Sunday, May 4, 2014

How we work to make getting around the world work.

One of Tyrrell's amazing vineyards, framed by the Brokenback Mountain Range
Whenever we tell people that we fund our travels by working in wineries during the harvest period, we invariably get sighs about how idyllic and romantic it must be and lots of jokes about drinking on the job, etc. While it is indeed a very fun (and sometimes romantic) industry to work in, comprised of very internationally-minded people, it is actually quite scientifically precise work, and can be very physically challenging and exhausting. But drinking a wine that you have worked on and have had a part in nurturing from harvest, to fermentation right through to bottling is an extremely rewarding and satisfying experience. Add to that the fact that the hours spent assessing wine ferments in the lab, doing manual and at times menial labor, but having the opportunity to learn from magicians (which, is how I’ve come to think of some winemakers when you see what kind of magic they can perform in the winery) allows us to travel around the world… Well, the wine industry has us hooked. 
Building a retaining wall
Don’t get me wrong, we’re pretty much willing to take any work that gives us a good feeling (for example, while waiting for harvest to begin, we helped a friend of a
friend build a retaining wall and put up a shed) and we’ve both dabbled in other industries along the way (the scuba industry, pearling and Harley Davidson for Roel). We do what we can to make it work. So we wanted to share with you what we’re doing for work to make it work right now…

Because nature waits for no one, Tyrrell’s operates a nightshift so that certain vineyards can also be picked by night with machine harvesters and the grapes can be processed right away to ensure high quality wine. Roel and I comprise half of the team that keeps the winery going in the dark. This is Roel’s third vintage working nightshift at Tyrrell’s and it is my first (previously, I had worked at two other wineries in Australia). So now, Roel is kind of like my boss. Regardless of how well we work as a team, you can imagine how well this might go ;)

Our actual manager on nightshift, Adam, is studying winemaking and our other co-worker, Kaz, is also studying wine at university, so we stand to learn a lot, which besides money, is really why we’re here at such an esteemed winery. Tyrrell’s was establish in 1858 by English immigrant, Edward Tyrrell and is currently under the stewardship of 4th generation Bruce Tyrrell, whose children are being groomed to carry this iconic family wine brand well into the future. Tyrrell’s produces a wide range of wines but has a few truly iconic wines that are highly sought after on the international wine market. It is really an honor to work here and to feel like we’re a small part of this tremendous brand and it’s history. So, whenever our sleep schedule allows, we try to get into the winery during the day so we can ask questions and learn from the two head winemakers who have worked at Tyrrell’s for a combined 54 years (one focusing on red wine and one on white); the directors of what is considered the most technically advanced laboratory in the region; and the Tyrrell family, who are down-to-earth and happy to generously share everything they know and love about Australian wine. 

To give you an idea of how a typical shift goes for us…

Wake up. Drink coffee. 
Using an air hose to mix up a ferment... one of the reasons
why all of my vintage clothes look like a tie-dye experiment
gone wrong :)
Dress in what my mother would call “play clothes” because they will inevitably be ruined at some stage during vintage, especially when we start working with red wine. Eat breakfast. Drink more coffee. 

Arrive at work. Clean and sanitize all machinery and tools that will be used to process the grapes that will arrive later. This includes the grape receival bin (where Roel will tip the grapes into from the picking bins), the crusher/destemmer (which yes, crushes the grapes and removes them from the stem), the lines that the grapes/juice will travel through to get into the press, the press (which will gently press out the juice that remains in the grapes), the lines to the tank that will hold the juice, and the tank itself. It is imperative that the grapes be processed as quickly as possible in a sanitary environment to ensure that the highest quality of wine is produced and no damage is done to the grapes/juice through, for example, oxidation (think of how quickly an apple turns brown once it has been bitten into).

Roel on the forklift, tipping grapes into the receival bin
7:30pm - ???
Receive and crush grapes. 
While crushing, we all have roles to fill:
One person operates the forklift, removing bins of grapes form the truck bed, weighing them (so we know what volume to use when calculating additions, later on in the process), and then tipping the grapes into the receival bin. 
Another operates the two augers that move grapes from the receival bin to the crusher/destemmer, the crusher/destemmer and the must pump that pumps the grapey juice mixture (called “must”) into the press. 
Another is required to operate the press and the pump that sends juice into the tank. 
And and yet another “floats,” helping out here and there, working on tanks of juice that have arrived in previous days and once all of the juice is in the tank. 
This portion of what we do is fairly routine but once the grapes are processed and the juice in ready for fermentation or in fermentation, the real fun begins. 

