Getting Into the Wine Industry
Part 3: The Road Map
We all knew this moment was coming. You’ve seen your vineyard, you’ve walked through the cellar, and now it is time. If you’re ready to take the dive and get your hands dirty (and your feet wet, to be honest) then this is your post.
But, all diving boards are not created equal. You may want to take the 20-foot plunge into full and over time harvest work. Or you may want to dip your does in slowly with a weekend excursion class. As I said in the first post of this series, the world of wine is astoundingly easy to explore. Now, let’s survey those diving boards and that pool.
Working In the Field
For the most hands on approach to exploring wine growing and winemaking, reach out to local wineries. Most are happy to have help during the growing season and harvest. Some places offer internships, some offer full time work, some are happy to show you the ropes over a long weekend. My favorite winemakers and wine professionals got their start up the wine ladder at the very bottom rung: cleaning drains and pruning vines. If you’ve not driven a forklift yet, there’s no time like the present! Online resources like the jobs section of WineBusiness.com and CraftBeverageJobs.com are good places to start, although most job and career sites have winery openings as well. The real benefit of a wine industry job site is the access to harvest help listings and internships.
Before you start firing off those emails, let’s take a look at what working harvest entails.
The hours are long and variable. The magic of harvest is that it’s an agreement between the vines and the winemaker. When are the grapes ripe enough to harvest? When the winemaker says they are. Not sooner, not later. Once the winemaker blows the whistle, it’s all hands on deck for as long as it takes.
Most vineyard harvest jobs start well before dawn, since the cooler temperatures at that time help keep the grapes and their flavors fresh. These amazing people tend to the vineyard through the growing season, ensure that harvest goes smoothly, and prepare the vineyard for winter dormancy. Here’s a sampling of what you get to explore in the vineyard.
- Tie vines to trellising
- Trimming and canopy management
- Water need monitoring and irrigation
- Application of vineyard nutrients and pest deterrents
- Monitoring of vine and fruit development
- Harvest of grapes and transport to winery
It’s a daunting amount of work, but for the spirited outdoors lovers and anyone who wants to learn from their vineyard, its exactly where you want to be.
Once the grapes are out of the vineyard, work in the cellar begins. Most cellar internships and beginning jobs focus on making sure the winemaking team has what they need. These roles come in early and stay late to ensure that every batch of grapes makes it through crush and into a fermentation vessel. Here’s an idea of what skills you’ll learn in the cellar:
- Sorting grapes to remove detritus and bad berries
- Moving grapes through the destemmer and crusher
- Preparing tanks and barrels for the wine-to-be
- Pumping must (almost-wine) from fermentation vessels to aging vessels
- Cleaning barrels and tanks
- Must adjustments
- Fining and filtering
- Bottling and labelling
A key point to remember is that what happens in the cellar is a direct result of what happens in the vineyard. The best winemakers rely on vineyard managers to ensure that they receive fruit in peak condition for the style of wine they’re making. So, you can study one or the other, but you’ll achieve the most robust understanding of the entire process and how to achieve making the wine of your dreams if you keep that vineyard-cellar link in mind at all times.
Wine Schooling & Certifications
I, like a great many of my colleagues, sought knowledge upon entering the world of wine. Professional certifications and private schools may get you the exposure you want, or they may not. Here’s a rundown of some programs and schools you’ll encounter and what questions to ask when you do.
You’ll be surprised how many wine professionals forgo this step. It’s not entirely necessary. If you’d like to be more expert in an area or develop a support group with your interests, then the people you meet in these groups are as valuable if not more valuable than the class or certification itself.
Starting with the most prevalent, a Sommelier Certification through the Court or Guild of Sommeliers will teach you about wine, spirits, cigars, history, and service. It’s a good starting point if you’re interested in working with consumers. Fair warning: there are multiple levels of certification so start where you’re comfortable. The real beauty of Sommelier classes is that the ongoing education and tasting groups (though not formally organized) are very dedicated and well situated throughout most of the country.
Next up, the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (W-S-E-T or double-u set). This series of certifications (another fair warning, there are several levels) focuses on wine and spirits. Specifically, the growing, making, distributing, and business of wine and spirits. It’s a good option if you’d like to focus more on the business of wine. I’m inherently biased, since this was my path of education, but the people you meet in through WSET tend to mentor and cosponsor their peers with great enthusiasm.
The last, but not least, professional credentialing group we’ll discuss is the Society of Wine Educators. With 2 primary levels of certification, this group really focuses on wine. Regional and local groups, national meetings, and a strong online community offers some of the best networking in the US.
Private Wine Schools
There are some education facilities which specialize in class series and curriculum to assist in your wine education. These classes certainly cost more than seeking your certification independently, however for many people the networking and access to wine tasting is invaluable. Most schools are accredited by the above certification bodies and can give you access to professionals with tremendous wisdom. If you’re looking to get your hands dirty, many of these schools offer harvest experience classes where you learn in a controlled fashion about the nature of harvest and cellar work.
A very short, not nearly comprehensive list of wine education facilities with which I am familiar is below. You can look up wine schools in your area and, without fail, something will be there. There are also wine classes offered at most culinary centers like the Culinary Institute of America and Le Cordon Bleu. Last, but my absolute favorite, if you have a favorite local wine shop, pay them a visit. It’s where I got my start and the people there are lifelong friends and sources of information and education to this day.
Northwest Wine Academy – Seattle, Washington
Napa Valley Wine Academy – Napa, California
Chicago Wine School – Chicago, Illinois
International Wine Guild – Denver, Colorado
The Texas Wine School – Houston, Texas
International Wine Center – New York, New York
Washington Wine Academy – Alexandria, Virginia
Most of us know that one person who brews their own beer. They’re usually a popular person in the neighborhood. Not because the beer is always that good (although it can be quite delicious), but because that person knows what goes into making their brew.
Where I grew up in Virginia, our neighbors made fruit wine from strawberries or whatever fruit was in season. Later, in Wisconsin, friends made wine from dandelions. And now, in California, friends make wine from Dijon clone Pinot Noir and lots of it. If you can ferment it, you can make wine of some kind from it.
Chances are that you have access to home fermentation equipment either at your local hardware store or through an online supplier of such kits. And, since you’re presumably reading this online, you have a wealth of home winemaking information at your fingertips. Step by step, just look it up, make a plan, and let the fun begin!
Wherever you get your start, figure out how much time you can dedicate and the manner in which you would like to learn. Are you able to dedicate 4 months to harvest if you can pay bills? Do you have the money to take a class? How much time can you dedicate to studying for professional certifications? Where on earth do you put all that winemaking equipment? These are all important parts of your path and every path is a little different. Sort of like every bottle of wine…
See Previous Posts in this Series: