Workin’ it – part 2! 15 Things I learned working the Greystone harvest in New Zealand

Brad, Nick, Debbie & Gavin: Pressing Chardonnay Vintage 2016

When to pick is one of the most critical decisions

Picking Pinot Noir – NZ Vintage 2016

At the center of all the vineyard activity is the need to get the fruit off the field and the fermentations underway. Winemaker Dom Maxwell and viticulturist, Nick Gill constantly talk picking schedules: which blocks, which rows, and when. Importantly, they taste…..they constantly taste the grapes. In the lab, bags of grapes arrive from different sites and we manually punch down and test acidity levels – pH – and measure brix. All records are transferred to a spreadsheet. Rinse and repeat the next day. According to Dom, brix and acidity is only part of the story – you also have to be tasting for sugar levels, style ripeness, phenolic and flavour ripeness and tannins in seeds. Colour ripeness, the colour of skins and seeds is another key barometer.

Greystone and Muddy Water: same roof, same values, two different approaches to winemaking

Greystone & Muddy Water

Muddy Water – the direct translation of Wai (water) para (sediment) – was first planted in 1992. Greystone owners, the Thomas family, purchased the vineyard, in 2004. According to Dom, Muddy Water has an amazing pedigree and some serious, hard-core fanatics. These are statement, earth-driven vs fruit-heavy wines and the clay soil profile produces wine with exceptional body. “Organic growing and winemaking is the heart and soul of Muddy Water, “ says Dom. With Muddy, the Greystone team uses native fermentations, they hand pick, there’s no fining or additives, and most of the Pinot Noir is grown on hillside blocks on ungrafted roots. “These wines give us really good complexity, they’re rustic, and what the season gives us the season gives us.” Sounds like classic Burgundian winemaking to me!

Greystone is now in its 10th year and the awards for its Pinot Noirs are a nod to Dom’s winemaking skills (New Zealand’s winemaker of the year in 2011). “We’re getting more flavours and depth from the vines and more secondary flavours coming through now,” he says. The big difference between Muddy and Greystone? “I like to take people on a journey with me and with Greystone there’s more winemaking and more variety”.

The Brothers Reserve Pinot Noir Block is a perfect example. In 2012 Greystone won the International Pinot Noir trophy from Decanter. “Brothers is higher in elevation, and it has more limestone, so we get more aromatics,” says Dom. It also includes 25% wild vineyard yeast fermentation (see below) and 15 months in 70% new French oak barrels.

Greystone loves to experiment – no laurel sitting here!

Dom and his team are all about trial and error. Greystone uses native yeasts for all fermentations but a few years ago started experimenting with even wilder yeasts, aka fermentations in the field. The fermenter is moved from the winery to the vineyard to capture and reflect seasonal yeasts in the field and it remains there until the fermentation is complete (~ 30 days). Assistant winemaker Brad also explains the anaerobic barrel fermentation of Rose that is completed under water. The barrels are put in a large fermentation tank and submerged. “In water there’s no air and no oxygen.” Perfect for the delicate aromatics and finesse of Rose.

Winery capacity and resource management is key

Receiving grapes

There’s probably a better description for this but as 2016 Chardonnay was coming into the winery, 2015 Muddy Water Chardonnay was going out. In fact, I had a chance to work the bottling line for that Chardonnay, but more on that later. Anticipating harvest tonnage and aligning that with fermentation space, crushing capacity, bins, barrels, puncheons, barriques and tank capacity – not to mention human resources – requires some serious algorithmic thinking.

Forklift drivers have serious vineyard cred

Darren has forklift cred!

The critical skill for vineyard management is forklift driving – receiving bins, weighing bins, dumping bins, cleaning bins, shuttling composted bins of grape stems….there’s a ton of bins to be moved and the coolest dudes and dudettes know how to drive a forklift. My job was to stay out of the way of said forklift drivers but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t hankering to get behind the wheel.

