As wine enthusiasts, we often hear about wine families, dynasties even, and of vineyards and winemaking traditions passing down through generations. But from winemakers to distribution sales reps, many wine stories begin with people coming to the industry as a second (or even third) career – some by accident, others with intention. The reasons, circumstances, stages of life, and points of entry are as vast as the many shades of rosé, but the passion shared is ubiquitous. And it can be inspiring, perhaps enough for others to make the leap.
Meet Erich Berg, Emily Haines, and Kathrin “Kat” Jankowiec, winemakers in Oregon, California, and New Zealand. Each was on a different career trajectory in Chicago, Seattle, and Germany. They come from different places, for different reasons, but these scrappy, wide-eyed beginners came into wine on their own, and without millions of dollars or financial backing, and they have no regrets.
Erich Berg awoke on his seventh birthday to his mom giving his dad mouth-to-mouth and CPR. His dad died that morning of a sudden heart attack and from that moment on, Erich was going to be a cardiothoracic surgeon.
However, at college, Erich found himself unmotivated by the auditorium-sized chemistry classes and on the fraternity party scene instead. He was eventually among the 2/3 of freshman weeded out of the “pre-Med” program, but he embraced his social skills and talent for debate, and graduated instead with a degree in English Literature.
Erich planned on a career in PR but was offered nearly double the salary by a healthcare firm as a proposal writer. As Erich puts it, “I became a ‘health insurance’ person overnight.”
But just as ennui from the day-to-day monotony of cubicle life began to set in, he was discovered by the Ford Modeling Agency. He left corporate life to pursue a modeling career, while waiting tables to pay the rent. Modeling was a successful endeavor, but it was hustling at the Italian restaurant where Erich discoveredhis gift for service and selling. After a period as the wine buyer, he then landed a gig at Crofton on Wells, where Chef Suzy Crofton had an entire page dedicated to Oregon Pinot Noir.
“An entire page! Having been schooled in Italian wines, I had no idea what this grape was, and I barely knew where Oregon was. But I quickly fell in love. Then another Chicago blizzard hit, my landlord didn’t extend our lease; and so, my wife and I started to look West.”
In August of 2004, having never been to the Pacific Northwest, Erich left Chicago for his first harvest at Domaine Serene in the Willamette Valley. His family followed, and they’ve lived in the Valley since. But that’s not where Erich’s winemaking story ends.
“Domaine Serene taught me well: high standards and expectations in the cellar, and great mentors. It was my education,” he says. “But the winemaking bug didn’t catch, and I left to teach high school English. I LOVED teaching, became the department chair, ran Open Mic night, and coached the boys’ tennis team. I thought I was going to teach for the rest of my life…. then I completely burned out in the first few weeks of my sixth year.”
At this point Erich was struggling with extreme anxiety and depression, and his friend, Brad Ford at Illahe Vineyards offered him another harvest gig. That was it. He was reinvigorated to make wine and credits it for saving his life in many ways.
“It gave me a challenge, a purpose, and kept me moving,” he recalls. “Now after stints at Illahe and Day Wines (with another go at teaching at the juvenile detention center in between because I was going to fix the jail system), I’m five years into my own brand, making wine. I honestly can’t imagine doing anything else.”
That brand? Ricochet Wine, named for the existential dilemma Erich bounced back from and how he hopes to help others do the same.
Emily Haines also wanted to be a doctor when she grew up. But after a high school bio-tech class in her home state of Washington, it became her college major. After graduation, Emily landed her first job as a researcher for the VA hospital. Here she was assigned to Type I diabetes research.
“I wanted to save the world and put my mark on society in a way that I felt was meaningful,” she says.
Her goals were simple, to continue as a researcher and eventually climb the career ladder. During this time, Emily spent her evenings moonlighting as a tasting room associate for a winery in Seattle.
“I realized there’s a lot of science in wine and I had this thought: maybe science could be a segway to working my way into the industry.”
