Call me what you want… Cellar Rat, Barrel Monkey… nothing fazes me. The fact is that making wine is a dirty job, but someone has to do it. And that someone is me. I am what is called a Cellar Rat; located at the bottom of the winery food chain. But just like the food chain of Mother Nature, us little guys are indispensable. Most people love to romanticize winemaking but the fact is that a lot of it is dirty, sticky and repetitive. Somebody has to do the tough jobs of cleaning the barrels and tanks, doing all of the daily tasks that a quality wine requires. And all of that hard work that goes into making a bottle of wine is, at the end of the day, what really gives a wine its character.
Cleanliness is definitely the name of the game. In preparation for the harvest, every single piece of equipment, large and small, has to be thoroughly sanitized. That means washing every square inch of everything not bolted down, not just once, but three times (and in some cases four). For the large pieces of machinery, like the press and the destemmer, I first pressure wash the contraption, then I take a scrub brush and go over every nook and cranny with Peroxy, which is the non-toxic industrial cleaning agent that is standard to the industry. Then I go over everything again but this time using citric acid in order to neutralize the Peroxy and sanitize. Then I finish it off with another rinse of water. Phew. Some of the equipment we use, like the pumps, must be cleaned several times a day, every time they are used for a different wine.
Also, we test each machine to make sure that they are in proper working order so that we can fix them before crunch time. Can you imagine how disastrous it would be if you have 15 tons of grapes sitting on the crush pad, melting in the sun, and try to turn on the press and nothing happens? Some of the equipment is only used for a short period during the year and the rest of the time sits idle. A good winemaker is a good mechanic. And a good electrician… And a good chemist… And a good carpenter… And a good botanist… A good winemaker has to be a jack-of-all-trades. I guess I’ll have to pick up the skills as I go.
Interestingly enough, the whole business tends to follow a BYOB rule: Bring Your Own Bins. That means that Page Springs Cellars has to have dozens of these large plastic cubes on hand for when it’s time to get the grapes. Because you never know when the first day of harvest will be, it’s important to be prepared. What does that mean? It means a veritable cityscape replete with skyscrapers made of bins that must be thoroughly cleaned. This city isn’t as beautiful as San Francisco’s or New York’s skyline, so for the nine months out of the year that they’re not in use we keep them out of sight. As a cellar rat, I can tell you with certainty that wherever they are kept, it was certainly somewhere very muddy. And damp, too! What does that mean? Days and days of power washing all of them.
There’s a clear distinction between my job helping to make wine at the winery and making my very own concoction. You can imagine my excitement when Eric Glomski told my fellow Cellar Rat Chris Babin and I that there was some Zinfandel still hanging at Golden Rule Vineyards that he was not going to use. Wow, what a perfect opportunity for the experimentation of two fledgling winemakers! Two cellar dwellers out of the cellar during harvest is a hard feat to pull off. We processed fruit all night and then hopped into the old Page Springs Cellars green truck that morning, driving the five-ish hours to Willcox to pick up our Zinfandel bounty. By the time we arrived at Golden Rule, the picking crew was just finishing up. We loaded the truck, bought some dry ice, Doritos and energy drinks and headed right back north to the cellar. When we finally arrived back at the winery, a truck had just delivered some fruit from California … no rest for the wicked; it was time to process.
EDITOR’S NOTE: These days you can find John at the Fire Mountain Wines Tasting Room in Old Town Cottonwood where he continues to make wine for Cellar Dwellers as well as Fire Mountain Wines.
Article and Photos by John Scarbrough
Originally Published in Arizona Vines and Wines Fall 2011 Issue