Friday, October 29, 2010

Diary of a Winery Assistant (Oct. 29)

Like I said, I'd update the diary in the briefest of moments... when time is allowed... when I'm not processing tons and tons of grapes... 14 to 17 hour work days... hard labor... 24-hour winemaking... Pinot Noir... piles of grape skins and seeds four-feet high inside 85-ton tanks... My back aches and my hands are swollen. I've learned how to drive a forklift carrying 4 75-gallon tanks of wine into a refrigerator the size of a tractor trailer truck. I've pumped thousands of gallons of mashed grapes into giant tanks, then pumped them out into new tanks, then into oak barrels.

Winemaking is incredibly complicated yet incredibly simple. I think this is the most surprising thing I've learned. The short of it is this. Grapes come to the winery in bunches. Often, they are simply put into a destemming machine. The destemmer usually breaks Pinot Noir grapes because they have thin skins. This mash of grapes and juice is pumped into steel tanks, where it is allowed to macerate and ferment for 5-10 days. Grapes ferment on their own, but yeasts are often added to help the process along. The grape skins and juices are stirred around 2-3 times a day in order to extract as much color and aroma from the skins during maceration. After 5-10 days, you effectively have wine. The sugars have been turned to alcohol and the colors and aromas have been extracted from the skins. The juice is drained and the skins are pressed to get the very last traces of flavor. This juice is wine. End. Of. Story.

Not quite. While this basic process is the foundation of winemaking, those guys in the labs aren't just their to sport the latest in lab wear. They are inducing malolactic fermentation so that the wine isn't too sour. They are measuring brix to see if a wine is ready to be removed from the grape skins. They are doing things that involve molecules I'll never care to understand.

Wine Maker Joe Dobbes oversees the winemaking process from beginning to end. He works as hard as anyone at the winery. The fact that he's always there, from 6 in the morning to 9 at night or later, is awesome. When I'm breaking my back and tired as hell, it helps to see him working just as hard. Joe also adds the most important final touches to his wines. Though the grapes from each vineyard are macerated separately, they are not left this way. To make more interesting and complex wines, Joe blends just the right amount of wine from each tank into his final wine. Blending is an artistic and scientific stage. Joe produces over 20 unique wines. I've been tasting so many young wines, still ripe with sulfur and malic acid, that I can't imagine being able to identify all of their intrinsic qualities to the point of predicting their flavors after 12-months of oak-aging. That winemakers do this with multiple vineyards to produce multiple wines is mind blowing...

Anyway, back to the crush. Back to Zero to 60. Back to climbing rickety ladders with 3 inch hoses full of grape juice. Back to dumping half-ton bins of grapes into hoppers 15 feet off the ground... Rock on.

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