Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Names of Things

It’s fun to look back on your life and recall incidents that were, at the time, acutely uncomfortable, but which after the passage of some years can be valued for their humor content, and for the way they taught you something about your circumstances that was helpful in making an important decision.

I worked for a while at a winery in a country very far from here, more than two decades ago, in my one and only assistant winemaker position. The story I am about to relate ended up being a sort of metaphor for my entire experience there. The people there took to me the way a fish does to crude oil leaking up from the sea floor, and it quickly became clear that a fast exit on my part would be the best strategy for all concerned.

I had only been working there for a week or so when the following exchange happened between the winemaker and me (cue the desperate sit-com style canned laughter):

Him: “While I’m gone, take the yellow pump and transfer the wine in tank 16 into tank 11.”

Me: “Okay.”

I looked all around, but for the life of me couldn’t see a yellow pump. [ha ha ha] There were a few other pumps kicking around, but I didn’t want to hook one of them up without the go-ahead from my boss. Winery pumps tend to have specific uses – one might be good for filtration, one for transferring crushed grapes – and they are not readily interchangeable. I got busy with other tasks.

An hour passed and my superior returned.

“How come the wine’s still in tank 16?”

“I couldn’t find the yellow pump.”

“It’s right there!”

“That’s a blue pump.” [ha ha ha ha ha ha!]

“Well, it was yellow until we repainted it last year, and we still call it the yellow pump.” [ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!]

He rolled his eyes and stormed off.

Right. It was sort of like calling a woman whose actual name is Susan “Eileen.” Some kind of insider knowledge would be necessary for that to make sense, in this case the fact that one of her legs is shorter than the other. Get it? I lean? [ha]

When someone wants badly enough to pigeonhole another person as inept, the opportunities are plentiful, and this can set up a mood that actually makes people so self-conscious that they act more inept than they really are. (And who among us is completely ept anyway?)

The first lesson I took away was that I must never set out to make people feel stupid -- not that I am remotely inclined to do so. There are better ways to Win Friends and Influence People.

Another thing I realized was that it’s all very well to have a private lingo for the equipment around the winery, but new hires need to be given a short indoctrination session if they are to make sense of those nicknames. Plus, those names should ideally reflect something obvious about the piece of equipment. Call me crazy, but I insist that when we refer to specific pumps by the color of their paint, it must be the color that is actually there in view, regardless of what other colors are hiding underneath.

Most of the pieces of equipment we use around here – tanks, forklift, filters, lab instruments – don’t merit any special treatment in the nomenclature department. But we do have a small collection of things we use so often that they’ve earned short, pithy monikers. So, in case you ever happen to stop by the winery and want to be part of The In Crowd, just pepper your speech with a couple of the following terms:

  • Big Blue (a flexible impeller pump, used for most wine and juice transfers)
  • Baby Blue (its smaller partner, especially adept at bottling time)
  • Big Red (a piston pump that weighs close to 300 pounds)
  • Big Bertha (a large-diameter hose used to transfer crushed grapes, now retired)
  • Son of Bertha (Bertha’s successor)
  • The Beast (a huge, very heavy ball valve that is compatible with Son of Bertha)
  • Baby Beast (its smaller, comelier and easier to lift partner)
  • P.O.S. (that’s ‘Piece of S***’, not ‘Point of Sale’: a pathologically unreliable diesel truck)

And lastly,

  • The Shifting Spanner (just a regular old crescent wrench; this term was introduced by our Australian intern Mel, and that’s actually what they call them in that country)

And yes, we do have dibs on the name The Shifting Spanners for the jazz combo we’re going to put together one of these years.

By:  Peter Bell, Winemaker

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