I can’t believe harvest is winding down already. We spent so much time waiting for the reds to ripen until they all came in together and then three weeks later, we’ve gotten all of our fruit and the ferments are mostly finishing up.

That said, it will be good to get some time off. We’ve all been grinding 12 hour harvest shifts six days a week for about two months now and I know that personally I could use a break. Harvest has a way of getting to your head. It’s all you do and all you can think about. I’ve been having harvest dreams about filling barrels or racking tanks or doing pumpovers.

Harvest takes a toll on the body too. There are two types of harvest ailments. The first comes from the wear and tear of working in the winery. For example, Giacomo was unlucky enough to have some hot water splash in his eye and had to miss a week of work. Lindsay had a similar but more scary episode with caustic soda that chemically burned her cornea. Joe bruised his ribs (albeit not technically in the winery) and Tom has a bum back. The other type of harvest maladies involve tired and overworked people just breaking down. Davide got an ear infection that left him in bed for a few days with no sense of balance. Luke and Little Ben both had flu-like symptoms at a point, and Big Dave was hospitalized with pneumonia. The rest of us just drink a ton of coffee, eat when we can, and try to sleep as much as possible and hope that we’re not next–although as a true New Yorker I really can’t get to sleep too early. In any case, come Friday my body will be thanking me for easing up on it a bit.

Remember how last week wasn’t busy? This week got off to an insane start. I spent all day doing pumpovers, punchdowns, warming pinot fermenters, rack and returns on merlots, and nitrogen pulsing tanks (which is a very cool thing which I hope to explain in a later post). All day. Ate lunch at 5 pm. Now very tired. My watch is reading about five minutes to beer o’clock as Joe would say. Hope everyone out there in the real world has a restful weekend.

Bees might be the dumbest animals in the world. Dangerously dumb. This morning, someone left a tasting glass of Viognier juice on the crushpad next to the press. By the afternoon there were about fifteen dead bees floating in it and another five in the process of drowning. Now I get the whole bees liking juice thing. Heck, I like sweet stuff myself. But do they seriously not get that the glass is full of dead bees and maybe they should look elsewhere to get their sugar fix? They can’t even get out of the glass! Imagine a person looking for food stumbles upon a swimming pool full of steak…and a dozen corpses.  Oh yeah, and the ladders are all made of teflon. Just not a good idea. This, people, is why we rule the planet and not Apis mellifera.

It’s been a weird few days at the winery.  On one hand, our merlots are at the peak of fermentation and we’re starting to get our Central Otago pinot noir and Hawke’s Bay syrah, but on the other, there’s really not much to do between pumpovers.  A few times this week, cellar hands have been searching for anything to do and have come up emptyhanded.  There isn’t really a protocol for not having work.  We come to work each day for 12 hours and expect to be busy the entire time.  There isn’t anywhere to go and sit and wait for work and when you’re not in the middle of a job, there’s really nothing to do but stand there and wait for an operation sheet to come your way. Or try to entertain yourself.  Which is why Howie decided to see what would happen if he put out a glass of juice this morning in the first place.

It’s been a quiet harvest so far. That’s about to change though.  The reds are finally here. This week we got a few dozen tons of our first reds of the year in the form of Merlot from Hawke’s Bay.

Whites aren’t too high maintenance. Just press them, innoculate them, and leave them in the tank or barrels to ferment. Reds, on the other hand, are a whole different story. They need TLC around the clock, usually in the form of pumpovers and punchdowns. Let me explain. One of the most important parts of fermentation in reds is the extraction of flavors and color from the grape skins.  To do this, fermentation is done not to pressed juice like with the whites, but with either crushed or whole grapes.  As fermentation begins, CO2 gas from the yeast pushes up the skins into a thick layer called “the cap.”

The cap creates two basic problems.  First off, we can’t extract important flavor and color compounds from the skins if they’re barely in contact with the juice.  Second, the cap traps heat from escaping and creates a hot environment that will accelerate fermentation.

