Hair to there: hands on at Nautilus

09 Aug 2021

From cutting hair in Singapore to pressing grapes in Marlborough, Sarah Lee has used Covid-19 as an opportunity to learn a whole new skill set.

Sophie Preece

Sarah Lee

Speaking from the cellar floor at Nautilus Estate, the hairdresser has spent the morning hand sorting Chardonnay before sending to the press, then helping transfer the juice to barrel and test nephelometric turbidity units (NTU). “Now we’re getting the tippy tanks ready for the Sauvignon that’s coming in tonight.”

Sarah was born in Singapore and raised in Canada, but these days her family lives in Nelson. Last year she was working as a hairdresser in Singapore, but “Covid brought me home,” she says. When she got to Nelson, Sarah started investigating options for study. “I love what I do as a hairdresser, but wanted to go back to school and learn a new skill.”

The Level 3 Cellar Operations course at Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology caught her attention. “I knew it was an industry that was in demand and also needed help because of the pandemic,” she says. “I thought it would be a good introduction to the industry and if I like it I can pursue the bachelors degree.”

She’s one of 20 in her class, from a range of backgrounds, including an airport engineer, a marine science graduate, an accountant and a beer brewer, along with several students who’ve come from hospitality work. The students have all been placed in different wineries to work the vintage, which Sarah says has provided invaluable learnings. Hearing theory about the importance of teamwork and communications in the cellar is one thing, but being on the job is where it really sinks in, she says. “A lot of the things have to be taught in the winery.”

She was originally signed up to join a large winery, but moved to Nautilus when she heard the smaller operation needed more people. “I wanted more hands on experience and to be involved in the winemaking process from start to end,” she says. “I am only in my second week and I feel like I have learned a lot.” Sarah is the only “newby” on staff, with other cellar hands with up to 10 years of experience.

“It’s a good place to learn because everyone is quite passionate about what they do. I get to see every step of the process, and I get to do a bit of everything.”

Nautilus general manager Clive Jones says it’s always important to give someone a chance for their first vintage. “Everyone needs to start somewhere and it is great to see people develop careers in the wine industry and know you had a small part to play in helping them get started.” And Sarah has responded positively to all the challenges thrown at her, he adds. “We wish her every success in developing a career in the wine industry.”

Sarah will decide at the end of the harvest whether to continue her cellar hand work, perhaps picking up vintages overseas. In the meantime, her other skills are in hot demand on the cellar floor, she says. “Everyone is asking for haircuts.”


This article was published in Issue 316 (April 2021) of Winepress Magazine and is republished with their permission. 

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