How Anyone Can Become a Winemaker

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People approach winemaking from all directions. Some grew up either in a wine region or winemaking family, and they felt destined for the cellar from a young age.

Others migrate from careers that held some connection to the wine industry, like restaurant work, journalism, marketing or education. And plenty more pivot from such unrelated industries as law, government, medicine and beyond.

Megan Glaab, co-founder/winemaker at Sonoma-based Ryme Cellars and Uphold Wines, falls somewhere in the first two camps.

“I grew up working in my parents’ restaurant learning about wine,” she says. “At 15, I became interested in how wine was made, so I spent a day working with a winery in Carmel Valley…and that was it.”

From there, she embarked on a series of wine internships and earned her Bachelor of Science degree in oenology from the University of Adelaide in Australia. It involved a lot of hard work and determination.

The romance of wine might draw people in, but, as many winemakers will attest, the job isn’t all that glamorous. It demands long days, scientific acumen, tenacity to handle Mother Nature, attention to detail and devotion to cleanliness.

Here are key steps to pursue a winemaking career.

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Intern, Intern, Intern

If you didn’t grow up in the biz, start with a harvest internship.

The busiest period for any winery is the harvest, when picking and processing grapes demands long hours and a lot of hands. While some wineries let helpers work for a few days or a week, the entire four- to 12-week season is the norm. Benefits range from housing, meals and stipends.

Ask around to find a position. Contact a winery you admire, either in person, by phone or via social media. If they can’t take you, they might introduce you to others in the field. If you look to work on an organic farm, volunteer through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) network.

It’s common for interns without formal oenology degrees to learn on the job before earning full-time positions, says Brook Bannister, winemaker at Bannister Wines in Healdsburg, California.

An internship will give you a taste of wine work, establish connections and set you on a path that involves formal education, on-the-ground experience, or both.

Of course, it also might lead to the realization that wine work is not for you.

Dan Petroski worked in publishing in a former New York City before he became winemaker for Napa’s Larkmead and his personal label, Massican. A career-change intern who worked his way up the ladder, Petroski gave a similar opportunity to a middle-aged teacher during last summer’s harvest.

“He struggled a bit, and it wasn’t the right fit,” says Petroski. “He made it through harvest, but the romance and the dream were a lot bigger than the reality, unfortunately.”

Better to learn you don’t love the work before you enroll in costly training or educational programs.

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Taking the Scholarly Route

For people like Glaab, who knew that she wanted to attend a four-year program as a teen, the program considered the “Harvard of winemaking” is at the University of California, Davis. On the East Coast, New York’s Cornell University, also competes at the top.

California Polytechnic State University, better-known as Cal Poly, also offers bachelor’s degrees in winemaking, as does Washington State and Michigan State.

Prestigious, expensive and lengthy programs are not for everyone, however. People without deep financial backing or interest in taking out large loans can consider other options.

Small, junior, and community colleges in Napa, Santa Rosa, Walla Walla and the Finger Lakes offer good value as well as associate degrees and certificates. You could pay $50,000 per year at Cornell, or $6,000 to $10,000 per year at a junior or community college.

A handful of online courses offer certificates in enology and viticulture, like those at Washington State University Washington State, Texas Tech, and the Viticulture & Enology Science & Technology Alliance (VESTA).

These programs vary from 18 months to two years. While generally geared toward individuals who already work in wineries, such experience is not a requirement. You might want to brush up on chemistry, though.

If you’re from another field and eager to check out UC-Davis, the Continuing and Professional Education Open Campus allows anyone to take courses. You can study online topics like viticulture, sensory analysis, wine marketing, business of wine and accounting.

For would-be winemakers who hope to land a corporate gig, degrees and certifications don’t just lend a competitive edge, they may be required. Large corporate wineries often hire staff with science and technical backgrounds or industry-specific degrees. Such education helps to create shelf-stable, market-ready products.

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Winery Work

Ask a winemaker about what’s the most important task in the winery. Likely, 99% will joke about cleaning. Entry-level winery work involves manual labor, and lots and lots of cleaning.

Expect to clean tanks, floors and barrels. You’ll also drag hoses, bins and buckets around. Depending on the size of the winery, you may drive a forklift, handle samples in a lab, conduct manual punch downs or make additions to wines. Responsibilities grow over time.

“The question of whether someone should go the self-taught or college route is a matter of personality,” says Bannister.

“The world needs both. If you are someone who wants a steady paycheck and working with a team and having structure, then a winemaking degree would be a good choice.”

If your goal is to make a barrel as a hobby, develop a personal brand, or work for small or mid-size wineries, experience may prove more valuable than hours clocked in a classroom.

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Riesling producer Ravines Wine Cellars, located in the Finger Lakes region of New York, recently posted an assistant winemaker position. The requirements: five years cellar experience, commitment to a demanding work schedule, the ability to be a team player with a positive attitude, and a passion for wine. A degree was not required.

So, is formal training necessary? That depends on career goals and finances. Glaab, however, believes the answer is no.

Internships at Kendall-Jackson, Torbreck, Peay and Marcassin shaped Glaab’s perspective as much, if not more, than school.

“All were very different and incredibly formative,” she says. “I learned what I did and did not want to do when I eventually would make my own wine.”

Published on April 17, 2020
Topics: Wine and Ratings