Before I came to Napa, wine was a job and a passion, something tasty and sometimes transcendent. I would talk with friends and coworkers about great wine and winemakers like they are magicians, transforming fruit into a beverage that is much greater than the sum of its parts. The winemaker as artist, the winemaker as genius.
I'm starting to believe that winemaker as workhorse is a more appropriate comparison.
A month in, I now have an idea of my typical workday as a lab intern:
7 a.m. Arrive at the winery.
7:05 Make sure I have coffee. 'Cause I'm going to need it.
7:10 to 10:30 Fermentation checks and associated paperwork (there are now so many barrels fermenting that I cannot remember all of the lots, and they take up much more of my time).
10:30 to 10:40 Take a break, if the checks don't take even longer than the time I have allotted.
10:40 to 1:00 p.m. Lab analysis of grape samples from the vineyards, finished fermentations, and other assorted goodies that show up.
1:00 to 1:30 Lunch.
1:30 to 4:00 Yeast inoculations, more lab analysis, make coffee.
4:00 to 7:00 Fermentation checks. Again.
7:00 to 7:30 Clean up.
And then home, where I eat and sleep and am in bed by 10 in order to get up and do it again.
What's not entirely clear from this outline is the physical, repetitive nature of the work. At the very least, I am standing for 12 hours a day. Some things, like inoculations and returning samples to tanks, can involve going up and down stairs and ladders carrying many gallons of juice for an hour or more. People working in the cellar and vineyards have an even more intensive physical job, and the bosses are as busy and messy as the rest of us. It's just a lot of labor, and there's very little sign of art.
We follow a series of known steps to encourage the yeast to convert sugar to alcohol to make wine. There are decisions to be made (native or inoculated yeast? tank or barrel fermented? new or used oak barrels?) and when nature throws a curveball, winemakers do have to make the tough choices (Overripe grapes! Do we add water, acid? Just let it ferment and end up with a high-alcohol behemoth?).
Working alongside the winemakers and oenologists to implement these choices has demystified wine for me and added to my understanding of it, but perhaps too much. We are simply encouraging a process that would occur without us. If we don't mess it up, the product gets to your table and hopefully offers some pleasure at the very least.
But is this art? Is this magic? What, in these mostly pre-determined actions, leads to a great wine?
Right now, I don't know. Art is in the palate of the beholder, and I'm not sure if I will ever be able to taste it again.
About the Author: Sarah Chappell is a winemonger and writer living in
Brooklyn Napa. She holds the Advanced Certificate with Distinction from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust and has contributed to Foodista, Palate Press and WineChap. Follow her on Twitter @chapsholic.