4 Mar 2022

Hawke's Bay winegrowers say Omicron a 'significant concern'

12:59 pm on 4 March 2022

Winemakers in New Zealand's oldest and second-largest wine region are worried Omicron will disrupt their busiest time of the year - the grape harvest.

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File image. Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles

Te-Matau-a-Māui, or Hawke's Bay, is known most of all for its red blends and Chardonnays.

Growers are hoping they can get most of their 40,000 tonnes of crop in before the virus knocks out too many of their pickers.

Hawke's Bay is sitting at one of the lowest Covid-19 outbreaks per capita in the country - with nearly 1500 cases and one person in hospital as of yesterday.

But cases are expected to rise as the country heads towards the Omicron peak, expected later this month.

On the north-facing slopes of Te Mata Peak by Havelock North, Te Mata Estate chief executive Nick Buck said the last few months had been busy with contingency planning.

The winery had made cellar door purchases contactless and separated its pickers into bubbles.

"We've broken our team into three separate teams, so that if any one gang starts to crop up with cases and things, we can mitigate against that," he said.

"We've also got a back-up crew, so we've got a fourth that's a back-up one that we can swing into action if we need them."

The company had also just got hold of some rapid antigen tests, Buck said.

"We're going to use those across our staff that are coming in, particularly in the winery at the coalface, but also amongst the picking crew as well."

Away from the fields and on the city streets, Daniel Brennan has just set up shop with his brand Decibel, in the up-and-coming east side district of Hastings.

As a small operator, with a team of five - Brennan said Omicron could be difficult for his business.

But he had saliva testing in place and he had friends that would help keep a watch out if the team came down with Omicron.

He was optimistic an earlier picking time - due to high rain and humidity last month - would help him avoid the worst of the Omicron outbreak.

"Mother Nature's taken care of us this year by letting us because maybe by the time the big wave hits Hawke's Bay, which I'm sure it will at some stage, maybe we'll have all the fruit. Those are the really important days, or the days when you have fruit coming in and there's big decisions to be made."

Napier winemaker Tony Bish makes Chardonnay exclusively. He said his team would start picking this weekend.

"All next week we'll be handpicking right through and probably into the week after as well."

Last month's rain and humidity was not great for his wine - but Omicron was a bigger threat than the weather, he said.

"The risk of having key people forced into isolation during the absolute busiest and most critical time of the year, is a significant concern for us."

The wine industry was collaborative, so hoped if cases pop up, others would jump in and help, he said.

Hawke's Bay DHB chief executive Keriana Brooking said the coming weeks were a vital key time for the region as it was also the apple harvest, along with wine.

"We're right in the thick of picking. We're a primary industry region and anything that we can do in the essential worker area to enable people to still continue to do the things that they need to 'cause it's part of a kind of thriving and vibrant Hawke's Bay economy."

The DHB's public health and Covid-19 support teams was looking to work closely with fruit harvest employers, to give them what they need if there was a positive case, Brooking said.

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