We were pretty clueless that first harvest. We had close to thirty hectares of grapes – Chenin, Pinotage, Columbard, and Chardonnay – which we somehow had to get from our vines to the Swartland Co-op. Following the advice of our neighbours, we organized to pick up a group of harvesters from the `coloured’ township of Saaron about three hours from the farm. Getting ten harvesters onto the bakkie was a mission, as half were under the influence and the other half kept going awol, but eventually we were loaded up and we set off home. We put the pickers up in the old Cellar on mattresses we bought at Cape Agrimaak stocked for that purpose. And for food we set up a shop selling various items including tinned meat and fish, fruit and biscuits, tea and coffee.
The system we used for harvesting involved harvesters picking grapes into crates we dropped off into the vineyards by tractor. We punched the cards of individual pickers per crate picked, writing up a total for the day. At the end of the week we paid harvesters according to crates picked. Picking is hard going especially given that late February is the hottest and driest month in the Swartland. But for the most part workers had lived all their lives in the Western Cape and were used to the burning summer sun. I could barely walk to the vineyards without wanting to duck back indoors. I found that first harvest very exciting. The farm filled with people: workers in brightly coloured clothes crisscrossed the werf, calling to one another over the sound of the tractor chugging through the vineyards.
The delivery of grapes was fairly straightforward. Each day the crates of grapes would be tipped onto wine trailers and driven by the tractor to the tipping ramp. Here the grapes were transferred to the old Bedford truck. Then towards late afternoon Johan would drive the Bedford to the cellar where he would wait in line for hours, sometimes only off-loading our grapes in the early hours of the morning. I would stay awake until he was home safely as that truck’s brakes were appalling. But somehow Johan managed the Bedford beast and nothing untoward befell him.
Out quota was to pick three hundred tonnes, but that first year, and the years to come, we were well below that. The consequence was that not only did we get lower payout for fewer grapes, but there was a penalty for quota not picked. Turns out the previous farmer had for years pushed the vines with inorganic fertilizer, and they were now exhausted. From then onwards, we used only organic fertilizer such as chicken manure.
Over the years we tried harvesters from all over the south Western Cape, including from Gugelethu. These were difficult to manage in that they simply stopped when they were tired of working, regardless of how early in the day this was, or the fact that they were getting paid well for crates picked. There was much less drinking however, although there were some funny incidents. The strangest occurred one day when pickers came to tell us that their work colleague had “gone stiff”. And blow me down if we didn’t find a young woman lying on her back her body rigidly stiff, only moving her eyes. “She’s been bewitched” we were told. “She stole Grace’s boyfriend and Grace bewitched her.” Nothing we did seemed to change the situation, so we eventually loaded the young woman onto the back of the bakkie – still rigid – and took her to the emergency room at Malmesbury hospital. There an older nurse took one look at her, and shaking her head, slapped her sharply in the face a few times. “Snap out of yourself” she shouted, at which point the young woman did indeed ‘snap out of herself’ to return bewildered, as if from an amnesia, to her normal self.
We harvested in this way for some fourteen years until the Swartland Cellar essentially went bankrupt. At that point we were able to take out twenty-five hectares of vineyard, leaving only grapes for our own use. We supplemented these by planting twelve hectares of new seedlings. These were Rhone varieties that would do well in our conditions. In total by 2000 we had sixteen hectares under vine.