Monday, September 27, 2010

Midnight Chickens and Other Thoughts

There are times in your life when you just have to laugh in sheer disbelief of where and what you are doing. Do you know what I mean? These are the times that require you to reflect on just how you got to this strange and wonderful moment, and yet refuse a rational explanation of cause and effect. I had just such a moment the other night, riding atop what appeared to be a giant mechanical chicken sailing calmly over a sea of vines. I was surfing a wave of future wine under the kind of full moon which you can sense even when you are turned away because it pulls mysteriously at the hairs on the back of your neck, summoning the tidal origins of human life. It was one of those kinds of moments, and what can you do, I laughed…

It was the end of the first day of the harvest. The giant mechanical chicken was not actually a chicken, but rather a mechanical harvester that appears avian as it lowers itself onto a new row of vines to begin collecting grapes. While they may be the most salient technical artifact I have observed, the mechanical harvesters are only one part of the web of scientific and technological tools and practices which enable this sort of winemaking. Before the mighty mechanized hens pluck the green orbs from their sockets, years of research has gone into developing this plot of land, miles of wire trellising have to be skillfully erected, a myriad of chemical treatments are purchased and applied, and teams of experts have conferred their knowledge onto those pruning, planting and maintaining each plant. Similarly, after the grapes are shaken off the vine they are poured into a tractor trailer, hauled to the chai (winery in French), destemmed, pressed and fermented; all processes that have been honed by the précising principles of scientific discourse, both material and methodological. A fully trained oenelogue oversees the project and is always on call, sulfides and enzymes are added in measured dose, and once the grapes lose touch with the vine they are caressed by stainless steel and plastic polymers (or recently Kevlar) until that juice hits the bottle.

Bruno Latour once described picking up a hammer as reaching into a folded garland of heterogeneous times and places, and I would like to extend this metaphor to a bottle of wine. The wine contained in that sturdy glass tube holds together disparate years of toil and soil as tightly as it does the hundreds of places its contents could be argued to have originated. The next time you pick up a bottle of wine at the store, try imagining all of the various requirements which made that bottle possible. You could start with the physical, chemical, and biological since they are innumerate. Next, the materials harvested, mined, melted and forged. The knowledge of viticulture and viniculture gained, traded, passed and stolen. And finally the mixing of all of this knowledge and material goods in the actions, the seeding, weeding, packing and unpacking which allow you to hold exactly one perfectly whole bottle of Pinot Gris in your

hands. Cool huh? Or, you can just enjoy the wine…I have been doing both!

This morning I had my first few hours assisting with the actual fermentation of the harvest in the Chai. We measured the initial concentration of sugars and proteins in the must, checked the temperature in all of the tanks, and even pitched the yeast for a few batches. For the rest of the week I will be doing the same. Check out some of my pictures for more visual meditations on the techniques and technologies I have been encountering.

Next up, I head to Edinburgh, Scotland, to check out mead, whiskey, cheese and more!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Harvest Approaches

For the last couple of weeks I have been hanging out around a vineyard in the Central Loir region. The vineyard owner has been incredibly generous, showing me around his vineyard and explaining everything that goes on here. The plan is for me to observe/participate in the harvest (the vendage) and then to stay on for another week or two shadowing the person in charge of monitoring the fermentation. What incredible luck! I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect fit for my project.

While machines are usually used for the main harvest, this morning we had a small pre-harvest by hand. Because the winemaker wants to use only the wild yeast to ferment his organic wine, we harvested two buckets of grapes, which will ferment for a week before the full harvest is brought in. This miniature batch will provide a good medium for cultivating the wild yeasts found on the grape skins, functioning as a sort of sourdough-starter for wine. After picking the grapes, we drove down to the cooperative where we stomped them, pressed them by hand, and filtered out the stems and skins. Now we wait…

After crushing and pressing by hand all morning, I got to see the harvesting machine for the first time. I have to admit that I was skeptical at first (being seduced by the romantic image of communities eternally banding together, vendage after vendage to bring in the harvest by hand). When I asked the winemaker why he harvests by machine, he cited several reasons. First, it is cheaper. In order to harvest the amount of grapes he does every year in the same time as the machine, the vineyard owner would have to hire sixty to seventy people, and with labor laws the way they are in France, that is no easy feat. Second, its more flexible. If the weather is bad in the day, you can harvest at night. This is harder to coordinate with sixty to seventy people and in the small village where the vineyard is located, it would be a challenge to find that many willing to do this work. Third, it may even be better for the eventual quality of the wine. The way the machine harvests the grapes is by shaking the vines, causing only the ripest grapes to fall off. With manual labor, each picker has to know how to tell which grapes are ready to be harvested and which to leave on the vine, a process fraught with error.

I am excited to see how the harvest works. I have been told to expect long hours, short naps, endless coffee, and an air of camaraderie. I learned today that I will also be forced to get over my pet-peeve of having sticky hands. Nothing is sticker than freshly squeezed grapes. Can’t wait…