Harvest Journal: Arriving in Napa

Editor's note: Our wine writer Sarah Chappell is out in Napa this fall, working through the harvest as a laboratory intern at a winery. She'll share her experiences here so we can follow along. Take it away, Sarah!


Wanna start work at 6:30 a.m.? Work for 12 hours, 6 days a week? 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. The job that gave me a month to pause my New York City life, gather up what things could fit in two duffel bags, and move across the country to a place that I had only seen in Sideways. The job that has made me dig deep into the depths of my brain to remember long-lost words like "supernatant" and "titration," and is starting to add real-life experience to define "leaf roll" and "brix."

This job, my friends, is harvest.

Not all wine lovers are drawn to the technical side of things or the actual work of winemaking. But I am. I studied science (among many, many other subjects) in college, and one of the first things that I enjoyed about wine was how it actually made practical use of a liberal arts education: science, language, history, and an ability to maintain composure after excessive drinking are all part of working in wine.

Through the magic of Twitter I was able to apply for a position as a laboratory intern at a Napa winery for the fall harvest. I was thrilled to get an offer and an invitation to spend the next few months seeing winemaking from the inside. The laboratory, where I'll be working, is involved mostly with the scientific analysis of grapes, their juice, and the finished wine.

Here's a basic rundown of the various jobs:

Winemaker: The boss. In a large winery, this person gives the focus and vision to the rest of the team and can be very to not at all involved in the day-to-day operations. In a small winery, this person is usually very skilled at not only coaxing grapes into wine, but also at scrubbing it off of the floors.

Assistant Winemaker: Makes sure things actually happen.

Cellar master: Makes sure that the things the assistant winemaker wants to happen happen.

Oenologist: Runs the lab and tells me what to do.

Lab Intern: Does what everyone tells her to do. Runs tests on grape juice and wine, holds her arm aloft for hours while titrating.


The view from the winery [Photograph: Sarah Chappell]

My first day at work in Napa made two impressions. First: Napa really is awful pretty and has a lovely crisp heat (so different from humid NYC.) Second: I really hadn't seen anything yet. The winery is the first that I had ever visited that didn't mimic my sophomore year apartment in terms of creative space usage. The offices are in one side of the winery, with the winemaking accoutrement on the other (this is important because the espresso machine is in the office side; it takes prodigious quantities of coffee and beer to make wine).

The cellar is home to the wine for its post-grape growing, pre-bottling life. Stainless steel tanks and oak barrels in various sizes fill the large rooms. There is a room for bottling, three rooms for aging wine, and one little, fluorescent-lighted room for the lab. I say little, because in comparison to the rest of the winery it is, but for a wine lab it is really quite impressive. Many wineries can do basic analysis of sulfur, acidity, and sugar levels, but most have to send at least some work to outside labs. Where I'm working, we have many toys at our disposal, which allows us to do practically all the tests in-house. (And will allow me to learn more.)

I look forward to sharing my attempts to not ruin the harvest with you all over the next few months.

Pop open a bottle, and stay tuned.

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.