Midway and a moment of reflection

101_0561The rows of vines that once were covered in leaves of brilliant shades of  green are now spotted with orange, red or dusty brown. Mornings are much colder and foggier and the coolness persists through the weaker sunshine of the autumnal afternoons.

I have reached the mid-point of harvest and as I reflect back on the last few months, I’m amazed at the wealth of experiences I have earned in such a relatively short time.

Yes it’s been quite an adjustment from my former career in journalism to the wine industry. Do I miss newspapers? Of course. Just as I love the excitement of the long and busy days in the cellar during harvest, I loved the rush and excitement of putting out a newspaper on deadline during a crazy day. I also miss my talented and fearless colleagues in the newsroom as well as seeing the paper in print on my front porch.

However, I find some of the same satisfaction in helping to make wine as I did in putting out a paper. I have enjoyed the physical challenges of the job. Hauling hoses, digging out tanks, cleaning barrels, etc. which are all hard, demanding jobs, but it feels good to do something with your hands. On this blog I may have focused a bit on my pratfalls and miscues during this new experience, but those are the type of moments that have made me chuckle and I hope they’ve made you laugh too. This job was never anything I thought I couldn’t do, and it’s been hard, but not impossible. I’ve learned a great deal about wine and winemaking, and have had some memorable experiences.

One day in the cellar I was managing a pumpover at a tank and was just watching the wine flow from the racking valve into a bucket in a sump before getting pumped back up to the top of the tank. The wine was swirling out of the bucket in a steady flow releasing fresh aromas of fruit and spice. The cellar master Jeff happened to be walking by and said “It’s a hypnotic sight isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I said. “A fountain of wine.”

“You know, Napa during harvest is beautiful. The hot air balloons in front of the mountains in the morning.” he said. “My first harvests here I was at the crush pad in the morning and there at night. I saw some beautiful sunrises and some beautiful sunsets. You have to appreciate that.”101_0569

And there have been those signature harvest moments that have made my time at the winery such a real experience even if it may just be temporary. Sticking my hands into the warm and yielding flesh of grapes as they passed by on the conveyor or filling new oak barrels with wine and savoring the mix of wood and wine as they meet for the first time. I’m still not yet sure what the future my hold, but I do know that my life has already been enriched by just taking a moment to experience something in depth.

Two very different kinds of tastings

One recent afternoon the head of winemaking operations took myself and the two other interns at Starmont winery for a tasting of this harvest’s juice. It was a pleasant and informative experience as we walked through the cellar sampling various Chardonnay lots from different barrels. The best part was tasting the differences flavors imparted by the different cooperages, or barrel manufacturers. One barrel would give the same juice a heavier mouth feel and impart more “toasted” or “smoky” flavors, while another would enhance the aromatics of the juice. We completed the tasting by sampling some finished Chardonnay from older barrels. This wine will likely be bottled sometime in January.

After the tasting, it was time to get back to work. I helped out on the crush pad for a bit until we processed the last of the grapes for the day. I then had to help clean the press hoses that run from the press to fermentation tanks. After being pressed, the juice is taken via these hoses to the tanks where they will ferment. My job was to fill a “sump” or small tank near the presses with hot water and then push the water through the hoses with an air pump. The water forces out any remaining juice and cleans the line at the same time.

Once the water had passed through the line, I then had to decouple all the various lengths of hose and stack them back up on the rack. I was walking through the cellar stepping over hoses when I came to the next connection. As I bent down and undid the clamp holding the lines together I noticed some liquid started spraying out of the connection. No biggie, I thought, it’s just some water that got left in the line. I undid the clamp and was met with an explosion of white wine juice that covered my face, chest and my legs. I jumped back, bewildered by this sudden flood of juice, I tried to push the hoses back together but the force of the juice flowing out only resulted in myself receiving another deluge of juice.

“Shit,” I thought, realizing I had disconnected a hose carrying juice from one tank to another, as some of my colleagues had to run to shut down the pump, close the valves and fix my mistake. Covered in juice, I just had to hang my head in frustration. My coworkers took in stride as there was no serious loss of juice and their main concern seemed to be if I was OK.

I was, but I was still embarrassed and aware of the irony in that I was now covered in the same juice that I had been tasting earlier in the day. I savored those same “aromatics” for the rest of the afternoon as they wafted from my clothes and hair.

It was a long day, and came at the end of the week. Once I was done with work, I stopped by the store to pick up some beer and smokes. The checker, noticing that I my clothes were covered in red splotches (from red wine splashing on me earlier in the day. The white wine didn’t stain, it just left my smelly funky and sticky.) asked if I was a painter.

I said, “No I work at a winery.”

“So are you a winemaker?,” she asked.

“No, I work in the cellar.”

“Ah, that would explain the beer and cigarettes.”

It’s a 24-hour industry

As I drive through the vineyards to the winery in the morning, the sky is painted in light shades of blue and orange as the sun begins its ascent.

The edges of my high beams catch groups of vineyard workers emerging from the rows of vines after a night’s work. Their legs are caked in mud and with a weary gait they trudge toward their cars parked on the side of the road. My day begins as their day ends.

After swiping my time card at 6:30 a.m., I walk into the cellar and begin the morning round of pumpovers. During fermentation, red wine needs to be mixed around and “pushed” a little. A pumpover is a process in which juice is pumped from the bottom of a fermentation tank to the top. The juice that is sent to the top of the tank trickles back down through the “cap” at the top of the tank. This cap consists of grapes, grape skins and a smaller amount of seeds and stems. Forcing the juice over the cap helps it ferment as well as draw color from the skins through what is known as “extraction.” The deep garnet and purple colors you love in red wine comes from the skins. Ensuring that all the juice has plenty of contact with the skin ensures good colors as well as good flavors.

Setting up a pumpover involves hauling a 20 to 30 pound sprinkler up a flight of stairs to the catwalk above the tanks. You then need to secure it to the tank hatch and make sure it’s centered above the cap. You then switch on an air pump that draws the juice up to the sprinkler. The sprinkler is like a whirly gig — two long arms centered on a revolving piece. As the wine is forced through the sprinkler it spins over the top of the cap sending a fountain of wine falling upon the cap and the rest of the tank. It’s almost a hypnotic sight, the wine cascading down along the sides of the tank and foaming on the top of the cap.

I usually wrap up the morning pumpovers around 1 p.m. and after a quick lunch it’s back to other cellar jobs. These can range from transferring wine from tanks to barrels, helping out at the crush pad or digging out a tank. By 5:30 p.m., it’s time to start the evening round of pumpovers to help the late shift. By 7 p.m. I’m usually out the door.

Back home, I step out onto my patio into the still night air. I can see Venus dancing with the moon as well as a host of other stars. I have a beer and a cigarette and listen to a pair of coyotes snarling and screaming as they fight in the distance. Their wild animal cries pierce the air in discord with the low humming, grinding sound of tractors starting up for another long night’s harvest.

The hits just keep coming

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.

I do a dirty job

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.

The onslaught has begun

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.

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.