Rachel Steer balances vineyard, office and winery work, along with the responsibilities of a young family. Daniel Whyntie tracked down the Chapel Hill viticulturist to find out more about the early stages of her career in the industry.
WHEN RACHEL STEER ARRIVED at Chapel Hill as the viticulturist it was like she entered the industry from a hole in the clouds; coming down from the clam and clear sky right before the storm.
“I came into the wine industry when it was really booming and rode the wave right to the bottom… Which wasn’t really the way I planned it,” Steer said.
“When I was completing high school the wine industry was really booming. Living in the Adelaide Hills it was easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm.”
Steer was attracted to the industry during a time when Australian wine styles were popular and local brands had strong international support; which from 1991 to 2007 helped the Australian viticulture and wine industry more than triple in size, reaching revenues of $5 billion in 2007.
“It was really a great time to come into the industry, there was a lot of excitement and people were putting a lot back in to the industry,” Steer said.
“People had money to spend, in development, new equipment, lunches, dinners, and functions; all those things you can do with money, getting people together and getting the best for your winery.
“Growers were optimistic and everyone just had this positive attitude.”
For the generation that entered the industry when Rachel did it must have being impossible to imagine it any other way. But things changed.
“It’s great to see the industry picking up again and the positivity returning, I think there are exciting times ahead of us now,” Steer said.
“It just feels like we’re coming out of the tunnel now, we are just getting optimistic again.
“I feel the ones who made it through were the ones who knew how, who knew how to work on a shoestring budget.”
To avoid ending up stockpiling too much inventory Steer and the team at Chapel Hill needed to carefully control their production and significantly cut back on the grapes brought in from other growers.
“After the GFC our wine sales just dropped off. We still felt like we were making fantastic wine, but we couldn’t afford to produce a commercial range.
“And that mid-price range is tough at the moment and still hasn’t picked back up completely, the sub $20 price range is where the market is now,” Steer said.
Being able to be so involved in the decisions made across the whole process, from vine to wine, is why Steer jumped at the opportunity to head to the Chapel Hill winery in McLaren Vale as their viticulturist.
“Within a small company like ours there is the opportunity for me to be involved in the whole winemaking process from the vineyard, right through to the finished product.
“I am able to follow my parcels of fruit right through the winery and into bottle. It really helps my viticulture to have this complete picture of the process,” Steer said.
This is actually her second stint with Chapel Hill. Steer completed her university Honours project at the winery in 1998 and was then offered a job as the assistant vineyard manager, a role she spent two years in before moving to Orlando, based in Langhorne Creek.
“The winemakers do everything with me, they make regular visits; at pruning time, bud bursts; so they know everything that’s going on in the field.
“We then make the vineyard picking decisions together and then I go with them to tastings, and work with them through the post vintage process,” Steer said.
“The whole thing is one process, and it really benefits both sides to be involved and know what’s going on in the other.”
CHAINSAW, DRAG AND BURN
Steer’s proudest achievement at Chapel Hill has been the success of her eutypa re-working program, which began in 2012 after the trunk disease had already caused significant problems for the winery’s 20-year-old Shiraz and Cabernet vineyards. Steer decided drastic action was needed.
Removing the infected arms had proved unsuccessful in controlling the disease, while machine harvesting and the wounds left by the use of electric snips had increased the winery’s exposure to eutypa dieback.
“We mapped out our fields by variety and how susceptible they were. We mapped over 10 hectares to have it to the point that it was manageable.
“It divided into roughly hectare blocks to look after, that we managed individually, getting to target specific blocks. It would be too unmanageable to try and handle everything,” Steer said.
Then Steer ditched the snips and picked up a chainsaw, cutting back everything below the infection then dragging the infected pieces into a pile to be burned.
“We tried a mulcher experiment but we had concerns with all the stuff flying around, you would get big chunks flying out and there was just to many chunks and pieces to go and pick up plus things like spores from the disease. Now we chainsaw, drag and burn,” Steer said.
FINDING THE BALANCE
While Steer feels very lucky she has the chance to balance office and vineyard work; along with the opportunity to taste the results in the winery; she also juggles her role alongside family commitments (she has two children, aged six and three).
“The bulk of my time though is spent chasing and tidying up after my two girls! By the time the children are dropped off at childcare and school and I have made it to work I am ready for a coffee.
“Chapel Hill is flexible, I’ve had to shorten my work hours to be able be there for drop-offs and pick-ups and Chapel have being amazing with that,” Steer said.
Steer describes her life in bursts, with words like “Chaotic!” or “Busy!”, but like the industry she is starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“At the moment, it’s hard, but once they are both at school and have the same drop off it will be all good,” Steer said.
Everything seems to be heading towards a better balance. And Steer knows all about the importance of balance.
“I believe that ‘balanced vines make balanced wines’ so I really focus on soil and vine health. We do all we can to ensure that the vines have every opportunity to produce the best fruit.”
This article first appeared in the Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine.
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