Just the other day I explained what a Crush Pad is. What I failed to mention is, that in California, the area for processing incoming wine grapes is generally outside. In Texas, the wineries I have worked with all process their fruit inside the winery. This is because, during harvest, the heat in the Lone Star State is so intense it can have a negative effect on the fruit while each bin waits its turn for processing. A winery is typically kept at a cool temperature between 50 and 60 degrees so I generally wear a sweatshirt. As I carefully packed for eleven weeks of residence in our RV with limited closet space, I packed more sweatshirts than t-shirts. The Gary Farrell Winery Crush Pad is outside covered to shield from sun and rain. Nearly all of the wineries I’ve seen in Sonoma and Napa have outdoor Crush Pads. I quickly realized I would never need a sweatshirt on the job, so I’d need to buy more t-shirts right away!
During the first few days working at the winery, we were focused on cleaning equipment and preparing the facility for the grapes which would soon be delivered. This thorough scouring involves climbing inside large tanks and on top of huge equipment. It helps to be a bit limber. And it takes water. A lot of water. Most wineries work from a water well and not public water provided by the city. This is often due to the logistics of the location of the winery, but it’s also because it’s not good for the wines to have the chlorine and other additives that are in the public water system. Like Texas, much of California is in a drought, so water usage is discussed quite a bit. While pulling from the private well doesn’t immediately affect water availability for public utilities, it is still a draw on the aquifers that all of the water we use comes from. I certainly don’t want to get into politics or environmental issues, I’m just noting that winemaking requires a large amount of water, both for sanitation and for production.
In the winery, the regular cellar staff consists of a team of five: head winemaker, associate winemaker, cellar master, oenologist, and vineyard liaison. For the harvest season, anywhere from six to eight interns are brought on to help from late July through the end of October. Of course, the staff needed for producing a vintage is dependent on the amount of incoming fruit and how much wine will be made. We would be receiving around 466 tons of grapes and producing an estimated 27,000 cases of wine in this vintage. I am one of seven interns on hand this year.
At home in Texas, we often refer to harvest as the time when grapes are picked and wines are made. It isn’t exclusive to the actual harvest in the vineyard but is referring to the season as a whole. In California, they mainly refer to this season as crush or the vintage. So a harvest hand may refer to someone who is working in the field to pick grapes or to someone working in the winery to help process the grapes. We also hear the term intern quite often, but this can make people think it’s an unpaid position for which college credit is received. While that is sometimes the case, most often a student who receives school credit for working at a winery is also paid and will be referred to as an intern. For those of us who are beyond our college years and working as a temporary employee at a winery during the harvest season is most accurately referred to as a cellar rat. This just means we are folks who run around here and there within the cellar and Crush Pad to get things done as we are instructed. Pay is generally between $18 and $26 an hour and it is typical to be paid overtime, or time-and-a-half, for working over eight hours in a day or over 40 hours in a week. It is common for the hours to be long working 10 to 12 hours in a day. And we can work six to seven days in a row before having a day off for rest. The money may be good for the two to three months of vintage production, but being a cellar rat isn’t for the faint of heart!
Let me tell you a bit about the crew this year. If you already know me, you know I’m a Texan in my late forties, retired, and writing a book about my journey to learn to make wine. I have experience as a pilot, in healthcare, as a Sommelier, as an entrepreneur, and as a writer. As you may expect, the rest of the team are all much younger than me. A late twenties Santa Rosa local is a wine lover that left her finance job to explore other career options. A gal from Oregon just finished college with a degree in chemistry and is curious if working for a winery will use her chemistry knowledge while also being fun and interesting. A young man from Germany is a firefighter, in school for winemaking, and works with his family in their small winery. A young man from Italy is in school for winemaking and his family has a large winery near Venice. Then there is a guy and a gal who are twenty-year-old French students attending an agriculture and engineering school, and they are required to do an internship every year. They chose three months at this California winery as a way to see part of America as well as to see if winemaking is a good fit for their futures. We are a group of people who vary in our love of wine, experience in the workplace, and intentions for our futures.
As you might expect, these differences in ages, cultures, and experiences create challenges for the regular winery staff. There are a variety of personalities, language barriers, and different work ethics. I can only imagine the strain the regular staff feels each year when bringing on a new crew. So any winery bringing on temporary help for the harvest season should seriously consider the management of the crew and how it will affect the regular employees.
