If at any point during the harvest one finds oneself in the unlikely situation of having nothing to do, there are always containers to be cleaned, loose grapes to be swept up, floors to be hosed, or, most importantly, caps to be punched down. For the uninitiated, let me explain.
Red grapes, unlike whites, sit on their skins in fermenters for several days until the fermentation process stops. While the grapes are fermenting, the CO2 in the juice is pushing the grapes up to the surface and out of the juice, forming a “cap.” The grapes on the surface have to be pushed, or punched, back down into the liquid, thus rehydrating the surface grapes as well as releasing the CO2. This also helps to intensify the color of the final product.
Some winegrowers use large flat paddles to push it down, some use their feet, and some just their hands. The Coturri method is the latter. On punching days, you return home with your entire body the color of merlot, but it’s a tremendously satisfying and sensual experience. Imagine being up to your armpits in warm, bubbly liquid, knowing that this somewhat primitive process is so very critical to the end product. After each punchdown you test the sugar levels. When the levels show that fermentation has stopped, it’s time to press and then transfer the juice to the barrels.
I originally thought I would only put in few days at the winery. But I found myself heading back up Highway 101 to Glen Ellen day after day. There’s an incredible sense of accomplishment that comes from helping crush eight half-ton containers of grapes, or walking through a vineyard that has no more hanging fruit, thanks to you. The exhaustion that hits at the end of the day feels well earned. Then there’s the education. Nothing like having daylong access to people you respect, who have been making wonderful wines for a very long time and who are more than willing to share their knowledge with a neophyte city slicker.
I wanted to know everything. But what struck me most was the camaraderie that develops from working side by side with a small team over long hours every day. The process works beautifully, without the shouting of orders or a meticulous game plan. If you’ve finished what you’re doing, you unhesitatingly jump in and help someone who needs help, and that’s how it all gets done. I had the pleasure of being part of a group of the nicest, most hard-working people around. Oh, and did I mention the awesome lunches?
Then, near the end of my stay, two tons of choice syrah dropped in my lap. A vineyard had just been sold and the grapes were mine if I wanted them. No sooner had I said yes than they were picked and delivered to us for crushing. These grapes were some of the most beautiful I’ve ever laid eyes on. Stay tuned for a rosé next spring, and a red in 2016. Now that’s what I call a bonus for a job well — or at least enthusiastically — done.