It’s getting easier and easier for me to get up earlier and earlier to meet the early-morning demands of harvest. This morning, I was at the winery a bit past 6am to receive about 7 macro bins of Peterson Pinot, weighing in the range of 700-1000 lbs each. I met Ruben who delivered the fruit and had a great chat with him as Ed forklifted each bin off the flatbed and weighed it on an electric scale and had me record the gross weights. Later, Ed would subtract the “tare” which is the weight of the bin itself minus the gross weight of the fruit to arrive at the net weight. This is what you report to get billed for.

Ruben’s family is steeped in the growing and selling part of the wine business. He told me that he used to shrug off high school in order to be in the family’s tasting room. He has long loved being around wine and confessed to Ed that he’d give up Pinot forever if it meant he could solely drink Chardonnay (Man, if that question was posed to me, it wouldn’t go over so well as I can’t say I’m a lover of either varietal. Sorry folks, my heart belongs to Italian and Rhone varietals.)

But to get back to Ruben’s story…So at some point, he realized that what he was learning first-hand, and hands on from the vineyards wasn’t enough to connect all the dots for him, so some years ago, he put himself through schooling to get certified to become a sommelier.

I told him that I had the reverse story. I put myself through several different wine programs to get a diverse range of certifications (although I am not a somm), but recently felt that schooling wouldn’t give me the true education I needed to learn about making wine. The approach I felt worked best for me was to be in direct contact with the juice itself.

As Ed continued to forklift and weigh each bin, I noticed that Ruben hadn’t used any belts to strap the bins onto the flatbed. Instead, he used a series of heavy-duty ropes. When I asked him about this, he said that when he was a kid, his dad forced him to learn how to tie a particular type of knot for the purpose of hauling things. He apparently hated learning this but now appreciates it, seeing how it is a skill that has served him well. Ed smiled at me when we spoke about this and noted that knot-tying is important, even slipknots (ahem, this was Ed’s gentle way of reminding me of the importance of learning a slipknot to secure a full pallet of stacked cases, by the way).

As Ruben enjoyed the cup of coffee and chocolate croissant that Ed made sure to have ready for him upon his arrival, Ruben pointed out his “killer” dog in the front of the truck (of course, he was a cute little fella) and started to note how the fruit lost some of its weight due to dehydration between the point at which it was picked and then transported here. Ed’s hopeful anticipation of 9 or more bins turned out to be only 7. That said, this wasn’t even near the bulk of the Peterson fruit we were to get come tomorrow.

Ruben noted that the workers picking the fruit were basically managing themselves and their own foreman at this vineyard and so if you ask for say, 20 workers, only 13 may show, or if you ask for 13 workers, 20 may show. It always varies and they set their own schedule which means that if you don’t get enough workers to show, you won’t get enough fruit picked to be delivered to the winery it’s on schedule to be delivered to. This is why we got just 7 today.

(Note: I am writing this post the day after and so, just to point out – we did get 22 bins in today and expect the last 2 tomorrow.)

Fruit delivery is not just weather dependent (in terms of ripening) but also worker dependent. It doesn’t really ever work out perfectly, but it does eventually work out. Being game for variation, changes and some loss is part of the winemaker mentality. You really have to embrace that as expected and normal and then see it as something that is solvable. Mother nature and human nature cannot become a problem or a hindrance. I am now understanding how winemaking (from all its angles) is not an exact science. It’s too human to be so.

Anything can change at a moment’s notice. Fruit can show up to a winery an hour earlier. Parts on a motor to an vital piece of equipment to press or destem fruit might suddenly need to be replaced. A bottle might not get labeled in a case. Your expected number of bins of fruit might be less. You might get sprayed with a hose in the face or the back while washing a hopper or a bin or shoveling fruit. The Brix might be too high when fruit comes in. Or, too low. But none of these are problems. They are situations or happenstances. They can be overcome.

After Ruben left, Ed and I positioned the hopper (which is about 17’ in height ) into place and made sure to clamp down the foot pedal brakes to lock it into place. And then we lined up the destemmer piece of equipment (about 7’ in height) under the vent-shaped funnel of the hopper to receive the fruit. Here’s what I learned about these massive pieces of equipment.

