Harvest Journal: The Many Dangers of Winemaking

Editor's note: Our wine writer Sarah Chappell is working as a lab intern this harvest season at a winery in Napa. Take it away, Sarah!


Don't fall in! [Photograph: Monster Pete on Flickr]

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.

Literally, in fact. This week was my first proper winery brush with death, as I fell off of a ladder on to a barrel while attempting to return a sample to the top of a tank. I got away with scrapes, bruises and a battered ego, but this leads to my first not-dying tip.

20111102fallinginsarah.jpg1. Don't fall. There are ladders, stairs, step stools (far more nefarious than they initially appear), and catwalks that are just begging for blood.

The fermenters and barrels to which these ladders and stairs lead are hardly innocent themselves. The fermentation reaction produces carbon dioxide, which is fatal in large doses and can pack a mighty wallop when opening the top of a fermentation tank or staying in a confined space with many fermenting barrels. Tanks can also be blanketed with inert gases like argon to remove oxygen and protect the wine from oxidation but leaving nothing for your lungs. So:

2. Don't stick your head in a tank and take a deep breath; you don't know what's in there.
3. Don't fall in a tank and take a deep breath; you don't know what's in there, and if the tank is full you'll be breathing fermenting goo.
4. When in a room full of fermenting barrels, wear an oxygen meter that measures the percentage of oxygen to ensure that you have enough to not pass out. If it beeps, listen to it and get the hell out of there.


The auger. 'Nough said. [Photograph: JacobMar1ey on Flickr]

Before the tanks get filled, the juice has to come from somewhere: the crusher/destemmer. Berries are put in the crusher/destemmer after picking to remove stems if they are not wanted and to extract the juice. The crusher, well, crushes the berries to release juice and send it on its way to become wine in a tank or barrel. Falling into the crusher would be bad and would hurt a lot, since it would crush you. Equally bad is the auger is like a big screw that spins to power the crusher. The larger the crusher, the larger the auger, the larger the pain. The auger is usually buried in the ground beneath a grate and would thus require some significant effort to reach, but don't try.

5. Don't get crushed or screwed.


Winery race car. [Photograph: JacobMar1ey on Flickr]

So far all of these dangers are stationary, and require some effort or error on the part of the would-be invalid to result in damage or death. There is one moving target though: the forklift. The forklift drivers at the winery take all the pleasure in driving that one imagines would result from stealing a golf cart, but with rows of barrels to race through. So, watch out.

6. Don't get run over by a forklift.

Surely there are more dangers in a winery, but these are the ones that I have personally encountered and (so far) survived. Lesson learned: it turns out that winemaking is not for the clumsy or the faint of heart.

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.

More Harvest Journal

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The First Ferments »
The Mess We're In »
Where's the Magic? »
It's Raining Rot »