Winery to Mari: You’re Fired!

Things had become less promising at Black Madrone Winery. In four weeks of temping there, I thought I’d made satisfactory progress in learning about the wines and the company, and I even performed my first tour of the winery, which was more than the permanent girls could claim. Apparently, Hilda still wasn’t satisfied. When I called the agency to find out about my check, I was told that Black Madrone had cancelled my assignment.

“She asked us to find someone less talented,” the agent explained. “She said you spent your lunch breaks reading your own stuff instead of the company’s.”

What a colossal blunder! I read my own stuff on my lunch hour!

The logic of this excuse blew me away. If I had driven into Geyserville for lunch I could have read anything I wanted. But, being of a “green” persuasion and staying to eat my lunch at the winery evidently meant I could only read company literature on company property, even on my own time.

This seemed such a lame excuse for a dismissal that I suspected it was a just an excuse.

Perhaps they thought I was too clumsy to keep wine in my glass at the dinner table. Maybe, after my positive assertion about that crappy wine, they concluded I had no taste of which to speak. Or else, by too “talented,” they might have meant too intellectual, or worse, critical, and dangerously prone to questioning the company line.

At any rate, Black Madrone proved to be a lot like Dave: they just weren’t that into me.
[Tweet theme=”basic-full”]My biggest regret about being fired from the winery was not being able to use my employee discount just once more.[/Tweet]

Luckily, I had other things to do, like publishing a radical newsletter that was finding traction in the niche marketplace of hemp

Plus, I had just met a guy who might be Mr Right, so that was another thing to look forward to.

So, apart from my loss of income, confidence and possible opportunities, my biggest regret about being fired from Black Madrone was not being able to use my employee discount just once more.

Faux Pas Among the Wine Tasting

I made my way to the table where Kirk and Judy were sitting, and where Donna was milling. Each place setting held a crescent of six half-filled glasses arrayed on placemats with numbered circles.

“Looks like we’re doing some serious tasting,” I said to Donna as we settled into our chairs.

She glanced around and said, “Well, if we are, I’ll be missing out.”

She was right. Her place setting held only five pours. I looked to the empty place next to me.

“Here, I’ll get one of these glasses for you,” I said.

As I leaned over my place setting, I felt the flap of my leather jacket knock over a glass and suddenly the elegant tabletop had the look of a murder scene. I glanced up to see the shocked expressions of Kirk and Judy.

“Ooops. I guess that wasn’t the best idea.”

“That was why I didn’t want to reach for it,” muttered Donna.

A few minutes later, all attention was mercifully lifted from my faux pas and turned to Henry Walker, who stood tapping a wine glass with a butter knife. The clanging sound turned the room’s steady din into a gentle murmur.

“The aim for tonight’s tasting is to compare our wine with other cabernets.” Walker’s voice boomed with a resonance that befitted the room’s oversized accoutrements. “What I want you to note is each wine’s structure, balance and oak treatment, and in a moment you’ll tell us which ones you liked best, and why. Oh, and extra points for identifying our wine.”

My table mates went to work, swirling wine number one and checking its color against the tablecloths. Some sniffed with one nostril, some with eyes closed. A guy at the next table plugged his ear while nosing, his eyes blinking a Morse Code of recognition. Gulps were taken, air was sucked, and lips were smacked. A few tasters took pen to paper. I did the same, but when it came time to form a sense of what was in my mouth, I finished dry. They all tasted good to me.

[Tweet theme=”basic-full”]”A guy at the next table plugged his ear while nosing, his eyes blinking a Morse Code of recognition.”[/Tweet]

Once Walker’s table finished sampling the flight, he was back on his feet, calling on tables like a game show host.

“Table number one, what did you think of our first pour?”

Heads shook, snickers escaped and a swarthy fellow spoke up. “We think the fruit would be more inviting if it wasn’t fermented on a basement floor.”

A wave of laughter rolled across the room and the man high fived his cohorts.

“Table number two?”

A large grey-haired man stood and said, “Well, Henry. We were just wondering if you picked this wine out of Safeway’s bargain basket.”

