Work at the winery has slowed and we had our first two-day weekend since Labor Day. The extra free hours gave me some time to reflect on what the whirlwind of a harvest season I've had. I have spent almost three months coming home physically exhausted absolutely drained at the end of the day, and I am left with a feeling of accomplishment and pride in what my coworkers and I have accomplished. But, does anyone who is going to buy the wine care?
'harvest 2011' on Serious Eats
The vineyards have been stripped of their fruit, the juice is in the winery, and I am no longer getting attacked by berries and fruit flies; the harvest part of harvest is over. So what am I still doing here?
Between bad weather and drudgery, there is another important thing to keep in mind while working in a winery: not dying. This is not an attempt to be ghoulish nor morose, but rather a simple fact. Winemaking is dangerous, and there are many pits into which an intern can fall.
Every growing season—every vintage—is different, and while some are good and others not so good, 2011 is shaping up to be one of the worst in Napa's recent history. It's a popular adage that a good winemaker can make good wine even in a poor year, but sometimes it's just bad. Grapes struggle every year with the whims of nature and the weather she doles out, and disease can be a problem at any time. Some vineyards have gotten away without too much pain, but this year there has been a major problem with rot.
When I was invited by the Washington State Wine Commission to check out Eastern Washington's grape-growing areas in mid-October, I figured the grapes would be picked already, and we'd probably be looking at stripped-bare vines and smelling the sweet, bready aroma of juice fermenting into wine in the cellar. But it's been cool in the Northwest—so cool that harvest was just beginning when I arrived.
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.
Pictures of winemakers always show them triumphant in the vineyard or proudly tasting a wine from barrel. Rarely do we see the mess that goes in to making wine, but that may be because it's the intern who's covered in goo and red juice, looking like a madwoman grape killer. No one want to see a picture of that.
I started babysitting them when there were only sixteen, checking in twice a day to see what they were up to. At first they were kind of boring, just lying around doing nothing. But they are now off and gurgling, full of interesting—and disturbing—smells. It feels nice to have traveled across the country to find a new family already waiting, even if they are only barrels of fermenting grape juice.
Wanna start work at 6:30 am? Work for 12 hours? Walk outside and be surrounded by beautiful rows of grapes? Have I got a job for you! Or for me, as the case may be. I look forward to sharing my attempts to not ruin the harvest with you all over the next few months.