Diary of a Cellar Rat: Harvest is Done

Wait let me get this straight, Californians elected Jerry Brown governor and to keep weed illegal?

Is it 1974?

Coming back to the real world after harvest is a little odd. You find yourself with the luxury of a two day weekend and with an enormous amount of free time. My hands are little by little losing the the dark, almost black, stain of wine. However, the heavy base and caustic chemicals we use in the celler as well as the natural solvent alcohol still has them dried out, cracking and occasionally bleeding.

Ah this new career, my delicate hands used to just ply a computer, now they are cracked, calloused and gnarly.

But we got all the grapes in, and it will be an interesting vintage. The cool summer and storms in late October forced some winemakers to pick before they were entirely sure about ripeness. The result could be “greener” wines that don’t have all the ripe dark fruit flavors California wines are known for, but more vegetal, bell pepper notes. This past growing season has been charitably referred to as Bordeux like, but who knows.

My role this vintage was a mix of lab work, celler grunt work and a little bit of logistical and administrative work. Some days at the height of harvest, I’d spend about 12 and half hours of work in the celler working on yeast innoculations, additions, must adjustments, pumpovers and fermentation checks. After all that, it would be back to the lab to enter the data as well as check my e-mail for any pick specification sheets. I would have to save these into a database and then update the producation winery’s calendar for receiving fruit and then generate a crush work order for processing the fruit. Just another 14 hour day.

The challenge this year was that in addition to the tough physical work I had to also remember to have a cover page on my TPS reports.

It was a great learning experience, and I’m looking forward to a more regular routine at the winery to build on my knowledge.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone out there, and it’s going to be nice to return back to the real world and get back to The Uncorked Life.

This rat is now full time

Hola amigos, long time since I rapped at ya I know but I’ve been knee deep in lees and other winery muck.

But the good news: the fine fellows over at Starmont have brought me on full time. Now I can say I’m part of the wine industry and that profile photo of me on The Team page looks a little less pretentious.

I can’t say how much of a relief it was to hear that I was getting a full time gig. Especially in this economy and for someone whose career background is a little limited in terms of wine. But I worked my ass off during harvest and in the months after, crossed my fingers and it turned out OK. When I was hired, I was told I was going to be done after Thanksgiving, then it changed to the end of January and then Feb. 17. Well, on Feb. 15 they told me I had a full time job.

It’s been a crazy few months but now everything is looking much more settled. I’m going to keep doing cellar work for the meantime but when we get into this year’s harvest I’m going to be doing lab work and act as a liason to the winery’s custom crush clients.

Thinking about where I am now as opposed to last year, I find it a little wild. I’m also struck by the host of odd little skills I’ve picked up after working for almost a year in the cellar. Skills like:

• Hose wrangling, I can coil a hose or wire in a tight spool like a champ.

• Climbing or walking on barrels. When I first started at Starmont, I was afraid of heights. Now I don’t hesitate to jump on a barrel rack and scramble 30 to 40 feet high.

• A heightened appreciation for air pressure and fluid dynamics. When you’re transferring 12,000 gallons of Cabernet from one tank to another you better make sure it’s going to get there.

• The many joys of sulphur, or azufre. Purely sarcastic here, sulfur is some nasty stuff be it in power, gas or liquid form.

And plenty of other interesting little bits of knowledge too. (Like how invaluable Avery waterproof labels are to wine production.)

At the winery

Harvest is long gone, but I’m still working at the winery. I’m proud and thankful that my harvest internship has gone well into the winter.

This time of year the Napa Valley is covered in fields of mustard flowers that offer bright displays of yellow and green.

Right now we’re pulling lots of samples from the finished ’09 wines, most of which are in barrels. After the wine receives an analysis in the lab, the barrels then get laid down for topping. While aging in a barrel, wine can evaporate by as much as five gallons, leaving a significant amount of head space, or empty space, in a barrel. Periodic topping keeps the barrels full preventing excessive oxidation.

Barrel work can be fun and a rush. Sometimes you’ll need to pull a sample from a barrel stacked high on top of other barrels. Barrels are laid on racks that hold two barrels. These racks then can be stacked on top of each other. The stacks can stand as high as 30 or 40 feet. To reach the top you squirm into the tight space between stacks and grab on to the barrel racks to hoist yourself up using the racks and fat part of the barrel as kind of a ladder. To keep yourself steady you rest your rear on another stack of barrels. But as you work higher up in the stack your weight and movement can cause the stacks to sway back and forth. Standing with your feet on swaying stacks of barrels about 20 to 30 feet in the air gives you the sense of working on a mast of a sailing ship.

The really hard part can be navigating the tight spaces between barrel racks. You often have to contort your body while squeezing through gaps that are only about a foot wide. I’m always keeping that good rule of thumb of climbers in mind: maintain three points of contact. For example, grasp a rack with two hands and keep a boot on a barrel before extending the other foot to move.

Spanish missionaries brought wild mustard to California. The plant is essentially a pretty weed and is not used in making commercial mustard.

Scrambling over barrel stacks has given me a little sense of the rush rock climbers may enjoy. After years of telling my more intrepid friends that I’m too afraid of heights to try climbing, I’m thinking now it may be worth a try.

Other recent winery work has included adding fining agents to some wines, mixing and adding sulfur to other wines and the start of some blending. Following harvest, there’s also been quite a bit of cleaning and maintenance. Cleaning is never any fun, but when you need to keep a sanitary environment it’s crucial to a good operation.

