Thursday, 30 January 2014


One of the many cellarhand skills that I have been learning and performing regularly thus far is racking. I will describe this task for you in detail, as it is critical in the winemaking process:  it can be make or break in determining wine quality.

Racking is required at a number of points in the journey of grapes to a finished wine.  The first racking for white wine occurs when the grape juice collected from crushing and pressing has been sitting in a stainless steel tank for a few days to allow the grape skins, seeds, pulp and other solids to settle out.  These 'lees' are what needs to be separated from the clear juice.

1. Sanitising
Once the winemakers are happy that the grape juice is ready for racking, the first step is to ensure that the network of hoses and pipework that is to be used (sometimes totalling 100m) is sanitised before it can be used to move wine.

2. Sparging Then it is necessary to disperse a 'cellar mix' of Nitrogen and Carbon Dioxide gas into the empty tank that is to be filled to ensure no oxygen is present, which could damage the wine. This works because the cellar mix is heavier than air and displaces oxygen, forming a protective blanket in the tank whilst grape juice is added from a valve at the bottom.

3. Transferring
Next comes the fun part, where you hook up your lines, kick start the pump and begin to transfer the juice. You can tell when the juice is nearing the level of the door because nothing will come out of the sample valve when it is opened. It is then important to keep checking until the door can be opened - and this is where the art of racking begins.

4. Racking
Somewhere in the murky depths below is the layer of lees.  The challenge is to remove as much clear juice as possible (so as not to waste any) whilst also ensuring no lees are sucked up by the pump to contaminate the transferred product. To achieve this, a 'racking arm' is used.  This tool attaches to the side of the door, forming a pivot for a suction arm which can be slowly lowered down as the juice is pumped. Once the fluffy top of the lees become visible below the surface, you slow the pump right down and continue until it is no longer possible to suck clear juice (this is where technique and experience comes into it!).

5. Cutting Out
Once satisfied, the next job is to 'cut out' of the tank.  The network of transfer lines will still be full of juice once the pump is stopped and all this good juice needs to be sent to the tank.  So a water hose is connected up to the pipework at the racking end and started up.  At the tank end, there is a T-piece and a section of clear glass where you can see when the liquid stream turns from yellow coloured juice to clear water.  At this point, you quickly switch the valves at the T-piece so water goes onto the floor and nothing further goes into the tank (again, this takes much practice to master).

The lees remaining in the original tank are actually collected and treated through a filter to reclaim any trapped  juice. This juice (a small amount in comparison to the whole tank) is used for inoculating the yeast cultures - a process that I will be sharing as I learn more about it.

Whoever thought pumping some liquid from one place to another could be so involved! And I didn't even mention that you have to clean the whole tank when you are finished too...

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Australia Day

One aspect of my vintage experience I am finding unexpectedly rewarding is working with people from all accross the world. There have been many interesting lunchtime conversations and debates as well as quite a few humorous situations resulting from the challenges of translation.

I decided it would be nice to show all the international cellar hands how we celebrate Australia Day and, as we were fortunate to have a long weekend, (casuals cost too much money on a public holiday) most people were keen to come along. The funny thing was:  I ended up being the only Australian at my Australia Day party!!

Australia Tattoos - Of Course!

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Sweet Stuff

If you have read my earlier posts, you may remember I raved about tasting a fortified Verdelho that is being trialled, made from a mix of vintages all the way back to 1957 (see:

Therefore, I could not believe my good fortune when I was asked to assist with some additions in the Fortified Shed.  Due to the age and value of these wines, it remains under tight security, so I felt very privileged to assist with this task.

The work required utilising a technique called battonage, which involves stirring wine whilst it remains in a barrel on its yeast lees.  This is achieved using a curved metal 'arm' with some chains hanging down.  You insert the rod into the barrel through the 'bung hole' and then twist it in a circular motion so that the chains provide a dragging and mixing action, which allows contact between the lees on the bottom and the clear wine above.

Here are some pictures to demonstrate the technique and equipment used:

The earthy, oaky smell of the old barriques (wine barrels) in the Fortified Shed was beautiful and then the sweet, sticky smell of the verdelho when each barrel was opened made it almost intoxicating.  I wish all the work I did at the cellar was this fun!

Saturday, 25 January 2014

War Wounds

I have made it through my first week of Vintage 2014!  It has been an amazing experience and an exponential learning curve.  

