Wine Short Stories
It is all hands on deck during harvest. Even accountants like myself lend a hand to get this season’s hall into the winery. Most of the other staff who aren’t directly involved with the making or selling wine look for the more glamorous jobs like grape picking or easy jobs like washing down the floors. The interns usually assist the winemaking team in picking the grapes during night harvest, and the hired pickers for the grapes that must be selected by hand. On the other hand, I love the time just as the sun is coming up and the bins of grapes shine on the tops of the trucks bringing them into the winery. The machine harvest is a fantastic sight to watch. Both man and machine work together to relieve vines of their bounty with such efficiency that I would be scared if I were a vine.
The grapes themselves are most vulnerable at this point too. During transportation to the winery, grapes are susceptible to oxidation, ambient yeasts, and acetic acid bacteria, which turn alcohol into acetic acid, known as vinegar. Steps to prevent this are taken, like harvesting early in the morning when the temperature is cooler and adding sulfur dioxide, which has anti-oxidant and anti-microbial properties. Still, my favorite is the cold storage rooms the small bins are placed in once they reach the winery. I fantasize that I am a scientist entering the cryo-chamber to fetch another bunch of specimens.
The fun begins with Grape Reception, when bins are dumped onto the conveyor belt to be sorted before entering the de-stemmer. I like to think of those who work the sorting table as the first line of defense—looking for enemy combatants and foreign invaders trying to sabotage the making of our elixir. It takes a certain kind of person to work the sorting table. You must be fearless. All matter of insects will strike at you. Wasp and spiders, in particular, love to give a little payback for disrupting their habitat. Once I even found a scorpion hiding under a leaf. Thankfully, the freezer’s cold had slowed its reaction time, keeping me from getting stung.
For quality wines, there are a few options when it comes to sorting. Our main variety is Zinfandel, so a sorter first looks for the unripe bunches of grapes and the grapes that are too bruised to be of any quality for winemaking. This is particularly hard with Zinfandel because it is notorious for unriping evenly, causing some of the grapes to be ripe while others are not all on the same bunch. When I first started knowing which bunches to keep and which to discard was difficult. The winemaker used to come behind me and throw half the bunches back into the conveyor to be de-stemmed.
One evening the winemaker sat me down with samples from all the different blocks that had been fermented separately. Each block took on its personality. Some blocks were sweet and perfumed, others were bold and jammy, and a few were bitter and tannic. Then we tasted some blends the winemaker had put together, and after several tastes and explanations, I could taste each of the blocks within the blend to varying degrees. The winemaker said the goal of sorting is similar to winemaking in that the goal is not to remove all of the components that give the wine personality but only to remove the grapes that will not play together with everyone else. So when I am on the sorting table, I should look for the grapes that will not play well with others.
After that explanation from the winemaker, sorting became pretty simple. I looked for the MOG (Material Other Than Grapes) and kept an eye on grapes that didn’t play well with others. That was until one particular intern had creeped everyone out with a story from the night harvest, and then the vineyard manager showed up with his tall tale. I usually do not play into others’ superstitions, but a few weird things had already happened to me that morning. While in the cold storage, my BlueTooth headphones kept acting up. I love to listen to Beethoven during harvest and pretend a great orchestra has conveyed for the day, but for some reason, each time I stepped into the cold storage, my earbuds cut out, and nothing but a buzzing noise could be heard. I chalked it up to some defect because of the cold air that I was having problems with the earbuds.
That was until the old vine blocks bins started making their way to the conveyor belt. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (1st Movement) had just begun to play, which I don’t remember including in this particular playlist for the day because of the melancholy feelings it brings out in me. So as I delicately placed the bunches from some of our most prized blocks onto the conveyor, I was surprised to see how neatly the bunches had arranged themselves as if they had been marching to their funeral. No one else was at the table, and there was no time between me dumping the bin for someone to have arranged the bunches in such neat rows.
I tried to chalk it up to the vibration of the conveyor, but then Beethoven’s 3rd movement from the Moonlight Sonata began to play, and an all-out war between the grape bunches and what I can only describe now as a rogue fraction of grapes. This fraction tore themselves away from the bunches and then, riding on the wings of wasps and carried by spiders, began attacking the bunches with swords made of leaves into battle. I couldn’t believe my eyes as bunches started to blister and gush under the assault.
