Work bubbles, working offsite, automation technologies: how wineries got through the physical distancing requirements of doing a vintage during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We all know vintage is a hectic, crazy time. Wineries will increase their staffing by at least a third and increase operations, often to 24/7, to ensure things run as smoothly as possible.
New Zealand and Australia flew into vintage 2020 with a minimal sense of the disruption coming their way as COVID-19 changed everyone’s world almost instantly.
Wineries reduced down to skeleton crews to maintain physical distancing and ensure they complied with government regulations.
It should be noted that wine production is classified as an essential operation in most of the world, under food and beverage production. Even in the harshest of lockdowns wineries are still able to operate. This is an incredibly privileged position for an industry and is not taken for granted. Wineries take their responsibilities to keep workers safe and prevent spread of COVID-19 very seriously. There are countries where the wine industry has not been so lucky, and it has devastated producers beyond repair.
Despite the fortunate ruling to allow wineries to continue operations, there were still many challenges ahead, how do you operate a winery in the busiest time of year with a skeleton crew that must physically distance themselves from one another?
This article examines some of how wineries coped. This article will aid the Northern Hemisphere as they kick off production, and of course serve as a reminder that we’ve done it once and we can do it again, as New Zealand sees ourselves, once again, facing physical distancing requirements and restrictions on workers onsite.
- Effective work bubbles
Creating work bubbles was a common approach for Southern Hemisphere wineries and one that the Northern Hemisphere could employ. This approach involves the ‘grouping’ or ‘bubbling’ of workers to allow them to work together without the physical distancing requirements. This is particularly important as there is a lot of winery equipment that cannot be operated alone, so to operate safely you’re going to, at times, need to have a way to have staff operating closer than the physical distancing requirements allow.
Some wineries took this further than others, and some smaller wineries effectively made the whole site one bubble - to the extent of sleeping in RVs. This measure might seem crazy, but winery workers are generally operating close-knit , and the demand for long hours over vintage may mean sleeping onsite is quite appealing.
Similarly, other wineries created smaller bubbles of 2 to 4 people and maintained physical distancing (including different shift scheduling) between people. This is a great method as well because it means that if someone does have a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case, there is the ability to isolate the worker and their bubble (close contacts) and continue operations.
- Work offsite as much as possible
Anyone ‘non-essential’ (we still love you) was sent home in the final stage of lockdown in New Zealand (level 4) and before then, those who could work from home, did so. This reduced numbers in the winery, making it easier for the remaining staff to achieve physical distancing.
Some parts of winemaking cannot be done offsite , but some examples to help out the Northern Hemisphere;
Some wineries sent all of their office staff home and even in some cases, some of their lab staff. In one instance we heard that a head winemaker had been sent home - naturally, we were curious about this! It turned out that the winery had organised the head-winemaker to have offsite access to data on their wineries and ferments from cloud platforms like Vintrace and Winely, and sensory reports from the lab tech. From that data, they were in constant communication with the onsite team in an advisory role. We would have loved to be a fly on the wall in those Zoom meetings!
- Automation technologies
Obviously for Southern Hemisphere wineries, whatever equipment you had when lockdown hit is what you were stuck with for the vintage. With the benefit of foresight, we’ve seen increased demand in the Northern Hemisphere for technologies that can help automate various processes and enable wineries to operate with fewer people. This is top of mind for New Zealand and Australia as well as we begin gearing up for the 2021 vintage where it seems increasingly more likely that we will need to consider the chance of COVID-19 restrictions once again.
In many regions, we saw heavy use of machine picking equipment - even for very premium grapes that would traditionally be hand-harvested. Another example of the wine industry showing respect for the responsibility that comes with being an essential operation. Above all else, their priority was to keep workers safe and ensure they were not contributing to the spread of COVID-19.
Automated cap management systems and clean-in-place systems also reduce the need for workers and many wineries are lucky enough to have this infrastructure in place, reducing the need for onsite workers, and enabling them to achieve physical distancing requirements.
For wineries with Winely, they were able to reduce the staffing requirements for sampling - a bonus to the winemakers is that they were able to have visibility on their ferments even when offsite. In custom crush facilities, Winely also allowed for the client winemakers to see how their ferments were progressing without the need to be onsite.
The Northern Hemisphere has kicked off, and hopefully, some of these tips can aid as they go into what will undoubtedly be a very challenging vintage. As New Zealand and Australia deal with differing levels of restrictions, it becomes clearer and clearer that COVID-19 is sticking around for the foreseeable future. There are steps we can take today to ensure that 2021 vintage goes as smoothly as possible. Now is the time to double down and ensure we are as ready as we can be - because we all know once vintage hits we will appreciate it!