March 2017, my very first harvest. As a student, you never quite know what to expect beyond your textbook, and so when our harvest finally started, we all eagerly queued up in the minute cellar beneath the JH Neethling building, not quite knowing what challenges awaited us. To be honest, we were thrown in the deep end, but I’ve come to learn that knowing how to swim is an important skill to have in the cellar.
With our Felcos and refractometers at the ready, we were set loose on the poor Welgevallen vineyards. I don’t think anyone was quite as enthusiastic to wake up at 5am (to take the routine ballings) as I was during that period. I was adamant that our group had to be in the vineyard to take readings while it was still cool in the mornings, and so by 6 we were ready to sample our rows and get a grip on our harvest. I don’t think the other group members quite enjoyed me pointing out that there was a possibility that a few of the grapes we’d been tasting more than likely contained a bit of an extra protein factor (worms, bugs etc).
You’d think that the enthusiasm would have worn off after week 1, but I ended up spending my weekend work shifts begging my bosses, at a boutique winery, to let me help out with punch downs too. This is where things got a little bit more interesting and a whole lot messier.
The plastic fermenters were just a little bit too tall for me to use the pigeage (punchdown) stick, initially I decided to only use my hands to do the punch downs (with help from the tasting room manager and one of the winemakers). I quickly came to the realisation that the customers (I am a wine steward) might not take to my now purple stained fingers, hands, arms, elbows…you get the idea. I then had the very bright idea to climb on top of the tanks, that had a rim thickness of only 5 cm. But wait, the cellar antics and health and safety infringements don’t stop there, I was wearing open sandals with no grip – yikes!
After boosting myself on top of the tank, my boss handed me the punchdown stick and I proceeded to break through the bubbling shiraz pomace at a steady pace. Not long after, I realised that there was a cooling plate in the tank, and so I thought, “Hmm, no problem, I’ll just press down lightly until I just touch the plate”. Just as I leaned in, my boss decided to move the cooling plate, and all I could see was certain death flashing before my eyes. In all honesty, there are worse ways to go than falling into a big tub of wine. After flailing in mid-air for what felt like a few seconds, I managed to grab hold of a thin hook that just happened to be perfectly positioned on the wall behind me. With only two fingers, I managed to pull myself up.
I would have been slightly more shaken if the tanks were slightly taller and fuller – in reality I could probably have just stood up, had I fallen in. What did I say earlier about learning how to swim?
So, after an interesting weekend in the cellar, I made my way back to Stellenbosch (to be in the department’s cellar). After telling one of the experimental winemakers, Edmund, about my weekend’s antics, he made 100% certain that I was always wearing my cellar boots, whether I had decided to rock it out in my gumboots and a sundress or hippy pants, he would spot me from the moment I set foot into the cellar. On one occasion, I was not wearing my boots and my dreaded sandals made a reappearance. I thought I could get away with only doing lab analyses that day, but alas! – I was caught red-handed and promptly reminded of the importance of wearing closed shoes in the cellar. The other winemaker, Marisa, threatened to throw things at the students’ toes if she caught our feet armed with anything other than closed, non-slip cellar boots.
Although my sandals didn’t make a reappearance, my hippy pants definitely did. I now call them my grape pants, because they’re grape to wear… pun intended. Pressing red grapes (merlot) while wearing lightly coloured pants, leaning over the little press and getting elbow deep into grape skins, while you’re supposed to be monitoring and adjusting the press’ pressure is not the smartest thing to do. The pressure on the grapes was just a little bit too high, causing berries to rapidly pop (explode) rather than lightly being crushed and squeezed. The other group members and I ended up looking like we had just facilitated a berry genocide, with gory bits and pieces of grapes and deep red juice splattered all over ourselves! Needless to say, the grape hippy pants were covered!
After two cellar mishaps in one week, one of my lecturers suggested that I leave these stories out of my harvest internship interviews. Although I ignored this advice (made for an interesting interview), I am now a reformed cellar-mishap-maker and have decided to take health and safety hazards a little more seriously, but I can’t promise that the hippy pants won’t make a grand come-back!