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.

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.”