How To Become a Winemaker: Definition, Steps and FAQ
If you're interested in the wine industry, you may consider becoming a winemaker. Winemakers manage the transformation of grapes into wine, which typically involves growing and caring for grapes, harvesting and processing them and aging the wine. As a winemaker, you can use your training and skills to build a community of wine enthusiasts, promote your product and affect sales results, which can make a career in winemaking creatively and socially stimulating.
In this article, we explore what winemakers do, discuss the steps you can take to start your winemaking career and answer common questions about becoming a winemaker.
What is a winemaker?
Also known as enologists or vintners, winemakers oversee production at wineries and vineyards. Some winemakers own their own vineyards, and others work within a team of winemakers to manage the staff and oversee production at a large winery. No matter the scale of operation, winemakers ensure quality wine by monitoring grape growth, developing standards for production and supporting distribution.
For example, winemakers often strive to improve grape harvests by collaborating with a winery's grape growers and explaining what they'd like to enhance about the previous year's vintage. Winemakers may also taste competitors' products to determine current industry trends that they can incorporate into new wine recipes.
What does a winemaker do?
Winemakers typically manage:
Production: From planting grapes to distributing finished wines, winemakers oversee the entire annual production process.
Grape quality: Winemakers often oversee grape health during the growing seasons, decide when to harvest and monitor grape crushing.
Fermentation: Winemakers are in charge of choosing which type of wine to produce, selecting the right yeast to use for fermentation and planning the length and style of the aging process.
Product development: Winemakers often concoct blend recipes in a winery lab. They may also go to wine tastings to remain up to date on industry trends and standards, which can help them maintain high-quality products.
Distribution: Some winemakers specialize in distribution, which can include filtering, bottling and packaging the aged wine for customers. Depending on the winery's target customer base, winemakers may also sell wine wholesale to independent bottlers.
Promotion: Winemakers often write marketing and public relations copy, which relevant media outlets can use to inform the public about new wines.
Business operations: Especially at large wineries, winemakers may track business expenses and gains, supervise winemaking equipment and machinery maintenance and manage the winery staff.
Legal compliance: Winemakers may be responsible for ensuring their wine meets local legal standards. For example, in some regions, wine must meet specific alcohol content requirements.
Record keeping: For product consistency, winemakers often maintain records of processing procedures, blend recipes, new fermentation techniques and current inventory undergoing aging.
The extent of a winemaker's responsibilities can vary based on the size of the winery or vineyard. Here's how small and large operations compare:
Planting: At small vineyards, winemakers may be involved with sowing seeds, while at large wineries, they often manage the grape growers, or viticulturists, who are in charge of planting and watering.
Maintaining: At a small vineyard, winemakers often take part in pruning plants to ensure healthy growth. In comparison, winemakers at large wineries advise viticulturists, who maintain the plants.
Managing: Small wineries may have one winemaker on staff who serves as the sole manager, while large wineries often employ a team of winemakers.
A winemaker may also have additional duties based on the price of their wine. For example, winemakers producing budget wine often focus on how to produce the best wine at the lowest cost, while luxury winemakers typically use marketing and public relations to support the reputation of their high-quality wine.
Wineries vs. vineyards
Here are the key differences between wineries and vineyards:
Environment: Vineyards are farms that produce grapes. In contrast, wineries are buildings dedicated to processing wine.
Production: Vineyards focus on growing grapes, while winery production centers around fermenting, aging and filtering wine.
Relationship: Vineyards and wineries are often connected. However, wineries can also buy grapes from independent vineyards.
Related: 14 Great Outdoor Careers
How to become a winemaker
Follow these steps to become a winemaker:
1. Earn a bachelor's degree
While many employers don't require a degree, winemakers who obtain bachelor's degrees often major in viticulture, enology, horticulture, food science or wine science. In these programs, aspiring winemakers may learn about:
Popular wine varieties and what makes them unique
Standard wine pairings
Vineyard tracking software and technology
Standard sterilization techniques
Regardless of major, aspiring winemakers often benefit from courses in:
2. Obtain experience in the wine industry
There are three main ways you can enter the winemaking industry:
Becoming an apprentice: Master winemakers sometimes take on apprentices to pass on knowledge before retirement, train new winery staff members or support the growth of the winemaking community. If you're interested in becoming a winemaking apprentice, consider contacting local wineries, enology programs or tasting groups for more information.
