A young woman who works with me in the cellar recently expressed interest in becoming a winemaker but had doubts about her experience. She was concerned she needed international training to be considered for the profession. “Everyone travels to all these wine regions to work harvest before they become winemakers and sommeliers,” she said. It brought up some important points I want to share here.
To me, the current trend of working harvests all over the world has more to do with travel and lifestyle than it does with developing real qualifications. Winemaking requires a basic understanding of wine but also of biology, chemistry and agriculture—something this young woman already has. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to visit other regions and learn from them, but eventually it comes back to investigating your own terroir. The best winemakers learn their trade by studying the climate and soil of their own region to master local techniques. That kind of inquiry is hard to do when you’re moving around the globe.
To be clear, being a winemaker is nothing like being a sommelier. A sommelier is more like a librarian to a winemaker’s writing—a curator of the winemaker’s art, if you will. Like artists and writers, winemakers develop their own ideas and combine them with outside influences to create something unique. Sommeliers require a broad understanding; winemakers are regional specialists. One procures and evaluates while the other is agricultural, scientific and creative. One doesn’t necessarily prepare you to become the other. Today, there are many people who call themselves winemakers and sommeliers; some have truly earned the moniker while for others, it’s merely self-proclaimed.
Becoming a winemaker requires working long days, in the heat and cold, with soggy feet, wet pants and chapped, painful hands. It’s about hauling tons of fruit and pushing your body all hours of the day and night until you go home and collapse—only to get up early the next morning and do it all over again—for months on end. It’s about sacrificing time with family and friends during harvest, being at the complete mercy of the weather and realizing that no matter what plan you have, Mother Nature can change it. Being a winemaker means you have one chance a year to create something special, and if you don’t, you have to wait an entire year for another opportunity. It’s recognizing that no matter how much you learn there will be variables you will not be able to affect. To paraphrase a famous prayer, making great wine requires the wisdom to know the difference between what can be changed and what cannot.
Being a great winemaker means you are figuring out every detail you can about the place you want to make wine in. That’s how wine regions are made, not by copying what other people do in far-off places. It’s about specializing, drilling deep into what makes your region tick, learning its strengths and weaknesses and how to bring out the best in the fruit you’re working with.
There are many pathways to becoming a winemaker. It should involve academics as well as experience, intuition and a sound ability to taste. You can travel the world over in search of what you need, but you’ll eventually return home to find it.