Crushed: Confessions of a Cellar Rat

Freezing cold, stultifying heat, insects, rodents, muck and mire: the romance of winemaking over a barrel.

I looked forward to my first crush—not the love-struck adolescent kind, but rather the over-eager wine geek kind—with the same feverish anticipation of naïve youth. At Wild Horse Winery and Vineyards in Templeton, California, I would soon sink my hands into a bin of warm, fermenting must and breathe deeply the perfume of terroir. I would work in a privileged library of oak barrels and fine wine, surrounded by the bucolic scents of mown hay and ocean breezes.

Actually, as it turned out, I would be stuck with every job that was dirty, disgusting, inconvenient or embarrassing.

Picking grapes is a hot, messy business. In addition to tending fruit and vine, it involves plucking black widows out of one’s dusty hair and finding dead mammals and birds tangled in netting.

Winemaking is a cold, nasty business. My hands would get so cold and sticky during late-night punchdowns that I looked like a Lego man after going inside—it took 10 minutes for my hands to uncurl.

I slithered into wet presses and scrubbed the seeds out with a Brillo pad. I stood in the sun all day painting barrels with mold deterrent. I pulled inquisitive kittens out of crushers and presses.

A cellar rat, I learned, is mostly in charge of muck management. Equipment is spray-washed from every possible angle; I spent much of my cleaning time upside down peering into crevices. Picking bins are scrubbed free of sun-baked juice stains and accumulated vineyard dust.

The ultimate muck moment occurred when I was asked to help the vineyard manager open a barrel of fish emulsion that had been left in the sun for a year and had fermented. He tipped the barrel while I held a bucket to catch the contents. A crusty cap held the thick goo back for a moment, but suddenly the cap burst, vomiting decayed fish goo over me—an uneven emulsion of watery discharge and thick strings of brown, putrid fish slime. I was completely covered, head to toe, in fermented fish guck.

And that’s what it means to be a true cellar rat. I was the last person on the crushpad, hosing all the muck out of the crusher on a cold, frosty October evening after the winemaker and his entourage had retired to a warm and cozy restaurant.

At first, I resented being stuck with the grungy, wet, cold clean-up while everyone else was off partying. But then I began to notice the beauty of the night beyond the crushpad—singing frogs, courting owls, yipping coyotes, dancing bats, a sky so laden with stars that it droops toward earth. Fermenting bins of Zinfandel and Syrah lifted warm, pepper-laden aromas as I punched and stirred the fruit.

When I finally stopped to go inside for a glass of wine, in a chilly cellar that actually felt like a spa after working in the biting cold of an October night, I stood there in my stained pants, wet shirt, soaked shoes and socks and gave thanks for the experience…and tasted the wine with an entirely new palate.

Mary Baker is the author of 50 Tips for Cellar Rats: How to Get (and Keep) a Great Job as a Win- ery Cellar Rat or Harvest Intern (Lulu, 2010).

Published on September 19, 2011
Topics: Q&A