A roar of scornful glee went up as the employees swooned with superior pride.

“Table number three?” This was my table.

“Henry, this wine not only lacks balance,” offered Kirk, with handsome confidence. “Its flavor profile is tilting more toward manure than fruit.”

When the snickers died down, I realized this was not just a wine tasting; it was an oenological cutting contest. How could I compete? I still didn’t know sweet oak from toasted, or French oak from American. Nor could I always discern what kind of fruit was being imparted. All I could do was latch onto wines with odd flavors and cling to them for sensorial support.

When Walker asked for a show of hands in favor of wine number two, I was the only person to put a hand up. Suddenly I was back in fifth grade giving an answer that I wasn’t sure was right, but giving it anyway to exert myself into the discussion. The crowd around me howled.

The smartass at the next table yelled, “Get a job,” and I vowed to never again volunteer a wine opinion.

There’s a Killer on the Road

Mouthfeel confessions of a wine slut

Later, back at the house, I left Stephanie to finish packing her suitcase and stepped out for my evening walk. I was in a good mood despite the fact that I’d made no headway with Dave. It seemed that none of my enticements could bring him out of his shell. His karma must have been shit, I figured. I was relieved that he’d soon be in Costa Rica and not around to frustrate me.

It was a splendid evening. As I passed his McMansion on the corner and turned left off of Pride and onto Templeman Road, I mentally turned my back on him.

Then, I saw the cops. There were four police cars parked haphazardly along the sides of the narrow street, with uniformed officers and German Shepherds scattered in all directions.

“There was a shooting. Some dude killed his friend,” a female officer told me. “Happened over on 116 just past the veterinary place.”

A shooting? In Forestville?

“But if it happened over there,” I asked, “what are you guys doing over here?”

“The shooter is on the run and he was seen in this area.”

The gravity of the situation sank through my brain cells like oil through a sieve. “You mean he’s out here now?”

The officer ignored me and started talking into her radio. I kept moving. The other cops had dogs, rifles, and very large flashlights trained on the underbrush and on me as I passed by. As the facts began congealing in my mind, the scene reminded me of that Doors song:

There’s a killer on the road, his brain is squirmin’ like a toad
Take a long holiday, Let your children play

Children. Killer. Jesus Christ, there’s a killer on the loose and I left my kid alone in the house!

At the moment of my realization, an officer climbed out of the bushes next to me. The crack of breaking branches and the flash of her light made me jump and scream. I took off running, probably leaving her to wonder if I was implicated somehow.

With the speed and drive of a track star, I dashed past the Sheriff’s cars and back up the hill. On Pride Road, I still had wind, but my brains were so rattled and my eyes were so full of tears, I could barely see the potholes to leap over. If Dave had bothered to look out his window, he might have wondered if I was training for the Bay to Breakers race. I had never run so hard in my life.

Suddenly, I found myself playing a character in a slasher flick. The woman runs from danger. She flies through her front door. She slams it, locks it, and leans against it. She huffs and puffs and casts wild eyes across the room in search of a breach. Here’s the classic part: she’s so breathlessly terrified she can’t speak.

Stephanie yelled, “Mom, what’s going on?” several times, but I was struck deaf as well as dumb.

“Out there… Shooting… Two… guys… Cops…” I sputtered.

At that moment we heard a helicopter circling.

“There’s a killer out there!” I shrieked.

I ran around the house, slamming down windows like a lunatic. Stephanie went to her room and grabbed her baseball bat. Then, she got on the phone with her friends.

“Alicia, there’s a murderer outside. Is it on the news yet?” And, “Hey Cindy, I have to talk to Jennifer. There’s a killer running around here.”

I paced my bedroom and gulped vodka as I struggled to contain my panic. Why, oh, why did our redneck neighbor have to move away just when we needed a man with a gun?

[Tweet theme=”basic-full”]”Why, oh, why did our redneck neighbor have to move away just when we needed a man with a gun?”[/Tweet]

Dave might have a gun.

I stormed into Stephanie’s room. “Get off the phone.”

