Eight Days A Week: A Week in the Life of Cellar Hand Nico Fritz
Winemakers and winery owners get a lot of ink in the wine media. Their titles sound romantic and spark the imagination of readers, with images of tables, well-appointed with world-class wines and great food; lovely vineyards; wineries and refined vineyard homes; dusty cellars full of mysterious, special wines. Cellar workers, like Sous Chefs, are rarely heard from but work diligently in the background, providing winemakers with invaluable labor, and oftentimes, guidance.
Recently, I asked Cellar Hand Nico Fritz, of Paso’s Tooth and Nail Winery, if she would share a week’s-long work diary with Loam Baby. Herewith, in Nico’s own words, is what an ordinary week is like for a hardworking Cellar Hand.
5:00 AM: First alarm goes off. I stumble out of bed, put coffee on, and go back to sleep for another half an hour. At 5:30, I’m up. Pull on army pants, wife beater, throw hair back in a ponytail, drink coffee, and make fresh squeezed orange juice. Out the door by 6:30.
Start time in the cellar is normally 7:30, and I have about a forty-minute commute to work…when traffic behaves. I’m habitually about fifteen to twenty minutes early to work every day, but I don’t care. I will not adjust my time to sleep in. I would rather be early than late any day. And besides, I like the fifteen or so minutes of alone time in the cellar, just me and the wine, taking everything in, smelling the cellar smells, making sure nothing is out of place. I am a pretty solitary person, and I like easing into the day alone. If someone happens to be in the cellar before me, it can actually throw my entire day. I’m very protective of our wines – of each tank and every barrel – and I enjoy being the first person on and the last to leave.
3:00 PM: Two of the four blends we are putting together are done by about 2:30, and by 3:00 I need to leave the cellar to be in the tasting room for a quarterly meeting with the owner, partners, compliance, tasting room manager, GM of the company, etc., to catch up with each other, and find out what’s been going on in different areas of the company. We then get a little down time – socializing, blind tasting, etc. The blind tasting was the most fun, but it was also neat to hear about what else is going on in other areas of the company – the tasting room, events department, etc. One of our partners and our Director of Sales brought a 1967. It’s was what he called an “important” wine, and indeed it was!
6:00 PM: In for the evening. Shower, make a quick and dirty meal for dinner, prep coffee for the morning, and taste through some wines that I acquired through various people throughout the past couple of days, feed the dogs, wash dishes, then cuddle in bed with my puppy while studying Wine Production and Analysis, sipping on some vino, and falling asleep with heavy eyelids.
7:30 AM: After a brief walk through our acre or so of Tempranillo – planted just a year ago – I am back in the cellar to discuss with my co-workers the game plan for the day. It looks like it’s going to be a slam dunk, and the rest of the week will be an easy, joyous coast into the weekend. Then bam! Game changer: my boss changes the work orders on me and throws off my game plan, and pretty much my entire morning. It’s ok. I quickly formulate a new game plan. No problem. I can roll with the punches like nobody’s business. I begin to set things into motion again. Zing! Boss changes work orders on me again. Not once, not twice, but three times! I can feel the veins in my forehead starting to throb. I’m overwhelmed, I’m frustrated, he’s frustrated, tension is high, my co-workers are backing away… But once I take a step back, figure out one thing at a time, and develop a new game plan (yet again), I mellow out and the day finally gets a real start to it – a little later than I would have liked, but we’re finally ready.
4:00 PM: I work up until the very last minute and everything gets done, including cleaning the cellar properly, closing valves, coiling hoses, squeegee-ing the floor, etc. I do NOT appreciate it when the cellar is left in chaos to be tidied up the next morning. I just can’t have it. It’s not proper, and I lose sleep over it. All of the blends are put together. My bosses tell me they thought it would take three days. I managed to get it done in two. It feels good. The rest of the week should be pretty smooth, in theory.
5:30 PM: I am not in the mood to do anything when I get home except shower and lay in bed and read. The day was mentally draining, but I go to see my parents and my grandma anyway. I love my family very much and I think my visits after work are helping my grandma out. It’s good for her to see a different face in the afternoon. My grandmother is having health issues and has moved in with my parents until she gets better. We all have full time jobs with varying schedules, so I’m doing what I can to help out and just be there. I always bring a bottle of wine. They don’t usually let me bring anything else. We have leftovers. We cleaned out the fridge, and my grandmother eats really well. We are so proud of her!