I wasn’t sure what to do if the winemaker came and saw bins of his most prized blocks ruined. There would only be me to blame. I reached for my phone to call anyone who might be able to help me but then thought better of it. Glancing at the phone, I knew everyone would think I was crazy or, worst, a disgruntled employee making trouble. That’s when I saw, Die Walküre Act III Ride of the Valkyries by Richard Wagner on my playlist. I quickly changed away from Beethoven to one of the most extraordinary battle arrangements. The stems of the bunches seemed to grow out of nowhere and began knocking the rogue grapes and wasps from the air. Next, what I can only believe were seeds began shooting from the bunches tearing holes in the rogue grapes and knocking them from their spider steeds.
The battle was short-lived, and a curious arrangement began to play. The opening arrangement of Giuseppe Verdi’s Dies Irae filled the room, no longer from my earbuds but over the intercom system no longer in use that at one time had been how the office and the wine team communicated but had stopped being useful since the advent of cellphones. Turning my head back to the sorting table, I expected nothing but carnage, but instead, there were only bunches of grapes dropping into the de-stemmer as if nothing had ever happened. People laughed at the intern and made spooky noises in front of the vineyard manager after their stories, so please keep this story between you and me.
It never gets easier waking up as the sun starts to set. Compounded by the fact that every joint, muscle, and bone hurts for no apparent reason at this age. The early forties bring promises of the vitality of youth but with the wisdom of age to not waste it. Through training and sheer will, a body can be commanded to do things a younger version of itself may not have dreamt possible. The mind is sharp and capable. Then a switch flips, and the mirage is lifted, and the ailments begin to win the battle.
The security of never-ending life has never been appealing. Punishment was the true intent when the master had sealed the covenant with his blood and offered it as a gift. Some people do not fare well in this world. The lack of reflection in the mirror did not keep the pains of guilt from creeping up the spine in recognition of the privilege enjoyed by having only the slightest hint of melanin to the skin throughout the years. This had been the master’s reason for bestowing the gift. The ability to pass in a world that did not favor half of the ancestors had pleased the gift bearer. An amusement, being a part of someone’s inside joke—a whim. Now understood to be a challenge. Choosing the life of an activist is tiresome. The hard-fought years of early life mute many of the gains in life since then.
The phone on the bathroom counter pops to life, illuminating a Right Stuff App profile picture of tonight’s campaign. A thought that maybe the forties weren’t so bad crosses the mind until a stubbed toe on the coffin on the way out the door is a reminder that they will never end.
It was a summer, unlike any other summer. The hot days and cool nights seemed more severe than ever before. As I pulled through, my car lights flashed on the old green rickety gate pulled to the side for the workers, and I knew it was going to be a long night or morning, whatever you want to call it, when it was still pitch black and not even the stars had shown up for their shift. Usually, I would still be fast asleep, but the excitement of working my first harvest filled me with adrenaline. My studies had taught me that picking grapes at night and in the early morning was best to maintain acid levels in the grapes, which are vital to the freshness of the wine. It was time to put all my theories into practice and help bring in this year’s harvest.
When I spoke with the vineyard manager Chris, he had told me to meet him at the barn with the single light that illuminated the entrance to where the grapes were kept before crushing began. As I drove down the dusty dirt road with only my headlights to guide me in this dark twilight, the road twisted and turned beneath my wheels, I marveled at the ancient vines of Zinfandel that rose from the ground like the hands of the undead reaching from the earth and coming back to life. The vines were like thick gnarled fingers; it could have been my imagination, but I felt like they were reaching out to me. Only the speed of the car kept me from their grasp.
As I turned down a particularly dark stretch in the road, a layer of fog seeped from places unknown surrounding me. Just then, a pop followed by a slight rhythmic thumping of what I knew to be the start of a tire going flat. It was as if the vineyard was willing me to stop, and I wondered if I could make it to the barn on the rim, but the first rock in the road told me otherwise. Looking at the harvest lights in the distance, I wish I had sprung for the spare on my rental car. It was going to be a chilly walk, and the worst part was that I would be late for my first day.
I Stopped the car; in close proximity, vines of Petite Sirah peered through the fog, and a chill ran down my spine. A sense of dread took over me as I began to walk down the lonely road with only crooked and contorted old vines to keep me company. I quickened my pace, but then the clanking and rumble churning of the earth of a tractor coming near stopped my progression. I turned to see what looked like an old relic of a bygone era had appeared. Sitting on top of the old but perfectly pristine tractor was a weathered old man who sat in stark contrast to the shininess of the tractor. It looked like the old man had spent many years harvesting the ancient vines and had begun to shrivel like a raisin with the sun’s intensity. The old man gave a slight tip of his hat and motioned for me to hop on the back of the tractor.