“Got to go,” she said and she handed me the phone. I hadn’t seen her so excited since the Loma Prieta earthquake.

I punched Dave’s number with shaking fingers. With an even shakier voice I told him the situation.

“You should turn your lights back on,” he said calmly. Didn’t he realize a killer was on the loose?

“Ok, ok,” I breathed, “But do you have a gun?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Will you bring it over?”

“I don’t think I need to bring my rifle over. Just keep your doors locked and the lights on. And pull your shades down so nobody sees in. Your living room blind is up.”

He may have been willing to offer advice while watching our cottage from his tower bedroom, but clearly, Dave was not going be my hero tonight. He wasn’t in love with me, and he hardly even liked me enough to save me from the psycho killer. Clearly, Stephanie and I were on our own.

As bat-wielding Stephanie patrolled the house and choppers pounded the sky, I speed dialed the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department every five minutes for updates. From the upstairs window, I smoked and watched for any sign of movement.

Over a ridge to the East, three choppers circled the area and cast intense beams of light. They hovered there for several minutes. Then I saw flashes of red light through the trees. Something was happening, but I couldn’t see what. After about twenty minutes, the helicopters dispersed in three different directions and were gone. Was it over? Did they catch the killer?

A few minutes later, the Sheriff’s department told me the suspect had been apprehended on Vine Hill Road and no one else was hurt, although the original victim was still dead.

Stephen King could not have written a more ambiguous ending. The women are safe. The villain is captured. The do-nothing hero can go screw himself. Yet, in life as well as literature, there is always the chance of a twist. The next day, the newspaper reported that a shotgun with the guy’s fingerprints was found in the orchard behind our house. It was still loaded.

You’d think a military brat might be amenable to the use of weaponry to solve disagreements, but I was always the opposite. Just like being a Catholic atheist, I was an Air Force pacifist.

The only time I shot a gun was when I was eleven, at Camp Ondessonk in the Ozarks of Illinois, the summer camp I attended while we lived at Scott Air Force Base. They made us lay down on dirty mattresses before picking up our rifles and aiming them at paper targets in a field. The rifles were unwieldy in their actions and made obnoxious popping sounds when fired, so I failed see the attraction of playing with them. I preferred the bows and arrows because between the bow and the target, you actually watch the arrow take its long graceful flight toward its destination.

A gun might go off by itself and you’d never see it coming.

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.

White Trash Grenache and Yo Nouveau!

Mouthfeel confessions of a wine slut

For the school assignment, the wine class had broken into five groups of fictitious wineries vying for selection by a fictitious Atlanta distributor played by our instructors, Gene and Ronny. In the next week, our gang of four had to use a list of grapes purchased by our imaginary winery to develop a branded wine package. Then, we needed to prepare a 20-minute sales presentation to convince the Atlanta distributors to carry our products.

That was our challenge the evening we sat around Rebecca’s kitchen table, in her mobile home in the middle of the Alexander Valley. To boost our brainstorming capacity we drank the leftovers of her day at Dubey. Our current thinking was to make our fictitious wine brand super elegant and refined, along the lines of the wineries that employed us, but Greg wasn’t having it.

“Why are we trying to create a stylin’ package when, let’s face it guys, we don’t have any style,” he argued. He wore a purple tee-shirt that said “Lick my Bung,” which emphasized his point exactly.

“You’re right. Why are we trying to be classy?” Rebecca laughed, swirling her wine. “Just because the guy from Matanzas Creek is going upscale? Maybe we should just be ourselves. Like, downscale.”

The other boy, Dylan, a recent high school graduate, sat and nodded his head, eyes wide, listening to the grown-ups talk.

“Yeah,” I said. “Like, low life wine.”

“That’s it!” Greg shouted. “Low brow wine. Nobody in their right mind would do that. We’d be in a category of our own. Good, cheap – but with attitude.” He punctuated “attitude” with a fierce point of his finger. “Something rude. Something Hip-Hoppy. Like, like…” He snapped his fingers in an effort to make words appear.

