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Crush (Part 1 of 3): Working Crush at a Winery

“Crush” is an excerpt about crushing wine grapes and cleaning wine vats for a winery from my first book, Down and Out in California. This is part 1 of 3.

Read Part 2 of Crush

Read Part 3 of Crush

I’m drunk when I apply for the job. It’s the last time I ever get wine drunk. I’ve never drank much wine, I’ve never liked the way it made me feel. I don’t fall for the high class story that follows wine drinking. I’ve always seen people who are into wine as the alcoholics who are in the deepest denial. When I drink wine, I’m most likely to be doing what I am now, drinking wine that I didn’t choose and know nothing about out of the bottle in an inappropriate and/or illegal environment, passing it around amongst a group of friends.  

I’m new to Northern California. The friendships I have in the area that drew me there dissolve once I move there. One by one they prove only founded on a baseline of partying in the same circles. This is the contingent I’ve met at desert parties in Southern California. I am drinking wine and taking Adderall with a group of women who will not be my friends for long, and we are wine-tasting.

Someone is driving, no one is sober.

One of them babbles at me, excited about her new job as a wine chemist for Neuland winery. She has the idea of us working together and before I’ve even responded to her creation she goes into a forceful drunk and speed-addled mode of telling me how much I belong there. She says I can definitely work crush, and that because we were both tomboys she is sure that I can do the job even though I’ll most certainly be the only woman on crew, and that she will immediately, right now, call her supervisor and have me added to the interview list.

And she does. 

I neglect to correct her that I was a nerdy tomboy. Spent my childhood largely sedentary, immersed in books and imagination, and don’t really have the physical skills or temperament necessary for the job.

I figure, in my corresponding state of slight drunkenness and mellow stimulation from the amphetamines, that I can, of course, do any job, and that this one will make a great story. My cognizance of that does indeed make the experience worth it, but that doesn’t make it easy.

And so I work one season of “Crush” at a winery. Crush is the part of the year where the grape harvest comes into the cellar from multiple vineyards and is processed alongside the normal cellar duties that the full-time staff does all year round – bottling, aging, mixing, fermenting, and aerating. Many of the full time staff are only too happy to pawn off the grunt work onto the seasonal workers, such as myself, who have been hired just to handle the extra labor of the grapes coming in and being processed into juice, fermented in vats, and transferred to barrels.

The job is at Bellas, which is a subsidiary of Neuland. Bellas houses the largest collection of wine label image art in the world, which sounds grander than it is.

It’s a small room in a small museum’s worth of original art. I only go into the over-touted museum twice. Once during the job interview, and one during the winery-wide celebration at the end of crush. I am too busy working in the cellar to care what goes in in the tasting room. 

There are framed paintings on the wall containing full versions of the art that is found on wine labels behind the name of the wine and the winery. It’s true I’d never looked at these or thought about that there exists an original, a painting, an artist. I’d mostly looked at wine labels from a design and marketing perspective, or chosen wine based on how much the company spent on the label, or chosen wine based on a label I liked. I’ve never looked at the label as a vehicle for art.

I don’t find anyone with whom to share this lesson working crush.

The interview isn’t really an interview, as my acquaintance has put in such an ebullient and overzealous recommendation for me that they just have me come in and fill out the intake papers. It’s an HR representative who shows me around, and then introduces me to the manager. They then take my shoe size for the steel toed rubber boots they will issue me. In the meantime, they check me out a temporary pair and give me a tour of the cellar, which to me just looks like a zoo of stainless steel and catwalks. In truth it is vats of various sizes connected by catwalks, some barrels, cleaning machines, and forklifts and other machinery, as well as a truly massive collection of hoses and fittings.

I am indeed the only woman on a twelve person crew.

Five of us are seasonal workers and the rest are employees. Four of the employees are whites, three are Mexican. The seasonals are three Mexican and two white, including myself. I’m out of place, and usually a liability because I’m just not as quick on my feet as the rest of the crew, and it’s embarrassing to me because of my gender and because I’m known for being quick on my feet. By sheer stroke of climate luck, this year’s season ends up being only three weeks long instead of the usual six, only spread over five weeks so we all have gaps in when we work. 

The other white seasonal worker is pissed about this, as he traveled all the way from Australia to work crush in California. I’m pleased, as I don’t think I would have lasted the full six weeks. This same worker is the one that teaches me to tape my socks to my ankles to keep them from falling down inside of the boots. We strike up a tenuous friendship, I can tell he kind of dislikes me but wants to keep me around for some reason. This ends up being to score MDMA through me, as for some reason he marks me as the only one on crew who would have those connections. I barely do, but I get it for him, and charge him twice what it costs.

