So what do you do?
That’s the question I got this fall more than I expected when people found out I was working harvest part-time for a local winery.
The next question was invariably - do you really stomp the grapes with your feet?
Generally, no. The grapes are machine crushed and destemmed for the most part. It isn’t uncommon even these days for people to get into a vat of fermenting red wine to mix the solids and juice, and spread out any hot spots created by the fermentation. But that didn’t happen here.
What you do working harvest is work your tail off. Dump countless 35lbs. trays of grapes onto the sorting conveyor, if not pitchfork grapes that arrive in half ton or larger bins. Sort endlessly. Move the bins of crushed grapes into the winery to soak and then begin fermenting. Punch down fermenting red wine with a metal rod with a disk on its end, when the grape solids are pushed up by carbon dioxide from the fermenting juice forming a cap that can be one or more feet thick. Clean and rinse picking trays, bins, tanks, hoses, fittings, buckets, pumps, conveyor belts, barrels, things over and over again. Stir lees in the chardonnay barrels, clean the presses, sweep the floor, hose down the floor, punch down again. Crush more grapes and do it all over again.
That’s essentially it, broken up by times of waiting for grapes to arrive or for someone to get back from an errand to do something that requires a group.
Along the way I asked as many questions as I could manage. What’s "ripe?" How much sulfur dioxide to use at crushing? How long to cold soak the crushed grapes before fermenting? What analysis do you really need to do? How do you do it? What do you look for during fermentation? How often do you punch down? What odd smells during fermentation are normal and what are signs of more serious problems? How long do you wait until pressing? How clean do you really need to be? How often do you rack? When do you sulfur the wine again? How do you know when to bottle? All things I have some experience with (and even more opinions on), but how does a professional do things?
And I paid attention to how you might manage the whole thing. What is the typical sequence of events to do all the tasks of harvest? How do you work with the growers who seem to talk up the quality of their grapes and are often anxious to have you harvest as soon as possible, only not this week because we don’t have picking crew. How do you manage your space in the winery, and your available bins, tanks, and barrels that need to hold everything you bring in from the fields? Most of all, considering the Oregon climate, how do you make picking decisions, especially with constantly shifting weather forecasts and more folk wisdom than you can imagine from anyone in the industry.
What did I get out of the deal? Lots of exercise, lots of knowledge, and some fun with a very humble, extremely honorable boss who really knows what he’s doing (and often not going to do) in the wine cellar. Not to mention some cash in my pocket and some nice wine at a good price for my efforts.
All this from a phone call out of the blue that I made to the producer almost a year ago saying, essentially, I respect your wines very much and although you don’t know me I’d like to work with you to learn how to really make wine in Oregon. I didn’t exactly achieve that goa, yet. There are more harvests to come no matter where I work. But this was the start of something very interesting, and combined with my ongoing experiments with home winemaking, I’m excited.