I thanked the gentleman, but I was a bowl of nervous energy and immediately started rambling about this being my first day and not wanting to be late. The old man smiled and turned his head back to the road. As we reached the crest of the hill, I could see the light of the barn a hundred yards away. The old man stopped the tractor and pointed off into the distance towards the barn. The view of the surrounding vineyards was awash with the glow from the lights of the night harvest. If I had not known better, I would have thought I had unintentionally come across a UFO landing site. Instinctively, I knew this was my stop, and the old man did not plan to go any farther. I thought it was a bit strange but figured he must have other duties to attend to. But before I could ask his name, the man had already started heading back down the road without a word spoken. I yelled to him that I would see him later, but in return, I was just given another slight tilt of his well-worn blue baseball cap.
I finished my walk down to the barn where Chris was waiting and glancing at his watch. Just in time, he had said, but where’s your car? I recounted my story, and Chris seemed visibly confused. I tried to reassure him that I had pulled off to the side of the road and the car wouldn’t be in the way of traffic. He still seemed shaken, so I added that I would get a tow after harvest, not wanting him to feel obligated to wait or that we would be late getting started. In return, Chris said that was all fine, but that had not been his concern. Now I was the one confused and asked what the matter was. Pointing, he motioned to a big door that was slightly opened, and the gleam of metal shined in the shadows. The very same tractor was still in the barn.
• • •
“The night harvest went really well this year, remarked Marcelo, I just finished walking the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir Vineyards and the team did a great job. Hardly any clean up will need to be done. I’m headed over to the Zin blocks now to get a count of how many re-plants we will need this spring.” Daisy looked up at him worriedly and said, “I hope it’s not too bad. “Nah, Eric and Dana had the interns over in the ancient vine block picking grapes during night harvest, but one of the interns was all freaked out, he kept talking about how he had been late and how a nice old man on a green tractor had given him a ride when his car broke down near that old Petite Sirah blocks.
“Chris had waited around for him at the barn and had been confused by the kid’s story. You and I both know that green tractor hasn’t run in years,” Marcelo chuckled. “Well, you know these UC Davis students and their experimental plantings,” laughed Daisy. “Yeah, yah, that’s what I thought too, but the next morning while everyone was eating breakfast at the barn, wouldn’t you know the tractor started up on its own.” Looking back up from her desk, Daisy said, “Wow, that’s creepy! but what’s wrong with Zinfandel block?” Smiling now that he had Daisy’s full attention, Marcelo continued, “Dana and Eric went behind the interns that night and said they saw these weird nodules in a couple of the vines. It’s probably nothing, you know how these winemakers get. Anyway, some of those vines are over a hundred years old, so you never know when they are going to kick the bucket, Marcelo said unconvincingly. Frowning, Daisy said sullenly, “Well, we didn’t write the budget with new plants in mind, so don’t get carried away,” chided Daisy. “On that note, I’m going to make my way over to the vineyard block,” Marcelo said with a bow of his head.
The drive over to the Zinfandel block was his favorite drive when it came to the vast vineyards he managed. The old live oak’s that sat on a small knoll seemed to always be reaching out to say hello. As the vineyards passed by row after row neat orderly vines standing at atention, he couldn’t help but be proud of the work he and his team had done. Marcelo had always felt like he and the vines spoke their own language, and as their caretaker, he provided for their every need. He hadn’t let on to Daisy, but he was worried about the Zin Block. Dana and Eric loved the complexity of wine they got from these ancient old vines. Of course, if wineries were just about making money, it would have made sense to rip the old Zinfandel vines out years ago because the amount of fruit the vines produced dwindled year after year as they got older.
As Marcelo pulled up to the block, he remembered why no one, including himself, could get up the courage to suggest replanting. It was still very early in the morning, and the fog that fills in the valley from the bay was still lingering in this part of the vineyard. Barely visible twisted and gnarly old vines rose from the earth like the old witches from the fairy tales reaching through the mist. Marcelo could see their long boney fingers pointing out towards him, beckoning him closer. Marcelo always felt like he was being watched in this vineyard block, and today was no exception. Strange things always happened when people were in this vineyard alone, and Marcelo had asked Glenn to come along, but his consultant business had taken him away from the area, and he wouldn’t be back until later next week. Glenn had teased Marcelo about going alone, and to gain back his own wounded pride he had made the journey by himself this morning.