Luckily, there are two possible solutions for both of these issues: pumpover and punchdown.  These two processes are essentially the same thing and they get the skins in contact with the juice.  Pumpover is when we pump juice from the bottom of the tank over the skins on top that form the cap.  This wets the cap with the cooler juice from the bottom while also getting the juice in contact with the skins and thus causing extraction.  Punchdown is done by plunging the cap down so that it becomes submerged in the juice.  This allows the juice to vent some heat and keeps the cap in contact with more juice to help extraction.

Did I mention that both of these processes are extremely messy?  I generally end up with splashes of sticky red juice and skins on my skin and clothes by the end of the day (which is why all my work clothes are red, navy, or black).  Sometimes I don’t even realize until I go to the bathroon mirror and can’t help but laugh at the red splotches that I don’t even notice on my face.

In other news, I last week I found a tiny olive tree in my front yard.  Yesterday I picked the olives and am now curing them using Michael Ruhlman’s method.  Lucky for me there’s plenty of caustic soda (NaOH, same as lye) at the winery.  They should be ready by the end of next week.  Fingers crossed.

Today was Good Friday, and most New Zealanders began their four-day holiday weekend.  Even the winery was pretty quiet since the bottling crew, engineers, office staff, cellar door, truck drivers, and warehouse employees were all off.  For winemakers and cellar hands, however, there’s no such thing as a holiday weekend during vintage.  So the entire winery was empty except for about the ten of us in the cellar and lab, which was pretty relaxing even if we worked.

I spent the day inoculating Viognier.  Inoculating is the microbio way of saying introducing microbes to a medium.  In our case, the microbes are yeast, usually Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

Yeast is the stuff that changes grape juice into wine.  Think of yeast cells as hungry, gassy, reproducing little bugs.  They eat the sugars in juice and metabolize them, basically farting and burping out carbon dioxide and alcohol.  Happy yeast is the most important thing during fermentation.  If the yeast are happy, the fermentation goes well and the wine will be at its best.  If they aren’t, then a whole load of things can go wrong, so we try to keep our yeast very very happy.  We can do thing by controlling the temperature, using yeast nutrients like ammonia, amino acids, vitamins, and the like.

The yeast comes dried and vacuum sealed in 500 gram packets.  I like to think of them as napping yeast.  In order to inoculate a tank of juice, the dried yeast needs to be transformed into a living, eating, farting, baby-yeast-making colony.  We do this by waking the napping yeast with a nice warm bath and some breakfast, kind of how we’d wake a person.  The yeast are reanimated in 40-degree Celsius water (about body temperature) to let them rehydrate and get going again.  Once the yeast are rehydrated, we add juice for the yeast to eat, making sure the temperature of the bath doesn’t change too quickly and freak the yeast out (think of your morning shower suddenly going cold).  As soon as the yeast is alive and eating, that’s when they start making yeast-babies and when the temperature is close enough to that of the tank (best within 5 degrees Celsius), we can inoculate.

Once the yeast are in the juice, we have more freedom to play with the temperature in order to promote or curb yeast metabolism and reproduction and control the rate of fermentation.  Here in New Zealand, it seems that they tend to favor a relatively quick fermentation.  A pinot noir that I inoculated last week looked just about done today on its eighth day.  This happens when the wine is dry (= no sugar) and the yeast runs out of food and dies.  So it goes.  (Fermentation can also stop if the alcohol level becomes too high for the yeast to live, which is more common in fortified wines like port, in which alcohol is added to kill the yeast and stop fermentation while the sugar levels are still high.)

Okay, I’ve gotta run so that’s the winegeek you get for now.  Hope the rest of the weekend is as good as Friday.

This past week the Chardonnay decided to ripen.  All at the same time.  The presses have been running pretty much nonstop processing lot after lot of Chardonnay, mostly from vineyards in Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay.

