Gratitude, with Chardonnay

Yesterday afternoon, we pressed Chardonnay grapes at Cloudlift Cellars. It was sunny and warm. The grapes came in at 4:00 instead of 6:00. It took four of us about 45 minutes to fill the press with the first load. Then two hours of waiting.

I don’t have any new pictures, because when we were filling buckets to dump in the press, we were working furiously–and we were sticky.

The wine press reminds me of a giant washing machine. We load the grapes into a big cylinder and press a button, and then it runs through its cycle. The pressed juice runs into the tray, and we pump it from there into a tank. When the cylinder rotates to shift the grapes around, the machine walks a little, the way a washing machine moves during the spin cycle.

While the first load pressed, Tom grilled burgers in the front parking lot, and then we ate dinner together by the Lake (little table with a red and white tablecloth in the back parking lot, by the chain-link fence and a very large puddle in the gravel alley).

Load two was in the press by 8:00. Another long wait, and then the washing began. In the dark. But it was warm–much better than washing up in the dark in October.

Home by 11:00 for a quick shower. Wine grapes are incredibly sticky. Tom and our son stayed to finish cleaning the press, but they made it home before midnight.

Now it’s Sunday afternoon, and time for the gratitude journal.

I’m thankful the grapes came in early. I’m thankful the weather was good. I’m thankful for the people who helped us. I’m thankful for the big press. It takes a long time, but it’s so much more efficient than our old basket press. Yes, I say this every year.

I’m thankful for the time I had yesterday before pressing started. I’m thankful for getting to have breakfast with my dad, sister, and son. I’m thankful for writing time–I passed the 10,000 word mark on my latest project. Yes, I’m thankful for all the writing time I had during the week.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to hear Esther Altshul Helfgott read this afternoon from her new book Dear Alzheimer’s, A Caregiver’s Diary & Poems. A walk down the hill and past the park to Elliott Bay Book Company, coffee with friends, meeting up with other poets, and then Esther’s poignant recounting. It was heartbreaking and wonderful. I look forward to reading the whole book. Yes, it’s going to make me cry, but I look forward to reading it.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to learn new things–which is good, because I have a lot to learn!

Open the door. Open my heart.

From the winery, the zone and flow

Thursday night on the bus ride home, I got a phone call–bottling the 2011 reds at Cloudlift Cellars was running later than planned, could I come down to the winery and help?

Bottling is like working a factory line, and when it’s going well, it feels fast and intense. You don’t want to get behind and slow down the line.

When I arrived, we had one guy on the filler and corker, one wiping bottles down, one putting the capsules on the bottle tops, one running the labeler, and my middle kid loading the bottles into case boxes.

My job, it turned out, was to dump glass–something I’d never done before, something that always scared me (even though I wasn’t doing it).

The boxes of empty bottles are stacked on pallets and the bottoms of the boxes aren’t taped shut. The trick is to slide your hands under the box, keeping the flaps closed, walk over to the table by the filling machine, set the box down, slip your fingers between the bottom flaps, and gently raise the box. The bottles THUNK out of the bottom of the box, and you stop lifting the box until it’s time to slide all 12 bottles into position by the guy working the filler. Then you carefully lift the box the rest of the way off without tipping over any of the bottles underneath it, walk swiftly to the end of the line, label and number the box, and put it on the pallet to be filled with full bottles of wine. I feel like I need to show you a diagram. I didn’t even have time to take a bad phone picture, but here are some photos from another year’s bottling.

The glass job went well. I’m not afraid of it anymore. And I remembered how working the bottling line can make me feel like I’m in the zone. You could say it’s a flow activity.

As I’ve mentioned recently, I read Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I was hoping to learn some tips on getting into the zone when I’m writing–reaching that place where all distractions drop away, time isn’t relevant, and you can go places you wouldn’t get to otherwise. Being an inveterate worrier (distracted easily by anxiety), I’ve rarely, if ever, felt in the zone.

