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Lessons Learned From A Massive Vintage Down Under

Around the time Marco, my boyfriend, and I were wrapping up working the 2018 vintage in California, we decided we wanted to go to Australia together the following year. The first thought was so we could be together and explore our relationship further. Marco is from Italy and I’m American, so Australia was one country where we both could easily get work visas. Plus, in America we hardly get any quality Australian wine. Mostly just the Yellowtail crap. So I wanted to experience what Australian wine is all about.

Admittedly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to work another vintage on the heels of finishing my first. While I loved the experience, learned SO much, and furthered my passion for wine, I was exhausted. Something in my gut was telling me maybe I didn’t want to do this again. I could go and work in a tasting room in Australia and Marco could work vintage in the cellar. But for whatever reason, mostly Marco’s convincing Italian accent, I decided what the hell, why not one more?

So we applied to a few postings online and got in touch with the Cellar Manager of a winery in McLaren Vale where Marco’s friend had previously worked a vintage. This winery said they’d love to have us join the vintage crew. We quickly secured the job, then applied for and received our visas overnight. We were set!

Fast forward to February 2019. We turned up at the winery for orientation and I was shocked! The place was massive, I mean seriously massive. We’re talking 500 tanks. Very industrial. The Cellar Master had told us they typically process about 6,000 tons over vintage, but I don’t think that actually sank into my new-to-the-wine-industry brain. The whole winery was outside and didn’t exactly have the same high standards of cleanliness as the boutique winery of my previous vintage. I started imagining the number of pump overs I was going to have to do each day. Then they dropped the bomb that we would be required to work night shifts! This little bit of information wasn’t mentioned over the phone interview.

I started panicking. I didn’t want to work nightshifts! Sounded way too gnarly for me. I wasn’t very happy when we got home from orientation. Vintage hadn’t even started and I already felt like I wanted to quit. There were definitely tears. Poor Marco. I went around to a few other wineries to drop my resume for cellar door jobs. Even got a job offer. But with one car and opposite schedules, taking a different job would be difficult on my and Marco. So after much deliberation and some more tears, I decided to stay on for vintage. And honestly, I’m happy I did! I learned a lot of lessons from those seriously exhausting two months. Lessons I want to share with you here, in no particular order.

Lesson #1: Quality Vs. Quantity – Why Boutique Wines Have Higher Prices

I’m sure we are all familiar with the idea of quality vs. quantity. Depending on the context, one may be viewed superior to the other. I can’t necessarily say one is superior to the other within the context of the wine industry. However, I can now clearly recognize how both have a place and serve a purpose.

My first vintage at a boutique winery in Paso Robles, we processed about 250 tons over the entire two months of vintage. My second vintage at a custom crush facility in McLaren Vale, we processed 6,000 tons over the entire two months of vintage. We processed in one day in McLaren Vale what we processed over an entire vintage in Paso Robles. So based on daily workload alone, imagine the attention to detail and care in process between the two wineries. Here’s a little breakdown comparing the beginning of the winemaking process to highlight some of the differences of my experiences.

Hopefully this snapshot of only a piece of the winemaking process gives you an idea of the difference in quality from a small vs. large production winery. For me, the differences coming from a boutique winery to an industrial one were glaring. At an industrial winery, time is the focus because there is so much fruit to process. Because of this, cleanliness can become less of a concern. However, more wine produced at a lower cost means more room for profits. Wine is an industry after all and seeing massive semi-truck tankers drive up to the winery to be filled with finished wine made that apparent to me. Since boutique wineries are processing significantly smaller amounts of fruit on a day-to-day basis, they have the luxury of paying closer attention to detail and cleanliness at each step of the winemaking process. This attention to detail can be more labor intensive and thus more costly. Resulting for the consumer in a higher priced bottle of wine.

Lesson #2: Grit Is Important To Success

As previously mentioned, I wanted to quit from the get go. I later found out I wasn’t the only vintage casual who felt this way. 12 hour night shifts. Then switching to day shifts half way through, completely messing up your body clock. Doing more than 20 pump overs every shift. Labor intensive work that literally makes your body hurt. Who wouldn’t want to quit? But I have to say I’m so happy I stuck it out. To finish something that seemed so daunting and intimidating when I started really gives my a sense of accomplishment. I also feel like I improved my character by following through with this commitment. Now I know I can achieve anything I set my mind to!

Lesson #3: The Risk Is Worth The Reward

Moving across the world with an Italian, who I only met four months prior, to work vintage at a massive winery was definitely risky. Would things work out with me and Marco? Would I enjoy working another vintage? What will I do after vintage? The unknowns go on. But that’s part of life. Sometimes you just need to go for it! I have learned with my plethora of challenging life experiences that life goes on. You adapt and evolve as needed. Only a year earlier I was single and working in a completely different industry. When I decided to follow my passion for wine last year, I ended up finally meeting my match in a partner. So this bigger leap to the other side of the world, literally, brought me closer both to Marco and myself. I have learned so much about myself and more about the world in general in the past six months. And for me, that’s priceless.

Lesson #4: Money Isn’t Everything

So many people decide to work vintage because there is potential to make a lot of money. The hours are long and you can rack up a lot of over time depending on the winery. We had heard the vintage casual pay in Australia is quite good, especially with night shifts. Part of the reason we chose to work at a larger winery was because of the longer hours and potentially longer vintage, therefore greater pay. That was also the case with other casuals at the winery. Everyone came in expecting to make big money, some even took time out of university for it. But temperature spikes during the growing season led to lower yields in the region. 50% lower. And vintage was a month shorter than expected. So not horrible money, but definitely not what we were hoping for.

My takeaway is to not let money lead your decision making. Focus on doing what you love and the money will come. If you want to work vintage to learn more about wine, definitely go for it! But don’t do it just for the money because it’s very hard work and you’re really at the mercy of nature. Oh and if you are going to work vintage, I definitely recommend working for a smaller winery if possible. Working at a larger winery you are likely to get stuck doing the same job for the entire vintage over and over again. At a smaller winery you’ll get to experience more aspects of the winemaking process and learn more along the way.

Want to read about my California vintage experience? Click here, here, here, and here