growing pains

by crushed & stirred

After almost six weeks in the cellar, I’ve been wondering when I was going to get something really wrong. This is not to say I haven’t been making all manner of mistakes. Everyone has been gracious in showing a rookie like me how not to electrocute or poison myself or anyone else, and I have been feeling increasingly comfortable in the cellar.

This comfort could only mean one thing to me: my luck was running out.

Recently I wrote about racking – emptying barrels and cleaning them. One of a few obvious follow-ups to emptying the barrels is filling them up again.

This process made me nervous from the beginning. With the wand in the barrel, you can’t see into it very well. I stood there supporting the hose and wand, holding a flashlight to the small space left by the wand to see into the cave of dark wet wood and wine inside. I was also holding the control for the pressure pump and keeping my hand on the hose valve, ready to shut both when it was time to move between barrels.

The inside of the barrel is spatially disorienting – with its curved sides and darkness and without much in the way of spatial reference points, there is little sense of scale or perspective. You judge the level of the rising liquid by looking for the glinting splashes, the bubbles on the surface, the sounds of the wine lapping against the wood. You judge it by feel.

Again – this made me nervous. And I blew it on the second to last barrel. Staring into the dark pool through the tiny space, I suddenly realized that I couldn’t tell how fast the wine was rising. It began to spill over the top of the barrel. Someone said to shut the valve. Instead I shut my brain off – closed the valve, panicked, and threw the pump into high gear instead of turning it off.

All of this produced a brief geyser of wine, a loud shriek from me, a few yells from quick-responding bystanders, and a blown hose. And several gallons of wine down the drain. In a matter of seconds.

Soaked in wine and adrenaline and shame, I let Tyler and Joe take over. I was too speechless to apologize for a whole minute. They soberly told me it was alright. And not to do it again. I was shaken for the rest of the day.

After work I recounted my humiliation to my friends. They responded by teasing me and telling me that they’d all done it before. This made me feel slightly better.

I am intimidated by the immediate relationship between my responsibilities and the success of the mission. Not everything is do-or-die, but I am often aware that if I pull the wrong plug, pump the wrong hose, use the wrong anything, I can cause actual damage.

This is scary. It’s also one of the main reasons I wanted this job. I wanted to get out of my head, out of abstractions that I have long found engaging and sustaining but that, after college-burnout, don’t put the fear in me.

I came here to get the fear back in me. To get motivated. To know that I was an essential player on a team. And the smaller the operation (and we are tiny), the more instrumental my role becomes, the greater the pressure, and the greater the payoff. I am extraordinarily lucky to be working in a place that is so small I get to learn how to do everything I can reasonably get my hands on.

But trial and error isn’t always pretty. Trial is great. Error sucks. And while effort is essential for performance, it is no substitute for it. You have to deliver. I feel that acutely in this environment; it’s part of the challenge.

I’ve been experiencing a major paradigm shift here that I plan to write more about. This is not a challenge I can bust open; I can’t break its back, which I’m coming to see has been my traditional approach. This will take finesse that is still in seedling form in me.

The day after my comeuppance, Joe had me get back on the horse. He stood there with me while I tried my hand at filling barrels once more. I kept suggesting ways to make it more foolproof – dangle a light in the barrel? Use tape as reference point? “These are good ideas,” he said. “But they would only be crutches. You need to develop a feel for it.”


I was nervous again, but I didn’t spill. I’ll have to do it again soon and I’ll be nervous then too. Nervous because this job gave me what I asked for – a place where performance isn’t something I can cue up out of habit; I have to MAKE it with my hands and my timing, my angles and approaches.

The other morning, in the vineyard I’ve been monitoring, the grapes were at about 75% veraison – the process of changing color and transitioning from growth to ripening (look!). Many vineyards are already at 100%, but mine has been – fittingly – a little behind.

Harvest is edging towards us. Heat is pushing the last of the fruit into full color. The energy in the valley is changing. Interns have flooded the place. I keep seeing signs of a new schoolyear that seem like seepage from a parallel universe.

This is my school now. I am excited about the harvest to come, and nervous about its rigors. I am always aware that I am a freshman surrounded by seniors – and the fact that it is their enthusiasm and experience that have made me so starry-eyed.