I scanned the grape list. “You know, with all this gamay and grenache, we could make a fruity red to drink young,” I said.

“Like a Nouveau?” Rebecca said.

“Yo Nouveau!” Greg yelled, with arms outstretched “That’s it. That’s the name!”

“Yo Nouveau,” Rebecca and I repeated. “Yo Nouveau!”

This was our breakthrough. We had a name and the beginning of a marketing concept.

“I know, let’s do the label in bright, florescent colors,” I suggested. “Psychedelic-like.”

“Or Mod. Like from the sixties,” Rebecca said.

“Like Peter Max,” I said. Rebecca, Greg and I nodded, grinning. I grabbed a pencil and started sketching. Being an artistic type, I naturally nominated myself as the creative director. “Maybe I can do this on my computer.”

Then, the kid spoke up and calmed our creative whirlwind. “But what about the other grapes?” We looked at him, blinking. ”What are we going to do with all this chenin blanc and semillon and merlot?”

We all stared at each other. Oh yeah. The kid had a point. What would we do with the rest of our fictitious harvest?

“Well, I’ve often thought it would be cool to buy a package with both a white and a red,” I said. “Like a two-pack.”

Greg rebounded. “Yeah, a red and a white – or no, red and rosé. Like a white zin.”

“White zin for white trash,” Rebecca blurted.

“Or, White Trash Grenache,” I screamed.

We burst into a cacophony of laughter, triumphantly repeating, “Yo Nouveau” and “White Trash Grenache!” 

“And,” Greg laughed, “just think of how the Two-Pack would sell in the rapper market.”

This was going to be great, we convinced ourselves. We were going to get A’s for sure.

[Tweet theme=”basic-full”]We burst into a cacophony of laughter, triumphantly repeating, “Yo Nouveau” and “White Trash Grenache!”[/Tweet]

The Yo Nouveau label came to me easily as I played around on my little Mac SE: Fat globular lettering and balloons of color against a coal-black background. For the White Trash Grenache, I found a watercolor my roommate Evelyn had painted, with a rusty old truck sitting crookedly beneath an orchard. Stephanie helped out by coloring the sky the pink of a “blush” wine. It looked like Norman Rockwell for rednecks.

I constructed the two-pack carrier box with matte board and postal tape and covered it with color photocopies and White Out. Hardly weight bearing; I had to carry the package gingerly from the car to the classroom, like I was conveying a torah.

During our presentation in front of the class, Gene and Ronny struggled to contain their amusement. They sat back in their chairs with arms folded and tried to look tough. They affected southern drawls that rubbed off on us, and things started getting silly before Ronny finally said to Gene, “Ah do believe our company would do well with a product laahk this.” We took that to mean we passed.

In fact, we more than passed, we received A’s for concept, and B+’s for execution. We would have done better in that regard if the handle didn’t fall off of the Two-Pack carrier, which was good for a laugh anyway.

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.

The End of a Winery Job

With that, I was moving on again, shuffling from employment to unemployment like a wine vagabond. Once again I had to face the fact that I’d overstepped my bounds in the Old Boys Club and was no longer wanted. I’d called the boss on his bullshit and his only defence was offence: to get rid of the problem – me. Why couldn’t I just lump it, like other people do? I’d still have a winery job if it weren’t for my big mouth.

[Tweet theme=”basic-full”]Why couldn’t I just lump it, like other people do? I’d still have a winery job if it weren’t for my big mouth.[/Tweet]

On the upside, those two cases I brought home from Rafferty’s became the start of my first wine collection since moving to Sonoma County. I put the boxes on their sides in a downstairs linen closet – whites on top, reds on bottom – and stood back to admire their appearance of abundance.

Stephanie came out of her room, looked at the closet, and said, “Do you think you have enough wine?” She was wearing a gold lamé Cleopatra dress and I wanted to ask if she had enough sparkle.

“Well,” I said, hoping to expose her to the finer aspects of wine, “Here’s the sauvignon blanc and the gewürtztraminer. That’s for fishy and spicy stuff. This merlot is for steaks and the pinot is for turkey. We’ll drink that on Thanksgiving. Cool, huh?”

