A med & grad student who used to work the line in LA, NYC, SF and Napa talking about the science of cooking and cooking with science. Harold McGee's On Food And Cooking - The Science and Lore of the Kitchen never satisfied my kitchen curiosity and more than one Chef grew exasperated with my asking "Why?" I'll try to stay on topic, but you may see a kvetch or two about the school & hospital.
My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.
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It was a warm July day in 2008. The temperature was hovering somewhere between pleasant and stifling. For those that could retreat into air conditioned tasting rooms, shaded verandas and terraces or tipple cold, cold Sauvignon or Fume Blanc it was pleasant. Lounging and loafing around speaking to the attendants in tasting rooms and caves. Yet one more pour of the latest release. The dry texture and salty taste of crackers to cleanse visitor palates. A swig of water to keep hydrated for the tourists. Winery staff almost always used the spit buckets exclusively. For those working outside, it was hell.
It was the kind of warm day I typically hate. My allergies were triggered and I was self medicating with some weird combination of Claritin and Zyrtec. Two, or three, Claritin and one and one half Zyrtec for the first 4 hours. Another two Claritin and another Zyrtec, plus the other half, at around 1pm to stave off the worst of my allergies. They never completely went away, but the drugs made it a little more bearable to be outside. I could not wear my contacts because my eyes would not stop watering. This meant I couldn’t wear sunglasses out in the bright Napa sun. My motto of “just pave it all” was close to being uttered. I was missing the salt air and fog of home, just an hour’s drive away. That beautiful ocean breeze that scrubbed the air clean of the offensive pollen and oppressive heat.
See, I had signed up to be an intern at a winery over the summer. Four or five days mostly working in the fields. Each day spent walking up and down the rows of trellised vines. Checking them to ensure shoots properly ran up through the catch wires of the trellis. The catch wires are very important for almost any vineyard. They keep the rows neat and evenly spaced for equipment and personnel; distribute the weight of the vines evenly around the trellis system; get air and sunlight through to the vines evenly. Prior to this I had volunteered for crush. Crush is an intense time for wineries. This is when hundreds, even thousands, of tons of grapes are picked and sorted at wineries. A lot of this sorting goes on by hand. A lot of those hands are volunteers. The volunteers get to take part in the production of some of their favorite wines, and get a free lunch at the larger wineries, and the wineries get much needed help. In fact a lot of wineries love having volunteers at crush. Since they love the end product so much, they’re much more careful with the selection of grapes, rather than part-time labor who may just whiz through at a much faster clip, but with less care.
Now, my job was simple. Walk up and down the rows, making sure everything looked good. I carried around a pair of pruning sheers to clip away at dead and dying greenery, and a multi-band radio. The radio was in case I ran into problems, like an accident, animal encounter or, worse, pests. On this particular day, however, I was entrusted with a very special piece of equipment.
This is a CIRAS-2 console. The purpose of this unit is to measure leaf gas exchange. This is useful to oenologists, vignerons and anyone else in the wine industry because it can give us an approximation on the sugar levels of the grapes. Dr. Lakso at Cornell University has an interesting write up he did on the phenomenon using a breed of concord grapes as the model.
It is also not cheap.
My boss had decided to entrust me with this cool machine, because we'd been discussing Dr. Lakso's work. It had a full charge, and he tasked me with playing with it. Really. How often are you handed expensive equipment and told to have fun with it?
Normally, being handed something that reads gas exchange wouldn't strike anyone as being any fun at all. But, I had some grasp of the concept behind using this machine. And I'd been dying to play with it. Here was my chance. Allergies be damned! By mapping the gas exchange throughout the vineyard, we could measure the dry yield of the vines. The dry yield is split between fruit and leaf/vine matter. Before ripening, the carbon yield is skewed to the production of shoots, vines and leaf. Between ripening and harvest, production is skewed towards fruit. And if you carefully prune during ripening, you can get better yield toward the fruit.
