masterpiece mystery

by crushed & stirred

Now that I’m settling into my job, I’m ready to talk about the phenomenon of mastery. Because obviously I have by now mastered all of my responsibilities.

FALSE: I have barely scratched the tip of the iceberg, and my duties are ever-changing (hard to keep up, but also hard to get bored, so a good thing all in all). My tasks vary from the desk-variety to the kind that keep me on my feet more. This is vague because my true job description is: whatever they need me to do. At a small place like Donelan, everyone does everything. Our assistant winemaker has spent the last week installing the cabinetry, plumbing, and wiring in our refurbished lab, despite the fact that, as he says, his “formal training is not actually in carpentry.”

Familiarity comes in bits and pieces. I have already written about how foreign the industry and its wily ways are to me, and I’ve said less about how much I’ve had and still have to learn about wine itself. I will save my breath for what I’ve encountered in drinking and tasting wine for when I have absorbed enough (knowledge, not wine) to feel confident expounding on it as I do on other things that I secretly know nothing about.

I signed up for grunt work. And I’m kind of in to it so far. My energy is high and my attitude is positive. I’ve been so far on the other side of that spectrum before in jobs. As in: how many more minutes until I can reasonably take an extra-long route to the restroom? My days here, while filled with potentially dull jobs – often actually dull jobs – fly by. The company is good, the environment is energetic, the music is blaring, the espresso is flowing, and there are SKYLIGHTS, which make a HUGE deal to someone as obsessed with lighting as I am. Time spent in front of a spreadsheet seems to quickly dissolve into time spent bustling around, doing work I can actually see the results of – a novelty for someone like me who has been happily pursuing the so-called life of the mind in recent years.

But I digress. From the topic of mastery. I came into this job hoping against hope that I wouldn’t hate it. Call it low expectations, but it makes all the difference. I confessed my fear to one of my new and wise friends who is a cellar master at a high-end winery. He said: “the difference between a great cellar-hand and a not-great one is the difference between one who thinks This is hard. I hate it. I want to stop doing it and one who thinks This is hard. I hate it. I must destroy it.

His words have become my mantra. Or really, my mantra has become: throw yourself at everything because you will love what you do if you are valued. And it works, kids! I can’t say how well that will hold up as the work gets harder and longer, or even in a different job down the line. But for now, I give it partial credit for my energy (combined with bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed syndrome, which I keep expecting to wear off any day now).

Mastery – or the gradual ability to know that you are doing something right – is a huge source of motivation and comfort. It’s the feeling I get when I reach for the light switch in a dark room and my fingertips know right where to find it – a sign of familiarity, of home. Repetitive tasks have their rewards. I spent an afternoon cleaning some equipment (just the beginning) and kneeling uncomfortably, soaking wet, with my already-cut-up hands pruned beyond recognition in the scalding water. But I got it down. And it felt good.

After all those years zoning out in Chem class in high school, I never thought I would find myself post-college and post-English degree surrounded by all these graduated pipettes and knowing the meanings of malolactic acid and brettanomyces. I am still so far out of my depth almost all the time. Today I was scrambling around on wine barrels clutching a wine thief and taking samples of the 2010 vintages for the lab and feeling like Harry Potter looking for the lost diadem in Book 7/Film 7.2. Except I was also feeling TOTALLY UNQUALIFIED.

(I took this from photo with my phone from the top of a stack of barrels. They weigh about 500 pounds full, so you can “safely” pull yourself up on top of them. They’re stacked three and four high, and getting to the top is a little like rock climbing.)

But despite needing SO MUCH assistance all the time, I am kind of in love with this place. The winery reminds me of a theater. In the front of the shop, we’ve got a classy, moody tasting room; behind a set of sliding doors, we’ve got concrete floors and so much equipment it looks like the engine room on an ocean liner. Up a staircase, the yellow office is bright and light-filled. Out the windows, the foggy Bay Area marine layer that I fell in love with a long time ago clings to the redwoods, the eucalyptus, and the infinite vines in the mornings and burns off into warm, sunny days with cool breezes. I’m dirty and sweaty by the end of the day. My clearance section cargo pants already look professionally distressed. My shoes look like they’ve loved and lost (they have). My hands are getting to be cut, bruised, stained, and calloused and it’s only the beginning.

And after a few weeks of noodling around in my makeshift cellar-ware, the STEEL-TOED rubber boots the winery ordered for me have arrived.

I AM SO EXCITED. I can now hose down tanks with 180-degree water and get my feet stuck under the forklift all the live long day in relative safety. The big news is that I am, as I have long suspected, a clumsy person after all. I didn’t notice this before I spent my days carrying and cleaning things that are heavy, expensive, breakable, and potentially combustible.

So the boots are really a crucial acquisition. And if no one asks me any questions or asks me to do anything at all, they make it possible for me to look like I know what I’m doing.

But I guess the real secret is that, slowly but surely, I’m starting to, um, actually know what I’m doing, or at least trust that I soon will.