Attack of the yellow jackets!

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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.

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.