Although the idea began percolating, it wasn’t until Emily’s best friend (who was working in winemaking at the time) convinced her that, with her strong palate and science background, she should give it a try. Emily quit her research job, landed a role as a harvest intern in Prosser, Washington, and by the end of the season, was working full-time as a lab tech at the winery.
After a year, Emily joined Milbrandt Vineyards and spent seven years moving from lab tech to lab manager before ultimately becoming the head of winemaking. “I had so many great mentors in Washington, among them Gordy Hill, Josh Maloney, and Brennon Leighton,” she says. “They provided insight, support – like my best friend – the encouragement to try.”
Today, Emily is the head winemaker for Terra d’Oro in Amador County, California where she now embraces intuition and creativity in her winemaking. “I’ve gotten to the point by ‘trying things’ that I developed a feel for wine, and I much prefer that to the strict science of winemaking. It’s helpful to have my science background to rely on, but I love that I get to embrace my intuitive and creative sides in the process.”
Emily has also found a way back to one of her original career goals: to leave her mark on the world. This year, Terra d’Oro wines will be launching their “Giving Gardens” from which all the fruits and vegetables grown will be donated to the local food bank.
“Wine is a community. The opportunity I have here, in a role with a legacy winery that has seen very little turnover, is humbling,” she says. “And it’s important to me to create honest and continuous dialogue on how, as a part of this community, we can impact and support our home region.”
Across the Atlantic in Germany, Kat Jankowiec also had an interest in science and medicine.
“As a young kid I thought I wanted to be a vet. I loved all the little creatures. But I discovered early on that I was riddled with allergies and couldn’t go near anything with fur.”
Tragically, Kat’s mom passed during her youth, rendering her the caretaker of her younger sisters. By the time she finished secondary school, she still hadn’t found any new career interests. But with child-rearing under her belt, following in her mom’s footsteps to be a teacher seemed only natural. She trained as a pedagogue and began her career in foster care centers.
After years working with children in crisis situations, Kat was emotionally drained. She left her job and began traveling the world. Nearly a year later, Kat found herself without much budget remaining and in New Zealand. She wanted to continue traveling, so, on the advice of some fellow backpackers, she decided to pick up a harvest job at a local winery before continuing on her travels.
“Originally, I thought I was going to work in the vineyard, but instead I got a job working in the cellar. I jumped straight into work, despite having no prior experience. I had no idea what was going on, but I loved the buzz.”
Kat was immediately drawn to harvest, to winemaking, and the passion and energy of the people from all around the world working to make wine. She stayed on as a cellar hand at the winery, and worked from the ground up. Eventually, after becoming assistant winemaker, she received an offer from Villa Maria Winery.
“I had long admired the winery and what it stands for, so I took the job instantly, and I am still extremely excited to work in wine here in New Zealand,” she says. “Every year is different and no season, or even week, is the same.”
Kat recalls that, when she began at Villa Maria, Marlborough was still reasonably small in terms of winemaking and how, during her time, Sauvignon Blanc from the region gained notoriety. The excitement of being a part of a winery shaping New Zealand’s winemaking history was humbling and continues to motivate her daily as she works towards new discoveries and advancements.
“Discovering and defining Marlborough and its sub-regions is something I am very passionate about. I believe we have an exciting opportunity to express our terroir and showcase the breadth of our beautiful backyard in the years to come.”
Making the Leap
It takes courage to willingly embark on a path often fraught with uncertainty, fear, missteps, and even occasional failure. But often these bold moves also lead to unexpected opportunity, fulfillment, and even success. And for each of these second-career winemakers, there are no regrets. When asked what advice they have for anyone considering a career change, they responded the same: Just do it.
Kat puts it simply: “A career change takes guts, and most people will have to start at entry level jobs again, but finding joy and passion in what you do is priceless. I would not change my decision for anything in the world.”