by crushed & stirred

We are steeped in it. We’ve gone from that gleeful phase of early harvest through the adrenaline-crazed madness past the lull and into the wilds of the thoroughly entrenched.

Exhibit A: we’re speaking in code. Things like “301 is up to 33” and “do 13 at 680” and “D8 is pulling air at 150 ” are conversation starters.

Exhibit B: when I look back on past blog posts, I see typos and lazy syntax. I proofread these things like ninety five times. I mention this as a paltry mea culpa to the fair portion of my audience made up of professional editors that I may or may not be related to. It’s because I can barely keep me eyes open after a shift. Even on a fairly reasonable 12-hour day, after mandatory beers with the team there’s barely time for a rotating series of happenings: shower, food, laundry. I aim for two out of three.

Exhibit C: We are pressing reds and digging. Digging for our lives. We have already dug out our biggest tanks: two 25-ton lots of merlot at 70% extraction, leaving roughly 8 tons of skins to dig. My fellow day-shift rat and I took one each of these. I think I grew a few new muscles. To replace the ones that have fallen out.

digging my way to freedom; 2/3 of the way done

We’ve pressed several other big and medium-sized tanks and a dozen of our smaller, open-top ferments, most of which are in bins that we forklift up to the level of the door on our small press and bucket out of. In CA, the 1-ton bins are smaller than our 2.5-ton bins here and there’s less operating room. Post-vintage at Donelan, I admitted that during my first bin dig, I thought I was literally going to have to quit my job. Somehow I managed. And then got better at it. The bins here are roomier and digging one out takes about 20 minutes.

bin dig into the small press

As usual, every task seems both harder and easier than other tasks, for reasons that only become apparent when you are thigh-deep in grapes or hanging off of a catwalk by your fingertips. Digging out tanks is harder than bins because there’s so much more fruit, but easier because they have doors at shovel-level while bins have tall sides.

We press to tank here rather than straight to barrel, as we did at Donelan. After draining the free run, we bust the doors open and chip away at the cap with a shovel until there’s room to climb in and the C02 monitor is happy. Then you shovel like hell until it’s all cleared out. It takes two people: one half-dressed person inside the tank and one bin-dumper to forklift shoveled-out skins to the press.

I already feel stronger than before we started digging but the dig-outs have certainly added to the physical work, which I didn’t think was possible at this point. The assistant winemaker reminded me that I specifically wrote in my covering letter that I enjoyed the physical challenges of the cellar. Then I kicked him in the shins. Figuratively.

I’ve discovered in this first post-college year that adolescence teaches us a different meaning of “challenge” than what reality tends to offer us. In school and growing up, we practice challenges in controlled environments – standards and trials that we are expected to meet and overcome with a little determination and effort. The pleasure of accomplishment is also the satisfaction of a vaguely predicable outcome.

As we get older and the stakes get higher, challenges turn out to be a lot harder and a lot less romantic than they once seemed. Learning curves can be excruciating. I’m not just speaking from my own experience here but from the countless conversations I’ve had with my close friends spread all over the world doing a million different things, all of them feeling the burn of learning something new and hard – and beyond that, the desire to master it. We don’t want to just do things. We want to be good at them.

And I do enjoy the physical demands. It’s rewarding to feel stronger, to feel better at something mechanically challenging, especially given that I am a pansy-ass in recovery and that I have tiny hands, middling coordination, and butterfingers. I’m currently holding the record at 5 broken thermometers. Which is just embarrassing.

I’m not small, but at 5’6” there’s a long list of things that are hard to reach or maneuver – including the volume control on the sound system and a three-inch hose full of fruit. As a woman, some of the demands seem more demanding. As an inexperienced cellar hand, most of the demands seem more demanding. And as a non-science-fluent bookworm, all of the demands seem awfully . . . science-y. What’s the difference between a kilopascal and a bar and a psi of pressure? And how can I figure it out NOW so I can rig up the pulse air system twenty minutes ago?

All of which contributes to the rewards of improvement. Cellars require that you be up for getting into things – bust something open when it doesn’t work, take it apart and put it back together, crawl into all kinds of hidey-holes, be wet and dirty, work through basic discomforts that take practice to ignore: water trickling up your arms; wet socks; chemical burns; back aches; hunger; exhaustion; open wounds stinging with acid.

And I can’t lie – I’m not always up for it. But I have to rally anyway, and push myself until I am up for it. And then I’m there. But I also know that I usually look like my hair’s on fire – something I’m working on. The people who make it all look easy are legend to watch in action. It’s mesmerizing.

And I think I’ve done it again – I’ve spent weeks now hurting from injuries and exhaustion, wondering if it will ever end, wondering if I want it to ever end. And while I’ve been busy telling myself not to get used to it, the ground is shifting beneath me already. Today we were informed that all the fruit will be in by next week.