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“May I ask you a personal question?” She was addressing me while I was submerged kneedeep in a fermenter full of what I think was grenache. “Yeah?” I was not in the position to really say no. “Do you shave your legs?”
First, I should take a few steps back and explain why I was wading through grapes like a crane wading through a marsh. A few months prior, I wanted to learn everything I could about wine. I am not talking about being able to pick the right bottle when faced with a wall full of options of varying labels and prices. I am talking about the actual process of turning clusters of grapes into the stuff that comes out of the bottle.
After talking to a few friends who seemed to know a lot about wine (we all have one or two of those), I got pointed in the direction of reaching out to wineries and offering any help I could in exchange for, well, getting my hands (and feet) dirty. One of the best ways to get involved in wine is to work a harvest. Harvest is that magical time of year, starting roughly in late August and running through November, when a winemaker’s days are filled with waiting for grapes to reach their most perfect ripeness, picking said grapes and getting them delivered to the winery for processing and starting the fermentation process.
Thankfully, I happen to live on the outskirts of one of the biggest wine regions in the country. Most people think of California first when it comes to American wine. And with good reason. California accounts for more than 85 percent of wine production in this country. But in (a very distant) second is none other than my home state of Washington at a whopping 5 percent. But this comparatively low number is hard to imagine when you are driving through the high desert of eastern Washington with vineyards dotting sunbleached hillsides as far as the eye can see.
Many wineries start looking for harvest help as early as March or April, because talented and devoted harvest assistants are not easy to find. One winery I spoke to was looking for someone to commit to six 12-hour days per week between August 1 and November 15. Unfortunately, that was not an optimal schedule for me. A friend then pointed me in the direction of W.T. Vintners, a smaller winery located in the town of Woodinville. Run by winemaker Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen, the winery takes inspiration from storied regions like the northern Rhône and Burgundy, and produces wines that allow the vineyards to speak for themselves. That means keeping additions to a bare minimum and approaching winemaking with a certain old-school flair.
I arrived a day or two before the first shipment of grapes from a vineyard about 100 miles away. I quickly learned an important lesson courtesy of Oscar, the other (experienced) harvest worker: “It’s 90-percent cleaning things and 10-percent making wine.” We proceeded to power-wash a number of fermenters, these giant plastic bins that become temporary homes for grapes while they enter their first stages of fermentation.
When the grapes arrive a couple of days later, I quickly learned a second important lesson from Jeff: “Keep the fruit flies out. They are the fucking devil.” And thus began a constant daily cycle of the harvest season. Twice a day (or more) the grapes sitting around in these giant fermenters need to be uncovered (the covers are there to keep the devil out), their measurements need to be taken to make sure that the fermentation is both starting and not running out of control and the grapes need to be aerated, to ensure that there are no parts of the fermenter where the grapes are starting to ferment quicker than elsewhere—and also just to prevent any kind of stagnation.
One method of doing this is called a pump-over and involves a pump being stuck into the grapes sucking out the juices from the bottom of the container and pumping them over the top, thus creating a cycle of juice. The other method is called a punch-down and involves pushing down the grapes that form into a bit of a solid cap on the top of the fermenter back into the juice. This is best accomplished by getting both of your feet into the fermenter and walking around and making sure to leave no grape uncrushed.
It is a bit of a weird feeling to get your bare feet into the crushed grapes the first time. It is hard to keep balance and to find your footing but, after a few minutes, it becomes almost second nature—it may be a bit of a core exercise, trying to keep yourself afloat and not sinking into the fermenter up to your waist.
Then comes more cleaning and more crushing and more checking and more filling. And then there is lunch. Over the couple of months of harvest, these lunches became my favorite part of the whole experience. Along with food, the table was filled with bottles of wine of all shapes and kinds. Many from regions I have only seen on those beautiful terroir maps of France. And as everyone took a sip, we shared our thoughts and opinions. And then I asked Jeff how he picks the wines he decides to open for lunch. I didn’t expect this response: “Every day I want us to taste something that makes us work harder and be more daring.”
And so it went day in and day out. Grapes that are ready to be transferred into barrels making room for new grapes to arrive. Fighting off fruit flies and bees. Tasting amazing wine. Turning my fingernails and my toes into a semi-permanent purplish hue. Getting addicted to the smell of grape fermentation hovering around W.T. and the other wineries in the area.
And then, as quickly as it began, the harvest season started to wind down. A lot of the grunt work was over for now and the juices had been placed aside to let time do its thing. And I started dreaming ahead toward the next year’s harvest.
Don’t get me wrong, working a harvest is not all fun and glamour. Far from it. Expect to work hard, get dirty, lose sleep and for your back to hurt. But I cannot imagine a better way to spend the early fall than being quite literally kneedeep in something that will become wine in just a few short years. So if this is something that you are interested in, I encourage you to reach out to some of your local wineries and see if they can use any help this coming harvest season. Who knows, maybe this will be the beginning to a new journey and maybe eventually you can work with a winery or a vineyard somewhere in southern France, perhaps in the shadow of Mont Ventoux. I hear they have decent bike riding over there too.