“Crush” is an excerpt about crushing wine grapes for a winery from my first book, Down and Out in California.
Finally, there are grapes, but just for a day. I learn to hook the giant metal bins of grapes from the truck to the chain above, which runs over a pulley and into a motorized reel. The foreman pushes a button and the chain pulls the bin partially off the truck and dumps it into the churning hopper, which distributes the grapes. I hook one bin up and then the Australian jumps on top of the truck and climbs around like a spider monkey, proving his worth and removing the chance of me ever hooking up a bin again.
I feel a bit mortified, as a giant clip was something I felt I could handle, but I hadn’t even thought of how I was going to reach the next bin, and I could never have climbed with the speed he did. I’m annoyed and him and grateful for him at the same time.
I am repulsed because about half of the grapes are covered in mold. I stand behind the foreman and see that they have a sheet with many categories they are checking off by visually surveying the grapes. One of these is exactly that, the percentage of grapes that are moldy. They check fifty percent. I see that up to seventy-five percent is permissible.
This is supposed to be an organic winery and I know that this is a sulfite free wine so I am surprised when the foreman hands me a bucket and a five cup sized measuring cup and says “This is sulfur so don’t get it on you or breathe it in. Can you add some to there? Just sprinkle it evenly.”
“Uh, how much do I add?” I ask.
He shrugs “A few of those.” He says, pointing to the cup in my hand. It’s a bit sticky, and it stings my hand slightly. I don’t think about it and just do as he says. The syrupy sulfur doesn’t sprinkle well, and at some places cuts into a layer of mold on the grapes and washes them clean immediately. As it churns I see them getting even cleaner. I wonder if this is part of the impetus and put the sulfur back in the cabinet where it belongs.
I wash my hands at the outdoor sink above that cabinet. Looking down at my steel toed boots, I see a dimple in the rubber from a sluice of sulfur that made it onto them. Sulfur is technically organic and has been used in wine making for centuries, but working with it directly seems like a bad idea.
I make a pact to myself to look at the OSHA regulations hanging on the wall after work that day. I forget to do so.
After the hopper, the wine grapes climb up a belt and there they separate from the waste through a strainer. Stems, debris, hopefully anything but grapes, climb up the waste augur to fall into a large dumpster. The grapes, if they are green grapes, for white wine, go into directly a press. If they are red, they go through a machine which tumbles out their seeds and off their skins before they are juiced in a press. The press for the red grapes is smaller than the press for the green grapes. The presses are large fifty and one hundred gallon tanks with a balloon inside that inflates to press the grapes until they burst into juice. The juice is then strained out through hoses into vats, leaving the solids behind.
I am stationed above the presses on a catwalk, once they realize that I am good at this, and they come to trust me. I am watching the conveyor belts ferry grapes into the press, being the last pair of eyes to find any stray objects that might puncture the most expensive piece of machinery on site. The grapes are picked both by hand, and by machine, and either has a different set of objects that can be associated with it. They warn me that the machine-picked grapes will suction everything in the area, and that this often includes rodents and other small animals. I never see this though, most of the wine grapes that come through while I’m on watch are hand-picked.
These come with warnings of stray fingers from grape-pickers working too quickly with a picking knife.
Picking grapes and working in the vineyards sounds like it’s a step or three down from working in the cellar. That work is mostly done by migrant workers, and I think about the boycotting of grapes and “Uvas No” and Cesar Chavez and I wonder how much of that struggle was connected to the wine grapes, and if the well-meaning liberals who stopped buying one type of fruit ever thought of that as they sipped their nightly wine with their well-made dinner.
These are the things I think about standing on the catwalk above the belts and the presses and all the workers. There is a big red button in front of me, and I get to literally yell “Stop the presses!” when I press it.
I only find foreign objects on the conveyor belt twice. Both times they are legitimate reasons to stop the process. Once it is a picking knife, used in the vineyards by the pickers who pick the grapes by hand. The other time it is a flattened soda can, with sharp edges. Both of these things are puncture dangers, and so these incidents lead to the uncomfortable work environment where the managers and owners like and respect me and enjoy having me work there, where my fellow workers are annoyed with my uselessness and even more so that I have favor with the people above me in the org chart.
I love standing on the catwalk and staring off into the gorgeous rolling hills of Sonoma County.
I can faintly see one of the vineyards from my perch, and the glittering of the tinsel that they tie onto the grapes to distract the birds. Mostly though it is trees. Redwoods, eucalyptus, and fields of rolling blonde grasses. Large birds of prey dot the skies, and occasionally they circle over the deck itself and I feel visited, and protected. It might just be the smell of rotten grapes, though.
