hitting the fan

by crushed & stirred

It’s happened again.

The fruit has hit the fan. Literally. We blew out the fan on the destemmer.

We are up to our sore, tired eyeballs in grapes. With weather continuing to threaten ripening and rot, we have brought in all of our whites and all of our pinot noir in 6 days. A month’s work in a week, apparently, with only this year’s low yields to relieve us from the onslaught of fruit that we’ve torn through.

It all happened so fast. A week ago we were hoping for a few tons of Gewurztraminer. Now the cellar smells like Chardonnay ferments, grape skins are hiding everywhere – in the presses, in my boots, in my hair, behind my ears – and I’m covered in a variety of artful bruises, burns, and cuts.

Our shifts are ranging from 10 to 16 hours and the winery’s been running 24 hours, which we’re not really meant to do. But what’s a cellar to do? There are only 4 or so people on a shift and over 50 tons of fruit coming in and through the presses all day and late into the night in truckloads of 10ish tons – and occasionally, baskets of hand-picked fruit slated for our top-tier wines, stacked 20 to a pallet. We dump these baskets into the hopper by hand. There’s a technique. 3 of us did 12 tons in 2 hours yesterday.

 bins of hand-picked pinot await processing


these ALL have to be washed. Individually. By hand.

All of the whites (Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Arneis, Semillon) have to be pressed right away, which means 4 or 5 press loads a day, climbing in and out of presses to hose them down, forklifting massive bins of skins out into our gunk truck, transferring huge amounts of juice into big tanks inside the winery, and a lot of shifting juice around – filling tanks, consolidating lots, racking tanks off their lees for warming, inoculating, and barreling down.

Chardonnay. This rooms smells like heaven. And there’s so much CO2 that it’s a little hard to breathe. The upside down beer bottles serve allow the gases to circulate while providing a seal – a DIY version of fermentation bungs

So we’re busy as all hell. Some days I am physically running almost continuously – from one end of the winery to the other; up and down the steps of the catwalks to monitor tanks that are draining and filling; up and down the ladder into the crush pit; into and out of the presses; from the lab to the winery; from the barrel cellar back to the racking tank. There’s a fine line between hurrying and rushing, busy and harried, and nailing something or blowing it. A few degrees off, a little too much pressure, a reflex that lags under fatigue or distraction and juice or fruit or chemicals are down the drain or in someone’s face or permanently compromised.

this is what happens when you don’t vent a tank before draining it

There’s obviously a physically tiring aspect. But there’s also the mentally tiring aspect. Thinking straight and focusing begin to seem like tall orders. So you caffeinate. You hydrate. You eat not just in hunger but in rabid desperation for protein.

Also: you try. Really, really hard. When something seems impossibly fussy or heavy or intricate or frustrating, I repeat a Donelan-era mantra: it’s hard, but it’s not impossible.

Some days, we’re slammed from the minute the assistant winemaker says “ready . . . . break!” at the end of morning meeting, sending us all flying to our first assignments. So much energy goes into Cellar Tetris and to double and triple checking – to try to keep all bases covered, knowing how easy it is for something to slip through the cracks and thus trying to keep damage control reflexes high.

Under this kind of pressure, all kinds of things go wrong. A blown hose feels like a small crime alongside recent incidents such as overfilled tanks, stem bins falling off of fully raised forklifts, a crunched tank, a valve left open on a 15,000 litre tank, a tanker-truck of sauvignon blanc getting an unintentional injection of pinot noir. Beer fines are accruing (the crunched tank = 24 beers). My biggest concern is damage to the biggest asset: the wine. With endless additions of sulphur and acid and yeast and nutrients and bentonite and silica and other things I haven’t gotten round to asking about, to say nothing of the infinite inoculations and chaptalizations, I am always paranoid about adding the wrong amount of the wrong thing to the wrong place, or some variation thereof.

a bentonite addition time-stamped at 4 am

But there are less crazed tasks as well. I took me over an hour to add potassium bicarbonate by the 20-kilo bag to huge tanks to drop out some of the acid in the juice. Working quickly is imperative. But sometimes you can only move as fast as it takes to transfer a tank, to wait for a tank to come up to temperature before inoculating, to wait for a press cycle to go through, to wait for the destemmer to catch up. Working efficiently enough to have a seamless flow of projects going is an art form that I’m working on.

But beyond the fear of ruining something, the rattled nerves from actual mistakes, the frenzy of everyone running in every direction, I find peace and a calm in the fluency and the ease of pacing that develop as you come to learn the intricacies of a particular set up or task. I enjoy inoculations, which I’ve been mastering this week. You feed the yeast, tend it, nurture it, and suddenly it’s not only alive but active, giving rise to its own reactions.

sunset inoculation up on the catwalk

So many tasks can become frustrating, but I’m living for the small victories, like finding solutions to problems on my own, making something work that wasn’t working, or the simple but immense satisfaction of understanding how to do something when I’m told to do it.

Many things continue to be a huge source of pleasure: the sound of fruit thundering into the hopper in a waterfall of color and grape spit; the heavenly smell of yeast in the cellar housing our active ferments; the satisfaction of a nice, tight taste-off between tanks or press loads; the way a beer feels at the end of a shift – even night shift cracks one open over pie and the sunrise.

We are walking the fine, harvest line between weary and wonderful, exhausted and exhilarated, deflated and energized. I’ve finally managed to post this only because we turn the clocks back tonight, giving me an extra hour of sleep before waking up with the sun to start all over again.

With so much fruit in, we’re expecting a slight lull while we lick our wounds, tend to our ferments, baby all our barrels, and gear up for the anticipated shellacking from the reds in the next weeks.

Send for help.