The Winemaker

When I come across an example of the near reverential devotion that some wine lovers can develop to not just wine drinking and appreciation, but also to the act of winemaking, I’m want to dismiss it at no more than a bit of winsomeness for a career that only SEEMS so special and different and attractive. Yet the curious thing is, when I  think about it, it is that it’s really my own familiarity with the wine industry that too often prevents me from seeing what the devotees see…and appreciating their winsomeness for what it really is: an understanding that winemaking truly is something special.

Consider the specialization that has overcome us all in our  careers. We are not merely lawyers, but “real estate lawyers.” Not publicists, but “wine publicists.” Not fashion retailers, but “purveyors of fine toddler clothing for the naturalist-minded.”

The trend toward the specialization of the species was noticed as far back as the Renaissance, has proceeded without stoppage, and has define the progress of society in nearly every field. Some decry this, others take it for what it is and merely accept the consequences of the world they live in.

But consider the winemaker.

The winemaker really lies outside the lines of specialization and has so for centuries. Instead, their careers demands they interact with their culture, their senses, their own scientific age and the natural world in a way very few of us are asked to in our careers.

The winemaker literally lives, all year long, with his eyes pointed skyward, wondering what cards nature will deal him this vintage. And it’s not just a matter of invoking chants to handle a deluge or a drought. The winemaker also interacts with nature, deploying defenses to and responding to “acts of god” with technology that can only be used if one understands how the natural world works.

The Winemaker is equally charged with critical mechanical tasks, an entirely different type of response to the world around him than his duel with nature demands. They must understand how liquids flow, the implications of an overworked press, the best way to maneuver though a damp field on a tractor, and the best method to pack all those barrels and cases in one small structure. Here, the winemaker is mechanic.

The Winemaker is also asked to create something that will prove inspirational and satisfying to an audience. They are artists. They employ their interactions with nature and their mechanical abilities to draft then refine what is literally a four dimensional piece of art: wine. Here they make decisions concerning the interaction of color, of textures, of taste, of aroma. The very best and most creative winemakers have an idea in their mind, an idea of a wine to which they aspire. Their mastery of technique and appreciation of nature are the tools that get them closer to that idea.

This is not to suggest the glamorization of winemaking, but it is putting winemaking on a pedestal as a career and act distant from the specialized grinds the vast majority of people live with. And this is why the devotee is reverential in their appreciation of winemaking: it is a rare field that falls into the category of generalist. Like the astrophysicist, evolutionary biologist, artist, writer and priest, the winemaker deals in subject manner spanning broad swaths of topics and disciplines.

How is this not special? How is this not an approach to life and career that we who toil in hyphenated careers with extended titles at companies that specialize in specialization could not put on a pedestal?

Posted In: Personal


6 Responses

  1. Alec McT - August 31, 2005

    Interesting thoughts.
    But don’t we winemakers specialize in our own right too?
    Pinot winemakers, ‘sparkling’ winemakers, Cab winemakers, Zin winemakers, Viognier winemakers, etc.?
    Though in very few cases is it ever really an exclusive specialization.
    There’s nothing that would keep a winemaker from trying their hand at something outside their preferred field (varietal or style), just as an attorney might take a divorce case from time to time, even though they may be a corporate law specialist. Maybe the specialization process has yet to really take hold of winemaking, though I’d doubt it would ever get as far as it has in other careers.

  2. Tom - August 31, 2005

    I’m not sure I’ve ever met a winemaker capable of only sticking to one varietal or type of wine. They tend to want to try their hand at all they can.

  3. Mithrandir - August 31, 2005

    I’ve met a few, mostly at small-production vineyards. Bill Beran of Beran Vineyards does nothing but Pinot Noir, in a single style. He only works with grapes from his 7-acre estate.
    Moving up a size-class, Gary Andrus, who runs Gypsy Dancer appears to be totally devoted to Pinot Noir, with a small (250 half-cases) sideline in Pinot Gris, mostly for personal use. It’s possible that he got other varietals out of his system before he came to Oregon though.
    Perhaps the specialization thing is more common in places where the climate is more restrictive, or for certain particularly challenging varietals.

  4. Vinography: a wine blog - August 31, 2005

    Ode to The Winemaker

    My fellow blogger Tom over at Fermentations has a nice piece this week about winemakers, and how they can be some of the most underappreciated professionals in the world. We give doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers, and CEO’s their due, but when wa…

  5. Adult Forum - January 22, 2008

    Great comment guidelines. I think you’re on the right track here. Some of those comments should go somewhere else.

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