When I tell people that I’m a winemaker, invariably the first question I get asked is if we still stomp the grapes with our feet – like in that episode of I Love Lucy. Of course most wineries don’t process fruit that way, but it’s such a powerful image that most people probably think that’s how all wine is made.
Since virtually everyone who has come to help during harvest has commented that making wine wasn’t how they envisioned it, I sometimes wonder what images people have in their mind--and where they came from. I bet it’s mostly from that I Love Lucy episode. Or maybe from a movie.
We’ve all seen the scene where happy people, dressed like they’re going to a Sunday afternoon picnic, stroll into the vineyard with their Easter-like baskets. They kneel and lovingly inspect each cluster before they cut it from the vine, laying it tenderly in their basket. Then they carry the half-full basket to the end of the row where a kindly man with a burro and cart waits to collect the fruit. After 20 minutes of leisurely work, everyone heads back to the winery where they stomp the grapes for a while and then play music, dance and have a three-hour lunch. Barf. That’s not what making wine is about. Not even close.
Wine making is hard, dirty work. It starts before sunrise in the vineyard. Picking fruit isn’t about a leisurely stroll in the park. It’s about picking fruit as fast as possible, while trying not to cut off any fingers and time avoiding any moldy or unripe clusters at the same. The speed aspect is important since you want to get done before it gets hot. As it warms up, the bugs start to wake up. Since you’re covered in sticky, sweet juice from the fruit, you become the all-you-can-eat bug breakfast buffet. Not so fun.
The day continues as you drive the fruit back to the winery. Once there, you clean all the equipment and start to process the fruit. Since it’s now midday, you get to deal with bees. And all the bugs that came in with the fruit. You haven’t lived until you’ve had to pick earwigs out of your hair between dumping each bin of fruit into the crusher. Where’s the music? Where’s the dancing? And lunch? It’s probably a bag of chips and some Diet Coke. Why haven’t I seen that in any movie?
The rest of harvest consists of more hard work, like punch-downs and pressing. And cleaning. And cleaning. And then? More cleaning. Lucy wouldn’t have survived. But an episode of her on a forklift might have been fun. As it turns out, being able to operate a forklift is probably the most important skill a winemaker has. A good palate is great, but that doesn’t make wine. Forklifts make wine. Hard work makes wine. In fact, when people call us winemakers, we often correct them by saying we “make wine.” During the months of September and October, you can always tell a winemaker from someone who makes wine by looking at their hands. If their hands look like they’ve been repairing cars, then they make wine.
Don’t get me wrong--making wine can be a lot of fun. If you ever played with Tonka trucks or Legos as a kid, this is the adult version. It’s just not like what you see in the movies. But then again, maybe it’s my limited ability to describe things that makes it sound less romantic. For a different, and much more poetic view of a picking day, check out an excerpt from my fellow Pinot Prison inmate Mike Padrick’s P2 Wine blog:
“Men and women clad in full length pants, long sleeve flannel shirts, hats and bandannas (some as masks) gave the appearance of thieves. These marauders of fruit labored in the warming sun. As I rose to take my place on the back of the trailer, my head pierced the canopy and the view tapped me on the shoulder. I turned in awe. The vineyard ran down the steep slope to meet the valley floor, unfolding a tapestry of swirling gold straw, glistening lines of green vines and stitched with the dark trails of fleeing shadows.”
That’s how I meant to describe it. And there are many such moments that make it all worthwhile. Maybe I need a ghostwriter.