Victorian wineries despair, forced to turn customers away due to staff shortages

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A chef hand-delivering food to your table or a senior winemaker talking you through a cellar-door tasting might feel special, even intimate.

But in one of Australia’s most famous wine regions, it betrays a major problem: there are simply not enough staff to do either job.

Staff shortages are so pervasive in parts of the Yarra Valley, north-east of Melbourne, that wineries are turning away busloads of eager customers and, in some cases, closing cellar doors altogether.

“Difficult doesn’t even sum it up,” Dylan McMahon, head winemaker and general manager of Seville Estate, said.

“For us trying to reopen the cellar door and restaurant — we’re still struggling.”

The result is a cellar door closed to walk-ins and a restaurant that has had to cut its sittings by 80 per cent. A bride and groom were able to hold their wedding at the vineyard over the weekend, but they had to supply their own staff.

The irony is the 20 or so people who are seated in the winery’s dining room over limited sittings are receiving a level of service Dylan McMahon is particularly proud of — he just wishes he could cater for more.

“It is a week-by-week proposition for opening our doors. Even this Friday, we are scrounging around. We’ve got a full restaurant and we don’t have all our staff secured,” he said.

“The reality is we are not recovering from the last two years. We are just continuing to tread water.”

Busloads of customers turned away

Half an hour north at Sutherland Estate, Cathy Phelan has all her children on deck helping out where they can at her family’s picturesque cellar door.

It’s still not enough.

“I have one booking on Saturday. They’re a group of 40 on a bus with a belated birthday [and] they were desperate to come but I just can’t,” Ms Phelan said.

“Even though we have the space, we just don’t have the staff to look after them.”

Wineries in the region had hoped a summer of restaurant bookings and cellar door tourism would provide a much-needed bounce-back after a financially bruising two years.

Instead, they’re having to scale down their operations and ambitions.

“We, as a business, are growing and everything is busy, and we are wanting to get a few more staff in to help with that, but we’re having trouble finding anyone to step in,” Ms Phelan said.

Staffing issues run deep

Sutherland Estate, like other wineries the ABC has spoken to, had to let staff who refused to have a COVID-19 vaccine go.

Yet the issues in the region run far deeper.

The pandemic has prompted a much-publicised exodus from the hospitality industry, and job ads in the area frequently go unanswered. Burnt-out workers have departed in search of higher-paying careers with better conditions.

A recent report from the National Skills Commission found 63 per cent of hospitality businesses experienced greater difficulty recruiting staff this year compared with 2020.

Many wineries insist they are willing to pay above award wages, but the viability of a career in hospitality appears increasingly unappealing.

With continued constraints on international travel, the gaps have not been filled by short-term visa holders.

Dylan McMahon is still looking for about three workers.

“We don’t even get applicants anymore,” he said.

“If we get an applicant, the first thing you think of is, ‘Right, you’re hired! I haven’t even read your CV, but you’ve applied, that’s good enough for me’.”

It is an issue the Yarra Valley has grappled with for years.

Situated just over an hour from from Melbourne, it is neither classified as regional, nor close or particularly accessible to attract inner-city workers.

Small Wineries Association of the Yarra Valley president Daniel Tokar said the issue had been “brewing for a while”.

“Every time you knock someone back, that’s a lost customer — the knock-on effect is they might not come back,” Mr Tokar said.

“Everyone would love to have the doors swinging open but the reality is they just can’t. It is heartbreaking.”

Shortages stretch into vineyards

Further south in the lush Mornington Peninsula wine region, job ad sites are flush with winery listings.

Award-winning winemaker and local industry heavyweight Kathleen Quealy said finding staff was “costing a lot more and taking a lot longer,” but the issue was worse for wineries with restaurants.

Olivia Barrie from the Mornington Peninsula Vignerons’ Association said the area might not have as many staff as it would like, but it should cope with increased demand over summer.

“The cellar doors are at a reasonable level, but people need to be understanding and mindful of venue capacities,” Ms Barrie said.

Instead, it is in non-customer-facing roles where Ms Barrie said the need was most keenly felt.

“In the vineyards and wineries, they are really crying out for more staff — for capable people, vineyard managers, tractor drivers and those who can help with manual labour,” she said.

“There’s a fair bit of pressure in that space.”

In the Yarra Valley, Mr McMahon is wary of overburdening the few staff he has been able to retain.

“You don’t really want to push anyone too hard,” he said.

“A lot of people are kind of carrying emotional trauma.

“Even though we’re out of lockdown, and people are wanting to go out and eat and have fun, they don’t really realise that the people who are working are still getting used to getting back in the workforce.

“Not everyone’s 100 per cent.

“It’s that thing that lots of people said over COVID: I’ve never worked so hard to lose so much money.”

By the National Regional Reporting Team’s Jeremy Story Carter (Original ABC Article)