Doing an internship: Some bachelor's programs may offer an internship as an element of their program. Winemaking interns may work with master winemakers in the lab, with viticulturists in the field or in a winery office to learn valuable marketing and administrative skills.
Getting an entry-level or seasonal job: During the annual harvest season, vineyards may hire additional staff, which can give you the opportunity to gain direct experience in the industry and begin your winemaking career.
Beyond vineyards and wineries, you can acquire related experience in the following ways:
Provide wine pairings in restaurants and bars
Join a wine tasting group
Work in a wine cellar
Write articles about wine for a local publication
Become a sommelier
Sell seeds to vineyards
Work in wine production equipment sales
Pursue a position in a brewery
Get a job in fruit farming
3. Develop your network
Winemaking is a collaborative field, which means that building a network of professional contacts can improve your winemaking process, expose you to new ideas in the industry and provide you with support as you advance in your career. To grow your winemaking industry connections, consider:
Going to tastings
Joining tasting groups or clubs
Attending trade shows
Visiting conventions and industry events
Maintaining positive relationships with suppliers, vendors and customers
Asking restaurants where they source their wine and connecting with those wineries
Read more: 10 Tips To Help You Network Like a Pro
4. Improve your business skills
In addition to production, winemakers are often responsible for distribution, promotion and basic financial planning, which can include responsibilities like:
Planning for the next season based on data from the previous season
Approving product design, including labels and bottle choice
Scaling recipes and techniques as the business grows
Writing press releases
Crafting promotional materials
Finding and acquiring more land as the winery grows
Maintaining the business's relationship with the media
If you're interested in developing your business skills, consider taking online courses, enrolling in continuing education or contacting mentors such as former professors for professional advice.
Frequently asked questions about becoming a winemaker
Here are a few common questions aspiring winemakers ask:
Do I need a degree to become a winemaker?
While a degree isn't necessary to become a winemaker, having a bachelor's in viticulture or enology can help you make scientific decisions about how to care for grapes, when to harvest and what types of wines blend well.
Whether winemakers have a degree or not, they often expand their knowledge by:
Taking continuing education courses
Participating in trade fairs
Networking at conventions
Staying active in the local tasting community
What's the typical work environment for winemakers?
Winemakers normally work:
Inside wineries, where they monitor grape crushing, lead fermentation and craft blends
In vineyards, where they choose which grapes to grow, ensure they're healthy and manage the harvesting process
In a wine cellar, where they check temperature and humidity for proper aging and storage
In tasting rooms, where they promote new wines and develop industry contacts to support the business
What are the benefits of becoming a winemaker?
Winemakers work on a seasonal cycle, meaning that no two days are alike over the course of a year. Winemakers often visit the vineyard to test grapes, engage in creative problem-solving in the blending lab and maintain a professional social life through wine tasting groups. For people who appreciate variety in the workplace, becoming a winemaker can be a rewarding career.
What kind of skills can help me become a winemaker?
Through their education and on-the-job training, winemakers develop a set of core skills that help them create wine that's consistent, meets quality standards and improves on the previous year's vintage. These skills often include:
Creativity: Creative winemakers innovate blends, combine grapes and make decisions about yeasts for fermentation in order to create a signature product, which can improve sales and help a winery scale.
Attention to detail: Winemakers use personal tasting reflections, community feedback and sales results to assess whether a wine is performing as they predicted. They often use this valuable data to make decisions during the next growing season, which can improve wine quality.
Communication: Winemakers typically maintain active social groups within the industry and link a winery or vineyard to the media with public relations and marketing copy. Strong communication skills can help winemakers keep their contacts interested, promote wine sales and gain trusted feedback from industry contacts.
Critical thinking: Winemakers examine their wine periodically to develop new fermentation, blending and aging strategies. Analytical thinking can help winemakers pinpoint the qualities that made a wine sell well and determine ways to enhance them.
Ability to work under pressure: Since it takes about one year, or one growing season, to produce grapes, winemakers typically have one chance per year to create a new wine. Being able to make actionable, long-term plans and solve challenges under pressure can help prepare winemakers for success in the industry.
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