Book Chronicles Amateur's Year in a Winery

Liane Hansen speaks with Eric Arnold about his book First Big Crush. The light-hearted book details a year that Arnold spent working a New Zealand winery.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Now from the science of soufflé to the making of wine. In 2004 Eric Arnold packed his bags and boarded a plan bound for Marlboro, New Zealand. He spent a year there as an unpaid worker at the Allen Scott Winery. He wrote about the experience in his book called "First Big Crush." And Arnold says he didn't know much about wine before this adventure.

Mr. ERIC ARNOLD (Author, "First Big Crush"): Really, I think the limit of it was just about how much I could drink before I'd get sick, I think, as I really didn't know anything else about wine. It really started when I went on vacation to New Zealand in 2001. And a British guy who I was traveling around the south island with said, hey, when we get to Marlboro we should go visit some wineries.

And from the very first sip I was just enamored with this stuff.

HANSEN: Why were the people at Allen Scott Winery willing to take you on?

Mr. ARNOLD: Naivete maybe? No. I think - the thing is - Allen Scott is, he's a brilliant guy and he's always had a great sense of sort of where wine fits into society and that it's a tourism business, that it's a agricultural business, and quite frankly that it's the alcohol business and it's marketing.

So when I emailed him out of the blue, you know, him not knowing me, me not knowing him, he just said, hey, well, you know, why not give it a try? And next thing I knew I'm still there after a year.

HANSEN: 2004, that's the vintage, the year that you were there. And this was a pretty remarkable harvest, was it not?

Mr. ARNOLD: It was, it was. It was really one of the biggest they'd ever seen volume-wise. It's one of the things that people don't realize about growing grapes and making wine, is that the amount of grapes that are on each vine is carefully controlled. Actually, the lower the crop - not always - but the lower the crop a lot of times the better the wine - ultimate wine quality. So if you grow too many grapes per vine, you get basically, I don't know, dishwasher detergent or something.

So in this particular year it's just the weather conditions were such that the crop volume was the biggest it had ever been for the region, so it was going to take a lot of work to bring it all in.

HANSEN: What was the hardest job you had to do?

Mr. ARNOLD: One of the worst is pruning the vines at the end of the season. Basically, you know, once the grapes are all picked and all the leaves have fallen off the vine, you have to trim all of the excess branches off of each vine and basically reposition the vine to grow the best possible crop that you can the following year.

And this is one of the most physically demanding and really awful tasks. And the best people at it make a ton of money doing it, 'cause they get paid by the vine, but also it requires extreme precision and skill. And you know, me just going out there and doing it, I kept getting whacked in the face with branches. It was very humbling.

HANSEN: What was the biggest mistake you made?

Mr. ARNOLD: It was a joint effort between myself and the wine maker. We dropped the metal fitting on a big hose into a pump. And I did not realize the power that this pump had. And it just started pulling this stainless steel fitting through. And this giant, you know, $10,000 piece of equipment started to lurch around as if it was having an epileptic seizure and I caused a significant amount of damage to it.

HANSEN: Ooh.

Mr. ARNOLD: Yeah.

HANSEN: I'm surprised they didn't put you on a plane then.

Mr. ARNOLD: I'm surprised they didn't put me through the pump. And you know, the truth of the matter is all of my screw-ups were really, apparently from what I was told, nothing compared to what most people, the damage that most people cause in their first vintage.

HANSEN: Explain how you got grape skins in your underwear.

Mr. ARNOLD: Well, it's really fun. I put them there.

HANSEN: Come on.

Mr. ARNOLD: No. Basically the difference between red wine and white wine is that with white wine you basically just ferment the clear juice. With red wine you put everything - the skins, the seeds the crushed berries all go into the tank, and that's what makes red wine red. It's because the skin of the grapes are red.

So when the wine is done fermenting, you have to separate the skins and the actual wine. So basically you run all the wine out of the tank and it goes through a sieve and everything and you can just pump it into another tank, but then you're left in this tank full of skins and you have to get them out. So you know, it's over your waist level when you jump into the tank.

So you know, if you're not wearing some sort of work suit, you know, all the skins go right into your boots, into your pants and into your underwear.

HANSEN: Boy, this is really dirty work, isn't it?

Mr. ARNOLD: Absolutely, absolutely. And it was something I was just not expecting. And you know, people associate wine with sophistication and glamour, and producing it just isn't sophisticated or glamorous. You know, if you go to work at a winery then you really got another thing coming to you.

HANSEN: Eric Arnold is the author of "First Big Crush: The Down and Dirty of Making Great Wine Down Under." It's published by Scribner. He joined us from our New York bureau. Thanks a lot. Cheers.

Mr. ARNOLD: Thanks very much for having me here.

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The Down and Dirty on Making Great Wine Down Under

by Eric Arnold

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