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Lisa Strid
 
May 1, 2017 | Lisa Strid

How to become a winemaker

Here is my surefire recipe to become a winemaker:

Get a bunch of barrels and stack them up at least as tall as you are.  Next, grab a glass and put some wine in it.  Put on your favorite plaid shirt (if you don't have one, get one immediately), and if you're feeling formal, a thermal vest.  Now get someone to take your photo against those barrels as you stick your nose in that glass.

Just kidding!  But seriously, just do a google image search for "winemaker," and see how far that deviates from the picture I've painted above.

"How did you become a winemaker?" is a question that I get pretty regularly.  It's not a particularly common job, and being from Wyoming, it's not like I grew up imbued in a rich wine tradition.  (The first wine I remember enjoying was Blue Nun, if that gives you any indication.  I was five years old, though, in my defense...)  One thing I can tell you about the path to winemaking is that nobody's is ever really that linear.

So let's say you want to try your hand at winemaking.  Where do you start?  What resources do you need?

I'd recommend just starting.  Get yourself five gallons of grape juice, a food-grade bucket, and a 5 gram packet of yeast.  Visit the online WineMaker Magazine site, and check out their guide for newbies.  Read through it, clean and sanitize your bucket, and give it a go.  I think the first step is just realizing that you can pretty easily convert juice into wine.  Taste the ferment along the way-- make notes as to what you're noticing as it progresses.  When do you feel the first prickle of carbon dioxide?  How do the aromas and flavors shift?  At what point does it seem more like wine than juice?  Is there any point at which you wonder if this is going to turn out at all?  Share the wine with your family and friends and see what their impressions are.  You probably won't make a world-class wine right off the bat, but remember-- this is an experiment and a learning experience.  If something goes wrong, GREAT!  You can figure out what happened and fix it next time.  Maybe nothing goes awry, but you realize you'd like to target different flavors or mouthfeel.  That's awesome.  Keep a log with your notes, and find everything you can to ask a question about.  Ask the questions and search for answers.  Then try again using what you learned.

Books and online resources can really help you out.  Pick up something like, Home Winemaking Step by Step, or The Home Winemaker's Companion.  Scour the back issues of WineMaker magazine.  Find an online Q&A forum and see who else is asking the questions you have.  

Live people can be an excellent resource, as well.  Check in at your local homebrew shop and see if a staff member has some ideas for you.  While you're there, peruse the tools they have for sale, and ask what they're for.  Buy yourself one-- a hydrometer and cylinder, or a fermentation lock, then figure out how to use it.  Think about what you really wished you had during your first fermentation, and find the tool that fits the bill.  

If you can't get the answer you're looking for at the homebrew store, why not try reaching out to an actual winemaker?  Most of us (provided it's not our busy season) are happy to share our knowledge and experience with interested hobbyists.  And our contact information usually isn't that hard to find, so you're generally only one search and a few clicks away from being able to send an e-mail or make a phone call.  And by all means, when you have the time, go visit a winery!  Schedule a tour, and ask away.  Look at what's happening at a big scale, and think about how that might translate to your own set-up.  At the smaller commercial operations you'll usually be face to face with somebody directly involved in the production of wine.  If you come out here to Aridus, chances are it will be me or Dan, our cellarmaster, taking you through the facility.

If, at some point, you find that home winemaking isn't just a passing hobby, there are more than a few ways to get into the industry.  One great way to gain hands-on experience and find out if this is really for you is to work a harvest.  Wineries always need additional hands during harvest.  You can find all sorts of positions listed on winejobs.com.  Browsing through the listings will give you an idea of what the work entails.  Apply to a few in your area and see what comes of it.  You won't be paid well, but you'll gain a lot in experience.  After you've made it through one harvest, if you're still loving it, find another harvest position in the other hemisphere.  See firsthand what another winery is doing differently.  Do this enough times, and you'll gain a solid grasp of winemaking during the harvest.  Eventually you'll have the experience necessary for a full-time position, and you'll see what happens in the winery during the rest of the year.

Education is also a great way in to the industry.  You'll take general chemistry, biology, and horticulture classes to build up a solid knowledge base, and then start digging deep into the specifics of wine.  There are programs at community colleges that really focus on getting folks ready for the industry.  And there are University programs that provide unprecedented access to cutting edge research.  You can take a look at the curriculum and decide for yourself what will best suit your style and goals.

I'm sure there are many other inroads besides all these listed above.  If you're interested, I really do think you should try it!  It's fun at any scale, and much more within reach that most people think.  Cheers!

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