But now it is my first day, and I’m waking up at 3:30 in the morning to be at work by 5:00 and I’m regretting my choices.

It’s literally freezing cold at this time in the morning in September in Sonoma County, and I’ll be working outside, and even when I am in the cellar two walls are essentially open. By the end of the twelve hour day hits, it’ll often jump forty degrees, and I’ll be sweating in my boots.

But now I am driving forty-five minutes through the winding back roads of wine country to Calistoga. Outside this tiny town by a few minutes are the tasting room and cellar where Bellas is located. Everything looks dry, though I know there is moisture in the air because of the cold, icy layer that I chipped off my window this morning. With so much condensation it’s amazing that the golden hills of California retain their hue. The wind blows softly through the long grasses and makes the landscape ripple. The trees are changing color. The seasons here are far more distinct than in Southern California, but not nearly as obvious as the East Coast seasons I grew up with.

The change in season marks the passage of time in a way that I’m no longer used to.

I arrive and there is nothing for me to do for four hours. I sit around the cellar. There is a cooler full of bottled water and soda, and another cooler full of beer that we are only allowed to drink at the end of the day. I’m told that by one of the cellar guys, a white surfer dude that seems very competent and like he’ll give me the benefit of the doubt. He does. He tells me stories of the old days, when more people drank on the job and it resulted in damaged equipment and flipped forklifts – usually on the part of the Neuland family themselves, not the employees, and certainly not the seasonal ones. Still, it’s us who the regulations target – the Neuland family is free to go on drinking on the job.

I learn the first day that drinking on the job is just par for the course for the industry. After all, we’re making alcohol.

The cellar and vineyard workers do not drink on the job, but the wine chemists and winemakers do as a part of their job, and even if they dutifully spit out every mouthful that they taste – they will often absorb enough alcohol through their mouth to get a good buzz on. 

It makes it an odd work environment. It’s industrial, and precise, and at the same time a bit like working at a bar. People are overly familiar. I don’t mind, but I do mind that they are more often ready to scapegoat. Early in my week working there I set up a pump to do some cleaning. I still haven’t mastered pumps, and am slowly learning about priming and also, pumps that prime themselves and therefore don’t need it. I’m told by the manager to go to lunch, that he will finish the setup. I’m skeptical that he even knows how, as he’s not a cellar worker, he’s management.

I go to lunch, and then come back to ask if the setup has been finished. He says that it has, and when I pull the lever on the pump it spews caustic cleaning fluid everywhere. I pull it off immediately and clean it up, but it stings when it’s blamed on me and I feel set up by it. He knows I’m too new to have double checked it myself and actually confirmed that it was working – he’s the one who told me to check in with him before initiating.

But now he’s a bit too tipsy to remember any of those details.

Everything is new. I’m shown the best way to lug heavy hoses to make sure I don’t damage their metal ends on the concrete ground – by holding both ends and dragging the middle. How to always test the fitting on the hose before carrying both all the way out to whatever I’m hooking up to. I’m shown hoses and fittings because they relate to everything: juice, wine, water and chemicals for cleaning and sterilizing. Everything seems to travel through hoses. I’m often hooking up hoses, unhooking hoses, cleaning hoses, dragging hoses, and hanging hoses. I dream of worms pushing through dirt.

The metal fittings remind me of handcuffs. I learn to clap them onto the hose just right so they come together and closed in one hand and I can use the other hand to pull the clamp closed. Hoses come in the same sizes as valves.

There’s something very satisfying about clamping a hose onto a valve and then opening it and feeling gallons and gallons of liquid pass through.

At first there are no grapes. It’s a lot of sitting around. They have me doing the most menial work in the meantime. Removing the grates that everything drains through and cleaning and sterilizing the cement channels below. Sometimes this is disgusting. I do it anyway. The channels run through the indoor section of the cellar and the outdoor section, the deck, which we seal off from the cellar with giant garage doors at night. The deck is where the trucks delivering grapes and picking up juice and waste come in and go out and where the presses, hoppers, augurs, and waste live. I am grateful that the job is indoor outdoor, and that it uses my body in non-repetitive ways…

… To Be Continued…

(If you liked “Crush” please buy a copy of my first book, Down and Out in California, or support me on Patreon for a free copy)

Part 2

Part 3


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