The forklift speeds a huge plastic tote to the crusher, twirls it like a toy and dumps the finest Merlot grapes into the gleaming stainless steel maw of the crushing machine. The whirring gears separate the stems, squish the grapes and send them bouncing down the sorting table.
Now it’s up to me and seven others to remove any stray stems, called “jacks,” underripe berries, insects, rocks or other impurities that could mar the beautiful ripe taste and elegant fragrance of Betz Family Winery’s blends. It’s like an episode of the ’50s television show I Love Lucy. Everyone rivets their attention to the grapes gliding past on the sorting belt, making sure only the choicest grapes get into the wine. My fingers fly through the fruit, trying to keep up.
It’s my first day of volunteering at Betz in Woodinville, and I don’t want to screw up. I’m here for the crush, the magical time of year when grapes arrive to be stemmed, crushed and fermented. I’ve finagled my way onto the volunteer list at Betz Family Winery, a list so exclusive it is reputed that a volunteer has to die before a slot opens up. My fellow volunteers run restaurants, luxury hotels, IT departments for IBM and Microsoft. They’ve carved time out of their busy schedules to experience the crush and learn about wine from the legendary Bob Betz, one of a handful of Masters of Wine in the country. Betz takes an occasional break from the million other things he’s doing to sort grapes and answer questions.
The “wine camp” at the Betz winery combines physical labor, camaraderie and the chance to rub elbows with the master. Volunteers sign up for a day or two or sometimes more. The winery sends out emails to volunteers, who pick times that fit with their schedule. Like other wine camps, this one attracts wine geeks as well as those who simply get caught up in the excitement of the harvest.
It’s a sunny October morning with temperatures in the 70s. The weather is warm but not hot; perfect for winemaking. The winery hums with activity this morning. Workers bustle back and forth, washing bins, measuring sulfur, inoculating already crushed and sorted grapes with yeast. Rookies like me start on the sorting table, while more experienced volunteers help with more complicated tasks. Everyone seems to have a spring in their step as they go about doing their work.
At the end of the day, we sit down for a meal outside the winery, a daily ritual during the harvest. We taste the winery’s Clos de Betz, an elegant Merlot-based wine, as well as wines from around the world. Afterward, Betz hands me a bottle of the recent Clos de Betz, my reward for the day’s labor. I head home tired but happy, a cloud of fruit flies joyously buzzing around me.
WOODINVILLE WINE CAMPS
There is no cost for these camps, and most volunteers get a bottle or two of wine after a day’s work. The time commitment and work depend on the individual wineries, though most ask for at least a day’s commitment from volunteers. Also, if you’re interested and have a favorite winery, ask about opportunities to help out. There’s often
some task a volunteer can tackle.
BETZ FAMILY WINERY: “We have a deep bench, but we welcome new people who are passionate about wine and willing to work hard to get on our volunteer list,” says owner Steve Griessel. Volunteers help with bottling, crush and other duties. Contact: email@example.com, betzfamilywinery.com
JM CELLARS: “I may be the only winemaker who has the volunteers get into bins of grapes to stomp them,” says John Bigelow, winemaker at JM Cellars. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org, jmcellars.com
PATTERSON CELLARS: Sort grapes, punch the cap during fermentation and perform other harvest duties. Contact: email@example.com, pattersoncellars.com