There are many advantages to volunteering for your favorite Washington winery. First, a volunteer gets to experience the joy of meeting other wine enthusiasts with diverse backgrounds and good wine stories. Second, many of the of the volunteer activities offer a chance to work outside. For those of who have desk or cubical jobs (or in my case laboratory) this is a treat plus I get some great physical exercise as well. AS volunteers we also support our favorite wineries in means other than consuming copious amounts of product or by attending fun events such as wine-pairing dinners, release parties and other festive occasions. For me it is exciting to see the process of wine production from harvest to tasting the flights of lovingly collected library wines. Volunteer activities are available at all stages of the wine production cycle depending on the needs of the winery, the skills of the volunteer as well as the dexterity, strength or stamina needed in various duties. In many volunteer situations participants must be over 21 years of age and their also may be other physical or legal limitations. A brief description of activities that I have been involved in include:
A) Canopy/Vineyard Management – This task requires a thorough understanding of the vintner’s growing practices and the vintner will have to train volunteers as to their particular methods. I have been involved in planting new grapes to replace lost vines (Damn those marmots!), thinning the canopy and/or fruit clusters for better fruit production, weeding and mowing the rows, and netting the grapes to keep birds and other pests at bay. These tasks can be physically exerting so it is important to maintain ones stamina with good rest breaks and by avoiding heat stroke by staying adequately hydrated.
B) Harvest and Crush – This generally occurs during Autumn between August and October depending on what AVA the vineyard is located in and topographical differences such as how much wind and sun the vineyard get, elevation, soil consistency and all the other elements that make up the terroire of that particular vineyard. Harvest times also depend on the variety of grapes begin harvested and the ripeness of the fruit clusters or more specifically the amount of sugar content in the average grape cluster. The clusters are cut from the vines and collected into baskets which are then placed into bins for sorting. The “Crush” involves sorting through the grape clusters and pulling out stems, unripened fruit, weeks, stones and other debris followed by pressing the fruit and putting them into the fermentation vats. The sorting process requires a lot of repetitive motion and volunteers will be standing for most of the process. An unusual and challenging harvest experience is that of harvesting grapes for ice wines. True ice wines must never have the clusters get above ten degrees Fahrenheit. Wine makers have told of getting up at three AM during the winter months and picking grapes the size of raisins to get a partial bin of juice once the press has been done. Truly a wine maker has to be committed to his craft (if not an institution) to make these fine dessert wines.
C) Barrel Tasting Evaluation – A fun process where the participants taste each barrel after fermentation occurs. This requires some experience in tasting wines so that one can rate acidity, alcohol content, nose, finish , tannin level and other basic tasting notes. With this information the wine maker decides how to blend various barrels or if a barrel is of exceptional quality they may bottle it as a reserve or grand reserve vintage. As the wines are quite young they are high in acid so crackers and water are necessary items to have at hand. I have always found it fascinating that grapes, from the same lot in a vineyard, that are fermented in identical methods (new or used American, French oak, stainless, concrete, etc.) can have such substantial variance in the flavor profiles.
D) Bottling – This process involves taking the final product and labeling the bottles, corking, foiling and packing the bottles in to cases that are then stacked onto pallets for storage. Most often a winery will hire an outside company that will set up a mobile bottling line in the parking lot close to where the wine vats have been fermenting.Depending on one’s particular task, a volunteer will have to have good dexterity, strength and stamina as they will be on their feet doing repetitive movements throughout this process.
E) Pouring at Tasting Rooms or Events – Serving at a winery involves great social skills or at least it should. Nothing turns people away more than a surly, unfriendly staff. Volunteers will be required to have a Washington State Alcohol Server’s Permit which can be obtained on line for a fee and is valid for one year. It is important to know the background and tasting notes of the wine you are serving, wine club membership information and pricing packages available at the winery if you are representing a winery in their tasting room. The history of the winery and a good sales pitch as to why the particular winery you are representing has a wonderful unique story and experience to go with the wine.
As an example of a volunteer experience I will relate my bottling tasks at Patterson Cellars earlier this month. First, you have to find out if the winery you are interested in takes volunteers and then you need to get on their call list. Most often a winery will send out a group email to folks on the list stating when the opportunity is happening, how many people needed and for what length of time. People love to help in this particular instance so it is important to respond ASAP. I failed to do this initially so lost out helping the first few days. I was able to jump on a subsequent email for the last day of bottling when additional volunteers were requested.
We were to meet at eight in the morning at the winery in the warehouse district of Woodinville. The staff had generously supplied coffee, juice and other breakfast items to bolster the volunteers/ We started directly on eight and worked straight through until 11:30 when we had completed the task. The previous day the crew worked a full day and it had been raining so the bottling line that was outside of the truck had to be set up under tents. Fortunately, the day I worked was sunny and almost cloud free. (Early March…Pacific Northwest…crazy, right?). I was placed at the end of the line to stack full cases onto the pallets. The people I worked with (Lindsey and Rhonda, volunteers and Curtis, staff) were all very pleasant to work with and we had a great time. For this task it was important to lift and move the cases correctly to avoid back pain and one of the volunteers smartly used a back brace. I learned the hard way that gloves are a necessity. Handling all that cardboard inevitably led to nasty paper cuts on the palms of my hands. It is also important to have layered clothing to attune to the radical change in weather or for change that one might work hard enough to break a sweat.
In this particular volunteer experience I did not have to worry about wine stains on my clothes or hands (except during the appreciation lunch afterwards). But if you are working on crush you may want to choose clothes that you do not have to worry about getting wine stained. Light rubber gloves work well during the crush process but more heavy duty gloves are needed while bottling and the other tasks.
We ended the day by eating a delicious appreciation lunch accompanied by John’s lovely wines. I was concerned about being sore the next day but, I am guessing, the wine served at lunch ameliorated my physical activity. Wineries also give bottles of wine as a gesture of appreciation. This was a great experience and I recommend to all who have the physical ability to volunteer.