Before you turn on either, first you a) make sure you’ve applied the brakes to all four sides of both pieces of equipment, b) check your settings. For the speed of the hopper blades to channel fruit through, it should be a fairly low setting of 20 so as not to push too much fruit through at once lest it get jammed. The destemmer should sit at around 50 for the speed. It needs to move faster to keep up with the fruit in case there are some gaps or some larger clusters to deal with. Then, you plug them both in and finally you turn them on.

With regard to operating them while they are in motion with fruit, the following is VERY important! To start the process, you MUST turn the destemmer on first. To stop the process at any point, you MUST turn the hopper off first. I am slightly dyslexic and mixed them up a few times. And by the way, it is pure luck if this doesn’t automatically result in a jam should you mix the controls up. When Ed first told me to make sure I turn them on/off in the aforementioned order, I actually just thought he was being OCD. Turns out, there was a very big reason behind following that process, and I learned about that reason a few minutes after I had that stupid thought.

Note to self: If Ed tells you to do something in specific way, there is ALWAYS a reason for it. And you can bet that reason is always tied to safety (of the equipment, the fruit, or people) or to efficiency (to learn techniques to conserve energy for other tasks or to conserve space in the small facility he makes wine in). Please don’t be a cocky dum-dum and question it.

So, a few minutes after I had the stupid thought I had, I started seeing clusters of fruit flying out of the hopper. It was jammed. Ed knew this was a good learning moment for me. And fortunately the jam wasn’t so severe (as we recognized it right away and stopped both pieces of equipment from running) that we’d have to take out parts and clean them. Instead Ed flew into gentle action and with the next bin already cued up to be dumped into the hopper, positioned it right next to the jammed part of the hopper, grabbed two ladders for both himself and Dave to climb up to tag-team on either side of the jam and remove stuffed clusters by hand to toss into the bin to be re-sorted. This only took about 10 mins, but man, did I get it after that.

Therefore, to deal with any dyslexia that might try to kick in during moments of stress when I’m operating these two pieces of equipment, I simply chant the following to myself while I’m by the destemmer, shoveling fruit around in the bin so it fills evenly: “Start here, stop there.” For some reason, that little chant helps me stay focused.

After that happened, I began to get really curious about those moments when Ed is very pointed about needing to have something done a certain way or in a certain order. Curious because I now knew there had to be a reason. And whether I understood that reason or not, I knew I had to respect it and embrace it; that was the only way I was going to truly learn. I also recognized that this was how Ed saw other’s choices and methods and I felt a deeper respect for the man because of that acceptance.

Okay, back to the process! Ed put himself in charge of forklifting the bins and securing them with the “pin” and then dumping them into the hopper and finally hosing them off to be forklifted back outside to dry and be cleaned properly later. I was put on fruit and stem maintenance duty which meant I needed to make sure to spread the fruit around in the bin, while keeping an eye on the levels of both the fruit and the stems building up as they shot out the end funnel vent of the destemmer. The stems needed to be constantly raked back and pushed down to make room for more stems. I also made sure to add SO2 to the bins to kill off any unwanted bacteria or critters (pincherbugs, spiders, etc).

With SO2, it’s critical that you remember to wash your hands after touching it, lest you rub it into your eyes on accident because you forgot you came in contact with it. According to Ed, that would be very, very, very painful. Fortunately, when you’re on fruit duty, you’re covered in sticky, itchy juice, stems, bugs, seeds, and pips, and so, having itchy eyes takes a backseat.

That said, about SO2 tablets,…okay, so when I first saw them, I was moving fruit around in a bin as it dropped out of the destemmer and suddenly a white square popped up in the juice. When I saw this strange object, I thought it was a piece of plastic that had weirdly fallen in. Okay, in all honesty, I actually thought it was a Square reader. Shut up! You laugh, but it looked JUST like one. Despite the possibility of an actual Square reader ever finding its way into a bin of freshly picked grapes, I still thought to heroically dive into the bin with my hands and arms to pull it out and show it to Ed who only laughed and told me to throw it back in and then wash my hands. Yes, folks, it was an SO2 tablet. Like you’d know the difference!

Okay, well, that embarrassing moment over with, it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t make another one. So, for some reason, Ed and I seem to have this trouble with understanding what the other is asking when it comes to disbursement of tablets for the bins. On day one of sorting and crushing fruit, I asked Ed if he dropped a tablet in 2-3 times per bin as it filled up, but I swear he said he added one tablet per bin he dumped into the hopper and even if only a small percentage of that bin’s fruit made it into the bin that had been collecting several other bin’s fruit, you would still drop that tablet in because it was technically part of that bin. Okay, as I’m typing that disastrously-formed sentence, even I see the absurdity and nonsensical nature of it. Anyway, I sensed something wasn’t right, so I again asked him on day two of sorting/destemming to refresh me on how many tablets to add and I swear that this time he said, 2 per t-bin because they’re bigger and hold more and 1 per macro bin because they’re shorter and hold less.

