Salt & Old Vines

By Richard W H Bray

A real taste of winemaking - true stories about a wine, the people who make it and the place it's made

Friday, 23 November 2012

electron microscopes

I wrote this piece soon after I finished working my first vintage in the Roussillon. In a lot of ways, it was writing this that the first ideas for Salt & Old Vines came to mind. I thought it would be good to share and give a taste of what's in store.

I honestly don't remember the first time I saw an image taken by an electron microscope. If I told you a day, a situation, a tv show, a class, an idle thumb through a magazine on a slow Sunday where the dust sifted softly in the sunbeam through the living room window, I'd be lying. I may have seen it in school, though I doubt it, knowing my school at the time. TV is equally unlikely - aside from cartoons it was the A-Team or The Dukes of Hazzard - neither known for their cutting edge science imagery.

In all truth, it was probably a magazine. It may not have been a slow Sunday though, and there may not have been sifting dust. It may have been raining.

So the details surrounding my discovery are hazy. As is the image itself. I'm pretty sure it wasn't pollen. Pollen came later, and was hugely popular - along with dust mites and allergens in general - among the electron microscope model agencies. I think, and I can't be sure, but I think it was either the head of a needle or the corner of a microchip. I want to think it was the head of the needle.

I do remember how I felt the first time I saw an image (whatever it may have been) taken by an electron microscope (where-ever and whenever I saw it). I felt confusion and wonder. Mostly the latter. Wonder at a world so small as to be invisible looking so enormous and alien. I sought more, and flipped pages of National Geographic and 1-2-3 Contact and Discover looking for images. The pollen and dust mites didn't really interest me - it was the everyday things, like the head of a needle, things that seemed solid, flawless and perfect in their form, revealed to be imperfect, ridged, fibrous, ragged, hugely complex and often flawed at a microscopic level. Even the geometric perfection and symmetry of crystals bent and twisted with a close enough look. They all seemed to come from the negative zone, bizarre shades of blue or purple against black, alien shapes and daunting landscapes. That such a simple thing could boast its own landscape...

There was so much more than what you saw.

I remember at one point seeing the daunting precipice that was the face of a single ridge of a finger print and staring at my thumb thereafter for an hour, trying to imagine that same precipice occuring over and over again, on every uniquely individual line on both my hands and being unable to fathom it. I'd be lying if I told you when and where I was. Very early eighties and Boston's as close as it gets. I might have been on one of the semi-circular, cream upholstered chairs in the library, occasionally kicking the wall to spin it slowly as I stared at the pictures and read the captions. My mom yelled at me, telling me to keep my feet off the wall. I'd say sorry and do it again 15 minutes later.

I looked at my fingerprints, on both hands, and they weren't a pretty sight. The pigment of a million or more grape skins stained the grooves between the ridges. Cuts sliced perpendicular to their idiosyncratic patterns. Never parallel. My cuticles ragged and dyed. The nails unintentionally painted.

A bottle of wine is a simple thing. A liquid encased in glass closed with a cork, or quite often a screw cap. Grapes seem quite a simple fruit, grown in bunches on vines. They come in different colours, the wines and the grapes. Most of my professional life has dealt with wine in this form, the bottled form. A cork screw and glasses are all that's required, though accompanying food is a treat, good company's a bonus and if it's the wee hours on a secluded beach with a roaring bonfire, the glasses are optional.

It's fairly simple. That said, washing one's hands is fairly simple and yet no amount of scrubbing seemed to take away the dye.

I helped make wine. It's fairly simple. You pick grapes and control their fermentation in a way that prevents the juice turning to vinegar. The result is aged and encased in glass and sealed with a cork.

It was still dark at 6, when we got to the winery. The winemaker worked under the dim bulbs in the half light, already there. No matter how early we arrived, he was already there. That cool pale light just creeping on the horizon, the winery in shadows. We set up and tasted the still-fermenting juice with half opened eyes, our morning coffees a memory. We navigated the tanks, the barrels, the various apparatus of the winery, be it stained oak or shining stainless steel. The tiredness doesn't slow us, and with every scribbled note or bit of machinery checked, our eyes opened that little bit more.

The grapes started to arrive. Dark jewels, beset with pinprick droplets of condensation. Their ripeness glowed. I loaded them onto the conveyor, which loaded them into the destemmer, which dropped them into the crusher, which dropped them onto the sorting table, which dropped them onto the second sorting table, which dropped them into the pump, which shot them into the 4000 litre stainless steel tank.

The odd berry fell onto the concrete floor and looked for all the world like a child's marble.

Sometimes it was me on the sorting table, spreading piles of the fruit, the sugary juice and tattered skins and globules of the flesh and countless seed coating my arms up past my elbows. My t-shirt stained purple. That freedom of being dirty, caked in the work, knowing its inevitability and taking pride that your work leaves its mark on you, that keeps you going until someone calls lunch. I sprayed down my arms and face with the hose and we ate bread and cheese and drank someone else's effort.

After lunch and there was more to do. The food revived us but the muscles started getting sore. From aches to burns to the uncountable lacerations on the hands and anywhere else a limb took the hit instead of the fruit.

It got hot but there was a breeze. From one job to another, when something needed to wait, there was always something else to do. Either up ladders or in the bottom of a vat, shoes off, pushing the last of the macerated and fermented grape detritus into the press, to squeeze that last bit out. To get those final drops of quality juice, for it to age and mature and eventually be put into a simple bottle.

At the end of the day we wandered into the Café Sola, filthy, caked in fruit, exhausted, waiting for the sore to set in for the evening. Beer never tasted so good.

My hands are cleaner now, the cuts healed. I feel a bit of loss. My muscles don't ache any more than usual. It's far colder here than it was there. I wake up after 530 whenever I can. Though, I'll confess, once or twice a week I'll raise my head in the dark and for a moment think it's time to get up.

And I look at a bottle of wine and I see terraced vineyards, vats of steel and barrels of oak, loose grapes like marbles, the pickers laughing at the lost American and smoking their roll-ups while gathering the harvest, the machines of the making: the press and pumps and destemmers. I hear the crackle of a fresh loaf of bread at lunch, feel the warm, fermenting juice shoot between my fingers as I pump from the bottom of the tank to the top. I listen to the winemaker's quiet words while tasting, hoping to hear 'bon' at the end of the sentence. And I think about electron microscopes, and the heads of needles, and the strange and alien universes held in the liquid encased in a simple glass bottle enclosed with a cork.

Or sometimes a screw cap.

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