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Crush (Part 3 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 3 of 3.

Read Part 1 of Crush

Read Part 2 of Crush

The next day after I clean the augur of doom they show me slightly more respect and put me with the Australian. My task is to watch him shovel a vat and pull him out of the vat he’s shoveling if the CO2 levels build up to the point where he can’t breathe and passes out. If this happens I have under a minute to pull him out before he might die, and I can’t climb in there myself because I could faint as well and having two bodies in the vat makes it even harder for others to try to rescue us. 

We are well-outfitted. He is wearing a carbon dioxide meter with an alarm. I am wearing a walkie-talkie to notify people if I have to get him out, so that they can come help. Luckily the meter never goes off and it’s just me listening to him talk shit at me while he shovels grape skins and silt for the next hour, and as well some other people talking shit on the radio chatter. I’m grateful they trust me enough, but the gist of his specific complaining and teasing gets at me after a while. 

“Here I am, shoveling shit. Still shoveling. Shoveling again. More shoveling. Wish I was standing out there not shoveling.” He singsongs.

These wine vats are outdoors. There are indoor wine vats as well. Either set of these are where the juice goes to ferment before moving into barrels to more specifically ferment, and sometimes be mixed. If I’m not clear on what exactly is mixed and how, it’s because this part of the process is proprietary and certainly not announced. It is also often a process based on superstition, for instance the winemaker has decided that one in a series of identical wine vats is perfect for fermenting a specific kind of grape and all that juice is sent to that vat, even though there’s no measurable result that comes of that – and that variety doesn’t sell particularly well. 

Wine vats are numbered, not named, and after I see the grapes in their raw form I’ve not the experience to tell if something is a merlot or a syrah. By the end of this job, though, I’ve a better nose for it. This vat that the Australian and I are working on is empty because the juice has been moved either to another vat, or to barrels for aging. The yeast have to be done doing most of what they do before the wine moves to a barrel.

The smell of grapes makes me ill. I smell it even when I am not at the job, and many other smells call to mind that smell. The sickly sweet smell of grapes that have just started to go bad, the sting of rot.

No matter how much water we use and how much sterilizing and cleaning we do – crush brings the smell of rotten grapes – the smell of “not quite wine”. I ask the blonde surfer full-timer how long it takes for the cellar to stop smelling like that and he tells me it’s about three months, give or take. Reducing the number of jeans I have for the job down to two, I buy some more so that I never have to wear them except for at the job. I worry that I’ll be pulled over on the way to or from work and that the cops will smell it and think that I have been drinking.  

Wine Vats

One day, another between grapes, I am out at the wine vats with a full-timer, Miguel. Miguel is known as being a not quite trustworthy employee, one who will steal from the cash box when no one is looking, but no one can ever quite pin anything onto him. I relate to that and don’t mind working with him. 

I quickly realize that they’re pairing me with Miguel frequently because I’m not good at anything, and because they want me to keep an eye on Miguel.

It smacks of racism. Management treats their Mexican workers well, but they also know that a Mexican worker paired with Miguel will look the other way form his transgressions, whereas they expect if they put the white woman with Miguel I’ll tattle. They’re wrong, but I don’t indicate so when the manager pulls me aside before the first time I’m paired with Miguel to tell me to look out for funny business.

“What kind of funny business?” I ask innocently.

“Anything that would negatively impact the Neuland family.”

“Will it impact  me negatively?”

“Of  course not, we’d never put you in that kind of situation.” 

I think of the time he sabotaged my pump hookup and nod my head and leave.

Miguel is smart, and indeed a little irreverent. I like that this makes him always ready to laugh at the work, and that there is a twinkle in his eye. He’s tall for a Mexican, about the same height as I am. He’s wearing jeans and a grey sweatshirt, and a blue baseball cap turned backwards except when the sun gets in his eyes.

We are doing pumpovers, where we pump the bottom half of the wine in the vat up through a hose into the top half of the vat. Miguel has me doing the running, all the way down the row of wine vats to the catwalk stairs with a hose, up the stairs, back to the vat we are working on, then I clip the hose onto the railing and lower it down to him. I open the top of the vat first, being sure to stand clear of it when I do because it can release a burst of carbon dioxide which can make me pass out, and possibly fall into the vat and drown. Every piece of the tasks we do seems to come with some horrible danger.

