chugging along

by crushed & stirred

Everything has gone bananas.

Literally. The other day I took a whiff of a Syrah ferment and said, “it smells like bananas.” Joe said, “those are esters.” Later I sampled some Chardonnay that had just been barreled down; it tasted cidery. “Those are aldehydes,” Joe told me, which are also in cider. The learning goes on, and on and on.

The cellar seems like a different world from what it was two weeks ago. At the end of a long day, after we’ve scoured the place down for the night, you might think that nothing is even happening at the winery. As usual, you can eat off the floors, the hoses are wrapped up neatly, surfaces are clear, sanitized, and tidy. There is nothing to see.

But it’s the nose that gives us away. While we keep the place spotless to ward off bacteria, nothing can mask the enormous, heady, distinctive aroma of fermenting wine. It’s like being on the inside of a rising loaf of broad. And not for nothing, because we now have several tanks, bins, and barrels full of fruit that has started picking up the yeast in the air and begun the fermentation process, converting all of the sugar into alcohol.

We’re still bringing in fruit by the ton most days. Processing it can take a relatively short amount of time if it’s just a few bins or, like last Saturday, 13 hours if it’s one of our biggest vineyards. As so often, a huge amount of time goes in to the pre- and post-cleaning of all of the equipment.

bins and bins and bins of Syrah

Right now, my biggest hurdle is mastering the cleaning of the crusher-destemmer, which must be completely taken apart and put back together every time we use it, involving dozens of panels, screws, nuts, and bolts, which I tend to confuse, assemble in the wrong order, or can’t get off or on or in or out . . . This machine routinely shaves off bits of my skin and flesh. I saw a smudge on it the other day that I immediately recognized as my blood, left over from our last wrestling match. My new goal for harvest is to be able to tackle this thing blindfolded.

But now on top of processing all of this fruit, we are also managing fermentations. There’s a lot to do – primarily, mixing (or pump-overs), punch downs, and sampling.

When the fruit and juice is first sitting in its tanks or bins and hasn’t yet started fermenting, we mix it by sucking the juice from the bottom and spraying it over the top of the ferment (like watering the lawn) via a pressure pump and hose. This dispels the heat concentrated at the center, ensuring that the ferment can take hold consistently throughout the tank, and keeps the juice and the berries soaking together.

this may not look like much, but this tank is about 8 feet in diameter and has a couple tons of grapes in it

As the juice starts to ferment, it begins to give off CO2, which pushes all of the grape matter – skins, seeds, stems, etc – to the top, creating a cap of a foot or two deep. We want everything to ferment together, so we punch the cap down into the juice.

We’re fermenting both in bins, for smaller lots, and tanks, and the punch down process is a little different in each case. I was nervous about these at first. On a tank, you strap on a harness, prop a ladder against the tank, climb up to the top, then HAUL a makeshift platform – a sheet of plywood nailed to another ladder – up to the top of the tank, settle it across the tank, climb up on top of it, harness yourself to the ceiling, and then, standing on your platform straddled across the tank, use a long stainless steel arm to plunge through the cap on top of approximately 3 tons worth of fruit and juice. The object is, again, to mix up all the liquid and the grape matter.

Then you climb down. The punch down itself is the easy part. The workout is in getting up and down and standing above thousands of gallons of hot, fermenting fruit. By the end of a few of these, I am pouring sweat. I am encouraged by the fact that Joe and John are also pouring sweat after punch downs.

strapped in and punching (sorry Ma)

Punch downs on bins are much quicker, and I’ve gotten pretty nimble at hopping up, balancing on the thin edges of the bin, and punching away. Given that I have turned out to be a little accident prone, I made Joe and Tyler pretty anxious at first. “When am I going to stop making you nervous when I do this?” I asked Joe from my perch on a tank. “When you stop falling off of things.”

Fair enough. People have been known to fall into ferments. But I’m more confident climbing up those ladders and stronger hauling up those platforms every day.

those are my feet

On top of managing all the ferments, we’ve started pressing and barreling down. We’ve now got three Chardonnays fermenting in barrel. They have filled the cold storage room with amazing smells and you can hear the snap, crackle, and pop of the CO2 fizzling in the barrels.

Chardonnay in barrel

And once it’s time to press and barrel down the wine? We drain the tank right into the barrels until all we’re left with is the cap of solid matter – which you then dig out with a shovel and all the elbow grease you’ve ever mustered. I’ll save pressing and digging for next time, once we’ve really gotten rolling.

John surveying his work

digging forever

Between the processing, fermenting, and pressing, and everything else we have to keep up with, we are firing on all cylinders. I love it when all four of us are in the cellar together, blasting the music, helping each other out, and trying not to hit each other with the hose.

At mealtimes, we are voraciously hungry. We take turns preparing food, open a bottle of wine, or have a beer. Then we make a round of espresso shots and get back to work. These are longer and harder days of work than I’ve ever had before. At the end of ten or twelve or fourteen hours at the winery, I feel weary and a little broken, but happy and exhilarated and limber – like I could stay longer. It’s when you leave that you feel it – it hits like a ton of bricks. After a long shift, all I want is to sit around the pub or the campfire with my friends until I can’t keep my eyes open and then crawl into bed, shower optional.

As Tyler has said, “this is a weird harvest.” We still have about 65% of our fruit on the vine, with erratic weather patterns dogging us – cool weather, heavy rain, occasional heat. But we’re putting in our time, our blood & sweat (no tears yet), and controlling everything we can. The rest is noise.