What it’s Like to Work a Wine Country Harvest

Harvest Bordeaux

First off, I think perhaps this should be titled “How to Survive Crush.” Second, while working in a winery seems amazingly fun, and eternally romantic for most people, the reality is…it is romantic and fun and totally rocks! (You thought I was going to say it’s drudgery, wink wink).

There’s no denying that harvest is truly a period of time during which an incredible amount of hours and days and weeks are spent at the altar of Dionysus. And while I could impart a detailed description of all the roles in the vineyards and wineries, or draw up a flow chart from grapes to finished wine (details you can read about on other blogs or in textbooks), I’d rather give you some useful hacks to successfully navigate a wine country crush season.


1. Keep Your Body Healthy

I will risk sounding like your mom: make sure you drink plenty of water and eat (reasonably) healthy. Some swear to stocking up on top ramen, others get addicted to gummi bears. Both of those camps usually end up with a some nasty viral infection by the time the last red fermenter is pressed.

As you likely won’t have time for proper meals three times a day, it is time to step up your snack game. With all the sweet grapes and juice wearing on your palate, savory bites are preferred. Nothing makes a better food pairing than tasting berries all morning and having a bag of cheddar fish crackers in your car. Most importantly: resist eating too many grapes–otherwise the day will have an unpleasant ending.

2. Push Pause on Your Social Life

Regardless if you are the life of every party, or spend all your non-working hours on WoW, accept the fact that you will have a lot less extra time. Expect to work 60-100 hours per week for any real harvest job. Yup: could be 14 hours a day, for a week straight. So, remind your family, friends and non-wine related business partners that you will disappear for about three months. They don’t need to send a search party.

3. Laundry is optional, and so is all housework

It is wise to take care of life’s usual chores in the weeks leading up to harvest: oil changes, dentist visits and home improvement projects will not fit into your calendar. Stock up on dog food, toilet paper–and beer; you will thank me later for that one.

You’ll also quickly learn that just about all your work clothes get heavy use, this time of the year. Waterproof shoes and comfortable socks are a must. It is a good idea to keep a change of clean(ish) clothes in your car for the inevitable day when you get doused with juice from head to toe.

4. Music!

This is your secret weapon. The right beats will get you going in the morning, put energy in your walk as you saunter down the longest of vine rows, help you to stay positive on the crush pad all day, and even make the toughest red fermenter tasting tolerable. The right choice of music will also help keep you awake during late night pump overs. Mozart or Moby, bluegrass or Brit pop, get your playlists going!

5. Work Hard, Work Smart

If things get really crazy, and you are tasked with jobs that clearly go beyond your capabilities, don’t be afraid to speak up. If someone asks you to load 10-tons of Cabernet grapes into a 5-ton tank, ask them to “confirm their intentions.” If you find you need an extra day off because you are falling asleep on the way home, let them know. If you see something unsafe, stop and get it fixed–no grape (or ton of grapes) is worth an injury or accident.

6. Stay Positive; It is Not Brain Surgery

There will be times when everything seems to go wrong. The picking crew doesn’t show up on time (or at all); the press breaks down with 20 tons of grapes inside; somehow a crucial nutrient addition never gets completed; a tank decides to heat up to 100 degrees overnight.

Everyone around you is overworked, cranky and sick of grapes by the last few loads, I guarantee it. It seems all encompassing and overwhelming, BUT remind yourself that you are only making wine–not saving a life or working on world peace–you are simply helping people get tipsy.

It will be an experience of a lifetime. I have learned more about winemaking during my first three months in the cellar than in five years of university study. It takes a lot of time and effort to make harvest successful, but when you are about to question whether this profession is for you, usually something truly ethereal comes along: the perfect fermentation curve, the interns finally learning how to properly make your coffee or that one Pinot lot which taste better than any you have ever made…

So: see you on the other side! And think of it this way, working crush is nothing but a long preparation for the ever-elusive but usually pretty epic harvest party. But that is another story and what happens at the harvest party, stays at the harvest party.



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