You know how they say you can’t really understand the ins and outs of winemaking until you’ve walked a mile in an underground cellar, surrounded by 3000 gallon holding tanks and palettes of oak barrels - what, you’ve never heard this? Well, it’s true, because no matter how much you read about the winemaking process, or hear winemakers talk about their craft during barrel-tasting weekend, you cannot appreciate the art and science that is winemaking until you’ve experienced it firsthand. This is why, come end-of-summer, so many devoted wine geeks sign up to work crush at a winery. And this is why I ended up at a certain small-scale winery one recent Friday morning.

Like almost every other California winery, this particular establishment brings on extra help at harvest time to sort grapes, hook up hoses, pump juice, sanitize equipment, and a hundred other tasks that go along with turning this year’s grape crop into fermenting juice. And while wineries often prefer to hire people who’ve had previous cellar experience (not to mention people who are licensed drivers of forklifts), once in a while they take pity on an overly eager wine fan who just wants to see how it’s all done.

Mid July is actually a bit early for a harvest worker to get called in to the cellar. The grapes are still on the vine, and crush won’t begin until after harvest, which won’t be for at least a few more weeks. But the winery owners were out of town on a summer holiday, and the assistant winemaker needed some help as he finished up his blending tasks prior to bottling their upcoming release. So he called me in.

Within minutes of my 8am arrival, I was pumping oak aged petite syrah out of barrels and into tall, shiny blending tanks. By lunchtime, I had discovered the key difference between an open versus a closed valve, and how running a pump against a closed valve can lead to the blowing up of hoses. I power washed dozens of barrels by shoving a metal rod up their bung holes (and don’t laugh, they are called bung holes), and when I blew up the hose on the power washer, I switched to a less impressive, but still effective, ball washer.

I watched as Mr. Assistant Winemaker effortlessly threw clamps over hoses, while I struggled to hold two slippery, snaking tubes together long enough to clumsily attach my own clamp. I helped perform an emergency pump-otomy on a leaking barrel after its run-in with a forklift, thereby saving cases and cases of wine from gurgling down the cellar drain. I listened to a detailed explanation of the multiple fluids necessary for sanitizing all the winery equipment (citric acid, water, and at one point, brandy) and spent the final hours blowing ozone-infused water up into empty barrels to help ready them for reuse.
   
By the end of the day, I had been on my feet, non stop for ten hours (quite the exercise for someone whose ten hour days usually involve sitting at a computer) and I was covered with blotchy purple stains from the tips of my sneakers and the hems of my jeans to the back of my I-don’t-care-what-happens-to-this T-shirt. I was tired and dirty and terrifically impressed with the amount of knowledge, expertise and stamina exhibited by the main guy behind all that great-tasting juice. And I was very excited to go back.

Visiting wine country? The Priority Wine Pass gives you Complimentary or 2 for 1 tastings at 250 California wineries for an entire year.