It’s dawn at Constellation Brand’s Awatere Hills vineyard, and Katie Bruce is leaf plucking with a view. A month into her vineyard job, she still can’t believe the outlook, with verdant vines set against the golden corrugated hills of the Awatere Valley and the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean.
Nor can the 17-year-old vineyard hand believe how much she’s already learned on the job, having faced not just the vines but also irrigation and tractor driving within days of starting with the company.
“It was awesome - scary but fun,” she says of towing a plucker in her first week. “It’s crazy. I didn’t think I would be doing that sort of thing.” Katie graduated from the New Zealand School of Winegrowing last year, the only Marlborough Girls’ College student in the first intake, and is a brilliant poster child for the initiative.
She has lived on a vineyard since she was 12 and says she always enjoyed the holiday work it supplied, so planned to go on to tertiary study at NMIT or university. When the wine school was launched, she leapt in and thrived in the learning environment, which sees students tackle each of their subjects through the lens of wine studies, including biology, chemistry, accounting and English.
While they joined mainstream classes for some of the science lessons, the rest of their studies were centralised, allowing for greater focus, says Katie, whose grades climbed as a result. “It was awesome. I’m quite motivated when it comes to learning what I want to learn.”
Katie worked vintage at Saint Clair Family Estate at the beginning of the school year as part of the Wine School curriculum, getting a taste of all aspects of cellar work, from racking to inoculations.
She was immediately hooked. “I went into the cellar and I thought, ‘my gosh, this is amazing’. I was overwhelmed by it and decided that’s what I wanted to do.” But after vintage, she was in the vineyard and did an about-face. “I thought, ‘whoa, this is now what I want’.
It’s different every day and you are always coming across new things.”
Late last year Katie visited the Marlborough Careers Evening, wondering about her next step, and spoke to a former Constellation cadet, who now has a fulltime cellar position with the company.
Katie was accepted for the 2019 cadetship, which begins this month, and offered vineyard work in the meantime. That work has been a fantastic start in a friendly crew that already feels like a family, says Katie. “They are willing to share all their knowledge and do what it takes to make a good team.” That has made her more enthusiastic about the wine industry than ever.
“It is hard not to get excited when you are surrounded by these people who are passionate and are willing to show you and share their passion with you.”
She is also seeing her wine school learnings roll out in real life applications. Last year a Tasman Crop representative spoke to students about spray details, including dos and don’ts. “It’s crazy to see how little things affect the vineyard so majorly,” Katie says.
Now she’s on the ground and seeing the importance of attention to detail, as she is taught how to operate the herbicide sprayer. Through the cadetship, Katie will continue her vineyard learnings during six months in the vines, but will also do vintage with one of Constellation’s two wineries in Marlborough, learning about cellar operations. “I get a ‘take two’ and hopefully I’ll get an inkling of what I want to do. But at the moment I am loving the vineyard.”
Katie, who spoke at Marlborough Girls’ College last year about the opportunities of the wine school, says there’s a growing understanding of it among students and far more interest.
“A lot of my friends thought it was less academic. But they have seen what I have done, and what I have achieved, and it’s not what people had expected.”