I used to think it was the vendangers who had it hardest at harvest. Last year, punching eight hours a day picking chez Cousin, I regarded the handsome boys who worked in the cellar enviously. They surely had it easier because they got to work in the cool with straight backs. Their work was brain work, 9-5 alchemy while we danced around the clock on hands and knees.
The dark under my eyes spells ‘stupid’. Yes it’s cool in the cellar, even cold, at 1 a.m. when we finish and 6 a.m. when we start. And yes my back is straight – it needs to be when lifting 20kg caisse – unless it’s not, as when shovelling three tonnes of grapes out of a cuve, naked feet shifting down a dune of slimy marbles in CO2-saturated jungle humidity as opposed to air, or when filling it: stomach surviving on bread and paté balanced over the lip, knees flirting with the last ladder rung stretched at its steepest kayaking against the rapids of grapes cascading in. But this isn’t about who, winemaker or grapepicker, is more in need of an on-site chiropractor. It’s about how much time winemakers spend cleaning.
Anyone who knows anything about wine made without SO2 will know the theory: cellar hygiene über alles. I’ll translate: Making wine is not alchemy. It is to a great extent cleaning, and not recommended a) in water-poor environments like, say, South Africa or at home in the Ardèche when you’ve got a landlady like mine or b) if you thought it might be a glamorous, multi-faceted or 100% mentally-rigorous occupation. It’s not. We go through galaxies of water – every pipe, every caisse, cuve, cube, attachment, top, tap, bucket, tool, spill, grill, gauge, drain and surface must be cleaned and then cleaned again – and spend unrolled universes of time doing so. Where Proust measured his days by turns of a teaspoon, I guess the hour by how many times I’ve re-coiled the hose. Unless we’re pressing, in which case I have a more accurate measure.
Where Proust measured his days by turns of a teaspoon, I guess the hour by how many times I’ve re-coiled the hose
It takes me exactly 119 minutes to properly clean the press in whose insides I practically live. At least, I spend more hours of darkness in a head-torch and bathing suit than I do in bed. One month in and the relationship is complicated. It’s my responsibility, my process to improve and my cleaning record to beat. But it’s obviously been designed by someone who hasn’t spent half as many aeons inside it as I have. If they had, they’d have designed out the need for a teaspoon. That said, speaking as a teenager who listened to Slipknot on grainy cassette recordings, my compliments to the sound engineers. Press ‘rotation’ and this monster is the yang to the ying of the basket press click-clack, a treasure-guarding dragon awoken from slumber deep down in dark lair huge huffs and pressure gauge-shuddering puffs of air mixed through with the melodies of industrial techno and Soviet rocket launchers. They did a pretty good job on the inside too. The clattering of tools, nuts, screws, grills and bolts in this metal-bellied cocoon of echoes recasts soaking stagiers into space mechanics, tinkering toes out from underneath their homeward-bound shuttle.
For as long as a day only has 12 hours we can only do three presses, meaning I only need to give it the ‘proper’ clean the next morning. August made all the difference because it was light and warm and you could think of it as the shower you didn’t have time to take. Now it’s September and each end of the day feels like the middle of the night, there’s no other way to describe the task than soul-compressing. It’s perpetually dark inside. Dark, and alcoholic if the skins are macerated and red, sweet if they’re white. And always warm and damp with intermittent showers of shrunken heads, dead bugs and wooden skeletons and the pattering of thousands of falling seeds and those little bits that you will never completely be able to remove but you try, hence the teaspoon. Then comes the brush to scrub – tartaric, pigment, grape schmear: anything not metal coloured has to go – before the hose is passed in from under and it’s temps pour le tempest which you don’t need a physics degree to understand is what happens when water at high pressure meets a curved surface. Hence the bathing suit.
Don’t I get cold? Yes, but then I scrub harder and think about anyone cleaning their press in the north, which isn’t schadenfreude, it’s just better than thinking about the 60 minutes of this to go before I need to start on the cuve.