Marlborough winemakers 'constantly labour-short and scrambling' as winter pruning season looms

After a smaller-than-anticipated harvest this season, the Marlborough wine industry says it's absolutely crucial to set up for a solid crop next year.

But with the sector still battling a worker shortage due to the country's closed borders there are concerns over just how likely that is.

It's been a tough year for winemakers. Although deemed an essential service during last year's level 4 lockdown, vineyards around the country had to scramble to complete the harvest while keeping workers safe.

Marcus Pickens, general manager of Wine Marlborough, says although all in all the sector was "very fortunate" to get through the season successfully, the upcoming work of winter pruning is now weighing heavily on the minds of many in the industry. 

"It's been about a 12 to 16-month issue already - and we're still facing our biggest challenge coming up is our winter pruning," Pickens told Magic Talk's Rural Today on Monday.

"We're sort of living in this new state where we're constantly labour-short and scrambling to get enough people to either make a line or prune the grapes or harvest the grapes and do the summer work.

"Every season we work through has got its challenges."

Pickens told host Dominic George the sector normally gets around 80 percent of its workforce coming in from overseas. But a lack of recognised seasonal employer (RSE) workers - the majority of whom come from Pacific countries - and foreign backpackers meant winemakers were "very nervous".

"Even as late as November, December we were very anxious about the workforce that we needed inside the wineries - that was our big challenge, the actual production of wine."

He said it was a real challenge to find enough workers - which included RSE workers still in the country, university students and Kiwis willing to give the job a try - to fill the roles last season, and it was looking likely to be just as difficult this year too.

"We just got through by the skin of our teeth and our harvest was a lot smaller for the 2021 crop so it did take a bit of pressure off those wineries. If we had had a large harvest it would have been incredibly stressful. It was stressful as it was but it did make it, in that sense, a little easier to get through with a less-experienced workforce."

Late last year the Government granted border exemptions for 2000 extra RSE workers to help out in the horticulture and viticulture industries. And while that move was welcomed by industry groups, they say it's not enough to fill the labour gaps.

The announcement of the trans-Tasman bubble, which will allow quarantine-free travel between Australia and New Zealand, has brought some hope extra spaces in managed isolation and quarantine facilities may be used to bring in workers from the Pacific.

Pickens said the wine industry would not only back that but would also "100 percent" support a Pacific travel bubble - "as long as it's safe to do so". 

"We'd want to take advantage of any opportunities as they arise but those decisions are well beyond our hands."

In the meantime the focus remains on attracting enough people in the country to get to work during the winter season.

"The potential for unpruned vineyards is now in crisis. We have just come through a smaller-than-anticipated harvest and setting up for a really good crop next year is really fundamental," he said.

"The vines just have to be pruned. 

"There's 60 to 65 million grape vines in Marlborough that need to be pruned every winter. Without pruning them you don't get a crop; without the crop there's no income."