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What Winemakers Don’t Tell You About Making Wine

The role of winemaker is romanticized. It conjures up images of daily wine tastings, schmoozing with VIPs, and tranquil vineyards.

But the truth is that winemakers deal with a lot of variables and uncertainty to produce the wine in your glass.

So, let’s talk about what don’t winemakers tell you about making wine!

What winemakers don't tell you about the job illustration by Wine Folly

The Type of Winery Defines Your Role

First of all, winemaking is not a one size fits all profession. The type of winery has a lot to do with the job.

  1. Estate Winery: Wines made only with grapes from vineyards owned by the winery. Production of wine takes place entirely on the winery’s property.
  2. Winery Cooperative: Local growers sell their grapes to a regional winery. Then, the winery produces, markets, and sells the wine. These are common in regions with smaller vineyard sizes and lower wine prices.
  3. Custom Crush: a winery that offers contract winemaking services to clients. Services may include processing fruit, cellaring, blending, bottling, and laboratory analysis.

So now that we know about where a winemaker might work, let’s start from the beginning: at harvest.

Winemaking During Harvest

Harvest is the busiest season in the winery for everyone: not just the winemaker. Literal tons of grapes arrive for processing daily. Then the winemaking begins.

Let’s peek behind the curtain of a winery’s most exciting time of year.

There is No Secret Formula For Harvest

Deciding when to pick the grapes is one of the winemaker’s most important decisions. Pick too early and acidity might be too high, sugars not high enough, and tannins too green.

Pick too late and you’ll have the opposite problems. All winemakers have a different approach for making the picking decision. Some rely on science, others rely on their senses, and some rely on both.

Adelaida Vineyards & Winery produces wine from over 135 acres of estate owned vineyards in Paso Robles, CA. Assistant Winemaker Ryan Bosc says,

“Pre-harvest, I am running pH, TA, and brix on vineyard samples to track ripeness. Mostly these numbers are great for historical tracking and data. …If you are just going off numbers in a lab and not out in the vineyard tasting the grapes and assessing the state of the vines then you aren’t getting the full picture.”-Ryan Bosc, Adelaida Vineyards & Winery

A forklift is one of the most important tools in a winery.
How an Estate Winery Decides When to Harvest

At an estate winery, winemakers have the luxury to walk the vineyards every day leading up to harvest. They look at, touch, and taste the grapes while considering the following:

  • How tough or thick are the skins?
  • Are the seeds green (indicating unripe fruit) or brown?
  • Do the grapes taste tart or sweet?
  • Do the grapes taste good?

Doing this every day offers a frame of reference to make a more educated picking decision. Analysis on the brix, pH, and total acidity of the grapes provides data for this decision.

How a Cooperative Winery Decides When to Harvest

At a cooperative winery, growers harvest their grapes once they meet rules set by the winery. For example, Antichi Poderi di Jerzu is a cantina sociale (“cooperative winery” in Italian) in Sardinia, Italy. Currently, this winery has 450 members farming over 500 hectares of vineyards.

The winemaker there, Biagio Boi, says that growers follow phytosanitary requirements (measurements including sweetness level and acidity level) from the cooperative.

How well the growers meet the parameters determines how much they get paid for their crops. The cooperative also employs Laore, an agricultural agency in Sardinia, to help members improve their crops.

Custom Crush Wineries Don’t Decide When To Harvest

By nature of the business, a winemaker’s duties at a custom crush winery begin when the grapes arrive. Also, custom crush winemakers often see fruit from many regions.

For example, McLaren Vintners is a custom crush winery in McLaren Vale, South Australia. They aim to crush 6,000 tons of grapes annually. They process grapes from the surrounding regions of McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills, Langhorne Creek, Limestone Coast, and the Riverland.

“McLaren Vintners definitely allows for good exposure to the regions, varieties, and styles that… is unparalleled [in Australia]. This is my 8th vintage here and every year there are new things to learn.” -Matt Jackman, McLaren Vintners

But when the grapes arrive, the work’s just begun.

Keeping barrels, tanks, and winery equipment clean is a non-stop job at a winery.

Winemakers are Experts in Logistics

So, the grapes arrive at the winery, now what does a winemaker do? Depending on the grapes, their quality, and the wine style, they have some decisions to make.

  • Figure out how to prep the grapes for winemaking.
  • Find the right fermentation vessel.
  • Choose the aging vessel.