Coolest forklift passenger? Hendrix!

My favourite picture from the trip! Hendrix is the delightful chocolate lab who loves to keep the forklift driver company. When he wasn’t on the forklift, Hendrix could be found in the lab or greeting visitors. Hendrix’s goal is to crack the Wine Dogs New Zealand book.


Winemaking requires a fundamental understanding of chemistry


Dear Gavin….dear, dear Gavin. He was readying the 2015 Muddy Water Chardonnay for bottling and I asked him what that entailed. What I got was a 15-minute dissertation on filtration, protein and cold stabilization, and something about bentonite and Nitrogen. What I did take away is that wine must be clear, stable and free of protein haze, microbial contamination and CO2 before bottling. Greystone doesn’t add fining agents, so allowing the skins, lees and solid materials to settle and then racking is key to a clear, consumer friendly wine. Note to self: must purchase Introduction to Wine Chemistry textbook

 Tracking the fermentations is job 1

IMG_1893Several times a day, the fermenting wine must is tested for sugar content – Brix – and temperature. We used a handy dandy density meter with a syringe to determine what stage the wine is at in the fermentation process. The density of the must decreases as the sugar turns into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The folks at Greystone use both open (with soft, breathable covers) and closed vessels for their reds, depending on where they are in the fermentation process. Long, cool soaks on skins are the norm with daily hand plunging. They’re looking for a cool, slow, steady-as-she-goes fermentation to maximize the nuances of the grape and extract phenolic compounds. The faster the fermentation heats up, the more aromatics are lost.

 Safety first

Gavin takes a couple of us cellar rat newbies on a tour of the winery outlining safety precautions and health risks. We are asked to sign an industry contract acknowledging our understanding of the risks. During fermentation, carbon dioxide is produced as a by-product as sugar converts to alcohol. Gavin shares lots of stories of cellar hands knocked off their feet by CO2 inhalation in fermentation tanks and confined spaces. Ventilation is critical as vintage and CO2 levels gear up and Gavin assures us Greystone has a top-notch ventilation system. Note to self: don’t stick head in tank.

Punchdowns are bloody hard work

Debbie doing punch downs

Let me just say it’s a miracle I didn’t fall into the fermenting Pinot Noir – see Exhibit A – although I suppose there are worse ways to go!

In red winemaking, the mass of solids that float up to the top of the fermentation tank is called the cap. The cap is made up of the skins, seeds, pulp, and in some cases, stems (stem-loving winemakers may use/add some “whole cluster” ferment – in winemaking stage for additional complexity i.e. adds greenness, spice and tannin). Dom has me doing punchdowns with the rest of the team, so I know this isn’t a cruel initiation test. Essentially, we’re using a potato masher to break up the cap, wet the skins, gently extract pigment and flavour compounds and allow oxygen to work its magic on the grapes (think steeped tea). Note: in red winemaking the process of leaching colour and phenolics from the skins is called maceration.

Pump-overs: Saved by the harness!


The day I arrived at the winery was the day the wine industry’s harness safety policy went into affect. Hallelujah to that! In any event, pump-overs are a larger scale version of punch-downs. A hose is connected to the fermentation tank and fermenting juice is pumped over the cap. Another balancing act! They don’t teach you this in wine school!!!

The sorting table is a very social place

David, Debbie, Alison on the sorting line

The sorting table is the last processing stage before grapes hit the destemmer and fermentation tank. The goal of sorting is to get rid of leaves, Botrytis/gray rot, and any large or small pests that you wouldn’t want to drink. The grapes move along the conveyor belt toward a hopper while those of us sorting solve world issues, trade wine trivia and deconstruct All Black rugby strategy. With 25 tons of grapes arriving on many of the days I worked in the winery, there was much sorting and much sorting chatter.

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Matt, Hannah and Lucca, my mates on the line.

Service work helps keep the lights on

Greystone also provides winemaking services for many other vineyards and growers in the Waipara Valley. So Greystone is managing their own harvest and the needs of many smaller producers in the area. Busy, busy!

