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Oct. 19, 2020 | Monday
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Stratus 'reinvented' during COVID-19, retail staff working the vines
Ben Nicks, Devon (Rocky) McKenzie, Nick Bell, Nadia Skorupski, Chase Collins, Kaleigh Andrews, Timothy Shashkoff and Catriona McConnell work the vineyards. (Supplied)

With COVID-19 emergency measures in place across the country, it’s a time for wineries to rethink and reinvent, and Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Stratus Vineyards is doing just that.

For the last few weeks, the winery’s retail and sales staff have been out in the vineyards, cutting and pruning vines until farm workers returning from Jamaica have passed their isolation period.

Estate director Suzanne Janke said Mother Nature can’t be put on hold so the field work needs to be done and she’s thankful staff members have been willing to help out.

“Agriculture doesn’t stop, you know? It has no barrier to what’s happening in the rest of the world. The vines are out and they’re sort of waking up. And so we have to carry on our business as healthily and safely as possible,” she said.

“Some of those workers that were particularly keen on knowing more about wine and vineyards and so on had been willing to take up the challenge of learning how to manage the vines at spring time, and so they’ve come to the vineyard and we’ve trained them and they’re doing a remarkable job. Great attitudes and they’re really picking up the pace and doing a very high quality job in the vineyard.”

While the winery typically has a crew of six workers from Jamaica, one of whom lives here permanently now, this year they could only bring in four because of a limit of four people to one house, Janke said.

The workers arrived from Jamaica on Sunday night.

Like many businesses, Stratus has been hit hard by COVID-19. The winery has had to lay off tasting room teams and the bulk of its sales teams, which span from Niagara to Toronto, Janke said.

“We’re really running on a skeleton staff.”

While normally the winery would be ramping up for a “very robust tourist season,” Janke said this year it has had to cancel all event programs for April and May.

Diana Sangster, vineyard manager for Stratus, is out among the vines doing quality control, and even she is spending more time there than usual, on top of ordering, helping to keep the tractors working and planning of the tourist season.

She was also tasked with training the retail staff to prune the vines early, when it was uncertain whether seasonal workers would even be allowed into the country after the border was closed.

Now it’s going on three weeks since they started in the vineyard, she said, with just seven retail staff members in total helping to prune 55 acres of vineyard.

“That’s why we kind of had them come out earlier, because we knew there was going to be some extra time required to make sure that they were trained up and comfortable with what they’re doing out here as well,” she said.

The biggest challenge is that it’s not the kind of work everybody is used to, she said.

“It’s a different type of labour, a different kind of mindset,” Janke said. “It’s more just getting them to kind of switch out of what they were doing, which they had been doing for a long time, and kind of change up and get comfortable with the equipment too.”

Nick Bell is one of the workers who is helping in the vineyards, working 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. He’s normally in logistics and sales.

“The furthest away from a field possible,” Bell said.

“This is new work. This is something that I have never done before. It’s back-breaking work. It’s hard work. You don’t realize how hard it is until you’re actually out there.”

With 55 acres, it works out to be about 7,200 vines for each person to prune, he said, though the biggest obstacle is moving from a desk to outdoor manual labour.

“If you’ve never done manual labour before and they throw you right into it, it’s probably one of the biggest obstacles,” Bell said.

Nevertheless, he’s enjoying the work.

“It’s definitely a lot of fun. It’s just that there’s a lot of thinking that goes into it. And you don’t realize how much thinking goes into it. It’s not just cutting. You have to be a little bit more methodical about it. Diana (Sangster), our vineyard manager, she’s been walking us through it, telling us the step by steps. She’s fantastic,” said Bell.

“I would much rather do this, really, than be at home.”

Sangster said being out in the fields offer a “different side of appreciation” for winemaking.

“I think most people just think of the cellar and the production side of winemaking. But we’re fortunate here that our vineyard is right on site as well, so it gives them that appreciation of all the work that really goes into it all year round,” Sangster said. “It’s a lot of work, for sure.”

Sangster is also the one in charge of making sure farm workers are properly quarantined. She said the main concern was preparing the house and making sure it had proper sanitation, but other than that it’s been fairly easy to meet the government’s long list of  safety protocols.

“There’s luckily been lots of paperwork and regulations sent out from public health and everything, so it’s really just abiding by the instructions I’ve been given and it so far seems pretty easy to follow,” she said.

She said there are enough cleaning supplies to make sure that they’re able to keep the house sanitized, as well as soap and signage to help the workers “thoroughly understand the level of cleanliness they have to keep in the house.”

Workers are also supposed to keep a two-metre distance from each other while they are in the house.

Sangster said she calls them daily to see if anyone is feeling unwell and the workers also have internet and are able to keep in touch.

She hopes they won’t go too stir crazy.

Janke said it’s great to see staff members still having some form of income during these unprecedented times.

“We’re happy because a lot of these folks are dependent on sales for their livelihood, and without that channel, I mean essentially sales to restaurants, bars, hotels have completely dried up so they would have had virtually no income. So, we were honoured that they would be willing and also very glad that we could continue our work family and keep people as employed as possible,” said Janke.

“We really consider everybody here a work family and it’s a very important part of our culture, before and after corona.”

Nonetheless, Janke is staying positive and rolling with the punches.

“People are keeping their chin up and we’re looking forward to brighter days and more than anything we’re just trying to respect the health safety and the emotional wellness of both our clients and our team,” she said.

“We’re very grateful that wine is a product that people are still interested in and it’s still allowed to be delivered. And so we’ve just reinvented our business.”

“We’re thinking differently, we’re working differently and that’s what you have to do in these times.”

The winery is still open for online orders and is delivering to homes across Ontario.

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