The glamorous winemaker

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I’ve been looking forward to this topic for quite some time. Before I even got my hands dirty for the first time at a winery I had to call around to ask for positions. Time after time, I was told, ‘you know, it’s tough work…’ . Due to the image that wine can get from time to time as a mythical, magical, fashionable and at times religious experience, the job of wine maker is often glamorized. We can all imagine the image of someone going into a cellar, mixing small lots from an extensive amount of barrels and voilà! The wine maker raises a $100 Riedel glass in the dark cellar up to the light, (imagine the silhouette shot), the brilliant ruby in the glass…it’s perfect. Another masterpiece cuvee! Well, it doesn’t work quite like that. There is a lot of work involved. Sure, there can be calculations, plans, guessing, what have you. Wine is art, sure. With this art comes a lot of backache,cuts, bruises, cleaning, shoveling, nurturing, and ultimately sacrificing your self for.

Everyone pulls together, a group effort of labor, skill and luck. In a winery, often the most important job is the small one. If the wine maker has a brilliant plan, great. If the grapes go into a filthy tank, than you are working with limited potential. To that point, I took great pride in doing the dirtiest jobs I could find in the winery. If someone really didn’t want to do it I was somewhat more excited to try it. I already mentioned the shoveling of the pomace (grape skins and solids) from the tank. I think nearly everyone liked that one. But, something I really enjoyed was cleaning the press. I can’t say it was that popular to the rest of the team.

When the must has finished fermentation, you have a pool of wine near the bottom of the tank. We had a valve next to the tank door that we ran a hose to that we could directly fill barrels with. This wine is called Free Run. This is wine that was created by the weight of gravity and through the force of punch downs. Due to the origins of this wine, this wine is typically lighter in colour extraction, lower in tannin, and lighter in overall perceived weight. This wine is great for blending with other wines for balancing or for making a rose. Often this is bled off, a method called Saignée. Pulling the lighter wine away from the berries still in the tank leaves less of the lighter wine. When pressed, the result will be a richer, darker and more tannin driven wine.

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Next, the pomace is pulled out with some Free Run mixed in. It’s difficult to pull every last drop. We open the tank door with a bin under it. Shoveling out the contents, we try to keep the pinkish tartrates behind. This can impart an overly acidic note to the wine. Some winemakers leave it in with success. Next, we forklift the bin to the press. Craig, the winemaker at Keefer Ranch is atop the press in this photo.

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On our press, this would mean the full bin was raised around 20 feet in the air to dump the contents into the opening at the top. One inside the horizontal cylinder, a balloon type bladder would fill up with air slowly and gently crushing the berries, extracting juice and more color. During this process, the cylinder (or drum) is spinning. Everything on this press was able to be customized: pressure (measured in Bars), rotational direction, cycle duration, and time in between presses. The drum wall has thousands of rice sized slats to let the liquid escape. Under the drum, there are two downward sloped spills that allow the Press Wine to fall into a tray beneath. This tray had a valve on it that would be closed (hopefully) during the pressing, allowing the wine to collect during the cycle.  After the cycle, a hose would be ran from the tray valve to a pump which would move the wine into a barrel from a filler wand. I really have to admit that filling barrels was exciting for me. I believe that I overfilled maybe 4 barrels which was always exciting.

You have to place the fill wand in the bung hole (guys, quit laughing) and use a flashlight to check the level of the wine going in. Now, a barrel is shaped interestingly(barrel is laid on it’s side). It fills quickly to start. The level rises quickly at this point. And then, you get to the middle are which seems like it takes forever. This is the widest part of the barrel after all. Then, you get impatient. ‘Is this moving at all?’ Towards the top of the barrel near the bung hole, the space narrows, making the level rise very quickly. Yup, that’s the interesting part…can be fun for the uninitiated to say the least.

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Well, that’s the press process. Actually that’s not completely accurate. You see, someone has to clean the tank (you saw that already). And, someone need to clean the press. As mentioned, I really enjoy this part. You start off at the top, just like a car. In fact, if you are good at cleaning cars, you might seriously find a lot of parallels in working at a winery. Anyhow, you spray the hopper where your buddy dumped grapes and must into. [As an aside, when making chardonnay, we dumped directly into the press after destemming to barrel ferment. So, no punch downs in that case, just straight to press.] You clean the outside of the press drum, giving it a good spray. Now, the key is moving four empty picking bins underneath, where the tray was before. Place the bins 2 by 2. The drum has an internal shape that moves the grapes toward the drum door if moved in one direction and spreads the grapes out in each direction if turned the other way. Spin the drum to move the dried grape skins and solids toward the doors. Next, we have the door facing down, opening the doors spills out the contents into the bins. You do this maybe 3 times and the rest needs to be done manually. That means you get inside and pull out each dried berry. I would stay in there sometimes for 30 minutes, totally dark inside save for the small light sprinkling in from the drum wall slats. At night, it was an amazing thing. Spraying inside with 120*F water, the steam would build up, there was low to no light and it would be quite similar to a relaxing sauna. Feeling around in the dark, you’d still try to get each berry. They always hid in the same places. I just really enjoyed it. I think this job that no one wanted was most likely one of my favorite things that I miss. Well, here’s a few videos of before, during and after. There is nothing like doing it yourself. So, I really suggest trying it. With the berries dry, the only drawback is getting a bit wet. Truth is, if you work at a winery, you will get wet.

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