Thursday, September 30, 2010

Avoid Red Wine Headaches!

Here's a trick that can help you avoid wine headaches.  Saturday and Sunday mornings will feel much better:

How to De-Stem a Grape

If I remember anything from safety training, it's that the de-stemmer is the most dangerous piece of equipment in the winery.  That in itself makes it pretty interesting, so I took some pictures and some video of it in action:

Our state-of-the-art de-stemmer.  Keep fingers away!

The elevator drops grape clusters into the far end of the machine, and rubber-coated paddles gently beat the crap out of the grapes.  The berries fall through the holes in the steel cylinder and are collected below the machine.  As you can see from this video, you don't want long hair anywhere near the spinning paddles and cylinder.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

2 Tons of Syrah and a Wine Country Pedicure

When I decided to work in a winery, many of my friends joked that I would be stomping grapes with my feet. "No way," I said, "we're much more hi-tech in California. We use specialized equipment, and it's all very mechanized."

At 11:30 this morning, 2 tons of Syrah from Davis, CA, showed up. Just like yesterday, we ran the fruit through the typical line and into 3 half-ton bins. Syrah berries are smaller than Zinfandel, and have a very different flavor. They're not as sweet, and the tannins from the skins are more pronounced. Here's what a cluster looks like:

Syrah cluster

Once the syrah was done, we punched down the large Zinfandel tank from yesterday. "Punch down" refers to pushing down the grape skins to the bottom of a fermentation tank. As must slowly ferments into wine, the grape skins will rise to the top of the must and have to be recirculated during the punch down process. As you can see in this video, it can be mechanized (for large tanks) or done by hand.

This process ensures that the liquid (juice) keeps the skins moist. Moist skins means a more flavorful wine, deeper color, and more tannins.

You want the skins to break down, but you want to do it gently. And this is where I have to eat my words and admit that we aren't that hi-tech. Sometimes, you just need some feet to break up those berries without grinding the grapes to a pulp (sorry, Robin). In this particular case, I got to stomp some must that had been sitting in the cold room since yesterday (read: nice and cold). It felt like running in knee-deep snow.

"Uh, yeah, you want me to do what?"

Yes, my feet were thoroughly cleaned and sanitized before I did this

And this is where I will end today's post.  I'm sure there are a few surprises yet to come...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

4.5 Tons of Zinfandel

It's 4:30 pm and I'm pretty much covered in sticky Zinfandel juice. It's on my arms, in my hair, and all over my shirt and shorts. We started the day at 6:00 am, mainly because it's 97 degrees in Oakland this afternoon, and the assistant winemaker wanted to be done crushing as early as possible.

We hauled the equipment to the crush pad at 6:00: bin rack, hopper, sorting table, elevator, de-stemmer, and must pump. We washed everything with the power washer and some ozonated water, which is a great sanitizer, and proceeded to sort and de-stem 8 overflowing bins of fruit.

Zinfandel clusters.  10% - 15% raisins is quite normal for Zinfandel, and this is
high-quality fruit from Paso Robles on the Central Coast

Elevator and de-stemming machine.  The must pump (connected to the hose) collects
the berries & juice and pumps the must into the fermentation tanks in the building

Each bin is sequentially loaded onto the bin rack, which has a motorized mechanism that tips the bin and dumps the grape clusters into a hopper. The hopper then dispenses the clusters onto a sorting table (a long conveyor belt that moves the fruit toward the elevator) and workers sort the clusters. We remove leaves, spiders, earwigs, red berries (not ripe enough) and second-growth clusters. Occasionally, some clusters have some rot and they're discarded.

The elevator then carries the fruit that passed inspection into the de-stemming machine. Here's where things get interesting: Different winemakers use different techniques, and our guy does not crush the fruit in this step of the process. About 25% of the berries are crushed during de-stemming and pumping, but the remaining 75% of the berries are simply pumped (intact) into the fermentation tanks. They'll break down during fermentation, but they're not crushed by a mechanized process.

Must.  This is a mixture of crushed berries, intact berries, and juice.
It's put into fermentation tanks or bins

Stems.  This stuff goes into the garbage

Friday, September 24, 2010

A $7 iPhone App?!?!

Although I probably won't be adding any critical chemicals or yeast to the fermentation tanks (that's the winemaker's job), it wouldn't hurt to know exactly how it's done.  That's why I downloaded an application called Cellar Hand to my iPhone.  Price tag: $6.99.

