. . . . and I’m off

by crushed & stirred

Hard to believe. But we picked all the grapes, made all the wine, and drank it all. Just kidding. But winemakers certainly know how to toast another year of winemaking.

So we’ve pushed the boat out, a few times over. And now I’ve literally pushed the boat out – across the Cook Strait to the South Island and down its autumnal valleys and battered sea coasts and breath taking Fiordlands, where a very small seat on a very large plane waits to take me to another hemisphere.

sunrise over Wellington Bay

In my time in New Zealand I’ve learned about a whole new brand of winemaking. I’ve learned that a 1000-ton facility is small for this market, where massive factories are processing upwards of 20,000 tons a year, most of it Marlborough sauvignon blanc that you’ll find in supermarkets round the world. I’ve learned that having multiple tiers of labels at a winery is a double-edged sword: large-production “entry level” winemaking both pays your bills and racks them up. It makes it possible for you to spend time on other things, but it also takes up most of your time.

And so on.

I’ve learned a little more science, too, and have a lot more to learn. Though this was only my second rodeo, it wasn’t my first and I’ve had a chance to process a lot of what I started to learn last year. About carbon and nitrogen and pressure valves and vacuums and acids and bases and yeast and plants and berries. I thirst for more – knowledge, experience, skills, finesse.

And I’ve seen some things. Crunched tanks and press doors and fruit trucks crushing equipment and ferments literally climb out of their bins. I’ve been for rides on unstable ladders and overladen forklifts (sorry mom). I’ve also, in this great nation of large and often great wineries, seen and heard of some impressive efforts to rescue wine and juice – efforts that fall on either side of that fuzzy line between interventionist and minimalist winemaking.

Amidst all of these reminders of winemaking’s industrial side, I continue to be impressed by the degree to which wineries are held together with bungee cords. Cellars are like the playground of MacGyver’s dreams. At Donelan we referred to a certain class of tricks as “NASA engineering,” including anything that required the use of wooden bricks. At our 100 year old facility in NZ, we spent a fair amount of time tying things together with string: propping, buttressing, fastening, suspending, harnessing, shutting, opening, etc. To siphon juice from beneath a berry cap, we inserted a handmade mesh tube to screen out the fruit. We used bungee cords for just about everything.

Cellars breed resourcefulness. Those with innate mechanical imagination thrive. I’m not entirely one of those people. Luckily I’ve worked for some of them and I steal their moves all the time. I’m also grateful when they find me, bent over a miniature crisis with a pair of pliers and say those magic and embarrassing words: “there’s a better way to do that . . .” As one of my cellar mates said, sometimes you just have to kick things. Such ingenuity is part instinct and part muscle – part finesse and part force; as the latter grows stronger with conditioning, the former begins to creep in.

The end of a vintage is bittersweet. The team becomes a family – a big, loud, globe-crossing family that sometimes curse one another for leaving a mess in the destemmer and other times save one another from imminent head trauma and make each other proper English fry-ups (a revelation: not bacon or sausage; bacon and sausage).

And just when you didn’t think you could take any more suspense: I won’t say just yet what’s next for me. I’ll be on some continent, somewhere, probably fermenting something.