A Week in the Trenches at Donkey & Goat
Sunday, September 11
We arrived at the winery at 8am for a “quick” crushing of gorgeous Fenaughty Vineyard Grenache we picked Saturday (violating all D&G rules of not picking on Saturday due to our Tasting Room). I scheduled a Saturday pick to save the perfectly ripe fruit from the new Mosquito Fire raging in the area that could change the resulting wine if left to hang until we picked on Monday as planned.
I immediately realize it will not be an easy morning. The Tasting Room opens at 11am and I had promised to be in the final stages of clean-up by then which was entirely possible given it was only 4.5 tons but our 1st ever Filigreen Farm Pinot Noir Pet Nat that had been at 20 Brix Saturday evening was now a gurgling ferment at 12 Brix featuring a foaming waterfall pouring over the side of the 15-foot tall stainless tank and making a holy mess of the cellar that would require moving dozens of 6x barrel stacks to clean up the growing pool of Anderson Valley Pinot Noir on the cellar floor.
We split our small team and began simultaneously cleaning and preparing to rack (we must reduce the volume in the tank in order to stop the loss of precious juice) and setting up to crush. By 9:30 we are ready to go. The day prior we had made a decision based on the week ahead to put the Grenache in our largest wood tank that had not yet held wine for 2022. It had also sat empty for most of 2022 due to our severe shortage in supply in the 2021 vintage stemming from the Caldor Fire. We had worked hard to hydrate and prep this tank for wine but had not stress-tested it in the days prior to Sunday, September 11.
Once we had filled the tank with 7 bins or 3.5 tons it began to leak like a colander. The wine was literally seeping out everywhere. Our wax supply was far inferior for the task of getting this tank sealed and Oak Barrel, the only local winery supply store, is closed on Sundays. I put out a 911 call to neighboring wineries. Next door I learn that Josh (the Winemaker and owner of Hammerling Wines) can’t find his wax supply and while helping him look realized it is because I had borrowed it the week prior but not replaced it yet due to the supply chain hiccups (our replacement order was backordered). I cast a wider net and enlisted the help of Mike Dashe who in turn searched his cellar as well as his neighbors in Oakland. No wax is found. I then drive to Oak Barrel hoping I might find Homer crushing grapes on a Sunday morning but no such luck. Desperate, I drive on to my old winery that is now home to Maître de Chai at 4th & Bancroft, and unbeknown to me, Dani at La Onda who generously offers me the last of his precious wax supply. When I return the yellow bins placed beneath the leaky wood tank are nearly full so we now have to create a settling tank to hold this juice. We grab a 300L which holds roughly 33 cases worth of juice (396 bottles).
While I was out scouring for paraffin wax I had one of my Tasting Room Staff driving to the open hardware stores in the area attempting to find beeswax. It is far inferior for this task due to how quickly it hardens but I’m desperate. Ericka returns with ample supply that we now have to melt so we create an ad hoc double boiler to warm on the hot plate used for harvest time mac n cheese.
With a dwindling supply of wax from Dani and an ample supply of beeswax, I’m able to reduce the flow enough to finally go home late that afternoon. The settling tank now holds about 250 liters of juice. We start a second settling tank. I return twice that evening, the 2nd time at midnight, to dump the yellow bins into the settling tank so the juice does not spill to the floor and into the drain while we sleep.
Monday, September 12
At some point each year during harvest we arrive at our first multiple big tank press day that will stress test our new team. This was that day. We had plans to press off 3 tanks that would push our team but they were up for the challenge. The day begins with a review of the complicated logistics that will involve 2 teams with 2 pump/hose lines so that we are simultaneously draining one tank while pressing the previously drained tank. We had plans to empty 3 large tanks plus several small vats that together represented 3 lots or wines. If the plans were followed we could keep this to a reasonable 14ish hour day. It was further complicated because we were picking Tuesday and I had to hit the road with bins for San Benito at some point to ensure I had bins at Siletto for my Cab Pfeffer and Negrette pick happening at midnight.
We break to start prep which means rinsing the equipment used the day before. Another curve ball crashes into our production plans for the day. My winery is not like most domestic wineries my size in that my equipment and resulting logistics do not center around square plastic bins and the ability to dump them into machines via a hopper (a big funnel) since I do not make wine in plastic. Rather, my operations rest upon the functionality of what I call my “giraffe” which is an elevated conveyor that has a small hopper at the base. Grapes go from the base into whatever vessel I need to reach (small or large tanks and my press).
Within minutes of breaking from our prep meeting, I am alerted that my giraffe is not turning on. It worked fine the day prior. Everything screeches to a halt. Nothing planned for this day can happen without a working giraffe. Imagine you are on the Bay Bridge en route to a hugely important meeting in the city when a crash shuts down all lanes. There is literally nothing you can do but stop and wait.
Add insult to injury, the wood tank of Grenache is still leaky and the decision had just been made to move this lot to another tank the next morning (after pressing 3 tanks today). We had to press something to free up a tank for the Grenache.
