Should you go to college and take an oenology or viticulture degree? Or should you learn through hands-on experience? Should your first job be in a mega-winery or a small artisan producer? Is there anything to be gained from overseas experience?
To find out, I quizzed Ben Salazar, winemaker at Edmeades Winery in California’s Mendocino County. He has made wine since 2001 when he worked at Cardinale Winery in Napa. Here are his transcribed replies, which make for an interesting read.
Andrew Chalk: Suppose you were lecturing a class of high school students about how to pursue a career as a winemaker. What would you recommend they do?
Ben Salazar: Don’t do it (laughs). Seriously, I have talked to folks and they say something you can do to get an honest perspective and broad experience is to work at them all. Work at a small winery where you get really hands-on with everything start to finish. Then, work at a large winery, because the reality is that you are going to develop a skill set there that you are not going to have to develop at a small place. It is very easy to go to a really small winery where you bring in 100 or 200 tons of fruit and hand pick the wine lots. It’s a very different thing to be in a place that is much larger where you are handling 150 fermentations at one time. You learn a lot of skills, time management. There is a whole different skill set that comes from working at a large winery versus a small winery and I think they are both valuable. The reality is that in your wine career you are probably going to end up working at both types of wineries.
You didn’t mention education. Specifically, the value of formal education vs. practical experience.
At the end of the day some of the most talented winemakers that I’ve ever met don’t have a formal education. They were guys that started out working in the cellars as a general cellar worker or started during harvest and learned the job from the ground up. In a lot of ways, some of the best wine makers are like some of the best carpenters. They start at the beginning and they learn a craft. You get such an in-depth experience with what it is and appreciation for what everybody does along the way, from grape growing to putting wine in the bottle. I think you miss out if you, for example, go to college and get a degree in fermentation science and then work at a winery. If you don’t have that chance to be in the cellar, get dirty, and work the hard long hours where you’re sticky and dirty all day, there can be a tendency to have a disconnect with the process. The reality is, at least in my experience, the guys who work for me in the cellar have a real appreciation for what they do. Whether they’re out in the cellar at 7 o’ clock in the morning and it is ice cold and they’re cleaning barrels so they’re hands are wet, or they are out at harvest time and it is 100º. I think you earn a lot of respect.
How would you react to the person who says that while the apprenticeship method is great in terms of its closeness to making wine, you don’t get the sense of context that you get with going to some other established academic program?
If you’ve never put a lot of time and have a lot of experience in the cellar, the things they throw at you in school have no connection. You won’t have that experience — that foundation. That is why I advocate if you are going to do winemaking and you want to get the formal education, do what I did. I really benefited from working several different harvests at several different places before I got a formal education because then I had a filter when I went to school. The professor would tell us something and I would say to myself, “well, that’s not really how it works”.
Final question. What did New Zealand teach you?
It taught me a broader appreciation of wine styles. At that point in my career I had been dealing with almost exclusively California North Coast Sauvignon Blanc wine making. Their less ripe styles have a little bit more citrus, and they have that fresh pea, fresh microgreen characteristic. I found wines that I really liked and I took that spectrum and broadened it more, which gave me a great appreciation for wine style.