California Wine Cellar

Grape Destinations: A View From The Top (Of a Fermentation Tank)

Being in the wine business certainly has its perks. One such perk, “Harvest intern” for a week in beautiful Napa Valley, California. In late September 2016, for the second vintage in a row, I worked side by side with the owners, wine makers, cellar masters and other interns at Amici Cellars, a premium Napa Valley winery. Amici Cellars is located in Calistoga, CA, in the northern part of the valley.

Wine is Synonymous with Friends

California Wine Cellar

Amici Cellars in Calistoga, CA

In the 1990s, a group of friends with a passion for good wine and fun times together crushed a few tons of grapes in the Napa Valley for their personal cellars. The resulting wine was so well-received that they started producing wine the very next year to share with the public. Amici Cellars focuses firmly on quality, not quantity. As a harvest intern, I can tell you from first hand experience, this is so true. Grapes are picked by hand and sourced from ultra-premium vineyards in Napa Valley.

The day as a harvest intern begins with tracking the temperature of juice already in fermentation tanks, checking the “brix” level (sugar levels basically) of the juice, “pump overs” (also known as remontage), the process of pumping red wine up from the bottom of the tank and splashing it over the top of the fermenting must and “punch downs”. “Punching down” describes the process of breaking up the “cap” (a solid mass of grape skins and pips or seeds that floats to the top of the fermenting vessel during fermentation) and pushing it back down into the wine so that the cap stays moist during fermentation. The main reason to punch down this mass of skins and seeds back into the liquid is that your wine will have a richer color and flavor.

Working at a California Wine Cellar

Grapes at Amici Cellars in Calistoga, CA

And then there is the clean up…lots and lots and lots of cleaning. Each and every piece of winery equipment, the crusher, de-stemmer, barrels, sorting table and anything and everything else you can imagine needs to be cleaned each and every time before and after its use. All this is the result of the most exciting time in being a harvest intern — when the grapes actually come in from the vineyard to be processed upon arrival. Long hours on the crushed pad are the norm around peak harvest times. The pace is fast, the work is hard and the days are long…but it’s amazing to be in Napa Valley during harvest.

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