When I was a tasting room manager, I sat in my office, which was itself in a wine cage within a vast winery facility/former plane hangar. Most days, something would be going on and usually just a few feet away from me. Pallet jacks, forklifts, and bin clean-outs were a common occurrence. And while I was emailing wine club members or building wine orders, I could not help but wonder what that side of the winery experience was like. The sounds were loud and hard and long. When bottling occurred, there were usually a few people on the line, which never seemed like enough, as they always seemed stressed. Still, it was the distant call of the tactile side of the winery experience that often made me want to walk away from my computer for. There was so much that I could learn that it seemed like an entirely new language, and one that I feared I might never get the chance to explore.
When I stepped in to help Ed and our crew of 8 on the bottling line, I found out that many of these folks were either friends of his in the industry volunteering in exchange for wine. Some did it because Ed had helped them make a barrel of wine one year, others loved the communal activity of it, and some just loved being around Ed, pure and simple. All these reasons made complete sense to me. Everyone had deep respect for Ed and admired his care and love of others.
I knew I was stepping into an entirely new world here and a new way of working in the industry. This was truly the first time I had worked for someone in wine who was both kind and generous as well as being a patient and curious listener and hands-on teacher. Ed was respected by so many to the point that they would happily bottle cases and cases of his wine or wines he makes for other people. At one point our crew stayed around to bottle some of Philip Cuadra’s Highlawn Wine Co. wine who shares Ed’s space. Philip is a gifted, burgeoning winemaker – and I was happily rewarded with a bottle of the Petite Sirah we bottled for him from Theopolis Vineyards in the Yorkville Highlands.
Being a part of Ed’s crew, I began to see how recognized and valued everyone was and how they valued each other – and further, that these were the sort of people who gravitated toward Ed, given his quiet, yet powerful force that pulls in others who care as much about what they’re doing as they do about the person asking them to do.
You know, it has been so long since I worked a job that felt like a slow manual craft. I’ve felt that only a few times before in my life such as when I apprenticed as a printer and certainly whenever I write. But in these moments, I realize the importance of going slow, of being cautious and caring and valuing silence. When you’re in wine sales and working in a tasting room, you are constantly on stage entertaining. When you’re behind the scenes, making wine, you are constantly “on” but it’s a different kind of focus – one that demands slowness and a certain quietness to focus on whatever small part of the task that is at hand, especially since that small task is likely linked to a much larger one.
There are different levels of reality on both sides, but I felt more like myself today given that I’m a person prone to enjoying life behind the scenes, going more slowly and speaking less. I can do both and probably would be told I need exposure to both sides of the wine world in this way, but I feel myself and my life more when I’m behind the scenes. Maybe there’s no true comparison though.
So, what did I learn and love about being a part of Ed’s bottling crew for three days?
- Being part of the sound and tactile experience of winemaking
- That there are many small tasks involved with getting one job done.
- If you’re on the floor, you might be assigned to load in pallets of cases of glass with a pallet jack, unload each box, stamp each box with the date and bonded winery certificate number, and apply a wine label to each box before it goes up onto the bottling line.
- You might also be the tape-gun person or the person assisting the person with the tape-gun by holding the box together.
- Finally, you might be one of the folks who pulls the box down off the line after it’s been taped up properly and assemble it in the right direction on the pallet to make sure all boxes fit correctly. After a pallet is built 4 layers high with appropriate labeling and plastic tie-off into a slipknot, someone needs to wrap it with plastic before it can be pallet jacked away.
- If you’re up inside the truck, you might be the glass dumper and assembler of wine bottles onto the conveyor belt, or you might be the person catching the bottles at the other end of the line, inspecting them for messed up labels/capsules and then repacking them into the prepared boxes.
- There is actually a lot a concentration and speed needed to keep up and make sure the line moves, but after awhile, you get into a rhythm and it becomes pretty incredible to watch so many hands in action and in their own rhythm making something happen altogether.
In all, we bottled over 1000 cases. It was a fairly stealthy feat but because of our large and caring crew and Ed’s organization, we got it done swiftly and without too many little hangups!
Oh, and I also loved how Ed had us all sit down for lunch together and play the game of “mystery wine” whereupon we’d all bring in odd wine selections and try to guess numerous things about them together. There was zero pressure, pretense, or snobbery about this; it was literally like sitting down together for a family dinner. When work feels like you’re coming home, it’s a pretty amazing feeling. Stay tuned for details on my first day working in the winery as an intern!