I’m opening the top before the bottom so that we don’t put so much internal pressure on the vat by opening the bottom that it then becomes impossible to open the top, and then damages the vat and ruins all the wine within.

He opens the bottom vat, I put the hose into the top, and then go back to meet him while the pump pumps the bottom half of the wine up to the top over the next twenty minutes. We hang out, leaning against the wine vats in the hot sun, with slim shade provided by them. He offers me a piece of gum, which I decline.

He shrugs, and squints into the sun, turning his ball cap around so the brim gives his eyes some shade. “Hey can I ask you a question?” he says, in his slight accent.

“Sure, Miguel, what is it?” I say, thinking it’s going to be about the gum or my breath.

“Why don’t white women want babies?” he blurts out like he’s been waiting to ask someone this question for a long time.

I smile. In this Californian world of white and Mexican I certainly am white. “Miguel how many jobs do you have?”

“Three.” He says. “I work here, I work at my brother’s auto shop on weekends, and then I do some landscaping on my days off from here. Why?”

“And how many kids do you have?” I ask, ignoring his question.

“Four.” He says proudly.

“And you pay for all your kids?” I ask.

“Of course, what kind of question is-“

I cut him off “Miguel, did you ever think that it’s not that white women don’t want babies, it’s that white men don’t want to take care of or pay for babies?”

Miguel looks stunned.

“Think about it.”

“No, mami, you just changed my world.” He says, slowly. “I never thought about it that way. I am sorry, I have been making up stories about the women and you’re right, I don’t even know, it’s cultural, it’s the men. Like it is with the blacks. Thank you. I was being sexist.” He nods.

I go back up to retrieve the hose, chuckling under my breath at his racism during his apology for sexism. When I get back down to the bottom Miguel is talking with the winemaker, who is a little drunk. I sit in the shade while they set up another pumpover, but then they realize they haven’t emptied the pump or the hose. This is a no-no. The winemaker tries to blame it on Miguel, but sees me watching them keenly and just lets it slide. I watch as they dump five hundred gallons of wine down the drain. There is something incredibly erotic in watching that level of waste.

“Wow.” I say, unable to hold in my amazement at the way of dealing with possible contamination from a pump and hose used on the same kind of wine from the same kind of grape. 

“I know, right, don’t let the wine weenies see.” Miguel says, grinning, and nods towards the tasting room.

I look over the fence to see if there is anyone watching us, but they are not. As usual they are milling about out front, with their backs to us, staring at the view that the winery was built to make them stare at. There are five or six of them out there, probably from the Northeast, and they are wearing some sort of Northeastern preppie clothing, khakis and a white button-down shirt underneath a blue sweater, with boots and neatly groomed rich hair. As usual they are the wealthiest of alcoholics, traveling wine country as an upscale attraction while what they are really doing is drug tourism. 

We try not to ever let them see over the fence. What we do here on the other side is dirty, and wine is cheap to us. After all, we have access to thousands of gallons of it, whereas they feel excited by just a bottle. It’s an odd class game, where wine is cheap and uninteresting to us, and we are cheap and uninteresting to those that value the wine. The perceived value of those bottles depends on the wine weenies not seeing behind the curtain, not seeing us as the end of the day, dirty and covered in gross grape grime, all sitting on one of the coolers drinking beer. They say it takes a lot of good beer to make good wine.

The next week Miguel saves my lungs.

There is an old and dinged up sulfur dioxide tank that we are using to sterilize the indoor wine vats, and one of the hoses on the tank springs a leak. Sterilizing tanks with sulfur gas is another practice that makes me wonder about the labels I see on the wine we produce that say “No Sulfites Added”. It’s also a very unpleasant task, and I only have to do it twice. We are up on a catwalk above the tanks when the leak springs. I feel like the wind has been knocked out of me. Like I’ve been given a rotten-egg flavored punch to the solar plexus.

“RUN!” he says.

I am running already. “But what about you?” I cry over my shoulder as I round the corner to the stairs down to the cellar floor.

“It’s okay, I’m used to it!” he yells. I shake my head. You can’t get used to SO2.

I finally have taken the time to read the OSHA standards. I’ve seen a lot of things that we are doing that don’t meet them, but as I know I’m not here for long I just try to keep myself safe. They fix the tank by adding duct tape. I refuse to touch it from then on. 

