Saturday, 7 April 2012

Vintage 2012 finally starts!

After a month of scrubbing, sun dancing, cleaning and scrubbing some more and then dancing again, we finally commenced harvest. The excitement was big as the first truckload of 2012 grapes was being tipped into the receiving bin and vintage at Vavasour Wines could start at last.

Tip, hop, crush, press, pump, dump and tip again
Here's how the whole thing works. A truck brings in approximately 10 tons of grapes, the person in charge of the operation - the crush master - does a quick check (e.g. there aren't dead animals, oil leaks or an excess of branches in the load) and once it gets the OK, it's tipped into the receiving bin (also known as the hopper, because it sort of hops up as it's lifted). At that moment the winery has officially received the grapes and starts processing them.
The person working on the crush pad (that's my job) controls the hopper, the destemmer and the mast pump, and it's their job to synchronize all these machines in order to make the product flow nicely through and into the press. The juice coming out of the press is pumped into tanks for fermentation and at the end of each pressing cycle, the skins get dumped on a tractor and taken back to the vineyard.
What doesn't come out by itself has to be scrubbed out manually, so a person must climb inside the press and do the hard work (and never forget to take the key with them, so nobody starts the press accidentally with someone still inside). It's a nasty job, especially if sunshine has been hitting the steel drum all day. On the other hand, it's nice and warm during a cold night shift.

It may sound easy, but with five presses running simultaneously and heaps of other things to pay attention to (like making sure the juice is going to the right place), it's quite a mind blowing task. It's exciting!

Busy from the start
Today was supposed to be a warming up day, allowing everybody to familiarize themselves with their assignment, the equipment, etc. while taking it slow and easy. However, it turned out to be a hectic 11-hour shift with no lunch break and lots of running around. We processed five truckloads - almost fifty tons - and it was great!

Everything went smoothly, except for a faulty mast pump. Somehow it wasn't doing what it's supposed to do, but thanks to our brave electrician we managed to proceed soon.

My highlights of the day are two, one pleasant and one less pleasant. The good thing is that I learned how to drive a tractor. It's surprisingly simple... as long as you drive forward. The tricky part comes with reversing a trailer... I made it, all by myself (well, with advice), and it took me only ten tries!

Crushed alive
The less pleasant moment was when I was running the hopper and noticed a mouse sitting on top of the fruit. The poor little thing was completely soaked in juice, shivering with terror and unable to move. There's nowhere to run once you're inside the hopper, the only way out is through the crusher, and it's strictly forbidden to put hands or objects near the auger. I had to watch the poor bugger sit there for ten minutes, until the mass of grapes finally slid all the way forward, the mouse made one feeble attempt to run and then it went out of sight...

Apparently, such things don't matter to the wine, the filters will take care of it, and I shouldn't be sorry for the rodent, since killing mice with traps and poison is common practice, but it really is unpleasant to watch a live animal slowly slide towards a violent death, knowing that I'm the executioner and there's nothing I can do about it. It's no consolation that it's quick and probably less cruel than a slow death by poisoning.

Anyway, except for this little episode it was a great day. Beautiful hot and sunny weather, a bustling atmosphere, and the excitement of finally making wine. By the time we had finished, a stupefyingly bright and perfectly round full moon was shining on us from a flawless sky. With the good feeling of a job well done I arrived home, just in time for dinner lovingly prepared by my lovely Spanish roomie. Now we just need to enjoy the rest of the weekend and next week we start for real!

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