In case you missed it: Harvest Hands: Part One

In any relationship, things are hot and heavy at first but then the fire starts to fade and if you aren’t left with something more than lust, you aren’t left with much. The romance of working at a winery isn’t any different. The long hours, sometimes tedious work and hard physical labor starts to wear on people. Tempers get short, mistakes start to happen and the excitement of the crush starts to waiver. Actually, for me, the entire idea of starting to make mistakes is laughable since I have pretty much been screwing up since day one. On the positive side, things just keep getting more and more interesting.

Take for example one of my first days; I was taught how to air blast large tanks of wine. This is when you use a high pressure instrument called a Pulsair to force compressed air through hoses into a large tank (5000 or more gallons) of wine from valves at the bottom of said tank. This process breaks up the cap of skins that forms on top of the juice, circulating oxygen into the baby wine—helping it to breathe and creating an environment for the yeasts (who are busy making that juice into wine) to do their job more efficiently. There are several tricks to this job but one of the most important involves opening and closing the valve at the right time. Now, some of theses valves are on the very bottom of the tank pointing toward the ground and if you forget to close the valve before taking off the hose, wine rains down upon you like a high pressure shower. With your face in close proximity to the deluge, you can guess what the end result looks like. I want to say I only made this error once and learned my lesson, but I would be lying.

Valves in general have been my foe. A few days ago I tried to open one on the side of an unlabeled tank, just a little, to see if there was wine in it. Apparently my idea of a little and the tank’s idea of a little were two very different things as it spewed grape juice all over me. Picture a broken fire hydrant with me in the path of the high pressure destruction. To say I was dripping from about mid-chest to my ankles would not be an exaggeration.

Fortunately, there are several things I have yet to do wrong that are not uncommon in a winery setting. I haven’t gotten accidently high from the carbon dioxide bi-product of fermentation and passed out. I haven’t punctured a hole in a tank of wine by driving the prongs of the fork lift into it. I haven’t fallen into a vat of wine while doing a punch down (the act of using a long stick that resembles a giant potato masher with an extra long handle to punch the skins down into the wine to aerate it and allow the liquid to soak in the skins to help extract color and flavor). And I haven’t gotten shot in the face with wine after filling barrels too high. This last one is actually pretty funny to witness and just for saying that, I’m sure it will happen to me.

Like any romance, sometimes you just need to find ways to spice it up. For me, that spice will come in the form of digging out a tank. This task requires the following: rain pants and a rain coat, a monitor to ensure that the carbon dioxide levels aren’t high enough to kill me, and a harness with a rope attached to my back so I can get dragged out of the tank if/when I pass out from the gas levels. The goal? Crawling on hands and knees through a hole the size of a turkey roasting pan into a tank that is still dripping with wine. Inside this world of grape skins (sometimes up to your chest as I have witnessed while helping others) and poisonous gas, I will be armed with only a shovel and a mission to remove all the grape skins. Said skins are packed into the consistency of hard dirt and must be broken up and funneled out the roaster pan-sized hole.

I have a hot “date” with this handsome and mysterious task tomorrow….wish me luck. More to come.

Read the conclusion of Jennifer’s winemaking adventure in Harvest Hands Part III

Jennifer Cossey
Contributing Writer | + posts