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What’s Your Impression of Winemaking?

Posted: Oct 16, 2006 7:44am ET

When I tell people that I’m a winemaker, invariably the first question I get asked is if we still stomp the grapes with our feet – like in that episode of I Love Lucy. Of course most wineries don’t process fruit that way, but it’s such a powerful image that most people probably think that’s how all wine is made.

Since virtually everyone who has come to help during harvest has commented that making wine wasn’t how they envisioned it, I sometimes wonder what images people have in their mind--and where they came from. I bet it’s mostly from that I Love Lucy episode. Or maybe from a movie.

We’ve all seen the scene where happy people, dressed like they’re going to a Sunday afternoon picnic, stroll into the vineyard with their Easter-like baskets. They kneel and lovingly inspect each cluster before they cut it from the vine, laying it tenderly in their basket. Then they carry the half-full basket to the end of the row where a kindly man with a burro and cart waits to collect the fruit. After 20 minutes of leisurely work, everyone heads back to the winery where they stomp the grapes for a while and then play music, dance and have a three-hour lunch. Barf. That’s not what making wine is about. Not even close.

Wine making is hard, dirty work. It starts before sunrise in the vineyard. Picking fruit isn’t about a leisurely stroll in the park. It’s about picking fruit as fast as possible, while trying not to cut off any fingers and time avoiding any moldy or unripe clusters at the same. The speed aspect is important since you want to get done before it gets hot. As it warms up, the bugs start to wake up. Since you’re covered in sticky, sweet juice from the fruit, you become the all-you-can-eat bug breakfast buffet. Not so fun.

The day continues as you drive the fruit back to the winery. Once there, you clean all the equipment and start to process the fruit. Since it’s now midday, you get to deal with bees. And all the bugs that came in with the fruit. You haven’t lived until you’ve had to pick earwigs out of your hair between dumping each bin of fruit into the crusher. Where’s the music? Where’s the dancing? And lunch? It’s probably a bag of chips and some Diet Coke. Why haven’t I seen that in any movie?

The rest of harvest consists of more hard work, like punch-downs and pressing. And cleaning. And cleaning. And then? More cleaning. Lucy wouldn’t have survived. But an episode of her on a forklift might have been fun. As it turns out, being able to operate a forklift is probably the most important skill a winemaker has. A good palate is great, but that doesn’t make wine. Forklifts make wine. Hard work makes wine. In fact, when people call us winemakers, we often correct them by saying we “make wine.” During the months of September and October, you can always tell a winemaker from someone who makes wine by looking at their hands. If their hands look like they’ve been repairing cars, then they make wine.

Don’t get me wrong--making wine can be a lot of fun. If you ever played with Tonka trucks or Legos as a kid, this is the adult version. It’s just not like what you see in the movies. But then again, maybe it’s my limited ability to describe things that makes it sound less romantic. For a different, and much more poetic view of a picking day, check out an excerpt from my fellow Pinot Prison inmate Mike Padrick’s P2 Wine blog:

“Men and women clad in full length pants, long sleeve flannel shirts, hats and bandannas (some as masks) gave the appearance of thieves. These marauders of fruit labored in the warming sun. As I rose to take my place on the back of the trailer, my head pierced the canopy and the view tapped me on the shoulder. I turned in awe. The vineyard ran down the steep slope to meet the valley floor, unfolding a tapestry of swirling gold straw, glistening lines of green vines and stitched with the dark trails of fleeing shadows.”

That’s how I meant to describe it. And there are many such moments that make it all worthwhile. Maybe I need a ghostwriter.

Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 16, 2006 11:56am ET
Brian, of course as winery owners as well as winemakers it isn't even the I Love Lucy episode that we aspire to. It is the Julia Roberts-Richard Geere scene in Pretty Woman watching the I Love Lucy episode. That's how it's supposed to turn out for us, right? -- Adam Lee, Siduri Wines
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  October 16, 2006 3:22pm ET
Like anything good in life, you should work for it. For those of us less fortunate to not be wine makers =) we have to toil at our desk jobs from 7am (i wake up at 5 to commute) - 6pm jobs to get a measley 3 weeks vacation. There's just something romantic about toiling the soil and working with ones hands. And best yet is that you don't do this year round, it's one season in the year, to remind you, us as people that if you'd be bored out of your mind if you have nothing to do =)
Robert Fukushima
California —  October 16, 2006 3:25pm ET
Brian, I love the quote and the flowery description of people getting ready to head out into the field to work. I grew up in the flower business and there were many such moments, just before sunrise, milling about, I don't recall it quite so romantically. But, I recently enjoyed a Dunn Howell Mtn. cab that had a nose that comboined floral and mineral notes such that it reminded me of the flower market in SF, cold, wet, floral, minerally...took me back to another time with my dad...whatever wine making really is, that memory gave me a start as to how I look back on that time, hard work, dirt and all.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  October 16, 2006 6:20pm ET
Jeffrey - I hope you didn't think I was saying we work harder than other folk... I did the 20+ years at a desk writing software, so I know how demanding any job can be. I was just trying to give people a more realistic view of what making wine is all about. I'd much prefer people appreciate the wine for the hard work behind it... than for some romanticized version presented on the big screen.

