Going Pro RoundTable

How do you break into the wine industry? Do you volunteer to help out at a local vineyard for a vintage? Do you go to winemaking school? Do you start out as an intern? Well, yes to all of those ways. The path to becoming a professional winemaker can take many forms, the key is to be adaptable. And who better to ask than those who have recently made their way into the business. We asked four assistant winemakers around the US (one of whom is now a head winemaker) what they did to get their foot in the door.

Winemaker Roundtable

Maggie Cruse, Jordan Vineyard & Winery, Healdsburg, California
Ethan Joseph, Shelburne Vineyard, Shelburne, Vermont
Emma Cambalik, Three Brothers Winery, Geneva, New York
Brandon Moss, Gramercy Cellars, Walla Walla, Washington

How long have you been working in the wine industry, and what was your first position?

Maggie Cruse, Jordan Vineyard & Winery: I have been working in the wine industry for seven years.

Ethan Joseph, Shelburne Vineyard: I started working for Shelburne Vineyard in January of 2008. I basically began as a vineyard manager and winemaker-in-training. I was hired to manage the operations of the then (and still growing) Shelburne Vineyard LLC.

Emma Cambalik, Three Brothers Winery: I have been working in the wine industry since May 2009. I was first hired as a member of the tasting room staff at Three Brothers Wineries and Estates, but it turned out to be more of a mix of work in the tasting room, cellar, vineyard and grounds maintenance. Each day was something different and it allowed me to gain an appreciation for all of the work that goes on behind the scenes at a commercial winery.

Brandon Moss, Gramercy Cellars: I have been working in the wine industry since the 2006 vintage. I spent my first vintage at King Estate in the Willamette Valley and started as a harvest intern.

Did you attend winemaking school? If so, where?

Maggie Cruse, Jordan Vineyard & Winery: Yes, I got my B.S. in Viticulture and Enology from UC-Davis in 2005.

Ethan Joseph, Shelburne Vineyard: No, I’m self-taught. I have read numerous publications and attended several conferences.

Emma Cambalik, Three Brothers Winery: Yes, I was fortunate to have attended and learned about enology at two fantastic universities during my undergraduate career. My winemaking education began when studying Food Science at Purdue University, where I worked in the Enology Research Lab under Dr. Christian Butzke and Jillian Blume for a year and a half before transferring to Cornell University to earn my B.S. in Viticulture and Enology with a concentration in Enology. I also participated in a summer study abroad program at Ecole d’Ingénieurs de PURPAN in Toulouse, France where I studied agriculture with a focus in winemaking.

Brandon Moss, Gramercy Cellars: Yes, I went to Oregon State University and got a degree in Food Science and Fermentation Science with minors in Business and Chemistry. We studied roughly 1⁄3 each food science, brewing and winemaking.

How did you find your way to your current position as assistant winemaker? How long have you been in this position?

Maggie Cruse, Jordan Vineyard & Winery: In 2006 Jordan was looking for an enologist and a friend of mine recommended me for the position. I interviewed with the winemaker Rob Davis and he hired me as the Enologist. Every harvest I was able to learn and take on more responsibility, allowing me to be promoted to assistant winemaker in 2008.

Ethan Joseph, Shelburne Vineyard: Before I was involved in the commercial side of things, I was an avid homebrewer and cider maker, so I had an interest in the science and art of fermentation. I had worked for Shelburne while studying at the University of Vermont and, fortunately for me, they were expanding into their new winery space just as I was graduating. Ken Albert, one of the owners, asked if I would be interested in coming along for the ride and I jumped right in, my passion for agriculture and brewing bundled together. For the first few years, as I stated earlier, I was “in training.” Between 2011 and this current vintage, I have essentially been given winemaker status. The owners, Ken Albert and Scott Prom, and I work closely together.

Emma Cambalik, Three Brothers Winery: I found my way to my current position as Assistant Winemaker at Three Brothers Wineries by working in the cellar during my summers off from college. I gradually made the transition from tasting room staff into the cellar thanks to Dave Mansfield, the winery owner, who understood that my passion was in winemaking rather than behind the tasting bar. I have been working full-time as the Assistant Winemaker since May 2012.

Brandon Moss, Gramercy Cellars: I started working for Waters and Gramercy as a joint cellar master starting after harvest of 2007. After working that position for a year Greg (Gramercy Winemaker) found that he and I worked very well together so he hired me as his Assistant Winemaker during the 2008 harvest.

Every winery is different. What are your particular duties as an assistant winemaker?

