Every year, sometime between August and November (or February and April if you’re in the southern latitudes), a motley crew of [mostly young] wine professionals from various countries and walks of life make a pilgrimage to wine country. Their goal: is to participate in one of the most challenging, exciting, and character-building events in the wine industry: the Harvest.
In 2022, I chose to take part in this phenomenon, opting for the familiar stomping grounds of Napa Valley for my first wine production experience. I wanted a new challenge in wine and a first-person perspective on a process I had only previously glimpsed through a spectator’s window. I wanted to share some things I have learned, to let you decide if this journey is right for you.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily applicable to all wineries or all harvests There are some similarities across the board, but each Harvest experience is unique. The blog is also limited to the cellar. The actual vineyard internship (like picking grapes) is an entirely different story.
All Paths Welcome
For some, the “Crush” is a stepping stone to a long career in production. Some even become winemakers/oenologists, although a degree is usually necessary. For others (myself included) coming from the hospitality/restaurant/wine biz, it is an opportunity to swap an immaculate, sterile hospitality/office environment for something more rugged, more physically challenging, and get their hands dirty making wine. Finally, for many (some of whom don’t particularly like wine), Harvest is an adventure, a way to see new places and meet new people.
Whatever your goal, the Harvest presents an exciting, unique, challenging experience to all who choose to participate.
You will get out what you put in
You don’t need to know winemaking to jump into your first Harvest, as you will learn everything you need to know on the job. It is beneficial, however, to be passionate about the craft. Wine is all about passion, and if you demonstrate that you love winemaking and working hard, you will gain more insight and receive more engaging jobs in the winery.
You will learn a lot about winery operations. However, not every winery will teach you about winemaking. Some just expect you to do the job. At some wineries, you will receive a specialty. You may be doing the same thing every day for the entirety of the Harvest. This usually happens with big wineries. If you want a more diverse and fulfilling harvest, stick to smaller locations.
One thing I would suggest for anyone interested in pursuing a winemaking career is to take full advantage of the vast knowledge of the winemaker and cellar crew. Most of the time, they are delighted to answer your questions about the winemaking process and why they do it a certain way. Showing initiative is a great way to stand out; it is no exception in production.
You gotta be quick on the uptake
The 2022 Harvest hit Napa Valley like a ton of bricks. A brutal heat spike in September forced everyone into overdrive as the grapes ripened faster and were processed quicker. What that meant for cellar interns was that there was not as much time to understand all the processes involved. Once the full-time cellar crew showed you how to do a function once, you now had to do it quickly, with relatively little supervision. Some people were far better at being independent and had more variety in their tasks. Those who couldn’t learn quickly enough (myself included) got stuck with more repetitive jobs and experienced a less-pleasant harvest.
The Harvest Squad
There is no guarantee you will like all of your intern coworkers. But, you will likely become close with the other people working with you through the Harvest crucible. You will spend much time together, possibly even living in winery-provided housing. You will experience the sheer agony of a 12-hour day after a long night of drinking. So if camaraderie is something you are missing in your life, then your harvest family may be the answer, and you might make friends that will last a lifetime.
The Extended Harvest Family
There is no lack of diversity in interns. Even in 2022, with international travel in flux, many passionate wine people from all corners of the globe still made the journey to Napa Valley. As a result, Harvest is an excellent opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with some exciting internationals with a completely different worldview from your own. Even at my winery, with no internationals, there were still a few people from other states (and Canada) from whom it was a delight to learn.
Clean Winery= Dirty Job
The work of an intern is 90-95% cleaning. As grapes arrive in the winery, they carry many different microbes and bacteria, some of which may spread and negatively impact the wines. So, it is crucial that the grapes arrive in a clean winery, get processed into a clean tank, get pressed in a clean press, and get transferred from vessel to vessel using only the most hygienic hoses. Otherwise, you may start finding off-flavors in your wine.
