Dedicated operators get the harvest in

The office: Vintage Harvesters senior operator Innes Price is working his seventh vintage.
The office: Vintage Harvesters senior operator Innes Price is working his seventh vintage.

Wine reporter Chloe Winter took to the vineyards this week to find out how a harvester works and who the people behind the machines are. 

Driving along vineyard rows harvesting the fruit that viticulturists have spent all year nurturing is anything but boring - it involves a lot of concentration, patience and care.

Vintage Harvesters senior operator Innes Price has just begun his seventh vintage with the company. He drove a gondola, which catches and transports fruit to a waiting truck, in his first year and has operated a harvester ever since.

Vintage Harvesters owner Jason Tripe
Vintage Harvesters owner Jason Tripe

Driving the harvester is the easy part of the job, Innes says, but it comes with major responsibilities and there is no time to mess around.

Before climbing into his harvester at 3am, Innes needs to assess the fruit. He looks at how low or high the fruit is hanging and adjusts the rods, which knock the fruit off the vines, to suit.

"Getting the settings right is the most important part of the job. You need to set the machine to pick the grapes properly.

Sign of season: Harvesting in a vineyard on Middle Renwick Rd
Sign of season: Harvesting in a vineyard on Middle Renwick Rd

"Every block is different and we want to keep the vines intact. We want to be careful."

The next setting to check is the two touch-screens in the cab - one tells you the temperature and the speeds of all the controls on the harvester, the other is a GPS tracker which shows what rows to harvest in each block.

"We are always monitoring controls on the machine."

Reporter Chloe Winter went along for a ride in the harvester
Reporter Chloe Winter went along for a ride in the harvester

When travelling along the rows, he is looking out the window to ensure the fruit is going straight into the gondola as well as checking the shaker speed and ground speed. The machine normally travels at 5kmh.

He is also looking for a flashing green light to tell him if the machine is too far over on one side of the vine - you don't want to miss any grapes, he says.

Innus also has responsibility for overseeing the two gondola drivers who work with him. He can see when their gondolas are full and they can't, so he lets them know over the radio.

Harvest is an exciting time for many of the harvester operators, Innes says.

"You've got to enjoy harvest, you've got to have the right attitude.

"You need guys who show an initiative towards it."

The 12-hour shifts do not bother him too much because it actually goes quite fast, he says.

"I spent more time in here [cab] than anywhere else during the month.

"The first couple of weeks we are just cruising through it. The last couple of weeks everyone gets tired."

When changing vineyards, changing varieties and at the end of each shift the machine needs to be cleaned with a high-powered hose.

This job is every operators' nightmare - getting into all the "nooks and crannies" is not a simple task, Innes says.

"Washing the machine in the middle of the night out with a cold hose in four degrees is not necessarily the greatest job in the world."

He never thought he would be a harvester operator, but now he could not think of doing anything else, Innes says. "It's not what I've always wanted to do however it is the most enjoyable job I've had. Being out and about - it's great.

Vintage Harvesters owner Jason Tripe says the harvester operators are each allocated one of the nine Gregoire harvester machines for the season.

The harvester operator was in charge of the crew. They needed to make sure their gondola drivers were in tow, he says.

"The staff put in an enormous effort that's quite taxing being out in that environment. It's quite stressful.

"Your brain is really working quite hard. The guys do work very very hard. They are committed."

Jason begins his day with his staff in the early hours of the morning.

"It's hard enough getting home at 3am, try getting up at 3am."

As well as helping out in the vineyards, his main job is booking in clients.

He tracks the harvesters and their progress using GPS technology.

He admits operating a harvester can sometimes get "a bit dull".

"[But] it depends what's going on and the volume of the crop depends how busy you are."

There is no allocated time for the workers to have a break, but they can take a break when they are waiting for the trucks to arrive back from delivering the grapes to the winery, he says.

"You only stop if you need to. You get breaks by default."

Two 12-hour shifts will run back to back for the next four weeks, he says.

"It's known there won't be a day off. They are the sort of people that are quite energised."

Right now the adrenaline is running high with his workers, Jason says. "It's hard and demanding. You are looking forward to that rest at the end of the day [but] they have a lot of fun out there . . . It's quite rewarding."

The Marlborough Express