Pressing so many tons of Chardonnay means two things. The first, most obviously, means lots of Chardonnay juice to ferment, mostly in barrels. It also, of course, means lots of presses to clean. Our winery has two presses, a Diemme 5-ton press and a Bucher 20-ton job.  They usually run their cycles in about two to three hours and then immediately get emptied, cleaned, and prepped for the next load.

I decided to take this past week as an opportunity to learn how to operate and clean these massive machines.  I figured that there can’t be a much better way to learn about a press than by getting inside and cleaning the thing.  (Don’t worry, mom, we had like five different safeties on.)

Here’s how a pneumatic press works.  The grapes go inside.  Then the whole thing turns around like a cement mixer and the first juice is pressed out by the weight of the other grapes.  The juice then passes through strainer-protected gutters and out of a series of holes on one side of the press.  Then, a giant balloon is filled with air and presses the grapes against the walls of the press compartment and the juice drains out through the same gutters.  Once out, the juice collects in a small tank and can be pumped to a tank or directly to barrels.  The first juice that comes out is generally the cleanest and is fermented separately from the dirtier later pressings.  I’ve always known how a press works, but getting inside really let me see how it all happens.

The past few days we have been beginning fermentation, barreling down, and cleaning up the dirty juice (more on that later).  Word in the vineyard is that the reds are still a week or so away.

In my personal life, this week we celebrate Passover.  I had the chance to spend the holiday with the Jewish community in Auckland, which was very nice.  It’s kind of disorienting shuttling back and forth between 24/7 harvest mode and holiday mode.   When I came back today, I felt kind of guilty missing two days of work while everyone else is working vintage shifts.  (Of course, everyone at the winery is very understanding and accomodating.)  Now on to attempting to explain the strange giant crackers that I’m eating in the break room.  Wish me luck.

Hey everyone. Crazy day today. I spent the whole morning pumping a tankload of gewurztraminer juice out of these things called pallecons. A pallecon, essentially, is kind of a giant juicebox. It’s a collapsible contaner/pallet (get it?) with a bag inside, which can be filled with liquids and are used to ship small quantities of up to 1000 liters of wine and juice.

In the afternoon, I went to the post office to pick up my modem that the postal service had trouble delivering to me for the past two days. When I spoke to the good folks at the post courier, they said it would be at the Mangere Bridge post office by this afternoon, so this afternoon (4 pm, just to make sure my modem would get there) my roommate Tim and I made a trip to the post office. Let it be known that a post office in New Zealand is never just a post office. There’s always more. Kind of like the way a Dunkin Donuts always seems to be a Baskin Robbins too. It always has a Kiwi bank for starters. Then on top of that, my local post shop has a dry cleaners and a Travelex money changer for good measure. And it’s not even a big space, maybe about the size of your run of the mill Chinese take-out joint in New York. Go figure. In any case, I showed my pick-up slip to the lady behind the counter, at which point she disappeared into the bowels of the post office/bank/Travelex/dry cleaners, ostensibly so that she can return a short while later holding a package with my name on it.  Nope.  Too easy.  She comes back empty-handed and looking a bit confused.  I must have been misinformed, she tells, me.  No package for me today.  I proceed to call the postal service’s hotline (the same one that told me yesterday that my modem would be there by this afternoon) and they insist it was delivered to the very post office in front of which I was standing at 1:51 pm that afternoon.  They place me on hold so that they can call the post office and sort everything out.  At this point, I walk back inside, just to watch the postal service call the local office’s supervisor (and dry cleaner?) with whom I was in the middle of speaking, while the whole time being on hold with the post courier’s customer service.  Long story short, my package indeed was there on the floor the whole time and by the power of Al Gore I walk out holding the internet in my hands.  I then went to my fishmonger a few doors down for a so-fresh-the-eye-is-not-only-clear-but-actually-see-through snapper and walked back to the car holding a nice representation of New Zealand in my hands: subpar with regard to the types of things you expect from a civilized country, but great fish.