Now here's where things got tricky for me. This machine is not that light. It's 7.5kg attached to shoulder straps. You wear the thing on your front. My eyes are watering like crazy. I'm walking around on uneven soil. And did I mention sneezing? Oh yeah. I was doing that, too. Some time between 12pm and 1pm, I was stumbling and bungling my way through carefully laid out vineyards, attempting to head back to the production offices. Fruit that would go on to produce excellent wines were a hairsbreadth from being completely wiped out by me simply because I could not see through my haze of tears and the hot summer glare of the sun.
And this, my friends, is when things took a true turn towards the unfortunate. I fell. Face first into the dirt. Now, I am not a small man. Not by a long shot. And this machine, which was so carefully calibrated and taken care of. That cost a lot of money took quite a bit of the shock of my fall. Enough that the display which had previous been on was now off. I picked myself up. Removed the CIRAS, and carefully placed it on the ground. After groaning and clutching my chest where the hard edges of the machine had dug into my body, I took a look at the machine. I did not notice it was off, until now. I turned on the power. I flicked the power button. It still did not turn on.
This is when my allergies cleared up. Nothing quite like that adrenaline surge from sheer, abject terror to clear the haze of allergies. I did everything I could think of to test if the system was still running. My mind was racing, trying to figure out where and if I could get replacement parts for this thing before I had to leave for the day. It wasn't unusual for me to be out the entire day in the field carefully looking at the plants. Sometimes I'd get stopped by groups of tourists, and would carefully attempt to answer what questions I could about the vineyards. We all had delays. Unfortunately, if I was going to get replacement parts, I needed my car keys. And those were in my desk. In the production office. Where my boss was. I tried to figure out if I could hail a cab somewhere on the winding roads, but quickly gave that up. Do you know how many cabs I had seen in the Napa Valley in all my years of visiting, living and working there? None. That idea was trashed. I considered walking from my location into Downtown Napa, then shelved that idea, because the nearest electronics stores would probably be in Vallejo or Fairfield.
And then I saw it. A glint of silver in the dirt. I had knocked the battery out. I dusted the battery off on my shorts, and carefully inserted it back into the CIRAS. It clicked into place and held. I turned the thing sideways and shook it for good measure. The battery did not slip out. I hit the power, and let me tell you how much relief I felt that the machine came back online normally. I once was stuck on a commuter flight between NYC and Boston. We were on the plane, and waiting for 5 hours to take off. During that 5 hours we couldn't get up. We had to stay in our seats. And I had to pee. For 5 hours I tried as much as possible to stay calm. I even asked the flight attendants a few times if I could just run into the restroom really fast. All inquiries were shot down. By the time the plane actually did take off, I shot up out of my seat and made a mad dash for the nearest restroom. An old lady may have caught an elbow from me as I ran in. The relief I felt finally being able to relieve my bladder was nowhere near the relief I felt that the damned machine was working.
I made my way back to the production office and dropped the machine off. My boss noticed dirt smudged on the machine. And I came clean on falling. He stared at me for a good 30 seconds before finally laughing. Apparently, and thankfully, I wasn't the first person to have fallen while carrying this thing. He had as well.
I took four things away from this. 1) If I am sneezing like crazy, my eyes are watering to the point I can water a field and my head is in a fog from allergies and combined medication, I will not volunteer to work with expensive equipment, unless I am in an air conditioned room and the equipment in question is on a desk or bolted to the floor. 2) Anything that needs to be put into shoulder straps and carried on the front of my person shall be avoided if I am outdoors in uneven surface. 3) If I drop something and it doesn't immediately turn on, I will make sure the battery is in before trying again. 4) The only time I will ever work at a winery again is during crush. My allergies only go from March to July.
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Awesome post, Jay. This is a great story. In undergrad I did a lot of Ag research. We had a couple of LiCors that did pretty much the same thing. Those were cool little machines!
I feel sorry for everyone who suffers from allergies like this.
I have a food allergy to something- I have no idea what it is, and the effects were horrible. I never leave home without benadryl in my purse now.
Funny thing, I was out this morning at an East Bay clinic and my allergies have started. Everything is green and pollinating. Brilliant. Just brilliant.
I'm crazy allergic to animal dander. I used to take zyrtec but I got way too drowsy on it and stopped. Now I don't own any furry animals, so all is well.