Since there were no more grapes hanging in the vineyards, you could say that harvest was over.
But harvest wasn't over. We were all still working twelve hour days, and would continue to until Christmas. There were thirty-nine tanks in various stages of fermentation, and it was our job to get the wine in bottles and on shelves by this time next year.
The early ferments were done and we had spent last week pressing the last gritty gallons of wine from their exhausted skins. Now it was time to add the oak chips. I'll never forget the first time an eighteen-wheeler backed up to the winery and delivered twenty pallets, each stacked five feet high with bags and bags of oak chips.
Granted, this was a big winery. But it still blew my mind how many oak chips were delivered each year. They would be dumped into the tanks to release their sawdusty aroma and flavor compounds, and eventually composted.
Obviously buying new barrels would cost more, especially the best French barrels as the dollar endured continued humiliation at the hands of the Euro. But God, there were just so many oak chips!
The bottom line was that they were the only cost-effective way of getting something approximating oak flavor into wine. And oak flavor--well, oak flavor and alcohol--were what kept the cases zooming off the Costco shelves.
Today had been day one of oak chips. Day one of clocking in at dawn, forklifting pallets of chips from the warehouse to the winery, weighing out the quantities, and finally tying the chips up in big muslin steeping bags. I called them Satan's Teabags. I would lug each one--some weighing upwards of thirty pounds--to the top of each tank and heave it into the wine to steep for months and months.
It was 6:45 PM and I was fried. I was the most resilient of the cellarhands--I'm not above saying I was better than they were at ignoring wet clothes, strained ligaments and the occasional chemical burn at the end of the day. Maybe they were a step ahead of me in the morning, but when they were flagging late in the afternoon I was always hitting my stride.
The exception to "always" was today... as always. Three more bags of chips to go. A fierce tiredness was setting in on me.
The worst part was that I should have been done by now. Just after lunch, the main floor drain started backing up. I had wasted two disgusting hours trying to locate and clear the blockage before throwing my hands up and getting back to the chips. Now there was a half-inch of water over most of the floor, and I was definitely not going home until I fixed the drain.
Go, go, go, just go. I grasped for whatever willpower I had left, threw a heavy sack of chips over my shoulder, and ascended the side of a giant Merlot tank with only one hand on the ladder. This was the sort of little danger I had come to accept as part of the job.
I opened the lid and heaved in the bag. The tank was two-thirds full and the chips landed with a satisfying *plunk* that resonated in the empty space. When I'm a head winemaker, I thought to myself, no one's going to throw a bag into my red wine. My red wines are going to luxuriate in new French barrels every year--beautiful Seguin-Moreaus, Sylvains, Dargaud & Jaegles. There would always be money for more new barrels, because I would be able to name any price for the wines.
The primitive, perfect engineering of a barrel never ceased to amaze me. From wood and metal and fire, the most ergonomic, functional way there would ever be to store wine. No one would ever improve on the original design of a barrel. And without barrels, there would never have been a wine industry.
And what were oak chips? Shattered barrels. Maybe not literally, but they were a suggestion of what would happen if you took a sledgehammer to a barrel. A jeering insult to barrels. You are not necessary. You can be broken.
I realized I was going to start looking for a new job in January.
This daydream went on a little longer before I was snapped out of it by the door at the far end of the winery clicking open, then shut. It was far away, but sound traveled through this cold, damp space like electricity through a puddle.
There was no line of sight connecting me to the door--I couldn't see whoever came in and whoever came in couldn't see me. It wasn't the assistant winemaker, who I saw go home two hours ago. It couldn't be Paul, Tony, Ignacio, or any of the other cellarhands--they would have come through the other door.
Footsteps--that sounded like more than two feet--clicked on wet concrete.
"Come on, this way," someone said. It was Craig, a wiry townie who worked the closing shift in the tasting room three nights a week, usually leaving the actual responsibilities of closing to whomever had the misfortune of sharing the shift. Craig was content to know fuck-all about wine.
"It's freezing in here," whispered a girl's voice.
I decided I would wait on the ladder.