I have lunch one day with the acquaintance who got me the job. We meet in the lab at Neuland headquarters, another, bigger winery down the road. The mothership. She wears a white lab coat. It’s clean, and sterile, and she’s surrounded by test tubes and racks and burners and chemicals and other equipment that I don’t know the use for. The building is lovely, and designer, and wooden.

She sits comfortably on a stool and seems to know what she’s doing and I am envious of her and have to wonder what she thinks of me, to get me this job working in the cellar while she works here, despite that I am more educated than she. We sit at an outside picnic table and eat food provided by the winery and chat politely.

She gossips about the Neulands, who are a couple of guys from New York who came out to CA to make it in the wine industry. And did.

Each morning I leave the warm and cozy bed I share with The Mad Scientist and make my way to work it’s a little colder, and the constant contact with water doesn’t help. I try a few different pairs of gloves but don’t find any that allow me to do my job, so just am wearing them between work and when I am watching the run for sharp objects. Occasionally water gets down into one of the boots and I’m frozen and sloshing around for a bit until I can change my socks. Sometimes it happens twice in one day and the Australian isn’t on shift to loan me his extra pair and I’m wet and cold and forming blisters as I drag hoses through the morning dew.

I am glad that today there are grapes, a lot of them, and that they have me watching from the catwalk again.

Up there, watching the belts to protect the presses, is where I learn the taste of each wine grape. They encourage us to eat the grapes and when we get a run that is mold free, and therefore not sulfured, I occasionally reach down and grab a bunch and munch on them, and have gotten to the point where I can identify chardonnay, Riesling, zinfandel, merlot, cabernet, pinot noir (my favorite to eat), syrah, and petite syrah. The last two took me a while to differentiate, but now I have learned to distinguish them. I have tasted them at grape, at juice during fermentation, and then at mixture. It gives me a better sense for wine than I ever thought I’d have, and I’m more able to get a nose for the different flavors people talk about in wine-tasting. 

Later that day I taste them at finish when they have me siphon barrels. I don’t know why the barrels need to be siphoned, just that I’m siphoning wine from one barrel to another. I’m surprised that my saliva doesn’t interfere with the process, but I guess as the wine gets close to bottling it becomes more stable. This wine isn’t quite finished as they are still full of yeast that will somehow be filtered out, but as I am an inexperienced siphoner I manage to get a mouthful of wine from each barrel that I siphon. They warn me not to swallow it because of the excess yeast, and so I oblige and spit it down the grate. I’m glad that no one is watching to make spit or swallow jokes. It tastes yeasty, but good, like wine with a bit of beer added.

I’ve gotten into a pretty good beer habit which ends when the season finishes. I try not to think about how the beer we drink is made.

Usually I’m drinking Corona, which I later learn has over two hundred ingredients. Compare that to a German beer which is regulated at four ingredients. Mostly I am just drinking the beer to be social with my coworkers so they don’t ostracize me entirely. As it gets colder, that wears off too and I just go home immediately after work. 

Keep expecting to get called in for more work, but no more grapes come in, and eventually they call me to say that the season is officially over and I am no longer on call, and to invite me to the end of season bash that they have at the winery. I bring The Mad Scientist, who is patently uncomfortable socializing in general and certainly with these odd strata that he has nothing in common with. I take him to see the collection of label art, which he finds mildly interesting.

It’s the cellar people and their families, Miguel is there with his wife Juana and their four kids and he enthusiastically introduces me.

The winemaker looks at me suspiciously for being friends with Miguel. The woman who got me the job is there, she barely says hello to me and I wonder if it’s because she heard back that I wasn’t really keeping up my end of things, or even that she caught shit for recommending me. I don’t think too much about it. There is a lot of beer, and of course some wine, and some decent food. 

There are lawn games and these include a keg roll. Here we take an empty beer keg, take hold of the rim, and swing around in a circle to get a lot of momentum, and throw the keg. Kind of like shotput, only with a keg and closer to the ground for us, because none of us can do a real keg throw where we shoulder the keg. I throw the keg the shortest distance of any in attendance. No one is surprised.

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

This was part 3 of a 3 part story.

Part 1 of Crush

Part 2 of Crush

2 replies on “Crush (Part 3 of 3): Working Crush at a Winery”

Hey Zoe, just wanted to compliment you for this awesome blog, you have a way of writing that immerses one into the experience that you are writing about,. Fantastic and keep it up.

Joe (cape town south Africa)

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