But now it is the second week of the job, and there is no real work again. I’m back to cleaning. I’m inside that most expensive piece of machinery, the large press, belted to the outside, shoveling grape skins. Because the press has some pretty wide openings it’s not necessary for me to be belted to another individual and wearing a carbon dioxide meter. The aeration inside of the press is good enough that it’s not legally required, anyway.
I feel a little lightheaded, but that may be because I’m inside of a machine designed to put a lot of pressure on things, and though both the doors are open it’s still nerve-wracking trying not to imagine being crushed to death inside of the press. And I’m shoveling something which might as well be wet sand. It’s heavy, and it’s laborious, and if I hit bottom I’ll be in debt for the rest of my life.
I shovel the press out, carefully, in six times the time it would take for them to have anyone else do it.
I then use a special tool designed to not puncture the press balloon to scrape the rest of it clean. Then I use a high pressure hose to clean every seed and skin out of the press. When I am done it is sparkling – save for ten or so grape seeds which always seem to escape every cleaning effort.
They don’t have me clean the press again, but I clean the run every day, multiple times per day, as it needs be cleaned between each run of grapes. We clean the run while the grapes are pressing, whether or not there is another load coming in, so that we can be ready if another run arrives unexpectedly. During this season, facilities like ours receive grapes from many vineyards, not just those owned by the winery to which they are attached. Convenience, deals among wineries, and outright rental of the equipment means that we get all sorts of grapes. Most of them are moldy, though.
We also process the juice for other wineries and sometimes we even process grapes for grape juice companies that just filter, fortify, and sell the juice outright.
It’s here where the level of mold on the grapes bothers me the most. I can at least pretend that sulfuring and fermentation will remove most of what comes in on the wine grapes, but when it comes to grape juice it’s clear to me that a lot of mold makes it through.
Sometimes there are multiple trucks with bins full of different kinds of grapes sitting, waiting for us to clean the run between. Sometimes even trucks waiting for the juice that will be pressed from the bins of wine grapes on the other sitting trucks. I hear from the other cellar workers that this is what it would be like every day if this year weren’t the worst harvest in memory.
I get pretty good at cleaning the run quickly. Clean the hopper, the belts, and every bit of the run in the order that the grapes run it. It all is done with high pressure hoses. I clomp around in the puddles of water and juice that are everywhere, in my steel toed rubber boots, dragging hoses attached to pumps pumping water, with nozzles with handles screwed onto these. Force skins and seeds down drains with jets of water. I am told the winery itself, just Bellas, the medium-to-small sized winery known for its label art not its wine, uses thirty thousand gallons of water a day during crush – just in the cellar. Not counting the water used in the vineyards. My mind boggles at the amount of water used in the wine industry.
I can’t even calculate how many gallons of water go into each bottle of wine.
I think of this again one late night when they’ve given me the closing shift. This is the only time ever that they gift me with this dreaded shift, knowing my ineptitude and slowness no one wants to sit around waiting for me to finish whatever task I’m holding them up with. They’d all rather just do it themselves and get out early. This night though, somehow I am here, whether because I have to be at least once, or because someone really had somewhere else to be and they just needed another body on shift.
And so I am tasked to cleaning the waste augur. No harness is provided for this task. Climbing it, a ladder-like structure angled at forty-five degrees, with the toe-holds being the little shelves the waste climbs up. My focus narrows to a pinpoint and I am aware of my every muscle, and my breath. I am methodically strapping the hose around each level and, clinging to a thin ladder forty feet above concrete, using a high pressure hose to drive the seeds and stems down to the concrete below, off of each little shelf where then my feet, in their steel toes rubber boots, climb down the now slippery ledges.
Somehow I make it.
I manage to clean the thing and then dutifully spray down my quadrant of concrete, hosing all the juice, the stems, the seeds that I had just cleaned from the augur of doom as it now shall be called, all these down the drains, along the channels, and away, somewhere I’m sure I don’t want to think about.
I’ve heard the word “waste pond” in reference to our winery cellar, but I just haven’t wanted to ask what it means. Industrial drug manufacture is dismal. Industrial manufacture of any kind is dismal. Now that I am seeing what goes into wine, I am less and less interested in drinking alcohol of any kind. It shakes my unwavering belief in the legalization of drugs, because I see how special my small batch marijuana is in comparison to this disgusting, unconscious, groupthink process of gourmet, organic wine production. I start to think more carefully about the food I eat as well, sourcing it all from a local farm and then visiting the farm to be more certain of the cleanness of the supply line…
… To Be Continued…