Sep 232012

Today, Facebook is awash with photos of the grape harvest across the northern hemisphere. I look forward each day to beautiful pictures of grape clusters, men and women picking grapes as the sun rises across the vineyard and free-run juice on the winery crushpad that will soon be the wine in my glass. As a wine-writer in Colorado and Texas, I dream of being more than a chronicler, I want to be part of the action. This desire is never more pronounced than when I see harvest pictures posted by my winemaker friends in California and Texas.

This year I decided enough with the wine dreaming. It was time to get dirty and pitch in a for a few days with winemakers Chris Brundrett and Bill Blackmon of William and Chris Vineyards in the Texas Hill Country near Fredericksburg. Chris is regarded as one of the real up and coming young Texas winemakers while Bill offers the hand of experience from many Texas grape harvests. They make a hell of a winemaking team creating predominately blended wines with 100% Texas fruit using a minimal intervention approach. Together, Bill and Chris have a sort of yin and yang quality. Chris is full of energy and a “get ‘er done” approach while Bill has a very calm Zen-like quality about him.

Before you say, Texas, wine, what? Texas now is home nearly 250 wineries (up from only 45 a decade ago) making it the 4th or 5th (depending on who’s counting) largest wine producing state. The Texas Hill Country AVA sits behind only Napa and Sonoma as the most visited wine region in the U.S.

During my recent August stay in Austin (to avoid the pleasant Colorado summer), my cell phone rang. Chris said, “You really want to get dirty? We’re bringing in 32 tons of Tempranillo, Petite Verdot and Cabernet on Wednesday and we could use the help.” I jumped at the chance. As with many Hill Country wineries, these grapes were coming from the Texas High Plains. Some came from Brownfield near Lubbock while much of the Tempranillo (AKA Spanish Rioja) was grown near Canadian, Texas, northeast of Amarillo. The High Plains is popular for grape farming because of the cooler nights and lack of devastating vineyard insects such as the glassy winged sharpshooter, found in other parts of Texas.

sorting grapes

I sang along to a classic rock station as I made the 1 hour drive through the Hill Country from Austin to William and Chris in Hye, Texas. The grapes, scheduled to arrive at 4PM, had been picked before dawn, loaded into two refrigerated trucks and driven the 6-8 hours south to the winery. I arrived at 3:30, eager to get started even though the thermometer in my car read 102 degrees. The grapes were running a little behind schedule so I pitched in as best I could with my total lack of harvest knowledge to help prepare the crushpad for the onslaught of grapes. William and Chris is a small operation and much of crush work is more hands-on than in bigger wineries.

Once the first truck arrived, the work began. As the only novice in the group, I was assigned to the conveyer belt that brought grapes from the bin to the de-stemmer/crusher. The grapes were machine harvested which means someone (me) had to pick out the unwanted materials from the grape clusters that the picking machine grabs along the way. I pulled out chunk of vines, leaves, dead birds, bird eggs, and huge caterpillars. There were also big wasps occasionally sucking on a grape. Being very allergic to stings, my sorting partners did a great job of knocking off the wasps before they got to me…Thanks guys!

At first, while sorting grapes and picking out leaves, I felt like Lucy and Ethyl in the famous I Love Lucy chocolate scene. More and more grapes would come up the belt faster and faster and with both hands I was grabbing leaves, sticks and whatever else was mixed in, tossing them into an orange bucket at my feet. My picking partner, Mike of the soon to open Hye Meadow Winery, explained that I would get in the zone and it would get easier. And Mike was right, soon I was in the zone and the time and grapes flew by.

Bin of Texas Tempranillo
sweet and delicious

The crushpad was filled with an assortment of folks, two cellar workers employed by William and Chris, Bill, Chris, myself and people from three local wineries. William and Chris also serves as a crush facility for other area wineries. About 25 of our 32 tons were being crushed for these wineries. For the most part, everyone pitched in when something needed to be done. The grapes, in plastic bins weighing around 1200 pounds each, were offloaded from the truck by forklift, weighed, dumped into the bin on the de-stemmer/crusher and sent past my waiting fingers.

