Expat Magazine

Alkoomi Wines

By Thebangtoddowenwaldorf @BangLiving

Alkoomi Wines

I had been at the kangaroo sanctuary for forty-eight hours when Jon, the owner, walked up to me and asked me if I wanted to work in a vineyard.  It seems Jon has the ability to read minds.  I was planning on staying at the kangaroo sanctuary for one week before heading to the vine region here in Western Australia.  I laughed at him.  Actually, I told him, I would like some of that vineyard work.  You start Monday, he told me, and this is how the last three weeks of my being a vine pruner began…

Work can be tough to find for the traveler.  That is what they tell me.  I am fortunate that this work found me without much effort and searching on my own.  Some things just work out.  Have somewhat of a vision, don’t stress or worry, and be flexible and let things fall into place.  Yep, some things work out.  Some things don’t.  Just keep moving forward and you will be alright. 

I work at a place called Alkoomi Wines.  It is in a small town that you haven’t heard of called Frankland River.  Frankland is in the large state of Western Australia and I live here at the vineyard.  I pay ten dollars a day for my accommodation to live on site in one of thirteen rooms in a long hallway of barracks.  It is a tin box that puts a roof over my head.  It has nothing close to the luxuries of living back home.  The room comes with a mattress and a door and a light and ends there.  Jon and Mandy from the kangaroo sanctuary gave me some bed linen, or “manchester” in Australian English.  Jon also gave me a rain jacket.  I had a Coleman poncho.  Don’t ever buy a Coleman poncho.  It is too big, won’t last, and just an awful joke of a thing.  A Coleman poncho is all that is available?  Perhaps consider a garbage, or rubbish, bag.  I am grateful to have come across so many giving Australians in my travels, and I am grateful to Jon and Mandy.  Jon gave me and three others his vehicle to drive to Alkoomi Wines that weekend of our getting the work.  I drove his large SUV, we call it a ute remember, and it took to the dirt roads easily.  That thing is a beast of a vehicle. 

What can I say about vine pruning?  You are paid by the vine.  You aren’t paid a lot and so if you want to make any money you have to hustle.  A vine has about twenty to thirty vine branches that come off of the two main arms.  You have to cut those back and they have to be perfect.  If you screw up you can damage the vine permanently and you could cause the entire business to go under.  That is an extreme, but the possibility is there.  The vines are where it happens and it reminds me of when I used to load film stock during movie productions.  If you expose the film the movie is ruined.  Thousands of dollars and time gone.  If you cut the vines incorrectly the vineyard is ruined.  One wrong snip and a vine that is fifteen years old can be rendered useless.  That’s it.  Game over.  No pressure.

Snip. Snip. Snip. 

So how much does an entire vine that is pruned bring in?  Get ready.  20 to 30 cents.  Yup.  A couple of dimes.  If you want to make any money you have got to be quick and that is the trick about vine pruning, or as my Mum (Australian English for Mom) says, that is where the art comes in.  A vine a minute.  They say if you want to make any money you must cut a vine a minute.  It’s true.  It is a difficult learning curve, and not everyone here has been able to make the cut (enjoy the pun… a little birthday present to myself that we can all enjoy).

You will become disenchanted.  Locals that have done this for years will blaze pass you practically doing cartwheels and magic tricks while drinking their smoko tea.  Effortless.  How do they do it?  You will never be able to answer this mystery.  Let’s just leave it to magic, or perhaps they are not even human beings.  They are some sort of super-human that moves with perfect precision and speed that is unfathomable and barely seen by the eye.  What was that?  I heard a sound.  Oh look.  Two hundred vines have been cut while I was blinking. 

The vines vary in thickness.  Some are as thick as your fingers.  About twenty of those on one vine.  The work lasts for nine hours.  On average you cut about 600 vines a day if you are doing well.  That is twelve thousand cuts of vine branches as thick as your fingers.  Oh you can take breaks if you want.  You can take a lunch too, and everyone does, except for myself.  Well myself and the super-humans.  I ate while I worked and I didn’t take breaks.  Nine hours of go-mode.  why?  Because it was difficult, a challenge, and I am here to do one thing. 

Snip.  Snip.  Snip.

