Harvest Hands: Part III


Catch up on Jennifer’s previous adventures in winemaking in Harvest Hands Part I and Part II

My crush on winemaking has started to fade. I am tired, my body hurts in places it shouldn’t and I’m spending more on physical therapy than I’m earning. Now that all of the fruit has come in, much of what is left to do at the winery is, shall I say, a bit tedious. But, just when I was thinking about breaking up with winemaking, I dug out my first tank and kinda fell in love with winemaking again.

Digging out tanks is not easy. Clad in rain pants, a rain jacket and rubber boots, you are strapped into a harness with a rope attached to your back (think dog leash) so you can get yanked out a small hatch in the tank should the poisonous gasses inside overwhelm you. Once suited up, you crawl on hands and knees into said tank—which is still dripping with wine—and find yourself in a world of grape skins and potentially lethal carbon dioxide gas. Against all odds, I love it.

Armed with only a shovel; my mission is to get all the grape skins, which are packed in tightly and have no intention of moving, out a small hatch. Boys seem to love doing this job, and they often time themselves in an attempt to beat the time of their coworkers. Me? I just wanted to get it done without hurting myself or being asphyxiated. But, when the last shovel-load went out the door, I looked at what I had done and felt that I had accomplished something. After hosing down the inside of the tank, I slid out the hatch soaking wet, a little grapey, slightly high on CO2 and filled with a sense of mission accomplished. Wine romance win.

After all that physical labor, I need a snack. Let’s talk about a harvest intern’s metabolism: It’s out of control. The two things I have noticed over the last several weeks are an increase in both gray hairs (from the constant fear of hurting myself or someone else) and my hunger. Working all day on your feet, running up and down ladders, digging out tanks and punching down fermentors can make a girl hungry. I simply never feel full. I eat, and an hour later I’m hungry again. This would all be fine except that even on my days off, I’m still hungry all the time thanks to an adjusted metabolism. I thought an added job perk would be not worrying about eating an extra slice of pizza at lunch, a piece of chocolate cake after dinner or a few glasses of wine at night—but alas, I do worry. Wine romance fail.

All good things must come to an end, and so too must interesting work tasks. As harvest season winds down, engaging projects—such as digging out tanks or operating the wine press—are replaced with more tedious responsibilities. For example, yesterday one intern spent eight hours power-washing the interior walls of the winery. Others clean the metal racks barrels are stacked on, or prepare the barrels to be filled with wine.

For me, tedium came in the form of topping barrels of wine with more wine so the juice inside wouldn’t oxidize. Oxygen is wine’s enemy. Think about how a bottle of wine changes after you have left it open for several days; not as fresh, right? Same thing here. A full, standard size wine barrel holds about 60 gallons. Through natural evaporation, some of the wine disappears and a small space, about an inch or so, appears above the wine, making room for air that must be replaced with liquid. After you add wine to the barrel through a small hole, called a bung hole (I’m not making that up), by means of a small hose, you close the barrel with a rubber seal, called a bung, in said bunghole. Then, you clean the mess you made and do it again and again and again … all day long. This project occurs biweekly until the wine is moved from barrel to bottle; several months to several years later, depending on the wine.

On the bright side, topping barrels has given me time to myself—time to reflect on this experience. On the whole, it has been a gift and I am glad I stepped outside of my comfort zone to do it. Aside from the winemaking education, the people I have met have been the true, yet unexpected reward. There is no doubt that I have made friends in this process. Their perspectives, plans and ideas are inspiring, eye-opening and humbling. In life, we tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people. Not so in this environment. Here, people who have almost nothing in common, save the liking of wine, were thrown together for several intense weeks. (I keep looking for the reality TV show cameras.) These people become your family, even if only for a few weeks. You eat together, laugh together, share stories and help each other with work and life troubles.

Winemakers have committed their lives, and in many case their families’ lives, to bottling this precious liquid that you and I enjoy with loved ones. These are the people who have traded making fortunes in other industries for spending fortunes in this one. Why? Because they love it too much not to. I’m inspired by these winemakers, and also by those who work in the vineyards picking the grapes come rain or shine, hell or high water. And of course by the interns, who year after year migrate to wine regions across the globe to process fruit, air blast tanks, punch down caps, drive forklifts countless miles (without ever really going anywhere), pick up shovels, dig out tanks and work tireless hours challenging their own mental and physical fortitude.

My respect for the production of wine, and the people who devote their lives to making it, has grown exponentially. My big revelation is that I do not want to be a winemaker, at least not immediately. I do want to make wine someday, but for now I have a renewed vigor and commitment to writing and educating people about wine; motivated in no small part by the stories of my internship and the people I met.

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