Monday, July 11, 2011

The Key to Life?

by Dr. Steven Hickman, Intern Emeritus

“Has anyone seen the key?”

Especially in the fall and summer, this refrain can be heard echoing off the stainless steel tanks and concrete floors of the Fox Run cellar.  The key is not the one that unlocks the cellar door, which is a rather mundane looking item.  Winery hardware is more complicated than that: we're looking for the elusive but necessary key that will allow us to sample the wines in our tanks.

"Is this the key?"
Almost all of the tanks at Fox Run are equipped with sample valves, spigots that allow easy removal of small quantities of wine for evaluation (as well as the odd bottle filled by winery staff on their way out the door).  A few of the tanks lack such valves, and retrieving wine from these tanks must be accomplished through one of the two main valves, which are 1.5 inches in diameter.  Even for experienced staff, this can be a very wet operation – for new staff, success is declared when more wine ends up in the pitcher than on the floor or employee.

Most tanks, though, have sample valves.  The most desirable valves, from the view of a cellar hand, are those that have simple knobs at the end, as easy to operate as a standard faucet. 

No Key Required

About a dozen of the tanks are equipped with a “Vance Special” – a valve that can only be operated with a special triangular shaped wrench.  This is “the key”, and owing to the unique design of this pseudo-socket wrench, they are not available at your standard hardware store.  The internet tells me that this type of fitting is used most commonly on electrical panel covers in explosive environments.

In the numerous wineries I have tried to steal wine from visited in my travels, I have not seen a similarly designed sample valve. Indeed, the only copy of the key possessed by the winery was custom-fabricated, through the painstaking process of pounding down a circular metal tube until it fit the valve socket.

“Get T’s and B’s from tanks 8, 10, 23, and 25”.  A common request during harvest, to retrieve about 250 mL from each of the listed tanks to measure the temperature and degrees Brix – two measures of the “health” of a fermenting wine.  Tank 8 is easy, with a simple knob-style sample valve.  Tank 10 has no sample valve, but can be conquered with luck and a pitcher.  Tanks 22 and 24 require finding the key. 

The first step is to interrogate the other staff, to determine who had the key last, or if they remember seeing it.  This is usually a futile line of inquiry (especially if it turns out that you were the last to use the key). At best, it leads to vague answers such as “around tank 15, unless we moved it when we racked that tank, or maybe Kelby has it.  Oh, and I think I saw Max chewing on it this morning.”

Somewhere in the vicinity of Max, the winery dog -- that's often best place to look.  In an attempt to make the key easier to find, it's been attached to an easy-to-spot colored lanyard. Max, though, loves to stroll about with a lanyard in his mouth, and often makes off with the key, dropping it on his bed (sometimes) or in some dark recess of the winery (more often) when he is finished with it. 

"I'm not a chewer, but I do need something important to do at all times. Guardian of the Key will do just fine."

Assuming Max hasn't gone out of his way to sabotage our operations, the final step is a tank-by-tank search.  Our key is often left hanging on the last tank it was used with; as only twelve tanks have this type of sample valve, this should be a pretty fast search.  However, both the key and the tanks are made of the silvery metal, and thus the key is well camouflaged when hanging on a tank.  Further, if the key is hanging on a tank that needs to be filled or drained, it will often have been parked on a nearby tank, which may or may not be one of the tanks that use that sample valve.  So the searcher can, at times, find himself disintegrating into a semi-random wandering around all the tanks, hoping to find a glimpse of color from the lanyard.

Then Peter remembers that he’s had the key in his pocket the entire time. 
The author, holding the key to wine happiness

1 comment:

  1. These factory keys were always in short supply at Premium Winery as well so I made my own from a six point socket. It was smooth, light, and compact enough to carry in your pocket at all times.

    I also made triclover fittings for 1 1/2 and 2 inch valves so you would not have to contend with the mess created by trying to take a direct sample from them. Wine on the floor is revenue down the drain.