Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Harvest 2011 At Kramer Vineyards

Did any major, life changing events happen to you in 2011? I suspect most readers here know about my move to Oregon and subsequent experience as a harvest intern, followed by my hiring as a tasting room manager. Originally I meant to write this blog post in November or December, but I kept putting it off because I could never figure out how to convey my experiences properly.

I'll give it a shot now, so please read on. Enjoy the pictures too! Here's a link to my Facebook photo gallery of Harvest 2011 pictures too.

When I first arrived in Oregon, I had no job, having quit Trader Joe's to move here. I was looking for work, sending out resumes and meeting prospective employers left and right. As you can imagine, it's a stressful time, living off one's savings and all. Becky's family (who own and operate Kramer Vineyards) was great during this period, offering me a chance to help out at the winery during Harvest. Because it provided much-needed income and gave me a chance to gain valuable production-side wine experience, I jumped at the chance.

Not so ripe, but very disease-free grapes
I got lost on the way to Kramer Vineyards on my first day. Driving along unfamiliar roads, mind racing, the pressure on, and I blew it. Thankfully I took a right turn at the next town and continued on my way. Arriving only about 15 minutes behind schedule, my first day consisted of watching the pickers lug bucket after bucket of chardonnay into the bins and peppering Kim Kramer, winemaker, with questions. I helped punch the pickers tickets, one punch per bucket, and when the fruit was in, we walked up to the winery.

Glamor? Nah.
Wine seduces us with the image of glamorous life in the vineyards, walking among gorgeous vines or gaily stomping grapes avec les pieds while a man in a vest strums a guitar in the background. When you're sitting on top of a drum press, sticky with grape juice, surrounded by yellowjackets, buffeted by cold winds, and bashing your knuckles bloody on the icy cold metal of the elevator, the romance is sucked out of life itself. All you can think about is that there are a few tons of grapes left until you're able to climb down and warm yourself next to a hissing propane heater.

Only after climbing down off that press, after the last grapes of the day were crushed to juice and fed into their respective tanks, did I begin to understand what I was a part of. We often grab a bottle off the shelf, open it, and enjoy the wine as it is. Rarely do we consider how that wine got into our glass, instead living in the moment of joy that wine brings. A sense of pride, honor, and contentment paced my fatigue, lifting my spirits as I drove through the darkness back to my home. I was finally part of creating something, a beverage that does so much for us, and for me personally.

As Harvest 2011 continued, I kept learning. Simple things like putting on a hose fitting correctly, shutting off the pump as the barrel fills up, opening this valve or that valve at the right time, and how to ignore those Yellow Jackets. Kim and Keith (Kim's dad, winemaker, viticulturalist, farmer) taught me more about wine; what goes into a press, a vat, a fermenter, a tank, a barrel, and lastly, a bottle. I learned about different yeast strains, barrel treatments, how to monitor fermentation and take notes, how to punch a cap down and how to pump over that cap. Wine began to change for me, for while I could now explore wine in more detail, and while the great ones excited me more than ever, so did I lament the bad wines ever more strongly.

By all accounts, Harvest was going very well. The fruit coming in was of excellent quality, without problems like botrytis, mildew, or bunch rot. Mid-October's string of sunny, relatively warm days provided a lifeline to 2011's growing season, allowing the grapes one last burst of ripening energy. Some blocks didn't get fully ripe though, and I learned which parts of the vineyards would ripen more fully than others. Those relatively underripe grapes went into sparkling wine (which we pressed to tank on Day 1) and rosé, one of pinot noir and one of carmine. Believe me when I tell you, those wines are going to be incredible. You'll have to wait till late spring before they're released though.

Somehow I managed these days relatively injury-free, which is an achievement. The crush pad is a dangerous place, with heavy equipment moving, hard metal protruding, winery dogs lounging, and watery grape must everywhere. At night I'd read up on the adventures of other harvest interns and winemakers, journeying with them as they struggled with weather, schedules, and all sorts of details that go into 750 ml of the good stuff.

Doing important things.
Working on a small, family owned winery also exposed me to realities of the wine industry. I was dismayed to watch critics at major publications turn in harvest reports where they talked to the folks at the million-dollar facilities and no one else. In fact, I got a little pissed because I felt that the little guys, especially ones with heritage firmly behind them, were getting hardly any coverage. Even the wine blogging set, always ones to trumpet their independence from publications, scarcely mentioned or made an effort to tell the story of what goes on at a small winery producing the best wines they can on the very fringes of the climate-zone. Laziness mixed with apathy perhaps.

