Yesterday was a big day! Erin was hanging out at a coffee shop called Kato, when who would walk in, but none other than Constanza, owner of the vineyard Caelum. Erin was apparently writing an email to her right at that moment, so karma came through for us and arranged a meeting. She said that they were just beginning the harvest, so if we wanted to come, we could help out for a day. We had been hoping that this was going to happen, but nervous it wouldn’t, so we always tried to not get too excited. But now, it seemed, another notch in our wine belt was about to come true!
We took a taxi out to the vineyard. (45 minutes taxi ride, $15. Somethings you just have to love.) We arrive, not really knowing what to expect, what was going on. There was a lot of standing around, really. People not doing to much, just kind of waiting. Giuseppi, the winemaker, was walking around directing the minglings to clean this and do that, but other than that, not much was going on. We saw Constanza, who quickly went off to do something, so we just walked around a bit. There was clearly nothing happening right at this particular moment, as we were tourists, so we decided to walk to the area of the vineyard where they were harvesting. It was quite a walk, actually, but nice to see. I don’t know what I expected to see during a grape harvest, but there were tractors, buckets, people and knives. That’s about it, actually. Just a bunch of people cutting a bunch of grapes that would somehow end up in a bottle. Seeing the harvest helped me understand that magical transition a little better, as well as awe me even more.
We returned to the bodega, where they were already sorting and selecting grapes. There is a large funnel where the guys pour the grapes from the bucket. This goes to a conveyor belt with ridges in it, where the selection and sorting process happens. Selecting and sorting is basically taking out any leaves or twigs or things that you don’t want in the wine. You also pick out bad bunches of grapes. From the conveyor belt, the grapes drop into the de-stemmer. I have no idea how this thing works, but there’s three holes: one on the top from the converyor belt to drop in the grapes, still attached to bunches and twigs with some leaves; one on the bottom for the grapes to come out and go into a 6 inch diameter plastic tube; one on the side for the stems and twigs to appear. Like I said, no idea how it actually works. From there, the stems are taken off and made into mulch. The grapes drop out the bottom of the destemmer, like blueberry deer droppings, and go into a special pump that massages the grapes into the tube. This tube runs some 50 feet to the massive tank where all the grapes end up. There is still a fair amount of stuff in the grapes, from small leaves, twigs, and of course, all the spiders, ants, moths, chichi’s and other bugs that come with the grapes. Then, after the tank is full, which is something like 75000 liters (I think), they just turn the faucet off, unplug the tube, and then voila! You have your grapes in a gigantic steel tank, ready to be toyed with by the enological artist, aka winemaker, aka Giuseppe the bald headed Italian who speaks with a crazy accent.
After taking a couple of pictures, we jumped on in to help out on the conveyor belt. It was a little nerve-racking at first. I mean, geeze, this was the 2010 Malbec Reserve we were talking about, their flagship. What if I messed up? What if I pulled out the wrong thing? What if I didn’t pull out that one green leaf that would turn the whole thing bad? I know, that’s pretty crazy, so I got over that part pretty fast once they turned on the belt. It was pretty much like the old ‘I Love Lucy’ episode where she’s on the belt and they just keep coming and coming. There’s no stopping the belt. If you miss it, you miss it, then it goes on it. Often times someone would call out “Spider!” which was hilarious because everyone was terrified of spiders. So there would be a chunk of grapes that went through unsorted because there may or may not have been a spider in it. And, of course, the smaller the more dangerous, or so the logic goes. Granted, they do have black widows here, but come on, is a spider the size of a thumbtack really going to bite you, let alone really hurt you?
It was crazy to watch them show up with an entire truckload of grapes, start to unload them, and them pour them into a funnel, knowing you would personally watch every single grape pass beneath your eyes. That’s a lot of grapes. I don’t know how many, but it’s a great many. After the truck was unloaded and the grapes sorted, everyone would wash their hands and take a break. I guess I thought it would be a day of the classic american farmhand go-go-go, but it was not. Work for 30 minutes, off for 30 minutes. People would lie around in the grass, soaking in the sun, taking naps, talking, whatever. In the 7 hours we were there, we might have sorted 5 truckloads of grapes. Not really that much. But hey, who am I to judge? This is my first harvest.
Lunch was a real highlight for me. We were told to bring a lunch with us, so we did. I packed 3 PB&J sandwiches and an apple. (I’m trying to be extra american these days, and there’s nothing more american than PB&J.) But when we walked into the little break room, the entire family was there with a big spread of food. A couple of different types of bread, cheese, meat, tomatoes, chips, everything you need for a easy, quick sandwich. 30 minutes to get in, eat and get back out. Oh wait, no, that’s not Argentina. We had a good 2 hour lunch. It was great to be a fly on the wall and listen. One of Giuseppe’s friends came in to say hi, ended up staying for awhile. So there was Constanza, mom, dad, brother, and a friend, all Argentine. Giuseppe and his friend were Italian. Erin and I, clearly American. It was going to be a battle of accents.
They compared the corruption and political life of Argentina and Italy, which was fascinating. Argentina, in their opinion, should be competing with Brazil and Chile, but it’s not, which they attribute to politics. The IMF crash in the early 2000s really messed them all up pretty bad. One of the most difficult things they highlighted was the lack of a consistent political culture. Then they started talking about life on the farm, which lead to life in the country, which lead to food, which lead to hunting, which lead to something else, which lead to something else. It was great to be in that situation and hear them speak so candidly about these topics. Now, one of things that I really want to taste is puma. They say it’s delicious, and I believe them. Also on my list is pork blood sausage, since most blood sausage is made from cow blood. And a little known fact, the highest ice cream consumption per capita is the nordic countries. Go figure. That came up since the Chileans eat twice as much ice cream as Argentines.
One of the major complaints was that things simply don’t get done here. The concept of service simply is not there. Businesses will simply turn off their phones in the afternoon. Friday’s are basically a day of the weekend. Government services are even tougher to find. And I was able to nod my head in agreement, after being so frustrated by Argentine standards of service. It took us a month to get cable. The end result was that they pulled a cable down from the roof, through our bedroom window, through the door, into the main room. Very shoddy, to say the least. Also, our internet was cut. We’ve been complaining about this for 3 weeks. We’ve talked to our landlord, who says it’s fine. We talked to her again, okay, we’re switching services. Talk again, again. 3 weeks of this. Today, I find out that the reason we didn’t have internet was because it was cut. Our real estate agent, the fabulously incompetent Fabiana, never paid our bill. She never gave us a bill. She apparently received the bill from the company, but “didn’t think they would cut our service if we didn’t pay.” So she came by today to get the money to pay the bill. 3 months worth. No, I don’t think so. I’ll pay Jan and Feb, then when our internet is back on, we’ll talk about March. Nothing happens if there’s not some type of hammer hanging over her head. Ugh. So frustrating.
Back to the vineyard… after the wonderful lunch, we sorted a couple more trucks of grapes, then that was it. Constanza gave us a ride back into town, where we sat and talked about wine, grapes, and what a wonderful education it’s been in the past couple of years. We went to our first vineyard on this trip in the winter of 2008, to Burgundy. Spring of 2008 was also in France, which included Champagne, Loire and Bordeaux. Then our second Spring of 2008 was in South Africa. Summer 2009 in Chile and Argentina, and Fall 2010 as well. We’ve managed, over a two year period, to actually follow the cycle of a grape, ending our trip with the fall harvest, reaping the fruit.