My hands were raw, covered in leaves and stems and sticky from grape juice. My forearm was bruised from my juice covered skin sticking to the steel of the sorting station and peeling away with a sickening ripping sound. The loud cranking of the conveyor belt mixed with the steady hum of the crusher/destemmer, and the grapes kept coming and coming.
Harvest had begun and I was at the front of it.
Located in Carneros at the southern end of the Napa Valley, Merryvale’s Starmont winery, where I work, is slightly behind other Napa wineries because of the area’s cool weather. But harvest has begun in earnest and we’ve already ground through our Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc grapes.
Working at the sorting station, picking out leaves, moldy or dried out grape bunches and unripe grapes can be a little tedious but also fun. Starmont uses a raised platform to which the grapes are lifted by forklift. The grapes then fall into a hopper that feeds a conveyor. The conveyor drops grapes into a crusher that feeds the shaker tables, which lead to a must pump that sends the grapes and juice to a fermentation tank.
The sorters stand alongside the conveyor belt and you usually work in silence as you concentrate on the steady flow of grapes. Between loads, however, you can take a quick break and chat a bit. On a recent afternoon, myself and another intern, who is from France, talked with two cellar workers from Mexico. In a disjointed mix of accents, we talked about what words mean in French and Spanish, music and what beer they drink in Mexico.
Starmont has its processing center outside, north of the winery. The crush pad is located above two large Bucher rotating presses. At the top of the conveyor stand one is surrounded by a view of rolling vineyards stretching to a horizon marked by eucalyptus trees.
With each load my hands dug deep into dark purple bunches of Pinot Noir grapes as I pulled them onto the conveyor. When I looked up, all I could see was acres of vineyards. The sun felt hot on the back of my neck and arms. The noise of machinery mixed with the sounds of Spanish of French and it was a true harvest experience.