12:00am ???
Lunch? Maybe. Definitely more coffee.
Looking to wear my rubber boots for cleaning,
but they have already been claimed.

12:30am - ???
Cleaning (i.e. chasing grapes with a hose), for however long it takes until there is not a single grape visible on/in any surface of any piece of equipment we have used or flooring we have covered. 

Ferment Analysis
With the white wines, and some red wines, Tyrrell’s utilizes yeast naturally found on the grapes to get the juice through the fermentation process. Because this is less predictable than using cultivated yeasts, it is more challenging and hence we have to keep a very close eye on the ferments to ensure that they stay within an optimal temperature range, that the yeast is doing it’s job and the sugar level is dropping consistently as sugar is converted to alcohol. While we are checking the temperature and sugar, we are also checking for strange smells coming from the ferment. This is where having a few years of experience really comes in handy. 

Roel smelling a ferment to make sure all is well
A strange smell can be indicative of a variety of things, but at this point, usually, it means that the yeast is “stressing” and if left unattended, this can result in a faulty (bad tasting/smelling) wine. With red wine, it will eventually become very obvious when this is the case as the ferment will smell like rotten eggs, but the key is smelling a subtle whiff of something amiss and acting before it gets too far. With white wine, it can sometimes smell like rotten eggs, but it can also smell like canned pineapple or popcorn (which doesn’t necessarily smell bad, but is indicative of bad things happening within the ferment). If it smells like a ferment is “stressing” we add nutrition for the yeast, and continue to closely monitor the temperature, sugar and smell. 

Wine movement supervisor
Wine Movement
Just like it sounds… we move wine from tank to tank, barrel to barrel, barrel to tank and vice versa, per the winemakers instruction; these movements are generally done in order to clarify the wine, as with each “movement” particles that settle to the bottom of the tank/barrel are left behind. 

A unwelcome co-worker
Barrel Work
Barrels and Fudras (super large barrels) need lots of attention, too. Regardless of whether or not they contain an active ferment or are being used for aging a wine. The barrels need to be topped up with more wine or juice from time to time as an “Angel’s Share” regularly evaporates from each barrel, leaving the remaining wine at risk to oxygen
Roel topping up a fudra with more wine to eliminate
the air space at the top
exposure. Also, depending on the type and style of wine, the barrel may need to be stirred to ensure adequate contact with the lees (yeast that has finished its job and settled to the bottom of the barrel) and contributes to a wine’s taste and mouth-feel. 

Yea, very strange, but you get used to it. 

The process changes slightly and things get A LOT busier when we begin to work with red wine varietals, like pinot noir, shiraz, cabernet and merlot. Instead of immediately pressing the must, we instead put it into a large concrete or stainless steel vats and guide it through the fermentation process with LOTS of TLC in the form of thrice daily ramming (a process where you use a stick with a flat bottom attached and gently press down the grapes that have risen to the top of the ferment back down into the juice),
Fun with pumping-over
aeration or pumping juice from the bottom of the vat over the top of the grape cap on top. This is all to ensure that the juice has a good amount of contact with the grape skins where color and other important elements of the wine will be derived.

Once a ferment has finished, we then drain the vat of all of the wine and shovel or pump the remaining must into a press to extract remaining wine from the grapes. 

I have to say it took a few weeks to get used to sleeping during the day and being awake and functioning all night long. It is certainly not ideal for the body clock or your sanity, but there were a few things I really came to appreciate about working night shift .

1. This harvest began as a serious heat wave was moving across Australia, threatening wildfires and just generally making anyone outside of an air-conditioned building, miserable. Working at night was perfect… the heat of the day had disappeared and the temperature couldn’t have been more pleasant. 

Sunset from the "office"
2. Watching the moon rise over the silhouette of the Broken Back Mountain range. 

3. Watching the sun rise over over fields where sleepy kangaroos were just beginning their day with a breakfast of dewey grass.

Sunrise at the "office"

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