I was alone in the tasting room when the case-schlepping kid, Josh, emerged from behind the cellar door, trailing cool, moist air.
“Walter wants you to help me punch down.”
“Punch who?” I replied.
“Punch down. I have to punch down the grapes in the fermentation tanks outside, and I need your help. Come on.”
Somehow, this lanky teenager with a brown mop top and assertive pimples seemed too young to be working in a winery. He beckoned me to the cellar while I arranged my face to look like I knew what he was talking about. I followed him down the stairs and into the dim cellar, and felt the temperature drop about fifteen degrees. The air had the flinty, negative ion feel of a cavern and reeked of decayed stone.
As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I caught a glimpse of a shadowy figure flushing out a steel tank. On the other side someone was messing with a metal coupling on a fat hose. A few steps down and we were out in the daylight where fresh fruit was being raked from a truck bed and rolled down a conveyor belt. Winemaker Richard and cellar master Sven surveyed the operation as Mexican workers plucked out rotten and raisiny grapes.
Around a corner, we approached a couple of five hundred gallon open-top tanks sitting under an overhang. Each tank contained a heaping pile of black grapes and stems gently stewing in the shade. Eager horseflies swarmed the fruit and performed their own grape stomp. It looked like somebody’s compost pile.
“I gotta’ punch this hard cap down so the juice can mix with the fruit,” Josh explained as he climbed a ladder and stepped onto a wood plank lying across the lip of the tank. “If I fall in, I need you to pull me out or I’ll suffocate.”
The kid grabbed what looked like a broomstick plunger and started pushing it into the cap of skins and seeds topping the fermenting juice, busting through its dried crust. In the tasting room, I’d seen his gangly elbows and knobby knees provoke more than one near-catastrophe. But, on this balance beam of death, Josh’s body behaved like a graceful Olympic acrobat. And, like a bowl of Rice Krispies, the hard cap responded with an emphatic snap, crackle and pop.
As he stirred the juice around the pulp and stems, I clung to the ladder and peered through the swarms of fruit flies, trying to get a visual grip on the danger and panicking at the thought of saving someone’s life. I just wasn’t ready for it.
“Whatdyamean?” I protested. “Couldn’t you just tread juice until someone pulled you out?”
Still smashing fresh bits of hard cap and angling too far for my comfort, the kid said, “No, no. See, fermenting grapes produce carbon dioxide and that’s heavier than oxygen, so the carbon dioxide sitting on the surface of the grapes creates a layer of poison gas that’s about eight inches thick. It’s a serious hazard, dudette.”
I watched him lean way over to the rim of the tank, which really scared me. After smashing the last big chunk around the edge, he assumed an upright stance and stepped over to the next tank.
As he put his weight onto the plank it wobbled. When he lifted his leg over the side, the plank slid and he slipped sideways. By the time I reached for his shirt the kid was clinging to the edge of the tank.
“Jesus, Josh! Be careful. Are you alright?”
The kid was shaking as he maneuvered to straddle both tanks, keeping his right foot on the first plank and kicking the other plank with his left.
“I’m ok,” he mumbled “Lemme…just…get this…here, ok. I got it.” And with a deep exhalation, he was back in action as if nothing had happened.
“Ok, no more demonstrations, Josh. Please,” I said. “You’re going to give me a coronary.”
“Yeah, funny that I slid while I was talking about it. If I fell in, and even if I kept my head above the surface, there wouldn’t be any air for me to breathe and I would’ve totally suffocated – even if I was floating!”
My mind raced as I pictured this scenario. I scrutinized the wood plank and imagined what would happen if it had fractured and plunged the boy into a grapy grave:
He is enrobed in purple berries as he flounders in the fermenting soup, sending seeds and stems flying, like in the grape stomping episode in I Love Lucy. Dripping pulp, he struggles to keep his head above the fumes, to call for help with soundless cries, desperately grappling for a handle before sliding helplessly into the gurgling must, leaving ten purple wine stains dripping down the tank’s sides. Then, after valiantly shooting to the surface to spew swallowed juice and inhale non-existent oxygen, the creature from the maroon lagoon finally succumbs to asphyxiation and slumps face down in the dead man’s float, engulfed in a bath of mushy plant matter, never to punch down again. Later, the vintage is named Josh es Morte in his honor and the critics note the wine’s pleasant, fleshy core.
“That’s it.” Josh announced, snapping me back to reality.
“That is it.” I said in response thinking, get me outta’ here, I’ve seen enough.
I thought, this winemaking thing is more dangerous than I thought. I don’t care how hunky the winemakers are; I’ve never felt like such a wimp in my life. From now on, I’m staying in the tasting room where it’s nice and safe. These guys can take their winemaking and…well, do it themselves.