Digging out

As harvest winds down, each day we’re digging out more and more tanks.

Red wine ferments with the whole grape. The juice and colors of the grapes are extracted during fermentation leaving behind the skins and other materials, such as seeds and stems, known as “pomace.”

This pomace is essentially waste, but before it’s tossed wineries press it to get the most wine as possible out of the grapes.

The hard part, well at least for lowly intern cellar rats like myself, is digging out the pomace from the tanks. Digging out tanks is the messiest and at times most dangerous job during harvest. It’s also one of those grueling tasks that builds comaraderie through shared experience. It’s a shitty job, but everyone’s got to dig out tanks during harvest so everyone shares the burden.

At Starmont, the big jobs are the 12,000 gallon or 44 ton fermentors. These towering, thirty foot tall tanks can handle 44 tons of grapes. The pomace from that much fruit weighs a couple thousand pounds. Before digging out a tank, all the wine is drained and transferred to another tank. Then you slowly and carefully open the main tank hatch and get a first peek at the solid mass of pomace. Guys on the outside dig out enough pomace to create an opening for another worker to climb into the tank. You clear out the pomace using sturdy, food-grade plastic shovels and ranks. Once an opening is cleared, a supervisor needs to check the tank’s atmosphere for CO2. Carbon dioxide is the silent and deadly killer lurking in tanks. The gas is released during fermentation and will fill a tank. I’ve heard several horror stories of cellar workers dying from just sticking their heads in tanks. The CO2 robs their lungs of air, and they pass out with the heads still in the tank and quickly suffocate.

Once the tank has a safe level of CO2, you climb in with a shovel wearing a safety harness and CO2 monitor. The harness is there to pull you out should you pass out, and the monitor is another level of protection.

Inside the tank you’re surrounded by a wall of pomace up to your shoulders. The material is thick and clingy, not unlike water-saturated clay soil. You get to work, but the shovel is only about half the length of a regular shovel, so you labor bent over at the waist shoving hunks of pomace into a bin outside the tank. The trick is to shovel away at the base of the pomace so large chunks will fall over and you can shovel the loose material out of the tank. This can sometimes prove problematic. For example, I was digging out a tank when a large chuck, weighing about 300 pounds, slid off the tip of the heap and slammed into the floor of the tank. I dodged and was just able to get out of the way and avoid getting pinned against the shaft of the tank’s thermometer protruding from the tank wall.

The tank atmosphere may be safe, but it still has lots of CO2 and as you shovel your lungs strain to pull as much oxygen as possible. Your feet slip in the puddles of wine on the slick floor of the stainless steel floor and the sweat runs in rivulets across your brow and aching back.

There’s a little bit of manly competition among the cellar guys about who can dig out tanks the fastest. I posted a damn good time of about 30 minutes in a 44 ton tank, but then I had the adrenalin pumping. Normally, it takes about 40 to 45 minutes of solid work to clean a big tank.

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