Although Mendoza celebrates with fiestas and siestas during harvest, winemakers are at their busiest time of the year. So here are 24 hours in the life of winemaker Brennan Firth.
It’s midnight. The winery is much cooler, but I’m still sweating like a pig. I am running around like a bit of a wild man, monitoring tanks, tasting juice, taking temperatures and breaking down the caps. I have seven full tanks at the moment and the caps (grapes risen to the top) need breaking every five to seven hours. At this early point in fermentation the must is more like a thick soup – I lift the plunger high over my head and force it down into the stiff mound of blackish purple berries. It’s like kneading dough. I inhale the heady aromas: bananas, tropical fruit and the reminiscence of nail polish remover.
Jake (my intern) is washing down all the tools, pumps, equipment and the floor. I laugh as his head nods and eyes roll and he drops off into momentary sleep, only to be rudely awakened by spraying his own feet with the cold water.
Tanks are ready, the place is clean and prepped for the morning and Jake is most definitely half asleep. We haul our exhausted sweaty bodies into the car. I don’t like to leave my grapes unattended for even a moment but I’m running on less than three hours sleep and have to pick the Malbec in the morning. I put on some loud music to keep us awake and we hit the road.
Home. Cold beer, fag and a rather stale ham and cheese sandwich from yesterday. I stink, but I forget about showering and roll into bed.
Alarm clock rings. Excited as a child on Christmas morning, I get up. My body doesn’t want to but my mind is reeling, desperate to get harvesting. Being part of the pick is really important to me. I’ve been tasting the grapes every day for the last month or two, and I know today is the day I want my Malbec harvested. You basically have to chew the hell out the grape to know when it’s ready – when the seed is no longer bitter and the grape not yet a raisin. Yesterday the grapes were prime, so today is the moment. This is it.
I boil the kettle and bang on Jake’s door, I hear a grumble from inside, I bang again, I can hear his leg thud to the ground – mission accomplished.
We head out to the car. Checklist: Jake, thermos and mate [highly caffeinated tea] and very loud rock music to keep us awake.
We get to the vineyard in La Consulta. Covered in sunscreen and with big sombreros we start to pick as the hired pickers trickle in two by two over the next hour. It’s really important to start picking before the sun is up while the grapes are at their finest. I feel a real buzz being here. Hand picking is meticulous work. The leaves are starting to dry out so they crumble in your hands. I don’t want any of the leaves making their way into the buckets. I tell a picker next to me to he needs to start over, taking out the clusters while leaving all of the leaves behind. High quality fruit deserves high quality treatment at all costs.
We’ve almost picked all of our two tons, but the truck isn’t here. My stomach knots. I call the truck hire company – no answer. I call another contact and offer him double to bring a truck right now. He calls me back two minutes later, a truck is on its way. Truckers make a ton of money in harvest.
I go back to my vines.
The truck arrives. The harvesting crew sits back and watch how fast two guys move 2,000 kilos of Malbec by hand onto the truck. Jake is bright red and my back is killing me.
I send Jake off with the truck driver and grapes to the winery. I get in my car, turn on the stereo (reggae this time, but still loud), and drive to my second pick of the day – my Petit Verdot in Vista Flores.
I pull up to the vineyard. My phone rings – it’s Jake. The truck tyre has exploded and they are stranded on the freeway. Jake is scared and hacked off – he can’t speak Spanish, is with a driver he doesn’t know and can’t talk to. Not to mention stuck on a bridge with fast moving trucks blaring their horns as they pass. Frustrated he admits he doesn’t know what to do. I think about my grapes sitting under the hot sun. I am torn, but I have to harvest my Petit Verdot. I tell Jake to calm down, do whatever necessary to get the grapes to the winery ASAP, and I speak to the driver telling him that whatever it takes, those grapes need to get to the winery now.
I drink a lot of mate and am neck deep again in vines picking the Petit Verdot. The excitement returns and I get lost in the vines.
I call Jake, they got a jump start and started to drive on the flat tyre, slowly heading to the winery. I keep picking.
We’ve finished the pick and I load the grapes on my friend’s truck and send him to the winery. Being late in the season I don’t want to miss out on checking the maturity of some of the other fruit I buy, so I drive another 30 minutes to taste more grapes. I chew. They need three or four more days. I’ll come back tomorrow and look again.
