I have finally begun to make wine. Well, not exactly, but I am doing barrel work. This includes all things related to oak barrels: washing, coding, filling, stacking, and smelling. Smelling is important. Lisa W., R Wines winemaker, told me that last year they had some 60 barrels contaminated with tainted wood before it was discovered. So now we sniff each barrel to look for any smell that resembles that of a corky bottle of wine, or anything that doesn’t smell like sawdust in a woodshop. Today we found six new French barrels that stank of sulphur, so into the wash they went.
Most of the past two days I can be found with purple hands filling American oak barrels with shiraz drawn from one of many 25,000 liter ferment tanks. This is roughly 83 barrels per tank. Some time is spent telling stories with my associate, Ian, but it’s when we start gabbing that one of us overfills and a geyser of red wine comes bursting out of the bung hole. After the barrels are full, we code them so we can always know where they are and who they’re hanging out with. We use French oak for the cabernet, trying to give it the “feel” of Bordeaux. I can’t tell you how perfect it is to be funneling Joe Blakely’s or Yanni Pappas’ wine into its oak resting place for the next 18 months. Watching these grapes ripen in their vineyards, meeting the grower’s families, helping to pick the fruit, and now barreling it is immensely satisfying. I can’t wait to drink it.
This explains why I don’t care that I’m doing this for free. The other cellar hands at Belvidere are dumbfounded by this, but they don’t drink wine like I do, they prefer bourbon and coke or beer. How many hours have I spent handling finished bottles of wine without really appreciating how much work goes into it?
The man who’s leading the barrel brigade at Belvidere is R Wines mercenary winemaker from the Barossa, Sir Westy. Westy, with 25 years of hands on winemaking experience, gets things done and doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty. This morning I mislabeled some barrelheads with chalk, and was slightly concerned at my mistake, until Westy saved the day. “It’s just chalk, mate. Nothing a little spit can’t erase”, he told me as he spat in his hand and washed off four consecutive barrelheads, occasionally licking his chalky hand to keep it damp. He works a month in Spain with Chris Ringland in Jumilla and never ceases mentioning it. I’m thinking, holy bald headed Moses on a donkey, ENOUGH about Spain, for Pete’s sake! Ah well, he doesn’t know that some words still make me wince.