Those eyes. I'll never forget those eyes. They were a frog's eyes, but still—the horror, the horror.
It's around this time, every October, that I remember. The blood-orange sun had set, and I was working into the night, dragging the hose from one tank to another for that evening's pump-over routine. But the last tank had just got started fermenting. And as the stew of grapes and juice and material other than grapes (MOG) began frothing and swirling into a vortex, I saw a little frog, hanging onto a clump of grape skins and staring back at me. Was he saying "Help me" or "It's too late for me"? I offered the little fellow a paddle and implored him to grab on, but he sank in a vat of Zinfandel as red and frothy as hot lava, still staring at me as he went down to his doom.
It was like the fable of the scorpion and the frog, except that instead of "It's my nature," all I could say was, "Sorry, dude, I'm just the harvest intern."
"You didn't save me," the frog replied. "You will have bad sulfides for seven years."
A luckier little fellow was a mouse I spotted perched atop a cartload of rain-soaked grapes in Germany. A pointy-eared critter out of some fairy-tale illustration, Herr Maus looked perfectly pleased with himself—until I called attention to him, and the farmer gently pitched the mouse off the cart before he got dumped headfirst into the crusher.
Equally lucky was the gangly, green praying mantis scooped by a watchful intern off the sorting line destined for high-priced Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. Not so lucky or plucky was the intern at another winery, who fled the job in horror after facing a daily stream of earwigs crawling over the grapes. That year, it was earwigs; another, it was the dread drosophila, an invasive fruit fly that causes vinegar aromas in wines.
Some wineries have ultra-modern optical sorting devices that, it's claimed, bump everything but perfectly ripe grapes off the line. Others harvest by machine, throwing everything in the mix. But even hand-picked grapes harbor bugs both good and bad—spiders being the good ones. I try to lend them a hand when I spot them attempting to wobble out.
It is our nature, after all, as winemakers and consumers. Each vintage, innumerable critters and creepy-crawlies find themselves suspended in fermentation, slowly settling out in the dregs of the wine. But don't worry. Aside from the odd drosophila or ladybug invasion, they say that no trace really remains in the wine you buy by the bottle. Except their itty-bitty ghosts.