Portland, Part 6: "Wine for Days"
Updated: Nov 30, 2019
"My only regret in life is that I did not drink more Champagne." --- John Maynard Keynes
When I decided to come to Portland and take a step back from work, I knew that I wanted/needed to to try something new, something more substantial than eating out every day. Part of my angst and reason for this trip was the fact that I have never really had a "hobby" in my life and I wanted to at least attempt to look for one. I wanted this trip to be a little bit like a sabbatical, even though I was still running my businesses every day. It would be nice to learn a new skill, or at least try on a different pair of overalls for a while. I called my friend Andy, who co-owns one of my favorite restaurants, Le Pigeon, and told him that I wanted to work either at a vineyard or a restaurant. I figured that even if I didn't love the work, it would still be in a subject that I am very interested in. My situation was a little different: I couldn't work regular daily shifts because I still had to run my businesses and take phone calls constantly. I wanted to work 1-2 days a week, but it had to be according to my schedule. I wasn't really hopeful because of my ridiculous demands, but after a few weeks, Andy responded with a name: Brianne Day, who owns Day Wines in Dundee, Oregon. She also operates Day Camp, a crush pad for smaller producers who don't have their own facilities. I'm not going to say that Ms. Day was reluctant to hire an out of shape, 46 year old guy who has never worked in wine before and wanted to make his own schedule, but if someone came to me with that specific proposal, I would show them the door. She wanted me to come in for an interview and talk about what experience I had and my schedule, and that's when I just told her that I would work for free. Her email response: "you're hired".
I'm not going to go into the intricacies of making wine, mainly because I don't know that much about it...I was very much a helper who didn't know anything, but I was pretty eager to work and learn. If I had to clinically describe my work there, the majority of it was cleaning. Lots of cleaning, and then some more cleaning. Every utensil and piece of machinery that touched the grapes had to be sterilized and dipped in 4 different solutions before being used. If it accidentally touched the ground or something else touched it.....you had to clean it all over again. I spent a lot of time on the sorting line, where we had to inspect each cluster of grape for bad fruit. Apparently that's everyone's least favorite part of harvest, but I enjoyed it immensely. I had a captive audience, and so people had to listen to my jokes. I'm pretty sure I became a legend with my sparkling repartee and elegant witticisms. They'll tell their grandchildren about me, I think. The only downside to my favorite activity were the earwigs, AKA pincher bugs. They were EVERYWHERE. They crawled up your hands, and legs, and almost always ended up on your neck or face. Bugs don't bother me that much, but watching people freak out when an earwig would be in someone's ear or underwear was highly entertaining. At the end of the day, I would shake out my clothes as best I could, but bringing them home and even into the bathroom didn't make Abby happy.
I enjoyed working for Ms. Day and her #2, Erich, it was better than fun. I especially enjoyed little Viggo Day, the owner's 2 year old son. He is such a well behaved, happy kid who will smile at everyone....I love that little boy, but I suspect I'm not alone. I kinda think he knows more about wine-making than I do. But that's what so cool about this place, it's busy and crazy, but relaxed enough that a baby can be safe there, or even have the run of the place. My opinion: a lot of this is because of the owner. She has created enough physical space for people to operate without getting frustrated or causing accidents and has set a very relaxed, but efficient culture in place. It's definitely her show, all of it. It all runs through her, but that's not painted on her forehead, there isn't an authoritarian cloud hanging over the place. With so many moving pieces and different winemakers and occasional ego involved, creating a happy work environment isn't easy, but she's done it. I dunno, maybe she thinks that if she can't be happy making wine, then chances are you won't be while drinking it. Ms. Day is really an incredible person, I came away with an enormous amount of admiration for her and how she's created this place.
Something happened during this time: I lost control. I'm not saying I went crazy, I'm talking about ceding power. Between running my businesses and running my household, all I ever do daily is make decisions and tell people what to do. It's every day, all day and I've become accustomed to it. I figured that this was just my life and didn't give it a second thought, until I worked at Day Camp. Being an employee felt weird at first, but then it felt really good to not be in charge, not having to think or make decisions, to just do something when I was told to. I've often wondered why high powered CEO's would visit a dominatrix, just so they could experience being out of control....and now I kinda get it. I'm not saying that I need whips or chains or a ball gag, just put me on the sorting line and I'll be ok. I don't really remember what I was expecting going into this, but what I got wasn't just a wine making tutorial. Yes it was that, but it was so much more than that. I had a bonding experience, one that I wasn't expecting. Working along side everyone there, I became one of the crew in a very supportive environment, and that camaraderie was something that I have never experienced before. I met so many new people, from growers to winemakers and they were all extremely nice to be around. Yeah I'm sure they didn't always know my name, all they knew was that I was a grunt, but they made me feel welcome, and that was something very new to me. No judgement, no conditions as to whether they were nice to me or not, just smiles, friendliness and almost immediate inclusiveness. I've made some really great friends there, and I'm better off because of it.
There's something about harvest that stirs the soul, that draws people to hunt and gather and to eat. I don't know if its the chill in the air or the smell in the wind, but there's nothing like it. Every culture for millennia has rejoiced in the harvest, festivals abound celebrating it. Even though technology and our modern world have created a buffer between our instinct and the land, we still feel the pull toward the natural. Harvest while making wine is even more special. People have made this drink for thousands of years, and even though I didn't do much at Day Camp, I felt like I was part of that fabric of history. 6000 years ago, halfway around the world, someone was doing the exact same thing I was doing, at the same time of year. That made me feel very small, but also very connected at the same time. It filled my needs on a visceral level, even if I didn't consciously realize it at the time. All I knew is that I was more content before, during and after the days that I worked at the facility. For the average person, September and October are just months you check off on a calendar, but when you work the land, Harvest is a marker for another year passing. Instead of counting years or birthdays, these people count harvests. It's almost become a unit of measurement, a definitive way to measure time and how your year went. Harvest is the playoffs of agriculture, nothing else matters but how you perform during this time.
Working alongside these people, watching them work 14 hour days, sleeping in their trucks onsite, camping near the facility, combined with my own fleeting happiness there......it all gave me a new perspective. I've come to the conclusion that these people are happier than I am. Their connection to the land, combined with physical labor and almost fanatical desire to squeeze every last bit of juice from these grapes(literally) gives them a deep satisfaction with their lives. Its a contentment that someone like me can't possibly get, sitting on my butt in an air conditioned office all day, closing deals on the phone. Writing this makes me regret that I've missed so many of these times in my life.