just like that

by crushed & stirred

I feel like I’ve been through a time warp. One day, we were getting 4 tons of Gewurztraminer. A couple months later and a few pounds lighter, the vineyards have turned color, a chill has settled over the bay, and we have brought in all 700 tons that the 2012 vintage has allowed us to make off with. That is well below the range we historically process.

fall finds the vines

Oh, and I’m out of a job. That’ll happen.

There are only a dozen ferments left in the winery, all of which are due for an extended post-ferment maceration. Not an uncommon choice in a year like this one, where sugars were low, color was light, flavor concentration was uneven, and tannin was often lacking.

People are probably sick of hearing this American say it, but the vintage has been an uncanny replica of California’s 2011. Early ripening whites and pinot noir mostly matured well and came in tasting great and looking good. More delicate and finicky white grapes got beat up by rain. Later-ripening reds were hit or miss, depending on varietal and microclimate. A lot of merlot was finishing just as the worst of the weather hit and struggled to reach maturity in flavor and sugar, even as acids dropped out to more reasonable levels. Some syrah and cabernet sauvignon held on through the rain, managing to eek sugar and flavor out of the late sunshine. A lot of reds got the worst of both worlds: not enough sunlight hours and heat to mellow acids and bring up sugars and flavors and too much moisture to escape rot – resulting in punishingly low yields after crews cut the botrytis out.

But we’re past all that now. The last ferments will finish slowly. Just enough work for the full time winery staff to handle on their own, so the rats and I have been cut from the team. It’s an odd feeling, since we always knew it would come and both dreaded and yearned for it on those long hard days. It’s hard to explain the magic of harvest, sometimes even to myself – its ebbs and flows in enthusiasm and energy and wild vacillations from exhaustion and pain and frustration to endorphins and fulfillment and fun.

Rooster’s, home of $8 flagons

I savored my last round of punch downs. While a cold, autumnal rain shattered on the ground outside, I luxuriated in the sauna of the cellar and the essential, organic pleasure of breaking through the berry cap with the steel plunger. Such pleasure can get lost in the fray mid-harvest, when there are dozens of absurdly difficult punch downs to do and one million tasks stand between you and the next cup of coffee.

You often have to press your whole weight into the plunger to break up the cap, taking care not to lose your balance and fall in or back. Sometimes it seems impossible. Sometimes I had to use the plunger like a shovel and dig my way through the cap before I could even start breaking it up, and even then it’s like churning cement with a plastic fork. You throw yourself into it. You will it to yield to you. Eventually it gives way. Much of winemaking has been industrialized in modern times, mostly to great effect. But some things have been the same for millennia. Simple and beautiful. Just the fruit and your bare hands.

My dayshift teammate (a guy) confessed that he wanted to be gentlemanly and offer to do the punch downs when they were at their worst. “Because when they’re hard, they’re reallyreally hard,” he said. And it’s true. But I never wanted to appear to be avoiding them. Furthermore, in addition to being hard, they’re actually rather fun (see above).

I always want to take on the most demanding tasks in the cellar. I don’t want there to be things I am less capable of physically. But the truth is that there just are. Two pieces of advice given to me last year remain true:

  • first (this, from a guy): don’t try to compete with the guys. You have to learn how to make things easier for yourself by yourself and when to ask for help
  • second (this, from a chick-winemaker-boss-lady): if you want to dig a tank, ask to dig a tank. Don’t be underestimated out of anything, but don’t be an arrogant moron either because you’ll get hurt or mess up and just lose time and respect

I could probably train forever and still not be able to beast through a massive tank dig the way my supervisors can. But they’re made of steel. So you work your tail off and compensate elsewhere. I’ve had to learn what my contribution is and how to own it. This is a constantly evolving process.

I’m not making this up; it really is this beautiful

The energy here is vastly different from what it was a few weeks ago, when the winery hummed and clattered through the night, its bright glow and loud music flooding out through the open gates. From outside, I could pick out distinctive sounds – the pneumatic plunger snapping to attention or a wrench hitting the concrete as a busy hand releases it and hurries on to the next task. The voices and pumps and engines and alarms and hammering that we learned to sleep through. Our modest cellar rat accommodations were quiet and still in comparison, filled mostly with the muffled racket from the winery, the buzz of the washing machine, and the mellow chimes of a few pulverized friends playing music over some well-earned beers.

The opposite is now the case. While, late at night, the winery gates are shut and the space beyond it dark and quiet, our homes are bright and crowded with noise and people. The leisure time is nice. The open road is thrilling. The possibilities ahead are exciting. But I swear, as my cracked, stained hands begin to regain their normal appearance, I miss it all just a little already. Because I’m crazy.