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The Crush

For love and money--my short life as a cellar rat

By Keith Dorney

The ad said "Russian River Valley Winery looking for hard-working, energetic person willing to work long hours during wine harvest." I was hired almost on the spot. It seems that once the compensation was revealed ($12 an hour, plus overtime) and the hours explained (between 50 and 90 hours a week), only the most foolish, like me, actually signed on. Go figure?

They were making wine--how hard could that be? And by becoming a "cellar rat," from what I had heard a somewhat celebrated position here in wine country, wouldn't I be thrust into that "wine country lifestyle," a Bodhisattva-like existence reserved only for a chosen few? I was ready to be transformed from my current beer-guzzling-everyman status into a bona fide wine-sipping aristocrat.

Actually, I can rationalize anything. My motivation was twofold. I wanted to learn more about making wine, being a wannabe grape grower.

And, I needed the money.

This seemed like a fun way to make some wine, especially since I had zero experience in the industry. Little did I know I would be entering another dimension, transformed by lack of sleep, grueling hours, and hard physical labor, across time and space, through an insane wrinkle in the time continuum known as the Crush.

And, to my surprise, I became an enlightened connoisseur of fine wine in the process.

I naively arrived at the job at 6:55 in the morning, eager to start making wine. My new co-workers started arriving one by one, solemnly taking seats by me at the picnic table. The crew had labored until
11 o'clock the previous night--16 straight hours on the job. That day, another 16-hour marathon, would be their fourth such day in a row!

My new boss arrived a few minutes later--from the office upstairs above the winery where he slept. He hadn't even bothered to go home, a place he hadn't seen in some time. There were tasks to complete that had to be performed today, not tomorrow. Grapes had been coming into the winery steadily for weeks, so all facets of the winemaking process were already under way.

New grapes arriving from the fields had to be dealt with immediately. First, the grapes are "de-stemmed," then placed in big stainless-steel tanks. After weeks of "push-downs" and "pump-overs," and lots of natural fermentation, the juice is extracted, and the skins are pressed to squeeze out any remaining juice. The two are then mixed together before being pumped into oak barrels. As the wine continues to "finish" inside the barrels, it needs to be stirred often.

The work was physically hard at times. My hands became blistered from the push-downs, a back-breaking procedure used to break up the hard "cap," formed by the fermenting grapes floating on the surface. And my arthritic knees ached from going up and down ladders, climbing around on barrels, and hefting around two-inch diameter hoses.

But the work soon began to take on a certain rhythm. I started arriving at the job with a purpose. The fruit I helped place in the tanks needed my attention, my care; and I began watching over them like a doting mother.

These feelings were shared by my co-workers. We worked together as one, producing what we knew would be, in part owing to us, a high-quality product.

I was literally immersed in the fruit, day in and day out, and began noticing subtle differences in the smell, texture, and color of different varietals. Soon I could actually discern one from another.

When the 2001s are available in a few years, drive up to the Martinelli Winery along the Russian River and try a glass of their world-famous Jackass Hill Vineyard Zinfandel. For a special treat, try the syrah. It's a rich, deep purple and has a soft, subtle, fruity aroma. Me and the boys worked hard to get them just right.

As for myself, I'm unsure of my future in the winemaking business. I do know, however, that every time I take a sip of wine, I will appreciate the effort and care that went into making it.

My hands, as of this writing, are still stained a dark purple.

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From the November 8-14, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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