Willamette Valley Oregon Harvest 2011 Update #2

As Luke emailed on October 6th, 2011:

Dear Family, Friends and Followers,

Last week was an important milestone in the harvest preparation at Chehalem Wines. For five days the winery staff, vineyard crew and harvest interns gathered around and within a mobile bottling truck to bottle 2010 Pinots and Chardonnays. Bottling is another aspect of winemaking that should make any romantic think twice before jumping into this career. Simply, it is tedium defined. For those that have never seen a bottling truck, it looks just like any other semi-truck trailer from the exterior but contains seemingly space-age technology inside. A droning hum comes from the whirling bits of stainless steel, hydraulics rhythmically moving up then down and all of it moving in a synchronized pattern, often behind what look like hermetically sealed glass panels. This pricey mobile assembly line is solely designed to bottle wine in a sterile and efficient environment.

The steps for bottling are as such: Finished wine is pumped from tanks to the truck where it will be automatically dispensed into bottles. One might imagine that bottling is a seamless and even joyous chain of bottle after bottle and case after case exiting the truck. But there is a human element to every other step in the bottling process which is repetitive proof of the love the goes into making every bottle of wine. Before dispensing the wine, the bottles have to be taken out of cardboard boxes and loaded onto a conveyor belt by a team member. Empty glass travels along the belt into a giant wheel where they will be filled with inert nitrogen gas to prevent oxidation of the wine. Immediately after sparging with nitrogen, the bottles are filled with wine and continue to move with the preset speed of the conveyor. Two women place Stelvin closures onto each of the roughly 90,000 bottles we filled last week which are then mechanically sealed. Once each vessel has a screwcap, it continues along the belt to an automatic labeler that (in theory) will wrap the label, level and plumb, around thousands of bottles in a row. After pirouetting through the labeler freshly adorned, each formerly naked bottle continues on the conveyor belt to the back of the truck to be boxed up. At least one harvest intern leans close to the passing bottles to make sure that each label is level and properly applied, removing those needing to be relabeled. Bottles that pass the test make their way to the back of the truck where two men fill empty wine cases and set them onto yet another conveyor belt which carries them through a taping robot (that’s what I like to call it) which seals the tops of the boxes. Sealed cases are zipped out the back of the truck down a wheeled ramp to be stamped with the bottling date and a matching label of the contents within. Next, a member of the Chehalem Winery team picks up each case and stacks it with its brethren onto pallets a la Tetris.

Regardless of where you are on the bottling line, it is repetitive and tiring. Often there is so much of the same movement that your eyes seem to twitch for a while after leaving the truck. It is not uncommon to dream at night about bottles moving briskly by. Remember in the movie, “Groundhog Day,” how Bill Murray’s character wakes up every morning to his alarm clock playing Sonny and Cher’s, “I’ve Got You Babe,” only to find that February 2nd is happening all over again? Last week was very much like that for everyone at the Chehalem Winery. Please don’t interpret this account of bottling as an entirely dismal time. Whilst bottling there were many shenanigans, much laughter and our team really gelled. When breaking for lunch, we were fed well and at day’s end we would gather around a table to drink beer, talk about wine, our surroundings and our team once again reminding me of what seems to be the theme of this harvest: life is good.

Luke Mathews

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