Brute Force

As the first step in processing, grapes just after harvest will go to the sorting table, a conveyor belt that carries grapes from the hopper at one end to a collection bun at the other end that’s then dumped into a stainless steel tank to ferment.

Something no one tells you about winemaking is how many bugs are involved. There are little white, almost translucent spiders that live in vineyards and they crawl up your arms while you’re processing grapes in the cellar. And then there are earwigs.

Over time, earwigs make their way into and onto everything. As we hose down and clean off the floors at the end of the night, there’s invariably a smattering of rogue earwigs on the far reaches of the floor, those who have managed to escape destruction. We had a can of argon in the winery and the pressure gauge attached to it had three earwigs crawling around inside the glass-enclosed gauge. I have no idea how they got inside.

This fall I worked the winegrape harvest as an intern, learning just how physical the art of wine can be. White grapes often go straight to press, which meant nearly no work for me because the two massive stainless steel presses were manned by the more experienced cellar workers, while I was left hosing down floors and cleaning clamps. The presses are massive stainless steel drums that are filled by dumping half-ton bins of grapes into the hopper on top. After the pressing is finished, in order to clean the monstrosity, the pumice left over is dumped into bins to compost and then someone climbs into the press through its sliding steel door with a hose and a headlamp, cleaning and sterilizing to remove every sticky fleck of grape sugar, emerging half an hour later, damp-haired and blinking into the light.

Because red wines are fermented with the whole grape intact, and sometimes as a complete cluster, stems and all, the grapes have to be sorted before they go into fermentation. The conveyor belt is manned by a few of us lowly cellar interns, who pick out anything that shouldn’t be fermented – underripe grapes, dried raisiny grapes, leaves, bugs.

My self-appointed role on the sorting table was saving praying mantises and dragonflies – cleaning them of sticky grape juice and running outside to set them free while the cellar master rolled his eyes.

Once the grapes are all in a bin or tank, it doesn’t take long for them to start fermenting on their own. Then we start the labor-intensive process of maintaining the fermentations – guiding them gently, sometimes forcefully. The carbon dioxide that’s released from fermentation pushes solids up to the surface forming a thick cap of grape skins above the fermenting juice. In order to keep the juice in contact with the skins, and give the fermentation oxygen, the cap has to be pushed down and mixed back into the juice.

In order to mix the larger fermentations occurring in floor-to-ceiling stainless steel tanks, the tanks have to get “pumped over.” This requires climbing up a 20-foot ladder while holding a hose heavy with wine, then spraying it over the top of the fermenting mass.

I couldn’t believe how comfortable I became on ladders – carrying buckets of grapes with one arm, scampering up while laughing at someone’s joke. I couldn’t believe the bruises I acquired – partially because I’m clumsy, partially because you’re moving and lifting and climbing and pushing 12 hours a day and everything is heavy, everything is metal, everything has to be done quickly.

On my first day off, I was so sore and tired that I sat up in bed and cried. At first, I thought it was just me – that I must just be a city girl not cut out for work like this. But then, as I started talking to other harvesters, I discovered all of us suffered. That even the cellar master, who works year round with this equipment, wakes up at night with coursing pain and numbness in his right hand.

From the outside, wine is shrouded in glamour. But high heels and sport coats are reserved for the presentation of the finished product. Everything that goes into wine up to the point it’s brought to you is fueled by grit, hard work and hustle. And more often than not, this hustle is done by people who can’t afford to buy the bottles they produce.

Wine is art. Making art is work. Everything is sticky, everything is messy, everything is heavy, everything is wet, everything needs fixing, everyone is tired. We fight over the stereo, we eat constantly, we drink coffee until it’s time to drink Modelo, we get home at night sore and tired, shower and crash and start again. For two months every fall, six days a week, 12 hours a day, this is life.

All for a glass of wine.

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