Harvesting Grapes and Cultivating Muscle

September 30, 2015

Local women travel to a New Zealand vineyard to help with the harvest and learn more about winemaking.

Ellen Bhang
Harvesting Grapes and Cultivating Muscle | WGBH | Craving Boston

When you are learning about wine, there are experiences that keep you safe at home, and journeys that take you far afield. Recently, I met two women with ties to Boston who reaped unexpected benefits by working at a vineyard in New Zealand.

While neither has met the other, Christine Milam, 27, and Kathryn Aronsohn, 37, both elected the same experience: working a harvest at Vela Wines in Central Otago, the breathtakingly beautiful inland region of New Zealand’s South Island. How each traveled to the Southern Hemisphere to pick grapes from March until May—Milam in 2014 and Aronsohn a year later—highlights the determination of both women to have a wine adventure off the beaten path.

Milam, originally from Portland, OR, lived in Boston for three years, and worked at acclaimed Beacon Hill restaurant No. 9 Park, and at Stir, a South End culinary demonstration space, both part of the Barbara Lynch Gruppo. Aronsohn, a Boston native, worked for an investment firm while pursuing rigorous coursework in wine. She also helped conduct tastings at The Wine Bottega, a North End wine shop. Both wanted to work a grape harvest to better understand how the stuff was made. The question was where to go.

New Zealand came calling when each learned that Vela Wines is owned by three Boston-area residents. Beth Ann Dahan, a Boston University wine educator, her husband Arie, and business partner Max Risman launched the Central Otago operation in 2011 with a line of pours called “Twelfth Night,” which includes pinot noir, riesling and sauvignon blanc. Suddenly, the possibility of a stint in Kiwi country didn’t seem so far-fetched. Dahan introduced each by email to Vela’s winemaker, Antony Worch, a native of France, who lives and works on the property full-time.

For Milam, the process of getting to New Zealand was straightforward. She traveled there on a working holiday visa, which allows people under age 30 to work for one year in the country. Unlike her fellow grape pickers, many of whom were young French backpackers who lived on campgrounds or in hostels, Milam secured a homestay nearby. The work and the schedule were rigorous, yet invigorating. “You start to love the manual labor because it warms you up,” she enthuses, remembering what it was like to pick pinot noir in the chill of the early morning.

Things got really interesting when she had the chance to work in the cellar with a tight-knit group of colleagues, doing things like filling and cleaning tanks, inoculating wines with yeast to kick off fermentation and testing acidity levels. The experience brought to life the book knowledge she had amassed about winemaking. “It cemented everything,” she says, “like the choices a winemaker can make, and the work that goes into it. There’s so much to learn.”

Aronsohn agrees that there is much to gain from the get-your-hands-dirty approach. “It was great being able to come at the end of January and see the pinot noir as baby green grapes,” she says. “Four months later, you’re forklifting them into the bin.” (Speaking of forklifts, she highly recommends the experience of driving one, especially to women. “Let’s not just leave this for the boys,” she says.)

Traveling to New Zealand involved more steps for Aronsohn than for Milam. Folks in the over-30-year-old set have to prove they have qualifications to work in-country. “But Central Otago has more sheep than people,” she says optimistically, “and winemaking is on the skills-shortage list.” In her case, Worch served as her sponsor for a working visa.

In addition to taking the fruit “from seed to bottle,” as she calls it, Aronsohn was thrilled by the benefits she didn’t anticipate, like greater upper-body strength. “When I came back, my friends commented on these arms!” she says, referring to her buff limbs.

The experience also heightened her understanding of winemaking. “It’s like making bread or cake,” she says. “I totally understand it now because I’ve made it.”

Today, back in the states, both women are working in wine. Milam is a sommelier and manager at the James Beard award-winning restaurant Rioja, in Denver, CO. Aronsohn is working another harvest, this time in California, for Joseph Phelps Vineyards in Sonoma County. Memories of their time in Central Otago provide ongoing inspiration for their respective journeys.

Aronsohn thinks that the experience of harvesting in New Zealand will benefit anyone who is a hands-on learner and willing to work hard in an environment where “fingernails are never clean.”

Milam is also enthusiastic. “Just go! Just get there!” she says. “There are so many opportunities to dig in.”

It’s not too late to be a part of the 2016 harvest in Central Otago. For more information, contact Beth Ann Dahan at bethanndahan@velawines.com.

“Twelfth Night” wines ($14 to $25) can be purchased at Cambridge Wine & Spirits, Cambridge, 617-864-7171; and Wine Gallery, Brookline, 617-277-5522.

  • September 30, 2015