Like most businesses these days, the vineyards and wineries in California struggle to fill positions, and that includes the temporary help needed during crush. Our producers in Texas need help during harvest as well. As I’ve asked around both California and Texas, I’ve learned a bit about hiring. One of the best resources for filling a winery job is online. There are social media groups for winemakers where positions are posted, such as the FaceBook group Travelling Winemakers – Living the Dream!! (Yes, I can see there’s an extra L in there, it’s their error, not mine). There are winemaking organizations with online postings which are typically free for members and at a low cost to non-members. At home, look into Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association, Texas Hill Country Wineries, and in Sonoma, there is Sonoma County Vintner’s, and Russian River Valley Winegrowers as examples. It’s also a good idea to contact schools that offer winemaking and viticulture programs. Most have an online bulletin board for students and alumni. Be sure to look outside your area and include trade schools and junior colleges. And remember, those who are on a track to study wine as a Sommelier may also be interested in gaining experience in the cellar to better understand wine and help them with making sales. Consider reaching out to all of the winemakers you know personally in all regions of the world. Let them know you are looking. You never know who may be able to direct prospects to you. And finally, don’t discount putting out a note to your mailing list and club members. You may be surprised by the number of wine lovers who would be interested in getting behind the scenes for a couple of months.
While I’m not certain the schools in Europe are seeking out Texas as a destination to encourage their students to intern for winemaking, it can’t hurt to notify them of openings. You could be surprised! Remember that folks who are coming from out of the country probably won’t have a car upon their arrival and may need help with getting from the airport to your winery. There is a shortage of rental cars right now, so that can create a complication if it continues. In the U.S., it’s not typical to provide housing for temporary help, but this perk can definitely help put your winery above others if you have a room, house, apartment, or RV to offer. Also, remember that advance notice is needed when you look overseas because of the travel logistics.
Some of my vineyard friends in the Hill Country have had success with asking wine club members to come help harvest. You may be surprised, but this is something quite a few folks enjoy doing to be a part of the vintage of a winery they love. This is usually restricted to help within the vineyard with picking grapes. What I see most often in California is opening up the first harvest day as a celebratory event where club members and local wine enthusiasts are invited to participate in picking grapes. Most wineries actually charge the customer for the privilege to pick that morning. They provide breakfast, bottled waters, lunch, a t-shirt, a bottle or two of wine, and a motivational talk by the owner or winemaker, and some charge as much as $175 per person. I don’t know of any of our Texas wineries doing this as an event the consumer pays for, but it is intended to have a marketing and customer relations benefit, in addition to providing help in the vineyard and a bit of income. Beyond that first pick of the season, future picks are usually done during the night, with skilled labor, usually starting at 8 or 9 p.m. and extending into the wee hours of the morning.
It doesn’t seem to be common to advertise to consumers the need for cellar help during harvest. Many of our wine-loving customers want to get a peak behind the scenes. Aside from me, the other two Americans on our crush team were not specifically looking to work in a winery but had heard about the temporary job openings through the grapevine – pardon the pun!
As a wine lover, you may be interested in volunteering to help during harvest, either in the vineyard or in the winery. This is certainly the best way to understand the intricacies of wine. But consider this your warning! Winemaking is hard work. It’s hot, dirty, very wet, and requires being on your feet for hours on end with a bit of physical activity that leads to muscle aches and requires good shoes. You’ll work long hours, leave with stained clothes, and have little time with your family and friends during the six to eight weeks that make up the bulk of the harvest season. On the upside, you gain knowledge and a great sense of pride when you are a part of making the wines in a certain year.
If you don’t want to go all in but still want to gain a sense of what it is like during crush, look for a winery in your area that offers a winery tour during harvest season. I’ve only come across a few in California who offer these tours, including Gary Farrell. Those who offer the tours are charging anywhere from $55 to $150, and of course, provide wine for you to enjoy during the tour and complete a standard tasting afterward. I hope to see our Texas wineries offering these informative peeks behind the scenes to see where the magic happens.
Whether you’re a winemaker, a winery owner, or simply a wine lover, there’s nothing like the excitement of the crush. Embrace it!