Have you ever visited a wine region and dreamed of packing up your 9-5 to work in a gorgeous vineyard, surrounded by jaw dropping scenery and great wine? You’re not alone!
But before we all pack our bags and quit our jobs, I wanted to get a little more insight on what working a winery harvest is really like--- so I sat down with my friend and fellow sommelier Yumi Ortiz, a veteran of nine winery harvests in Europe, to fill us in on all the dirty details (spoiler alert: it’s not as glamorous as it looks!)
Like most people in the wine industry, Yumi’s story is an interesting one: college studies abroad brought her to Spain (motivated by her passion for Flamenco, naturally!), and while there she ended up falling in love with Spain’s food and wine culture. Back in the states after college she was fatefully laid off from her corporate job… but instead of crying into her Pinot, she took that opportunity to change directions and pursue her passion for wine as a career; taking courses with the WSET and more importantly, gaining hands-on experience working nine harvests around Spain, Italy, Portugal, and France. Today, Yumi has worked for five years in pretty much every aspect of the wine industry you can imagine: retail, direct sales, marketing, and beverage management; but it was her harvest experience I was most interested in hearing about. Check out our Q&A below!
The Lush Life: For everyone out there that would LOVE to quit their job and run off to work in a vineyard, give us an idea of what a typical harvest day looks like.
Yumi Ortiz: I am a big cheerleader of following your heart and passion, but with that also comes with hard work and dedication. I am a passionate person and I have worked to follow my dream of harvests. As a wine professional, it is imperative to learn about wine production, it’s a better understanding of wine once you’re involved in the process.
However, things are not as romantic--- although there is occasionally lavish food and wine dinners, or opportunity to hang around wine people and learn about wine, that’s not the case on a daily basis. Wine harvest is a JOB. Like any other job, there are duties one needs to fulfill to get the job done. Harvests are lengthy hours, the winery work involves a lot of physical work. Cleaning is very important, so be prepared to do a lot of sweeping, mopping, and cleaning around! If you are working the vineyard, it also involves a lot work physically: you’re outdoors, constantly moving around, you have to work at a steady pace, be prepared to get dirty and sticky from the grapes. There aren’t any bathroom stations (at least in my case) so you also have to work around that... I’ve also worked in the lab, and that involves a lot of caution and attention to detail. Wine harvest involves a serious approach: no kidding around, one must be alert, awake, and diligent at all times in order to perform the job. Teamwork and communication is also important.
TLL: What's one thing about working harvest that totally surprised you, or that most people would never expect?
YO: Everything about harvest is surprising. For me it’s a meditative state as a wine professional, almost like a wine pilgrimage, where my patience, workmanship, and aptitude to learn about wine production is fulfilled. In my case, I have done my harvests abroad mostly in Western Europe. Every harvest and winery operates differently. I had to deal with adapting to the culture--- something that has helped me in Spain was my fluency in Spanish and in the case for Italy I had to teach myself Italian in order to communicate with people.
What I truly enjoy the most is the connection: you get to know the faces of the people that are the muscle behind the production, not just the winemakers behind the label. You get to know the winery and the vineyard team, share many experiences, create fantastic bonds and work collectively together. Being in wine country also gives you a perspective of how wine harvest is celebrated.
Also, the unpredictability of the weather, dealing with climate changes, and actually being attentive to nature’s decision is what surprises me the most. At the end of the day, one must be wise and wait til the right moment to make a decision and harvest--- having patience to deal with mother nature becomes a humbling experience.
TLL: Share your #1 favorite or most memorable experience of harvest. Was there a single moment that changed your life or the way you think about wine and your career?
The moment that changed my life was working along winemaker Alvaro Palacios in Spain for the harvest of 2013. Being next to him and working together to harvest his winery and family’s wineries was an unique experience; the day we harvested L’Ermita was one of the most profound and special moments I’ve had in my wine career. From waking up early in the morning, the silence of the vineyard, picking the grapes and then the work at the winery became an opera for me. To have such an opportunity to be mentored by him and his team, was such a gratifying experience, I was fortunate and humbled to be part of that process, and my passion for winemaking just became bigger.
TLL: If someone reading this wants to go and do a harvest, how would you suggest they get started? And what advice would you give them for making the most of their time there?
YO: I suggest research: start early in advance to research location and winery, make sure to have a clear plan about what you want to get out of the experience; also know your budget, save up. Go with a clear mind and level of expectation to learn, make sure to vocalize the experience that you’re looking for, whether it’s viticulture work or winery work. Be open to learn and have fun! It is a rewarding experience.