The Shout Magazine (New Zealand)

Harvest 2020: Amazing and enormously challenging

Cameron Douglas MS shares insights into why the 2020 harvest in New Zealand was both amazing and an unexpectedly enormous challenge.

Cameron Douglas

The idea of social distancing in vineyards and in wineries was new. It changed the way wine teams worked and socialised and all but took away the end of harvest celebrations.

Workers from overseas who couldn’t get home in time were looked after by the wine companies that hired them. For others who did manage to get home last-minute left some wine companies short-handed.

Many businesses across New Zealand, wine businesses included, were immediately financially affected. Here is a brief summary of some of the wine regions and how they were affected by the COVID-19 lockdown.


For Northland, the harvest was all but finished when the New Zealand government forced its citizens and most businesses to basically shut-down and its frontline workers into a different routine to enable survival of a virus for which there is no vaccine yet developed.  

Producers in Northland still had to press, ferment and put-to-bed the wines for ageing and this was completed with much smaller teams of people and sometimes just one.

James Rowan from Westbrook Winery in Auckland’s northwest said: “Six weeks from start to finish of vintage, including isolating from home for two weeks. Picking was all but done by April 10”.

The beginning of the 2020 vintage at Westbrook Winery.
Image credit: Westbrook Winery/Facebook


Overall vintage 2020 for the Auckland region was all picked just before the clamp down.

“The rows were two metres apart, so physical distancing was able to be achieved, we just needed to plan and execute a one-way system of movement through the vineyards,” said Rowan.

He also noted that the delivery of grape material was done by everyone standing back, away from each other so total isolation from those making the deliveries was set. “No hugs, thanks yous were from a distance; suppliers that are normally up close were from a marked physical distance,” he said.

Sadly, the front of house had to stay away and the tasting room shut down. A different kind of logbook was needed to record the movements, shift and working parameters under very different circumstances.

Hawke’s Bay

Clearview Estate Chief Winemaker Matt Kirby, based in Hawke’s Bay, had a different story to tell.

“We lost two cellar-hands who needed to get home and we had a bumper 350 tonnes of fruit to manage, plus yields were up on 2019,” he said.

He went on to say that the vintage was so-good it makes the amazing 2019 look average by comparison. But he did say it was a huge challenge.

Clearview Estate Chief Winemaker Matt Kirby
Image Credit:

“For a small business, we had from the Wednesday when lockdown was announced to Friday to submit an application to MPI (Ministry for Primary Industries) to remain open for harvest.”

Matt moved the family to the winery and created a separate bubble, had a machine harvester moved on site just and had to house a harvest crew of in one house as well. The crew were treated as a family unit for the harvest and came in four separate cars each day. A typical day would see harvest bins placed ahead of pickers and once they were four rows away – the bins could be picked up.


Escarpment Vineyard Winemaker Larry McKenna, from Wairarapa, said this was an “unimaginable situation”. He said that for Wairarapa, it was the earliest ever start to vintage.

“It wasn’t an extremely hot summer with nothing over degrees 30°C, no extreme heat, maybe some warmer nights and a total of three months of a drought,” he said.

Escarpment’s first bunch of 2020 
Image Credit: Escarpment Vineyard/Facebook

He was also very excited as he views 2020 as “one of the best vintages, perfect sized crops, in the perfect spot”.

The changes they had to endure were a disruption, but they managed to create a winery team bubbles, picking team bubbles and it just worked. He also said that many of their international team stayed through the lockdown, so overall they retained 80% of staff.

Villa Maria brought on site 18 campervans including one for the winemaker for Esk Valley, who stayed onsite for the entire harvest. All fruit was in by March 26 – three shifts a day with a sanitary mode in between.


Neudorf Vineyards’ Winemaker Todd Stevens says Nelson’s vintage was “pretty good”.

“Very dry, not quite as hot as 2019, conditions overall great, fruit coming in has been excellent and volumes up,” he said.

Overall he was happy though he did say “the vintage slightly earlier and quite compressed” noting it a sign of the times – referring to climate-change.

Neudorf Vineyards Winemaker Todd Stevens
Image Credit: Neudorf/ VineyardsFacebook

“COVID-19 has taken the gloss of everything, weird in fact,” he said. “We were 80% complete before the lockdown took place. Just another three days left when the changes were made. With just a team of four in the winery, we were able to adapt and adjust though hand-picking meant a different regime had to be implemented for example, one person per row.”

One of the biggest challenges Stevens faced was with the backpacker crew.

“We had up to six changes a day, but we also took advantage of some ex-café workers and while they needed training it worked out well,” he said.


Mahi Wines winemaker Brian Bicknell said Marlborough’s vintage “was just surreal, but potentially good”.

Bicknell was happy with their 20 vintage, noting some variation in cropping – for example the Sauvignon Blanc bunch weights were a bit lower.

He also noted “some really clean fruit could be harvested” and the disease pressure low.

Mahi Winemaker and owners, Brian and Nicola Bicknell
Image credit:

Bicknell said one of the bigger challenges was with truck drivers. “Normally we do quite long shifts, kids have come in from China, the USA and India – this year we had to totally isolate shifts starting at 4:00 am then 2:00 or 3.00 pm. One block we didn’t hand pick because we couldn’t.”

He also said how the staff took everything very seriously – cleaning as much as possible – in between shifts and not just once a day.

Edward Donaldson from Pegasus Bay was “stoked with harvest”. He said that with it being super-dry season it caused some pressure to get fruit in.Harvest was three quarters in when things changed under COVID-19.

“We had to change tack with some Riesling, Semillon and red Bordeaux varieties. Fortunately the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir was already harvested and in great condition.”

Pegasus Bay
Image credit:

He noted volume was as predicted – slightly higher than 2019.

The effect of COVID–19 didn’t cause a loss in workers from an availability stand point.

“We had up to three pickers per row with even spacing picking a row without passing each other. An ‘orchestration of workers’, and plenty of visits from MPI.”

In terms of harvest 2020, the New Zealand wine sector dodged a bullet. Fruit quality overall was excellent and there will be many fine wines to explore when the released. If the examples I have tried so far are any indication, then I believe you will have many excellent wines to try.

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