Editor’s note: Today’s Wine Wednesday post was written by Megan’s Island resident (and my husband) Brandon. His writing is great, but his photo skills could use some work. I still love him. — M.
Hello Megan’s Island Blog! I’m excited to be you guest blogger for Wine Wednesday.
This past Saturday I did something that I’ve wanted to do for a while. I joined a crush volunteer team at one of our local Woodinville wineries. The experience wasn’t quite what I was expecting it to be, to say the least.
It started out promising when I showed up and they had donuts and pastries for breakfast. It was a 7:45 a.m. start time, so this was great. Most importantly, I learned that we would be working with cabernet sauvignon grapes. No lousy white wine grapes here! I found out that we would be helping with about 10 tons of grapes or about 3.5 acres worth. That is a lot of grapes! When I say “we,” I’m referring to me and the nine other volunteers, most of who were experienced in this but a few were rookies like me. The wine maker and 4 or 5 winery employees showed us the ropes.
There were essentially two jobs that needed to be done, both of which involved picking stuff out of the grapes. The grapes arrive at the winery in big bins. With the help of a fork lift, the grapes are dumped into a hopper and then slowly release onto a vibrating conveyor table. It is similar to a conveyor belt but instead is a solid piece of stainless steel that is constantly vibrating and sloped slightly downward so that the grapes make their way down the line. The first set of volunteers is stationed here and pulls out everything they spot that shouldn’t be there. This primarily includes leafs and grapes that aren’t fit for wine – those that aren’t ripe, those that are too ripe and have turned into raisins, and those that are damaged by birds or whatever. This group also removed a few bugs. Remember that these grapes are in bunches and come straight from the vineyard where they’re cut from the vines. We were told that our grapes were pretty clean, that the vineyard crew did a good job of selective cutting and screening.
From here, the grape bunches travel up a conveyor to the de-stemming machine, which removes the grapes from the stems. We were told the machine wasn’t working the greatest that day, possibly because of the summer that Washington had – lots of sun. Because of this, the grapes were left on the vines as long as possible get as much flavor as they could because they were ripening very quickly. From my understanding they were very full of sugar but not necessarily complexity. I was told these grapes would easily convert to a 17% alcohol if the winery didn’t cut it some. I tasted a few, and they were very good and sweet. The end result was that the stems were little more brittle than usual and they were breaking in the machine easily. Because of the poor performance of the de-stemming machine, most people were stationed after this and were tasked with grabbing stems that make it through. Apparently stems are okay in things like syrah but they not wanted in cabernet sauvignon. After this, the grapes went into the fermentation bins where they started the fermentation process.
In case you didn’t notice, there was no “crush” by the volunteers (or the employees). It was all about pulling stuff out of the grapes. All in all, this isn’t a necessarily a hard thing. However, you are essentially bent over all day and your back starts to hurt. Everyone there experienced some level of back pain, yours truly included. This was worse for those on the first vibrating table. It wasn’t as bad for those removing stems because they grapes were moving up a belt, meaning they were higher in the air as one picked through them. However, because the conveyor belt was constantly moving with “steps” carrying the grapes at a pretty good pace, some people experienced dizziness and vertigo as a result (and because many people are standing on ladders or steps to reach the grapes). There were a few volunteers who help in this task because of this. Luckily, I don’t get motion sickness and I was fine there.
The intense Washington summer also meant that all the grapes were coming in early and at the same time. Last year the wines came in over a span of six weeks, but this year it was a little under four weeks. Most of the other grape varietals had been “crushed” before Saturday. This meant all the winery employees were pretty tired, but they kept a good face for the volunteers. It also meant a pretty intense day for the volunteers. We ended up finishing just before 4 p.m., with less than 30 minutes for lunch.
Overall, as a volunteer, the manual labor isn’t very comfortable. The winery staff is very busy and it just isn’t fun. It is often pretty loud, so you can’t really talk to many people either. It isn’t what I was expecting and it wasn’t worth the three bottles of wine and lunch (which was delicious) that I received as compensation. Maybe I was naïve in my expectations. I am glad that I was able to help out a winery that I love when they needed it. However, you won’t see me back volunteering anytime soon. No one really seemed to enjoy it (lots of complaining and plenty of exhausted faces at the end) but one of the volunteers was there for the third time that week. Another guy did it 10 times last year.
I will enjoy the bottles of wine this gets turned into when it is bottled in a few years, probably much more so than usual. I’m glad I did it once, but I’ll stick to working on my dissertation, my house, and my pizza oven, and watching football on future weekends.