Most of this week, there have been three of us getting trained by one of the permanent cellar hands in preparation for starting up the yeast area next week.  This has been great, as we have had the opportunity to undertake a number of other jobs in the winery that are not necessarily part of the Vintage proceedings (more to come on these tasks in following posts).  As such, I believe that I will be more versatile around the cellar, having learnt many tasks, rather than simply working on one piece of equipment continuously.

Although I have enjoyed almost every minute of the cellar work, I must admit that my body has not been too appreciative of the adjustment in schedule and exertion.  Here is a rough outline of my average work day routine:  

04:00 wake up
04:15 cycle to work (22km)
05:20 arrive at work (shower, etc.)
05:40 quick coffee
05:50 clock in and handover with nightshift
06:00 work begins
10:00 smoko break (15min)
14:00 lunch break (30min)
17:50 nightshift arrives for handover
18:00 finish work
18:10 cycle to train station (6.6km)
18:45 catch train
19:05 cycle home from station (3.5km)
19:20 arrive home
20:30 bed time

This daily schedule alone accounts for how sore I have been when getting out of bed each morning.  Adding to the muscular discomfort and bruising are the repetitive actions of: going up and down stairs, carrying hoses, dragging pumps, shovelling, carrying equipment and chemical containers, etc.

I have also managed to obtain some minor injuries, whilst learning 'what not to do'.  Referring to the pictures of my 'war wounds' below, I have learnt:

1. To avoid getting wet feet (resulting in raw, blistered toes)
2. Not to spill caustic acid on myself (resulting in ugly rash)
3. Not to carry hoses near the metal rim (resulting in gash on arm)

Don't get me wrong, I'm really enjoying such physical work, it's a great change in pace and an achievable challenge.  I am quite confident that my body will adjust to the work over the next few weeks, and at least it is saving me on a gym membership!

Thursday, 23 January 2014

The Pressure is ON

In the last two days, the pressure has really ramped up in the cellar. We have gone from processing 45 tonnes up to 180 tonnes in a day, which means near on constant crushing and pressing around the clock. 

omni bins full of freshly harvested verdelho grapes ready to be crushed
The grapes arrive in 'omni bins' which each carry approximately 1 tonne of machine harvested grapes.  They are lifted by forklift and dumped into the crusher, which then feeds into a de-stemming machine to remove any leaves, stems and other debris from the crushed grapes.

Now, this all sounds pretty simple in theory, but things can get out of hand very quickly if the crushing and pressing circuit is not operated properly.  Although I am not working in the crusher area, today I was called up for a spot of shovelling in the midday Swan Valley heat when a very large spill occurred.  There was at least 2 omni bins worth of grapes strewn everywhere, as the conveyor belts had backlogged, spewing out grape debris everywhere.  

Let me just say, I'm glad it wasn't me who caused the mess! 

This is not the actual spill (it was worse) but there was no time for photos whilst shovelling

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Yeast Girl

When I said I was looking forward to my role as a 'yeast girl' I hadn't quite anticipated just how smelly the stuff can be when it dies.

One of my jobs today involved transferring some Chardonnay that had been sitting in a tank for 1 year after fermentation. When it sits for this long, a large buildup of solids (lees) including dead yeast cells, tartaric acid and bentonite (clay) builds up at the bottom of the tanks as everything settles out of solution. 

The photo to the right shows the inside if the tank after it was drained. The wood is a stack of 'oak staves' used for imparting the lovely aromas of oak into a wine in a more cost-effective manner than storing  in a barrel. You can see the buildup of lees all over the staves and the thick layer on the bottom of the tank.

I stupidly volunteered to hose out the tank, which resulted in a wonderful half hour inhaling the funky, off-bread and bitter scents.  I started to imagine that what I was hosing looked like vomit... Definitely wasn't feeling like a glass of wine at that point in time!

And then it got even better.  We had to get in the tank and remove all the staves. This is what I ended up looking like: 

Despite how I have described this job, I actually enjoyed it.
So here's to being a 'yeast girl'!!

Monday, 20 January 2014

Vintage 2014 - Day 1

It finally arrived, the day everyone had been building up to for the past two weeks of training and anticipation... 
And what an anticlimax - I arrived, spot on the dot at 6am, to learn that during the first night of picking, the harvester had broken down!!!  

