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All Hail the Pump Over Queen

Thu Oct 5, 2006

Tottering on the two-inch edge of a small fermenting bin, staring into a ton of Syrah, stems and inky juice, I’m thinking I probably shouldn’t have had that last glass of wine with lunch. My responsibility, right now, is to punch down the mass of skins, stems and pips (seeds) that have floated to the top, the cap, as it’s called. The main reason for punching down the cap at this early stage in making wine is to introduce oxygen into the vat of juice, kick-starting the yeasts and the fermentation process, but also to add color and tannin to the wine, much of which come from the skins and the stems.

This afternoon we have to punch down nine tanks, four of which are my responsibility, since they’re the smaller ones. My punch down tool is a five-foot stainless steel pole with a crossbar at the top, one about half way down and an eight-inch flat disc on the far end. I’m leaning against the wall for leverage, my feet on the middle crossbar, my hands on top and the disc on the grapes, bouncing, putting almost all of my weight on the grapes, but I’m not going anywhere. If I slip, I’ll end up in the vat, and I’m already turning purple from the exertion.

At five-foot-two and 97-pounds, I’m not exactly what you’d consider a classic cellar rat (that’s what crush employees are called), but I’m eager. I’m endlessly intrigued by what’s in my glass, the great alchemic experiment that’s bliss when it’s done right. It’s understanding what “right” is that’s landed me here among the wine geeks at a converted warehouse called Pax Wine Cellars in Santa Rosa. I’m the only woman on the crush pad right now and probably know the least about wine. I flail at lunchtime blind tastings where 30-year old bottles of wine are identified with a sniff and a sip. But if I’m going to learn about wine anywhere, it’s bound to be in this unassuming industrial park, Food + Wine Magazine’s best new winery for 2005.

Tread On Me
So far making wine isn’t exactly the romantic process I’d imagined it to be. It’s a lot of physically demanding, look-at-my-new-bruises, work. At an ultra-traditionalist winery like Pax, where machines are eschewed in favor of sweat, it’s even harder. Grape clusters are still tread by foot here, though it’s generally by spindly men in shorts instead of gorgeous Italian women with fluffy skirts hiked up around their thighs. The cool grapes do feel good as their skins burst between your toes, making the frequent jabs from stems and the occasional twig a bit more bearable. If the thought of naked feet in your wine is a bit disturbing, rest assured everyone sanitizes his or her tootsies with vodka first.

Fermenting grapes are manually punched down daily, sometimes more often, depending on where they are in the fermentation process. Tanks get pumped over too, a process that involves sucking the juice from the bottom of a tank and pumping it over the top, a laborious task that means rigging long hoses and keeping them from spraying all over the place. When you’re done with the first round, it’s time to start all over again and things are still slow here. Yes, if the road to great wine is littered with beer bottles, as the famed quote says, most of it is probably consumed during crush.

The real work looks like it’s about to start full-force at Pax next week, the reports from the field is that the sugar levels are about there. For the next two months I’m the ski bum of the wine world — still overworked and underpaid — making fresh tracks through bins of Syrah instead of down the backside at Alpine Meadows.

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