Stepping out of the car, Marcelo was now more than ever regretting coming alone. By now the fog should have just been a light mist but it seemed like it had gotten heavier since his arrival. Marcelo walked towards the center of the block, which is where the winemakers had noticed the nodules, as he walked the fog seemed to be grasping onto his flannel shirt and seeping into his jeans. The usually dry arid soil felt like mud in his boots. There was an eerie sound coming off a set of pine trees that sat a distance from the block. It sounded like a voice, a familiar voice, but Marcelo couldn’t quite tell who it was and what they were saying. However, it sounded like a warning nevertheless. As a distraction and for a little comfort Marcelo began running his hands along the cordons that made up the two long arms of the vine as he walked towards the center. He spoke to each one of the vines as he walked. You’ll keep an eye on me won’t your old friends, Marcelo laughed, trying not to let his nerves get the best of him.
Though most of the block was arranged in neat rows, the center held the oldest vines that had been planted way before vineyard management was a thing. From what Marcelo could tell, there were actually several varietals of grapes planted in this block. It was almost as if someone had accidentally mixed their seed pouch and scattered it all over the center of the block. More likely, though, it was common practice with the early settlers to try a number of varieties because they weren’t exactly sure what would grow, and it was not like today, where nurseries grew exact clones of each vine you wanted. In fact, this was the part of the magic the winemakers wanted to keep in their Zinfandel wines. That little mix of variety kept the complexity in their final blends.
As Marcelo got closer to the center, he noticed the vines weren’t as haphazardly placed as he remembered, strangely it felt more like an amphitheater but with several attendees yet to show. He also noticed a cluster of grapes someone had missed on the vine nearest to him. He would have to remember to take the cluster with him and show it to Dana. She would be pissed that they had missed the cluster from her favorite block. Picking one of the grapes from along the rim of the cluster, Marcelo examined its dark purple, almost black smooth skin. The fog had given the little oval a shiny coating that glistened in the morning’s sun as Marcelo raised the grape up to the sky. Squeezing the plump orb between his fingers, Marcelo was surprised when red juice ran down like a sudden pinprick had pierced his finger. “Oh wow,” he marveled, “This must be the Alicante Bouchet Dana kept saying was out here.” So not only had they missed a grape bunch, which was scary enough to have to report, but they had missed a bunch from one of the few vines in the world that actually produces red juice from its pulp. Despite the misconception that most red wines have polished red skins and a clear juice, it’s the skins that give the wine all of its color. Alicante is one of those rare grapes that actually have colored juice. Even more freaky, the color is blood red.
Marcelo lowered his hand, he caught something out of the corner of his eye, like the shudder of a camera lens, it had only been visible for a second. He hesitated to even believe what he had seen, but it looked like an eyeball had been staring up at his hand. Looking closer at the vine, Marcelo only saw where the One Year Old Wood that makes up the shoots from the previous growing season had left a scar. Until his arrival, these shoots had not been removed regularly during pruning. The excess wood on the vines had sucked away a lot of the energy from the main trunk, cordons, and canes that were needed for fruit production and had left the vines producing very little fruit. One of his first tasks was to clean up the excess shoots. He liked to think of it as giving the vines a make-over. Now the vines were producing excellent fruit, considering that the vines were super old. Marcelo did notice, however, that where the One Year Old Wood had been removed, the scar it had left looked a little bit like a closed eye. A little twinge of guilt crept up in Marcelo, knowing full well a vine’s mission is to grow and grow and grow. While his job is to limit that growth and trick the vine into trying to reproduce itself through its grape bunches year after year. Pushing the vine to work harder than it would in the wild.
Focusing back on his task, Marcelo began looking for the nodules Eric and Dana had described but everything looked normal. Maybe the old pruning scars had looked like some kind of growth protruding from the vines during night harvest. Then he thought maybe he should change his vantage point, but before doing so, he decided to cut the bunch off the vine and carry it with him, in order not to forget his prize. Pulling out his shears, he cradled the bunch in his hand and ran the other hand with the shears down the shaft of the stem snipping the stem just at the intersection of the stem and the wood. The little twinge of guilt returned along with a quiver, so he decided a little thank you was in order. Walking to the very center of the grouping of vines, he raised the bunch to the sky with both hands as if he was praying to the Sun God, “Thank you for another great harvest,” he sang out to the vines. Feeling a little silly, he lowered his head to leave but was frozen in place by what had just come into view. Now before his eyes, he could see hundreds of eyes looking directly at him, but it was just for an instant, then the eyes had closed, leaving in their place little nodules like the winemakers had described. The voice he had thought he had heard while walking into the block had returned, but this time its message was as clear as day, “We See You”
Coming Soon – Entered in the Phantom Winery Yearly Contest. Fingers Crossed.