However, it still didn’t feel right because even if a macro bin is shorter, it’s still getting a lot of fruit dumped into it and one little tablet just didn’t seem like enough. Feeling more confused than ever, I decided to stick with my process because if I was going to be wrong, I was going to be consistently wrong. After we finished with sorting/destemming on day two, he asked me why there were still remaining tablets sitting out. He wisely set out the right number of tablets so as not to over or under SO2 a bin. I told him that I only added one tablet to each macro and he lightly gasped but then said he should’ve explained better that what he simply meant was 2 per bin. I said this number back to him to ensure I understood and he nodded. He also said that at any point on day one of fruit after it’s been destemmed that SO2 tablets are still effective. So we were still fine and he added the remaining ones. But…in my head this still didn’t feel right because, I recall on day one of destemming, that he added in three tablets to the t-bins and 2 to the macros. Argh. I will inevitably be asking him again next time we destem to ensure once and for all the correct number of tablets per bin. The epic saga continues.

As a bin fills with fruit to the desired level, we position a bin, teeth forward (for pallet jacking) to slide into place to catch any draining fruit or juice as we pallet jack the full bin out from the other side of the destemmer. Then Ed lightly hoses the sides of the sticky full bin, allowing some excess of water into the fruit if the Brix is especially high. That said, if the Brix is at the level he desires or is a bit lower than anticipated when the fruit comes in, no hose is used, only damp paper towels.

Once the bin is wiped/hosed down, it is pallet jacked to the cold room where Ed will begin punch downs and likely cover with a 3 second hosing of CO2 for the night. This quick douse of CO2 creates a blanket-like seal over the fruit, disallowing for any oxygen to get in; it also keeps the fruit at a cooler temperature that’s more optimal.

When it’s time to clean the hopper and destemmer, a lot of precarious work is involved. First, you need to reposition the equipment so that you have room to work on each independently. Lock the brakes into place when ready. With the destemmer, you must first hose off the exterior and then unlatch the body of it and hose out as much grape residue as you can. Attach the hose to the top gauge of the destemmer and blast the interior with hot water. Unlatch the plastic head of the destemmer (that looks like the cover to a large automatic paper towel dispenser) and carefully lift out the bar of fanning spatula-like blades and set on a clean elevated surface like a pallet. Push down and up on the metal colander so as to free it from the wheels it sets on and turn it in a movement that is akin to unscrewing something to remove this elongated cylindrical piece, and then set it upright on the pallet as well. Continue hosing off all remaining grape debris and then clean everything with Cleanskin solution. Then hose off the solution. Finally, carefully re-insert the colander by screwing it back in via the opposite direction you took it out and jump it back onto the wheels. Gently screw in the bar of plastic blades, making sure you dabbed the end of the bar with some oil to keep it lubricated as it spins.

When cleaning the hopper, be sure to wheel it over to a high spot, such as an open stairway that you can stand at the top of and hose the tall hopper ‘s interior from above to remove as much grape residue as possible. Tip: to get the hose up to the stairs, simply feed it through the rungs of the stairway so you can easily grab it. You’ll only be able to get 90% of the grape residue from the one high angle you’re at on the stairs, so you’ll need to position the tall ladder in place to climb up and assess the blades from the other side. Only run the hopper to get the blades moving to churn the excess water building from the hosing and make sure there are no objects or body parts in the way before you do! Be sure to hose the tunnel/funnel and then clean with Cleanskin and hose off that solution. Then unlock the brakes and wheel the equipment off to the side to use at a later date.

After all equipment is cleaned, remember…you “clean as you go”, squeegee up excess water and then begin dragging in bins emptied of their fruit so that you can clean them more properly. Lug them back outside to dry in the sunlight.

Once all bins are cleaned and restacked via the forklift for the next day’s fruit, be sure to squeegee the floor to free it of excess water again along with any grape debris.

After all the cleaning is done, feel free to lie down on the floor and pass out or curl up in a bin for  nap. But, remember, you’ll have to Cleanskin it later.