In the Twilight Zone of Wine Jobs

Our lunch hours came and went without a hint of tourists. The estate felt eerily quiet as I sat in the bright courtyard eating my sandwich and studying the Black Madrone Bible. At one point, the marketing manager and Tom Cruise look-alike Kirk came out to chat with me. But other than him, Hilda, and Karen, I saw no human life to justify my employment. This was the Twilight Zone of wine jobs.

The afternoon felt like a weekend. I’d never been good at being idle and this place was already making me crazy. At the point where Karen and I had already wrapped two cupboards full of logo glasses, we heard voices: loud, rambunctious chatter echoing off the covered entryway and projecting excitement. We hurried to the door just as a group of seven twenty-something guys and gals strolled through the deep shade of the passageway. As they sauntered toward Karen and me, I saw Hilda charging out her door with big eyes that screamed: The people! The people!

I was so relieved that somebody had shown up: this monotony was killing me.

While Karen ushered the group inside, Hilda said, “This is the most people we’ve seen since we moved in.”

“I guess I got here just in time,” I said.

As we stood in the doorway, Kirk rounded the corner at a quick pace, wide-eyed.

“What’s going on?” he asked, peering through the shop’s windows. “Do we actually have customers?”

I took my place behind the bar, working beside Karen for the first time. The group was midway through their pours of the Alexander Valley. I got caught up in their conversations about wine, driving, and the back road speed limits, until one man suddenly hushed his posse into a twittering silence.

“I’m getting a feeling,” he intoned, with closed eyes and fingers on temples. “I have this sense – a premonition, if you will – that there is a very special person we must find here today.”

Kirk and Hilda stepped closer.

“Yes, it is a very, very special person. A woman, she is blonde and very attractive. And her name, her name… Mari.” His eyes opened in feigned beneficence. “Yes, Mari. We must find Mari.”

Everybody gaped at me and screamed with abandon, including Hilda and Kirk. I laughed so hard I had to squeeze my legs tight to stop from peeing my pants.

Finally, psychic guy confessed. “Your friend at the last winery told us to come here. Um, what was the name of the place?”

“Dubey,” someone said.

“That’s it, DuBey lady. She sent us.”

So, it was Rebecca who had told them I was here. On my first day on the job, my new best girlfriend sent me a bouquet of human flowers. What a gal.

When I phoned DuBey later, Rebecca laughed.

“I just thought it would be funny to freak you out on your first day,” she said. “And I knew these people would brighten up the place.”

This experience gave me a warm rush of acceptance knowing I’d just impressed my new bosses with the ability and connections to bring people into an as-yet undiscovered winery. But my sense of satisfaction did not end there. I felt the love of a new best friend who evidently had my back. I also had the admiration of the hemp community who wrote rave emails about what I was doing with HempWorld. I’d realized a new level of understanding with my daughter, who had found her groove with a circle of friends from her new school. And I had gained a way to balance my creative life with my wine life.

At this point, there was only one thing missing.

At the end of that first day at Black Madrone, I had spent almost all of my wages on two bottles of Alexander Valley Cabernet. That night, I drank one of them with my fellow wine slut, Rebecca. My preference would have been to drink it with my landlord, and use it as bait to seduce him, before he left next month for a summer in Costa Rica. By the time he returns, we will have moved out of this cottage. He must have known he might never see me again, but apparently that did not make him want to see me now.

I was becoming increasingly lonely and the thought occurred to me: maybe I should become a lesbian and date Rebecca.

Daydreaming in a Dead Tasting Room

Mouthfeel confessions of a wine slut

December found me in a new tasting room in the middle of the mighty Alexander Valley, where cabernet is king. After I was laid off from Rafferty Cellars, Rebecca got me this job at DuBey Vineyards as occasional weekend relief. Now, it was I who needed relief from the mind-numbing boredom of this dead tasting room. On a busy day, we might sell about ten bottles. Nobody else worked on the weekends, and during the few times the winemaker showed up to check something I thought I was hearing ghosts.

A flock of starlings flew past the winery as I sat gazing across the vineyards of Alexander Valley, their shape expanding and contracting like the contours of my heart. In that moment, they were my only friends and I really wished some customers would come along to distract me.

Gazing around the room, I thought of the owner Dr. Herbert DuBey, a well-known oncologist at the University of San Francisco Medical Center. He bought the land back in the mid-1980s, probably as a tax shelter, and became a gentleman farmer. Then, he constructed what amounts to an industrial shed to house the winery. The building’s façade is so sterile I imagined it repelled more tourists than it attracted. The corrugated metal siding made the place look like a hardware store and the tasting room like a doublewide trailer. Even I wouldn’t have visited myself there.