Maggie Cruse, Jordan Vineyard & Winery: Every day is different. I am fortunate enough to work at a great company that is small enough to let me do a little bit of everything. I am out in the crush pit during harvest processing grapes, I spend time in the vineyards with our winemaker, and work with our winemaker, cellar master and enologist to craft our wines through lab trials and tastings.

Ethan Joseph, Shelburne Vineyard: Our operation is small and I am involved in all operations, from stylistic decisions and lab duties to packaging and cleaning our floor drains.

Emma Cambalik, Three Brothers Winery: Since winemaking is such a seasonal occupation, the duties frequently change and are shared between the two winemakers and myself. In the late spring and through the summer, I am primarily responsible for blending our blended brands, operating the bottling line, conducting wine analysis (pH, TA, RS, SO2), and making adjustments to SO2 levels if necessary. At harvest, some of my tasks include collecting lugs of grapes from the vineyard (we hand harvest all of our varieties), performing juice analysis (pH, TA, Brix), maintaining cleanliness of the crush pad and all of our processing equipment, assisting the winemakers in rehydrating yeast prior to juice inoculation, and punching down caps on our red varieties. I am also responsible for racking when the fermentations are complete and into the winter months. We begin filtering (using our cross-flow filtration system) in the late winter/early spring and as this is my first year being full-time, I hope to gain some experience and knowledge in this process. One task that I am responsible for throughout the year is helping to maintain a clean and sanitary cellar to eliminate any risk of wine spoilage.

Brandon Moss, Gramercy Cellars: I have many roles at the winery. I do everything from helping to make the wine, cellar work, taxes, invoicing, tasting room and sales. I also help manage the day-to-day activities of the winery.

How is your job different than you originally thought it might be when you decided to become a winemaker (if at all)?

Maggie Cruse, Jordan Vineyard & Winery: I have worked nine harvests and they have all been completely different. Before working in the wine industry, I thought after a few years of experience I would be able to master the art of winemaking, but this is just not possible. Just when you start to get comfortable, Mother Nature throws you a curve ball and you have to adapt. Farming can be quite humbling.

Ethan Joseph, Shelburne Vineyard: It’s different only in terms of my responsibilities. Five years ago I never would have thought I’d be managing 15 acres of grapes (and growing) and producing 3,000+ cases of wine. I guess I love it more than I expected.

Emma Cambalik, Three Brothers Winery: I definitely thought that my job would be more consistent throughout the year where I would always be working in the cellar, but I quickly learned that flexibility is key in this position. There are days when my help is not needed in the cellar but the vineyard crew needs help shoot positioning, or there is a flood of customers in the tasting room and the staff needs help serving. We all try to help each other out because in the end, we are like a big family and we all need each other for the business to be successful. Oh, and I didn’t think that there would be so much scrubbing and power washing!

Brandon Moss, Gramercy Cellars: I think everyone has lofty expectations for what winemaking is. It is really a lot of cleaning and hard work. Greg our winemaker puts it best: Winemaking is 49% cleaning stuff, 49% moving heavy stuff, and 2% drinking beer. Truth is I really enjoy the hard work and it is all worth it when you are able to pour your final product for people.

What are some mistakes you made along the way in getting to where you are today, and how could you have avoided them (if possible)?

Maggie Cruse, Jordan Vineyard & Winery: After graduating from UC-Davis I was so eager to find a full-time job. I wish I would have taken a year off and worked in the Southern Hemisphere as a harvest intern. All of my peers who have harvested abroad learned a great deal and have many fond memories, not to mention I love traveling.

Ethan Joseph, Shelburne Vineyard: Well, never put a solid bung on a fermenting barrel. I did that my first year with our one precious barrel of first vintage Marquette. There was quite a mess. Also, always put a valve on the tank. It’s really hard to disconnect the hose if you can’t close the tank. Most mistakes are avoided with careful consideration of actions, proper planning and solid math — check and double check.

Emma Cambalik, Three Brothers Winery: Although Cornell had a Food Science program (which was my chosen area of study when I applied to colleges), I honestly did not think that I would be accepted right out of high school so I never even applied. Looking back, part of me wishes I had applied to see if I could have been accepted to start my winemaking education earlier, but at the same time I am thankful for my experiences I had at Purdue. I worked one-on-one with Ms. Blume and Dr. Butzke and took away valuable knowledge from working in the Enology Lab.

Brandon Moss, Gramercy Cellars: My main mistakes have been on the forklift. When you drive the forklift a lot you tend to get overconfident, as was my case. I have never had any big mistakes but I definitely have dropped a barrel or two.