You did use a word I'm not familiar with... "vacation"? What's that? I seem to remember something like that from the old days - before the winery. I'm sure most business owners don't know what the word means either. :)
John Kmiecik
Chicago, IL —  October 16, 2006 6:21pm ET
I agree with Jeffery....Quit your belly-aching:)You could be asking "Do you want fries with that burger?". Anything in life that is worthwhile requires hard work and wine is no exception!Thank God there are people like you Brian that follow your dreams so the rest of us that aretoiling at "boring" jobs can enjoy the fruits of your labor.
Charles J Stanton
Eugene, OR —  October 16, 2006 7:20pm ET
Working my young 3 acre 'hobby' vineyard in the southern Willamette Valley, I can tell you that you need to hold on to a little of the romance when you are pruning in a cold wet Oregon January, pounding line posts in April, or leaf pulling when it is 100F in late July. I would like to meet the guy that coined the term 'hobby' for this type of activity, and hand them a pair of pruning shears for a day. ;
Robert Fukushima
California —  October 17, 2006 12:14pm ET
On the importance of that labor force, a friend, just this year had his vineyard decimated by a machine harvester. He couldn't get a picking crew, and decided to give machine harvesting a try. Most of the 50+ year old vines were cracked, split or torn out as a result of the harvester operations. He is now looking at replanting his entire vineyard.
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  October 17, 2006 12:29pm ET
The worst part of "I'd much prefer people appreciate the wine for the hard work behind it..." Is that after I get to appreciate it too much, it makes my regular work just that much harder the next day =)
Tim Sylvester
Santa Monica, CA —  October 17, 2006 12:57pm ET
Brian--The only time I harvested grapes with a friend, the biggest risk were the swarms of yellow jackets that were everywhere, even at dawn. A number of pickers were stung (not me) and had nasty welts, in addition to sticky purple hands. Anyway to keep these nasty grape eaters at bay?
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  October 17, 2006 3:24pm ET
Robert - Very sad news about your friend's vineyard :( For those of you that don't know how mechanical harvsters work... they grab onto the vine and shake it until all the berries fall off, which are caught by a tray underneath the vine. And I mean berries, not clusters. The cluster stems are left behind. To get an idea, pick up some grapes at the market, take them home, and try shaking a cluster hard enough to get the grapes to fall off. Then imagine doing that to the whole vine. Pretty brutal on the plant.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  October 17, 2006 3:28pm ET
Tim - yellow jackets are our enemy at the winery as well. We get swarms of them around the crusher, fermenters, press, etc. We've had 3 people stung this year so far.

As far as how to keep them at bay... my buddy Mile has resorted to trying water from the hose... his own version of the Navy's CIWS (close in weapon system)... except it's his close in water system!
Robert D Mosby
Healdsburg, CA —  October 17, 2006 7:43pm ET
Brian, cleaning the basket press for the umpteenth time today I wondered if getting in the wine business was such a good idea. You hit the nail on the head, IT IS HARD WORK. But the part I like best is the people, the people who come to help at crush. They may only do it for one day but they get such a kick out of the experience. I enjoy seeing that. I only wish I could convince them to stay for clean up.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  October 18, 2006 2:42am ET
WS blogs are the best! I've visited 4 different wine regions at harvest during the past 3 seasons. It is a great way to learn but I "only" did tours/tastings. For v2007 I would like to actually get more involved. What is the best way to set this foolhardy goal in motion. I'm a sommelier/mgr for a restaurant and could probably get away for only 9-14 days. Is that even enough time to be of any help to anybody? I have a good relationship w/ local distributors. Do they usu. set this up or should I contact indv. wineries? And being totally clueless, at what point am I more in the way than actually helping? And what about room service and wake up calls...
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  October 19, 2006 11:21am ET
Robert,When I embarked into this industry, my first stop was an advisor at UC Davis, where I ended up getting my degree. She said that there are plenty of people who want to get into this industy because of the lifestyle, etc. She said - go work a harvest and continue working post harvest. If you can honestly say that you find the work interesting and fulfilling, by all means, move ahead.Well, I found out that it is 99.9% hard work and .1% 'glamour' . . . at least thus far. That said, I have not looked back and am looking forward to making the first of my own wines this harvest - yippee! Good luck and keep cleaning!
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  October 20, 2006 2:18pm ET
Apj - sorry for the slow reply here as well.

Many wineries bring on help during harvest. If you're available for 2 weeks, there's probably someone who'd love to have your help. Finding the winery won't necessarily easy... and will require some legwork from you. I'd start with the small guys - people who have a 1 or 2 man operation. Send emails offering your help. Don't be upset if the answer is no - an offer of help in this case needs to come with no strings on your end. There are lots of reasons a winery can't accept help - or they may simply not need it. Watching the wine boards can often lead to opportunities.

And be prepared to be flexible. Harvest never goes as planned, so asking for specific days to show up months in advance won't work. In fact, the scheduling issue can be the biggest problem for people trying to do what you're asking about. Just recognize that it's not the winery or winemaker's fault - it's just how it works.

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