Although this small crisis meant that we did not receive the large tonnage that had been predicted for the first day, we still managed to process about 45 tonnes of verdelho grapes from suppliers on the neighbouring property.  It was quite exciting to hear the rumbling sounds of the machinery all starting up for the first time this season, and seeing everyone settling into their newly-designated areas/roles.

I have been assigned the role of 'yeast girl' which means that my primary accountabilities will be culturing the yeast and inoculating the fermentations, as well as performing other chemical additions to the wine, as directed by the winemakers.  I'm very happy to have been allocated to this area, as it is quite a complex and variable area, with different addition methods, temperature requirements, gas requirements and sampling regimes. It should hopefully allow me to gain a good insight into the type of decisions that the winemakers are responsible for, as well as keeping me on my toes.  

Yeast work doesn't really kick off for another week or so, once enough juices have been processed and collected.  Today, however, I was privileged to be responsible for the first 'addition' of the season.  This involved adding some enzymes and acid to the freshly pressed verdelho juice, whilst sparging it with gas to mix.  The reason for the additions?
  • Enzymes - removal of any stem, seed and skin components that are present in the wine after pressing. They assist solids (termed 'lees') to settle to the bottom of the tank, thus separating them from the grape juice above.
  • Acid - is added to grape juice when a chemical analysis shows that the Total Acidity level is lacking.  This often occurs in grapes that have experienced hot, dry weather in the lead up to harvesting.

Shiny Clean Tanks Waiting for their Juice
So I guess you might be wondering whether the harvester will be back up and running tonight?  So am I.  Only tomorrow will tell!

Sunday, 19 January 2014

A Solution to Spicy Thai

Last night, my husband Ben and I were lucky enough to attend a Thai Street Food cooking class (all thanks to our good friends Jon and Kate).  Now, we both love Asian food and were especially excited that we would get to sample all the food at the end of the class.  Our one dilemma:  how to determine a suitable BYO wine that could stand up to the spiciness.

I recently watched an entertaining video on one of my favourite wine websites, Wine Folly, which addressed the myths of which alcohols match spicy food (watch it at:  The outcome was that you definitely need something with some sweetness to it, to cut through the spice.  We decided to take the advice and selected an off-dry riesling (as riesling is one of my favourite grape varieties).

The Food:
Papaya Salad Ingredients
  • Thai Papaya Salad
  • Pad Thai
  • Pineapple Fried Rice
  • Beef and Holy Basil
  • Thai Pork Balls
  • Son in Law Eggs
  • Black Glutinous Rice with Caramelised Banana

The Wine:

Plan B 2013 Riesling 'OD' from Frankland River, WA
('OD' stands for 'Off-Dry')
I'm not usually a fan of sweeter whites, however this had just enough of the crisp, zingy lemon/lime hit of a riesling to balance out the sweeter peachy flavours.

I loved the description on the label:  Serious at the front but there's a party going on out the back!

Our final verdict? Glad we trusted my research, the match was perfect and we will definitely be cooking up these Thai dishes again and again.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Laissez Faire and Lasagne

According to the Oxford dictionary, laissez faire means:  leaving things to their own course, without interfering.  This is exactly how Larry Cherubino's Laissez Faire Syrah is created - with minimal intervention. Having purchased a case of Larry's wine during a wine tasting last year, I was excited to see how well I had chosen.

I was definitely not disappointed. Initially when opened, the wine had quite a musty smell (although this could have been some lingering hints from cleaning wine tanks all day at work). After decanting and airing the wine, however, it was a different story; my nose was infused with a beautiful baked cherry and plum pie smell - it felt like I could just eat it!

We had the wine with home made lasagne and salad and it really was a perfect complement.  I would recommend everyone to try this beautifully simple but stylish wine with any Italian dish you feel like enjoying.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

A Hive of Activity

Today, I arrived at work to an atmosphere of organised chaos.  News was just in that harvesting is going to start early.  And not just slightly early - this is to be the earliest start to the vintage in recent memory!  I had discussed in a previous post that vintage kicks off earlier every year, but no one was expecting this many grapes so soon.

The first grapes are to arrive at the winery on Sunday night, thus there was really only today (Thursday) and tomorrow to get all the preparation done that is usually completed over most of next week.  So there was definitely no time to ease us 'newbies' into the work - it was straight into the deep end.  

Six of us were assigned the task of cleaning and sanitising tanks, ready to accept freshly crushed and pressed grape juice.  Cleaning a tank might sound pretty simple, but the tanks are definitely not small (approximately 25,000L each), there are about 16 in each room and there are 5 rooms of them.  The reason this is so important is to prevent bacterial and fungal spoilage of the any grape juice or wine stored in the tanks.

