Another installment of my adventures of working at a local winery in Eugene, Oregon (Part II).
Let us consider the grape...the wine grape, that is. The tiny package that holds the magical juice that will later be made into that sweet nectar of the Gods, vino.
The Pinot Noir grape, although found in many countries across the world, was made famous by the region it hails from in France – Burgundy. With few exceptions, French Pinot Noir wine is labeled as Burgundy – just as sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France is called Champagne. Oregon’s love affair with Pinot (as it is simply and affectionately referred to in The Industry – even though there are Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc grapes as well) began sometime in the 1960s and has only increased in momentum and stature. There is a region in France, the Côte d’Or that is famous for its Burgandy wine - this region lies along a similar line of latitude as the Northern Willamette Valley. The Northern Willamette Valley is where a large number of Oregon’s vineyards and wineries can be found.
Supposedly, Pinot Noir is a notoriously difficult grape to grow – the finicky child of vineyard managers and winemakers alike. When I asked why this sentiment exists, I was told that it was because it prefers cooler temperatures, just enough shade (they sunburn easily because they have thinner skins than some other grape varieties) and just enough water. Basically, they told me, Pinot Noir is a picky plant - the demanding and easily miffed princess of the grape world. Moreover, not only is the grape plant itself like a capricious child according to some, but apparently the crushed and fermenting juice can also make an “unpredictable wine.” Thus, giving props to the team of hard-working “cellar rats” I currently count myself amongst, and the more than competent (and extremely modest) winemaker at the winery where I work, even with all of the physical labor involved, they make it look easy.
The grapes of the Pinot Noir plant are small, purple jewels. The small clusters of tightly packed grapes release a beautiful purplish red grape juice that is lighter in color than the juice from Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot grapes or even Syrah/Shiraz. Merlot and Cabernet grapes also have looser clusters of grapes when still on the stems. The grapes arrive at the winery in large plastic bins after being picked from the vineyards (this tends to happen in the late afternoon to very late evening hours). From here, they are taken off the trucks and weighed using a forklift, and the de-stemmer is then set up to start plucking those little morsels off of their stems and crushing them as it goes, ever so slightly, to extract that magical juice.
Yep, in case you missed that, I (sometimes) get to drive a forklift as part of my job.
That’s not to say I’m any good at it, and in fact, I am quite a slow forklift driver, but regardless, there is something immensely satisfying about driving around a big, dirty piece of motorized equipment...perhaps that’s why the boys I work with speed around in the forklift occasionally, laughing maniacally? I would to, if I was brave enough to go that fast. But I’m not. Again, they make it look easy - driving the thing around, moving bins and barrels with the grace and confidence of riding on a finely trained stallion instead of a large, bulky machine that could easily put a dent in any very expensive piece of equipment lying around or perhaps bust open a barrel containing $2000 worth of some of Oregon’s finest Pinot Noir (my biggest fear). But as I said, slow or no - I get to drive a forklift!!
Back to grapes though... De-stemming grapes is a dirty job, where one person slowly and carefully dumps the bin of jeweled grapes into the de-stemmer using the forklift while another person operates the pump (to move the juice from the de-stemmer to the tank where fermentation will begin), helps get the last of the grapes out of the bin with a shovel or a “dirty hoe” (ha ha ha – a garden hoe), makes sure the grapes aren’t falling on the ground and the pump is pumping away, the stems aren’t clogging the machine (and causing all those precious juices to flow directly on the concrete), and sprays the bin out once it gets dumped so that it can go back to the vineyard for more grapes. Usually after this latter job (for I am not nearly proficient enough at driving a forklift to want to dump grapes), I’m covered in grape juice splatters, have sore arms and sticky hair, and am freezing, because we’re outdoors, and because it is either October or November (which often means it’s raining in Oregon).
Mind you, all of this happens usually between the hours of 10 PM and 7 AM, especially when the grapes don’t show up until 9 PM and there are 44 bins of them. No wonder cheap beer is the drink of choice this time of night, and cellar rats bond in a way that only people who spend all night doing messy, sticky physical labor and drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon (ahem, this is not exactly a fancy beer) together do. Ah, Crush. And yet, that was only the beginning...