Monday, October 4, 2010

Diary of a Winery Assistant

This year's grape harvest in Oregon is late. Like, capital L-A-T-E. Last year's harvest was late, but they'd been picking for 3 weeks by now. We're waiting on mother nature to begin work. I should start within five to eight days.

We had orientation at Dobbes Family Estate Winery in Dundee last Thursday. We sat around in a circle in the center of the winery, getting to know one another. After the usual job-stuff was talked about, and after we had a sweet burrito and Pinot Gris (by Wine By Joe) lunch, we got a tour of the winery with an explicit explanation of the processes that we'd be responsible for. This was just what I'd always wanted.

Some wine classes cost hundreds of dollars and hour, and what I got was not only a wine class, but an hourly wage to boot. We began from the very moment the grapes are brought in. Apparently they arrive covered in bees. One full-timer said, "I just ignore them. I let them walk all over me and I've only been stung once." Another said, "It's when they crawl in my mouth and around my nose that bothers me." Next, we were asked if anyone is allergic.

This highlights the fact that working in a winery during harvest is dangerous. I've heard that every year someone dies in Napa. We will be working around the clock, six days a week, with forklifts zooming, oceans of wine gushing, and carbon dioxide fuming. We will be sleep deprived and in a hurry. Safety and attention to detail were the primary points of the day.

Unlike bees, carbon monoxide is invisible and lethal. CO2 is naturally created when grapes ferment, and since fermenting grapes is the name of the game, it can sometimes build up in surprising places.

You know those massive steel tanks you see at wineries? I'll be climbing up ladders to the tops of those, opening them, and reaching inside with a themometer to determine the speed of the fermentation. After the wine's been pumped out, I'll also be jumping inside these tanks and shoveling out the leftover grape skins. If there's a large quantity of CO2 built up inside, it can cause seriously strong reactions. Most people describe it as feeling like an electric shock or whip lash; you're head actually snaps backwards to escape the scent. More dangerous however, is the smaller but more pervasive quantities of CO2 that go undetected until it's too late: the toxic gas causing a blackout, then death.

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