So I thus am the owner of a shiny new internet and should thus be posting here more often now.

Anyway, when I got back to work, I was charged with the task of barreling down fermenting chardonnay.  For the uninitiated, “barreling down” is winespeak for transferring wine into barrels, usually for the first time.  For barrel-fermented chardonnay, the fermentation begins on the entire lot in a tank and then is barreled down into individual barrels where it ferments.  This fermentation began on the warm side (about 20 Celsius), so it was going strong and foaming furiously.  We expected to fill 8 barrels, but it turned out to be more.  I spent the last two hours of my workday filling burgundy barrels until they erupted with froth and then waited for the foam to die down and then tried to get some more with in there so the whole tank would fit into those 8 barrels.  It ended up taking 10 full and frothing barrels to hold what was supposed to fit in 8.  FYI, the foam looks and feels just like bubble bath.  Great for smearing on your face for foam-beards–just smells like yeast, which is fine by me.

That was my crazy day.  Ended with a big bowlful of penne with a fresh snapper ragout Campania/Puglia style and of course a frothing cold beer.  Time to call it a night.  I’ve got to wake up in a few hours and do it all over again.

There is a tradition in wineries all around the world for the winemakers and cellar staff to grow beards during harvest.  I guess the idea is kind of like the playoff beard in American sports.  It shows group unity and it grows over time on the faces of all those in the winery for the long haul of vintage.

All the guys in the cellar shaved last week and will be growing harvest beards.  This harvest will be my first growing one.  It should be good for me since I hate shaving (probably mostly because I suck at it) and wasn’t even planning on shaving during April anyway.  Right now I’m at day 9 and it’s starting to come in just enough that it’s clearly more than just incidental stubble.  I might post pictures of my beard as it grows over the next two months or so if it’s awesome-looking enough.  I hope it is.

Harvest 2010 has officially begun here on New Zealand’s North Island.  This week the winery harvested its Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay from its Auckland area vineyards and more is on its way.  It’s been an interesting growing season.  A humid January and early February and a dry late February and early March has meant that some white varieties are being harvested early and most of the reds are taking a bit longer to ripen down in Hawke’s Bay.

In order to process the first lots of this year’s crop and fully prepare the winery for vintage we switched to our harvest schedule a week earlier than planned.  We work two 12-hour shifts six days a week.  Day shift is 7 am to 7 pm and night shift is 7 pm to 7 am.  I am on day shift for now until we switch shifts in a couple of weeks.  So far it’s been busy and exhausting and fun and overwhelming all at the same time.  It’s kind of weird in the sense that we’re already in harvest mode, but still kind of before harvest takes over our daily activities, so we’re still bottling and blending and working on 2009 wine even though we’re working long shifts.  We should be in true harvest mode by the end of this week.

As I’ve said before, working in another cellar has been a great opportunity to gain perspective on my normal life.  There are definitely some things that they do differently here that are great and that we can learn from at our winery at home.   At the same time, there are things here that make me really appreciate the winemaking and people and equipment that I’m used to back home.  On a personal note, I’ve now spent the last month away from my normal life in New York.  Just like a new environment sheds light on my professional life, it’s also given me a chance to take a bit of a personal inventory while being out of the whirlwind of my New York life, and think about life and friends and the things that I do and why I do them.  A chance to thing about life is always a good thing.

Thanks to everyone for their comments and E-mails.  It’s been really great to hear from everyone.  Hopefully I will have internet in the vintage house sometime this week.  Just trying to work out a few details.  Stay tuned.  (Same bat-url.)

One of the bet parts about working a vintage here in New Zealand is the people. I don’t think I’ve met a single Kiwi who hasn’t been extremely friendly. Most of the workers in the winery are young, laid back, and take their winemaking seriously, which makes for a great work environment.

