My work at the winery is a physical job. From the start in the morning to the end of the day, I’m running, hauling, lifting, jumping, bending, pulling and plenty of other verbs.
On a particular day though, I had my fair share of mishaps.
In the morning, I slammed my hand between a piece of machinery and a fermentation tank, cutting the ring finger of my right hand on the knife sharp edge of the tank’s bottom hatch.
The cut sprang open with a torrent of bright red blood and a coworker ran to get the boss. After some first aid, I decided I was going to forgo stitches and just tough it out with some butterfly bandages and having my ring finger taped to my middle finger to prevent the would from opening. I also wore wore a latex glove to keep the wound dry. I spent the rest of the day using three fingers of my right hand and wearing one glove in what looked like a gimpy memorial to the late Michael Jackson. (My bosses were concerned and checked several times during the day to see how my finger, and myself, were doing.)
A few hours later, I was working on the catwalk above the tanks connecting a nitrogen gas line to a main gas line. We use nitrogen to “gas the tanks.” Filling the tanks with nitrogen prevents the wine from coming into contact with oxygen, which can “oxidize” the wine affecting its flavors and aromas. As I stood up from connecting the hose I slammed my head into a pipe and after unleashing a flood of obscenities I went back to work with a headache that lingered for the rest of the day.
Then, later in the afternoon, I was in the outside tool shed looking for a hose for a power washer. I found one lying on the ground and I quickly reached down to pick it up. As my fingers closed around the hose I felt a sharp, pinching pain and looking down I realized I had just been stung on the tip of my finger by a yellow jacket. The same damn finger that was taped to my lacerated finger!
My finger is doing fine and now I’m always sure of what is above me before I stand up.
If you’re curious about seeing a little more about what I do as a harvest intern at Starmont, try and catch the episode of the The Discovery channel’s Dirty Jobs in which the host Mike Rowe works at a winery. Rowe spent a day at Starmont winery digging in the muck and mire of wine production work. I’ve talked to a few guys at the winery who were working when the production crew from Dirty Jobs spent a day filming at the winery. They said it was a cool experience to see how nearly 12 hours of filming was compressed into 20 minutes of television.
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.
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.