What does it take to be a good assistant winemaker?

Maggie Cruse, Jordan Vineyard & Winery: Passion! The wine industry can be very time consuming. Harvest is stressful and a crazy time of year. If you don’t love making wine and have a true passion for it, then I imagine you would be miserable working the long hours. It also helps to be very organized.

Ethan Joseph, Shelburne Vineyard: Attention to detail, cleanliness, ability to follow directions, being a quick learner — and of course a passion for making wine.

Emma Cambalik, Three Brothers Winery: While I am still working every day on being the best employee I can, I would have to say that being a good communicator, not being afraid to ask questions or make suggestions, flexibility, creativity, and always being open to learn are all traits that makes a good assistant winemaker.

Brandon Moss, Gramercy Cellars: It takes hard work and a commitment to excellence. You need to be in synch with the winemaker and be able to make the wine in the style that he would like to make. You also need to be open to do just about any type of work.

What are some of the aspects of winemaking that amateur winemakers interested in going pro might not realize?

Maggie Cruse, Jordan Vineyard & Winery: There is a lot of science in making wine. When I told my family and friends that I planned on attending wine school, they assumed I would learn the basic steps to making wine and spend the majority of my day sipping wine. In reality, you spend a great deal of time in biochemistry and organic chemistry classes before you even taste a sip of wine in class.

Ethan Joseph, Shelburne Vineyard: That it isn’t all banquet tables set out on a Tuscan hillside. There’s plenty of fun involved, but winemaking is a tough job and is actually mostly cleaning. And while crush is the most exciting and rewarding, you basically disappear for a month or more. Tell your spouse or partner not to worry.

Emma Cambalik, Three Brothers Winery: When I started in the industry I did not realize how much mechanical knowledge was required to be a winemaker. Unless you want to call a specialist in for any glitch that may arise with the bottling line, the cooling system for the tanks, etc., you need to have at least some knowledge. Familiarizing yourself with TTB regulations is also vital to working in the commercial industry. Along the same lines, record keeping is absolutely essential. Any treatments or adjustments made to wines should be clearly documented.

Brandon Moss, Gramercy Cellars: One of the most interesting things I have found is that a significant percentage of your job as winemaker is to go out and promote your brand to sell the wine. It doesn’t matter if you make the best wine in Washington State if you can’t sell it.

What are some of the best parts of your job?

Maggie Cruse, Jordan Vineyard & Winery: Every day is different. I am not stuck at my desk doing the same thing. Everything we do is very hands on. I love going into the cellar and tasting the barrels and tanks and seeing their progression. It is very gratifying tasting our final blends and thinking back to that harvest and all of the work that has gone into the making of that wine. I love the idea of making something that people will consume during a personal celebration; be that an anniversary, birthday, etc.

Ethan Joseph, Shelburne Vineyard: Tasting a year or more’s worth of hard work. Also, because I have the fortunate position of being vineyard manager, the cyclical nature of vineyard and winery work is very satisfying.

Emma Cambalik, Three Brothers Winery: It sounds silly but to me, one of the best parts of the job is seeing pallets of wine being moved out of the cellar and into the warehouse during bottling. It is a rewarding feeling knowing that we have successfully made and bottled another wine that is ready to share with our customers.

Brandon Moss, Gramercy Cellars: I honestly like every part of my job but I think my favorite thing about winemaking is seeing the progression of the wines from fermentation all the way to bottle. It is very fulfilling to produce a product that you can be proud of.

What other advice can you offer an amateur winemaker looking to break into the professional winemaking business?

Maggie Cruse, Jordan Vineyard & Winery: I recommend working as a harvest intern in the cellar. The cellar is where all of the work takes place and you will get a great feel for how the industry works. I spent my entire first harvest thinking, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this,” so I was certain this was the right industry for me.

Ethan Joseph, Shelburne Vineyard: Read, travel, taste, make connections — just jump right in. Usually you start at the bottom, in the trench drains and under the press (ironically, I still find myself in both those places) but hard work and dedication go a long way.

Emma Cambalik, Three Brothers Winery: Get into the industry as soon as you can, regardless of your starting position. Once you get into the industry, it is easier to advance yourself and you can take advantage of opportunities such as meetings and tastings to communicate with individuals who are already in the business. You never know who is looking for people with winemaking experience.

Brandon Moss, Gramercy Cellars: I would say the best way to get started is to do as many vintages as possible in as many different places as possible. Every region for winemaking in the world does something a bit different and I think it is all about taking all that knowledge and applying it to the style of wine you want to make.