Would you leave a secure job for a shot at working with a winery?
Advice from six who successfully made a wine-stained reboot
Each year millions of enthusiasts visit California wine country. In fact, Napa Valley is California’s second most popular tourist destination, behind only Disneyland. While many tikes dream of life in the Magic Kingdom, many like me, dream of a life in wine country.
What is so alluring about the wine country lifestyle? Certainly there is the idyllic vineyard landscapes, the sweet aromas of oak barrels and the chance to create liquid art that brings pleasure to so many. But the one thing above others that seems to engage most wine country visitors is the passion they feel from winemakers, tasting room folks and locals they meet during their visit. The passion for the grape is so contagious that many wine lovers leave wine country wishing they could reboot their lives or “do it over again” and somehow create a new wine-stained life.
Of course we have all heard the stories of the rich and uber-rich that bought or built the winery of their dreams. While those stories are wistfully intriguing, most of us will never have that kind of money, short of acquiring that lucky Powerball ticket while filling up the aging Toyota. The passions of wine country however are not limited to the uber-rich and those with viticulture and enology (winemaking) degrees. Wine country is filled with people who sacrificed established careers, good jobs and in some cases friends and family to chase their wine-stained dreams.
During my time as a wine blogger I’ve met quite a few people who found their lives unfulfilled until they took a leap of faith and landed an hourly winery job. Though I share their dream, so far I have not been willing to quit my secure real life job, to be an $8 an hour harvest intern. Am I missing out on the adventure of a lifetime?
I set off to Napa Valley and Sonoma County to meet and learn from those who had successfully accomplished what I have only been willing to dream about. Funny thing, I arrived with a short list of wine country adventurers and left with a very long list of others who had found the courage to reboot their lives in wine country. I discovered a whole culture of people willing to leave their old lives behind to live their wine-stained dreams. Better yet, they reported their lives in wine country even exceeded their expectations before arrival.
I interviewed a cross-section of individuals representing different facets of the wine industry. Though each followed a slightly different path, some with more stones than others, all are still as passionate about their wine country lives today as when they arrived. Some sought formal wine or hospitality education after arrival while others apprenticed under established winery professionals.
So what are the keys to a successful reboot in order to chase those wine-stained passions to a successful life in wine country? To find the answers I met with two winemakers, formerly from the financial services industry, Fredrik Johansson of Staglin Family Vineyard and Jamie Kutch of Kutch Wines – Pinot Noir. We shared wines with a 14-year police veteran from Virginia, Cindy Cosco, owner/winemaker of Passaggio Wines and Mia Malm, a longtime Broadway song and dance star who now owns Malm Communications, a wine country public relations firm. Taking an even less expected route, Hardy Wallace was laid off from Kodak in Atlanta. On a lark he entered and won a contest for “A Really Goode Job” at Murphy Goode Winery as their “Wine Country Lifestyle Correspondent.” Today he owns a micro-winery Dirty and Rowdy Family Wine Company and also works in the tasting room of extolled Cabernet producer Cathy Corison of Corison Winery. Finally, we shared breakfast with Mark Elcombe who lost his sales and importing company when his client, The Sharper Image, closed. After taking classes in hospitality at a local junior college, Mark is now the tasting room manger for Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards near Healdsburg in Sonoma and a sought after wine competition judge.
All offered up some great advice for the wine country wannabe. The more we spoke, the more some reoccurring themes became apparent to the success of a wine-stained life transition. What does it take to make wine-stained dreams a reality? Here’s what I learned.
Passionate about wine – All of the people who made the leap were passionate about wine, to say the least. All had been deeply involved with wine in some way for a long time. Hardy had a wine blog. Jamie, from New York City, had immersed himself in the Pinot Noir world and for years interacted with winemakers and Pinot lovers via the web and chat rooms. Fredrik went so far as to interview his friends about what direction they felt he should take his life. As Fredrik tells it, “they said all you talk about is wine…do something with wine.” Fredrik was so passionate; he left his successful career for an $8 an hour winery intern job, so he could apprentice under celebrated winemaker Thomas Brown (2010 Food and Wine Magazine Winemaker of the Year).
Be willing to take a big step backward – You may have been very successful in your previous career, but that was your past life. Put your ego in a box. Expect to take a bottom rung winery job, just to get your foot on the ladder. Mia Malm recommends you be willing “to take a step back financially to live the larger dream.” She insists that winery wannabes “be humble and say I don’t know this industry, but I want to learn it.”
Network…Network…Network – The wine industry is a small tight knit community and it pays to network both online and in real life. Networking lets people get to know you and feel your passion. Networking also gives you a chance to interview other wine professionals about their jobs. What do they like and dislike about it? What are the challenges? How does your skill set fit with the opportunities? Hardy Wallace came out for a PR and social media position with Murphy Goode but learned his real passion lay in small winery winemaking and production where “you wear every hat.” When Jamie Kutch began to sell his now highly regarded Pinot Noirs, he already had a substantial list of potential buyers from his time networking online with other Pinot lovers. Fredrick was the assistant winemaker at Outpost when a friend of a friend recommended Fredrik for the open winemaker position at Staglin.
Work Hard…Very Hard – There is an old adage that you don’t have to out run the bear, just the fellow next to you. Winery work is physically hard, especially during crush and harvest. It is fast paced and with cleanliness being of utmost importance, there is always something that needs to be done, even as simple as sterilizing tank valves. Harvest jobs are seasonal, so the people who work the hardest, stay focused, wear their wine passions on their sleeve and ask the best questions, are kept on the longest. With some luck, a seasonal cellar rat can transition to a full time winery job.
Mark Elcombe wanted to go into winery sales and felt the best way to gain wine knowledge was to work harvest as a cellar rat. Normally a young person’s position, Mark was in his early 50’s. Working for a big winery, he recounts “I was the last one in the break room and the first one out. I carried a rag in my back pocket so even when there was little to do, I could polish the stainless-steel fermentation tanks and clean valves.” Cindy Cosco moved from Virginia in 2004 and worked at a liquor store for a month before landing a seasonal cellar rat job at Chateau St. Jean. Halfway through harvest they moved Cindy into the enology laboratory for what became a full time position that she left three years later to pursue her winemaking dreams. Cindy credits her good luck to “the passion you show, a willingness to do anything required, a strong work ethic and maturity.”
Be willing to take a chance – As songwriter Pat Green says, “If you live your whole life upon a shelf…You got no one to blame but your own damn self.” So what makes someone willing to trade a safe and stable existence for a dream in wine country? Everyone we interviewed was quite introspective and had a strong sense of self. They wanted more from their lives and lifestyles and were willing to sacrifice security for heart-felt happiness. After much teeth-mashing contemplation they became certain about the direction their lives needed to go. “You have to be willing to jump off the diving board,” Cindy Cosco said. I asked her how she knew she was ready to dive. After many meetings with those who left stable yet unfulfilling jobs to follow their wine-stained passions, she said to herself, “I can do this, too…AND WHY NOT!