Wineries next in line to face fallout from labour shortage

The harvest season is about to start.
The harvest season is about to start. Photo credit: Getty

Some wineries are worried they may not have enough staff when pruning begins.

Their focus so far has been scraping together enough workers for the harvest which is about to start.

Many companies have come through the summer in better shape than expected and are now ready for picking.

This year's harvest is looking promising for Marlborough-based vineyard Nautilus Estate.

But its winemaker and general manager Clive Jones is already looking ahead to what will happen to Marlborough's roughly 65 million grapevines that will mostly need hand-pruning straight afterwards.

"We're typically getting a couple of thousand RSE workers at least coming into this region, and also backpackers, people on working holiday visas so that's where there is quite a big gap that we're going to struggle to fill with locals this year," Jones said.

"I mean we just don't think there's going to be enough people on the ground to get through that pruning period as efficiently as we would like."

Nautilus Estate would usually hire a few overseas winemakers as well.

They were now training some of the vineyard crew to do some of that work but the travel ban was having a big impact on what had become an international industry, he said.

"It also establishes relationships with overseas wineries that New Zealanders can then go and work overseas in the offseason. It's not a one-way flow of knowledge and experience, and that exchange of knowledge is I guess probably an integral part of the wine industry these days."

While overall visitor numbers were down, Jones said spend per person was up.

Greystone Wines is a small organic winery in North Canterbury mostly catering to New Zealanders.

Its general manager Nik Mavromatis said the local support could not have been any better even though weekdays could be more challenging without international tourists.

The business is about 20 percent up on the previous summer.

"We've shortened hours Thursday through Sunday and we're actually up from when we were doing seven days a week. We've switched to a single service set menu model here," Mavromatis said.

"We did that for COVID and it was such a success offering the $79 long lunch that we've actually stuck with it."

He wasn't worried about staffing for harvest with a nearby university and community members willing to pitch in.

"We have a waiting list for people who want to work here. There's massive interest every year from overseas people wanting to work in New Zealand wineries to learn the craft, and we were really lucky that two of ours have actually stayed on the whole year in New Zealand."

Their harvest starts this week.

"We're not going to have a big harvest this year. We got frosted early on so we're going to have smaller fruit, but the fruit's looking fantastic."

Gibbston Valley Winery chief executive and co-owner Greg Hunt said the business was down significantly from last summer at 20 to 30 percent of what it would normally be.

On an average year, 140,000 customers would venture through their gates. They're now getting about 30 to 40 percent of that.

The business did have the advantage of offering more than a cellar door and restaurant - it also offered accommodation, bike hire, cave tours and concerts, he said.

Gibbston Valley Winery hires a contractor to harvest their grapes to start over the next month.

"So we don't have any concerns with the picking but potentially the cost of the picking goes up as well depending on who the people are, their experience and the time it takes to pick it so for us, it's not a question of whether we will pick. It's potentially maybe just a bit more expensive for the pick."

In Hawke's Bay, Paul Ham from the family-owned vineyard Alpha Domus said they had to batten down the hatches this time last year which had paid off but they were not out of the woods yet.

"The summer has been probably better than we thought it would be. But the number of visitors that we are getting is not endless, there are swings and roundabouts in this whole thing."

They were now ready for the harvest, he said.

"This year I think we're going to hunker down and just be a little bit cautious I suspect and look forward to when things are going to change and borders are going to reopen."

With harvest underway for many, vineyards are hopeful more RSE workers or a trans-Tasman bubble may be allowed before pruning starts.