barreled down & out

by crushed & stirred

…and then one day I got the WHOLE WEEKEND OFF.

It’s getting to be that time. We’ve had our last fruit – 18 tons of merlot. We’ve still got several big tanks full, two smaller open-top ferments, and about a dozen bin ferments. Some of these are nearly sugar dry and will surely be pressed off in the next week. We’ve started winterizing and resuming normal and restorative operations like massive pressure washing sessions and tending 2011 wines in barrel.

last fruit of 2012; 18 tons or merlot, inoculated yesterday

A fair number of our tanks are full of young malo wines that we’ve recently inoculated. Some of these will age right there in the tank. The rest get barreled down right away. Nearly all of the barrel downs to date have been on night shift, a world away from day shift. During harvest, every day at 6 pm when day shift is rounding on 10 hours, night shift joined the force. There was always a brief burst of energy at this point – a few new pairs of hands, a frenetic race to snatch up equipment, a few new friendly faces still morning fresh and sipping coffee as the sun is setting.

Speaking of suns setting – view from the catwalks as the sun sets on the 2012 vintage

There are many differences between night shift and day shift – the obvious being what it does to your schedule and your place in the world among other living things. It means working without natural light for most of your day. Day shift did more fruit processing and night shift got stuck with a lot more cleaning. For the most part, they’ve pumped over, punched down, inoculated, racked, drained, dug out, and pressed off just like we have.

But they have had to barrel down nearly every night since we had juice or wine to barrel down. Whereas the only use I’ve had for barrels in the last 6 weeks has been as stepladders. And I salute them, because it isn’t exactly a cakewalk. Let’s talk about stillage for a second.

In California, the majority of cellars I saw stored their barrels on metal racks – two to a rack, stacked empty or full in pairs as many as seven high and easily moved with a forklift or pallet jack. If you go to an old winery in France – or, as it turns out, this winery in NZ and many others elsewhere – the barrels will all be stored on stillage rather than on racks. The barrels rest on their bellies in layers. The bottom layer rests on 2x2s laid on the ground like train tracks and each barrel is wedged in place by triangular wooden shims. The next layers nestle in between the barrels of the layer bellow.

2011 barrels on stillage

But the barrels don’t just sidle happily into their homes. They have to be maneuvered, jiggered, heaved, kicked, slapped, knocked, tapped, prodded, and agonizingly ordered into position. Some people are barrel whisperers and seem to do all of this effortlessly – dead-lift the empty barrels up to the second or third level like it ain’t no thang, nudge them around a few times, and voila.

stack under construction; note the essential level on the floor

For the rest of us, stacking barrels is known to lead to a fair amount of huffing and puffing, red faced desperation, a certain amount of vile insults hurled at the barrels, and endless smacking and kicking and rapping as you try to even things out, usually resulting in more vile insults.

Because stability is important. The barrels weigh a ton once full and it’s important for the levels to be evenly stacked against one another. But they don’t want to be stable. The ground is flat – actually, it’s not, which is a whole other problem, but never mind – and the barrels are round. Enough said.

There are a variety of reasons to store the barrels this way, chief among them space. Barrel racks require high ceilings. We don’t have those. Stillage is also aesthetically and traditionally appealing. On the other hand, once full, they can’t be moved, so you’d better like where you put them when you fill them. The other day a rat dropped his flashlight in a barrel while topping; they had to rack all the barrels in the way into a tank (6-beer fine) just so that they could get to it. Ah, well.

But the barrel work is nice, too. Like most things in a cellar, stacking provides an opportunity to display mastery and artistry. You can just get it done or you can really get it done. I’m still focusing on getting it done.

barrel demon art

In this world of things endlessly foreign to me, I can’t help but feel grateful for the constants. Sulphur-citric smells like sulphur-citric. Doodlebugs are called doodlebugs. Barrel washers make the same whoosh-pow-whoosh-pow sound. Yeast and sugar will produce alcohol. Dry ice in your bare hand produces that mischievous urgency and glee as you hurry to release it.

And barrels. Their big bellies lined up in the cellar like fat horses in a stable, waiting to be saddled. Their crisp metal hoops and the rough grain of the staves. The crackling sound they make when you roll them – of oak on mottled cement – or the thud-smack they make when you flip them. The hollow thunk produced by setting them down. The bacon grease and sugar cookie smell of new oak, the cozy cabin aroma of old oak. The hard knock of a knuckle rapping on a full barrel, the meager hiccup on an empty one.

And the coopers. Seeing familiar insignias emblazoned on a barrel head somehow feels like home to me. The spare lettering of Francois Frères or Tonellerie Sirugue. The stoic capital letters declaiming DAMY or CADUS. The cursive of Sylvain and Demptos seems dainty and amateur compared to the downright womanly nameplates of Marsannay and the stolid fonts of Ermitage and Darnajou, each with their proud first letters. Everyone loves barrels. I have to focus on that love while stacking.

above, a shiny new oak Francois Frères; older oak below, considered neutral because it no longer imparts oak characters on the wine after a few uses

In the coming days, we’ll be tending the last of the ferments. With shorter days and weeks, we finally have the energy to start celebrating. The anticipation of harvest parties has kept us going for a while now. We are coming back to life.