“First week of harvest in the books, so let’s assess the situation. My hands… mangled. My back… feels like it switched places with Benjamin Button’s. My feet… excruciating, totally jacked up… and where the hell are my damn work boots?! Thanks Irma!” … journal entry, 9/28/17
I’ve always had a penchant for wine, but my fascination with winemaking was piqued by movies like “Bottle Shock”, “Sideways”, and “Walk In The Clouds” which all tend to present wine and world associated with it through rose’ colored glasses. This past Fall, I decided to go on a viticultural crusade, with the hopes of landing a position as a wine harvest intern for the coming season. However, given the fact that I had no wine making experience whatsoever, I tried to maintain a cautiously optimistic vibe about my prospects. Undeterred, I sent out slews of emails to all the vineyards I could think of in the hopes of hearing back. After a few weeks, I finally got an invite from Wynne Peterson-Nerdy, the head winemaker at Chehalem Wines, a family owned winery based in Newberg, Oregon famed for their Pinot Noirs.
It’s taken me up till now to decompress and fully reflect on my harvest experience at Chehalem. In a nutshell, working a harvest was one of the most intense, yet rewarding experiences I’ve ever had in my life. During harvest, days start long before dawn and are filled to the brim with a myriad of arduous tasks. Whether you’re sorting grapes, scaling ladders and catwalks to do punch-downs and pump-overs, washing barrels, excavating tons of pomace (grape skins, and seeds) out of fermentation tanks, barreling down (moving young wine into barrels), or prepping the winery for the arrival of new fruit from the vineyard, idle moments are pretty non-existent. As you can imagine coffee is a cherished commodity during harvest.
The daily life of a harvest intern involves many chores, but the one that monopolizes the most time by far is cleaning. Whether it’s getting fermentation tanks ready for new grapes, hosing down the conveyer, washing out bins, cleaning out the fruit presses, or spraying down the cellar floor, cleaning is continuous throughout the day. Now let’s talk about punch-downs and pump-overs… the bane of a harvest intern’s existence. For punch-downs, it requires climbing on top of fermentation tanks, some measuring as much as 12 feet off the ground, armed with nothing but your courage and a tool reminiscent of an extra long, toilet plunger. Using this tool, requires you to physically push down with your entire body weight to break up and immerse the cap which is made up of the grape seeds and skins that have floated to the top. Some of these caps can be a half a foot thick or more which can make it really tough to break up, and the fact that we were doing about 20 -25 punch-downs a day, easily makes this one of the most physically taxing jobs during harvest. Then there are the pump-overs, where the fermenting juice from the bottom of the tank is pumped back over the top, in order to recirculate the mixture. This is done with the help of Medusa, a cumbersome hydraulic pump equipped with long heavy hoses.
Simply put, harvest is a total grind, 10- to 12-hour days with only one day off a week. This crucible of a schedule coupled with all physicality harvest work entails, takes an exacting toll on your entire body. Speaking for myself, after the first week of harvest I was a total wreck physically. My hands were blistered, severely chapped, and I developed joint pain in my fingers. I suffered from severe lower back pain, and then there were my feet. As I alluded to in my journal entry, due to Hurricane Irma I didn’t get my work boots in time for harvest, so for the first week I had to wear a pair of unforgiving rubber boots that offered no support for my arch-less feet. Needless to say, I could barely walk after the work day was over because my feet were in so much pain. The flipside to all this work is that I was in much better shape at the end, than when I started.
Judging from my account, you may think that I may have regretted ever having decided to work a wine harvest. The fact is nothing could be further from the truth. As difficult as harvest season was, I’m so glad to have been able to experience it. My main takeaways… there is something to be said about working with your hands, and creating something that people will eventually get to experience is truly a rewarding feeling. Being so closely connected to nature, and not to mention waking up everyday and being surrounded by the beautiful topography of the vineyard, is something that I miss more than I had expected to. And last but not least, the relationships I was able to build with the other harvest interns and the crew at the winery. Once you make it through harvest, there’s a bond that’s forged by this common experience you’ve completed together, and it’s one that I won't soon forget.