the ropes

by crushed & stirred

Yep, I’m still here. Welcome to the off-season. It is a special time of year that encompasses everything except harvest.

My applications for harvest jobs in the southern hemisphere are in – did I mention that? About the traveling-harvest-rock-star-vagabond-culture? It is standard practice to switch hemispheres: fall is already just around the corner down south.

My journey to Australia or New Zealand or South Africa or Argentina is still very up in the air and depends entirely on whether or not I get, um, hired. But I’ve gotten used to that uprooted/rolling stone feeling and it’s less of a surprise this time around. I’ve been shaken awake by the recent experience of sucking the marrow out of life, to paraphrase a great American hero – Robin Williams (kidding! Thoreau. See what I did there?)

Perhaps I haven’t quite been shaken awake by this experience. It’s actually lulled me into a happy daze. I accidentally got used to this transient life I told myself not to get used to. But the yellow and red fall vineyards where late the sweet birds sang are quickly morphing into the bare-ruined choirs of twiggy winter, frosted over every morning. Friends are drifting back to the corners of the world.

And the winery is so clean that it looks cluttered to so much as unwrap a hose. I’d include a photo but there’s nothing to see.

But enough with the fatalism, because I swear: we really are still making wine.

Every week, more and more lots of wine are pulling through ML, finishing their secondary fermentation, getting sulphured, and moving from warm fermentation rooms (where I like to  thaw out on these freezing cellar mornings) to the colder barrel room.

And every week, I spend nearly a full day topping barrels. The level of the wine inside the barrels naturally and gradually goes down, leaving a headspace that exposes the wine to the dangers of oxidation and microbial growth like brettanomyces and VA (volatile acid).

Topping – and a good, firm seal on the barrel – reduces these threats. This is a task that requires the basic winery skill set of keeping hoses connected to the right places, the right valves open and closed, air pressure under control, messes kept to a minimum, and efficiency kept to a maximum.

I won’t bore you with the method.

Okay, fine: we pressurize a hose with nitrogen, hook it up to a barrel, and use a wand on the other end of the hose to fill the barrels up. Don’t overfill the barrels. Keep an eye on the wine level. Stop at the perfect place of total fullness. Bung the barrel tightly.

When I do this, it often takes the better part of a day. There are a lot of barrels. But I turn up the music, get in the zone, climb around, and make it my mission to beat my personal bests on speed and cleanliness.

Other than enlightening you, dear readers, the reason I bring this up is because I can’t get over how much I didn’t get something wrong in my last topping session.

Story time!

So there I was, blasting Tom Waits, topping all of the Syrah barrels from a keg of one of our fairly distinctive-tasting single-vineyards – Obsidian Vineyard. It’s a big wine and it stands out.

Obsidian Syrah in Obsidian Vineyard

The keg ran out so I went and pulled out another one. I rigged everything up and took the final step: tasting what’s in the hose. This is an important last-check to make sure you’ve got the right wine and to taste for spoilage.

I’ve always worried about this step – what if I don’t catch something?

As I tasted the jet of wine from the hose I thought, reflexively, “tastes like Obsidian.” I smacked my lips. Yum. And thought again. Wait – no, it doesn’t taste like Obsidian! I checked the label on my brand new keg. It was Pinot. My heart skipped a beat (see how exciting wineries are?). So I took it all apart, got out the right wine, hooked it all back up, and went along with my business.

The point of the story is that my taste-check didnt fail me. That I caught the difference in taste. That I know our wines, after 6 months (!!!!!!) in this job. That I know what I’m doing, not just with my hands, but with my senses. I don’t always get it right, and I still make plenty of mistakes, but I’ve learned how to cover my bases. I know the ropes. Ah, the ropes!

Feels like home.