Through the magic of the internet, I go to help bottle the 2008 vintages at Guardian Cellars on Friday, July 16. Guardian Cellars was founded not too long ago by a police detective, Jerry Riener, and the wines are unfailingly delicious and complex. I had no idea what to expect as a bottling volunteer, but this seemed like a good opportunity to see a side of the wine industry that most casual oenophiles never get to see.
Some thoughtful individual put on a satellite radio station for us volunteers, which meant the entire day had a commercial-free soundtrack, about which I have taken notes and the best parts of which I shall reproduce for you in this post.
We could fill, cork, foil, and label about 60 bottles a minute on average, which means that during that Pink Floyd song I saw about 360 bottles of Guardian's Gun Metal vintage go by me on the conveyor belt.
Imagine that someone has taken a taco truck the size of a semi, and filled it with H. R. Geiger's sleek modernist interpretation of the Crayola factory from that one Mr. Rogers episode. There is just enough room for a good-sized person to stand on either side of the central conveyor belt's long slender parabola. Two partially open-faced glass cubes with metal frames hold small, cylindrical platforms that cradle the wine bottles while they're being filled, corked, and foiled. Leading to these are large plastic screws to regulate how quickly the bottles on the belt enter the belly of the machines.
It works like this: bottles start empty on one side, are loaded onto a conveyor belt that runs them through the filling machine, the corking machine, past two people who put on the loose foil caps that are so annoying to get off at home, into the machine which seals the foil caps tightly against the bottle, around the corner, past the quality control person who checks to make sure the bottle is full and the labels are clean and accounted for and the foil cap is not askew, to the two people at the end who put them in cases of twelve and load those cases onto a long ramp of alarming slenderness and speed. A push, and a case of wine shoots out of the truck and into the waiting arms of other volunteers, who slap another couple of labels on the case and stack them carefully into palettes of either 3 or 4 cases' height. Then someone comes around with a very small, sleek forklift, and the palettes are taken, I don't know, presumably storage somewhere for aging, but I could never tell where they ended up.
I spent the first part of the day foiling. This is a fiddly business that is simultaneously tedious and terrifying, which made it actually very pleasant. Sort of like meditation with an adrenaline rush, though I know that's paradoxical.
You have in one hand a stack of delicate foil caps, which if you squeeze too hard -- read: at all -- will become useless and must be thrown away. The silver Guardian Cellars cap must be checked for spots and extra dribbles from the darker blue dye used to highlight the crest, which has a tendency to run. You must also check the crest on the top for flaws, and then put the foil cap on the bottle.
And you must do all this in the space of one second, as the bottles speed by you on the conveyor belt. It was repetitive, but there was always the looming chance that something would go horribly, catastrophically wrong, and always the sound of bottles clanking heavily together and reminding you that glass is fragile and red wine stains don't come out of anything.
Helpfully, the foilers were fairly close to the radio, which meant of course that I was singing along and dancing in place a little every time something I knew came up. The other volunteers, who were all a little older than me, gave me indulgent looks and assumed it was on account of the coffee. But it wasn't.
"Suite Judy Blue Eyes" has always been one of my favorite long songs, on account of the awesome. After the satellite radio played it, the radio host explained something about the album cover (which I had never seen until I looked up the Youtube video just now). Seems the names go Crosby, Stills, and Nash, but the people are sitting in the order of Nash, Stills, and Crosby. They realized the error just before the album went to press, but when they went back to retake the photo, the house had been torn down. People were getting Crosby and Nash confused for years after this.
Also: the logo for Crosby, Stills, and Nash was designed by Phil Hartman, who was a graphic designer before he turned to acting. Learn something new every day.
Prompted by the memory, I checked once more to see if a karaoke version of the song were available, even though I'd checked before to no avail -- hey voílà! For the first time ever, it was!
After the first wine, I volunteered to be one of the people slapping labels on cases at the foot of the long ramp. Seriously, every time something plunged down the ramp, I expected it to slide heavily to the ground with a crash and an explosion of new red wine. One of the guys stacking cases (a heavy-lifting job) made sure I got an extra label slapped on the back of my t-shirt, which was fine with me because the Guardian labels are truly beautiful, with elegant type and a feeling of strength (as befits a cop-turned-winemaker).
Due to a time crunch, we were going to be bottling Baer Winery's 2008 Maia as well, which was just fine by us. Baer Winery uses wax rather than foil caps, and the waxing is done much closer to the release date, so for a change I volunteered to put the filled bottles in the cases. This turned out to be a fast-moving, muscle-y job that strained, peculiarly, the area right between my shoulder blades. Arms, check; hands, check; back, check; shoulder blades, ow ow ow ow ow . . .
The Maia bottles tapered inward from the shoulders to the foot, so that they were smaller at the base than where the neck met the body. This meant that if bottles got clumped together on the conveyor belt -- as was frequent at at least three points of the process -- the feet would slide closer together and the bottles would tilt, and sometimes the bottles would fall over. This was always startling, and loud. But sometimes, when the clump had yet to reach critical mass, you could hear the faint tinkling and look at the clattering feet and the bottles would appear to be tap-dancing.
With Gun Metal, Alibi, and Maia safely stowed and the palettes of crates held together by saran wrap, it was time to break for lunch. Jerry had gone around earlier asking whether we wanted tacos, burritos, or quesadillas, with steak, chicken, or veggies. These were all magnificent, with perfectly salted, warm tortilla chips and just the right amount of salsa. We retired to the tasting room, whose walls were covered in concert posters that hinted the soundtrack here was going to be a little more modern: Vampire Weekend, Broken Bells, the Decemberists, the Drive-By Truckers, Green Day, and Modest Mouse.
The other volunteers were mostly already known to each other, and all of them seemed older than me. Some, like Laurie, are frequent bottlers for many of the wineries in the area, to the point where it sounded like a full-time job on its own. Others, like Wayne, were fellow newbies. We settled pretty easily into a comfortable mode of conversation over our delicious, delicious Mexican food.
The day's final bottling was Grand Rêve Vintners Collaboration Series III, a pure Syrah made exclusively from Red Mountain grapes. I'd not encountered this vintner before, probably because it makes very exclusive, very limited runs of very high-quality wines, with very high-quality winemakers. Like the obscure author that every author you love has read and loved unbeknownst to you.
We ran out of foil caps before we ran out of bottles. This felt catastrophic at first, but then it became clear that nothing could be done, except mark the boxes with the unfoiled bottles once they came off the line.
After this last bottling, we returned to the tasting room in the front, where there were buckets of Gun Metal and Collaboration for the tasting. Jerry talked briefly about what the new wine was like now and what it might come to be in the future. We were each given four bottles of wine -- a common volunteer gratuity which I had nevertheless not expected -- but none of these bottles are drinkable right away.
I always forget: WINE = GRAPES + TIME.
The three Guardian wines (two Gun Metal and one Alibi) must wait a year until we open them. The Grand Rêve we have to cellar for -- and this is a quote -- 3 to 5 years. It has its own adorable little prison sentence. So I've locked it in a cabinet downstairs; in addition to being cool and dark and friendly for wine aging, it seemed appropriate.