Finally, I saw customers drive in and my daydreams drove out. I could hear people entering the winery downstairs and dawdling on the self-guided tour before finally stepping upstairs. I was so impatient for company, I wanted to run out to the catwalk and drag them in.

“Hi there,” they called, from the doorway. “How are you?”

“Great,” I replied. “Now that you’re here.”

They were older, he more than she, and in fit shape. She was small and blond and wearing blue contact lenses. He was tall and lanky. And they both wore designer sweat suits.

“Has it been very busy today?” the woman asked.

“Well, you’re my first customers, if that’s any indication.”

“Oh really? I’m glad we stopped, then. We’ve driven by so many times.”

She looked around the plain, functional room, as if searching her mind for something nice to say. Her partner stood, hands clasped behind his back, examining the wine awards like they were his doctor’s credentials.

“You have such… such a… beautiful view. Oh look, Charley. We can see Mt. St. Helena.”

I wanted to kiss her for accentuating the positive and I envisioned them purchasing more than a token bottle. When they’d meandered to the bar, I poured the sauvignon blanc.

[Tweet theme=”basic-full”]“Yes, the clone is Rued, but it’s not really impolite. Just shy bearing.”[/Tweet]

They liked it, but they weren’t raving. Over the Sonoma County Chardonnay, I said, “We also make a chardonnay made from the famous Rued Clone.’

“Did you say rude?”

“Yes, the clone is Rued, but it’s not really impolite. Just shy bearing.”

They snickered at that, so I continued.
“Unfortunately, we’re not pouring the Rued Chardonnay, since they only made about 200 cases. But, it is well-priced at eighteen bucks, especially since it drinks like a thirty-dollar chard.”

“We’ll take two bottles,” the man blurted.

Punch Down Time

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.

[Tweet theme=”basic-full”]”Like a bowl of Rice Krispies, the hard cap responded with an emphatic snap, crackle and pop” –[/Tweet]

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.

The Winemaker is God

After three weeks at Rafferty, I was given my first weekday shift. That was the day I finally found out that the Kenny Loggins look-alike who often walked through was actually the winemaker, Richard Hart. Turns out, this tall, lanky guy with shaggy brown hair and full beard was a rising star of wine. I thought he was a holdover from the Doobie Brothers band.

Sitting at his desk, in the dim periphery of the stock room, Richard talked on the phone and ate meals of stir fried veggies and rice. Obviously, his healthy diet and the inherent physical labor made him a lean little winemaking machine. I kind of liked his 70s look and vaguely wondered how he moved on a dance floor.

In spite of his growing fame, Richard was disarmingly affable. I realized this on a day when Walter and he were standing at the bar discussing the zinfandel vineyards and the temperatures outside. Richard looked nervous, Walter helpless. There was silence, and I spoke up.

“Sorry, but what’s the heat got to do with the alcohol?” My big, ignorant mouth was at it again. I instantly felt like I’d asked the most stupid wine question possible.

Walter mumbled something about inventory and shuffled off, but Richard stayed patient and answered my question.

“See, when the fruit gets too hot, the sugars increase too much in relation to the grape’s physiological maturity, so that if you wait to harvest at the point of maturity, the sugar levels are too high to make a wine with a normal amount of alcohol.”

“And that’s when the wine becomes like a port?” This was just a guess on my part.

“That’s right. But if you want to make a dinner-style wine, which is our style, then you have to keep the sugar and the acid levels balanced.”

There was that word again: balance. How many times have I seen the term used to describe good wine? Balance: I knew the definition, and what it meant to the New Age crowd, but not how it applied to wine. A year ago I might have thought it meant keeping the barrels from falling off their racks. Now, this winemaker is telling me that the sugar and acid – and tannins -have to be in proper proportion to achieve true equilibrium in wine. And, through balance comes harmony.

Balance: it seems to work for everything. Too much of one thing is never good. Work and play need to be balanced, as do sugar and acid. Balance: it’s a beautiful thing.

[Tweet theme=”basic-full”]”Work and play need to be balanced, as do sugar and acid. Balance: it’s a beautiful thing.” – Mari Kane[/Tweet]

And, how cool was it to be picking the brain of a Wine Spectator cover boy? Richard didn’t seem at all bothered to explain Winegrowing 101 to a lowly tasting room worker because that’s just the kind of granola cruncher he was. He didn’t came off condescending or, heaven forbid, flirtatious. I kinda dug him.