5:50 AM: Wake up. My schedule is thrown, but for a very welcome reason. It’s a lab day for me today, and I’ll be spending the entire day at a different cellar, a custom crush facility in Edna Valley where we process and store some of our wines, and it’s where I do any of our lab work that we need done until our second, newer building on the Tooth & Nail property is finished, which will include a brand new, pristine lab, special for me! (YAY! Happy dance!). My commute to the facility on Corbett Canyon Road is much shorter than my commute to Paso Robles, so I get to sleep in a few extra minutes. The drive in is not as beautiful, but nothing beats walking into the lab, putting on some peaceful music, and tuning the rest of the world out for the day. It’s just me, the wine, the chemicals, the equipment, and the equations. Nothing distracts me. I’m completely at peace and serene. When I’m lucky, no one bothers me. No one comes in. Nothing matters but the wine, the procedure, and getting accurate results. When I’m in the lab, the rest of the world melts away. I can work through lunch and not even care. Lab days are quickly becoming my favorite days, though I would never turn down a barrel-down, or a rack-and-return. I love getting dirty in the cellar, but the quiet, poetic finesse of exactness and titration in the lab is pretty much unbeatable. It pleases me very much.
7:05 AM: I walk the estate vineyard of the custom crush. It’s more southern than Paso Robles, with cooler days and warmer nights. Forget bud break; these wines are putting out foliage like nobody’s business. I’m amazed at how alive the vines have become. I only come down to the Edna cellar about once a month for a few days to do analysis, and A LOT can change in a month when it comes to the growth of a vine. The last time I was down, everything still seemed dormant. Now it’s hardly even spring, and the vines are eager to produce fruit and soak up some sunshine. This is going to be an interesting harvest, and ours is always particularly long because we have three vineyards. Two are east side Paso Robles, but one is in Santa Maria, so we have a very long growing and harvesting season. Fruit ripens earlier in the south counties, so we have Chardonnay, Pinot Noir coming first. We also have some really great cool climate Syrah and Grenache coming from the Murmur vineyard as well. Basically we have the best of both worlds when it comes to fruit. It just means our harvest tends to last a bit longer than those of other people dealing with only one climate.
9:00 PM: I’m back home. Shower, prep coffee, lay out clothes for tomorrow morning. Sleeping by 9:30.
7:15 AM: Back at the Castle (Tooth and Nail) in Paso Robles. Today I scope out the Cabernet Sauvignon block. It’s pruned, and bud break has definitely happened. It’s not as far along as the Syrah, but further than the Zinfandel. We only have about nine and a half acres of estate fruit, so it’s not difficult to walk a few blocks in the morning and get really intimate with the vines. This block overlooks Midnight Cellars and Dark Star across the way from us on Anderson Road. Sometimes, when I’m delivering the case transfer to the tasting room on Thursdays, I’ll shoot a text to my buddy Brandon over at Midnight Cellars and wave and see if he can see me.
9:00 AM: With all equipment sanitized – clamps, gaskets, tank, hoses, and pump – I am ready to rack the Orange Muscat to tank. I know, I know, sounds overly sweet and icky, but it’s for a nice white blend we make called Fragrant Snare, and it is actually not overly sweet and is great for summer! It’s mostly Chardonnay, Albariño, bone-dry Gewürztraminer and a splash of the Orange Muscat. It’s the only wine we actually source juice for, and it’s just to make something light and easy drinking. I think our marketing people call it the “porch-pounder”.
9:30 AM: Racked Orange Muscat to tank, cleaned up, organized and stacked barrels, checked bioreactor, did a quick bung swap and barrel wipe-down of some of our lots still going through malo-lactic fermentation. They tend to get a little funky if you don’t keep an eye on them, in addition to popping bungs left and right and just being overall unruly. Put the case transfer together for the tasting room, then took lunch at 12:30. I LOOOOOOOVE days where I have time to take lunch! The day seems very mellow to me, and I think it’s just because we got the blends to tank so quickly, perfectly, and almost effortlessly. Neither boss is around today.
