How ancient trumps modern

Garage Wine Co 2020 harvest in Maule, southern Chile

Derek Mossman Knapp of Garage Wines reports on how his agricultural community in Maule, southern Chile, has been coping with the pandemic. Well, is his conclusion.

The mammoth earthquake on the eve of the 2010 harvest left our vineyards unscathed and we simply got on with the vintage. Such a catastrophe was supposed to be a once-a-century event, but it was only seven short years later that bushfires came and burned tens of thousands of hectares all around us. Again we just got on with harvest.

Harvest has come again this year, but this time accompanied by an invisible calamity, the threat of the coronavirus.

I have been reading about many in the wine world who have as a result been forced to take a hiatus from work. Wine, like life, is inherently social. Many more have had their restaurants, pubs, wine bars and hotels shut. Others have succumbed to the unseen menace itself [see Ali Cooper’s accounts of grappling with COVID-19, for instance – JR]. But our lot in life as winegrowers at least keeps us busy and in the open air.

After a year’s work tending to the vineyards, we – and the many businesses small and large involved in our enterprise – have had to finish the job before shutting ourselves in. We did not throw caution to the wind. We worked with a closed group of pickers who live in what one could call a very rural setting. A community that is in its essence retired from world, almost sequestered in the hills around the villages of Sauzal and Puico.

Some of them periodically take toasted flour and/or cornmeal to market, but most labour on their land and go to town on horseback. Many have never adapted to vehicles and have continued to work the land with horses. It is a stark contrast to the world of business travel, supply-chain complexities and just-in-time delivery – things that the modern world took for granted and that have collapsed like a house of cards.

Living on the farm with a vegetable patch, some livestock, growing your own wheat (heritage seeds collected after threshing on site) allows these farmers to be tremendously independent. And this is what allowed us to continue working in the neighbourhood to get their grapes in and not lose the 2020 harvest.

As I wrote here after the 2017 bushfires, this old-school traditional agriculture was not only more resistant to the flames, but also served as firebreaks for other crops and prevented far greater damage. Again we see the wisdom of farming down the ages, or fieldcraft as we have come to call it, is proving more resilient than modern industrial agriculture.

It begs the question, why are any and all business/export/agricultural incentives in Chile, and elsewhere I am sure, always geared to technology and scalability? What about sustainability? Real sustainability and resilience, not just green-washing.

Given our experience, I say we should use this experience to take a step back and rethink before we rebuild. Perhaps it is time to respect traditional methods that have proven and re-proven their worth in the face of adversity.

I do not pretend to have foreseen or planned our path. Ours was a seat-of-the-pants strategy. My wife and business partner Pilar and I realised that one of the challenges working with small farmers was the picking. Farmers would ask all their neighbours to lend a hand, and the hands would often not be enough. It was quaint but it would take days and many runs to the cellar. At first we towed a small trailer behind a pickup, but soon we wanted to pick with more precision and/or pick more grapes in a day. We were just trying to make a better bottle of wine.

After more than one failed attempt by a farmer to raise a large enough group to harvest, we began organising our own crew who could travel from property to property with us. We had never had access to a selection table, so a crew of better harvesters capable of culling the bad bits before they went into the basket helped with the quality of the fruit arriving in the cellar.

Garage Wine Co grape picker waving in Maule, S Chile

This crew has come to serve not just for harvest, but also for pruning, cultivating, shoot thinning et al. For the people it has meant more work throughout the year, and for us it has been greater dependability and, most importantly, better quality fruit. This year it has meant a small closed circle of people picking farm by farm collectively, and we have got the harvest in safely. Some might think it would be cheaper, more efficient and easier if we hired people by the van-load who would come from farther afield. But these hands are not trained, they are just cheaper. And today, when we are all so conscious of patterns of virus transmission, they are a much higher risk for all. 

At 7,000 cases a year, Garage Wines is a microcosm, but I would like to think our experience, albeit on a small scale, proves a point. Perhaps there are more microcosms that will help us to find a way out of this calamity that is stronger and better prepared to build a healthier world and a more resilient economy. Seeking better hands, instead of reducing the cost of labour, allows us to pick better fruit and make better wine – and to thrive in the face of adversity, safely, in the turbulent times we face.

As we endure this crisis we need to start looking at what is on the other side. How can we recalibrate for better, more regenerative farming and better work. If consumers make an effort to buy direct, to buy from independents with an eye to small or old-school producers, they will make a difference – not just in getting out of this pandemic, but also in future, giving proper work to farmers whom, let’s remember, we need three times a day. With them we can make our world at once more sustainable and more flavourful.

Get yourself a glass. Swirl and think. We have time.