“Yeah, if you want to be picky about it. But I don’t know why you can’t just drink anything with anything.”

“Well, you can if you want, but some foods taste better with certain wines. It’s just a fun thing to play with.”

She shrugged and I could tell she didn’t really care, yet I appreciated her interest. It would be another six years before I’d let her drink at home, but as long as she knew that wine wasn’t for getting drunk on, she’d be that much more savvy about it when the time came.

As I fondled the necks of the heavy reds, I began to wonder what I was going to drink while they were developing into softer versions of themselves. Without the advantage of a winery discount, I suddenly faced the horrible inevitability of paying retail, and that prospect scared me. Before, Safeway and Food 4 Less were all I had. Now, having paid half price for better bottles for the past few months, I realized my palate had improved, but my budget had decreased, big time. It was time to get another winery job.

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.

Crush Party

That weekend, my wine classmate Greg held a Crush party at his Santa Rosa house and he invited Rebecca and me. I invited Charlotte, my new best pal at Rafferty. Coming from different corners of the county, the three of us arrived separately. After putting Stephanie on a bus to San Francisco, where she would stay with her dad for the weekend, I drove over and made a solo entrance to the party.

The house was full but I didn’t know anyone. Feeling like a total outsider, I crept through the crowded tract home and made straight for the bar, my favorite place to meet people. It’s the place where almost every party goer has to visit at least once.

On a table in a small bedroom of this house, I set down my bottle of Rafferty Fumé, which stood proudly among bottles from Petroncelli, Seghesio, De Loach, De Baun, Rodney Strong, Murphy Goode, and Trentadue. There were also magnums of Simi Merlot and Kenwood Jack London Zinfandel. On the floor a tub of microbrews drowned in ice. I went for the Murphy-Goode Chard.

After a few minutes of eyeing the young people surrounding me, I saw a wide-eyed Rebecca amble in, carrying leftover bottles from Dubey. She looked about a foot shorter than the crowd around her. We soon spotted a big-haired Charlotte being conveyed into the room on a wave of rambunctious cellar rats. And there we were, three thirty-something women at a Crush party, hoping to make a winemaker by the end of the night.

“So, do you think there’s anyone over thirty in this crowd?” Rebecca laughed, pouring herself some Trentadue Zin.

“I think we’d be lucky to find someone over twenty-five,” I replied.

“Oh, who cares,” Charlotte shrugged, gulping her De Loach Pinot. “I like ‘em young.”

Eventually, we three drifted apart. I managed to start chatting up a couple of cute guys who went on a rant about how producers in California were changing winemaking around the world.

“From how zey structure zeyer zinfandel, we learn much about how to make a better syrah, say, or cabernet,” the dark-haired boy explained. “Eet is about filtering and fining, and making wine ready to drink young with micro-oxidization, you see?”

I stared into his moss green eyes and tried to process this information. Ok, filtering is where the grape matter is strained off of the juice. That I knew. And fining was not just making a bottle more excellent. It involved using egg whites or clay to drag particles to the bottom of the tank. But, micro-oxidization? In a business where oxygen is the enemy of the product, that sounded downright antithetical, but ok.

The French boy told me he was employed at Field Stone Winery. The other, a New Zealander, was at Simi. Both of them admitted to doing a lot partying in their off-time. Field Stone boy said with a smirk, “Eet’s part of zee reason we come.”

Then I lost their attention when an Aussie girl joined our circle and they all began recounting the events of a previous party. So, I cruised from room to room and heard some hilarious things along the way.

“No way, dude. You can’t pick at 20 Brix and still get 15% alcohol.”

“Way, dude. Check my samples.”

And, down the hall…

“Ohmygod, when we were pumping over, he bumped against me and he was all, like, I’m sorry, and I was like, it’s ok, and I could tell he was all, like, blushing,” followed by “Yo, Darlene. The dude probably inhaled too many yeast fumes.”

These kids seemed so impossibly young to me. I was only thirty-four, but I felt like a chaperone.