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CO2 – The deadly gas: Run Jean-Marie, Run

The 1993 vintage was in full swing. It was week 6 and we
were all looking worse for wear, with red wine stains caked all over our
clothes. Exhaustion was setting in. We’d been working 16 hour days at our
30,000 case Bordeaux Superieur chateau, a stunning property in the hillsides of
the Right Bank, close to St.Emilion. Tired, but sense of humor still intact.

It was a motely cru standing outside the chateau doors at 7
am. Stephen represented Scotland, but had forgotten how to speak English he’d
been in France so long. Xavier, the Spaniard, a fellow 23 year old apprentice
and trouble at the best of times, and then there was some other guy whose name
I can’t remember. He drank a lot of Cognac at night.

In the French corner was Didier, the cellar master who had
lost a finger and damaged an eye over the last 15 vintages – pretty standard in
France. And then there was the big Papa, Jean-Marie, the central figure. He was
huge. His gut was barely held in by his farmer t-shirt, and you could cut your
hand on his thick 3 day stubble-trouble.

We had all gathered at 7 am on the dot to start the day’s
work in the cellar, which could often last until midnight. We were all
shattered after doing this for several weeks with barely a day off. There were
tons of ferments racing along inside the cellar doors, and carbon dioxide oozed
from every tank impregnating the air with a deadly poisonous gas.

Our ritual was to draw straws to see who might die that
morning by CO2 poisoning. The gauntlet was running through the whole cellar whilst holding your breath and opening windows and doors. It was a long cellar and you had to fling open at least 3 sets of windows and 2 huge castle-like sets of doors to aerate the cellar so that the rest of the crew could safely enter 15 minutes later. It wasn’t easy
to hit all these windows and doors, and behind our laughter was always a little
anxiety when we drew the straws.

Losing your life is a risk during the fermentation, albeit
unlikely. It is particularly dangerous when you go inside a tank to shovel out
the grape skins, where it can be hot and steamy and still with a good amount of
CO2 . Bend down to load your shovel and boom…it’s a stary stary
night. You blackout, fall into the grapes and you’re dead. Even just running
through the cellar could possibly be toxic enough.

These days, in most cellars, there are sophisticated alarms that go off
when the gas levels hit certain amounts, and in many countries you have to be
tied to the person in the tank so you can haul them out if they run into
trouble. It’s called confined space certification. But alas, at my chateau in
France in the early 1990’s, such sophistication did not exist. We relied on our
own je ne sais quoi and preferred to make important decisions after a magnum
of red during the mandatory 2 hour lunch.

We stood there, and one by one we drew the straws. And then
Jean-Marie lost it, swearing like a sailor. As his anger peeked he pulled out a packet of Gauloise and stuck a filterless smoke in his mouth and lit up, surprisingly not using his
stubble to strike the match. Nobody held their laughter back whenever it was
Jean-Marie’s dash. He was badly teased, with affection, from a distance, out of
his strike-range.

After a final drag on his cigarette, that smelt like a
diesel factory, he sucked in a few deep breaths, face turning redder by the
second, and then flung the doors open and starting actually sprinting through
the cellar as fast as he could. The cheers went up. Then we all raced around
the corner to get a view of the door where he would exit, and sure enough
this gigantic sweaty Frenchman comes flying out gasping, and the swearing
continued. We were all in hysterics.

Cellars during fermentation can be dangerous, but all year
round there are products that are used that can potentially be harmful. If you
suffer from asthma then watch out for the sulphur in liquid form, or even a hit
of the gas from a sulphur disk that is burned inside a barrel to sterilize it.
And the tanks can be cleaned with a nasty agent to get the tartrates off, that
resulted in Didier’s partial blindness. There’s a ton of other hazards.

As for Jean-Marie, every day you could count on him to be very focused on lunch, always 4 courses at the chateau from 12-2pm, and always with a frightening amount of wine offered to the workers before we went back to shovel out tanks, unsupervised.