Working a vintage can be a life affirming (or should I say wine affirming!) experience. But while magical in many ways, it is a far cry from the romantic ideal of long lunches following blissful sun-kissed mornings pressing grapes.
Instead you will work hard, get bruised, get fit (there’s far more energy out-put than in-put!), get dirty and get up before the sun, all while learning more about the production of wine than you could in any classroom – and most significantly, if you're like me, falling more deeply in love with wine than you ever thought possible.
What is a cellar hand?
At its core, a cellar hand is there to assist and support the winemaker in the production of wine. They are integral to the day-to-day operation of a winery and will perform a wide range of tasks – from processing fruit, through fermentation, to finishing and maturing wine.
Amanda Barnes DipWSET, founder of aroundtheworldin80harvests.com has several vintages under her belt. She observes, “Each winery has their own unique way of doing things! The winemakers philosophy varies widely between maceration and extraction techniques through to the vessels they use for ageing, if any.”
She notes that size also plays a significant role in determining a cellar hand's duties: “In most Old World regions the producer usually has fewer than 10 hectares and/or works with separate growers. Whereas in most New World countries a producer may be working with anywhere from 10 to 1000 hectares. This difference in size gives a totally different dimension to the role.”
There is nothing better than being a part of something amazing and seeing the finished product on a table, knowing you played a part in making it.
What does a cellar hand do?
The majority of your work will include all sorts of manual labour – think lots of dragging hoses around the winery, filling barrels, driving fork-lifts, pumping over, racking off, transferring juice or wine from one tank to another, and measuring ullages of the tanks (ours were ten feet high in the open air, so wandering around on the ‘cat-walks’ every night under the star-lit sky was a genuine highlight for me).
Oh and cleaning. Cleaning tanks, cleaning barrels, cleaning cellar floors, cleaning picking bins; cleaning, cleaning and more cleaning!
You may also be tasked with taking samples for the lab, and if you spend any time in the lab itself, you’ll quickly re-acquaint yourself with a Bunsen Burner for measuring sulphur and pH levels and get used to measuring sugar levels.
Other tasks may involve making additions and adjustments to the must and wine – anything from inoculating with yeast, adding acid or sugar, calibrating sulphur dioxide (SO2) levels or adding fermentation aids or fining agents.
But what’s really it like?
It's a physically demanding role. In my case, during a vintage in Australia I worked 12 hours a day for 6 days a week, on night-shift, arriving at 6pm to take over from those who had started at 6am.
But the experience was unbeatable. I made great friends, saw new parts of the world – what I learned and experienced has been completely invaluable and I’m still reaping the benefits now.
Winemaker Leah Felice de Renton of Wines of Momentary Destination agrees: “The best bits of vintage are when the grapes come in clean and fast and everything is running at full capacity and you have a million things to do and think about. You're knackered, but you feel fit and alive and when you share that end-of-day beer with your team, it's so, so satisfying. It really is such a buzz.”
What skills do I need?
You don’t need any qualifications or (in some cases) even wine knowledge to secure a job as a cellar hand (though it helps!). You will, however, need to have a good level of fitness and a reasonable command of the local language. You need to be willing and hardworking, with a can-do attitude, and not afraid to get dirty or wet – both are not just inevitable, but guaranteed several times daily.
Cellar hand work is mostly seasonal, and in my case I was working on a large winery (we processed 60,000 tonnes of fruit!) with backpackers from all over the world looking to make some travelling cash. If you are looking to secure a job on a smaller operation, as part of a smaller team, you’ll need a demonstrable interest in what you’re going to be doing.
As I was working on a very large winery we were provided with health and safety training and supplied with uniforms, you are unlikely to find this is the case in Europe – but all wineries differ, so each experience will be unique.
While for some working as a cellar hand is a means of income, for others it is a chance to immerse themselves in the world of wine in a way that academic study and pure tasting alone cannot achieve. I had gained my WSET Level 3 Award in Wines when I did vintage which certainly gave me a steer on what we were doing, and working a vintage gave me the confidence to finally tackle the Diploma. Others I worked with were in the process of completing winemaking degrees.
Finding a job
If you want to work in the New World, or on larger wineries, the money can often be good and you can expect to earn more for working night shifts. In Europe, working vintage may not pay at all but meals and accommodation are usually provided. One key thing to consider when working abroad is your legal right to work and any workers cover; know your rights before you go.
I found my role at short notice through a contact (I was lucky!), but you’d be wise to start looking or contacting wineries well in advance of vintage starting. There are a wide variety of very useful websites advertising cellar hand positions online and an excellent group called ‘Travelling Winemakers: Living the dream’ on Facebook that you can apply to join.
It is an invaluable way of joining all the dots and (re-)connecting with the product in its most raw form.
If your ultimate goal is to be a winemaker, working as a cellar hand is a natural ladder to your dream job. While there are exceptions to the rule, most people who are interested in the broader wine industry will only work one, or a few, vintages before moving on. For these people, their time as a cellar hand is often the stepping stone to more senior roles within the industry, either through the connections they’ve made, the skills they’ve learned on the job, or both.
For Jeri Kimber-Ndiaye, it lead to a job with WSET, and she wasn’t the only one to progress in their career thanks to their experience. “Everyone I worked with has gone on to really enviable jobs! Most are still in winemaking: one landed a job as a winemaker on board a cruise ship in the Caribbean, another is a winemaker in Corsica. A few people have released their own wine labels and another has bought a farm where they make wine and cheese,” she says.
For Phoebe LeMessurier, a freelance marketing consultant, working a vintage helped her to build confidence and contacts. She says, “It helped with public speaking about wine as I had my own experiences to talk about from the winemaking process – which helps with tricky questions. Another big thing are the people that I have met; it makes you realise how small the wine world is and often opens doors to new work opportunities.”
When I returned home, London’s first urban winery, LDN CRU, was just launching and I managed to persuade the winemaker to take me on during their inaugural vintage. The equipment, this time round, seemed like toy-town compared to the industrial-sized kit I had been used to. But, after all, wine is a craft – even on a million litre ‘farm’, someone is still responsible for growing those grapes and making those wines.
An experience to remember
Wherever wine is made, there is nothing better than being a part of something amazing and seeing the finished product on a table, knowing you played a part in making it.
It is an invaluable way of joining all the dots and (re-)connecting with the product in its most raw form. I can whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone. Just be careful, the experience is utterly addictive.
- Ask lots of questions! And listen!
- Take something interesting for your hosts to try – something they may have difficulty in finding on their own home-turf.
- Explore the region you are working in, visit other local wineries and taste as many wines as you can.