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What is the hardest part of a winemakers job?

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11/01/2023 28 Winemaker’s diary notes on what the hardest part of their winemaking role is.

Winemaker’s role has evolved over the years. Today’s winemakers are much more aware of their consumer's drinking habits, brand sales, and trends. They also need to understand the business they are in: selling wine. They have to make the best wine at the lowest cost and provide consistency to the wine on each harvest. They have to help in sales and marketing and they are the ones ultimately responsible for the quality of the wine.

Sommeliers Choice Awards interviews 28 winemakers with one question “what is their hardest part of the job” here is what they had to say:

Brian Crew: Adapting. Just when you think you have it all figured out there is always a new obstacle that you have to navigate without harming the quality of your wine, or the quality of your customer service standards.

Lauren Barrett: Maintaining an unbiased approach to winemaking, so many times ego creeps into the role of being a winemaker and we must constantly work on being unbiased and innovative. 

Alexander Ivanov: The harvest. It is a challenge only for warriors.

Oliver Styles: Trying to make the best decision - or (even worse) thinking through what the best decision is and holding to it. But the hardest is admitting to yourself and others that you got a decision wrong. That happens sometimes and it happens to everyone. That's what we tell cellar hands: you'll screw up - but you'll be judged by how you manage the fallout of the screw-up.

Stacy Vogel: Harvest is really challenging for most winemakers, both mentally and emotionally. Perfect growing seasons are few and far between, so we are always looking at the weather, judging the humidity, wondering if that incoming heat wave or rainstorm or wildfire will hit us or be as bad or worse than expected. Also, barely seeing your family for weeks to months is very difficult. But it is also exciting and thrilling to start another vintage of wine and get the first peek at the style and quality as the wines are fermenting.

Eva Pemper: The hardest part of a winemaker's job I reckon is the expectations, especially when you need to deliver a certain style and it might not be possible to deliver that in each and every wine every year. I guess then it is time to get those creative juices flowing :). Another thing is the ability to capture the essence of that moment in time, great winemakers can do it. 

Andrew Yingst: Prediction; whether that is the life of the wine or expected sales three years from harvest.

Justin Mund: There are always challenges. It gets easier with experience. If everything always goes right, then anyone could be a good winemaker.  It's when things aren't perfect that the exceptional winemaker can either fix or mitigate the issue.

Rose Kentish: Perhaps having to move between the physicality of the role into the customer-facing side. The skills needed for making and promoting are so different.

Josh Kessler: This could be different for everyone depending on who you are, but for me, in my current role it is harvest logistics. Because where I work is a fairly large facility with a good amount of custom crush work, and being in a cool climate wine region, deciding on when to bring things in can be challenging. We want to wait for optimal ripeness and fruit quality but sometimes decisions need to be made, looking ahead two or three weeks which sometimes means picking fruit before or after peak conditions. With experience, you learn which varieties can hang longer and still produce quality wines and where others need to be picked before they turn in the vineyard. Every vintage brings new challenges which to me is the hardest part of the job because you cannot always go on previous years' experiences. 

Paul Dawick: I have the philosophy of 'work smart, not hard'. That is why a strong team is key. Different palates and ideas can really bring more expression into a wine. What one person sees another will not. That is what makes wine so interesting.

Jabier Marquinez Villarreal: Being part of everything, “having a finger in every pie”, almost every part of the process goes through us, so there are more chances of making mistakes, making a mess, and always more work with very little time. 

During the harvest, from early preparations in August until the end of fermentations, a period of up to 60 days in a row always worked under pressure, was very tense, and had to take important decisions. Without forgetting the daily chores at the winery, bottling, production, etc.

Marco Sollazzo: Long hours during vintage

Joseph Patrick: Time management, logistics. There never seem to be enough hours in a day or days in a week! 

Brad Frederickson: The hardest part… that’s so broad. Dealing with less-than-ideal weather during harvest, equipment failure, wines not turning out as planned… there are many difficulties that could be faced. But I think the hardest part is making something that appeals to a wide range of palates. Every winemaker can make good wine... but that’s subjective. You’ve got to pull up a seat at the table for the imaginary consumer. When blending, you’ve got to always consider what the consumer thinks because at the end of the day – they will be drinking your wine. So, the hardest part is taking off your winemaker hat, putting your critical winemaker palate aside, and thinking – who’s going to be drinking this and how will they see this wine? 

Alexandra Wardlaw: Having to taste lots and lots of wines on a weekly basis. No...hold on, that's actually pretty cool.

Preston Thomas: For me, the hardest part of being a winemaker is staying patient. I enjoy instant gratification, but winemaking necessitates patience. The longer I make wine, the more I am finding the beauty of enjoying the journey from grape to bottle each vintage provides. We only get one shot every year to make the best wine we can and staying patient is one of the keys to accomplishing that.


Duncan Shouler: Accepting when you got it wrong!

Greg Clack: Logistics and staffing in peak vintage definitely put a strain on things! 

Olivia Wright: The flexibility that is demanded of a winemaker's schedule is not for the faint of heart. I have always worked with a multitude of grape varieties with a wide range of ripening windows, so it is a foregone conclusion that for 3 straight months of every year, my life is just eating, sleeping, harvest (mostly the latter). Outside of the harvest season, while there is some more leisure time to spend on friends, family, or hobbies, the day-to-day schedule could be anything from getting up at 5 am to head to the vineyards or flying across the country and staying out until midnight hosting winemaker dinners and sales events. It can be a little exhausting at times, but for those of us who are lucky to really love what we do, it's simply a way of life. 

Peter Selin: Patience and flexibility, especially during harvest.

Victor Bostan: In my opinion, the hardest part of a winemaker’s job is ensuring the consistency of the vintages regardless of the grape crop, rain, and other external factors. We put much effort to ensure Purcari wines have the same organoleptic characteristics year by year.

Seth Chambers: For me personally, it's battling the weather in the vineyard. But on a more global level, I think it's having people care about your story. What are you doing that keeps people's attention?  

Lisa Strid: The hours during harvest - it just gets exhausting and it's harder to do things properly when you're tired.  You have to really work to stay healthy and recover well during harvest (and the rest of the year, too). But especially at that crucial time of year.

Aaron Milne: Generally, vintage is the hardest part. Everything is happening so rapidly it's easy for something to get away from you. More specifically, clarifying, fining, and stabilizing white juice before inoculation. In a hot Australian summer, this is very demanding.

As a side note. Creating a new de-alcoholized wine is very difficult. You can't prepare very well as you fundamentally change the wine one week before bottling, then you have to run all your trials, sweeten, filter, and send for packaging. With the alcohol removed, it is a perfect environment for microbial spoilage. This isn't a normal part of a winemaker's job, however.

Spencer Spetnagel: The unknowns. No matter how many ferments you have taken to dry there is always something new each year that you are not expecting or does not follow conventional wisdom. The learning in this industry is never finished. This is also one of the best parts of the job. There is always something new to learn. 20 years later and the process is only more enthralling than when I first started.  

Aaron Lieberman, Iris Vineyard's winemaker: The hardest things for me are those things that I perceive as taking time away from actual wine-making activities. Not that I don’t enjoy those aspects of the job but, it is always in the back of my mind that I could be spending that time to improve the product we ultimately put in the bottle. So, perhaps the great challenges are finding the correct balance between wine-making and non-wine-making duties and cultivating the ethics and passion of one’s cellar and lab workers so you have confidence that things are being done well and correctly.

Mark Beaman: Being away from my family during the long hours and days of harvest. That and the administrative side of the job that most people don't consider.

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