From here the day becomes tragically comical. My electrician is out of town. Panicked calls to every electrician I can think of result in no immediate response. One of my staff mentions he has a neighbor who is an electrician. The neighbor is affectionately referred to as Stoner Mike. Mike arrives at the winery and takes apart the machine’s starter while on the phone with the Santa Rosa company I bought the machine from in 2010. This tale goes long but involves my truck going to Santa Rosa via Stoner Mike to collect the broken part. For reasons I can only speculate, Mike drove right past the winery with my part and headed up the hill to his home before planning to return to the winery to fix the machine that was holding up pressing my 3 tanks and now also moving freshly crushed juice and grapes from my leaky tank which effectively means we now plan to press off 4 tanks.
Around 4pm I’m at a loss as to where Mike is with my truck and my new part. Aside from desperately needing a working giraffe I have a trailer loaded with bins and need to hitch up with my missing truck and head off to San Benito.
I learn Mike claims my truck is now broken and parked at his home in Kensington. He suggests I call AAA. Seeing only red I drive to Kensington where I find my truck with the key to the winery in the ignition. Mike is visibly embarrassed and sheepishly offers to follow me back to the winery.
He is not able to repair the machine. Monday is a complete loss. The machine is not fixed. No tank is pressed. My wood tank is still leaking. And tomorrow we harvest 4 tons of Cab Pfeffer and 2 tons of Negrette which I will haul plus 8 tons of Filigreen Farm Pinot Gris which I had hired someone to haul for me who I’ve used many times prior. Tuesday we can’t crush the fruit we are picking because all of the tanks we had planned to fill are full of wine we were not able to press on Monday as planned. The log jam is massive.
With Monday near done, I hitch up the trailer and drive 3 hours south to drop bins and stay the night before returning to the winery Tuesday with 6 tons of fruit.
Tuesday, September 13
One of the 911 calls to electricians pays off and we do eventually have the giraffe working again. By mid-day, we start pressing the first of now 5 lots representing 7 vats which takes us well into Wednesday to complete.
The San Benito pick is not as easy as I desperately needed. Only half the crew showed up for the night pick. At 7a when I was to load and head back they were still picking Cab Pfeffer and had not yet moved crew and tractors across the ranch to the Negrette block. One of their trucks won’t start. And so it goes….I pull out of the vineyard with my 6 tons 4 hours later than planned. Meanwhile, the hired gun to haul 8 tons of Filigreen Farm Pinot Gris did not show as expected. He is not returning texts and calls go straight to voicemail. The pristine 8 tons picked under the stars are now sitting in the sun and the grower who has been up all night managing the pick is exhausted and cranky. Hours go by and many 911 texts to neighboring wineries who also use this person result in all of us wondering if he had an accident. Arrangements are made to move the fruit into the shade and hire another person to haul that evening (I can haul up to 6 tons so 2x trips to Boonville to haul 8 tons feel masochistic after the last 48 hours). My original driver finally picks up a call at 11a claiming his phone fell into a vat or pick bin and died. Evidently, it never occurred to find some way to reach out to us to alert us to the situation. Nor was it clear why a missing phone necessitated him not being able to drive. Evidently, he had also arranged for his brother to haul and his brother did not think to reach out to us or the vineyard when he got a flat that delayed his hours. Once he finally arrives at the vineyard he takes out a part of the bridge crossing Conn Creek because his trailer is too large. Harvest life is never dull.
Tuesday is beastly. Our team presses until they can press no more. They do manage to get the Feanaughty Grenache moved from the leaking wood tank. We decided we will not join the now 550ish liters (60ish cases) of Grenache that is WAX & WOOD FILTERED via leaking out of my wood tank. That wine is now a skin contact light pink Grenache and the resulting red wine is more concentrated as if we bled off a la 2006 for a 95+ point Robert Parker style Grenache. Neither is what we intended when we moved mountains to pick this on a Saturday to save it from the Mosquito Fire. My new IF / THEN concept in practice.
We leave for the night with the office stuffed full of 14 tons of Pinot Gris, Cab Pfeffer, and Negrette that will not be crushed until after we press the last tank from the Monday list on Wednesday.
Not surprisingly Wednesday is another monster-long day digging out of the log jam. My harvest team is bleary-eyed and can barely hold back emotion when they start hearing the rest of my staff discussing plans for Saturday’s Fall Release Party which requires effort starting Thursday in order to host 200 on Saturday. I literally tear up upon realizing that several of my harvest team can’t pour wine for me on Saturday due to a misunderstanding on my part. One of them takes pity and changes her plans to help me out (thank you, Hanna!).
During this same week, we have a staff turnover of sizable consequence for the Tasting Room in advance of the party and are in the final stages of migrating the commerce system, POS system, and reservation System along with a brand new front-end website that together runs all of my consumer sales, Tasting Room and Wine Club. We are a week delayed for many reasons and are going live Monday, September 19 following this monster week and our Fall Release Party.
On Friday my entire staff pitches in with a can-do attitude and a smile on their face and we prepare for what becomes the biggest and most successful Release Party since the “before times.” We drink magnums of Champagne and have a marvelous Saturday celebrating our survival of the hardest 7 days stretch of winemaking in my 21 years. If ever there was an illustration of my quip, Problem Solving with a Positivity Lens this is it!
I could not be more grateful and impressed with each and every one of my current staff. I hope you will congratulate them on your next visit and celebrate our new vintage, new release, and a new website that all came to be in the span of 7 days! And deep gratitude for my Bay Area Wine Community repeatedly coming to my calls for help!
–Tracey Rogers Brandt
Proprietor, Winemaker, & GM
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