Wine & “The Bear”

A wine industry perspective on the summer’s new hit show

(spoilers ahead)

The Bear on Hulu has gotten a lot of attention this summer. The first episode is some of the most chaotic television I’ve ever seen and I was immediately hooked. I felt like I was holding my breath the entire time and could finally let go once the episode was over. 30 minutes of frantic kitchen jargon, me thinking “what’s going on, who are these people, is his name Bear? Is this about The French Laundry or a deli?” So of course I had to continue watching to answer my questions and like many others, I binged it. I was not disappointed by the show (I had no expectations or prior knowledge of it besides the fact that it was about a cook) and I liked how it showed the nitty-gritty, unglamorous side of the glamorous fine dining industry. The chaos, the yelling at one another, but the coming together for family dinner and how at the end of the day the team generally had one another’s backs. This, specifically, reminded me vividly of working in wine production.

In her article “What ‘The Bear’ Gets Right (and Wrong) About Restaurant Work,” published in Food & Wine, Jane Brendlinger talks about how the show hit home for herself and restaurant workers all over the world. The late nights, the exhaustion, the relationships with family and friends falling by the wayside while consumed with work and the raw, not-so-fine reality of what happens behind the kitchen doors of fine-dining establishments. She talks about how refreshing it is to see this, and not the romanticized Hollywood portrayal of cooking. But she also critiqued the show heavily for its over-exaggerations, plot holes and the fact that restaurants being toxic work places is not news. That may be true, but as a winery worker and someone who has never worked in a kitchen, I was somehow still able to resonate with many of the struggles that the staff in the show face. There is one scene during the season where the kitchen has its ultimate peak in pandemonium: the staff could not be more unprepared for opening, they become overwhelmed with orders they aren’t stocked to fill, everyone is hanging on by a thread, people become frustrated and some even walk out, and that’s when I thought to myself: oh crap, it’s just like harvest.

Everyone knows that food and wine go hand in hand. Fine dining and fine wine are situated on the same level of exclusivity, glamour, prestige and elevation. While both are fabulous, both intentionally create exclusivity and hoops to jump through in order to enjoy the experiences they offer. Just as the food industry makes it difficult, nearly impossible, to get reservations at the world’s most elite restaurants, there is a very apparent barrier to entry in the wine industry. Fine-wine growing regions price even their entry-level tastings exorbitantly high, bottles are getting more and more expensive and tasting appointments can be as hard to achieve as reservations at a Keller establishment. Some wineries create such an aura of exclusivity that tastings are not even open to the public – only a select few can even dream of experiencing certain Napa wineries if they know the right people and are willing to pay the right price.

Yet, behind those expensive bottles year after year is the grit and tenacity of the people who make the wine that is enjoyed by so many across the globe. The chaos in the kitchen and realness of the cooks in The Bear reminded me of working in the cellar during harvest. I was fortunate to have worked for a winery in Napa that fostered a cellar culture of hard work, but also fun and passion that made the long and grueling hours worth it. However, it’s still hard.

I’m going to speak to my experience, but I know many wineries in Napa Valley operate similarly. It starts in the vineyard. What most people don’t know is that the best time to pick fruit is in the middle of the night when the temperatures are cool, and that’s exactly when most high-quality producers will pick. And since most high-quality producers prefer to hand pick their clusters, that means actual humans are out in the vineyards hand harvesting anytime between sunset to sunrise depending on when mother nature and the winemaking team decide it’s time to pick.

Next up, fruit must be processed as soon as possible after being picked in order to maintain quality. You don’t want your very expensive grapes sitting out in the 90˚ Napa heat. So that means someone must be there at the winery whenever the fruit arrives. This can be as early as 3 a.m. Somebody must be there to operate the presses and/or crushers in which the fruit is processed, so it can enter the winery and begin the fermentation process. Then, the rest of the team begin to trickle in. By 7 a.m. the day shift is in full swing.

