August 2007, Long Island, NY
The ocean sounded like a chain gang breaking rocks, and the steady rhythmic quality almost caused Donovan to fall asleep again. A derelict in the grip of a codeine haze would have had an easier time waking up. He still hadn’t gotten used to the six a.m. alarm, nor the intense cold which lay in wait for him once he did finally get out of bed.
Most of the others had signed on to a life working at the winery, meaning they would chase the harvest around the world, live a nomadic existence, until one day they settled down. Donovan was still stepping his toe into that water.
Uncertainty plagued him about the future.
“Wake up, you bastard,” Chris said. Donovan sat up in the darkness.
“I’m up, I’m up,” Donovan recited in a Pavlovian response.
Previous mornings, Chris had taken to throwing various items if Donovan failed to rise at the designated time. Socks, compact disc cases, pillows, and a lit Zippo lighter had all careened against Donovan’s face throughout the last few days. Donovan was now conditioned to respect the wake-up call. He wondered how Chris could be so deadly accurate in the pitch black, and why the guy hadn’t been snatched up to do wet work for some black ops group.
Donovan sat up and turned on the lamp.
Chris was perched on the edge of his bed. He was already dressed, wearing scuffed jeans and a stained white T-shirt. He clutched an empty wine bottle in his right hand. Donovan couldn’t tell if it was an eye opener or something to be used as a projectile should Donovan have remained in bed. Before he could ask, Chris placed the bottle on the end table, along with the other empties, and walked out of the room.
The winery kept them placated with wine, and Chris took advantage. They all did. In the month Donovan had been working there, he’d consumed about two bottles a day, from tastings to the cases his group took home with them. At times, he felt like a kitchen sink writer fueling his creativity with alcohol in some Parisian haunt with the rest of the ex-pats while they seemed on the verge of solving various epidemics.
Donovan let out a deep yawn, the kind that comes from the soul, and followed Chris’s path to the landing.
The house was on the North Fork of Long Island at one of the most Eastern points. The couple who owned the house was gone for the winter, so they allowed the winery to rent it to their interns for the harvest months. Bookcases with porcelain nicknacks and wicker furniture were everywhere. Donovan stretched on the landing, sleep still not entirely out of his system. He took the stairs two at a time and found the rest of his housemates scurrying about in some ritualistic fervor.
A big pot of oatmeal sat bubbling on the stovetop. The rest of the crew sat at the wooden dining room table, their empty bowls in front of them ready to re-enact a scene from Dickens’ orphanage.
Donovan had just turned twenty-two, graduated a year early with a classics degree, and like a long line of philosophers before him, made the decision to experience life before theorizing about it. That and his crashing on his older brother’s couch no longer suited either of them. They managed to live together in a studio apartment in Queens for three months before an ultimatum was issued.
The job at the winery solved both of their problems.
Donovan watched each of his housemates take a turn slopping oatmeal into their bowls and realized he still didn’t truly feel like he’d been accepted as part of this group. They were all aspiring vintners who would spend the new few years chasing the wine harvests from the North Fork of Long Island to New Zealand until they finally settled down at wineries which would come under their command. He felt like a transient among them. They weren’t openly hostile toward him; even when Chris threw projectiles, Donovan could sense there was friendship buried within the gesture.
Food eaten and dishes thrown haphazardly in the sink, the crew headed out to the cars. Donovan shut the door behind him and felt the chill of the salty air layer his skin like dew. The gravel driveway sang beneath his feet, and he took the shotgun seat in Chris’s blue Chevy Nova. Chris turned the radio and heater on full blast.
“Let’s do this,” Chris said and pulled out of the driveway.
The road was empty, and they were able to go twenty miles over the posted speed limit without any fear of reprisal. The sun appeared out of the water behind them, revealing rows of cornfield and vineyards on either side of them. If a realist painter were to do a landscape portrait of the area, it might be titled “Serenity.” The music coming from the stereo shattered this vision. The sun’s ascension happened quickly, and soon the whole of Eastern Long Island was awash in bright colors.
Chris pulled into the parking lot in front of the main building. He put the car in park but left the engine running. Donovan tried the door, but it was locked.
“Come on man,” Chris said.
“Maybe just this once?” Donovan said, now beginning to feel physically ill. He tried to unlock the door and pull the handle rapidly, but Chris had pressed the button again before the mechanism on Donovan’s door could catch.
“That’s how the fabric of the system breaks down,” Chris began. “Classics guy like yourself doesn’t know that?”