Flashbacks of Chem 101 and 102 and lengthy unit conversions made paying $7 a little more palatable.  Besides, if NASA can crash a $300-million probe into Mars just because some Ph.D. couldn't get the conversion to meters just right, it's quite possible that I'll screw something up and turn a tasty tank of syrah into a yeasty, sulfurous mess of vinegary swill.

Um, how many hectoliters in Tank #3?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Much of your time spent working in a winery is spent cleaning.  Do all winemakers have some sort of OCD?  No.  It turns out that any mold, yeast, or fungus can negatively impact the fermentation process, so every piece of equipment that will be in contact with the fruit must be thoroughly cleaned. For us, it means a scrubbing with peroxicarb, a rinse, another scrubbing with citric acid + sulfur dioxide, and a final rinse. BTW, blisters + citric acid is not recommended. It feels like lemon juice in a paper cut. Actually, it is lemon juice in a paper cut!

I got a great big whiff of sulfur dioxide while I was cleaning some bins today, and I thought to myself "Hmm...  SO2 + H2O = sulfuric acid, right?"  Nope, it makes sulfurous acid (H2SO3 vs. H2SO4), which is more benign.  It still burns, though, which is why I immediately put on my respirator.

"Luke, I am your father"

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

!%&*$!#* Bins

Grapes are shipped from the vineyard to the winery in half-ton bins.  They're called half-ton bins because, well, they hold half a ton of fruit (1000 lbs). That yields 1 barrel of wine, or approximately 25 cases (300 750-ml bottles). The winery I am working for produces a few thousand cases a year, and that means slightly less than 250 barrels. That also means about 250 half-ton bins full of fruit.

Each bin spends the year stacked outdoors, and therefore collects all sorts of dust, soot, insects, and other crap. We have to clean them before they go to the vineyard, and boy did we ever clean them today!  They were power washed with hot water, then scrubbed with peroxicarb (aka sodium percarbonate or OxiClean) solution, rinsed, scrubbed with citric acid solution (aka Vitamin C or Sour Patch Kids coating, for you junkfood fanatics), and rinsed once more:

The bins are then sealed with a cover and stacked about 7 or 8 bins high, awaiting their trip to the vineyard.  Fun stuff, as you can see from my spiffy outfit.

Clean half-ton bins

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Banker and a Consultant Walk into a Winery...

On Friday I met 2 other interns that will be working with me during the harvest.  One is N, who recently moved to NorCal from Maine.  The other is K, who's been working as a trader for RBC Capital Markets for over 14 years.  He brought his own espresso machine to work.

N graduated from college 2 years ago and has been looking for work ever since.  He'll be working at the winery to earn a living and hopefully gain enough experience to move into a better job once the season's over.  K, on the other hand, seems to have quit his high-paying job just to work another harvest (he has already worked one in Australia).

I'm wondering what kind of weird economic situation we find ourselves in these days: One guy can't find an entry-level job for 2 years, while a couple others decide to check out of the corporate world and crush grapes for a few months.  Strange, to say the least.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Safety Training

If you can't harvest grapes, you may as well begin with some copious amounts of safety training.  I spent all day learning about the different ways to die while working in a winery: crushed to death by a forklift, death by falling into tanks, death by asphyxiation (lots of CO2 is generated during fermentation), death from chemical fumes, etc.  OK, I made up the last one, as I think it's only "poisoning from sulfur fumes, which can most probably lead to death."

Since the focus on instant death got to be a little depressing, we finished with a bit of forklift driving followed by a certification exam.  If you think that driving a 5000 lbs forklift with rear-wheel steering is easy, you've obviously never done it.  Luckily, I didn't crush anyone to death.

Navigating the forklift obstacle course
Stacking some bins...
Stacking more bins...

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Too cold?  Too hot?  Ready to harvest?  Ready to... wait?  Northern California's bi-polar weather patterns have wreaked havoc this season, and no one's quite sure when the harvest will truly begin.

This means that I now have an unplanned week of vacation ahead of me, and I have now spent at least 40 minutes searching for a great background image for this blog.  If there's anything that I'm good at, it's finding creative ways to waste time.

For those who don't know me, I am about to start working for a small but well-respected winery in Oakland, California.  My first day was supposed to be tomorrow, but that's looking rather unlikely.  My first experience as a winery intern will begin sometime within the next few weeks.  More to come...