After returning from Vietnam and admiring the weathered nobility of their farmers, I was looking forward to working in the vineyard. I bought some waterproof gear: a pair of gumboots, a Rainbird jacket, some rainpants, a pair of gloves, and was ready to head into the trenches. With the help of some key friends, mainly Peter and Trevor K., I found a room in a house along the coast at Aldinga Beach. If you click the link, the surf forecast lists the hazards here as “sharks and sharks”. This area was just a stones throw from McLaren Vale, the area I’d be pruning. I’ve always wanted to live on the ocean, and now, finally, I had my chance. It’s winter here, and the seas have been rough and the winds swirl and whip everything into a frenzy. Out my front door it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to the sea. We had a King Tide here recently which had gale force winds and an extremely high tide. I walked to the beach at the apex of the storm after midnight. The power of the wind was so strong that I could lean forward into it, and it held my weight. It’s a magnificent place to live.
The following day I was told to head to the vineyard and to ask for Knackers, the crew boss and Peter’s brother, and that he’d show me how to prune a vine. Knackers is a funny looking guy with long red hair and a beard, and a face that looks as if he’s had a beer can or two crushed on it. Later I would learn from Knackers himself that he had every bone in his face shattered during a car crash a few years back. A friend of his that had to identify him said his head looked like a smashed watermelon with a hole in the middle. Absolutely amazing reconstruction, he has hundreds of pieces of titanium giving his head definition. He told me to press his cheekbone with my thumb at the pub one night and it felt like a chain link under his skin. He’s quick to laugh, deep and loud, and loves to hurl quick witted insults and backhanded compliments in the same breath. Anyway, Knackers greeted me warmly on my first cold, rainy morning in the Shirvington Vineyard. He gave me a pair of his older pruning snips and showed me the time honored technique of cutting a vine back into shape.
Every vineyard has a different objective. Some growers want to have an abundant crop next year, especially after the slim pickings this vintage due to the drought, therefore there are strict instructions the pruners have to follow. It didn’t take too long to get the basics down, except that the combination of the cold rain and my now aching hand had me feeling slightly confused. Meaning, why are we standing in the freezing rain and was it normal for my hand to feel like it had developed advanced carpel tunnel syndrome in a matter of hours? But I wasn’t about to start whining, especially since most of the crew was dropping like flies and heading to the pub for a stout and to stand near the fire. It does get monotonous out there, looking down a row wondering if you’ll ever get to the end of it. If you do it too long, you get what’s known as “the vine disease”. It’s basically like “the Shining” in the vineyard, you just snap. I wasn’t exactly breaking any speed records, but I certainly can understand how pruning for too long can make you a little goofy.
Pruning vines teaches you a lot about people, as well. The crew that I joined this winter in McLaren Vale is a colorful bunch of philosophers, scoundrels, convicts, and rogues. And I mean that with the utmost respect. Many were walking along the margins of society, working outdoors under the sky, and making enough money to take a few months and go surfing, or go whoring in the Phillipines, for example. Take my friend Bobo here. Once a respected moneyhandler for an Adelaide governmental agency, he developed a gambling habit that caused him to lose his job. He shrugs his shoulders and accepts his new profession with equanimity. We talk all day long about politics, film, music, and South Park. He’s a curious and highly intelligent guy. I was happy to lend him my copy of The Big Lebowski. Occassionally I surprise him in the afternoon, when we start looking at our watches more frequently, with the gift of a Snickers bar from the local deli. He seems so grateful that I can barely stand it.
Weather comes and goes, and sometimes the sun even comes out. Considering the extreme drought Australia has been experiencing over the last few years, you can almost here the earth sigh with relief as the wetness soaks in. And when it is pleasant, the crew banters with each other about obscure music, which local mechanics are thieves, the price of new electric Felco pruners, and other jobs that paid better than pruning. I noticed that in the morning most guys were swearing they were off the drink for awhile, but that around 2pm they started talking about how good a glass of suds would taste. And sure enough, they would, without any fanfare, all meet at the Alma Hotel for “one”. As the King in Yellow said, “I’m an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and
wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.”