Organization before harvest is important for smooth processing when harvest is in full swing.

For example, Winemaker Sherman Thacher of Thacher Winery in Paso Robles often uses concrete tanks, terracotta amphorae, and neutral barrels to preserve freshness in the wine.

“During harvest, decision making is constant…and improvising is paramount, especially during a heat wave when things are moving quickly inside and outside of the cellar. We are constantly planning and re-planning the week ahead to try and prevent log jams…It starts with coordinating picks, deliveries, processing times, available tanks and fermenters, press times and getting wine to barrel.” -Sherman Thacher, Thacher Winery

A boutique estate winery may process 250 tons in an entire vintage. But a large custom crush winery processes that amount of fruit in one day. This requires a high level of logistical organization.

“Juggling such an array of customers throughout the year can be a logistical challenge magnified at vintage… Vintage 2017 was a doozie. The site crushed over 6,500 tons. In order to process more, [we had to do] things like packing together ferments that we don’t normally pack together. Or liberating back vintage oak batches to big tanks so that we could press other batches and put them to barrel.” -Matt Jackman, McLaren Vintners

Ever heard the term “Everything always happens at once?” Decisions are critical during harvest.

But no matter how airtight your plan is, you’ve got to make a decision eventually.

Winemakers are Master Decision Makers

Besides producing wine, winemakers make a lot of decisions. There’s a need to respond to changing variables from vineyard to bottle. Tasting and smelling the wine throughout fermentation and aging is crucial. This allows winemakers to track the progress of the wine.

As Adelaida’s Winemaker Jeremy Weintraub illustrates,

“I pay attention to the way a must is tasting in the fermenter: How does it smell? Does it need air? What’s the temperature? … How does the wine taste? Should it get another punch down or pump over? Should you press sooner rather than later? I look at brix and temperature for every fermenter, every day.” -Jeremy Weintraub, Adelaida Vineyards & Winery

Of course, there are plenty of other considerations often made by winemakers.

Decision making at an Estate Winery

Simone Sedilesu is the winemaker and owner of Cantina VikeVike in Mamoiada, Sardinia. This region produces one of the best expressions of Cannonau (aka Grenache, Sardinia’s most planted red variety). Simone wants to make elegant, fresh wines that showcase vineyard sites and don’t need a lot of aging.

“My wines are the offspring of the vineyards. From a young vineyard (15 years old) my easy-to-drink “base” Cannonau is born. This wine can be consumed young, but ages very well thanks to its high acidity. The old vine vineyard (100+ years old) is used to produce my reserve. This is a wine that shows best after 3 or 4 years of aging and has more complexity than the other.” -Simone Sedilesu, Winemaker, Cantina VikeVike

Decision making at a Cooperative Winery

Cantine di Orgosolo is a cooperative winery located in the village of Orgosolo in Sardinia, Italy. Winemaker Angelo Corda works with 19 members who each farm around 1-3 hectares of vineyards. Cannonau is the main variety planted in Orgosolo.

Angelo shares his main winemaking consideration, “Our Cannonau must be as similar as possible to traditional Cannonau made in Orgosolo.”

How does Angelo achieve this? He allows for spontaneous fermentation on native yeasts present on the grape skins. Angelo says,

“Working with these types of yeasts is more difficult because they are more unpredictable, but they certainly give us results that lead to a greater characterization of our product.”Angelo Corda, Cantine di Orgosolo

Decision making at a Custom Crush Winery

At a custom crush winery, the winemaker focuses on the goals of each individual client.

McLaren Vintners’ Winemaker Matt Jackman emphasizes the importance of building relationships with customers (other winemakers) in order “to learn more about the individuality of a vineyard or wine style for a brand…At times we are simply messengers that ensure processing instruction is carried out to our customers’ expectations.”

At other times, they may have more leeway.

Winemaking Beyond Harvest

Most physical winemaking occurs during the 2-3 months of harvest. But winemakers are busy throughout the year. What do they do outside of harvest? Here are some examples:

  • Ensure wines complete malolactic fermentation.
  • Determine final blends with wine blending trials.
  • Bottle wines.
  • Vineyard management (pruning, vine training, canopy management, etc.)
  • Operations work and travel to sell your wines.

Being a winemaker is a gratifying and exciting job. But the work it requires takes both resilience, strategy and planning. It’s not a job for people who don’t like to work!

One thing is for sure, working hard does make you thirsty!

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