I’ve written before about the value of working a harvest at a winery. From Western New York to Stellenbosch to Central Wisconsin and now the Willamette Valley, I’ve found that harvest offers a wealth of experience and hands-on skill building that can serve wine professionals well in a wide range of careers. And while harvest work is essential if you hope to be a winemaker someday, it can also be a great way to get to know a new wine region, expand your viticulture and wine science knowledge, and make excellent friends at any age––all while working really, really hard. Here are the top ten lessons I’ve learned from harvest over the years.
10. You will never look messier than after cleaning something. Related: cleaning makes up 80% of winemaking.
9. Hold the grape cluster from the bottom. Cut from the top. Watch where the folks in the next row are cutting. And please: before you take a huge bite out of a gorgeous cluster of perfect grapes, make sure it isn’t hosting yellow jackets.
8. Once you’ve worked a harvest, get ready to be constantly annoyed at wine writers and snobs who drop broad, unqualified generalizations (see: “2007 was a terrible vintage”; moral judgements about common chemicals or processes; declarations that don’t take into account individual site variations or weather patterns) without any respect for the thousands of variables and decisions a winemaker faces in a given year.
7. At a certain point, deodorant stops mattering.
6. Your favorite producer for personal wine enjoyment is not necessarily going to be the best place to work. Consider mid-size and large wineries in your harvest job search––that tiny garagiste winemaker you love probably doesn’t do enough volume to need you for more than a couple of days.
5. You will never look at a glass of wine the same way after you’ve shoveled grape skins out of a press. Also, you will have a new respect for OSHA after spending some time around machines that could easily kill you.
4. You’ll remember what muscles are for. Many of us don’t have regular opportunities to use our physical strength outside the gym, and it’s pretty rewarding to feel yourself getting stronger as the season progresses.
3. Labor conditions may (and should) start factoring into your opinions of wineries whose practices you consider socially responsible. The wine industry is no different from the rest of agriculture in that working conditions for vineyard and cellar staff vary drastically, but unlike organic status or use of things like filtration and sulfites, the general public usually doesn’t think to ask.
2. Any language ability you’re hoping to pick up from your harvest coworkers (say, if you’ll be working in another country) is going to have to happen in the vineyard or outside of work. The only words you’re going to learn in the cellar are “stop,” “go,” “look out,” and various expletives.
1. No gourmet meal you’ve ever had in your life will taste better than a PBR as you watch the sunset on a vineyard slope after a 12-hour workday.
WriterJulia Burke is a wine educator, wine industry professional, and WSET Diploma student currently based in Chicago. Links to her work can be found on her website, Stellenbauchery.com. Headshot by Amy Davis Roth.