As Napa gets into winter it provides us a little time to rest, relax and look back on the madness that the fall harvest season provides. Now having had the ability to do just that it gave me a bit of time to think about why I still love this crazy industry. It has taken me about a month to finally get this post to make sense (probably because I am still a little dazed and confused after this last season) but here we go!
Harvest in wine country is nuts for those of us that live and work it. There is a dynamic shift as we get through July and into August where everyone starts to feel the anticipation of the harvest season. When you have another early year like we did this year that timetable only speeds up. This year it seemed to hit almost everyone I knew on the same day: August 27th. It was the last day of the local bocce league (yes the bocce league is a thing, yes its a big deal) and everyone who showed up already looked beat, myself included. I was tired, stressed and ready for bed by about 8pm. It was far too early in the season to hit that wall, but there it was standing tall.
A colleague of mine summed up the perfect description of how many, if not all, of us feel when it comes to the late summer and fall seasons:
The first day of harvest is the most exciting day of the year because everything you’ve been working towards is finally in motion. The second most exciting day is the last day of harvest because you are finally done.
August through October is the proverbial whirlwind of activity that demands more work, less sleep, lots of cold beer and some whiskey. This harvest was the first harvest for MTGA that lasted more than a couple of weeks. Previously the Merlot and Riesling were pretty quick and easy. They required two picking days, a decent amount of work to get them through fermentation, but the bulk of work was done within four weeks or so (#humblebrag).
This year was something different with the addition of Pinot Noir and a dash of Cabernet Sauvignon that made it onto the docket. From August 17th until October 12th there was always something to be done before work, after work and on the normal “days off.” Realistically there are no such thing like days off through this time of year and the work only compounds as time goes on. It is chaotic no matter how well organized you are. There are literally not enough hours in the day to get everything done. It is all about prioritizing appropriately and not getting caught up in some crossfire.
Now that it has been three months since the last lot of grapes were pressed off, things have started to slow back down for MTGA and others. Even though we are now catching our collective breath (sort of but not really) there is still a ton of work to be done.
In essence I do believe that you have to be pretty insane to get involved in the wine industry. There is an immense amount of work that goes into making any wine, large production or small. On the larger side of things there can be a bit more automation and science driving things. On the small scale you get more into the art-form but in either case there are plenty of challenges to overcome each season.
I think you have to be crazy to get into the wine industry because of the shear amount of work you put into it and the payoff in the end. In many cases that payoff is pretty small but it is worth it because of “the love of the game.” You do see some make a big splash very quickly; by quickly I mean in 5-10 years due to the turnaround time when producing a wine, growing the production, etc. To this day it is still hard for me to look at the newest vintage in barrel and not tell it to “hurry up!” The reality is it is going to be 2-3 years before that wine sees the light of day.
On the hospitality front we do get to wine and dine a fair amount which helps balance out the madness a bit. Even then we are still on stage which makes it hard to really enjoy, at least for me. It usually takes getting completely off the grid to fully hit the reset button. In the past that had been our Thanksgiving trip to Mexico or down to Santa Barbara. You turn your work texts, emails and phone calls off and force yourself to relax.
So why do you have to be crazy? Imagine working for 2-3 months straight with all 12-18+ hour days for something that you know will happen but not for three years. At a certain point you wake up tired and beat up and have to decide to not be tired and beat up and be awesome instead. So that is what you do. Once those months are over you can go back to your not so normal schedule.
You have to have some foresight in this industry; not just on the winemaking side but also on the hospitality side of things. You have to be a people person even though some utter the phrase:
If it is tourist season we should be able to hunt them.
All kidding aside if you provide a crappy hospitality experience you have likely ruined that wine brand for that customer no matter how many 100 point gold stars the wine has received. You have to smile when it hurts to do so and work with obnoxious people from time to time but that is a common theme with any gig. Without hurdles to jump over it wouldn’t be called a “job.” It would be called “fun.”
On top of all the work we put in this place is expensive to live in. Many of us, myself included, live paycheck to paycheck in a rental home in a place that has only seen prices go up. The perks are amazing but it isn’t without a decent amount of stress on the financial side of things. We aren’t all on our second career after making millions or billions with a new Tesla or Maserati in the driveway. On a side not those two car manufacturers seem to be immensely popular these days. Anyway, my ’11 Subaru with the dent in the driver-side door that makes the window not roll down all the way does just fine for itself thank you very much. It has all-wheel drive and I can fit at least a half a pallet into that sucker.
So when someone says, “I think the wine industry would be fun to try or get into for a little bit,” I immediately get excited but do one of these at the same time:
Is this industry fun? You bet, but you better be ready to work your ass off and then some to make it fun. It is the definition of work harder play harder-er. My tip for anyone looking to get into the industry is that you will need your crazy pills because you are going there whether you like it or not. But man is it a good time!