There exists an unresolved debate in the wine world. Some propose that great wine is made in the vineyard, while others suggest that it is made in the cellar. The reality is that each statement is only half true. The old adage “it takes two to tango”—whether referring to the dance or, more often, an argument—is apt. Without each other we would have nothing.
This dance resonates strongly with me since we have the wonderful and unique situation at our winery that our vineyard crew is also both our crush crew and cellar crew. In other words, the same individuals plant vines, care for the vineyard, harvest fruit, process fruit, move wine, clean equipment and eventually bottle the wine.
But this also engenders a bit of back and forth between me and our vineyard manager, Abel Lopez. You see, Abel has a crew of guys and I am all by myself in the winery—except for when I steal from his labor pool, an efficient if delicate arrangement. Add to this the fact that almost all of our winemaking activities, not just our field work, are subject to the elements—many of our barrels and tanks are kept outside. On rainy days, since I don’t have the option to do work in the cellar (a misnomer in our case), I’m trapped with the vineyard crew hanging out in the winery, likely labeling or sipping coffee, itching to get back outside.
“Hey Abel, where are the guys at today?” I ask.
“They are lifting catch wires in Scuttlehole vineyard and removing leaves in the back in the Sylvanus block,” he replies.
“I need some help bringing some barrels up from the cellar, racking them and cleaning.”
“How many barrels?”
“About 50,” I reply.
Abel gives me a blank look. I know we are behind in the vineyard but this wine should have been moved weeks ago.
“OK, how about you just give me one guy for the afternoon and we will make it work?”
Abel sighs and says, “OK, that’s good.”
We move forward, each accomplishing what we need with a little less help then we would like. It helps that Abel’s crew are family—of our three main guys, Javier, Juan Carlos and Zayth, two are his brothers and one his brother-in-law—and I also consider them family.
But cellar work is also more flexible than vineyard work. If there is disease pressure in the field there is no time to wait. I try not to step on any toes or demand too much. Only at the beginning and end of the winemaking process, harvest and bottling, do I feel the necessity for things to happen right now. Layer into the equation the difficult growing season we have had this year and our increased production over the last two years. Both require more time and labor, and our dance becomes more difficult.
This past June (the wettest, coldest on record) quickened the pace for both Abel and me. During the rare nice day the guys were scrambling in the vineyard to spray, remove leaves, lift catch wires, hedge and mow. With the same sense of need as Abel, I was trying to move wine, blend wine, filter wine and bottle wine all with the same crew. Our dance became more passionate, more tense.
All the pacing and attention to detail with the requisite lifts, dips, kicks and holds between the two of us felt just like a tango. We can’t move alone. We need each other and alternately push and pull, lead and follow the other to eventually realize what both of us are after: great wine. It is an emotional and logistical dance— one that Abel and I have perfected only by doing it over and over during many seasons. It is something that is lived, not taught. And
when it works, it’s exhilarating.
Christopher is the winemaker and partner at Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton, as well as a student candidate for the Institute of Masters of Wine.