Friday, November 9, 2012

One week working at a winery: I fought the valve and the valve won

 Kent Benson
By Kent Benson

Have you ever wondered exactly how a destemmer works? Posing that question to a winemaker a couple years ago was the genesis of my quest to find out firsthand how all the winemaking processes I had read about for years really happen.

As a wine educator I field a lot of questions about wine and winemaking, most of which are as easy to handle as an infield blooper. But, when someone asked me how a destemmer removes grapes from the stems, it was more like a hot grounder ricocheting off the heel of my glove.

Then and there I decided to put down The Oxford Companion to Wine and pick up a barrel filling wand. I wanted to work in a winery. With a full-time job and bills to pay, I could only spare a week for my hands-on, vinous experience. So, the question was, what winemaker in their right mind would want a complete novice gumming up the works in their winery for a week during the busy harvest season?

With some helpful suggestions from W. Blake Gray, I sent emails to a dozen or so wineries in the Paso Robles area, asking if they might help me fulfill my quest. I even volunteered my services for free, making sure they understood they would get precisely what they paid for. (I ended up getting paid anyway!) I chose Paso Robles solely because a friend there could put me up and I’d save on lodging.

Only two wineries responded. Both invited me to come.


I chose Wild Horse Winery because they were bigger and therefore better able to expose me to a greater variety of processes in a short period of time. Besides, they seemed genuinely excited about me joining their team, even if only for a week.

I later learned my request was very unusual. Wineries commonly get such requests from aspiring winemakers seeking internships lasting the entire harvest season or more, but never from wine educators/writers and for only one week. After meeting me, Wild Horse winemaker, Chrissy Whittman, confided that her initial reaction was one of skepticism, “I thought, who is this guy? I had to look you up on the web to make sure you were legit.”

Once my objective was understood, though, I sensed a sincere respect for my desire to go beyond book knowledge about winemaking. Director of Winemaking Clay Brock went out of his way to ensure that I was able to experience as much as possible during my short stay.

Winery work starts early and the chill in the air at 7 a.m. intensified my nervousness. Fearful questions raced through my mind. What if I do something completely stupid and ruin thousands of gallons of high-end wine? How long will it take for them to realize that this little experiment with a wine writer was a really bad idea? After this week will I be known as the George Plimpton of the wine world?

As it turned out, I wasn’t the only winery neophyte on the crew. Several others knew virtually nothing about winemaking and had never worked in a winery before. There’s nothing like commonly shared ignorance to boost your confidence. My nervousness subsided as we headed to the barrel room to do some barrel-downs.

Barrel-downs? What the heck is that? Transferring wine from a large vat to a small barrel is called a barrel-down. This is the kind of inside baseball stuff I had come to learn.

I also learned that every seemingly simple task includes a lot of associated details. Before you can begin barrel-downs the vat needs to be mixed with a special device so that each barrel contains an equal portion of particulate matter. Before any of the equipment can be used – hoses, pumps, wands (fuel pump-like nozzles for filling barrels) – it must be thoroughly cleaned. In fact, cleaning is the one constant. Hose this down. Sweep that off. Flush that out. It never ends.

When filling a barrel, a bobber is inserted in the bung hole to signal when the wine has reached the prescribed height. If for some reason you get distracted and don’t notice your bobber bobbing, an impressive fountain of wine explodes out of the bung hole, Bellagio style. I know this from personal experience and my embarrassment was only partially alleviated by that fact that one of the seasoned workers had just done the same thing a few moments before.

There are endless ways to screw up while working in a winery. When working with very large quantities of wine, it doesn’t take long for a small mistake to turn into a really big mess. Like the time my pump-over partner assumed that wine from a 6,000 gallon tank would not flow through a pump when the pump is turned off. It does. It really does. Or the time a new pump-over technique was employed on a very active fermentation, causing the wine to foam uncontrollably out of the access hole like toothpaste from a tube.

My favorite mishap was the time one of my colleagues had a little mix up during a pump-over. After several minutes, he realized that he was pumping wine out of one tank and into another. Can you imagine the panic? “Oh, no! I just pumped Paso Robles Merlot over Bien Nacido Pinot Noir!” Upon inspection he discovered both tanks contained the same Paso Robles Merlot, so he only had to even out the tanks.

Much of winemaking seems to be about hooking and unhooking hoses. Almost every task involves hoses and gaskets and clamps and pumps. It’s almost enough to make you volunteer to dig out a tank just for a change of pace.

Winemaking also involves a surprising amount of improvisation and adaptation to ever-changing circumstances. When the hose clogs at the bottom of the destemmer/crusher and you have 40 tons of grapes waiting to be unloaded, a solution must be found quickly. Production Coordinator Greg Waters was one of the busiest guys in the winery, helping out at almost every phase and coming to the rescue when problems arose.

Our two-hour safety session was ample evidence that safety on the job is the top priority. It’s a good thing, too. A winery is not a place for the clumsy or inattentive. I discovered the hard way that when the back of your head meets the main valve on a 6,000 gallon tank, the valve always wins.

CO2 is another thing you learn about very quickly in a winery. It only takes one instance of sticking your head down too far into an actively fermenting vat to be wary of this common yet deadly gas. There must be a built-in human mechanism that instantly detects its presence in the nose, causing the head to reflexively snap back as if you were sucker-punched by Mike Tyson.

In the end, I survived my six days at Wild Horse. It went way too quickly, but I accomplished my objective. I saw how a destemmer works and a whole lot more. Say what you will about “industrial” winemaking; I witnessed a great deal of passion for making great wine. I came away with a lot of respect for winemakers' work and the incredible amount of affordable, high-quality wine they produce for us thirsty wine lovers.

Did my time at Wild Horse make me want to be a winemaker? Not really. I still love writing and teaching people about wine. Having said that, an overwhelming melancholy gripped me as I drove down the long driveway away from the facility for the last time, knowing I might never be back. I’m not sure I would love making wine every day, but doing it once a year for a week would be a blast!

Guest poster Kent Benson is a certified wine educator at Swirl Wine School in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He writes the Wine Savvy column for Central Minnesota Style, and has written for Wines & Vines. He's also a portfolio manager and financial adviser. And he's a longtime reader of The Gray Report. I asked Kent to share his experiences at Wild Horse with my readers. Please join me in thanking him -- thanks, Kent -- in the comments.

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6 comments:

Matt Mauldin said...

Thanks Kent for sharing your experience. Sounds like an intense week! Cheers!

Kent Benson said...

My pleasure, Matt.

latour said...

Blake,thank you for asking your friend to share is experiences.Kent you are correct cleaning is the one constant, and safety is a must top priority in a winery. Thank you for sharing.

dinaclabaugh said...

Excellent post. I have the fortunate opportunity to participate in Kent's Swirl Club tastings. I've learned so much over the years; and appreciate his wise and humble approach.

Kent Benson said...

latour - a winery is just the place for an obsessive compulsive like me.

Kent Benson said...

dinaclabaugh - your astuteness is surpassed only by your good judgment. (The check's in the mail.)