Cellar Rat: Week One at Unti Vineyards

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(Photo: inetours.com)

By Ella Lawrence

When the price of a burrito in Healdsburg bypassed that of a burrito in the Mission, I knew it was time to hightail it from my hometown to the big city. That was four years ago, and I hadn’t pictured heading up north again any time soon. This summer, though, I was offered a job as a seasonal cellar worker during harvest and I wasn’t about to turn it down.

Unti is a small-production (6,000-7,000 cases annually) winery in the Dry Creek Valley, making European-style reds like Barbera and Grenache quite well. I’ve always been a fan of their wines and I leaped at the chance to be winemaker Sebastien Pouchan’s assistant, especially since I am the first female to ever work in the cellar at Unti.

Healdsburg during crush-time is a flurry of activity, and it’s most apparent at this time of year where the town’s main revenue and tourism comes from. Wineries crank into overdrive, with big-production facilities like Kendall-Jackson and Clos du Bois working 24 hours around the clock to churn out millions of gallons of juice coming from
thousands of tons of grapes. Unti is not like that.

Saturday at 8 a.m. there was already fruit waiting for us--several half-ton plastic boxes of Sangiovese that had just come in from the vineyard. Unti has 60 acres of vineyards and all of their wines are made from estate-grown grapes. The winery also sells fruit to numerous other wineries and individual winemakers, including Boulevard Restaurant Wine Directors John Lancaster and Robert Perkins.

Besides me (who is working 6 days a week), there are three part-time workers: two noted restaurateurs (one from Sonoma County, one from San Francisco)--friends of the owner and the winemaker--and an Unti cousin, up from Santa Cruz on the weekends.

I climbed into a stainless steel tank and began hosing it down, learning how to sterilize the equipment we’d be using to crush and de-stem the fruit: tanks, hoses, clamps, and gaskets all had to be cleaned with a solution, rinsed, neutralized and rinsed again. Within an hour or so we were sorting through the grapes, raking the discarded stems and making sure none of the hoses or pumps backed up with fruit and juice that was rapidly getting dumped into a stainless steel tank the size of a Manhattan apartment.

After we finished the first lot, the two tasting room employees came out onto the crush pad and the equipment ground to a halt.

“It’s time! It’s time!” Sebastien called as he jumped down from the platform. “Time for tradition!”

The six of us took seats at the picnic tables and George Unti produced a bottle of vintage Champagne.

“We always have a champagne toast after we crush the first lot of the harvest season,” he explained, as the yeasty bubbles were poured into my glass.

I clinked flutes with my new co-workers and looked out over the Dry Creek Valley: land where my family lived and farmed for more than five generations. I might be able to get used to being home again.

(Check back next Friday for the next installment of Ella Lawrence's Unti Vineyard Chronicles.)

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