1:00 PM: I take the case transfer to the tasting room. I started just straight up driving the forklift into the tasting room, whether people are in tasting or not. I think people like the excitement of seeing a forklift in the tasting room. We may not have knights in shining armor, but we have me, on a forklift, delivering cases upon cases of wine, and I’m usually dressed like a freak of nature with two-toned eye makeup.
4:00 PM: Went to meet up with my wine homey, Brandon, assistant winemaker across the way at Midnight Cellars. I can be a little reclusive, but I’ve been trying to get out more. We talk shop and sip beer. I stay for about an hour and then make the longish drive back home to Los Osos. I need to get a place in Paso, already. UGH! This harvest is going to suck if I’m still commuting!
6:00 PM: My love and I put on some music, sip some beers, and prepare the marinade for this epic, five-pound pork shoulder he picked up at J&R meats in Arroyo Grande. It’s great to have him back home. I’ve missed his company terribly.
5:00 AM: Everyone is freaking out because not only is some master Sommelier supposedly coming to taste in the tasting room and cellar later on, but also our wine club pick-up party and shipment is also on the horizon, and our GM needs numbers, like yesterday. I do NOT go back to bed after pushing the coffee button this morning. I get out of bed, make fresh squeezed orange juice, get ready as fast as I can, and make sure I am at work by seven (OK, actually 6:45) to pull samples for one of our winemakers and get a decent jump on inventory for our GM. I don’t want anyone to stress out, but somehow everyone does anyway. I don’t know how many times I need to tell everyone to relax, because I’ll get things handled, but people stress, no matter what. I think it’s just human nature. And I get it. I wouldn’t trust anyone to do my job better than I either, so I get their shot nerves.
10:00 AM: The day is chaotic as hell. I understand that stress levels are high. I do what I can to help, but it’s like herding cats. Everyone is cranky, frustrated. I’m put on one job, then pulled off it and put on another. I’m happy it’s Friday, as I could use a beer, and oh my, look at the time! It’s not even close to noon!
2:00 PM: I finally get around to eating lunch, and lucky me, my homie Stillman Brown, winemaker at Zeppelin Winery, says that if I “model” his latest T-shirt design for his winery, he’ll give me one free. He cruises over to Tooth & Nail. As much as I want the T-shirt, I’m actually more excited for some light-hearted company and maybe a few laughs. The tension and energy in the cellar was super negative today. Fridays are usually so casual and fun. Not necessarily light in the work load department, but moods are chipper. This Friday sucked hard, and I’m eager to get home and party with my love, who has been working night shift at the nuclear power plant where I used to work as well, before making a mid-life career change that involved a LOT less money but a LOT more fun. And who can say the struggle to pay your bills isn’t worth it when your hands are cracked, dry, bleeding, stained; you haven’t washed your pants or your hair in a week; all your clothes are stained; your friends can’t remember the last time you partied together; and your family tells you if you don’t get another hobby you’ll drive everyone around you crazy??? Whatever. It’s called passion, and I have it!
4:00 PM: I’m out the door and sailing toward Los Osos. I could not be happier to put this day behind me.
6:15 PM: I may have sent my love a text about the day not being amazing, so as soon as I rolled up, he had a 32 oz. bottle of PBR and a shot of Jameson waiting for me. The pork shoulder is already smoking on the Traeger. I stop at the market on the way home and get green beans, butter, potatoes, cream, chicken stock, and cookies! I said I would make the starch and the vegetable dish, even though stopping at the market was the last thing I wanted to do on my way home from work.
8:00 AM: People can talk all they want about “easy like Sunday Morning,” but Saturday is where it’s at, and Saturday mornings in particular. Saturday morning you can be a little hung-over. You can stay up a little too late the night before and sleep in a little too long that morning – with or without a hangover – wake up slowly, sip coffee and juice in bed, read an actual paper that will stain your fingers with ink, wrestle a bit with your lover, and just be decadent. Saturday is a day that is completely free because you have a buffer on both ends. Friday is work and then absolute hedonism, and Sunday is you trying to repent, or at least recover enough from your sins and transgressions from the night before so you can function again Monday morning.
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