Terror in the treading tank

I was doing fine until I crossed paths with the smiling bald guy.

Sure, I looked a little odd wearing a Royal Stewart tartan shirt and navy blue shorts. But everyone in the grape-treading tank at Quinta do Vesuvio was wearing the same outfit, the uniform for treaders at the Symington family property in Portugal’s Douro Valley, so no big deal.

And yes, it did feel weird, sloshing about in knee-high grape soup, but I felt I was treading with the best of them as we helped kick-start the Port wine-making process old-school style.

And that’s when  I encountered Fred Astaire, Douro version. Before you could say Late Bottled Vintage, he had clasped my hands and was spinning me around as a trio of drummer, tambourine player and accordion whaled away in the corner.

A quick note: Foot-treading takes place in the evening after the day’s harvest is in and at Quinta do Vesuvio consists of two hours of fairly ritualized marching followed by one hour of freestyle — march, waltz, conga, whatever. I and a visiting group of wine writers were there to participate in the freestyle part of the evening.

Well, I thought, at least I’ll only have to keep this up until the song ends.

Did you know songs played to keep up the treading beat are really, really long?

“Help me!” I hissed as I was whirled past my companions, who stood in a corner of the tank doing a kind of dance I can only describe as The Dude Shuffle.

Did they swoop in to my rescue? Or did they stand there laughing like a bunch of tartan-wearing hyenas. If you have ever met a wine writer you will not need me to spell out the answer on that one.

I waltzed. I conga’d. I may have done a little Texas Two-Step and possibly the Funky Chicken until I finally made my escape.

As you probably know, scenes like this are becoming increasingly rare. Treading is a vanishing art for a number of reasons and the truth is I feel fortunate to have seen and experienced it. Here’s a story I wrote for Palate Press talking about treading and the Symingtons’ work on automated treaders.

My own little “I Love Lucy” moment left me with two lasting impressions. 1: Those pickers are tough. I can’t imagine working harvest all day and then popping into the tank for three hours of stepping lively.  2: Maybe I’m not a dancing queen, but I can truthfully say I now have some grape moves.

Cheers, rhythmically.

In the tank at Quinta do Vesuvio