Thursday, November 08, 2007

Crushed: Why Working at a Winery Rocks

With three weeks of hindsight under my belt after finishing my first crush as a winery (the great zin house known as Dashe Cellars, in Oakland), I'm prepared to offer the following pearls of wisdom to anyone who may be considering this experience in the future:

1.) It's great.

2.) Do it.

When I began looking into the internship, my goal was more or less to try something new and "diversify" the ways in which I was spending my time (yes, I've been reading too many financial web sites lately). Deviating 180 degrees from sitting in front of a computer all day was no easy task. The opposite of sitting on your butt is moving around, so I had to come up with a plan that involved physical activity (or "labor," if you will) without negating the point of the experience (e.g: by signing on to work an assembly line somewhere; three months of blowing acid off parts in an air compressor plant, way back in the university days, burned me clear of factory work for life). I also wanted to delve into somethng I was truly interested in. My options came down to 1.) working retail in a gallery; probably easier said than done w/o an art history degree and/or a rolodex of contacts and 2.) looking for internships in cool industries. Luckily for me, many wineries hire "interns" to help out and schlep during harvest, and for the right winemaker, enthusiasm is an acceptable substitute for experience. I stumbled across a craigslist ad for Dashe Cellars, and I signed on up.

The internship lasted two months, from about the last week of August through the first two weeks of October. On my first day in the winery, I was instructed on the art of mixing vats of chemicals (peroxycarb and citric acid, used primarily for sanitation), attaching hoses to tanks, using the ozone machine, and powerwashing barrels. I worked for 13 hours straight, and I fell into bed that night with a fatigue I had never known before.

The next day, I worked 11 hours, and was assigned to man the bin dumper at the sorting table. The bin dumper is literally what it sounds like -- a giant metal frame that holds a 1/2 ton bin of grapes at a time, with a top that tilts forward to unload the cargo onto a conveyor belt a couple feet below. My skills at the switch that controlled the rate of dumpage (and hence, whether the load gently settled onto the table at a consistent pace, or "whumped" onto the table in one solid heap, often clogging the hopper through which they passed) were rickety and unsure, and there were more "whumps" than anyone cared to hear. By the end of the day...I hadn't improved much. I was still whumping all over the place.

Over the next seven weeks, we periodically received batches of zin, with smaller amounts of petite syrah, cab and riesling also appearing intermittently. The length of our days varied according to the tonnage of fruit that arrived. Four or eight tons was no sweat. Ten, 12 or 14 meant ending the day on a floodlit crushpad after sundown, and hosing off the equipment in a chillier-than-desired air temp.

When we weren't crushing, we pumped over the juice already in tank. Many 1200 gallon batches of zin, cab and petite needed to be aerated twice a day, and the heavy duty pumps (and their spaghetti networks of hoses) used for the endeavor need a thorough sanitation bath after use. Towards the end of harvest, as fewer grapes were coming in and more worked their way through tank fermentation towards their barrel slumber, our daily routine focused less on pumping over and more on adding yeast (innoculating), shoveling tanks (essentially, climbing into a tank w/ a shovel to remove the skins; the fermenting wine was first transferred to another tank, and then the skins were taken to a press, where the last of the juice could be extracted) and "barrelling down," which meant transferring wine from their stainless steel tanks into oak barrels.

I also spent about an hour and a half, on most days, measuring the sugar levels (or brix) of each batch of wine with a variety of hydrometers. On occasion, I would attempt to make my way through the series of steps necessary to measure TA (total acidity) - though I never quite got the color change right. I administered hot, frothy pill tests on wines that were almost "dry" (meaning their sugar levels were very low, indicating that they were almost finished with fermentation) to check for residual sugar. And on my final day in the winery's lab, I mixed a cocktail of sample wine, hydrogen peroxide and a phosphate compound for a purpose that I cannot remember. It was just like high school chem lab.

I could go on about all the lesser tasks to which I was assigned during my tenure at Dashe, but descriptions are eluding me, and you might quickly grow bored. Suffice it to say that the following lessons were carried away: There is a LOT of work involved in getting the juice out of those grapes and turning them into the complex, nuanced, nectar that wine lovers so ardently worship. Much of the effort is tedious and physical -- it's been said that winemaking is 90% sanitizing, 8% waiting, and 2% beer -- and mother nature can be very uncooperative. On the other hand, the winemaker's role as a craftsman is indisputable, and the satisfaction apparent on the growers' faces as they discuss the quality of the 2007 vintage gives new meaning to the phrase "salt of the earth".

