I used to dread the start of the wine-making year. Not involved in the actual grape-picking, I used to wait at home until Best Beloved arrived with the boxes of grapes and then sit and help de-stem and sort the grapes. I actively dislike no jobs in the house, garden, or field except this one. The sorting of the grapes into spoiled and usable, and the removal of stems, spiders, and bad fruit is tedious, slow, sticky. Hours hunched on a hard seat left my bum and back aching and my temper raw – how much worse for Best Beloved with his bad back, I could only guess, for he's not a whinger. The thought of this job has been hanging over me for the last few months, made worse by the fact that we have less help this year since the disappearance of Ha. Less help translates into more hours for me, I thought.
So I knew a shiver of delight last week when BB announced that he was heading for Limassol to buy 'a machine to help with the wine-making'. Foolish Asproulla! “No de-stemming this year?” I yelped with delight. Delight swiftly crushed. “A press for squashing,” came the answer. I assumed (what I hoped was) a winning expression: “But darling, we've fewer hands this year, and I dread the sorting-cleaning part of the job...” I tried to keep the hope alive in my eyes and the whine out of my voice “And we have more grapes than ever!”
So BB returned a few hours later with some new toys and a lighter chequebook, and this morning when we crushed the Shiraz, we got to play.
Because we have several different varieties of grape that BB blends for a unique taste and quality, we need to pick at different times. The Shiraz is ready first: higher in sugar than the Cabernet Sauvingan or the Grenache, and if it is left too long it will impart a caramel fruitiness that BB is trying to avoid. He tests daily for sugar content and pH from the moment that the grapes begin to truly ripen, and had decided that today was D-Day. Luckily this co-incided with the arrival of teenage cousins from Austria on their summer break, so BB and Cousin Philip headed to the vines just as dawn brightened the sky.
We had set up most of the aparatus yesterday: a scrubbed-out (by Leo with tremendous enthusiasm) plastic tank rested on Sophia's old desk, the stainless tank was cleaned and awaiting its crushed contents. The new de-stemming machine only needed to be lifted atop the tank, plugged in, filled – and all of the previous years' torture would be relegated to the realm of 'Remember when...' stories.
Alex and I were waiting for the grapes' arrival – only about 30 kilos came in four boxes. Stricter application of sulpher by BB meant that none were spoiled and manual sorting was unneccessary, so together we all lifted the new machine to its perch. Philip and Alex passed up the boxes, Best Beloved dumped in the berries and pressed the 'On' button. Paddles turned, wheels whirred, juice and skins dropped into the tank and stems shot out of the end of the hopper. In fifteen minutes the job was done and Leo washed his feet and climbed into the tank to do some final squashing. Even Sputnik enjoyed himself – he has a sweet tooth for fruit, and will carry around a single cherry or a piece of apple for hours – so he was in his element with stray grapes.
In previous years, hunched around boxes and bins, we would have gone through several relays of frappes, several fights between fractious little ones, several recitations of The Man From Snowy River, innumerable renditions of songs old and new, this year we finished inside an hour, despite a thorough cleaning of the machine... I suppose that you could have called our old way a 'bonding' experience (or 'bondage' depending on how you looked at it) but it would often be nearly lunch time before we had done the same job. Recovery would take the rest of the afternoon. I have no nostalgia for the past regarding this, and even find mayself looking forward to next week's crushing – we need to tweak the system a little so that the tank doesn't have to be emptied by bucket and ladle, but I'm sure we'll come up with something.