How to Become a Winemaker

Few can deny that a career in winemaking sounds romantic. Strolling through one’s own vineyards, tasting and blending to reach that perfect flavor, and checking up on your creations in a wine cellar. Of course, these are all parts of the job, and if you are passionate about wine and the creative process behind it, this can be the perfect career for your.

It’s important to remember that winemaking is also lots and lots of hard work. Besides all the fun stuff, there is the tough harvest season, which entails long hours, hard work and is completely unpredictable. At the same time, the business side is extremely important. So while you might love the idea of making wine, you should also like selling it and know how to do it. There are literally thousands of wine producers in California alone, and every single one is competition to some extent. So marketing, sales, and finance should also be on your radar for this career.

Winemaking is very dependent on seasons. During harvest, winery employees work around the clock for 2 or 3 months, usually between October and December. The winemaker is responsible for deciding when grapes are at their best to be picked, using both his or her personal knowledge, but often getting a hand from chemistry. The next step is tasting and blending, which involves stages beginning with fermented grape juice, to the final blend creating the actual wine. This is the creative side of the job. And, as mentioned before, there is the business side, where winemakers create a brand and find the correct channels to sell their product.

Take a look at this infographic to get some extra information about wine regions and industry stats.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Clarissa Nagy

Consulting Winemaker at Riverbench

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
  • Location:
  • Years in the Industry:
  • Company:
  • Title:
  • Twitter:
  • Clarissa Nagy
  • Santa Maria, CA
  • 19
  • Riverbench
  • Consulting Winemaker
  • @Riverbench

I studied Food Science at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. I planned on making organic foods with little or no preservatives. While interning at a sensory and marketing research company, I worked with 2 different wineries. When I realized I could use my love for sensory in winemaking, I was all in. I took a harvest internship at Edna Valley Vineyard. From there, I worked at several different wineries throughout the Central Coast, including Firestone, Byron, Longoria, Bonaccorsi and now Riverbench.

Leading up to harvest, I am in the vineyards. Once the fruit starts coming in, I am at the picks first thing and then off to the cellar for morning punch downs and Delestage. Then I’m back in the vineyard to make picking decisions and then back to cellar work and inoculations.

I love not having a desk job. I love the variety of things I do and that my labor of love can be shared with others over a meal.

Recommended Organizations

  • ASEV (American Society for Enology and Viticulture) is a fabulous organization to stay on top of the current research and trends. The national conference is a great way to connect with others in the industry, network and job hunt.
  • CERA (California Enological Research Association) is a fantastic group to get involved in when first starting out in enology and continuing throughout your career. There are many committees including Winemaking Techniques, Viticulture, Methods of Analysis, and Sensory. It is a great way to see what others are doing and to join in on research projects. There is a wide array of experience and a good group to bounce ideas and perspectives off of regarding various techniques.
  • World Of Pinot Noir Tech Symposium – When I first began working with Pinot Noir, attending these annual seminars were fabulous for learning about Pinot Noir growing regions around the world. Each attending winery brings a wine for discussion. The wines are tasted blind and discussed. Feedback on winemaking techniques, picking decisions and aging techniques is quite helpful in establishing your own style.

Advice

Taste as much as possible
Tasting a variety of wines in a specific region really helps to develop your palate.

Visit tasting rooms
Whenever you can, visit tasting rooms that give production tours so you can see various wineries and layouts. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Work a harvest at a winery
This will give you the best experience and allow you to determine if you really want a career in winemaking. The non-glamourous side, stained hands and wet feet helps to put things in perspective rather quickly. I find that people either love it or hate it. If you love it, you’re in the right profession.

David Ramey

Ramey Wine Cellars – Owner

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
  • Location:
  • Years in the Industry:
  • Company:
  • Title:
  • Twitter:
  • David Ramey
  • Healdsburg, CA
  • 36
  • Ramey Wine Cellars
  • Owner/Winemaker
  • @RameyWineCellar

I have a BA in American Studies from UC Santa Cruz and an MS in Food Science (Enology) from UC Davis.

For me, there is no average day, but what I truly love the most is making wine. I do wish, however, I didn’t have to deal with e-mail and tech side of things, but I am the owner, so that comes with the job.

Understanding My Career Path

  • Master of Science degree in Enology from UC Davis, 1979. Took four quarters of French while there.
  • Worked the harvest of 1979 in Pomerol, France, with Ets. Jean-Pierre Moueix, which owned or managed many properties in Pomerol, St. Emilion and Fronsac, including Chateaux Petrus, La Fleur-Petrus, Magdelaine, Trotanoy, etc.
  • Worked the harvest of 1980 at Lindemans Karadoc winery in the Murray River Valley of Australia, a very large winery specializing in bag-in-the-box “Rhine Riesling” (there being no Riesling in it, nor any grapes from the Rhine).
  • Assistant Winemaker to Zelma Long at Simi, 1980-84
  • Winemaker at Matanzas Creek, 1984-89
  • A second vintage with Ets. Jean-Pierre Moueix in Pomerol
  • Winemaker at Chalk Hill, 1990-96
  • Executive VP and Winemaker, Dominus Estate, 1996-98
  • Director of Vineyards and Winemaking, Rudd Estate, 1998-2002
  • Owner/Winemaker of Ramey Wine Cellars, 1996 to present

Advice

Learn wines
To make great wine, you must know what great wine tastes like. Find or found a blind wine tasting group; work several harvests with wineries; get a BS or MS in Enology.

Do what you love
Above all—it’s a cliché, but: follow your passion. If you are true to your dream, and work really hard, it will come true in one form or another. Good luck! The world needs more good wine.

