Sending its 17 hospitality and cellar door staff into the vines was one of the innovative ways Craggy Range has kept all of its workers during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Harvest was classified as an essential service so picking grapes continued.

"When we heard the news of level 4's imminent implementation, our priority was to retain 100 per cent of our staff and also maintain their regular earnings," general manager Aaron Drummond said.

Because less contract labour was available for for picking and physical distancing regulations, the harvest was more spread out from the last week of February until the second week of April.

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Craggy Range redeployed restaurant and cellar door staff to pick grapes during the lockdown. Photo / Craggy Range
Craggy Range redeployed restaurant and cellar door staff to pick grapes during the lockdown. Photo / Craggy Range

More days were spent picking and 25-50 per cent less was picked daily, winemaker Julian Grounds said.

"We knew everything would take longer and we had to be more deliberate but that's meant there's been an emphasis on patience and kindness."

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Grounds said many would consider 2019 to be the best vintage in decades, and this year could be on par.

"Everyone will obviously remember this vintage for the rest of their lives due to the world's circumstances, but it is going to make some of the best wine that we have been fortunate enough to make in conjunction with that of 2019," he said.

The harvest produced 50,000 cases of wine in Hawke's Bay – up by about 15 per cent because of beneficial weather over spring and summer, Grounds said.

Winemaker Julian Grounds says this year's vintage is set to be one of the best yet. Photo / Craggy Range
Winemaker Julian Grounds says this year's vintage is set to be one of the best yet. Photo / Craggy Range

Chardonnay from this harvest will be released in early 2021 and red wines in November 2021.

Prolonged periods of high sunlight days without excessive heat will give remarkable colour and intensity without elevated alcohol levels to the reds, Grounds said.

He thinks the syrahs of 2020 could rival last year's.

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"Those two vintages collectively could be spoken about as being a pair of the greatest vintages for Hawke's Bay," he said.

Craggy Range has also brought its pruning season forward by six weeks, starting May 20 and working longer and slower until mid-August.

What is usually a job done by backpackers will be done by staff.

Harvest played out mostly as normal, but Covid-19 has brought changes to export and the hospitality side of the business.

Craggy Range normally exports between 80-85 per cent of its wine to restaurants internationally, which Covid-19 has affected but an uptake in international and local retail has helped, Grounds said.

Many of the international restaurants Craggy Range supplies to may never re-open but a strong local supporter base has helped.

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"We are comfortable we can ride it out. We won't be achieving the numbers we were previously but will hopefully rebound come September when the weather improves and hopefully domestic tourism can increase," Drummond said.

The restaurant is set to reopen at a lower level, but capacity has reduced by half because of physical distancing protocol.

To keep staff, the winery is turning its cellar door into a bistro, which will open at level 2 and have an additional capacity of 20.

"With our cellar door and accommodation closed until September 1, and reduced capacity in our restaurant to accommodate social distancing standards, we saw an opportunity to do something out of the box," Drummond said.

The bistro is also an opportunity to test out different styles, Drummond described it as the restaurant's "alter ego, a little more casual, relaxed and fun".

In the meantime, the restaurant has opened for takeaways, which Drummond said has been "really, really successful so far".

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"We have had incredible support from our community, and we want to give them a place they're confident to come post-lockdown that they know and love but is a little less formal.

"We are all in such unprecedented and trying circumstances, but often that's when you innovate and evolve as a business."