Another cool part of vintage work is the other foreign workers.  Vintage means lots of work, which in turn means that wineries need qualified workers for just a few months out of the year to handle all of the chaos that comes every year with harvest.  Any given winemaking region generally needs help filling these jobs, especially since qualified locals need year-round positions if they’re going to stay in one place.  Foreign workers (like myself) allow wineries to get experienced cellar workers on a short term basis.  These workers come from all around the world and bring with them experience from the places they have worked.  They are generally young, work for relatively cheap, and are enthusiastic about working long harvest hours as part of the winery team.

If that sounds like a good deal for the wineries, what’s in it for foreign vintage workers?

1. Experience.  Young winemakers are always looking to gain as much practical experience as possible.  Since harvest only comes once a year, travelling to the Southern Hemisphere gives winemakers from up north the chance to work two harvests in a year and develop their winemaking skills more quickly.  Winemakers from the south often work harvests up north for the same reason.

2. Seeing something new.  Winemaking, like any craft I guess, is done differently in different places.  Travelling abroad to different regions allows young winemakers to see how things are done in different places, work with different grapes from different terroirs, and to meet and learn from winemakers with different approaches than whatever they have seen before.

3. Travel.  For young winemakers, working vintages abroad is the perfect opportunity to see the world while making money working the vintage.  Wine regions generally tend to be in some of the planet’s most beautiful places, and working harvests in different wine regions is an exciting way to see what’s out there.

That said, the winery I’m working at this vintage is one of the biggest in New Zealand and has about a dozen foreign harvest interns.  We come from all over the world.  I’m from New York.  Others are from Giacomo and Davide from Italy, Pierre and Julien from France, Joe and Immi and Tim from England, Agustin from Argentina, Lara from California, and Lindsay from Canada.  (And then there are local Kiwis too, like Michelle and Luke, who are also just around for the harvest.)

As a slight aside, It’s funny how it’s cool to be from New York when you’re in other parts of the world.  I’m used to getting the same blase look when I tell Americans that I’m from New York–the kind of look that makes it seem that they’ve probably met more New Yorkers in their lifetime than they would have if given the choice.  In New Zealand, however, I introduce myself as a New Yorker and I’m immediately the life of the party.  People are excited to talk to me.  About anything New York really.  They tell me about the time they went to midtown or ask me if policemen in New York really like doughnuts (the NYPD patrol car consistently double-parked outside Dunkin Donuts on 181st Street seems to suggest that they do).  Either way, it’s a reaction I’m totally not used to.

Most of us live in the vintage house, which is kind of like The Real World meets the UN, only set in the lovely low-income neighborhood of Mangere in South Auckland, where we are by far the whitest kids on the block.  And the least intimidating in a game of rugby.  Most of the locals are Maori, Samoan/Tongan, or Asians (who are far less intimidating than the Pacific Islanders as rugby players).  We at the vintage house are all new in town and and the winery and we’re all going through the same thing.  We all came to New Zealand not knowing anyone or anything about the place.  We look out for each other, work together, eat together, watch TV together, and take trips on the weekends together.

The winery has been remarkably quick in getting us all swagged up with personally embroidered work vests and Redback steel-toe work boots, which are both comfortable and waterproof and pretty awesome as far as work boots go.

So far we’ve been working 10 hours shifts five days a week.  That should go on until harvest starts.  Then we’ll switch to 12 hour shifts six days a week, probably the third week of March depending on when the grapes are ready for harvest.  Meanwhile, we’ve been working on the 2009 wine, mostly racking and blending the reds and bottling the whites.  My hands are already terribly stained like they always are when I work, which my friends not in the industry seem to find highly amusing.

Speaking of dirty, I think I’ll head for the shower and then to sleep.  I need to get my rest while I can, because God knows that when the grapes start coming my sleep will be severely limited.

Talk atcha all later.

Toke