Back in August, I closed my laptop for a week to scrub, power wash and throw out my back, but it was only the prep before the storm. I was on call for dirty harvest jobs (exact picking and processing dates can’t be predicted), but with the searing summer we had, I expected to have my hands stained purple by September’s end. Then, it started to rain. And it kept raining. I didn’t hear much from the winemakers and what I did hear wouldn’t be polite to print.
One August morning, before the deluge had rotted moods and grapes, I went to Afton Mountain Vineyards to help sort the 1.5 acres of pinot noir grapes they’d picked the day before. Owners Tony and Elizabeth Smith came bearing country ham biscuits. I took my post on a step ladder leaning over a sorting table with a conveyer belt leading to a destemmer. Winemaker Damien Blanchon said to look inside each cluster for sour rot (a common affliction for tightly bunched grapes) and if more than two-thirds of the cluster was affected, I was to throw it into the baskets at our feet. I was also to discard any unripe secondary clusters which, described by Tony, are “so hard they bounce if you drop them.” And when in doubt? Damien bit into a cluster and it crunched like an apple. Gotcha.
Hunter, the Smiths’ son and vineyard marketing manager, started emptying lugs onto the sorting table and four of us poured over the cool, marble-like grapes, removing leaves, clumps of red dirt and live stink bugs, spiders (eek!), crickets and grasshoppers. Pinot noir grapes are thin-skinned and burst easily, so within minutes, our hands, arms and legs were sticky with juice. When it came time to empty the destemmer, the short break made us feel seasick from the table’s sudden stillness. Two hours later, we’d sorted 109 baskets (2.5 tons) of gorgeous fruit and thrown out no more than two baskets worth. On my walk back to my car, I was a wobbly, juicy target for stinging insects.
By the third week of September, the rain had become a joke. Winemakers began wishing for frost. The grapes weren’t ripe, but left on the vine they’d rot. Then, in the first week of October, the clouds parted, moods lifted and the winemakers started chirping again.
Matthieu Finot at King Family Vineyards was ready to barrel one of his tanks of cabernet franc and asked me to stain the oak barrels and then remove the pomace from the tank. He recommended shorts and bare feet, along with a change of clothing, so I brought all three and reported for duty on a chilly, sunny morning. With a tub of blood red lees and a sponge, I was to stain the center portion of the barrel. It was so zen that I got carried away and stained the whole thing.
Next up, the tank. Matthieu said he would first drain the juice and release the carbon dioxide so that I wouldn’t die (wait, what?). I climbed up to the cat walk (the tanks are 10′ high) where the air was thick with fruit flies and fermentation. I took off my shoes and socks, hoisted myself onto the edge of the 5,000 liter tank and then jumped. My feet squished into three feet of pomace so densely-packed that it supported my weight. Jake Busching (my slave driver at Mount Juliet) stopped by and stayed to watch me struggle. I started chipping away with my shovel, but it was big and awkward, so I took Jake’s advice to use my hands and “dig my way out like a groundhog.” Matthieu told me to tell him if I felt faint and to be careful not to slip and impale myself on the foot-long temperature probe sticking out above the manhole. Then they took an espresso break.
Within minutes, I was sweaty and dizzy, but I somehow made amends with my shovel. I finished the job in what Matthieu called “good time” and satisfyingly sprayed the tank clean before sliding out of the manhole onto sober ground. I probably should have had a designated driver back to Charlottesville. I felt woozy all day and even a half of glass of wine with dinner made me feel drunk. I had open sores on my hands from my groundhog technique.
The next day, Glass House Winery owner Jeff Sanders was harvesting and processing norton and chambourcin. I turned up in the afternoon as he was carting mule-loads of grapes from his vines down to the crush pad. Assistant winemaker Michael MacFarlan operated the forklift while I loaded about 800 pounds of grapes into the destemmer with a white plastic rake from a platform 8′ high. There was no one up there but me and the 3" hornets, stink bugs, furry spiders (double eek!) and bees. I stopped now and then to sprinkle sulfur dioxide, tartaric acid and tannin because, in such a wet vintage, treating the wine needs to be done immediately. Between grape loads, I compost-piled stems and got drenched spraying picking baskets. I had to leave before it was time to clean the destemmer—the dirtiest job—but my sores were oozing again and I had the distinct feeling I was slowing things down.
As hard and dirty as each job was, I left feeling inspired and energized, but doubt I would if I did it every day. After all, I went home to wash my hands and lick my wounds after just a few hours. Most winemakers work 14-16 hour days throughout harvest. With that, I raise my feebly-earned glass to them and the especially dirty 2011 vintage.