IT is one of those mornings that could easily be the opening scene in a wine advertisement.
In the stillness of dawn, a serene squadron of hot-air balloons floats above the Pokolbin landscape. The tourists being carried by those balloons could gaze down upon the undulating fields, just as the first rays of light ignite the rows of grape vines, heavy with fruit.
Yet down among the vines, the atmosphere of bucolic beauty gives way to the reality of hard work, as a small army of pickers moves along the rows in Tyrrell's Wine's historic Short Flat vineyard, racing time and making the most of the conditions, to snip off the grapes.
"This is the best time of the morning, especially before it gets too hot," says Roanne Sekel, who along with her husband, Andrew, has joined the ranks of pickers.
The 2021 vintage is well and truly underway.
On this morning, the picking team is working in a parcel known as Andrew's Block, which contains the fruit for one of Tyrrell's acclaimed wines, Vat 47 chardonnay.
As the crow flies, it is not far from the vines to the winery, which sits atop a hill about a kilometre away. But the journey from here in the paddocks to a bottle of Vat 47 can be perilous, filled with all manner of challenges and variables each and every year.
And one of those challenges this year, with the tumult of COVID-19, is to gather enough pickers.
Or, as lead supervisor Peter Hickey says, "The challenge is to get them all to show up."
Peter Hickey is in charge of the pickers. He is a local, having grown up in Bellbird and worked as the town's butcher, before he changed careers and headed into the vineyard about 10 years ago.
Mr Hickey walks down the rows, with his Irish wolfhound cross and vineyard mascot, Moose, trotting beside him, as he ticks off the names of the casual pickers.
"Just trying to work out all these names," he says.
On this day, there are 47 workers; he had been hoping for about 60.
Still, he has enough to have six pickers working in each row, along with "bucket boys" carrying the produce to the bins attached to tractors. At the picking bins are a couple of sorters, who ensure the grapes are in good condition and free of rot before they are transported up to the winery.
In recent years, Mr Hickey says, many of the pickers were drawn from people passing through the region seeking seasonal work, notably backpackers and "grey nomads". But the COVID-related restrictions have all but dried up those pools of workers.
"There were 10 couples who came each year, but they didn't come this year, due to COVID," he says of the grey nomads.
This season, Mr Hickey estimates, about 80 per cent of the pickers are from the Hunter Valley, particularly from the Cessnock area.
"It's definitely a good thing for our local community, keeping the money in our town," he says.
Roanne and Andrew Sekel are locals, from New Lambton, but they also describe themselves as "grey nomads in training", as they have spent most of the past year taking a break from their jobs to travel around Australia.
"We heard they needed a bit of help with this season," Roanne Sekel explains as to why they are picking grapes.
For the six weeks or so of the picking season, the Sekels are waking at 4.15am and driving to the vineyards each weekday, ready to start work at 5.45am. They toil among the vines usually until about 2pm.
"It's hard work, and we go home tired, but it's rewarding," Andrew Sekel says.
Apart from the work being "taxing" on the back and knees, the Sekels say, there are other hazards.
"Look at that!," exclaims Andrew Sekel as he points to a spider on a bunch of grapes. "That's the fattest red-back [spider] I've ever seen!".
No sooner has his wife declared, "Hit the jackpot!", as she cuts off a large bunch of grapes, Beau, a bucket boy scoops up the fruits of the couple's labour and carries them towards the picking bin.
"We were told we got paid by the bucket, but he seems to be getting all the money!." Andrew Sekel says.
He is joking. The workers are paid by the hour. Peter Hickey says the hourly rate is about $28.
Bruce Tyrrell, the company's managing director, explains payment by the bucket stopped many years ago. He reckons under that method, there may have been quick picking, but not as much care taken.
"Also, we had a tally clerk up on the truck, and every afternoon there was a blue about who picked how many buckets," Mr Tyrrell says. "So we got rid of that."
The fourth generation winemaker has wandered down to the vineyard to see the action. Even though he has seen about 65 vintages, this time of year still holds a thrill for Bruce Tyrrell.
"You love the adrenaline hit of vintage," he says, smiling in the morning sun, watching the workers.
And he notes how many locals are among the vines, just how it used to be.
"In the 1950s and 60s, the picking teams were basically all women from Cessnock," Mr Tyrrell recalls. "In those days, the blokes worked underground in the pits, they worked really hard and got paid next to nothing. So the women would come out to pick, because that was the capital injection for the family."
He remembers how older women would also come out to look after children, so "there'd be babies in a cot under a vine in the shade".
"Of course, you got the same ones back every year, and they knew what they were doing, they were good pickers, they were careful," he says.
For the Vat 47 chardonnay, Bruce Tyrrell says, hand picking the grapes helps ensure better quality than machine harvesting could. Then, as an extra measure of quality control, a couple of young women are standing beside the bins, assessing each bucket of grapes thrown in and picking out any that don't look right.
Among those doing the hand sorting is one of the few backpackers here.
Marine Loock is a young Frenchwoman in Australia on a working holiday visa. She had planned to return to France last year, but the pandemic changed all that.