What I learned from the book–my very high-level takeaway:

People experience flow when they’re challenged and they have the skills to succeed in those challenges or they have a pathway to obtain the necessary skills. And they keep nudging up the bar just enough, choosing new challenges that are harder but not too hard. And according to the book, people who are in flow are happier. I won’t argue that–but while I want to be happy, I also want to write a really great poem, my best poem, and then another one.

While Csikszentmihaly did talk about mental challenges, many of his examples were physical (swimming, dancing, mountain climbing). Maybe a physical challenge helps you focus more clearly. Hypothesis: Your brain is mostly wired to protect your body, so when you’re moving that body in a big, sustained way (like working the bottling line), your brain pays attention. Or we hope it does.

How does this help me to get into the zone when I’m writing? I think that finding the right challenges ties back to deliberate practice. But how do I get enough focus to get into the zone?

How do you get into the zone? Where do you find flow?

Writing and fermentation

I’m developing a close personal relationship with Petit Verdot. Specifically, our 3/4 ton that’s fermenting right now.

Punching down the grapesEach morning this week, I’ve driven in the early rainy dark to the winery to punch down the grapes. While the yeast eat the grape sugar and make alcohol, they release carbon dioxide, which pushes the berries and skins up to make a cap on the surface (think of a thick grape carpet). Every 12 hours, that cap needs to be punched down–broken up and submerged. But it rises back up fast. It heaves and roils.

The fermentation is like a living thing–it is a living thing. And it’s a hybrid creature–part vegetable (the grapes) and part animal (the yeast). It feels like a miracle.

I take its temperature and measure the sugar levels (the brix) to see how the fermentation’s going. We wait until the brix drop far enough that we can press the juice off the skins. We wait.

How is this like writing?

We’ve all heard the common and very good advice to let your writing rest–let it ferment, wait to look at it.

But writing, especially a poem, is also like that hybrid creature. At first, it might be animal or vegetable or mineral–or any combination. The trick I think is to avoid making it one or the other too soon, fitting it into the label, the direction or outcome or form we think it should be.

Sometimes, I want to understand what I’m doing, bottle it up and feel confident it’s done. The Petit Verdot’s reminding me to resist that urge, to let the poem become its own magic.

Something to consider the next time you enjoy a glass of wine.

Happy Friday!

Pictures from the season’s last crush

Today was the last crush for Cloudlift Cellars. Four tons of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Many thanks to Ben, Reid, and Daniel for their help.

A bin of grapes

Bins of grapes

A bin hoisted above the floor

At the destemmer-crusher

Inside the destemmer-crusher

Crushed grapes in a fermentation bin

The stems

I didn’t take any pictures of the washing. I was washing. Crush is like a two-act play. Act one: Crush the grapes. Act two: Wash everything.

How does this relate to writing? I haven’t figured it out. Except that it’s hard work–in the way that even something you love to do can be hard work. And you love the doing.

Gratitude, with 256 cases and a day off

Was it really just a week ago that my son turned 22? I’m thankful for him and for our whole wacky family and for that wacky family gathering to celebrate his birthday. What a night of fun!

I’m very thankful for the invitation to read that I received this week.

I’ve been thankful for the gorgeous weather. It’s such a treat to see blue sky.

And I’m thankful we had that warm sunny weather yesterday, when we bottled the Cloudlift Cellars 2010 reds.

Bottles on the filler
The filler--like a carousel.
The filler
The start of the line.
The bottling line
Putting on the capsules and labels.
The bottling line

Usually it’s my job to wipe the bottles between the corker and the spinner (I call it the “capsuler”). But yesterday, I was a floater, which meant I did things like carrying empty boxes and fixing lunch for everyone and washing stuff. The sun and heat made it a great day for washing stuff.

I’m thankful for the people who came and helped, including all three of our kids. It’s always a long day, and it’s intense. But I realized before I left the house yesterday morning that it’s also family time. A busy and tiring family time.

I’m thankful the wine is in bottles now, because crush starts this week.

And I’m so thankful to have this day off today–to rest up from labor on Labor Day. To catch up and read and write. To think about turning into a new “school year”–what projects I might start (or what projects I might finish!), what learning lies ahead.

The day’s half over, so I’d better get crackin’.

Open the door. Open my heart.