He explained that he'd fallen into a vat of Petit Syrah while they were doing punch-downs (when grapes first begin to be processed, they go through two processes called punch-downs and pump-overs in order to keep the wine and skins stirred and mixed up as they're being processed). He was punching down of a thick vat of wine (probably 10 feet tall) when he slipped on the edge of the vat and fell in.
|Death by Syrah? Could happen!|
After we got done giggling and teasing him as he peeled grapes off his ankles and arms and shook them out from the inside of his shirt, he explained that although he was absolutely fine and found the whole thing kind of funny himself, in California one cellar worker a year actually dies from falling into vats during punch down. Depending on how you fall, apparently once you are under enough of the grape skin/wine mixture (which can be extremely thick early on the process) it's hard to "swim" back up to the surface. So people sink to the bottom before they can be saved. That's why at most wineries, cellar work is done with the buddy system, where one person will always watch another if they are punching down, for safety reasons. Which was proven to work last night, as my friend was able to be pulled back out of the vat after falling in.
At times my job in the tasting room is challenging, but I can honestly say it's never been life threatening. And up until last night, I would have said the same for winemakers and cellar workers. So the next time you hoist a glass of wine, remember that someone possibly risked their life "punching down" those grapes so they could be juiced, fermented and bottled for you to enjoy! Another "strange but true" tale from wine country: Death by Syrah -- and not from drinking too much of it. Who knew?