Friday, January 28, 2011

The Escape of - or from? - Bottling

Morning breaks soundlessly.  The sun, pink and dazzling hovers just above the horizon and casts long purple shadows on the frozen ground below.  It’s a world devoid of heat.   A shatteringly cold breeze burns my face as it passes, and I draw further into my fleece jacket.  I’m grateful for the scratchy wool swaddling my head and hands.  It hurts to breathe the brittle air.

Inside my car, it’s not much warmer; I can still see my breath.  My windows and glasses fog and I think about the immutability of thermodynamics.  Snow beneath my tires crunches and squeaks.  I don’t mind the crunching, but the squeaking hurts my back teeth.  Cold air assaults me from the dashboard. Annoyed, I turn off the fan.  Why did I turn that on?  The engine won’t be warm for miles yet.

By the time I reach Fox Run, the car is toasty.  I’ve nearly forgotten how cold it is outside. I open my door and arctic air tears my breath from me—I remember now.  I race along the path to the winery.  Here, the ice-crusted snow has been packed hard.  It lies treacherous and shining.  Sun and snow conspire to blind me.  I reach the building without falling, open the door, and turn for one last look at this cruelly beautiful morning.  It hurts me to look at it, and I am overcome with awe.
Inside, it’s so dark and quiet.  Peter Howe makes final adjustments to the bottling line.  A pump hums softly as it idles.  Peter Bell has already sterilized the line.  How did he get the pressure washer around the building today?  That must have been a beast of a job.
Kelby peels front labels off a roll and applies them to cases holding empty blue bottles.  He stamps the boxes with today’s date, and flips the bottles onto the line.  He reaches across the alley between us, and puts the empty carton on my table.  

I fuss with my earplugs.  They’ll be uncomfortable until the foam expands and fills my ear canal.  Now sounds are muffled on one side of my head, and clear on the other—the disparity affects my equilibrium.  At last, noises are dampened evenly, and I settle into the quietude.  

A loud crash penetrates my auditory defense system as Kelby loads another case onto the conveyer.  Sapphire bottles are ferried single-file into the machine.  The bottler creaks and pops and exhales as the bottles wend their way through the U-shaped contraption.  Finally, they come to me.  I’ll be the last one to touch this wine before it goes into protective boxes and out of the winery.  This send-off is momentous and anticlimactic at the same time. 

Fill Height right?  Capsule?  Labels?  Check, check, check.  Then, thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk as I plunk the full bottles back into their cases.  Peter Howe waits as I finish filling the box.  I tape it shut, and he carries the now heavy case to a pallet which lies nearby.  

It’s too hard to talk over the machine and through the earplugs, so we just smile at one another when we catch an eye, and we succumb to the silence.  

The chugging and sighing of the machine is percussive and rhythmic; it comes through the earplugs as though from far away, like the noises of a distant train on a foggy morning.  The cadence lulls us further down inside ourselves.  

Some people hate this isolation and monotony, but I welcome it, at least from time to time.  A keen perception of textural and aromatic nuances allows me to make wine, but this sensitivity comes unbidden.  And it doesn’t go away when I’m not tasting wine.  My senses are tuned to overdrive most of the time, and I experience the world as a cacophony of flavors, aromas, textures, colors, sounds—all loud and all competing for my attention at once.  Sometimes this way of sensing is exhilarating and sometimes it’s overwhelming.  Given the opportunity, I would not change any of it—I would sorely miss the intensity.   But, sometimes I like this sensory muting, this forced quiet.  

I’m aware of Peter waiting for the next case—the last one on the pallet already.  I try to tape the case shut, but leave a swath of sticky, mangled cellophane instead of a smooth closure.   I am a terrible taper.  Peter just smiles and shakes his head.  I re-center the roll and tape again.  This time it works a little better, and he makes off with the case.  In a wink, he has the pallet on the forklift, which he maneuvers with near-balletic grace. 

I remember when I first discovered that I’m an inadequate taper.  It was a hot and sticky day in August of 2005.  I had just begun to work at Fox Run, and I was immeasurably ecstatic to be working on the bottling line.  “It’ll wear off”, Peter Howe cautioned me.   He was right—it‘s not the pure thrill it used to be, though I still enjoy it on occasion.  I was doing the job that Kelby is doing today, and all was going smoothly.  Then I was put on the packing end, and things fell apart.   Each closure took multiple tries, and I recall thinking that of all the things which could keep me from becoming a winemaker, I never dreamed that taping would be my undoing.  Luckily, my career didn’t hinge on my taping skills.
A snafu draws my attention to the present.  A few bottles come to me pasted with multiple labels.  I cull them, and sequester them in a box marked “TRO”, for Tasting Room Only.  When I stand up, Peter is closing a case.  With a deft motion, he snaps a line of tape smoothly across the carton and grins at me as if to say, “some got it, some don’t”.  

Time is subsumed by process, and an hour slips away unnoticed.  1200 bottles have passed under my hand, and at last, I have my taping chops up.   

While part of my brain keeps up the watch (Fill height? Capsule?  Labels?), the rest of my mind is free to meander.  

I recall another sticky August afternoon at Fox Run, this one in 2004.  I had come for the annual Glorious Garlic Festival.  I remember seeing a lovely young woman bustling about, and I assumed she must be the daughter of the winemaker.  At that time, I thought winemakers were necessarily winery owners, and that the position was handed down like a monarchy.  She was slim, with red hair and a fresh complexion—exactly how I imagined a girl growing up on a vineyard would look. 

I remember that August day so well because that’s the day I fell in love with this place.  I stepped into the vineyard, and knew I was home.  Too bad, I thought, that we weren’t all born daughters of winemakers.

Eventually, I learned that the science and art of winemaking can be taught, that it is not always passed down from generation to generation.  The young woman whom I so envied?  Her name is Susan, and she is not the owner’s daughter.  Her confidence was the product of competence and long experience—she had worked in Fox Run’s tasting room for a number of years.  And if she appeared to be at home, well, that’s because Scott and Ruth Osborn treat their employees as though we are family. 

I spend the next few hours reminiscing about the people who have worked with us, and some of the projects we have worked on.  The memories are amorphous, flowing through my mind without regard for chronology.  It’s a pleasant way to pass the time.  

Peter Bell rounds the corner, and taps the back of his wrist, pulling me from my quiet contemplation.  It’s time for me to go—I need to get Meghan from the middle school.  He’ll take over my spot as he and Peter Howe and Kelby finish the bottling job.  

I pull the plugs from my ears a little reluctantly, and come back into my space.   I slip on my jacket, hat and mittens, and step out into the brightly lit afternoon.  The snap of cold air fully restores my senses, and I’m ready for the onslaught.   

My afternoon of reverie was restorative, and I’m buoyed by my newly enlivened nerves.  I climb happily into my frigid car, and shiver as I drive into the arctic scene before me.   Heading down the road, I think about how much I enjoyed my day, and can’t wait for the happy chatter of my twelve-year-old as she tells me about hers.  

By: Tricia Renshaw, Assistant Winemaker

1 comment:

  1. beautiful post! thanks so much. almost makes me want to bottle :)