Wine Connoisseur Drowns In Wine Barrel After Fermentation Mishap: How Winemaking Can Kill You

Wine glass, bottle, old wood barrel and corkscrew
A 25-year-old Spanish wine specialist falls to her death into a wine barrel after losing her balance from powerful fumes during fermentation. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

A weekend getaway to the wineries with the girls could be a fun and memorable way to taste test all types of wines, and even do some winemaking, but this could become a deadly habit in the most unexpected way. A Spanish wine connoisseur was on the job watching the fermenting process when she was overcome by the fumes, causing her to lose her balance and drown in a wine barrel. The floating body of 25-year-old Nerea Perez of Ponferrada, El Bierzo, Spain, was allegedly discovered and retrieved by her uncle and wine specialist Raul Perez in the Spanish village of Salas de los Barrios, northwest of the country.

Perez had been working in the winery for two years after graduating from Coruña University in chemistry and the environment in 2012. “Now is the time for harvesting grapes, so a lot of villages around here have people working on stirring the wine in the barrels. This is the first time this has happened though,” said Perez’s colleague, Ginebra Peralta Colunga, the Metro UK reported.

Emergency rescue crews rushed to the cellar after receiving a call a little after noon about the incident, the InfoBierzo.com reported. The National Police and paramedics helped remove the body from the barrel, but they were unable to resuscitate Nerea. It was concluded the cause of death was intoxication from the powerful fumes of the fermentation process, which, ironically, became too much for the wine specialist who was used to doing these visits.

During the fermentation process, winemakers stir the wine for extra contact with the “lees,” or sediment, which is made up of dead yeast and bits of grapes. This process is believed to give wine a richer, fuller body and more depth of flavors. Carbon dioxide is released from the alcoholic fermentation of the grapes, which is about 40 times the volume of grape juice. The concentrations released during fermentation can vary and can accumulate in tank rooms and cellars, especially when multiple tanks are fermenting at the same time, or ventilation is reduced to keep the area warm, says the University of Washington School of Public Health. This is why winemakers are advised to be in a well-ventilated room to reduce the risk of carbon dioxide accumulation, since a concentration of just eight percent is enough to kill a human being.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for winemakers to be overcome by the high levels of carbon dioxide during fermentation. In 2008, two amateur French wine makers died after they were suffocated by the fumes from the grapes they were treading with their bare feet. The pair climbed into a 6-foot-wide vat to begin extracting the juice from the grapes when they collapsed from the carbon dioxide fumes released, the DailyMail reported. Despite rescuers' resuscitation efforts to revive the two men, they did not regain consciousness.

Sarah Chappell, a lab intern who worked at a winery in Napa, has listed a few safety tips you should follow if you work or visit a winery. Among Chappell’s tips, she stresses to not stick your head in a tank and take a deep breath, or fall in a tank and take a deep breath. The fermentation tank can produce large doses of carbon dioxide, possibly leading to a depletion of oxygen and more gases. If you’re in a room of fermenting barrels, wear an oxygen meter to measure the percentage of oxygen to ensure you do not pass out.

Unless you’re a wine connoisseur, it’s better to leave the winemaking to the winemakers, and just drink your glass of wine. Cheers!

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