This was at a time when “star winemakers” were becoming all the rage in wine country. Magazines like Wine Spectator elevated them to celebrity status and all it took was a couple of great vintages rating over 92 points on their wine scale to make that vintner the hottest thing since the screw top.

One day I heard a customer ask his buddy, “What’s the difference between God and a winemaker?”

“Dunno. What?”

“God doesn’t think he’s a winemaker.”

I didn’t know if Richard had holiness delusions, but when he was honored as Winemaker of the Year at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair Awards Night, you’d think the guy had changed water into wine. From our position between the tables, Rebecca and I watched the crowd go wild as Richard ascended the stage. That he received a standing ovation is superfluous, considering the crowd had no chairs to sit on. When their applause subsided, he modestly thanked the Harvest Fair board members, his wife, his crew, and his growers. Then he said, “And I want to thank all of you for enjoying my wine,” and strode off the stage.

At that moment, he could have sprouted gossamer wings and levitated heavenward. Or, he might have been a rock star the way he was swamped with well wishers and hangers on, with strobe lights flashing and microphones pointing.

Everyone wanted a piece of Richard. Only a few of us got to work with him.

Tasting Room Virgin No More

Paralyzed by my insecurities, I listened to Hank’s banter.  I was reminding myself to breathe when another group of four ambled into the room. The sight of them left me unable to articulate, “Four for tasting?” much less lift a bottle. Luckily, Walter was there and I watched the big guy lead them through the whites and into the pinot noirs with a deft touch. Then the phone rang and Walter ducked back to the office, leaving me behind the bar along with Hank. Just him and me facing eight early-morning tasters.

“May we try the zin, please?” The man from Walter’s group finally broke my stupor. It was my call to action.

“Sure,” I replied, though I was completely unsure of myself. I stepped to the wine line and grabbed the closest bottle, but – oops – it was the cabernet. I reached for the next one, but it was the merlot. How embarrassing. The labels were facing the front and the bottles all looked the same from behind. I spun a third one around and found the elusive zinfandel. On my way toward the amused customers, I uncorked it with an exasperated flourish.

The man laughed. “Don’t you just hate the way Bordeaux bottles all look alike?”

By then my hand was shaking, and in my first attempt to pour wine I dribbled it on the counter. I made a mental note to work on my aim.

After murmuring, “Thanks,” the man’s wife asked, “Have you worked at Rafferty’s for very long?”

“Yeah, a long time. Let’s see, it’s been…about one-and-a-half hours.”

The couples laughed like a Letterman audience, and Hank peered over his shoulder to determine the source of their hilarity. Me. I made the people laugh. Not that I was especially funny; they were just easily amused. And their amusement boosted my lagging confidence.

Working behind a tasting room bar, I discovered, is like being on stage: the comedian clowning for the audience. And, the drunker winos got, the funnier I sounded. Soon, I forgot my insecurities and fell into a regular bartending groove.

[Tweet theme=”basic-full”]Working behind a tasting room bar is like being on stage. The drunker winos got, the funnier I sounded – Mari Kane,[/Tweet]

“Merlot? Here you go. Want some cab? I’ll call you one. Late Harvest? Time for dessert.”

At the end of their tasting, the couples ordered a half case of the zin and a half case of the reserve chardonnay. This was the first wine sale of my life, and it felt good. Both the cash register and credit card machine were co-operative, and I managed to complete the transaction without error before sending the group on their jolly way.

Then, another gang of tasters gathered around my corner and proceeded to make demands for wine. Every other group that followed did the same until greeting, pouring, talking, and selling became so easy for me, I might have done it for years.

From behind the bar, I studied people as they performed the curious ritual of wine tasting.

First, a visual assessment is made by holding the glass to the light and naming a color. The more obscure the hue, the more impressed the companions. Swirling wine offers the chance to show off one’s advanced motor development, either by twirling the glass aloft or gyrating it flat on the counter.

Then, noses are sunk deep into the glass where circulating fumes send olfactory information to the brain. The first sip is taken and the funny faces begin. Some will suck air through puckered lips and emit the kind of slurping sounds children are told not to make at the table. Others chew like they have a hunk of beef jerky stuck in their teeth. There are gurgling sounds. Heads roll and eyes study the ceiling. The product is usually swallowed, rarely spat. Lips are smacked.

Finally, the pronouncements come, haltingly or torrential.



“Fruit forward.”

“Soft tannins.”

“Tight in the mouth”

“Great structure.”

Hearing these words applied to wine made me want to dive for the dictionary.