When I decided to move to Paso Robles wine country at the beginning of the year, one of my goals was to complete a harvest internship working in the cellar of a winery. Ideally at Adelaida Vineyards & Winery – my favorite winery in Paso. I wanted to experience the production side of the business firsthand while increasing my knowledge of the winemaking process. I also felt I could gain a deeper appreciation for wine than I already have by experiencing all of the hard work that goes into taking grapes from vine to wine.
Back in June when I learned there was still a harvest intern position available, I asked the Assistant Winemaker if I could join the crew. She tried to scare me off with words like 6:30am start time, 12-hour days, all-male mostly Spanish speaking crew, and manual labor. I said I was down! And she said she would talk to the Cellar Master who I’d be working under and they’d let me know. Next, the Cellar Master came at me with Why would you want to do this, Nikki? You’re such a girly girl. And show me your nails, checking to see if I had a fancy manicure. Ha! A girly girl? Clearly, you don’t know me well. But after shooting the shit with him a bit, he said ok.
So on August 6, 2018, I started my harvest internship. I will admit, as a historical night owl, the first week of 5:00am wake-ups was a little rough. But by week two, the early mornings were an easy adjustment. With two weeks under my belt on the cellar crew, I have already gained a deeper appreciation for all of the people and hard work behind the winemaking process. And harvest hasn’t really begun since we haven’t even brought fruit in yet!
The Cellar Crew
Our cellar crew consists of 4 dudes and me….soon to be 6 dudes and me. Hugo is in his mid-30’s and has been with Adelaida for something like 12 years. He worked in production at other wineries prior to coming to Adelaida, so he has a ton of experience. He likes to give me a hard time, but thankfully I grew up with brothers so I can take it and dish it right back to him. 😉 José and Carlos are both in their mid-20’s and I think have both worked at Adelaida for 5 or 6 years. Both hilarious and generous in showing me how things are done. They’re all Mexican and though my 2 years of high school Spanish may not have me speaking Spanish fluently, I can typically understand what they’re saying. I’m determined to be speaking Spanish by the end of harvest!
The other intern on the cellar crew is an Italian named Marco from Sardinia who speaks fluent Italian and Spanish, but very minimal English. Marco is my age and we’ve already become fast friends. Now that I’ve joined the team, he is actually getting to practice some English rather than solely speaking Spanish with the guys. One of his reasons for coming to intern in America was to learn to speak English. So I’ve been trying to help him with that goal while attempting to pick Italian back up, too. When I lived in Florence eight years ago, I could speak enough Italian to order in restaurants, give directions, or have a light conversation. That Italian has since left me and it seems that most of the Italian words Marco is teaching me go in one ear and out the other. He always says – How did you ever live in Italy?! Marco has a lot of experience in winemaking. He studied winemaking at university and has a Master degree in Enology. He’s worked something like 6 harvests all over Italy and in Chile as well. With the help of Google translator, he’s been a great resource to answer my winemaking questions.
In The Cellar
The first day on the job, we were topping barrels in the cellar. Well, to be more accurate, Carlos was climbing up the racks of barrels and topping them off while Marco and I were cleaning the barrels with water and peroxy. While wine is aging in barrels, some of the wine evaporates as barrels are not completely airtight. The barrels need to be “topped off” with the same wine that has likely been stored in stainless steel tanks or stainless steel barrels. So the empty headspace that has been created in the barrel by evaporation is filled with wine. Thus, reducing the amount of oxygen the wine is exposed to, limiting oxidation or further evaporation and avoiding any bacterial spoilage. We’re all familiar with the idea of barrel-aging wine, but do you ever really think about all of the monitoring, maintenance, love and attention the barrels of wine need over the lengthy aging process? I rarely did before now.
Leading into harvest, the name of the game has been clean, clean, clean. I learned how to sanitize the massive stainless steel tanks in the winery, which is a seven step process involving a shitload of water, potassium hydroxide, peroxyacetic acid, and citric acid. The other name of the game here has been safety – wearing gloves and protective masks while washing tanks and being sure to avoid getting splashed by chemical laced water. And also knowing where the eye wash and rinse station is just in case you do in fact managed to get splashed. I somehow managed to break the pour spout off one of the old stainless steel tanks on my third day, damnit! Thankfully, it’s fixable and with a small price tag for the repair.
