When we think of people who love wine, and love it enough to base their careers on it, we envision winemakers, sommeliers or retailers. These are professions that have a lot to do with the end product: the enjoyment of the exquisite liquid. But then there are people like Cape Mentelle viticulturist Ashley Wood, whose passion for wine is rooted in its source: grapes.
“I thought I wanted to be a winemaker when I first arrived in the Margaret River region. But my nature has always been more plant-oriented. I wanted to work with living plants and, ultimately, to make the winemaker’s job a lot easier,” he explains. “It’s rewarding to see your work on the vine result in a beautiful wine.”
If wine appreciation is an art, then viticulture is very much a science. Soil type, climate, pest, disease, irrigation and many other factors fall under the viticulturists’ umbrella of daily considerations. Should anything happen to Wood’s vines, the winemakers won’t have anything to work with. And that is perhaps why he thinks of the grapes as fellow living organisms, not just a product to be harvested.
“I had to learn how to handle the 40-year-old vines we use to make our iconic Cabernets. They have to be guarded, pruned correctly and not be overly laden with fruit,” he shares. “They’re like grumpy old men. You can’t push them too hard. Younger vineyards, on the other hand, are eager to crop, so you have to rein them in, so to speak.”
Like a parent, Wood’s attention to his grapes is unfaltering. “There are always risks when growing fruit, and you have to respond quickly to any changes. They will always be on your mind,” he says.
“A bad day will involve a harvester that has broken down in the middle of the night. We’ll have to go down to solve the problem because, one way or the other, we have to get the fruit off and into the winery.”
Fortunately for Wood, the bad days are rare and the good days are glorious. He says: “Thanks to the maritime influence of the region, we never get any frost. There’s a little humidity, and the sea breeze comes in now and then to keep the vines cool. It’s a very comfortable environment.”
But the best thing about the job is seeing what the grapes become. “Every year, we serve up what the climate gives us, so no two vintages are the same,” he says. “We have a very close relationship with winemakers. They look at the vineyards the same way we do. So, they’ll tell us what they’d like to achieve for the year, and we will give it to them.”