Tuesday, September 8, 2015

What's it like to be a harvest intern? All cleaning, with lots of water

P prefers to remain anonymous, but this is his foot
Today I'm running a guest post by P., who is working this summer as a harvest intern in Napa Valley. It's quite evocative and if he weren't going to be a winemaker, he'd be a pretty good writer.

Working vintage as a harvest intern or cellar hand is always good fun. That being said, four harvests in, I’m starting to get a little jaded. “Oh yes, this wine is very special because of our ‘X' terroir and careful treatment of the wines using ‘bla bla bla’ barrels and techniques."

I come from a culture where not many people get into the wine industry – think accounting, engineering or finance as being your typical upper-middle class route. I am lucky having parents who indulged me in my studies of viticulture and enology. “Viticulture” I said, as I tried to justify my choice of subject, “that’s farming. At least I’ll learn how to feed the world, right?”

Yes, if feeding the world and ending famine could only be done with $200 Napa Cabs.

After four years of schooling, with some very intense biochemistry and organic chemistry that seem to make kids rethink wine science being "easy," apparently I am an "indispensable asset to any winery" that hires me, or so I’ve been told.

So what does one do in a winery, intern or eitherwise?

Some folks think the best wines come from the vineyard, that 90% of your quality is how well you farm. I agree with that. Essentially once you start bringing in fruit you would like to manipulate it as little as possible to express your "special" terroir. So 90% of the work in the cellar is really cleaning.

Cellar sanitation, winery hygiene, tank sterilization – call it what you will, at the end of the day an intern’s best friend is a pressure washer and a scrub. What do we do before racking wine? We clean the tanks and hose. What do we do before processing fruit? Clean and scrub all the equipment.

Wow, that Pinot is ripe and rich this year! Photo by P
I once worked at a 22,000-ton facility where we sometimes had to move small amounts of wine across relatively large distances. The amount of water we used to flush out the hoses and clean them nearly equaled the volume of product being moved. It's ridiculous. Whoever the asshat is that said “drink wine, save water” clearly has never seen a winery’s water usage.

Ok, so that’s clearly a wine factory. How about the small artisanal $200-plus bottle producers?

Same thing. Day in, day out, you spend most of your time cleaning something or other. Water is used way too much, and honestly the only thing that separates the $20 wines from the $200 bottles seems to be marketing.

Maybe I’m being harsh and cynical. But it feels like being in a cult sometimes when you’re constantly reminded about how special the place you’re working at is. I’m almost surprised they haven’t completely decked me out in estate swag. I got only a lousy t-shirt. I want the baseball cap!

But how about the excitement of the harvest? The rush of fruit coming in and working those crazy 12 hour days?

Not this year I’m afraid. Bad shatter from uneven bloom (inconsistent temperatures during the spring) has led to yields being down 30%.

On top of that, our small winery has an extra intern this year, bringing our crew up to an overstaffed number of five in the cellar. Three could run the show if they worked hard.

That said, I don't want to complain about my time here. In all honesty it’s great being a vintage intern in Napa. My bosses are actually very cool people, and I get paid relatively well for the -- let’s face it -- menial work I do.

Best of all, you can pretty much taste and visit whoever you like for free (#imintheindustry) except the snobs over at Screaming Eagle who apparently only let their original winemaker come and visit (a lie).

Meeting other vintage interns has also been a great joy, sharing wine and swapping war stories from harvests across the hemispheres. Industry gossip runs to “my so and so boss is like a plantation owner with his slave hat” to confessions like “oh God, I sunk in a tank today.” Or my favorite, “that producer ‘y’ picks at 30 brix and somehow still ended up with 14% alcohol wine.” Hmmm…

For now we wait, eager like a hungry crowd outside an Apple store on Black Friday, only a bit more civilized. The tanks have been scrubbed way too many times. The bins are stacked and ready to be filled with fruit, and all our chemicals, yeast and their nutrients are tallied and accounted for.

Now please excuse me while I go soak all those fittings in caustic again.

"P is a university graduate in the esteemed science of growing grapes and making wines. Four years of school and three vintages has him still spending most of his time cleaning something. He doesn't drink as much wine as his worried grandmother seems to think."

This is me again, Blake, writing: P hopes to get a fulltime job in Napa, which he really likes, but if he can't find one, he's interested in another paid vintage intern position in the southern hemisphere. You can send me a message if interested and I'll put you in touch. I can't say anything about his winemaking, but he's a good communicator and that's a valuable skill also. Thank for the fun post, P.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


Unknown said...

How much waste water is created for every gallon of wine?

“On average . . . 6 gallons” reports the San Francisco Chronicle “Food & Wine” section (October 2011):

“Turning Water Back Into Wine”

Link: http://www.sfgate.com/wine/article/Winery-wastewater-becomes-fruit-of-their-labor-2329004.php

[An alternate source for the above “Turning Water Back Into Wine” article was found at this research resource: The International Wine Research Database.


On accounting for water consumption to make other beverages, see the 2009 Wall Street Journal article titled “Yet Another ‘Footprint’ to Worry About: Water.”

Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123483638138996305.html

Citing the article on how much water it takes to make:

(1) beer (one pint takes 20 gallons);
(2) coffee (one cup takes 35 gallons);
(3) soda pop (one 2-liter bottle takes 132 gallons); and
(4) beef (one hamburger takes 630 gallons).

Leo said...

Out of school and three vintages is very little experience to be doing much more than cleaning. Even if you have lots of experience, the cleaning won't go away. You are dealing with food, and as such, it has to be dealt with properly. If you can't see past that, you're in the wrong industry.
One of the first things I was told when I went to school was that winemaking was 80% cleaning, 10% actual winemaking, 10% art and 10% math =). Clean, clean, clean and then clean.
One thing the author forgot to mention is that most wineries (depending on the country) are required to have waste water treatment plants to minimize the impact on the environment.
The marketing comment I guess it depends what winery you work for. It can be true in lots of cases, but in many cases the fruit allocated to the more expensive wines is truly of a higher quality.

Anonymous said...

Great tongue and cheek (and a dollop of truth) post. Part II?