Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Crush - A Labor of Love

Ahh - - the signs of Fall are among us. The evenings are cool and crisp with a smell of the forth-coming autumnal equinox in the air. The berries on the clusters have reached their ripeness. Last week, the Walla Walla Valley started their annual tradition, a tradition for many parts of the world that goes back to Biblical history, thousands of years ago - - crush.

If you are in the wine industry, winemaker to tasting room attendant, there are days when you begin to think that everyone you talk to wants to be a winemaker. It’s an easy "romantical" thought to get into. Visions of Bacchus dancing in their heads. The dream of going out to the open air vineyard amongst the green vines darted with colored fruit. The sun greets you and a light wind kisses your face. Like in dreams, slow and with animation, running to the perfect cluster, as if it were a lover. Extending your hand out to lovingly pick the rachus of colorful jewels. Like a small child, you hold the cluster on your lap all the way to the winery (there are no seat belts in dreams) where you sprinkle some sugar plum (oops - I mean grape) fairy dust on it and within minutes a magical bottle of wine appears! And what do you know, lo and behold it just happens to have a label with your name on it! Admirers come from near and far to "ooh and ahh" over the bottle you gave birth to.

SCREEECH!!!....step on the dream brakes! Dream is over people. Now get to work! Get out in the vineyard and cut those grapes! There are hundreds of two-ton bins to fill and you better do it fast. And while you’re at it, make sure you don’t slice your hand with the knife. We need that hand and don't bleed all over the grapes! Yeah, it’s back breaking work, but grapes don’t wait unless you think you can get a rating with your Late Harvest Cabernet Sauvignon from the boys at the Wine Spectator. They'll laugh their ass off at you while those over-riped grapes haunt you later in your dream saying, "We told you man." Pull out all MOG (matter other than grapes) from the bins before crush. Feathers, bugs, grape leaves, whatever, and move it - move it - move it!

So you want to be a winemaker do you? Plan on early mornings and late nights during crush. Grapes don’t wait people. They are not on your schedule. The grapes rule and you are at their mercy. Those intensely flavored little berries will tell you when it is time to make wine. Crush grapes, move bins, crush grapes, move and clean bins, clean some more bins and it goes on and on. Punch downs and taking temperatures and testing brix. It’s like caring for a sick infant 24/7. Plan on being wet. A pair of waders will help keep you dry. A bit of juice splatters on the wall, you have to be there to clean it up - - now! The last thing you need is bacteria crawling on your walls, let alone all the fruit flies that have surrounded your winery like a SWAT team during a bank robbery. They're here along with the lovely pungent smell of acetobacter coming from your alley dumpster. Oh and the cellar rats you hired to give you a break - don’t get too comfy. There are always illnesses and cellar accidents. Tough! Grapes don’t wait and don’t care about the hierarchy of owner down to cellar rat. So forget about your restaurant reservations, football box seats, your weekend at the cabin and your sleep. It’s your winery - it's your dream - so get to it!

And the story of crush goes on and on. and I have just barely touched on the story of wine making. Plan on having a rest around the December holidays and kiss your wine goodbye for a couple of years, because it still has a long journey to go before admirers come near and far to "ooh and ahh" over your bottle of wine that you gave birth to.

Me? I’ve done it. I’ve worked my crush and I even have the wet t-shirt (pants, socks and purple hands to prove it). Yes - I proudly wore my purple badge of honor. Grapes are slippery and wineries need to be kept clean during crush. It seemed like I was always wet. I watched a winery worker get almost crushed to death when a near two-tons of grapes fell on him. It was a petrifying and helpless moment. Thank goodness he survived. Thankfully he recovered a little slippery, wet, and covered with grapes skins and humility. He’s now a young and upcoming winemaker in the State of Washington who had definitely paid his dues with that accident - - but his name is safe with me.

I don’t need to dream "romantical" thoughts about handpicking my grapes and caressing every little berry or sitting on my gilded throne in my chateau with the view of the vineyard while I watch my workers pick my harvest of gold and royal purple. I know that it takes at least two years of hard work and more for grapes to make their way into the bottle that holds the magic elixir. However, I am not without guilt of holding my own dreams of vines and wines. I was a fan of the night-time TV soap, "Falcon Crest," also known as "Dallas with Grapes. " I vowed I would become the next Angela Channing, but without the murder, treachery and deceit to my family and friends. I even traveled to Napa to buy bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon with the one-time label, "Falcon Crest" from the 850-acre estate of Spring Mountain Vineyard where the outdoor shots of the TV soap was filmed.

Okay - so here I am and the truth of my experience with crush is I never care to do it again. Okay, well maybe for one non-committal hour. Umm - maybe two non-committal hours. At this time of my life, my contribution to the crush is to enjoy the fruits of the labor, write about the wine and maybe even sell a few bottles. Yeah, I still get happy chills when I see the Hysters loading the fruit-filled bins onto the crush pad and also when my nose meets the fragrance of crushed purple fruit topped with bright pink foam during fermentation. All of these senses remind me that a new vintage is on the way, but not without respect and observation of the love and labor that went into each and every bottle. With every bottle I am reminded of the caretakers of the vines and 365 days of their diligence and trust of the terroir. I am reminded by those in the cellar who put more than their backs into the wine. Their heart and their soul and most of all, a huge commitment.

Crush - - it is truly a labor of love.


Sue said...

What a great entry Catie! It gives wine drinkers another perspective. Thank you for remembering all those who work hard and long to bring that wonderful glass to our table.

farley said...

Great descriptions. And yes, people do tend to romanticize it all. Being in or around it daily, you know it's mainly just hard, hard work.

Catie said...

Sue! Farley! Thanks for the nice comments.

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