The Six Seasons of Margaret River
By Cathy Howard • 26.02.2023
By Cathy Howard • 21.08.2019
Wherever wine is made, you’re likely to find a wine dog wandering through the vineyard, running after a farm bike through the vine rows, snoozing outside the cellar door, and loyally trailing their winemaker about in their daily duties.
Visitors to a winery cellar door are often unaware of the vitally important roles these hard working dogs play in the winemaking process, and why they are held in such high esteem by their winery owners. Whole books have even been devoted to dogs in vineyards and wineries, and stories of their exploits!
Wine dogs have been an essential part of my winemaking career over the years. I have had the great joy of having the company of 4 wine dogs. Each has been a unique character, and each has played a special part in the creation of my wines. All have been working dog breeds, with three being kelpies (Molly, Sally and Polly), and one being a border collie (Lizzie).
Molly was with me through my winemaking studies and my early years of winemaking in Tasmania and the Barossa Valley. When Sally and Lizzie both passed away within a month of each other, our home and the winery was a very empty place. It was just not ‘right’ without a wine dog trotting around. So, Polly joined us late in 2013.
I wrote this blog a few years ago for Travelling Corkscrew. Aside from winemaking, one of my other great loves is writing.
The most essential tool of the trade for a winemaker is his or her finely tuned and highly trained sense of smell and taste. We rely on our taste to make vital decisions year round in the vineyard and in the winery.
A great wine is made in the vineyard, and one of the most critical decisions for a winemaker to make during vintage is when to harvest the grapes. This decision is based upon a combination of laboratory tests on a sample of the grapes to find out what the sugar and acid levels are, and by tasting the grape berries straight off the vines.
Dogs also have a finely tuned and far superior sense of smell to our own, which I marvel at when I see it in action. Lizzie and I spent many hours walking up and down vine rows tasting grapes together, pausing and selecting a berry here and there to taste, pondering if they were ripe and ready to be picked. Sure enough, when I had decided yes, Lizzie would have already decided the same, having stopped at a bunch, and then proceeded to eat the whole lot. The laboratory tests proved both of us right too!
Lizzie also transferred her smell and tasting skills to the strawberry patch, searching through the plants with her nose, and then very gently plucking ripe strawberries off the plants, much to our amusement!
Making wine is hard work, and vintage time lasts for 2 to 3 months. Vintage involves long days with often physically hard work.
Dogs provide great companionship during those long physically and mentally sapping vintage days. Their unconditional love and companionship go a long way towards soothing the wounds, physical and mental, of a long day on the job.
Wine Dogs seem to take on the role of production and safety management and can be found cleaning up rogue spills of grapes from the crusher, juice from overflowing tanks and leaking pumps, or tasting puddles of red wine from the basket press. Sally was focused 110% on keeping an eye on the pumps ensuring that they were operating correctly.
As tempers begin to fray from the long hours endured during vintage, a wine dog will step in to diffuse any tension. All of our dogs have found ways to ease the tension, and to keep our spirits up, usually involving a nudge of their nose against our leg, a quiet demand for a pat and perhaps a dropped barrel bung or stick with a questioning look of ‘how about a little game now?’
A wine dog also has an amazing built in sense of time, particularly when it involves meal times. As winemakers tend to focus on their vintage work, they often forget to drink and eat properly. Wine dogs provide us with timely regular reminders to ‘stop now, it’s time to eat!’
Dogs also provide much-needed common ground in what can sometimes be awkward and intimidating settings such as a winemaker’s dinner or a VIP tour. When a winemaker needs to connect to a visitor or a crowd but doesn’t want to get all wine-geeky and blind them with science, asking about everyone’s pets and relating a few favourite wine dog tales, can be a wonderful icebreaker. After all, who doesn’t love a good animal story?
Each of our dogs has provided me with enough humorous stories to last for many years of wine dinners!
These inherent PR skills also transfer to the Cellar Door where a good wine dog will ensure even the shyest of guests are immediately put at ease, and it certainly can make for a friendlier atmosphere when customers arrive (With one proviso of course, that the customers like dogs ….). As customers alight from their car they are often greeted and then led, with a wag of the tail into the knowledgeable hands of the waiting cellar door staff.
The harvesting of grapes often happens late at night and into the early hours of the morning. This is then followed by crushing and processing of the grapes in the winery the same day. Red ferments have the skins mixed through the ferments 3 to 4 times a day, and the pressing of a red ferment off the skins through a basket press at Whicher Ridge is a very long day indeed, entailing lots of shovelling of grape skins into and later out of, the basket press.
Believe it or not, when you have visit hundreds of vineyard blocks over the years, tasted through hundreds of barrels and participated in each year’s cycle of blending sessions, it can get a little repetitive and ho-hum some days, especially if you’re tired. Well, having a wine dog around is a remedy for that too!
There’s nothing like seeing your workday through the eyes of your dog. A morning of handpicking grapes? ‘Yipee! People to throw sticks to me all morning!’ Washing down the concrete crusher pad for the umpteenth time? “Hey squirt me with that hose, will ya?” Bungs popping out of barrels during barrel fermentation? “Whoo hoo, let me fetch ‘em! “ Kangaroos and flocks of pilfering 28 parrots in the vineyard? “I’m onto it!”
When Sally was alive she was an obsessive mouse hunter in the vineyard, tirelessly working at digging up and ridding the vineyard of the small rodents. Polly has now taken over this role with a passion.
Seeing the look of excitement in Polly’s eyes whenever I gesture for her to jump up into the front seat of the ute as we head out on a vineyard visit makes me smile, and appreciate what I get to do for a living, even if I have it done 100’s of times before.
So next time you visit a winery cellar door, pause a while to say thank you to one of the hardest workers in the wine industry, the resident wine dog. Some like Polly, will also be only too happy to have their photo taken with you too.
Whicher Ridge acknowledges the people of the Noongar Land and recognises their connection to culture, community and Country. We pay our respects to their elders, past and present. Whicher Ridge supports the Uluru Statement.