So when folks ask me what’s next for the journalist turned cellar rat,  I say I’m pretty honest in that I’m not sure. I’d love to stay at Starmont or find another job at a different winery, but in light of the economy I’m keep a realistic outlook in terms of a job search. Maybe I’ll just devote all my time to this little online enterprise. I’ll think of it as unpaid service for the good of all humanity. In these troubled times, one man took it upon himself to keep spirits uncorked and beverages filled. I could be that man.

Napa hosts an annual Mustard Festival, and there's a pretty good restaurant on Highway 29 just north of Napa called Mustards Grill.

Communication breakdown

As an intern in the cellar of a Napa winery, most of my colleagues are Mexican.

My Spanish is terrible, but most of my coworkers have solid English skills. However, this doesn’t mean that communication between my self and other cellar mates is perfect. In fact, there have been a few communication breakdowns.

Some of the most frequent involve numbers. I remember a guy asked me to set up a transfer hose to tank 16.

“I thought it was tank 15,” I said.

“Si, tank ss-feeeff-ten,” he said.

“What?,” I said, “You mean one-five or one-six?”

“One-six,” he said solving the breakdown.

One of my favorites occurred when I tried to help set up a barrel filling job. My boss Emilio pointed to some hoses and in his thick accent indicated he wanted me to go and grab some more hoses. I ran to the hose rack and hauled over two more one inch hoses.

When I was done, Emilio looked at me, and then looked at the hoses.

“Andrew,” he said, a quizzical look on his face, “where did you get these hoses?”

“Where did I get the hoses,” I say to myself, thinking of making a smart-ass reply like:”Oh these, I brought these from home.”

Instead, I say I got them from the hose rack.

“The what buddy?,” he asks, looking as confused as me.

Eventually, I’m able to describe what the hose rack is and I figure out he’s asking me where I got the hoses to see if they had been sanitized or not. It turns out there was a pair of sanitized hoses Emilio wanted.

The problems go both way too. Sometimes my colleagues won’t have a clue what I’m talking about.

When I was using a power washer, another coworker, Luciano, stopped to explain that the high pressure of the hose can actually cut through plastic.

“Oh so the water can actually sever the hose line,” I said.

“No, not sever, cut the line,” he said.

Really though, I sometimes feel bad that I can’t quickly understand my coworkers as possible. And I now wish I spent my high school and college years learning Spanish instead of French. (This has resulted in a few odd situations in which I’ve actually had to translate for the French intern what our Mexican boss wants us to do.)

What I have been impressed with however, is the infinite patience my Mexican coworkers have for someone who doesn’t speak their language and didn’t have a clue about cellar work when I started. I’ve learned a great deal and it’s because they’ve been willing to teach me.

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.

The final push

As I walked out of the cellar on a warm afternoon last week, I noticed the crush pad was quiet. It struck me as odd, because the grape crew had been working well into early evening lately. I figured it had just been a light day for grapes coming in to the winery.

Another intern who worked the shaker table was making his back to the cellar when he stopped by me and a few other colleagues.

“We’re done,” he said.

“Done with grapes for today?,” I replied.

“No, harvest is done.”

I was shocked, I had heard at least a couple more weeks of processing grapes and the rush of harvest. Instead, without any ceremony, our harvest had come to an end.

The past two weeks had been a blur. We had reached the fever pitch of harvest. Every day it was 12 hours or longer of processing grapes, pumpovers, filling barrels and dozens of other tasks. My knees and back ached every day, I was sleeping seven to eight hours a night and still felt fatigued. To suddenly see the end so close — I felt like a GI crawling out of his foxhole to hear that the allies had crossed the Rhine. I haven’t been able to keep up the journal simply because there just wasn’t enough time in the day to write. Most nights my sleepy eyes would begin to close as I finished dinner.

There’s still plenty of work left to do at the winery. Several tanks are still fermenting, and so require pumpovers twice a day. Once it’s done fermenting the red wine has to be pressed and then put down into barrels. White and red wine barrels need to be topped off and there’s lots of other small jobs as well.

But already, coworkers are asking each other what they’re going to be doing after the end of this year’s harvest. One of my fellow interns at the winery has plans to travel to the southern hemisphere — perhaps Argentina or New Zealand — and work harvest there. Our French intern is heading off to Canada and from there South America. Myself? I’m reviewing a few options but will be staying at the home base here in Napa.

It seems like just yesterday I was writing the post about reaching the midpoint of harvest. Now that the end is in sight, I’m still a little overwhelmed at the intense and variety of experiences I have enjoyed.

And there will still be plenty more uncorked moments left to come.

Attack of the yellow jackets!

pic07western

One hazard of working harvest that I had not expected was swarms of yellow jackets high on grape juice.

All of the processing equipment at Starmont is located outside, and as we crush grapes the juice and grape skins attract hordes of yellow jackets. As we crush the first few bins a few of the wasps start buzzing around us, but by the end of the afternoon there can be what seems like 50 to 60 yellow jackets flying around a single bin of grapes. Yellow jackets aren’t that aggressive so they’re more of a nuisance than a safety threat. You just have to watch where you stick your hands because the sheer number of them means they’re almost everywhere. I’ve been stung once and it was because I rested my arm on the railing of the conveyor and didn’t notice a yellow jacket wriggling there in the sticky residue of grape juice. The sting resulted in a some impressive swelling on my forearm and it was itchy for a few days, but that was it. The funny thing about it was that earlier in the day I had remarked about the yellow jackets to a fellow intern and had asked if he’d ever been stung.

The swarms do add another layer of the sometimes surreal work of harvest. As you work on the processing line your clothes and skin get covered with juice and grape skins and so the yellow jackets will actually follow you as you walk away from the crusher. I’ve had so many yellow jackets buzzing around me that some have actually flown into my eyes and I could feel their wings buzzing against the wet flesh of my eyeball.