Harvest Journal: The Mess We're In


Turns out winemaking is pretty dirty, and kind of gross. A lot of mess and ruined shirts go into creating this so-called luxury product, and these days I seem to be firmly in the covered-in-crap camp.

Remember those twice-daily fermentation checks? Last Sunday, they revealed something far more vile than eggy smells.

When wines are fermenting, we allow room for bubbles and foam created during the process. This preventative measure generally works well, but some over-eager semillon juice decided that it wanted to break out and covered the barrels and floor with a foul-smelling and chunky mustard-yellow foam.

The fermenting liquid overflowed for most of that day and the next before settling down to finish becoming wine. I had the pleasure of cleaning it up, and was happy to do so to get the barrel room back in order. I had to clean each bung (the plastic stopper that closes a barrel's hole) with steaming hot water, scrub the barrels, and rinse the floor. When I was done cleaning it was as though all of the mess transferred from the barrels to me; I found myself covered in the yucky yellow foam and soaked through with water. When another set of barrels decided to follow the semillon's lead and foam all over, I was less than thrilled. I told my boss about the overflow and he replied, "So, you're telling me that you have a clean-up job?"

Yes, I had a clean-up job. The second of many.

Cleanliness is important in the winery to try to prevent bacteria, fungi, and other not-so-pleasant things from working their way into the grapes and juice. But it seems like a futile attempt, especially when I'm elbow-deep in tan goo that is actually supposed to go into the wine.

Many of our wines are made with native yeasts, but we do inoculate some. When a wine is inoculated, a yeast strain is added directly to the grape juice. We use various commercial dried yeasts, which are hydrated with warm water and yeast nutrient before reaching the sugary promise land. Yeast nutrient is, I guess, full of things that are tasty to yeast. To me, it is a very fine powder that likes to get in the air and down my nose, and that when mixed with water forms a goopy slurry like light brown milk. The dried yeast is added to this yummy mixture and given 15 minutes to warm up and get happy. At that point, I have to gently break up any clumps of yeast with my hands. This is the elbow-deep in goo part. With the yeast, the mixture is like a very wet dough and a strange aroma mix of rising bread and body odor that has permeated my very being and will remain there for the rest of harvest.

The grape juice itself is a hazard that is easy to overlook. Juice is sticky. Sounds basic, but I was used to thinking of wine as, well, wine: usually dry, without residual (sticky!) sugar. Juice hasn't gone through fermentation, so there are plenty of sugars around to stick to my clothes, hair, glasses, and any exposed body parts. The problem with this kind of mess is that there is usually someone to blame...And that person is usually me. In the lab, taking a sample of juice with a pipette isn't really a reason to get it all over myself, but somehow I manage to with frequency.

Fermentation checks offer a better excuse, especially when sampling from tanks. Some wines spend part or all of their fermentation in large stainless steel cylinders that have various access points. For lab samples, we use a valve at eye level. The valve is kept closed by a lever-controlled clamp that offers good control of the juice flow if you can actually get it open. The first attempt can be difficult, and if you pull too hard you will be rewarded with a face full of juice (and berries, if this is a fermenting red).

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.

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.