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This is the story of my immersion in harvest at a local winery, how mere humans are always at the mercy of Mother Nature 7 and why I need to develop more upper body strength.

Several months ago, I asked wine publicist and friend Sao Anash if she could hook me up with a winery during harvest. For some time now, I/ve wanted to experience everything that goes on behind the scenes in vineyards this time of year. I/ve seen the flatbed trucks hauling grape-laden bins around our towns, and the glare of spotlights in the vineyards lining the roads on my trips home at night; and I/ve smelled the palpable excitement in the air.

But that wasn/t enough. I wanted an insider/s perspective.

In mid-September, Anash introduced me to owner Iris Rideau and winemaker Andres Ibarra of Rideau Vineyards, who both graciously agreed to let me participate in the winery/s harvest.

That day I also met Caren Rideau, goddaughter of Iris Rideau, who has launched her own wine brand, &#8220Siempre.C The first wine to be released under the Siempre label is the &#8220Caren/s Cuvee,C a tempranillo-based red wine designed to pair with Mexican-influenced dishes.

Caren Rideau, who was born in Arizona but grew up in Los Angeles, is the daughter of a Mexican-American mother, and a Creole father from New Orleans.

&#8220My mother used to cook on Sundays,C she said. &#8220It was the time when our whole family would come together and the day would revolve around my mother/s cooking. The fresh smells from the kitchen are permanently embedded in my mind.//

In addition to making her Siempre label, Caren Rideau is assistant winemaker at Rideau and a successful kitchen and bathroom designer in Los Angeles. She spends weekdays in L.A. and, during harvest, most weekends at Rideau.

As everyone involved in the current harvest knows, it/s a late one. The cooler weather on the Central Coast throughout part of August and September has slowed the rate of development of the brix 7 the fruit sugar component crucial to adequate fermentation of the processed grape. In essence: More sugar, more alcohol.

Naturally, vintners are keen on having their grapes &#8220growC a sufficient percentage of brix before harvest. What/s the ideal brix level? Depends on the varietal of the grape. There are vintners who have some of their grapes already harvested; some remain completely held up by Mother Nature/s whims.

Ideal weather for this time of year, the first week in October, would &#8220be consistent, every day the same, with temperatures in the 70s and 80s,C Ibarra told me Saturday. That means no sudden drop in the temperature 7 Friday/s Santa Ynez Valley temperature dropped about 10 degrees from Thursday/s 7 and no rain. Sunday, a light but steady rain fell throughout Santa Barbara County.

But I digress. Let me backtrack to midmorning Sept. 20, my first day at Rideau. Since there were no grapes to process that day, I was put right to work by the crew foreman filling empty wine barrels with hot water from a hose. The hot water and resulting water pressure cause the oak to swell for a tighter seal; if the barrel panels don/t swell, they will leak.

During my five hours that day at Rideau, I managed to fill 29 of the 34 barrels racked on their sides inside the winery/s new, high-ceiling warehouse. Of 29 barrels, about four leaked; of those, only two flunked the water pressure test; the foreman said those would likely be retired, since a leaky barrel is of no good use.

While mostly alone in the processing warehouse for the bulk of that afternoon, I took stock of the equipment in which grapes would be turned to wine: eight tall stainless steel cold fermentation tanks, each with a capacity of 1,602 gallons, plus three smaller steel tanks. The barrels were swollen and dripping with water. And the grape press itself, standing tall and proud, awaiting the stars of the show at Rideau, the grapes themselves.

Mark Cargasacchi, Rideau/s enologist and a burgeoning winemaker himself, with grapes from his family/s vineyards in Santa Rita Hills and another on Jalama Road, busied himself testing the brix of several varietals collected in pickle buckets.

With an eye on the weather that Wednesday, Ibarra told me he wasn/t sure when or if he/d have any fruit for me to help process later that week. As it turns out, Ibarra did get grapes, but when he called to tell me he/d trucked in some petite sirah grapes from Paso Robles, I had a work conflict and couldn/t get back to Rideau.

Fast forward to Sept. 30. Ibarra had purchased viognier grapes from another vineyard and they were arriving that morning. While awaiting them, Ibarra, Caren Rideau and I talked about the weather and baseball. I met Eric Caldwell, owner of La Presa Vineyards; Ibarra is vineyard manager at La Presa in addition to his winemaking duties at Rideau.

When eight one-ton bins of viognier grapes arrived via flatbed, Caren Rideau and Ibarra jumped to work, teaming to unload the bins from the truck and carefully weigh their contents. Once weighed and catalogued, the bins/ contents were dumped into the press, and the empty bins came back to me for a hosing down with more hot water 7 my new pastime at Rideau.

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While the press gently crushed eight bins of viognier grapes into juice, we broke for lunch at a picnic table on Rideau/s spacious lawn.

Midafternoon, Ibarra announced it was time for Rideau/s fermenting petite sirah grapes to get &#8220punched down,C and was I game to do the job? Of course, I said: It looked easy. I watched Ibarra demonstrate, balancing on the edge of the fermentation box, and aim for the grape stew, using his body weight to &#8220punchC down through the cap with the long-handled, flat-bottomed tool.

But wait: I have no balance. I/m all legs, and I tip over at the drop of a hat. Ask anybody. Standing perched on the edge of the box was out of the question, unless it was OK to fall into the mix.

I tried using a ladder, but I couldn/t get my weight behind me. Ibarra then dragged over a plastic bin, and I clambered up. OK, I thought, perfect, now I can use my body weight to punch 7 hey! This is HARD work. Welcome to the joys of winemaking, and what makes me whine.

Cargasacchi showed me how to repeatedly punch down one area of the cap, stirring up the liquid, before moving on to another, tougher part. Sweating and short of breath, I finished one box/s punch-down what felt like hours later. Ibarra graciously took the tool from me and moved on to another box, balancing as gracefully as a dancer on the edges of the box, moving as easily as if he were just raking leaves.

Two days later, my poor body still hurts when I sneeze. Take it from me: Punch-downs for the novice are excellent for one/s abdominal muscles.

Coming Oct. 18: All grapes, all the time. And further adventures with me and hot water, this time inside the bowels of the press.

I am fortunate indeed for the kindness and knowledge given me by Ibarra, Cargasacchi, Caren and Iris Rideau and Caldwell. Without the help of these fine folk, I/d be safe and dry at home 7 but where/s the fun in that?

Laurie Jervis is the news editor for the Santa Maria Times and a wine enthusiast. Her column appears every other Wednesday. She can be reached at ljervis@ santamariatimes.com.

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