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A United Nations of Wine: During Harvest, American Wineries Welcome Foreign Interns

Through internships, visitors from other countries learn about American winemaking, while wineries benefit from extra help during the busy season.

Tim Fish
Posted: October 4, 2001

Walk into the cellar of a California winery during harvest and it may well sound like the United Nations. That young man cleaning barrels is liable to say "G' day," and the young woman in the lab may be from Chile, while accents around the crush pad may travel from Germany and France to Spain or even Eastern Europe.

At a time when America is cautious about visitors from other countries, the wine industry continues to embrace interns from other nations. Each harvest season, hundreds of interns from around the world flock to wineries in California, Oregon, Washington, Michigan, Ohio and New York.

Cameron Wood, for example, is knee-deep in grapes this fall, working crush in the cellar at Simi Winery in Sonoma County. He left his young family behind in Australia for a stint in America.

Working the North American harvest is particularly appealing to interns from Southern Hemisphere countries such as Australia, New Zealand and South America. Grapes are usually picked Down Under in March or April, so an internship in the United States allows them to work two harvests a year.

An American internship gives aspiring winemakers and viticulturalists a chance to add to their résumés and learn about the country and its wines. For the wineries, interns provide cheap labor during the busiest time of the year and bring fresh perspectives on wine and life.

"The international flavor makes people think outside the box," said Damian Grindley, chief winemaker at Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates' Vinwood Cellars facility in Sonoma County. "I think it adds personally to everybody's enjoyment of harvest."

Interns are typically in their early 20s, and their level of experience varies widely. For most, it's their first job in a winery, while others work as cellar hands and assistant winemakers back home. Many are students or recent graduates, but not all are studying winemaking; many, in fact, seem as interested in exploring the United States as learning about winemaking.

"I had no idea really what went into making wine," said Susie Dickson, a young Canadian working at Vinwood, who is on leave from her job at a wine shop in Vancouver.

On the other end of the experience scale is Morgan Lowe, who is a cellar supervisor at Corbans Winery in New Zealand.

"You're not here for the money, you're here for the experience," said Lowe, who is interning with Simi this harvest. "You can get too complacent, and with this [internship] you get to drive forward and see new approaches. It makes you appreciate your job more back home."

Internships are organized in part by the Communicating for Agriculture Exchange Program, a Minnesota-based group that has helped place nearly 400 interns this year from 30 countries.

During harvest, days are long, with interns working 12- to 16-hour stretches of winery grunt work, handling hoses, shoveling grape skins and scrubbing tanks. As Beverly Bianchi of the Agriculture Exchange Program, said, "They work really hard and they play really hard."

Interns often share living quarters and gather regularly at bars and for wine tastings and parties. "You become sort of a family," said New Zealander Anton Templeton, who is spending harvest at Vinwood.

Gone are the days, however, when a huge end-of-harvest blowout drew interns from around Northern California. Organizers were afraid that, with the large number of interns now participating, things might simply get out of hand.

Most of the interns will be back home by the holidays, but a few may like the United States enough to come back for good. Vinwood winemaker Grindley, who is from Wales, and Simi winemaker Nick Goldschmidt, a native New Zealander, first came to the United States as interns.

Spending six or eight weeks in the United States, the interns often get a new understanding of America and its people.

"I definitely had a preconceived idea of Americans as loud and abrasive. I mean, I arrived at the Los Angeles airport and held my bag tight and didn't give anybody eye contact," Wood said. "But you come, and everybody is so friendly and makes you feel so welcome."

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