The Walking Dead (Tired)
One Day in the (not so) Glamorous Life of a Winegrower
You know how sometimes, when you wake up in the dead of night, it takes a few seconds to even identify what day it is, or where you even are? You’re disoriented; your mind is struggling to acknowledge that your eyes are open. You think to yourself, “Wait, I just went to sleep, how could it be time to wake up?” We’ll that’s pretty much how I feel every morning during harvest.
My alarm goes off early, real early, this time of year. Once I realize I’m awake, this To-Do list will start announcing itself in my head. Fruit coming in, sugars and temps to check, pressing chardonnay, organizing the barrel room, making sure our purple elephant is properly bathed. Then, all of a sudden, that last weird thought will signal to me that I’m starting to fall back to sleep, head first into the land of dreams. And, that nonsensical thought, and the fear of falling back to sleep, will jar me into full-on wakefulness.
I work my way through the routine of finding my tee-shirt and shorts, socks etc, in the dark as I don’t want wake up the family. I grab whatever shirt is on top, first pair of socks my fingers land on and my shorts from yesterday (just because they are right there). The funny thing is, I don’t even see what I’m wearing until I’m long gone from home, but who cares? I don’t. I’m not trying to impress anyone; I already have a beautiful wife, and my kids already think I’m a dork. No changing those things.
I’m on the road before it’s 3:00 AM. If you’ve ever driven this time of morning—or is it evening? —anyway, if you’ve ever driven country roads this early, you know it’s mostly long-haul truckers on the road, and the random car, here and there. Figuring a car out on the road might have a late-night partier behind the wheel, I tend to drive pretty cautiously to work. Once I’m at the winery, I brew myself a cup of coffee. Strong and Black. Just half a cup because I don’t have the time or leisure to sip a full one. Then I turn on the stereo, cranked to Bob Marley and the Wailers “Babylon by Bus.” Energy is a full strength now.
As early as it is, I’m not the first one here. Most of our crew is already outside picking chardonnay; they started at midnight. For all the glamorous associations that surround wine and the wine country lifestyle, we’re first and foremost farmers. And, grapes are produce. You want to harvest them off the vine while they’re still cold, stable, crisp and fresh. You don’t want to pick them in the middle of a hot day, when they’re taxed from the heat, losing moisture and, literally, shriveling up on the vine; that’s when yellow jackets and bacteria become active. Not only that, but when it’s really hot out, and people are working, they tend to get cranky, and very few beautiful things are created while people are being cranky with one another. So, we are committed to night picking.
Once I check in on the crew in the vineyard, I return to the winery, open up the cellar doors and start my day. I love how quiet it is out on the crush pad; it’s so peaceful, calm, and beautiful, as if everyone is still asleep, even the birds and animals. I hesitate to turn on the stadium lights we use to illuminate the crush pad, because the serenity is broken. But, I need to get to work and the fruit’s going to start coming in any moment now.
For the next three hours, I press off chardonnay that was literally just harvested, clean lots of equipment, get drenched many times over, drive the forklift, and do a couple of punch-downs.
By around 7:00 AM, lunchtime, I clean off the dirt, sweat, dust and sticky grape juice covering my arms and legs, and sit down for a bowl of Cheerios at my desk and that’s when I start checking messages. I remind myself NOT to call anyone as they are still asleep, so I stick to electronic messaging. I do however, call a couple of friends who are winegrowers to see how they’re doing. Andrew Murray. Joey Tensley. Matt Dees. You may have heard of them if you drink the best of Santa Barbara County wines. They’re great winegrowers. Great people. I taught them everything they know. ☺
It takes a while to get through the punch downs and pressing chardonnay. Afterwards, I’ll check on our rosé fermentations; half of the rosé is fermenting in tank, and the other half, in barrel. My cellar crew and I also continue to clean and prep barrels for barreling down the chardonnay tomorrow. When it’s not harvest, sometimes there is time shoot the shit while checking barrels and such, but not during this time of year. There is simply too much to do. Not even time to sit down and enjoy a glass of wine, mostly because I would pass out, but also because, mentally, I’m not in that state of mind. I’m too busy. Its “playoff” time: focus and drive. After harvest, though, all bets are off and I hit my home cellar like a kid in a candy store.
After a second round of punch downs late afternoon, I head off to pick up my son from home and take him to football practice. I go into stealth dad mode at this point; I’m running on fumes, but I need to get some groceries for tonight’s dinner and pick up my daughter from dance. By the time 8:30 PM rolls around, I’m empty. Done. Toast. Wrecked.
Harvest lasts about two and a half months, until all of the fruit comes in, everything is barreled down or transferred to tank.
Such is the glamorous life of a winegrower.