A Couple Of Days In The Life of An Urban Winemaker
Photos - Kara Wallace
Words - Ben Stuart (Winemaker at Burnt Bridge Cellars)
It’s 11:30 p.m. - four hours and 250 miles from our little urban winery in downtown Vancouver, Wa - and I’m just pulling in to one of my favorite Walla Walla vineyards to drop off bins for tomorrow’s pick. The gas station coffee wore off about an hour ago, somewhere near Umatilla, although I know these roads by heart by now.
It’s late October. I’ve been making this drive once or twice a week for the last eight weeks. And by the end of harvest the winery truck will have towed grapes and bins the equivalent distance of Washington State to Washington D.C. and back.
The headlights of the truck find our rows of Cabernet Sauvignon. So I stop, unstrap the load and stack the half-ton bins just off to the side of the dirt road. I made good time, I think, It’s only midnight. By the time I get checked into the hotel, grab a bite and maybe a beer, I can get a good solid five hours sleep before heading back here and picking up the grapes. If all goes well I’ll be on the road by 8 a.m. and return to the winery by 1 p.m. to start the process of converting three tons of beautiful, hand-picked fruit into wine.
When I tell someone that I’m a winemaker, I imagine they think I spend most of my day sniffing wine glasses on verandas, watching sunsets over vineyards. Before I got into this business, that was my impression too.
And sure, there are a few “flying winemakers” who travel the world and consult at multiple wineries, telling assistants what to do without getting their hands dirty.
But most winemakers I know, especially small, boutique and urban winemakers in Washington and Oregon, got into this business specifically to get intimately involved in the process of making great wine.
At Burnt Bridge Cellars we buy some of the best fruit we can find all over Washington State and make the best possible wine we can with it in a converted garage in downtown Vancouver, Washington. It’s a labor-intensive, messy and back-bending way to make a living. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Back at the vineyard in the morning, I arrive early to watch the amazing crew pick fruit at an envious speed. There are deer in the field, and the sunrise is the same color of the late fall leaves on the vines. The fruit tastes great in the bins, and the trailer is reloaded by 7:30. I strap it down, stop for gas, coffee up and head west.
I pull into the winery at 12:30, catching both good weather and traffic on the way home. A crew of volunteers, friends and wine club members meet me at the big overhead door. I unload the bins with a forklift and they start sorting - pulling each individual cluster out of the bin and checking it for leaves, ladybugs or any sign of damage before tossing it into the crusher/destemmer.
Like usual, the fruit is clean, and we make quick work of the bins.
I take some scientific measurements of the sugar, acidity and pH of the must and then let it soak as I start cleaning up.
There is a saying around wineries that winemaking is 30% moving shit, 60% cleaning shit and 10% drinking beer. And by the end of this day, we’ve reached 100.
I prepare the yeast that will get the fermentation started on this new Cab and then check on other grape varietals, already fermenting, that we brought in earlier in the week. I’ll be back early in the morning to check on all of them again. And the process will repeat like this until sometime in late November when the wine begins to age in barrels. It’ll stay in those barrels for two years before we bottle and then another few months before we know, for certain, if all this work produced the wine we wanted. As far as I can tell, we’re off to a good start.
And on this evening, I’m feeling lucky and content. I finished up before dark and catch the sunset reflecting off the windows of a bank building two blocks south. It’s the same color as that morning’s sunrise in the vineyard, some 11 hours and 250 miles ago.