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.

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.