“Spoiled” Napa Winemaker’s Nerve-Racking Day
Editor’s Note: Midwest Wine Press columnist Bruce Bradley quit his position as winemaker for Wm. Harrison Winery in Napa Valley and took a wine making job at Pacific Star Winery, twelve miles north of Fort Bragg, on the rugged Mendocino coast. In this column, Bruce attempts to rack his wine without the conveniences he’s accustomed to in Napa.
Two days after pressing out the Zinfandel and it was time to rack the wine off the gross lees. I like to rack tank to tank first, to get the wine off the lees and minimize the chance of sulfide problems, which tend to develop in the heavy lees. Because of time constraints, we weren’t able to do that, so we ended up racking straight to barrel. This was something I would normally do alone, at least in the first phase. This time, thanks again to our less than state of the art equipment, I had to have a helper. My helper on this day was Pedro, a young man whose English is better than my Spanish, which was a good thing. He had poquito (little) experience in winery work, but turned out to be a good helper. I’m normally satisfied with new help if they can remember not to close a valve against a positive pump. Pedro was a few steps better than that. He remembered everything I told him and I didn’t have to repeat myself even once.
The pump we were using was old and weather-beaten. The salt-sea air had degraded the wiring in it to the point that the remote control didn’t work. That’s why it took two people to do the racking–one to watch the barrels fill and one to man the controls of the pump.
Initially, things went well. Pedro worked the pump, while I filled the barrels. I like to take about three minutes per barrel, unless it’s white wine or Pinot Noir, then I go a little slower. For this wine, a young Zinfandel, three minutes worked just fine. As the barrels started to fill up, I told Pedro to slow the pump, then slow some more, then stop. That worked fine, except for the fact that Pedro was practically bored to tears with the whole process–turn the pump on, wait, slow it down, turn the pump off, etc. Lucky for me there were no whales around on that day to distract him. As usual, we were working outdoors.
It was bright day and it was hard to see down into the barrels, even with a flashlight. Somehow, we got by pretty well. It helped that, since this wine was still active, I wasn’t filling the barrels all the way, but was leaving them down about a half an inch.
It was only after we got below the racking gate that things got interesting.
Now, since Pedro had never done a racking, when time came to open the gate and put the hose directly down into the wine to finish getting the last of the wine off the lees, we traded places. I moved the pump as close to the tank as I could get it, and did my best to work the pump and rack the wine at the same time. It was a little tricky–I had to hold a flashlight and the suction hose in one hand while operating the controls on the pump with the other. But it was definitely doable.
Like I said earlier, it was a bright day, with the waters of the Pacific Ocean reflecting brightly and making it hard to see down into the barrels. We had rinsed the barrels prior to racking, but had sulfured them only a few weeks earlier to keep them fresh, so they were still a little gassy. Pedro was wearing a full-face acid gas respirator to avoid getting blasted by sulfur-dioxide gas. Considering Pedro’s predicament, the noise of the pump and the fact that I was also concentrating on keeping the hose in the wine and out of the lees, I should have known some kind of mishap was coming. Because of the noise and the fact that Pedro’s voice was muffled by the mask, I didn’t hear him when he first told me to slow the pump down. The first two barrels became wine geysers. Pedro kept yelling at me to “Stop! Stop!” Eventually I did hear him, but only after he was soaked in Zinfandel.
On a more serious note, when it comes to racking red wine off heavy lees, I always tell my crew to look for “purple mountains of the moon.” Heavy lees rarely settle evenly and, watching with a flashlight, you slowly see what looks like an uneven landscape when the clear wine starts to disappear. What is left in the tank looks to me like some sort of moonscape, except that it’s a dull purple in color. When you get to that point, it’s time to slow the pump way down. Generally, you’re able to get almost all the clean wine while leaving the gross lees inside the tank.
After the first couple of accidents, things seemed to go okay. Only at the end, when I was concentrating on getting the last gallon of clear wine off the lees, did we have any kind of hitch. The wine was nearly gone and I was almost down to the lees when an unannounced tourist suddenly recognized me.
“Hey! What are you doing here?” the tourist said. “I thought you worked at William Harrison Winery!” This distracted me just enough to lose my concentration. I looked up just long enough to suck up a half-gallon of lees. Pedro again was yelling “Stop! Stop!” at the top his lungs. I reached over and shut off the pump, with only a little more wine lost. The tourist, realizing we were busy, sheepishly excused himself and went on into the tasting room.
Then it was time to clean up our mess and get ready for a load of Tempranillo that was headed our way. All in a day’s work!