After all the fruit is in press or tank, there is still plenty of work to be done. Cleaning those bins in which the fruit arrived, cleaning tanks for the next day’s fruit, pushing pumps and dragging hoses around, getting juice splashed on you, yelling at someone to “turn the freaking pump off” or to put their hand over juice shooting out of a tank that didn’t get the proper valve, the possibilities are endless. When times get so hectic that you have to scream at someone across the cellar because it’s so loud, and if you don’t act fast hundreds of gallons of wine could be lost. Or when the power goes out and you have to think on your feet about how to pump the juice out of the press pan into a tank with no electricity. Having experienced all of this, I appreciated the “messiness” from the show that Brendlinger highlighted in her article: “the cracked egg on the floor, the backed-up toilet, wrong deliveries and unpaid vendors, and the audible and visual chaos that comes when a million things are happening all at once in one kitchen,” she says. For me, the cracked egg was those peak, crazy harvest days in the cellar: the wet and slippery floors, the sticky surfaces everywhere, hoses laid across every square inch of the floor like sprawling veins, dirty buckets tossed in the corner, the absolute mess during the busiest hours of the day before anyone has a second to breathe and finally start to clean up.

There’s no fire involved (or at least there shouldn’t be) like there is in a kitchen, but there can be extremely dangerous situations if proper safety precautions aren’t met. Harsh alkaline cleaning chemicals that can literally melt skin if not protected by PPE, sulfur in solid, liquid and gas forms that has the power to really do some damage, several forklifts driving simultaneously on the crush pad that mimic the chaotic streets of Rome, CO2 gas wafting out of tanks that can be asphyxiating if not properly ventilated, large rotating machines that can pull you in (think “no capes” in The Incredibles). Making wine is obviously not life or death, but without the proper safety measures in a cellar it can in fact become this way.

At UC Davis we spent so much time going over safety precautions in the cellar and how to avoid these catastrophes. We were required to be familiar with and know the safety ins and outs of the cellar in order to continue as students in the wine program and be allowed to work in the on-campus winery. In Napa, we are also required to attend safety presentations regularly and follow OSHA safety guidelines at all times when working in the winery or operating forklifts. The reason I go into such detail about how dangerous a winery can be is to show the extremes of how opposite production is from the luxurious, elite tasting experiences seen on Instagram and on TV. Not to mention the attire of a cellar could not be further from that of a patron of a fine dining establishment – old, worn out jeans and a t-shirt you don’t care for because it will likely rip or get wine on it many times before harvest is through.

In the thick of harvest, our team would spend anywhere from 12 to 16 hours at the winery 6 days a week (some wineries require 7 days of work). I all but dropped off the face of the earth to the outside world – people in my life knew that from August to November I was on a schedule of work, eat (maybe), sleep and repeat, similar to how Carmy and his chefs live. Like I said in my harvest post, it’s exhilarating and I loved it. While I never experienced anything like what Carmy’s superior hissed to him in his flashback in the show, the wine program at UC Davis wasn’t exactly easy on its students. They did this because they knew that when we entered the industry (particularly production) we wouldn’t have our hands held. It would closely resemble the energy in the kitchens in The Bear. We would be expected to give up our personal and social lives during harvest, clean bins for 10 hours straight and not complain about it, face long hours of heavy lifting, unpredictability and the exact kind of chaos and potentially dangerous situations I described. They were trying to prepare us to always stay alert and think on our feet, like Carmy does when something goes awry in the kitchen but there are customers waiting to be served. That information was almost as valuable as learning how to make great wine.

Yes, The Bear is a TV show and not 100% accurate. It may have embellished and dramatized, but the message is there. The viewer is forced to witness the grit, passion, dirt, blood, sweat and tears that go into a perfectly plated dish. The same goes for making great wine. When someone is so passionate about wine and doing a good job during harvest that they sacrifice time with their loved ones and themselves, miss weddings and birthdays, come in to work when the surrounding valley is on fire and flames are visible in the distance, all to ensure the wine gets made. That’s the side that doesn’t get portrayed to the public and I’m thankful for this show shedding light on the struggles people who produce luxurious things face. I know production employees like myself can resonate with the struggle Carmy faces as he walks the line between creating something amazing and completely losing himself in it.

Yes, wine is fabulous, exciting, special and we should keep enjoying it. But it’s important to consider the individuals who harvest the grapes that make the great Cabernet you pair with your filet. It’s important to consider the individuals who make the wine, whether it be someone who has made a career as a cellar worker for 30 years or a wine student working 7 days a week just trying get a good name on their résumé.

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