Run barrel monkey, run

The first week at the winery has been dominated by barrels. (If you missed my earlier post, I’ve switched from being an ink-stained wretch to a wine stained wretch.) My first job on my first day in the cellar was to remove the bungs from more than 100 barrels. The bung is the stopper, usually plastic, sometimes wood, that goes in the barrel hole named the “bung hole.” (Please no giggling, that’s an official term.)

Once I was done popping some bungs it was time to wash some barrels. Sounds simple right? Maybe throw a hose in a barrel for five minutes and just rinse it out? No, it’s a little more complicated.
The “barrel washer” is a piece of equipment similar in looks to a pneumatic jack hammer, but instead of an air hose you attach it to the end of a power washer. The barrel washer weighs about five pounds and has a special nozzle that sprays out water in four directions. To wash a barrel, you shove the nozzle into the bung hole and then rotate the barrel about 45 degrees so the bung is facing toward the ground and the washer is sticking straight up into the barrel. You run the washer for about one to three minutes depending on how dirty the barrel. When the water pouring out of the barrel runs clear, you know it’s about ready and you rotate the barrel back up, slide out the washer and move on to the next barrel.
Keep in mind the washer is operating off a power washer and you usually have four machines going at once, because we typically have to wash about 140 barrels in a few hours. We use hot water on the barrels so the hiss and roar of the washers is combined with billowing clouds of steam. As you run from barrel to barrel you’ve got to watch out for the multiple inlet and outlet hoses, while keeping time on how long you’ve had each washer in the barrels. Your feet are wet, your hands are raw from the hot water and your back aches from spinning 100 pound barrels. But hey, it’s the glamour of the wine industry that keeps me going.
You’ve also got to make sure the valve on the washer doesn’t open unless the washer is securely in a barrel. If the washer does go off outside of a barrel, you’ve got hot, pressurized water spraying in four directions, it ain’t fun. Or as a fellow intern told me, “It was like having a firecracker go off between my legs.”
My second day, I was running a washer to another row of barrels when I passed the other intern hauling hose. I don’t know what happened, but the washer valve popped open and I had an explosion of hot water in my chest. I endured some good-natured ribbing from the other cellar guys but no permanent harm.
I’ve now pretty much gotten the hang of the washer and I’m looking forward to when the grapes are going to start coming in. I’m hearing pretty soon.

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