So, who cleans the press, the tanks, the hoses, and all other winery equipment? The interns, of course. And while some other regions or styles of wine may take a lax approach to hygiene, in Napa (along with other, more internationally-prominent wine regions), this process is done religiously and with products (none of which impact the wine, I might add). Furthermore, the “chems” ensure the eradication of all bacteria, thus guaranteeing a sterile fermentation environment. So, while the winery and equipment will remain clean, the harvest intern’s hands will be akin to those of a blue-collar worker; cracked, saturated with grape anthocyanins (color)/ cleaning products, and rough as sandpaper.
Harvest is a Workout
Scrap all your home training machines and weights. Cancel that Planet Fitness membership. Your standard winery has all you need to get in the best shape of your life. Who needs deadlifts if you can lift empty barrels of French oak? Why do rows if you can swing some kegs? Constant punch-downs work your core as much as any ab machine, and one can use a pump hose like a makeshift battle rope as you pull it along to unwind it and then drag it from tank to tank.
There is constantly something to lift, hoist, push, pull, or drag. You are on your feet for the entire day, doing between 10,000 and 20,000 steps (5 and 10 miles) daily. If you’ve struggled with self-discipline to lose weight (maybe that Covid weight gain is tough to dissolve), do a harvest, and you will get skinny while eating all of your favorite foods, drinking beer, and getting paid. Not too bad of a deal.
There is nothing stronger than a Forklift
Forklifts are crucial in day-to-day winery operations. Like any heavy machinery, they are daunting at first but become easier to understand and operate as you go along with Harvest. If you want to become a “Harvest VIP” of your winery, knowing/learning how to use the forklift and execute various tasks would be beneficial. You will start with moving empty bins, then bins with grapes, empty barrels, and then- maybe- stacking barrels full of wine. If you are capable of that, it means you have the trust of your team and the winemakers. On the other hand, if you drop the barrel, you will cost a winery a significant amount of money (the cost of the barrel+ the potential cost of the wine in it)
Mistakes are inevitable
Every Harvest has a horror story. People drop barrels full of thousands of dollars worth of wine. A valve might break, spilling more wine everywhere. People may get injured in the machinery or even die on (rare) occasions. I’m not saying this to scare anybody, but to give an understanding that one must use caution and common sense while working harvest. Even the most prudent will break a glass container or spill some wine here and there. Mistakes will happen, and it’s essential to understand that to have a successful Harvest.
Don’t make plans; there are no set hours
The processing starts when the grapes arrive: usually 7 am, sometimes 6 am. Your day ends when all the scheduled grapes come in, are processed, and you fully clean the winery of all the residual skins, seeds, and other residues. Does that mean 5 pm? 6 pm? 7? 10? Who knows ( In some cases, even the winemaker doesn’t know when grapes arrive). The efficiency of the process is a crucial consideration, as is the capability of your staff (both full-time cellar workers and interns). A hot 2022 Harvest had a crazy timeline: a short period to learn the ropes, a short processing period, and an extended cool-down period.
Lunchtime: a necessary reprieve
The day may be long, and the work may be challenging, but there is always a 30-minute break to enjoy some delicious, work-provided meals. Of course, not every winery offers lunches every day, but it’s much better when they do… As an intern, we had incredible diversity of foods and cooks, from authentic Mexican cuisine to a professional chef whipping up healthy, protein-packed meals and everything in between. But it’s not just lunch. Food becomes an important focus when you work 12-14 hour days, so it was always nice to have a wide variety of snacks and drinks provided, from sweets to protein bars.
I wish I took some pictures but, alas, everything was too delicious to even take a second for a photo.
“Modelo Time” is the best time
The adage “It takes a lot of good beer to make great wine” rings true. At the end of the day, as the cleaning comes to an end, there comes a delivery of refreshing beverages (where I worked, usually Modelos) as a reward for a job well done. No matter how long the day was, you can always look forward to a nice cold can of Modelo to relax and unwind. There is no better experience.
Is Harvest Right for You?
Harvest is a grueling, often repetitive, relentless process that builds character but can also break down character. It is also incredibly rewarding, and I feel richer- in wine knowledge and life experience- for going through it.
Right now, part-time harvest work is in demand. With the fall-out from Covid and the natural process of young people moving to the cities/ working remote, wineries are finding it difficult to find part-time workers. So if you like working hard, meeting new and interesting people, exploring new places, and drinking great wines, then Harvest may be for you.