Vintage by Villa Maria: getting down and dirty with the heroes of harvest

Winemaking is a labour of love. For those on the ground, romantic notions of sniffing barrels and stomping grapes are a stark contrast to their reality. Vintage by Villa Maria is a wine documentary with a difference. The film explores the trials and tribulations of a single harvest from the perspective of Villa Maria’s people. Filmed across 40 days it explores their motivations, passions and the unique challenges they face. In a style attractive to wine lovers and regular folk, Vintage balances new-found admiration with excitement, education and sheer grit.

I’m a sucker for a wine documentary, I’ve watched them all. From Red Obsession to the Somm series, none have escaped me. Vintage by Villa Maria approaches its focal topic from a slightly alternative perspective. The film explores the people behind the glass, the teams that make things work during harvest. Romantic notions aside, the gruelling realities of winemaking are laid bare for all to see.

The story starts in ’62

In 1962, under the watchful eye of George Fistonich, Villa Maria produced its first vintage. Throughout the 60s and 70s George hired the first staff and begun to grow his business. During this period he also run a wine club in order to teach consumers about food and wine pairing. After introducing the first quality-focused grape grower bonuses in New Zealand Villa Maria begun exporting wine internationally. As a result of intense focus, the business has grown spectacularly and is today New Zealands most awarded winery. The team cultivates over 10 different grapes varieties and has achieved global recognition.

Writers were rock and roll stars … but the heroes are the people making the wine

Oz Clarke said it best. Viticulturist Stu Dudley opens the film in high spirits, the excitement of harvest upon him. The cinematography, a mix of rich, quality footage and candid cell phone video diaries, captures the excitement and trepidation of Stu and his team as things get going. Director Colin West helps paint a compelling picture of just how all-encompassing this passion is. Tasting Chardonnay at 10pm, teaching staff, cleaning presses and 24 hour operations, all in a days work for the Villa Maria team.

As harvest progresses, we are introduced to the wider team. Jessica Marston, Nick Picone and Ollie Powrie to name a few. Outside of their work in the vineyards, the film explores their hobbies, motivations and individual stories. It can be easy to become detached from the human element of wine, Vintage puts that front and centre. I got the feeling this film was as much, if not more, about the people who make this possible as it was about the harvest itself, a profoundly refreshing perspective.

Each place, each vintage, showcases its own uniqueness

Far beyond just working a crop, viticulture is farming on steroids. Not only in that the end product often becomes a source of lifelong fascination but in the widespread diversity of its people and regions. New Zealand is a beautiful country, one of vast diversity in topography, climates and soil composure, no two regions are the same. The film showcases the diversity of not only the region but also the people attracted to work its harvest. Villa Maria see harvest-jumpers flock from Germany, Austria, Hungary, Argentina and Japan, each a piece in the puzzle. I wonder how this showcase of culture and togetherness may alter the perception, interest and buying habits of even a casual consumer.

vintage by villa maria

The good times come and go, determination gets you through

As the film progresses, things get tougher. Day 9, Day 17 through to Day 22, at this point Vintage speaks with families of the team. Charlotte Dudley, Stu’s wife, speaks of being a vintage widow, further reinforcing the sheer level of commitment required, not only from the team themselves but also from their families. As the days go by, the sense of growing tension and the strain of harvest is obvious, the team are growing tired. The initial excitement is gone, adrenaline and grit become the fuel turning the motor. The production team do a great job of translating a flurry of emotions throughout, the various stages of the journey are portrayed in the more chaotic second half.

Touching hot topics

Sustainability is at the forefront of decision making, not just in winemaking but in all walks of life. Amongst other notable figures, Brian McClintic MS, a key advocate of sustainable winemaking, weighs in on several topics throughout. He reinforces the intentions of the Villa Maria team, further emboldening the desire to work organically. Furthermore, the team touch on important topics such as cover crop and biodiversity,

As the harvest draws to a close I shared a sense of relief, an unwinding tension, a job was done. I had been on a journey, from revelling in excitement to mulling over the strains on those working so hard. With this closure there comes a sense of realisation, this is so much more than farming, this is a unique fusion of art, knowledge and bloody hard work.

Arguably what Vintage does best is provide an appealing balance of education and character. Topics such as cap management, Chardonnay clones and yield management are dealt with casually, tucked in neatly with a story about people and passion. Beyond the fundamental journey through a vintage, which even for a wine lover will prove insightful, the film injects a sense of personality to the bottle. I’ve a feeling viewers will finish feeling a new found sense of respect and admiration, perhaps even a desire to explore more.

Wine lover or not, Vintage by Villa Maria has a great deal to offer. Fill your glass, switch on the TV and check it out now on Amazon Prime.

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