So Ms Loock has been travelling and picking fruit in Australia, and that has brought her to Tyrrell's and the Hunter for the first time.
"It's the best job I've had so far," Ms Loock said. "The conditions are good, and it's good pay as well.
"It's nice to get to meet a lot of Australians. It's a change, because most of the time you just meet lots of backpackers."
At least one of those Australians is a vintage character. Lincon Rose is a Cessnock local. He is not just a bucket boy but an impromptu motivational speaker, regularly hollering advice and encouraging words.
When I have a go at picking grapes, learning how to snip a stem and not a finger, Lincon Rose yells out, "C'mon, Mr Paperboy!!". Over and over.
"You can try to ignore him, but he just keeps going," says Dale Longbottom, the bucket boy in my row.
"And you're going great - for a first timer."
Dale Longbottom is also from Cessnock. Unlike most here on this day, he is not a casual; he works for Tyrrell's as a general vineyard hand. After eight years working as a miner, he wanted a job with more regular hours. He may have dropped back in earnings, but he feels like he's leapt ahead in quality of life. And he's helping produce something he loves.
"I love wine, I love drinking it," he says. "And I love chardonnay!"
For a few of the pickers, this job marks a change in life.
Larni Burgmann is from a farm near Singleton. She says for the past six years, she has been the carer for her partner, who was injured in a crash. She needed money, so when she heard the vineyards needed pickers, she thought, "I can help them, and they can help me". To be working and earning money again, she says, means liberation.
"I've been doing it real tough, living month by month," Ms Burgmann says. "To have that independence again, spending money on what you want (she had just bought herself a handbag and new boots)."
Kristian Sansome had been involved in a few earlier vintages, but COVID pushed him back to picking grapes. The single father had begun a horticulture business, "then COVID came, and that was it".
"Eight months without work, and here I am," he says.
Mr Sansome enjoys the work and the camaraderie amid the vines - "It's nice to see the boys and girls again". What he doesn't enjoy - actually, no one seems to - is the heat.
While there are regular breaks for water supplied from the tray of a ute, the hot day strikes a couple of the workers.
"You have to set yourself a pace that's the right pace, otherwise you won't last," Mr Sansome says.
The young brigade is well represented among the pickers.
Quite a few have just finished high school, and with the pandemic having disrupted their plans to explore the world, some have reshaped their "gap year".
Rebekah Farr, from Gresford, is picking grapes with her boyfriend, Joe McFadyen, from Bolwarra. A couple of months ago, they were sitting for their HSC; now they are planning to travel around Australia in a van, financed by picking fruit, and their first stop is here, close to home.
"I've always wanted to do this," Ms Farr says, "and the fact they need people makes me want to do this in other parts of Australia as well.
Eighteen-year-old Finley Moffitt is being driven from Wollombi each day to pick grapes, as he waits to see if he can travel to Britain, which is his plan for a gap year before starting university.
He is earning money in the hope of travelling, but "this is good work experience as well".
"I get respect for working; this is my first real job," he says.
Asked how he is finding the work, the former Hunter Valley Grammar School student replies, "Pretty tough. It can get to you sometimes. It's quite rewarding when you finish it."
And is he looking forward to the other reward, down the track, of tasting the wine he has helped create?
"I don't think I could," Finley Moffitt replies. "It's put me off drinking it. I don't want to eat grapes anymore!"
Some of the pickers are not even old enough to legally taste wine.
Fifteen-year-old Harry Clark is on school holidays. Before he enters Year 11 at nearby Mount View High School, he thought he'd do some picking - and he roped in a few friends as well.
Harry wants to be a doctor, which may well mean he'll own a vineyard one day. Asked how that future Dr Clark will look back on this time, he replies, "I'll probably think it was a good experience, and that I got to meet new people."
Further along the road of life experience is 73-year-old retiree Joaquim Rosa, or "Jack", as he is called in the vineyard.
This is his first time picking grapes in the Hunter Valley, but in a way, it marks a return to his past.
"I enjoy it," Mr Rosa says. "It reminds me of my childhood, it brings memories back."
As a boy in Portugal, he picked grapes, and after arriving in Australia in the late 1960s, he did similar work around Griffith in central NSW.
Mr Rosa delights in searching among the leaves for grapes, as though he is looking for treasure. Which in a way he is.
"Every time I see a big bunch of grapes, I think, 'Oh, there's another glass!'," he says.
About midday, as the sun climbs and grows more merciless on both fruit and human flesh, the picking stops. In the six hours or so, about 1.4 hectares, and nine tonnes of grapes, have been picked.
"Steady picking," says Peter Hickey, who forecasts these grapes will lead to fine wine. "It's going to be good."
The lines of pickers straggle off, back to their vastly different lives. But amid the vines in the harvest of 2021 a community has been taking shape.
"With the backpackers, it's more about fun, but there's more of a community thing this year," says Kristian Sansome.
He adds that more locals are experiencing what the wine industry means for them.
"This is bringing in tens of millions of dollars," said Mr Sansome. "And it is supporting their communities."
The story Hunter's 2021 vintage stays close to home with grape pickers first appeared on The Maitland Mercury.