I’ve interviewed many winemakers over the years. I’ve walked through their vineyards and learned about clones and dropping fruit and brix. I’ve toured their facilities and watched them de-stem, punch down and disgorge.
But there was one thing I hadn’t witnessed: wine being bottled. So when Anne Hubatch of Helioterra, an urban winery in Southeast Portland, sent out a blast saying she was looking for volunteers to help bottle her spring releases, Wendi and I couldn’t resist.
We had no idea how it would be done. Would we be wrangling hoses and funnels? Would it be messy? I pictured a frenetic scene filled with people running around and shouting. I imagined myself wiping sweat from my brow with wine-stained fingers, my juice-soaked shoes squishing as I walked.
That’s totally not how it went.
On that chilly morning back in March, we dropped our kids at school and carpooled to the Southeast Wine Collective, where Anne and eight other independent winemakers share space and make wine just steps from bustling Southeast Division Street. When we got there we saw what looked like a cross between a giant RV and the cargo trailer of a semi-truck in the middle of the street. The back end was open and cases of wine were being sent hurtling down a long, skinny metal chute to volunteers on the ground below.
This was the bottling facility, a mobile truck with an ingenious conveyor-belt system that did everything from start to finish. Human hands were almost superfluous. They were needed at the beginning, to get the empty wine bottles out of the cases and onto the belt. After that, the machine took over.
The empty bottles were blasted with air to clean out any dust. Then they went to another set of nozzles that filled them with wine, which came via a hose hooked to a tank in the winery a dozen yards away. Another set of nozzles sucked a little wine out to create headspace, and then that space was filled with CO2 as a preservative. The machine plunged the corks in, slapped the labels on and sent the bottles back to the beginning, where a second volunteer placed the filled bottles back in their cases and sent them down that crazy chute. Basically, the humans got the brainless jobs. Well, except for the truck’s technician, who was the brains behind the machine.
Along this highly efficient and gloriously mechanized line, there’s one other point where a volunteer is usually needed. And that’s where Wendi and I came in. Those foil caps you have to cut away before opening your wine? We put those on by hand. After the corks were inserted by the machine, it was our job to swiftly slide a cap onto each bottle before it went to another station on the line that molded the cap to a snug fit.
Seems easy enough right? Sure, for those with proper hand-eye coordination (i.e. not us). You see, the machine has no mercy. It is relentless. And if a bumbling human should fumble the foil cap for just a second, game over. The bottle would keep on rolling down the belt to the next station, its naked top a symbol of your shame.
We quickly learned that it’s best to position two (or even three) people at that station to make sure the inevitable missed bottles could get covered by the next person (or the next).
And we also became foil cap connoisseurs. The thinner caps were our nemesis. They could get slightly malformed by even the gentlest pressure of your hand, making them difficult to slide on the bottle in the one second you’re given. Thicker caps kept their shape and slid on the bottle necks like champs. (This is knowledge I’ll never, ever need again, but there’s always room in my head for useless facts. Important stuff? Not so much.)
The good thing about our brainless jobs was that we could chit-chat the entire time. As a steady stream of pinot noir rosé and pinot blanc bottles snaked down the line, we laughed and told stories and got to know the other volunteers, mostly wine aficionados who work in tasting rooms or restaurants.
We took a break to wolf down fat burritos in the spring sunshine, and cracked open a few freshly bottled wines. The pinot blanc tasted like a summer afternoon, the way the brightness of the blue sky is mellowed by the golden warmth of the sun. If I was an admirer of Helioterra before, now I was a full-fledged fanatic.
By 4 p.m. we were heading back home, each with half a case of wine as compensation. I can honestly say few jobs have paid so well. Since then I’ve filled my basement with two more cases of Anne’s wine: silky vintner’s select pinot noir for special occasions, her lip-smacking mourvédre for every other occasion, and lots of pinot noir rosé and pinot blanc to celebrate summer.
I’ve managed to find an excuse every week to break open one of these wines . And every time I peel off the foil cap, I smile.