“I don’t think the Sophists were talking about—” Donovan started to say, but trailed off. Chris wasn’t listening anymore. He was banging his head to the beat. Chris drummed on the steering wheel and added his own lyrical accompaniment. Twelve minutes later Donovan and Chris stood on the crushing deck outside of the winery awaiting delivery of one hundred and fifty FYBs. It stood for Fucking Yellow Bins. One yellow bin held about twenty-five pounds of grapes. Neither Chris nor Donovan was surprised when two hundred FYBs showed up. Next, they’d have to consolidate these into four large bins and dump it all into the press by the forklift.
“Smile, man, we could be doing something really bad,” Chris said.
Both of their arms got scratched by rubbing against the rough edges of the stems. Worse, the sugar from the grape juice attracted the bees.
Donovan never fully grasped the weight of the term swarm. To him, it was a word people on nature shows threw around. It was something he associated with plagues from the Bible. Now encircling him and Chris was a swarm of bees driven mad from the sugar, dive bombing them. It added another layer of misery to an already miserable situation. Donovan walked away from the machine and massaged the back of his neck.
That same day, it was Donovan’s turn at the tank. He grabbed a large wooden paddle, which rested against the side of the tank, and climbed the ladder up to the top. The tank was highly polished silver, full of fermenting grape juice. The top layer had foamed over into what looked like purple pond scum—the sound of carbon dioxide escaping made a constant hiss. For the next few days, the yeast in the mixture would feed on the sugar in the liquid. The byproducts would be carbon dioxide and alcohol. Donovan’s job was to swirl the mixture to help ease this part along. There was a catch though.
The amount of CO2 in the air was thick; passing out mid-stroke was a definite possibility, and an unconscious person falling off the ladder, or worse, into the vat, was something the winery was looking to avoid. Therefore, it was the policy that everyone swirling the mixture had to sing. It helped keep the person alert, but also acted as a beacon for the other interns. If the singing stopped, they knew there was a problem. When Donovan brought up the idea of using gas masks or oxygen tanks, management simply began to laugh.
Donovan dipped his paddle in the solution and began to sing.
“Woo, Freebird!” Chris yelled from across the way.
Donovan stopped singing. Chris sat on top of a pyramid of wine barrels with his Zippo out and flaming. Donovan went back to work.
He watched the pattern change and searched for meaning within the bubbles like a witch would tea leaves or chicken bones. If he could decipher a message, he thought he could somehow figure out the key to life. The mixture swirled into different patterns, much like the evolution of clouds through the sky. The CO2 bombarded his face, and he got lightheaded, but still managed to sing. He chose the song “Mannish Boy” by Muddy Waters.
“Jesus!” He felt Chris pull him backward.
Donovan shook his head and realized that in his haze, he’d nearly pitched forward into the vat.
“You okay?” Chris said.
Donovan stared at Chris’s mouth, but the sound was not quite in sync.
“Come on,” Chris said and helped Donovan climb down the ladder. Outside, the air cleared his head.
“Thank you,” Donovan finally managed.
“No sweat,” Chris said. “I gotta head back inside. You gonna be fine?”
“I’ll be fine.”
Donovan rested against the wall and stared out at the fields of grapes. He wondered if what he had experienced was a premonition or just the side effects of too much CO2.
Jasmine popped her head out of the doorway. She was his supervisor.
“Hey, you finished with the vat?”
“Yep,” Donovan said.
“Good, come with me.” Donovan followed Jasmine along to the other side of the warehouse to a machine he hadn’t seen before.
“You’re going to filter the lees from the last batch.”
Lees was the name given to the sediment of dead yeast which collected at the bottom of the vat. Hidden within the lees was still drinkable wine which could be extracted. It was a delicate process, however. If it worked, lees filtering could be responsible for saving up to 10% of the total output for the winery.
“We call this cookie baking.” Jasmine held up a large chunk of solidified lees which looked like a giant graham cracker.
“Too much good stuff in here.” Jasmine quickly showed Donovan how the filter worked. “Nothing is ever wasted,” she added.
“Wait, what?” Donovan said. The words seemed to ring and repeat themselves in his ears. He felt a wave of euphoria envelop him and felt better about everything.
Jasmine furrowed her brow. “You good with this?”
“Yeah,” Donovan said. “Nothing is ever wasted.” He nodded a few times.
Jasmine left him alone. Donovan lifted the first hardened section of lees and fed it into the machine. He watched as the instrument extracted the usable wine from the solid then separate the rest.