After he pursued a master’s degree in political theory at the University of Chicago, Warren Winiarski learned winemaking in the cellars of Chateau Souverain and Robert Mondavi. In Great Winemakers of California: Conversations with Robert Benson (Capra Press, 1977), Robert Benson asked Winiarski if it was unusual for someone to move to California to become a winemaker.
“Many people have chosen deliberately to pursue [winemaking] as a second career and have infused a great deal of enthusiasm and dedication in the industry,” he said. “These people are in it because they love it, and the love heightens their powers of observation, intensifies their interest, intimacy and knowledge.”
Winiarski says that this brings winemaking closer to the European tradition, where “observations, techniques, judgment and art are all passed on [through the generations].”
Much of California’s wine history was forged by men from similar paths. Pioneers like Robert Mondavi, Donn Chappellet, Martin Ray, Paul Draper and Bob Travers didn’t earn degrees in viticulture before they started winemaking careers. Some, like Mondavi, were from winemaking families, while others came to it after prior careers or disciplines.
Davis Bynum, a former journalist at the San Francisco Chronicle, was the first to make single-vineyard Pinot Noir from Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley in 1973. He was famous for saying “any idiot can make wine, but he has to be a tireless idiot. Winemaking takes enormous work and attention.”
And so it still goes across Napa and Sonoma. Winemakers often don’t have any formal education in the work, but they’ve earned success through experience and hard work.
“By not having a degree, you try to take advantage of as many opportunities as you can,” says Pete Soergel, winemaker at Lynmar Estate in the Russian River Valley. “Working abroad, reading wine books, reading soil books, holding tasting groups, making and tasting as much wine as possible—my learning style is more hands-on.”
The path involves more trial and error, he says, but it encourages him to use his senses and intuition.
Mentorship is key, too. Soergel gives credit to his earliest winemaking mentor, Michael Browne, co-founder of Kosta Browne. Like Soergel, he didn’t have a winemaking degree. Browne told Soergel that it takes two lifetimes to ever become good at winemaking.
It wasn’t until he was a senior in college that Soergel became interested in wine. He worked a few harvests and became hooked. Soergel then decided to see how far he could go with it.
“Having a winemaking degree does give you a foot in the door,” says Soergel. “For me, having good connections and relationships has been important. I’ve had good opportunities arise out of hard work.”
Jennifer Higgins, winemaker at Lambert Bridge in Dry Creek Valley, earned an undergraduate degree in biochemisty from University of California, Davis with an eye toward a career in medicine. A Sonoma County native, she worked in tasting rooms during summers.
Before long, she started to shadow others in winery labs and help out with harvest. She loved it and switched careers.
“Experience is so important,” she says. “I’ve gone to smaller, high-end, family-owned places where I was given the chance to get experience. You have to get out and start doing.”
“I tried to learn everything I possibly could and would bring the work home: tasting, looking things up, meeting with other winemakers. Choose your teachers wisely.” —Jennifer Higgins, winemaker, Lambert Bridge Winery
Higgins says that some new viticulture grads expect assistant or head winemaker jobs right out the gate. She prefers to hire those who have paid some dues, worked a few places and ask lots of questions.
“When I was starting off, not having a degree, I worked for great teachers,” says Higgins. “I tried to learn everything I possibly could and would bring the work home: tasting, looking things up, meeting with other winemakers. Choose your teachers wisely.”
Jeff Ames did. He worked at a Memphis wine shop to put himself through school, and he developed the itch to work a harvest out West. In 1998, Lynn Penner-Ash, of Penner-Ash Wine Cellars in Oregon, was the first to give him a chance.
Eventually, he met Thomas Rivers Brown, one of the most sought-after winemaking consultants in the Napa Valley. Like Ames, he didn’t possess a formal wine-related degree. In 2001, Ames became Brown’s assistant, where he worked with clients like Outpost, Schrader, Tamber Bey and Tor Kenward.
“I had to learn by doing,” says Ames. “I was a wine geek that turned into a winemaker.”
Lacking formal education, Ames made up for it with a laser-like focus.
“You can’t let something go off the rails,” he says. “You have to keep it nice, neat and tight in the winery and taste all the time, so you pick up a potential problem before it becomes a real problem. You have to learn the early indicators of a wine.
“With a formal education, sometimes the downside is you can get numbers-centric. You forget it has to taste good.”
“But you’re less likely to be hired by a big corporation,” says Ames. “I look for someone who wants to make wine so bad they’ll sleep on the floor for six months. I can relate to that.”