Tank cleaning is a serious business, because you use significant amounts of caustic soda (NaOH), which is highly corrosive to both skin and lungs.  For this reason, it is necessary to be fully kitted out in personal protective equipment (PPE), as demonstrated in the simply stunning photo of me below, where I am pouring caustic acid into hot water, ready to pump into a tank.

The reason caustic soda is used is because of its strength and therefore capacity to dissolve hard 'tartrates' which dissolve out of the wine solution and build up on the walls of the tank.  Once you have pumped a mix of caustic soda and boiling water through the whole tank (takes about 20min if the tank is fairly clean, but up to a few hours if it's filthy), then you have to also pump citric acid through to neutralise the strong base.  So it's a time consuming, but very necessary step in the preparation of a winery for vintage.

It may sound boring, but it was really great to get right in the midst of everything and start preparing for what lies ahead next week.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Safety Similarities

Days 3 to 5 of our cellarhand training has been all about focusing on the key safety-related aspects of the winery. This kicked off with 2 days of confined space training. Confined space is a very important safety concept in the cellar, as all the tanks and the presses are confined spaces that need to be entered at some stage or another for cleaning purposes. There can be a risk of exposure to high levels of carbon dioxide, which is produced by the yeast during fermentation, which concurrently results in low levels of oxygen, especially if the vessel is not appropriately ventilated.

We discussed a case down in Margaret River in 1998 where a young cellar hand died in a fermentation tank from high levels of carbon dioxide. This goes to show how important it is to fully understand the dangers that we could be exposed to and how to put controls in place to decrease the risk of the work.

Having come fresh from the mining industry, I have had safety standards and practices drummed into me. As such, it has been very interesting to compare the approach towards safety in a winery.  Keeping in mind the winery I am at is large for Australian standards, I was quite impressed with the level of safety training.

To be honest, it was also comforting to know that everyone who had never worked in a winery was being thoroughly versed in safety practices:  not only to protect themselves, but also their fellow workmates.  

So, on a less serious note, all the induction boxes have been ticked and flicked and tomorrow we will spend the day learning our key areas of work - getting in and getting our hands dirty... I can't wait!!

Monday, 13 January 2014

Vintage Forecast

Every year, the start date for vintage creeps just a little earlier in January.  Whereas traditionally, Swan Valley vintage season started after the Australia Day long weekend, the region's wineries are now seeing their first batch come through in the week leading up to Australia Day.  (Don't worry, I'm not going to get into a discussion on Global Warming, it's not my favourite topic)

For 2013, the Swan Valley experienced quite a wet spring, with approximately 150mm of rain.  This fact is very pertinent to me, as I spent most of August and September panicking about all the rain in the leadup to my September 27th Wedding (which turned out to be a beautiful sunny day, mind you).  
So far, summer has been relatively mild in Swan Valley terms, with January (to date) only having a few days nudging the 40 degree mark.  

Due to these conditions, is looks like verdelho and chardonnay grapes will start arriving at the winery in the week leading up to Australia Day, followed by chenin about a week later.  In general, the white wines are processed before the reds.

Based upon the season that has been, local winemakers are predicting 2014 to be a cracker of a vintage - here's to hoping they are on the mark!

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Pinot Gris Pairing

Pinot Gris is one of those varieties of wine that doesn't really receive much attention, definitely not in Australia at least.  I really think this is a shame, as both Pinot Gris (the French style) and Pinot Grigio (the Italian Style) are zesty and refreshing - perfect for a hot summer evening.

My husband and I were fortunate enough to receive half a case of Gibson Bridge 2009 Reserve Pinot Gris from our good friends who were emptying their (rather large) wine stash in preparation for an around-the-world holiday.  Gibson Bridge is a boutique family-owned, single-vineyard winery located in Marlborough, NZ (yes, the area does more than just Sauvignon Blanc!).  

To be honest, I actually chose this wine to drink and then constructed a meal around it, rather than finding a wine to go with the meal.  And this is what I came up with:

Meaty Snapper Wings + Homemade Potato Chips + Red Cabbage and Coriander Coleslaw

The verdict?  Yum.  
I had actually never tried Snapper Wings before, but they were on special at my local seafood shop.  Cooking is simple:  BBQ the wings for 5-10min once they have been seasoned and wrapped in alfoil with some lemon wedges and a knob of butter each.

And why does pinot gris match?  
When you have a zingy, citrusy pinot gris to drink, it works well with a seafood dish, linked with some lemon/lime flavours.  This particular wine also worked well as it had quite a 'full' mouth feel and lots of flowery flavours, which added to the simple flavours in the meal.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Perks of the Job

I was hesitant about publishing this post because I don't want to encourage the misconception that working in a winery is just a good excuse to drink lots of wine for free.  However, in saying that, I was not complaining when the afternoon of my second day of training involved a wine tasting session!

Apart from the fact that we had the opportunity to taste the entire range of white and red wines currently produced on the premises, the most rewarding aspect of the afternoon was witnessing the passion that the winemakers had for the wines they were personally responsible for producing.  As they poured our tasting glasses, they discussed the source of the grapes, the specific techniques that were used and why they had used these processes.  And you could tell from the care they took in explaining the finer points of each wine, that just as much care and concern would have gone into the making.

Another interesting part of this wine education session was learning about some common wine faults that we will need to be vigilant in detecting.  We had the opportunity to smell (and taste, if you could handle it) three faulty wines:

1. Oxidised wine - this occurs when a wine has had too much exposure to oxygen.  It takes on a stale and 'stewed fruit' smell.

2. Volatile Acidity (VA) - ethyl acetate and acetic acid occur in wine and a small amount  can be part of the wine style, however if there is too much, it will taste like vinegar.

3. Brettanomyces - this is a bacteria that can spoil wine. The taste can be described as medicinal or 'bandaid-like' and some people think it smells 'horsey' or like wet animal.

I couldn't help but mention that we also had the opportunity to taste a fortified white that has been an ongoing experimenting at the winery for a number of years.  The oldest component of grapes (primarily verdelho) in this wine is from 1957!  Immediately when I smelt it, I was reminded of maple syrup, but to taste it was even better, as the acidity of the verdelho grapes cut through the luscious stickiness so that it was not sickly, just rich, creamy goodness.

The Tasting Lineup

Thursday, 9 January 2014

A Mixed Bunch

Finally, after all the pondering, planning and preparing, I've just completed my first day working at a winery!  Although working is a loose term in this instance, as today was the first of 7 days of inductions for the Vintage 2014 crew, comprising 14 casual staff.

I had been wondering what the demographic of people taking vintage roles would be like, and - as expected - it's definitely a mixed bunch:  Italy, Chile, America, Germany, New Zealand and Australia are all represented.

Experience levels are also highly variable, much to my relief.  There are 2 couples who have no experience and are working for travel money, 3 back for a second vintage (a good sign, I hope), some currently studying viticulture or oenology and some seasoned vintage cellarhands,
...and me - no experience but interested in making a career out of it, not just money.

It will be very interesting to observe how everyone goes over the 3 months of work.  There are a few people who don't sound particularly overjoyed about working 12 hour days and/or working night shifts,  hopefully they will become accustomed to shift work fairly quickly.  I'm banking on managing fairly well from this perspective, as it's nothing new based upon my past work rosters.

The site that greeted me upon entering the winery grounds.
Tomorrow will present a new challenge - cycling the 20km to work.  I will be allowing some extra time, just to make sure I have not overestimated by cycling ability and speed.  So, fingers crossed I will keep myself on my bike and in one piece for my next post.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Preparing for the Journey

In two days' time, I will be embarking upon a new adventure.  

I have just resigned from a well-paid job in the mining industry - putting 4 years of university study and 6 years of FIFO work behind me.  All to pursue my passion for wine.

Big Risk?  Definitely.

If I'm totally honest, I can't deny that I'm scared that:
  • this could be a poor career decision, 
  • I might not be very good at being a cellar hand
  • I'm entering the world of blogging!
It has taken my husband, my friends and my family urging me and believing in me to finally convince me to take this leap.

For the next 12 weeks, I will be working a 'Vintage' as a cellar hand.  
A number of winemakers have recommended this to me as the best way to ascertain whether the wine industry is for me.

Although I have a fair idea what is involved and what I am in for, I am still unsure on the exact details and I know I have much to learn.  I'm even more uncertain about what will follow these 12 weeks, but what I do know is that the journey is going to be intriguing and sometimes surprising!

So come along for the ride with me as I share my journey of vintages, vines and all things vinous.