect, with no blemishes or marks. Some can have a mark here and there. Any openly rotting ones go to the compost bin, and those with dry rot or too many spots go to juicing and turned into apple juice and cider.
And then another person drops two or four trays full of apples into a box, and puts a lid on, and then the box goes on another conveyor belt to the quality control team, who double check we didn’t pack any rotters or leave any spots empty. And then the packed boxes get packed on a pallet, and the pallet gets saran wrapped, and then goes off to whatever supermarket. I have no idea if the grocers on the other end appreciate our nicely packed apples or if they just dump them on the shelves. As I say, just wash your fruit and veg.
So I worked at the apple shed from May until the middle of October, when enough of Australia was opening up, and I decided I had worked hard enough and was ready for a holiday. One of the reasons I stayed so long at the apples was because of the agricultural requirement for my visa. To get a third year in Australia, I needed to complete six months of regional country agriculture work. But even after that requirement was fulfilled, I continued to stay, because it was a steady and secure job in an unstable market.
The other reason I stayed where I was for so long was personal reasons, specifically a relationship. When I wasn’t working, I spent almost every weekend in Beechworth with a wonderful man. Even before we started dating, but also while together, I made a point to see all of the surrounding towns. Wangaratta and Wodonga at the NSW border are the biggest towns in the area, but Bright, Myrtleford, and Beechworth were where I most often frequented, each with their own cute little shops, cafes, walking trails, and secret spots. Milawa has an amazing bakery and cheese shop. I travelled to the King Valley to see Powers Lookout and Paradise Falls. I’ve been up and down Mount Buffalo, in the snow and spring, seeing nearly all there is to see. I think I had a healthy balance between exploring and relaxing, and between the sights to see, and the unusually good food and wine selection, I absolutely love the north east region of Victoria.
And now, as if in the blink of an eye, my second year in Australia has come and gone. It started a little rough, but well and truly redeemed itself, and made me even more sure that I wanted to stay for another year. I think I’ve learned a lot about myself, become more self assured in some areas, but also see where I have room to grow. I’m sure that your late 20s are often a time to “find yourself”, but I think combined with the uncomfortable nature of traveling, and the adaptability I’ve learned, this last year in Australia has meant a lot to me. And I can’t wait to see what’s next!