Harvest season in the wine industry is hot, thirsty work. The vines are covered with a summer's worth of dust, and inhabited by black widow spiders and other crawling, climbing, biting insects. Workers who peel back the bird netting draped over the vines have the pleasure of removing dead birds, squirrels and possums entangled in the net. Driving the tractors which tow the picking bins up and down the rows is hot work too, and bees follow the picking bins in swarms, lying thick on top of the sweet, sticky grapes.
In the winery itself, cellarmen drag heavy hoses from one tank to another, even up onto the catwalks, so wine can be pumped up to the top of a tank and sluiced over the grapeskins floating near the top. Others are standing inside fermentation tanks, shoveling out the heavy pomace, the residual grapeskins left after the wine has been pumped off. Everything needs cleaning, all the time. Tanks, barrels, buckets, hoses, fittings---everything is washed, brushed, scoured and sanitized in a continual war against nasty organisms and fruit flies.
This time of year, you are likely to find local winemakers enjoying a hot dinner at Papi's Mexican restaurant, arguing the merits of various yeasts with a hot tostada in one hand and a cold beer in the other. Cellarmen and winemakers sit in the shade at the end of the day with--you guessed it, a cold beer. The cellar refrigerators hold equal parts of yeast, bottled wine samples, steaks, and beer.
Winemakers take their beer seriously. One day I was hydrating barrels, happy to be in the shade playing with cold water and not lifting heavy things. Someone offered me a cold Red Tail Ale. I'd never tried one before. This was great. I took a gulp, then set my beer down on a barrel, and another worker tasted it. "Oh no," he said, frowning into the bottle. "This isn't right. This isn't how a Red Tail should taste."
Those are fighting words to a winemaker. He tasted it too, and shook his head. "Nope. This beer isn't right. We'll get you another."
"Give me back my beer!" I complained. "It's cold. It's fine."
"Oh no, Mary. We want your first experience with Red Tail Ale to be special."
But it was the last Red Tail, which I still suspect they took around the corner and drank, so I ended up with something else. This is when I realized just how beverage-retentive these guys are. During crush, I have heard them argue the merits of various root beers in an ongoing, all day discussion, every time they pass each other, going one way with hoses and another way on the forklift.
Therefore, the beers brought into these wineries by the case and by the pallet are not just any beers. They are carefully chosen. Some wineries bring in a pallet of choice imported and domestic microbrews, and cellarmen sample the newest releases with the same serious consideration given to barrel sampling. Other wineries stick with favorites. But the local beer distributors who deliver to wineries confirm that most of their sales are Bud and Bud Lite, with side orders of micro-brew.
One day in early autumn I was standing outside the Peachy Canyon tasting room on Bethel Road watching as a grass fire crackled toward nearby homes and three wineries. Helicopters thumped overhead, racing north to lift buckets of water from Nacimiento Lake and then rushing back to dump them on the flames. Smoke wafted over the winery grounds. A car pulled into the parking lot and two customers walked toward me just as a large semi truck pulled in with a trailer clearly marked 'Budweiser.'
"What's going on?" they asked.
"This is Paso Robles," I replied. "We're having a barbecue."
If you put two winemakers in a room together, they will politely disagree on nearly every aspect of winemaking. From Brix at harvest to type and duration of oak, the styling decisions are endless and arguable. There is, however, one universal truth in winemaking---a saying that everyone in the industry knows---our motto, our mantra, our one common bond.
"It takes a lot of good beer to make great wine."