by Christina Kelly & r & Crushing grapes is a sticky, stain-producing operation, especially for small wineries that lack automation to bring in the grapes and then de-stem and crush the fruit until there is enough juice to begin fermentation.
At small wineries seeking to do it manually, the adult volunteers find it's almost the retro equivalent of playing in the mud. Along the way, volunteers bring in the harvest and crush the grapes, the path is strewn with terrific knowledge about how wine is produced, fermented, blended and bottled. For some of the volunteers, the experience is the spark that ignites home wine production and greater appreciation of the process from the vineyard to the glass.
"I have a sense that I am actually in every bottle," says Judy Quinlivan, a volunteer for Barrister Winery for the past three years. "I can point to the bottle in a store and think that is my wine because I had something to do with it."
Washington has more than 350 wineries producing more than 20 different grape varietals -- an annual production of 16.5 million gallons per year. The largest wineries, Columbia Crest, Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia to name a few, are fully automated, with a full- and part-time staff to help production in the fall, when grapes are brought in from the vineyard.
But the smaller wineries, producing fewer than 5,000 cases per year, rely on volunteers to help with the labor of crushing, racking, bottling, corking, labeling and boxing up the wines for the market.
In the Spokane region, Barrister Winery, Robert Karl Winery, Mountain Dome and Arbor Crest Winery have full winemaking productions -- in which the grapes are trucked into the winery, de-stemmed, crushed and bottled. Other wineries, such as Latah Creek and Townshend Cellars, use production facilities at wineries where they often source their grapes.
For Greg Lipsker, co-winemaker for Barrister Winery, using volunteer labor is extremely important as the small winery tries to grow its production.
At Barrister's production level, says Lipsker, "we would be overwhelmed without the help of our volunteers. By handing off some of the winery chores after harvest, we are freed up to make certain nothing gets overlooked. When you are scrambling around trying to do all the work yourself, you can miss something important."
During the years that Arbor Crest expanded, volunteers were also helpful, although Kristina van loben Sels, Arbor Crest winemaker, says the labor mostly was comprised of her family.
"We've grown a lot and don't use volunteers much anymore," she says. "Our production is much more automated, although the family still puts in the time."
Michael Manz, a winemaker for Mountain Dome Winery who is also a child psychiatrist, says his winery is using fewer and fewer volunteers simply because it is unpredictable when the grapes will arrive, and most people need advance notice.
"When our kids were still living at home, their friends would help out," Manz says. "We had a lot of teenagers helping with the labor."
In fact, Manz says he recently had a handful of high school seniors at the winery helping with the chores, mostly the children of their friends.
Helping with wine production can be a backbreaking experience, especially if the winery lacks the expensive equipment to alleviate lifting heavy bins, bending over in grape bins to remove stems and other non-grape material, hand-crushing grapes and loading full bottles into cases.
When Barrister Winery had its first crush in 2001, the work was labor-intensive. Every single grape was lifted by hand -- more than 25 tons' worth.
"It is less physically demanding now that we have more equipment, which makes the tasks more enjoyable," says Lipsker. "We have a complete array of people from all walks of life, and even three generations of people from the same families. It's fun to watch."
Although the work can be long hours of somewhat tedious tasks, most of the time it turns into a social event where people who have a passion for wine can breathe, talk and wax on about wine minutiae. It is heaven for an oenophile, a wine connoisseur.
When Tami Hansen began volunteering at Barrister, she had absolutely no experience with wine. She worked for Mike White, the co-owner of the winery, and used to listen to him talk about wine.
"It sounded so interesting and made me want to see how wines are produced," Hansen says. "In three years of volunteering with crush and bottling, I have learned a lot. More importantly, I've helped a small winery on its way to success and made friends along the way."
Corey King, originally from the San Francisco area, said he volunteers with wineries in the Walla Walla area because he is fond of the wines produced in the region and can follow the progress from fermentation to bottling. Now living in Coeur d'Alene, King says he has worked plucking grapes from stems to operating foil spinners and labeling machines, and everything in between.
"It's been a blast -- I've met more people who love to talk about wine while volunteering," King says. "I can go to the Holiday Barrel tasting in Walla Walla and go into detail about what I taste in the barrel. It has become my social circle."
Matt Fein travels from Missoula to volunteer in Spokane with Barrister. Although he has contemplating making his own wine, volunteering provided him with a heavy dose of reality of how much work is involved in winemaking.
Fein recalls a few years ago when he was pressing grapes to make juice he discovered that the wine smelled and tasted a little off. The winemaker decided to separate that batch of crushed grapes. Fein asked if he could try to make wine out of the funky batch and a few years later, said some of it turned out quite drinkable.
"Some of the fruit that year -- the tannins -- had a funny taste like old tennis shoes," Fein says. "That opened my eyes to how much risk is involved if something isn't right. Your livelihood teeters on it."
Many volunteers want to make their own homemade wine, and volunteering can provide the knowledge to get started. Steve Barrett, a commercial real estate appraiser, says he would like to make his own wine someday.
"It used to be you could pick up a really good bottle of wine for around $10 to $12," Barrett says. "Now, you are lucky to find something in the $30 range. I am thinking about doing my own home wine project."
Keep in mind that not all chores at the winery are fun--wineries must keep clean as much as possible to prevent contamination. That means goopy, gloppy, sticky cleanup of floors, tanks and barrels and equipment. Because grapes contain natural sugars, they can gum up a floor and everything you touch. A lot of water is used to hose down floors, and most of the time, it's being done when the weather starts turning cold. After four or eight hours of lifting full cases of wine, you feel every single bottle in your back and arms.
Ah, but the traditional payment for volunteering is wine -- greatly discounted, or else a few bottles for free. In addition, some wineries put on winemaker dinners for their volunteers as appreciation for the work.
Rules of thumb: When you say you will volunteer, show up. Small wineries that rely on volunteers need to know how many volunteers are available in order to know what tasks can be accomplished. And wear shoes and clothes that you don't mind getting heavily stained.