racking and rolling

by crushed & stirred

The theme of these posts has been, decidedly: everything I do is different from what I’ve always done. At the risk of getting stale, I have every intention of continuing in this key because it’s STILL TRUE. There seems to be no end to things that are a complete novelty to me, but which I can gradually add to my list of (hopefully) (at some point) marketable skills.

I am still waaay in the middle of a learning curve for just about everything. Last week’s additions to my repertoire include: racking barrels and sampling fruit.

Racking barrels looks (roughly) like this:

Most people know that, at the most basic level, there are two main steps in making wine: first you pick the fruit, then you let it ferment. The most common way to ferment the wine is in barrels, like the ones I’ve been clambering all over. If you don’t filter your wines (which we don’t), then racking allows you to naturally reduce the amount of built-up particles in the wine. You empty the barrels, clean them of whatever sediment has collected, and then put the wine back in the barrels.

So with the help of the forklift that I will be LEARNING TO OPERATE THIS WEEK, we moved the barrels in question off of their stacks, hooked them up to one of the infinite hose-valve-pump contraptions and drained the wine into a tank. And then I finally came in handy: I cleaned the barrels.

As a variation on a theme, this is a process involving lots of equipment I’m still learning my way around. First we let the sediment drain out the civilian way, via gravity. Sediment is harmless, although slightly unappealing looking, and bitter-tasting in large doses; it’s just collected particles of various kinds. You can see it at the bottom of wine bottles if the wine is unfiltered, as many boutique wines are. It looks gross in large quantities like these: purple goo oozing from the bunghole. The obvious analogy is easy to make and hard to get out of your mind.

After emptying the goo, we bring out the pressure washer, which sprays hot water all over the inside of the barrel. Then, the steamer: a wand goes into the barrel and shoots steam into it for a while. Afterward, we plug the barrel up so that the steam circulates and sucks all of the remaining wine and particles out of the oak.

The stressful part is that, once steamed, the barrels can’t stay plugged more then a few minutes. Lest they EXPLODE. Preventing this sort of thing is an ideal task for someone with slightly neurotic tendencies (like me). I watched like a hawk as the sides of the barrel warped under the pressure of the vacuum, and counted the minutes. Eventually I got my rhythm down, and had all of these processes going at once. And then I did it 25 more times. By day’s end, I was thoroughly drenched in water, sweat, and wine. It was awesome.

This process took most of the day, but it’s not how my day started. As the morning fog hung low on the vines, I strapped my boots on and tromped through the dewy grass to pull some samples from one of our vineyards. After Joe showed me how the first time around, I went out there by myself. This is part of some research Tyler and Joe are conducting.

(photos were taken on different mornings at the same vineyard)

This wine-business-business is still so foreign to me that I manage to make a complete fool of myself on a fairly regular basis. Joe walked in with a sample of still-green berries the other day and I asked, in total earnestness, “what are those peas for?” He looked at me. “We’re not really in the pea business.” YES. Grapes. I’M AN IDIOT.

It was so surreal to be out in the vineyard on my own, counting my berry samples, watching the mist move and hearing occasional snatches of conversation and laughter from laborers in adjacent rows. After I got back to the winery, I crushed up my berries, squeezed out their juice, and took down a few measurements. Joe was whizzing around on the forklift, getting the barrels out for racking, and the Other Intern was laying out all the hoses and valves and gaskets and gizmos we would need.

And almost every day it hits me how crazy it is that I do this all day long, and how unbelievably cool it all is.