Recommended Organizations

Linn Slocum

Blue Slip Winery – Owner

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
  • Location:
  • Years in the Industry:
  • Company:
  • Title:
  • Twitter:

I am not a certified wine maker. I am self taught. In 2003, I started making kit wine at home.  Soon I grew into making wine from fresh fruit once I found a local source. Early on, I joined two wine related organizations, Tennessee Viticulture and Oenological Society (TVOS), made up of amateur winemakers and growers and Tennessee Farmers and Winegrower Alliance (TFWA) made up of growers. Networking with like-minded individuals fueled my interest in winemaking and prompted me to consider opening a winery.

Blue Slip Winery began as a very small winery, producing 1,200 gallons the first year and slowly increasing production over the years to 20,000 gallons this year. Still, we are a small winery. Due to beginning small, and with the encouragement and collaborative support from friend and peer, Jeff Galyon, I was able to maintain a full-time day job while growing Blue Slip Winery. Today, we are a bonded wine cellar that purchases Tennessee grown fruit and processes it into wine. We also have a tasting bar and a retail shop.

Although winemaking is my passion, as Blue Slip has grown I have spent most of my time minding the business end. Maintaining the record-keeping required by local, state and federal regulatory agencies is intensive in an alcohol-related business. Purchasing the winemaking ingredients and equipment or retail items and office supplies is another daily task. Recently, Blue Slip moved from our first location in Knoxville’s Old City into the Historical Southern Railway Station where we can expand our production and offer wine related events. The expansion and move have been quite an undertaking to manage, and therefore, my time has been spent on making the move happen.

Advice

Find a mentor
My suggestion to someone wanting to be a winemaker is to look within your community to find a winemaker to talk to and expand your research from there. I read all I could and joined our statewide organizations, TVOS and TFWA, where I was able to network with others sharing my passion. Look at the available on-line courses if you don’t live near a university that offers winemaking classes.

Learn the ropes
Early on in my research, I offered my time for free and worked behind the scenes at a local winery. The experience was invaluable. Pre-harvest or harvest is a time when free labor is advantageous to wineries. I also picked grapes and helped out at a vineyard. The vineyard became Blue Slip’s largest grower. Find your passion and foster relationships that will support your mission.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Winemaker?


There are winemakers who are self-taught and others who have completed degrees in oenology and food science. There is no better way to do it, both paths can lead to a successful career, and the right choice for you will really depend on your learning style, how much money you can spend and little bit of luck and talent.

Learning by working in the industry and through books and online resources is one way to do it. While it is cheaper, it also will probably take longer, and if you are looking to get a job for an established winery as a winemaker, it’s definitely going to be harder if you have no degree. As many winemakers start out with a career in a different field, this can be a great option for them.

To complement the above, you can take on an apprenticeship and learn the ropes from someone who already has experience in the field. At the same time, you have the option of taking classes and workshops without actually completing a full degree.

If you do prefer to go to college and get a Bachelor’s in Oenology, Viticulture or Food Science, this can be a great path. You will learn the technical and scientific aspects of the winemaking process, and most programs will offer some courses covering the business side of the industry as well. Don’t forget though that you will still have to do apprenticeships or internships with local or international wineries in order to get the hands-on learning experience.

WHAT IF I DO WANT A DEGREE IN OENOLOGY OR VITICULTURE ?

  • University of California – Davis
    Located an hour away from the heart of wine country, UC Davis offers a BS and an MS in Viticulture and Oenology, as well as certificate programs in winemaking. This is one of the best recognized schools in the US when it comes to oenology. Tuition is an average of $13,896 for California residents and $36,774 for out-of-state students.
  • California State University – Fresno
    Once again located in California, where most of the wine in the US is produced, CSU Fresno offers BS programs in Oenology or Viticulture, an MS in Viticulture and Oenology and a special certificate program for those looking to hone their skills. Tuitions is an estimate of $3,149.50 for 7+ units.
  • Washington State University
    WSU in Richland, WA, offers its students a Viticulture and Oenology major in Integrated Plant Sciences, an MS in Viticulture and Oenology, as well as 1.5 year non-credit certificate program. All of the programs cover both technical, as well as business aspects of the field. You can also choose to take a Wine Business Management major. In-state tuition is $11,396 per year and out-of-state stands at $24,478.
  • Cornell University
    The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at CU, located in Ithaca, NY, offers two Bachelor level concentrations, one in Viticulture and the other in Oenology, with a strong focus on the scientific aspect of the field. The degree can involve a Capstone or an internship, or be completed as a minor. At the graduate level you can obtain a Master of Professional Studies, a Master of Science or a Doctoral degree. In-state tuition is $30,910 per year, while out-of-state is $47,050.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

The general consensus among our experts is that the best way to get started in the industry is through a harvest internship. This means that you work for a winery for 2-3 months during the harvest season when they are the busiest. You will probably have to either work in the cellar or in the vineyard, but you’ll get the opportunity to learn about the industry and get a taste of what it’s like to be a winemaker. It might, in fact, be a good idea to do this before you choose this path as a degree, since it will help you figure out whether you love it or hate it.

While this is the first step, you also need to learn wines before, during and throughout your career as a winemaker. If you have the opportunity to travel, visit vineyards in different areas in the US or even better, around the world, this would truly help build your knowledge and credibility.

You should also join local organizations in your community and get to know people interested in wine. Even if you are not in the main areas of wine-country, there are probably groups of hobby winemakers or just people who love wine. This will help you network, and once again, learn more about the industry.

Be prepared to start from the bottom and make your way up, but this is probably the best way to become a winemaker anyway. You need to understand, know and feel the whole process to make great wine, so don’t be afraid to get down and dirty with this trade.