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Lab Rat

Hello and welcome to! If this is you're first visit then allow me to express my gratitude for checking out the site and I hope you enjoy reading. If you're a fan of the site then please accept my sincere apology for leaving you out of the loop for the last week or so. I know some of you are really enjoying following along with the harvest, but as you know it is in full swing by now and you can probably imagine that it has been very hard to find the time to write. But I'm back at the keyboard now so let me fill you in:

Last time I left you with a cliff hangar. Due to my debilitating injury and thanks to doctor's orders I had been reassigned from normal duty and asked to fill a different role. This is what happened: I reported to Robert that the doctor said I was to refrain from using my left hand as much as possible. Our laboratory technician was present at the time and unfortunately for her, Robert, doing some quick thinking, announced that she had a new assistant. Amanda and I glanced at each other, equally surprised at the verdict. I was pleased (as I always am at the prospect of learning something new). I can only guess her feelings about acquiring a new assistant. Truth be told, I have a pretty good idea about it because that was two weeks ago and she got rid of her meddlesome assistant pretty quickly. Ignoring doctor's orders, for better or for worse, I returned to my daily duties as a Cellar Rat, single-handedly conquering each task appointed to me, after only one day of shadowing her in the lab. In that time though I did get to learn how to test the wine for Total Acidity, pH, dissolved oxygen and free sulphur. Acidity is a crucial measurement because having the right amount of acid is critical for producing a balanced wine. I learned that pH is actually not a helpful measurement of acid as is just a buffer that compares the level of acid to the level of base. Dissolved oxygen is the amount of oxygen mixed into the liquid of the wine causing it to oxidize internally in a way. That's why we add the SO2. If you recall it bonds with the O2 to become the neutral SO4. Sometimes it does it's job and there's some left over. That's what the free sulphur test is for.

Even though I haven't been spending much time in the lab I have been spending a lot of time doing something that has a real chemistry feel to it. As you may already know, yeast is the crucial ingredient that transforms grape juice into wine. That amazing, rapidly multiplying, living organism, munches the sugar and produces alcohol. It occurs naturally in the vineyard and because it only takes one yeast cell to create a colony, grape juice left alone will eventually ferment, which is how, I imagine, they discovered wine in the first place. These days though we take a more advanced approach, selecting and adding species of yeast that accommodate specific species of grapes. In fact, we have cultivated yeast so much that we can use different kinds to produce specific flavors. The yeast have fairly unromantic names like "RC212" or "D47". Occasionally a charmer comes along like "Rhone 4700". The process of adding yeast to the juice is called inoculation. Care must be taken during this process because happy yeast makes good wine and if you don't make sure those microscopic buggers are having a good time, they'll make sure to spoil your dinner party. Before you add the yeast you add it's food. Superfood to be precise, a delicious mixture of nutrients and amino acids that prevents the yeast from becoming cannibalistic and consuming the carcasses of cadaverous comrades (please excuse my fit of alliteration). DAP, or diammonium phosphate to be exact, is also added to feed the hungry critters. At this stage tartaric acid is added not for the yeast, but if it is determined more acid is required to balance the flavor. The juice is now ready for the yeast to be added, but first the yeast must be awakened. You see, the yeast is in a dormant state and needs to be activated after it's long hibernation. So water is heated to the exact temperature it likes: 105 degrees Fahrenheit. A catalyst called Go Ferm is added to the water and then the yeast is slowly mixed in. It takes about 15 minutes for the yeast to wake up and after that period a sufficient amount of wine is added to acclimate the yeast to the temperature of the juice it is about to call home. The mixture of water, juice, Go Ferm and yeast turns a phenomenal shade of violet and is then evenly poured over the surface of the bin/tank. The punch down method is insufficient to properly mix the yeast with the wine so we use the pump over technique: With the use of an air pump, juice is sucked from the bottom of the bin and pumped over the top. After fifteen minutes the juice has everything it needsto begin fermenting. The Brix will drop every day from now on and the temperature will rise. Fermentation is an exothermic reaction and the temperature can get up to the low nineties. The reaction produces an incredible amount of CO2. After one to two weeks the juice will have, by definition if not taste, become wine.

Well I hope that this article makes a up for my absence. I promise, readers, another article tomorrow! I'll be talking about pressing the wine after it's finished fermenting!

Return Of The Rat

The Cellar Rat is back after a much needed harvest hiatus and I've returned with all of the stories and adventures that transpired during the rainy months that constituted the second half of the harvest. Where we last left our intrepid intern, he was crippled, without the use of his left hand, and relegated to the laboratory to aid the insular Amanda as she dutifully created and catalogued the mountain of data an ever-changing ocean of wine inevitably creates.

If you've been hanging on to the edge of a cliff for the past few months then let me now extend my paw to you: With my hand encased in fiberglass and a recommendation from my doctor that I refrain from doing anything that made strenuous use of it, lest the healing fracture break again, I attempted to pay heed to his costly advice. But our lab technician was deft in her craft and needed little assistance, so after a day following her around like a duckling I soon grew frustrated with my impotence and with increasing confidence I suspected that the pair of eyes staring over her shoulder were becoming more and more bothersome. Amanda was a good sport but I realized that another arrangement would have to made at least until my hand healed and I could return to my duties. Robert suggested that I do some office work for the time being. I probably should have accepted the offer, but I was enthralled with the exciting work at the winery that was only just beginning as the rest of interns arrived and harvest was getting into full swing. Loathe to miss out on the action, as well as peck maddeningly at the keyboard with one hand (partly a reason for the discontinuity in my posts), I decided I would continue work as usual and see how I could fare with one hand tied behind my back. I realized early on that my main enemy would be water. I believe I mentioned earlier that this job tended have the effect on a Cellar Rat of having jumped in a pool with their clothes on. My dear mother, thoughtful person that she is, ordered for me a special cast protector that, in addition to keeping my arm completely dry, had the added effect of making me look like I had the arm of a Smurf. It was a lovely shade of blue and when the air was sucked out it seemed as if I had shrink-wrapped an oversized cooking mitten onto my forearm. Having a soaking wet cast is a horrible condition, but being heckled about the strange appearance of my left arm was even more intolerable. So it was soon discarded and as harvest progressed my hand became quite sore and smelly. But the moral in this story is that I soldiered through it and hardly missed a moment of harvest because of my ill-timed injury. A few weeks and several casts later my hand was tender but healed. The brace I was given to wear for several more weeks also lasted about half a day on the crush pad. But maybe making use of it was the correct therapy because today it feels good as new.

As the coming weeks progressed the crew really began to learn to work as a team and the flow of work became steady and regular. With the wine now at multiple stages of production a daily routine was established, although the amount of work would vary depending on how much fruit we were to crush that day. And indeed the amount of grapes coming in seemed to increase everyday as wary grape-growers tried to harvest their crop before the coming rains that posed a major threat to their precious berries.

Next time I'll be talking about what a typical day at the winery was like with harvest in full swing: With all the fermentation tanks full of grapes at various stages of maceration, grapes being pressed and barreled down, and more grapes coming in to be sorted, all on the same day!

I will be posting at some point every Wednesday, though sometimes in the evening, so you can always be sure to check in every Thursday for the latest from the Cellar Rat. Also don't forget to check out Cellar Rat TV which also airs right here every Friday at 3:00pm. Until next time!