Tuesday, August 30, 2011

a sense of scale

A bottle of wine is a small thing.

I remember working in a wine shop in the lead up to the Christmas rush, waiting with trepidation for pallet after pallet of wines, whiskies and assorted other festive liquids. A fully loaded pallet is, or should be, 56 cases. If the cases are 6-packs, then it's 112 cases per pallet. It was a small shop. It still is, actually, and the sight of two pallets waiting to be brought into its tight confines in short time could ruin an otherwise cheery morning. It often seemed an insurmountable task. A pallet was pretty much the largest measure of quantity we used. Occasionally there would be chat of shipping a whole container (which holds several pallets), but those chats were rare and inevitably ended with a shrug and a 'nah'.

When I worked as a sommelier, pallets of wine were rare and impractical. We received only two in my 14 months at the restaurant, of wine we shipped directly from France. It took some planning to clear room in the cellar, with various nooks and crannies excavated to stash a 6-pack here and there.

The last 3 vintages I've worked in France, I've grown accustomed to the scale and volume of the wine we make. 50 and 60 hectolitre tanks are filled over the course of a day or two of emptying comports full of grapes into the de-stemmer, which leads to the pump, which leads to the tank. Remontage through fermentation, racking, daily density samples and tastings meant that those tanks were not idle once filled. We continue to interact with them throughout vinification. I grasped their size and dimensions within the boundaries of winemaking.

At the end of a day's work we'd often open a bottle of a previous vintage and maybe comment on how this year would be different. Would it be better? I understood, intellectually, that the liquid in the tank would someday be the liquid in the bottle. It's such an obvious thing, and yet there was a level of comprehension that was missing; a blank spot between the tank and the bottle.

On Thursday and Friday last week, that blank spot was filled in with great detail. The bottling truck arrived and in spite of the occasional  technical difficulty the bottling line was set up. It was modular, with lots of bright stainless steel and more moving parts than seemed practical. Filters, pumps, conveyors, front labels, back labels, bottles, boxes, corks, caps, etc. all present in staggering quantities. A bottle of wine is a small thing, perfectly formed for its task, yet the number of things that go into that, to give that impression and provide that perfect form, is daunting. For me it was, anyway. Our job was to bottle around 15,000 litres - we needed to clear space in the tanks for this year's harvest.

My station on the line was boxes. I had to unfold cases and lay them on the line for my partner to fill with six bottles, then lay down the divider atop those so that the last six bottles could be placed on top of the divider. My partner then folded the case shut and pushed it through for it to be sealed, coded and loaded onto a pallet. We switched places for the last tank, with me handling the bottles. None of this occurred at a leisurely pace. We packed three cases a minute, thus filling a whole pallet in less than twenty minutes. Before my very eyes the tanks I knew only in and of themselves were emptying into bottles and the scale took me aback. Just one of those 60 hecto tanks equalled 8,000 bottles of wine. That's almost 12 pallets worth. Mas Cristine is not a huge winery. A 15,000 litre bottling line in the Roussillon is at best small-to-medium in terms of volume. And yet for this former wine merchant, the one who would sigh in exasperation when a delivery driver showed up outside the shop with two pallets, to bottle and box over twenty pallets worth of wine in the space of a day and a half seemed extraordinary.

After that last day of bottling we went home and, as usual, cracked open a bottle of something. I brushed the label with my thumb and traced the seam of the glass up to the foil cap. The cork removed, I rolled it over in my fingers and squeezed it, feeling it give slightly. I nosed my glass, looked again at the label and thought that a bottle of wine is a small thing.

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