The work was fast and very hot even though the sun was low. I don’t think I have ever drunk so much water and peed less in my life as the sweat rolled off me. Quickly I learned to head into the cool winery when we would get a short break as grapes were weighed or cleaning was underway. After sunset, the heat became more tolerable.

At about 7pm a local chef and college friend of Chris, showed up and lit a big BBQ pit near the crushpad. At 10pm, Chris called a dinner break. We all went into the winery for a welcome and delicious dinner of grilled chicken and all the fixin’s. As I talked with the other people there, many stained with red grape juice, I came to an interesting realization. Everyone working hard, late into the night, covered in sticky sweet juice had at least one; many had more, college degrees. What else, but for the love of wine, would bring together so many well-educated people to engage in dirty manual labor into the middle of the night? Many of my fellow crushpadders worked that night until 2:30 am. But I called it a day shortly after midnight because I had an hour drive back to Austin.

Roger and Winemaker Bill Blackmon

Since the crew had worked so late, they arrived at the pad around 10am, I at 9:30. I was excited. My first day of crush was hard but so rewarding and I was ready for more. We still had the 7 tons of William and Chris grapes to crush. The first hour was spent cleaning the equipment from the night before. The quote “cleanliness is next to godliness,” is never more appropriate than in a winery.

The second day of crushing went much faster for a couple of reasons. First, I was better at my sorting job and found my zone, right away. Second, the grapes were from other vineyards where the operators obviously were more adept with the mechanical pickers. We could move more grapes through the process faster because there was less junk to pick out. The Cabernet was in fact so clean it appeared hand-picked. We moved about 20 bins of crushed grapes into the winery where they would soon begin open-top fermentation before being pumped into stainless-steel tanks. Then more cleaning. Again it was hot but frankly, I didn’t notice. I was having fun getting dirty.

Texas Cabernet Grapes

Friday was my final day as a cellar rat. Chris and his family were gone for the weekend and the crush crew had the day off. It was only Bill and myself.  We arrived on the pad about 10am. It was time to actually start making wine. I followed Bill around like the eager student I was, asking a myriad of questions. Why do you add this, why do you do that, etc. Bill was patient with my inquisition. My day was spent moving 1000 pounds of crushed grapes between bins using a bucket, hand-punching the bins resulting in purple arms, cleaning bins in preparation for yeast inoculation, cleaning concrete floors with a squeegee and harassing Bill with my endless questions. I loved every minute of it.

Inoculating with yeast…
Now officially a “Cellar Rat”

My big moment came when Bill tasked me with inoculating the bins of grapes with yeast to start the fermentation process. I took my carefully measured pitcher, filled with yeast and grape juice, and measuring cup, pouring the proper amount in each bin. In a matter of weeks my hard work would be wine. It was then Bill anointed me a true “cellar rat.” I was proud of my new title!

Sadly, I had to leave the next morning for my return to life in Colorado and welcome cooler temps. I felt as though I was leaving my babies behind in someone else’s care. I would have preferred to stay, do the daily hand punch-downs and watch my babies grow; but alas. At least they were left in the care of two of the finest winemakers Texas has to offer. But before long, I know, my babies will return to Pappa…in a bottle.

  12 Responses to “My Days as a Winery Cellar Rat or How I Spent my Summer Vacation”

  1. Great writing, Roger! May your audience increase and pass on your stories.

    • Now I’m flattered! Thanks for helping me be a better writer. I hope you see a few of your lessons at work here.

  2. You make the life of a cellar rat beyond exciting, Roger. Glad you’re sharing this
    here and I hope an even wider audience will read your stories in the future!

  3. It’s funny how everybody makes fun of us consumers whenever we get a hand at harvesting, bottling, etc. and love it. 🙂

    • Thanks, Jeff… The folks at William and Chris were great to work with…It’s the other consumers who don’t get why we love it…. 😉

  4. What a great experience. I so enjoyed my time there when I visited in May. Hope to get back there soon and maybe I can help with harvest some time too! As usual, a great piece.

  5. Great story, and well written! You have totally captured the hard, physical labor aspect of wine-making, coupled with the joy of creating something that will enrich the lives of others.

  6. Roge, I felt like was was at the winery with you. Your writing is pure poetry and I truly enjoyed the experience.

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