Friday, August 04, 2006

Getting Grinchy with the Two Buck Chuck

People often think the art world and wine world are natural partners. Wine drinkers sometimes like to talk about art, and art lovers sometimes like to drink a little wine. It makes sense that appreciators of one craft would also dig the other.

So it made sense, and triggered some enticement, when I heard about the once-a-month gallery hop event held and plugged at 49 Geary. The deal is this: on the first Thursday of every month, several of the galleries in the building stay open past their usual terminus time of 5:30, and serve wine to the browsers who venture in. I heard about this initially from a 70 year old casual carpool rider who pegged the 49 Geary galleries as the only worthwhile ones in town. Between the one-stop-shopping and the free wine, this is clearly an unmissable event.

Yesterday being the first Thursday of August, it was a good opportunity to finally attend. I was impressed with how many people turned up -- when we drove by on our way to find parking there was a congregation of young, hip urbanites milling around the door. The elevators were crowded and the stairs were nearly unavigatable due to the high traffic. While many in the crowd looked like they were either artists, friends of artists, or art students, there were also a number of well dressed, dapper older folks (collectors? afficianados?) as well as some from my peer group -- that is, art novices who like to look at pretty things and appreciate complimentary beverages.

That whole wine component however, was overhyped. Turns out all the galleries have bottles and plastic glasses behind their desks, but 1.) they don't like to promote this fact and 2.) they're extremely reluctant to distribute it. I'm not clear on why they're so underenthusiastic about sharing the libations. One glance around a given crowded gallery revealed numerous (usually empty) cups being grasped in hot little hands, so it wasn't a secret that the bar-factor existed.

How to explain the withering look and pour service we received when we approached the guy at the Gregory Lind gallery. The puzzle got even more murky as we realized they were serving two buck chuck. Being stingy with expensive grape juice is somewhat understandable; being stingy with the world's cheapest imitative answer to a grape glut is rather ridiculous.

In any event, the galleries were open, and we did find some cool stuff. We capped off the night with vegetarian Japanese food at the very cool but oddly named Medicine Eatstation. Where we enjoyed two flights of sake and cheerful service. The sake and the service were very refreshing.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Spring Mountain Hop (or, Why tiny tasting rooms are so much better than visitng Wine Corp. Inc.)

Our Father's Day Napa Trip was officially a book club meeting. After reading travelogues, essays and historical accounts that all related to wine, we wanted to head up as a group and either (1) espouse our new knowledge in front of an appreciative pouring audience, or (2) get really drunk. As it turned out, we accomplished neither of these, but we did (3) learn a lot about growing great grapes and making something quaffable. So it wasn't a waste of time, by any means.

Our first two stops in the valley were at Plumpjack and Duckhorn, respectively, and man were they forgettable. Typical tasting room experience, where we forked over cash in order to stand around awkwardly swirling low end wine while the cleancut, logo-shirted employee recites marketing copy from the brochure. There were two wines (out of perhaps 10) that were enjoyable, but both (the Plumpjack cab and Duckhorn reserve Merlot) were clearly overpriced and not worth the feeling-like-you-got-swindled effect I usually associate w/ buying unjustifiably expensive Napa wines.

But the third stop was the charm. After a picnic lunch in a random park in Yountville (don't ask how we ended up there) we arrived only 15 minutes late for our 2pm appointment at Paloma, up on Spring Mountain, which Tim will earnestly proclaim as the best Napa appellation. There, we met up with Barbara Richards, proprietess, and her charming Australian Yorkie, Aussie (I think that was her name). Here, there was no tasting room, just Barbara and her house, an exspansive deck, a stunning view, and half a dozen hummingbirds.

After initially surprising her with our numbers (I think she was expecting a few less of us) we wandered out onto her back deck, where she narrated and described for us the history of the winery, the makeup of their vineyards, the extent of the operation (three full time employees, including her, Jim, who's the winemaker, and one other guy) and why machine picking would never work on a hillside vineyard, particularly if said vineyard belonged to a winery that didn't want to murder their grapes. We plied her with questions and took pictures of the hummingbirds. Eventually, we went into her kitchen to stand around her table and taste their only production, an outstanding Merlot.

The contrast b/w the morning and afternoon visits was striking. Hearing about average alcohol from an ambivalent counterperson versus listening to a passionate producer are about as far apart on the spectrum of wine experience as it gets.