In addition to sanitizing tanks, I’ve washed a lot of one and two ton plastic bins, hundreds of smaller plastic bins used to collect grapes in the vineyards during harvest, and other smaller stainless steel tanks. I swept up bugs from the perimeters of the winery and spent time scrubbing and sanitizing the floors of the winery. We even cleaned out and sanitized the floor drains outside the production area where grapes are received and processed.
Next week I have my forklift safety and certification course. I practiced a bit driving the forklift, as well as moving and stacking the one ton bins. Honestly, it’s not too difficult, but I could definitely use a bit more practice before moving around barrels full of wine and bins full of grapes. The guys fly on those things and make it look so easy! Then again, they have been driving forklifts for years and I have now operated a forklift the sum total of three times. Not too worried though, I know I got this!
The winemaker ordered about one hundred new barrels for this harvest. Those beautiful barrels have been coming in slowly but surely, so we’ve been taking inventory and labeling them accordingly. Marco and I have been sticking our noses in the bungholes of some of the new barrels to soak up that new oak aroma. That sounds dirtier than it is ;). It’s pretty incredible to smell the barrels and get a feel for how those aromas translate into the flavor profile of oak-aged wines.
That about sums up all of the cellar activity for my first two weeks on the job. The cellar has been a little slow as we aren’t yet receiving any fruit. Though we’re enjoying the slower days as we all know that 10 or 12 hour work days are on the way.
In The Vineyards And Lab
Since work in the cellar has been a bit slow this past week, I fortunately have been getting to spend time in the vineyards with Ryan, the Assistant Winemaker, and Darren, her lab-oriented harvest intern. Wine production is an industry seemingly dominated by men, so I love getting to work with a female assistant winemaker. Plus, Ryan is a badass. She’s super knowledgeable, smart, totally down to earth, and always willing to share what she knows about wine.
Darren is also very smart and I really enjoy working with him. He just graduated from Humboldt State University with a botany major. So in addition to fielding everyone’s questions about growing marijuana, Darren has been very generous in refreshing me on the science side of things as well as always coming in strong with current pop culture knowledge.
The vineyards are absolutely gorgeous at this time of year with full vines and grape clusters at the various stages of veraison. I have been helping Ryan and Darren with cluster counting, grape sampling, and taking veraison percentages. The purpose of counting the clusters in each block of the vineyard is to help the winemaker produce a yield estimate, and thus a production estimate, for each of the varieties planted. For a specific vineyard block of a variety, we count the clusters on 10 vines of 3 different rows of the block. An average cluster count is determined from these numbers and is then used to produce a yield estimate of the vineyard block.
Once a vineyard block is at 100% veraison or nearing 100% veraison, Ryan will start taking samples from the vineyard block. For sampling, we cut 10 clusters somewhat randomly from 3 different rows of the block. Those clusters are then weighed as a whole back at the vineyard and divided by the number of clusters to determine an average weight per cluster. This number helps with the yield estimate. The grapes are then crushed with a hand-cranked crusher and pressed through a sieve to obtain the juice for testing. After the juice has rested for an hour allowing most of the solids to settle at the bottom of the container, the Brix, pH, and titratable acidity (the best estimate of a wine’s perceived acidity) of the juice are all measured in the lab. Getting to run some of these lab tests was so interesting, though the last time I did any sort of chemistry was about 9 years ago during my undergrad courses at SDSU.
While all of these numbers are important for the winery’s historical records and for the winemaker to anticipate pick times, many winemakers (our’s included) don’t base their decision of when to pick off these numbers. The winemaker will more likely decide when to pick utilizing the ever-evolved human senses – tasting the grapes for sweetness and acidity, looking at the thickness of the grape skins and the color of the seeds, etc.
Though I loved every minute of hiking up and down the steep vineyard slopes under the hot morning sun, I definitely have a deep appreciation for all of the vineyard laborers – and all agricultural workers – who do this day in and day out.
I’ve loved every minute of this harvest internship so far. Even though the hard work hasn’t really begun, I’m looking forward to the first grapes coming in, the long work days ahead, and a deeper insight into the world of wine! xx