Jake calls. The truck is stuck on a hill and has now run out of diesel. Jake says he quits, he wants to go home, this is too much. I tell him I’ll be there shortly and explain that this is Argentina, these things happen.
I get to the truck with a couple soda bottles full of diesel. We fill it up and figure out how to jump start it. It works for a second, then the truck dies again. It is just too heavy with all the fruit.
I hail down another large truck and ask the driver if he can help tow ours up the hill. He smiles, unhooks his trailer, hooks up ours and tows it up the hill – with a good running start the truck gets going again. I thank the driver and offer to pay him for his help, he smiles and tells me it’s nothing – just a favor to a friend. He makes me smile – this is Argentina, these things happen.
At the winery I start setting up the sorting tables and de-stemmer. The Petit Verdot is still nice and cool and in pristine condition to process.
With a couple of manual helpers we sort through the grapes with great detail – removing any leaves or damaged grapes.
The Malbec finally arrives, fortunately just as we finish sorting the Petit Verdot. The truck is screwed – driving with a full load on a flat tyre is not good and it’s completely down to the rim. But it is the least of my concerns. I need to cool down my grapes and do so by draping bags of dry ice over them. The white smoke of the carbon dioxide seeps out, covering them in cool mist.
We put cooling plates inside the tanks of Petit Verdot and I drop the temperature of the must to 10 C for its cold soak. My cellar worker has been taking readings and doing punch downs all day. I take a look at all the tanks and try the juices to check how they are progressing. If any problems emerge, it is essential to correct them right here and now.
The rush of adrenaline is starting to come back – it’s time to crush some grapes. I feel a real synergy and can’t wait to see how much fruit I’ll have in the tank to ferment. Once all grapes make it into the fermenters, we cool the must down to 10 C.
We clean all the equipment from the sorting and crushing. The winery starts to look like a winery again, and less like Willy Wonka’s blueberry factory.
After cleaning everything and with the musts all in a cold soak, it’s time for our first legitimate break of the day.
Ice cold beer in big mugs and we’re finally off our feet. We sit back and toast, letting the cool, fizzy beer dance all over our palates and trickle down our parched throats, cleansing away the astringent tannins and debris from our taste buds.
Our 24 inch super lomos arrive, the warm freshly baked bread and dripping steak juice calm our rumbling stomachs. More beer and I take my time over a nice smoke.
We’re back on our feet and in the winery. I check all the fermenting tanks again and punch down a couple of caps with a renewed energy. The dough is getting softer as the ferments progress.
Another trucker pulls up in preparation for tomorrow’s pick and we load it with 200 boxes. Then we clean two barrels that we have to fill in order to make room for tomorrow grapes that will be fermented in the same tank as where I’m storing the wine.
Jake and I set up the barrel washer and get to work cleaning them out. As they drip-dry, we sort out the pump and hoses to transfer the 500 liters of wine, pressed yesterday, into the barrels.
I pull the barrels upright again and start to pump in the wine. As the thick, blood red wine pours in, I lean my head over the bung hole and pay close attention to each and every aroma being forced out. I get lots of fruit and earth notes but am keeping my eye out for sulphur or other erroneous aromas. I start to imagine how this wine will be after 22 months aging in barrel.
It’s midnight, only an hour or so more work before we hit the hay for a mini siesta, and then it starts all over again at 4:30 am. The schedule is tight, my boots feel like clamps and Jake is spraying his feet again in a sleepy daze – but I am in the zone, running on pure unadulterated adrenaline.
Brennan Firth is a maverick 28 year old winemaker. 2012 will be his fourth harvest for his wine label, Cepas Elegidas. He has studied wine through experience only, doing three harvests in Mendoza and California (before starting his own wine) and has worked with esteemed winemakers such as Paul Hobbs and Walter Bressia Jr. Every harvest he makes different wines, his philosophy being that in each wine you capture a moment that can never be repeated. To visit his winery or buy his wines contact Bfirth@cepaselegidas.com.ar
By Amanda Barnes
Published in the February/March 2012 edition of Wine Republic