Yet the days continued, the fruit wasn't going to stop coming in just because I was full of self-righteous anger. Work needed to be done and I needed to pull my weight. After all the pinot noir was in, we turned to sorting and de-stemming the fruit. If there was ever a tedious job during Harvest, this is it. Luckily I was working the sorting table with good people, helping pass the time much quicker. The fruit quality was excellent, lots of ripe clusters, not much rot or mildew anywhere. After it passed through our table it met the de-stemmer before being unceremoniously dumped into the fermenter bins.

This is not how you work a sorting table.
In those white plastic bins the hungry yeast began to do their work. There are no expensive concrete eggs or ceramic-lined concrete tanks here because Kramer Vineyards wasn't started as a vanity project by some millionaire who wanted the wine country lifestyle. If there is "real wine", this is how it's made. Years of experience and careful attention to detail mixed in with practical application of knowledge work together to shepherd grapes into wine. Balancing what the yeast does naturally with avoidance of issues like volatile acidity and stuck fermentations requires an artist's touch.

So it went, I watched and learned, asked questions, and worked. Knowledge gained that hopefully will be put to good use this coming year. That is a hint, folks. Twelve days passed with chardonnay, pinot gris, and muller-thurgau in tanks while the pinot noir sat in bins bubbling along merrily. If you ever get the chance to visit a winery after Harvest, do so, the aroma will stay with you forever. The air is tangy, perhaps from the carbon dioxide, and carries a distinct grapey smell.

Once the yeast are exhausted, it's time to load the gloppy mess into our faithful, knuckle destroying drum press. Shoveling thousands of pounds of grapes never felt so good. Actually, it doesn't feel good at all but it's a hell of a workout. That activity helped delay my nearly inevitable Portland weight gain by a month! The Harvest Diet, eat whatever the hell you want but work your ass off. The press uses barely any pressure to gently extract the juice from the grapes, and that juice is then sent to a settling tank where it rests until the day comes when we must barrel it and put those barrels into the cellar for aging.

Anyone who's worked a Harvest and filled barrels has invariably overfilled one..or more..I miraculously got away with just one geyser-like eruption of wine, my attention wandered while I filled the barbera we'd brought in from Washington. No more than a few gallons of the vivid purple stuff were lost though.

Once the barbera was put away, Harvest was basically over. 43 tons of fruit in, all of it now resting and evolving into wines I will be proud to drink. Authenticity is a huge buzzword in the wine world right now, so I propose this: authentic wine shows grapes in their most expressive form, and authentic wines are made by small producers who are bereft of high tech tools and facilities, who labor out of passion and dedication.

Harvest 2011 was an amazing experience, the ripples of which I am still feeling.

Beau Carufel


  1. Love it! Sounds like a really great opportunity to gain some valuable, non-text book education. I have not spent nearly the time you have, but can relate to being covered in juice, spiders, yellow-jackets, and wanting to burn your cloths at the end of the day. Followed by wanting a juccuzi tub, several beers, and sun burn lotion.

    I hope to check out that Barbara when released.

  2. Oh man, if I'd had a jacuzzi I would have lived in it after each day was done. Didn't need much suntan lotion though, it was cloudy and under 40 degrees on a lot of the days.

  3. Brilliant blog. I would love to experience one harvest, but would need a jacuzzi tub to relieve my aching muscles.

    1. Thanks Nubian :) I'm putting in for a Jacuzzi next year at Kramer, if they let me work there again ;)

  4. Wow, Beau! We LOVED reading this! It's so is hard work and we do take it for granted, I think! I think you did a great job conveying this! We would love to put this on our blog! Let us know...we think our readers would love it! Cheers, Ashleigh & Tiffani, The Drinking Girls

    1. Thanks for the kind words and for reading, feel free to share as you wish :)

  5. I didn't realize botrytis could be a problem! I guess it's all about context...

    Great read, and glad to see your gambit paid off.

    1. It can, no doubt. As I understand it, when botrytis takes hold and it's dry, you can get great dessert wines out of semillon, riesling, and sauvignon blanc among others. When it's wet and your fruit isn't ripe enough, botrytis can wreak havoc.

  6. Great read, Beau! 2011 was my first Harvest with Kramer Vineyards too. I didn't put in the man hours and effort that you did, but I thoroughly enjoyed being part of the "beginning". I believe any opportunity to tell a wine's story with vigor and detail is a win/win!

    1. It was a fun time, wasn't it! Thanks for reading and commenting :) I suspect I'll see you on the crush pad in 2012 as well!