getting a clue

by crushed & stirred

Here. Look at the winery’s twin silos peeking out above my house’s roof. SO BIG, RIGHT? Thew view from up there is amazing. More on that particular adventure next time.

Things are starting to feel normal, whatever that means. At the end of a rigorous day in the cellar, I am fairly destroyed. Sometimes it’s hard to believe how I get there. Often it doesn’t look like much on paper.

The other day I spent a couple of hours first thing taking down temperature and dissolved oxygen measurements on about twenty tanks – at a place this size, some of the wine ages in tank rather than in barrel. Some tanks are small, equivalent to a few barrels’ worth. But most of them are gigantic – the size of a living room.

Then I spent a couple more hours pressure washing (“wahter-blahsting,” the Kiwis say) the crush pad, climbing endlessly in and out of the 10-ton hopper and up and down “the pit,” where the destemmer lurks like a beast in a medieval torture chamber.

lying in wait

lying in wait

Then the other Cellar Kids and I stacked about nine zillion barrels on stillage (more on that next time as well).

Then I cleaned tanks and fixed lines.

A word on cleaning here in Big Winery Land. Once upon a time in Tiny Winery Land, I was part of a concerted effort to conserve water. We collected the run-off and used only one process (ie, water, green cleaning solution, water). This was all non-toxic and fairly efficient.

Now I’m working with industry-standard cleaning procedures that are more noxious and wasteful. It takes FOUR 50-gallon buckets of water to clean one tank. A first bucket conveys the caustic solution – a granulated substance dissolved in water. The stuff is vile – a corrosive alkali. A whiff of it makes you gag. If you get it on your skin, it feels like slimy soap you can’t wash off, as the base literally turns your skin cells to soap. It kills EVERYTHING, which is why wineries like it.

Caustic must be flushed out with a second bucket of water and followed with a third bucket containing a sulphur-citric acid solution, which neutralizes the caustic. We sometimes used sulphur at Donelan for sanitizing. Here, it’s the necessary third step in cleaning anything. It, too, can make you gag and cough, your eyes stinging and watering. The sulphur-citric gets flushed out with a fourth bucket of clean water.

For cleaning smaller things – hoses and fittings and bits and bobs – it goes a lot faster, because it has to. You’ve got to keep moving. Nonetheless, the process is time and water consuming. Obviously with tanks this big, even a basic rinse requires far more water than the comparatively small tanks at Donelan did. But it still makes me cringe when I watch 200 gallons slink down the drain each time a tank needs cleaning.

As with most cellar tasks, the setup and all the monkeying around in transition drags out the length of what might otherwise be brief work. You get better at efficiency and expediency with time and familiarity with the facilities and equipment – at least, this is what I tell myself whenever I wrestle with a 20-metre length of two-inch hose, swearing violently every time it doesn’t do what I want it to (which is often).

And a word on fixed lines, another feature of Big Winery Land. These are metal pipes that criss-cross the whole cellar. You can hook wine into a fixed line in one part of the winery and pump it somewhere else – somewhere that you likely can’t even see. These lines run all over the crush pad; soon, they’ll be pumping fruit right out of the destemmer and straight into fermentation tanks and presses. I find this basically awesome. But also a little unnerving – what if something is going horribly wrong and you don’t even know until you discover 10 tons of fruit in a pile on the floor??

Which is unlikely. But still. Just another reason to not to screw up.

And so that’s a day. Tomorrow will be very different. One of these days there will be fruit – we’re still up to two weeks out.

And the rest is falling into place, too. The crew is bonding. The quirks of this particular environment are coming into a comforting, idiosyncratic familiarity, like: grabbing 2 litres of beer from Rooster’s (you just keep refilling them); arguing over the daily quiz in the newspaper over “smoko” (from the Latin, “smokes” & “coffee,” meaning “break”); having to hang on to the dry ice dispenser so that the static doesn’t zap you.

there are two of these stations; they fascinate me; that metal hood hooks over a bucket; you stand on top of it as it fills

the metal hood hooks over the top of a bucket; you stand on the hood while the dry ice dispenses; and don’t let go! I swear I can feel the ache of the electric charge, but it may be in my head.

And wineries are all about perspective. Every task can seem more or less difficult or pleasant than another, for reasons you always forget until you’re knee deep in it. Every cellar presents its own gifts and nightmares compared to what you’ve experienced. I take special pleasure in the sloped floors (the beauty of drainage!) and the built-in hose-fittings – no more faffing about with infinite Tri-Clover clamps and gaskets.

And other things can be frustrating, as expected. I try not to judge too harshly given that different approaches are valid and instructive. And while I feel like less of a moron in the cellar than I once did, I’m still basically a moron, and what the hell do I know. It all makes for animated cellar-geek conversation.

Little victories keep me going – I’ve got my one-handed barrel roll down solidly – and for everything else, there’s just enough self-hatred, camaraderie, and beers on the porch to take the edge off.

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