I’m a Cellar Rat

red wine being pressed off looking up a single vineyard row zin on the sorting table cluster of sauvignon blanc my hands stained from wine view of wine cave vineyard selfie the first bins of sauvignon blanc filling a barrel holding a pile of pressed-off grape skins pile of zinfandel clusters concrete egg in wine cave loading grape hopper head trained Grenache frothy yeast solution standing on fermentor to push down cap filling the pneumatic press with sauvignon blanc

When I tell people I work harvest in the wine industry, lucky readers,

I realize they have no idea what I mean.

So…what do you do exactly? is not uncommon for me to hear.

And I actually find that a super hard question to answer in “elevator pitch” form…because it is really asking how is wine made? And we are so removed from how our beverages are made, so it is hard to provide any kind of comparable visual of all of the work that goes in to wine.

So rather than clumsily describing it here and there, I thought I would do a post on my real job, because I think it is something a lot of people don’t know about.

How wine is made and what my job is varies from winery to winery. I have only worked for small wineries that process 60-150 tons of fruit, which is definitely different from how your Ménage a Trois red blend is made. So keep in mind that everything I’m about to say is focused on the small local places you may have to go taste at on site to even find their wine. It is part of the charm and is, as I hope you’ll soon find, very worth supporting.

What I do as a Cellar Rat

My job is to be flexible and eager to do whatever is asked while perpetually soaked to the bone, sore, and covered in bruises…and yet to still be thinking ahead to make the most of time. Harvest is anywhere from about 2 – 4 months every year, but it is a time filled with 12+ hour shifts. Every day is different, dependent on when the grapes are ripe and what the needs of the winery are, but this is the gist.

I clean a lot.

Clean what? you say…

Everything that could potentially touch wine. EVERYTHING.

Tanks where the wine is fermented and stored.
Pumps and hoses that move wine between these tanks.
All processing equipment: grape ladders, de-stemmers, sorting tables, shaker tables, presses
tri-clamps/gaskets/valves
Also did I mention? Any possible thing that even has a CHANCE of touching wine

…must all be cleaned. And not just cleaned. Sanitized, which is a lot of work and a multi step process, but is the reason that you have such a tremendous amount of high quality wine available to you. You’re so welcome.

I move a lot of stuff.

Wineries are filled with equipment that is used for about 3 months of a year. With limited space, you almost always have to move something else, wine/equipment/etc, to be able to get to your task. And that isn’t always easy…what you can’t elbow grease requires pallet jacks or fork lifts. This sounds crazy, and it often feels ridiculous how many logistics can go into one task…but I swear that is half the job: thinking about how to do the needed tasks in the space available.

Even with the best equipment, processing grapes means using tons of machines at once- coordinating electrical outlets and hoses, rearranging buckets to catch grape must and waste…everything is about preventing messes and hazards, and that is not always a small effort.

I crush grapes.

Well…it’s not exactly that simple. White and red wines are usually treated differently.

White grapes are loaded into a press, usually pneumatic. You pack them in there with a big plastic pitchfork, gently as you can (way harder than it sounds), so as not to puncture the big bag that will inflate and push the grapes against the walls of the rotating cylinder until they are smushed and the juice runs down and is collected to be pumped into tanks/barrels/etc for fermentation.

Red grapes are destemmed (sometimes, not always, not getting into that here), as gently as possible, and despite common outside perspectives, often not crushed to oblivion. They are fermented with the skins, which is where the color, astringency, and mouthfeel comes from (without the skins, folks, you’ve just got rose). You have to sort out raisins (dehydrated grapes), under ripe grapes, bits of stem, leaves, bugs, rot…anything that can come in from the vineyard that may have a negative impact on the wine.

red wine being pressed off

holding a pile of pressed-off grape skins

I do a lot of wine baby sitting.

Fermentation is an extremely vulnerable time for wine. So so many bad things can happen to it…as well as good things…I guess it depends how optimistic you are…and how much of your money is invested. Too much oxygen is bad, but not enough is also bad, so fermenting wine needs to be aerated…but not too much. Red wines are fermented on the skins, which will rot if you just let them sit, so it is my job either to submerge these skins into the fermenting wine (the carbon dioxide put off by the yeast pushes them all to the top, called a “cap”) in a rather physically taxing action called a punch down or to pump the grape must over the top with little adorable irrigators shaped like flowers, called a pumpover. Measuring the daily sugar content and temperature to track the fermentation is a must (lol is that a pun? I don’t know…). Sometimes I have to inoculate the must – reviving freeze dried yeast in a nice warm bucket of grape juice until it is foamy and bubbly, then releasing it to the big wide world of the wine tank to be free and multiply and convert sugar to alcohol.

frothy yeast solution
Waking up the yeasty beasties to introduce them to wine.

filling a barrel

I test crushed grapes

Chemistry is so super important in winemaking and in picking decisions. We sample the vineyards for berries and measure their acidity and sugar content…though taste matters the most. This process is so fascinating to me. You can literally smell the grapes mature, moving from aromas of green banana and bell pepper, to tropical fruit or rich berries…it’s amazing. I hope you have an opportunity to do this some day.

Once the grapes are harvested, you have to know Nitrogen, acidity, and sugar parameters…among other things. As much as I love the lab work side, I won’t dwell on it, just know it is pretty centric to how I think about wine.

also I love sampling the vineyards. It is so peaceful, and there are so many things to learn, so many things to inspect.

vineyard selfie

I love my job as a cellar rat.

Hours are long and I am always so sore, but the wine industry attracts super fun people I love to work with, tests my creativity, my patience, and my intelligence. I often tell people that I always wished I could have studied creative writing in addition to chemistry…but that wine has become that creative yet analytical compromise.

standing on fermentor to push down cap
This is happy old me, being an acrobat, doing punch downs on 1 ton batches of red wine

so there. If you want more of the scoop, as we have barely skimmed the ice cream here, lucky readers, follow @lindseymaek on Insta! I hope you enjoyed learning about this second little life of mine 😀 and that delish glass of wine you have there

xo🍀,

lindsey mae

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