Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Purple Lifting Drinks

Remember how I helped my friends Dayle and Larry with their grape harvest back in October*? Well, over Memorial Day I got to experience yet another step of the vine to shelf process: wine bottling. I know that filling 2,000 glass containers with 750 ml of liquid each sounds kind of boring in comparison to sauntering down row after row of glistening grapes, picking the very best ones with love…all with a view of the Sierra Foothills in their full autumnal glory. But I can assure you it was just as satisfying. Here’s why: semi-automated machinery!

Who knew it would be so much fun to operate a bottling machine, a corking machine, a foil wrapping machine and a labeler, not to mention completing the steps in between? A group of us were literally holed up in Larry’s wine chemistry room (aka: the detached, windowless garage) for what felt like 15 hours each day. Yet it never got boring. In part, that’s because a lot of old school Madonna songs were coming on the radio but mostly it was because bottling wine is honestly fascinating.

So, here's how you bottle wine:

Before the actual bottling takes place, Larry and Dayle research, purchase and set-up all sorts of fancy machinery. Then they casually coerce their friends into kickin' it at the vineyard for some “Memorial Day fun.” Then said friends arrive and learn how to operate the machines. Each person gets to pick the one they like best and essentially becomes an expert operator by the end of the day.

Step 1, Break 'em out: Remove empty bottles from boxes and attach to the bottling machine. (Bottling machine video).

Step 2, Fill 'er up: Fill four bottles at a time with vino, making sure each contains the correct amount of liquid.

Note: Of all the machines, I like the bottler best. That's the machine that's connected to a huge vat of wine via a vacuum cleaner-type tube. The wine flows through this tube and into a metal container. Then it's somehow pushed through four separate small, clear tubes that each end in funnel dispenser. The machine operator (me!) snaps one empty bottle into each dispenser and watches the wine flow into the bottles through the clear tubes. There's a trigger that stops the wine from overflowing but occasionally the trigger would fail and it would be my important job to "manage the excess", which I was very good at. And my strategy? Drink it, I Love Lucy-chocolate conveyor belt style.

Step 3, Put a cork in it: Pass the full bottles to the corking machine operator and watch as the cork is smushed right in there. The best part was the Willy Wonka chocolate factory-esque noise that happens as the cork arm descends, plugging the "purple lifting drinks" with the beautiful Tryphon Vineyards cork. Note: Cynthia, in her Rosie the Riveter glory, is pretty much the best corking machine operator of all time. (Corking machine video)

Step 4, Top 'er off: Slide a foil topper onto the corked bottle. Depending on what kind of wine it was, we'd use either orange or green foil. (See green above, pre-smoothing machine).

Step 5, Smooth 'er out: Insert the top of each bottle into the foil smoothing machine. You can't imagine how wholly satisfying it is to see a crinkly, loose foil become smooth and fitted. Or maybe you can? (Smoothing machine video)

Step 6, Make it official: Run the bottles, one by one, through the labeling machine, watching them transform from a cute little pet project into an impressive-looking professional product. (Labeling machine video)

Step 7, Pack 'er up: Load the bottles back into case boxes, stack the boxes on a pallet and wrap the entire collection in plastic to prepare for transportation and storage.

Then all you have to do is wait for bottle shock to pass and it's go time. Let me know if you want to be part of the wine tasting at my house that will take place as soon as Larry says we're not in shock anymore. In the meantime, I'll continue to trip over the case of wine every time I walk into my kitchen.

*Note: the grapes we harvested will likely be ready for bottling 3 years from now. The wine we bottled today was from Dayle and Larry's very first harvest in 2007.

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