The Tim Tam Slam is a rite of passage

IMG_1948Apparently, you can’t be traveling to the Southern Hemisphere and work in a winery and not know about the Tim Tam slam. Kiwis and Aussies debate the origins of this coffee break ritual, although there is still a chance it’s just a cruel joke played on foreign winery recruits. Cynicism aside, the Tim Tam is essentially a chocolate bar marketed as a cookie. You bite each corner at a 45-degree angle, then dunk and suck coffee using the cookie as a straw. After the All Blacks, this appears to be a national pastime.

The bottling line does not suffer fools

Someone needs to take all that delicious wine and package it for consumers and that job falls to Nigel and Mandy at Greystone. Mandy smiled like a Cheshire Cat when I showed up on my official bottling day. Bottling is exacting work. There’s lots of repetition, lots of moving parts and lots of critical operations and timing in play. The wine was pumped from inside the winery from a tank to the bottle filler. A nitrogen gas line hummed along all day protecting the wine from oxidation, sterilizing bottles and caps and sucking out remaining carbon dioxide.IMG_1938

My job? Bottles need to be offloaded from pallets and placed on the assembly line. Full bottles need to be boxed, separated, labeled, taped and placed on a pallet for bundling and shipping. In tandem with human curation is the mechanization which includes rinsing the bottle, a nitrogen/sterilization “poof”, filling the bottle, another nitrogen “poof” to sterilize the top, cap the bottle, add front and back labels, and down the line it goes….As the labeled bottles marched down the belt towards me, I kept envisioning the I love Lucy episode where Lucy’s assembly line job goes very, very wrong. Fortunately no wine was spilled and I have a new appreciation for the precision art of bottling.

Thanks for Vintage 2016 Greystone. What a pleasure…

It may be Dom’s name on the bottle, but 10 days with the viticulture and winery team at Greystone helped me appreciate that harvest is the culmination of a lot of planning and a lot of team-work. I’m so grateful to Nick and Dom and everyone else who took the time to explain what the heck it is they do, including allowing me to sink or swim in the fermentation tanks! I will be back to this beautiful, exquisite region of New Zealand very soon.

The Wine….


Over the course of my two weeks at the winery and in the region, I was able to taste a variety of Greystone and Muddy Water wines. Highlights:

2015 Brother’s Reserve Pinot Noir

Dom Maxwell barrel tasting with Greystone’s Shanghai distributors

It’s 9am and Dom invites me to barrel taste the 2015 Brother’s Reserve with guests from Shanghai. Brothers has tremendous depth, layers and length with lots of dark cherry, blueberry fruit, earth character and hints of smoke and allspice. According to Dom, “the sulpher and tannins are jostling” so it’s not ready yet. Greystone doesn’t fine or filter so they build in a “good long settle.”

2015 Greystone Erin’s Reserve Chardonnay

This is a 10am barrel tasting with Brad and I’m treated to Erin’s Chardonnay, which I quickly realize will be a highlight of my travels. The term unctuous rings true. This is a highly aromatic wine and on the palate the fruit is rich, concentrated and textured. Generous stone fruit lingers with ripe brioche and barrel ferment toasty notes adding great length. I want to take this barrel back to Canada but I’d settle for a bottle.

2013 Muddy Water Pinot Noir

I keep thinking about this pinot. It truly haunts me. I understood the contrast between Muddy Water and Greystone that Dom described, when I tasted this wine. This is a brooding, rich and savoury wine offering rustic, earth-driven aromatics . On the palate: generous ripe plum and red berry fruit flavours, steeped in dried herbs and oak spices and gentle, chalky tannins. This pinot is hard to forget….



One Comment Add yours

  1. wellfedart says:

    The pics of you working with the grapes are my favourite!!! 😀
    Awesome that you were able to get your hands dirty for a true experience!

    Liked by 1 person

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