I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I love how wine continues to evolve, how every time I open a bottle it’s going to taste different than if I had opened it on any other day. Because a bottle of wine is actually alive — it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks and begins its steady, inevitable decline. And it tastes so f*cking good.
~ Maya in the movie Sideways
I stand atop raised metal platform, drenched head to toe in grape juice, grape skins and rice hulls in my hair, wielding a plastic bucket and a large pitchfork. Precariously close to my face a half ton container of grapes is suspended by the forklift below. It tilts and the clusters of juicy fruit come cascading into a large metal funnel. Sweet smelling spray flies through the air. I toss buckets of rice hulls in after the grapes, then furiously stab the fruit with the pitchfork, pushing it through the funnel. My muscles aren’t accustomed to using a pitchfork, thus they complain rather loudly, but I just keep stabbing and pushing and scraping. Below the platform another half ton container is being readied for action. No time to stop. At the bottom of the funnel, my only friend crazy enough to do this with me is removing bucketfuls of grape stems from the machine. All around us, things are making odd noises. The whole set-up reminds me of a giant juicer. Welcome to crush!
Crush is a very special time in the life of any winery. It is fast and furious, transforming all the long months of meticulous care for the vines into frothy delicious liquid in the matter of hours. It is the culmination of all the hard work in the fields, the time that marks the birth of wine. Crush is all-hands-on-deck, demanding, messy, tiring and completely wonderful grape-perfumed affair that any wine lover should take part in at least once. So, when August Hill Winery and Illinois Sparkling Co. in Peru, Illinois invited me to join them for crush, I jumped at the chance. My love of wine, particularly sparkling wine, is well documented. I am a huge fan of Illinois Sparkling Co. (see my previous articles FOOD FRIDAY: Make Your Holidaze Sparkle! and FOOD FRIDAY: The Hill That Sparkles). So, I dubbed myself the Crush Crasher, recruited the Editor to join me, and headed out to Illinois Wine Country.
Those holding on to romantic notions of stomping the grapes a la Lucille Ball may be disappointed. Crush is nothing like that. It is still a very much hands-on experience but machinery provides a definitive advantage. In one afternoon spent at the winery, we helped crush twelve and a half tons of grapes. Take that, Lucy! We got to see how everything works together, learned about different methods of pressing grapes used for still versus sparkling wines. We ate wine grape clusters and drank fresh pressed, still frothy juice directly from the vat. We shoveled, pitchforked, tossed and cleared away the stems. We were covered in grapes. We had lunch between press cycles: homemade Italian beef sandwiches washed down with flutes of bubbly. And because the winery’s life has to go on, we hand labeled a hundred some bottles of sparkling wine and packaged them for shipping. All in the day’s work, right?
Crush is all consuming. It is top priority because grapes wait for no one. But all around crush things are still happening. In the small winery kitchen, I run into Chef Cleetus Friedman of Chicago’s City Provisions. He, it turns out, is working on a collaboration with Illinois Sparkling Co. His brain child is called Freak of Nature and believe me when I tell you – this is one freak you want to meet! We got to watch chef and winemaker work together on what promises to be quite an unusual bottling, the first of its kind. This was like being in a chemistry lab, if chemistry lab had sparkling wine. A drop of this, a sprinkle of that and voila! Freak of Nature was born right before our very eyes. Oh… and did I mention we got to taste different variations along the way? All in the day’s work.
Later, on the train home, still sticky with grape juice and utterly exhausted, we sit clutching our parting gifts: bottles of bubbly. We earned them, for sure. But I know that the small crew of six at the winery will get up the next morning and do it all again. There are grapes waiting to be pressed and crush has to happen no matter how tired and achy the people are. They will do what they have to do so that I can enjoy my glass of wine. I realize now that I will think of my day at crush every time I open a bottle of wine, of how much hard work and effort went into the making of it. I know I will appreciate it that much more.
Crush is good for the soul. It is a bonding experience. It is hard and fun all at the same time. Take it from the Crush Crasher.