The first few days were difficult in every way.  First came the learning curve.  I had a few lessons on what I was doing correctly.  That was pretty sweet.  Then I got a few lessons on what I was doing horribly wrong.  Oopsies.  Then came the physical wall.  When is the last time you have squeezed your hand for nine hours straight?  Have you ever seen one of those hand springs that you can put in your hand and crunch to work out the hand muscles?  Pruning is nine hours of that.  I have been here for three weeks.  My hands have not stopped throbbing since the first day.  On the weekends, during my time off at night and when I sleep at night I can still feel my hands pulsing.  You get used to it.  Think of it this way, if it was extremely horrible no one would do it right?  Hey I’m just trying to make you feel better about it.  After the learning curve and the physical hurdles the next step you have to master is speed.  Vine pruning doesn’t come without concentration.  Every cut requires a decision of which vines to keep, which to get rid of, and which to cut a particular length so that they grow correctly.  I brought an iPod on my first day and never wore it again.  Oh wait yes I did.  I wore it the second day but I never turned it on. 

On the fourth day something clicked.  I compare this part to when I learned how to snowboard.  On my first day on a snowboard I couldn’t turn into my toe-side.  Later that day, while everyone went out for drinks, I stayed in the cabin and laid on the bed going over the movements of what I was doing and what I needed to change.  The next morning I not only caught my toe-side on my first try but I boarded down the whole mountain without falling on my second run.  That is what happened with pruning.  It just all came together at once.  I was patient, methodical, and when I took a step back I was able to see the entire picture being painted.  I told my boss that you really can’t be fast until you have an exact understanding of how the entire process works.  Sure you can just cut, but once you know exactly how the vine responds to those cuts you can start moving using your autonomic memory.  I had asked questions.  I always do.  I was the annoying guy in college with his hand up.  I don’t like just knowing what I’m supposed to do.  I like knowing why.  I was slow and methodical at first.  So slow my boss told me not to worry about it so much and speed up.  I told him I wanted to get it right.  Then I sped up.  Slow and methodical turned into fast and automatic and then suddenly I had become…

Super-human?  Legendary.

No, I am kidding.  A friend of mine gave me the first six seasons of How I Met Your Mother.  That’s why that is funny.  If you haven’t seen that show than the legendary thing isn’t funny but that is okay because we are moving on now anyway.  So it all came together.  Ironically enough I began matching the pay that I was making back home working a job that was more stressful and that I have theoretically gone to school to four years for.  I began matching that hourly wage, and then I began to surpass it.  It didn’t come without sacrifices though.  It was mind vs body and my body gave up repeatedly.  When my body would fail my mind had to make up for its failing.  When I couldn’t use my right hand any longer I used my left.  I don’t know when I have seen my hands so bloody, scarred, and bruised.  The weather made an appearance too.  Cold and windy torrential rain came down in sheets, but the super-humans and myself kept moving forward.  There is a life lesson in there somewhere.  Some people came for the pay.  Some pruners came to work toward their second visa to stay in Australia, as you need agricultural hours of work to do so.  I didn’t come for those things.  I came for me.  It was the Mt. Everest challenge.  I did it because it was there. 

I turned thirty today, or maybe it’s tomorrow.  I haven’t bothered taking the time difference of being on the other side of the planet into account.  My boss asked me how long I would be working in the vineyard.  He wants me to stick around.  I told him until the end of July.  A couple of hours later I snipped a vine.  I looked up from my work and out over the rolling hills of canopied in the thousands of vines of shiraz, riesling, cab, and sav blanc.  I felt the westerly wind blow from my right.  Just then.  Just in that moment as I had cut a beast of a vine that drove a sharp and familiar pain into the joints of my elbows I realised that I had been wrong.  I wouldn’t be staying until the end of the month.  Perhaps it was the wind coming from the west, the view, the pain, or the fact that my birthday had arrived that had made the decision for me.  I don’t question those things.  In that instant I knew that if I spent the next hours or days thinking it over I would come to the same conclusion and then I laughed.  

I laughed and shook my head.  Sometimes I just don’t know what makes me tick.  Life is funny that way sometimes too.  Some things work out.  Some don’t.  Just keep moving forward and you will be alright.  Sometimes you might find yourself deeply engrossed and consumed by the moment.  Maybe you have it all figured out.  You know at that moment what your future will hold for you.  Then the wind blows from the west and you remember that anything can happen.

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