Needles to say, we left w/ three bottles. And a few pictures. And the resolute conviction not to own and run our own winery.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Four Great Grapes?

This Thinking and Drinking class really is living up to its name. Last week we got a lecture about the qualities of a great wine, and the four top tier grapes, and I've barely stopped thinkng about it. I was a little needled by the assertion that there is one definition of greatness, and that individual taste seems to be out of the equation (though we've spent plenty of time on that topic as well). Once the shackles go down though, I kind of buy into this. Cab, Pinot, Chard and Riesling can all attain great heights. And they can do it in a variety of styles and geographical areas. the grape used in port meanwhile (can't remember its name) is only used for that one style in that one region. Therefore, it's only Tier 2 w/ an *, got it? It's all about the bandwidth.

Then there's this whole thing about what a great wine must be. "A great wine must be complex." Sure, this is true. "It must show a sense of place." ok, teacher is a Francophile and so are many others, and I get that it's all about the terroir, and that there are no great "indoor" wines. Fine. "A great wine must spark language -- that is, it has to inspire people to talk about it." Hmmm. I can think of a lot of horrid wine that's sparked plenty of language...

Next week is our last class. We're supposed to submit, in writing, our philosophy of wine. Definitely something to chew on.

Next post: "Can Art Exist in a Vacuum?"

Sunday, April 09, 2006

A New French Paradox

Two interesting news items out of France in the last couple of weeks 1.) the 2005 vintage rocks, so better get your futures now (especially if most of your $$$ is in American real estate, b/c that bubble's going to burst any day now, you know) and 2.) the French government finally acquiesced and will soon allow their vitners to "flavor their wine w/ wood shavings." This of course being a cheaper alternative to that centuries-old tradition of aging wine in oak barrels.

I was struck by the juxtaposition of these two tidbits b/c they are emblematic of the two sides of the French dilemma. On the one hand, French wine, particularly Bordeaux, continues to rule the land in terms of classic reputation, veneration generation, and ability to command outlandish retail prices. On the other, the use of such a modern day convention as wood shavings is a very real caving to the onslaught of 21st century trends they've been resisting for the past decade. Have the French been pulled down a peg, or will there be renewed vigor in their resistance to modern wine business practices as the 05 vintage once again glorifies their name?

Are the wood shaving riots just around the corner?

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Belated Book Club Blog

Seeing as how we're now coming up on our 2nd top-100 book club meeting (this month's pick, Lolita; Progress so far, page 31; date of meeting, Wednesday; freak-out-level on not being further along in the book, low to moderate. Still have plenty of time) this seems like a good time to document the wines that made their way into our first meeting a month ago. Back in the day when the book on the docket was Willa Cather's Death Comes to (for?) the Archbishop.

Since the book is set primarily in the American Southwest, but the characters are mostly French, we opted to not go with wines from either the US or France.

Instead, we had a nice port, some sherry (in honor of BY's affinity for such and the fact that we were celebrating her 2 month old birthday), and a crowd pleasing pinotage (an underappreciated grape, certainly). Note that the French wine in the photo, a very nice Alsatian pinot blanc, was not drunk during the discussion of French Missionaries in the harsh desert environs of the 19th century American territories. The missionaries weren't from Alsace anyway.

Since this week's meeting involves a Russian author, one thing we should not be drinking is vodka. or white Russians. and maybe by extension, milk.

And since Lolita was written originally in English we of course won't want wines from any English speaking regions, so that takes out the US, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Maybe a nice Tokaj...

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

On the List: Dinner at Danko

Last Tuesday's dinner at #1 SF Hot Spot Gary Danko did indeed live up to expectation. Hell, who am I kidding, it way exceeded expectation.

Wine highlights included a Lewis Chard, an 03 Turley Zin, the 02 Leonetti Cab, and the piece de resistance, a 1998 d'Yquem (the high scorer of the evening at 95 points).

And the food was good too. Between the foie gras, the duck confit, and the Lemon Herb Duck Breast with Duck Hash and Rhubarb Ginger compote, I'm sure I ingested a flock of the fowl birds. The creme brulee trio was an outstanding accompaniment to the d'Yquem, and the farmhouse and artisanal cheese selection was an event from the moment the cheese sommelier appeared to describe the happy cows that roam the Irish hillside.

All in all a memorable sensory experience. Not sure it was worth the clams that were forked over at the end of the night (and that subject begs a whole series of questions about the absurdity of expense when it comes to consumable items), but a grand night in the city. The quintessential San Francisco experience, I do believe.