Saturday, September 13, 2008

Cellar Rats

Fact: I learned more about wine today than most people will learn about wine in their entire lives.

Though we haven’t yet started the official harvest process, we learned that the first batch of grapes (and by batch I mean delivery on a four-ton truck) is due to arrive tomorrow rather than Monday. From this point on, things are going to be insane.

I love being the bottom man on the totem pole, but working as a “cellar rat” is very different than starting in the Endeavor mailroom. This is because at Endeavor, most agents (an even some assistants) do not speak to those below them or have any human contact with their underlings at all. At the winery I learn from the winemaker and every other employee. I am shocked at how much knowledge each individual in our small crew has. Our Laboratory Assistant is one of the most articulate people I’ve ever met. He’s fully answered hundreds of questions that I’ve asked him with detailed explanations. Maybe that’s because he was a teacher for seven years before jumping into the wine world four years ago.

Our winery experiences a trickle-up effect. Our Laboratory Assistant says that our Laboratory Manager knows 10,000 times as much as he does about wine. Our Lab Manager says that your Cellar Master knows 10,000 more than he does about wine. And though these guys are all brilliant, our Cellar Master says that our Winemaker knows a ton more about wine than he does! Apparently there’s a crazy learning curve in the wine industry. And though I’m sure all of these guys have more wine knowledge than 99.99 percent of the population, I’ll be happy to leave this place with more knowledge than 99 percent of people.

A big analogy: A winemaker is like a screenwriter. In the movie business, the screenwriter turns in his/her product and then gets critiqued and bashed by any number of influencing forces – the production company, the studio executives, the marketing department, the director, etc, etc. This is because at the end of the day, all people care about is the amount of money a film can bring in, not the creative vision of the writer. This generally results in sub-par films created for widespread audiences. In wine, unfortunately, there is a very similar process. The winemaker has a complex, artistic vision for each wine that he/she hopes to create. However, sales managers, owners, distribution firms, hired consultants, and others force the winemaker to change his/her final product by dumbing it down and making it less complex and more sweet to match the more simple tastes of the plebeian masses

Today, while crushing some grape samples that arrived from the vineyards, we spotted a beautiful ladybug mixed in with the grapes. We immediately stopped to release this bug. However, if this were any other type of less aesthetically pleasing creature, we surely would have just crushed it in with the mixture. Beetles gross most people out, and though ladybugs are beetles, their colors change the way people look at them. How many times have you treated a person differently because they were hot?

We’re not in Kansas anymore…or maybe we are: When I asked Brian, our cellar master, what type of group he hung out with in high school, he explained to me that he was just a chill guy who could be a part of any of the major high school cliques: the nerds, the jocks, or hicks, or the COWBOYS! How cool is that? A clique of cowboys!

Since we arrived at the winery, fresh raspberries have been idling inside of two large tanks soaking up Bacardi 151 so we can make Brandy Liquor. Yesterday, they were ready to be transferred to other tanks for fermenting, so we had a field day crushing the berries inside our massive crushers. After crushing, we sampled the raspberries in their current form, which is something akin to Jungle Juice. As it stands now, the beverage is super sweet and you can’t even taste the 151 at all. Yum.

The guys at work are very big on safety. I’m sure we follow more safety regulations than 99% of other wineries. They LOVE to tell horror stories of machine/winery accidents. I’ve already heard about a cellar manager and winemaker who fell into a vat of wine and drowned, a farmer who accidentally chopped off his arms, a cellar rat who was diced to shreds in a crushing machine, and people who died of CO2 poisoning (the most common cause of injury/death in wineries).

At this point, the crew at the winery consists of seven dudes. It’s funny to work in a woman-less environment as we can talk about pretty much anything without the fear of “sexual harassment.” A female lab assistant will start coming in two days a week. I’m interested to see how this will change the social dynamics of the winery.

Knowing that I don’t need to live in the Tri-Cities forever, the town is slightly growing on me. However, it seems like every other storefront here is either a dentist’s office or a chiropractor’s office. I guess people make their teeth and backs priorities around here.

In the entertainment business, all people talk about is entertainment 24/7, even when they are out of work. I’d imagine that this general trend is prevalent in other industries as well. In the wine business, everyone talks about wine all the time. I’m sure it would get old after a while, but for now, just like my pre=fermentation raspberries, I’m soaking up as much as I can.

No comments: