Slave to the Vine: Confessions of a Vagabond Cellarhand

by Darren Delmore

Wine. It makes us feel so cool — sipping at home next to a roaring fire; ordering something unpronounceable at a the latest Michelin-starred restaurant; being seen, glass in hand, at the local hipster tasting room. It’s unfortunate that in this life-is-a-constant-photo-op day and age, wine has become a prop, a fashion-icon even. And for wine drinkers (as opposed to wine appreciators or wine students), the story stops there. To those wine drinkers I say: You know nothing.

What we pour into our glass is not a drink. It is a story — a story of a farmer who planted his parcel to vines; a story of climate and soil; a story of farmhands who pruned, picked, and sorted; a story of cellarhands who pressed, pumped, and racked. Forget the bottle, forget the label, forget your crystal stemware. Wine’s story is rustic, it’s dirty, it’s gritty. Wine’s story is a story of hard labor and hard decisions. Wine’s story: If you haven’t lived it, you don’t really know.

Darren Delmore has lived it and shares his story here.

About the Book: Darren Delmore’s Slave to the Vine is a personal memoir of a man who leaves his California Central Coast hometown, job, and (cheating) wife for Northern California’s Sonoma Coast. After meeting the famed David Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards at a tasting event, Darren is invited to work a harvest season for the man who’s become synonymous with west-side Sonoma Pinot Noir. It’s an opportunity many in the wine industry would covet; it’s an opportunity Darren can’t pass up.

It’s not that Darren hasn’t worked a harvest or two in the past or that he’s a stranger to the inner workings of a winery, but it seems it’s at Hirsch Vineyards that he learns just how hard vineyard and cellar work can be and how that hard work translates to the quality of the wine that’s ultimately produced. It’s a lifestyle that causes him to question his profession, his goals, even, at times, his ethics.

And his story doesn’t begin and end with David Hirsch. We travel along with Darren up and down the California coast, around the Bay Area, and as far north as Oregon.

The memoir is written in a diary-esque fashion. It’s raw, train-of thought, giving it the impression of being un-edited. At times Darren will include details from his day that some may find cross the “TMI” line, or he’ll write about obscure nuances that may not seem important to the main theme or storyline. And yet, the somewhat scattered writing style perfectly parallels not just his life during this time, but vineyard life in general. One cannot count on a day-to-day schedule or a sense of regularity. Working in winemaking means working with Mother Nature, using what the land gives you, and literally becoming a slave to the vine.

“Vagabond” is right — one has to have a certain amount of flexibility. Not everyday means getting work or getting paid, but when it’s time to get the job done, there’s an all-hands-on-deck kind of urgency. And once the job’s done, be prepared to scavenger for your next gig.

What You’ll Learn: The wine industry isn’t always pretty. But I think I covered that in my introduction and synopsis.

What else you’ll learn is what all those wine tech sheets seem to gloss over. How long does it take to “hand-sort and de-stem each vineyard lot”? What’s a “vineyard lot,” for that matter? Primary fermentation; secondary fermentation; pump-over; press; barrel names, shapes, sizes — if you’re a wannabe wine-geek, keep your pen and flashcards at hand, there’s a wealth of vocab terms at your disposal in this book. What’s more is you learn how each of these processes or tools affect the resulting wine. Darren Delmore’s memoir is an opportunity to educate your mind and your palate.

Wine Pairing: Truly good wine literature makes you crave great wine while you’re reading. Truly good wine literature will make you throw out your $10 of “Insert name-brand wine bought at TJ’s/BevMo/Safeway” and go out to your local, independent wine shop and seek out something that, like the book itself, will educate and challenge your brain and tastebuds. Slave to the Vine does just that.

My personal recommendation is to seek out a founding California wine: Hirsch, William Selyem, Bacigalupi, Rochioli — think big names with small lots.

More Info: I did receive Darren Belmore’s Slave to the Vine as a gift. (Cheers, Darren!) I guarantee you that this in no way has influenced my opinion of the book. For more information about Darren, you can follow him on Instagram and his personal website. His memoir, Slave to the Vine is available for purchase on Amazon ($16).

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