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THE FIRST RUNG ON THE WINEMAKING LADDER

Roger Morris meets some cellar rats, the interns who travel the world to work vintage,
the first step on their winemaking journey.

Nigel Kinsman was a young musician
working in an Adelaide wine shop in
the late 1990s when well-regarded
winemaker Peter Leske came in for a trade
tasting of his Nepenthe wines. “I tasted three
of his wines and said, ‘Here’s the deal, I want
to come work for you’,” Kinsman recalls. “‘I don’t
have any experience, but I will work for free.’
We got along fairly well, so he took me on as a
vintage intern.”
Eight years and eight harvests later, each
performed at a different winery, Kinsman felt
ready to take on a full-time winemaker’s job.
“I did four harvests while I was studying for
my degree at the University of Adelaide and
four after graduation, including one in Italy,”
he recalls. “I was a little different in that I was
looking for mentors and not the location of
the winery; people I could learn from and who
could introduce me to other winemakers they
knew.” After most recently making wine at the
Araujo Estate in Napa Valley, Kinsman now has
his own consulting winemaking company in
California.
The interns
Kinsman is a prime illustration of what is
becoming standard practice within the wineproducing
industry — young winemaking
students, as well as older people seeking to
switch careers, get their professional starts
by first interning at wineries for one or more
harvests. When they become winemakers,
they repeat the process.
Increasingly, the work of harvest interns
— known as “cellar rats” because they seldom
see the light of day — can be as important
on job resumes as having a university degree
in oenology or viticulture. The contacts
interns make, both with winery employees
and with fellow interns from around the
world, become like joining a fraternity where
everyone bonds during exhausting days of
pulling around gigantic hoses and driving
forklifts that can run up to 16 hours straight.
And working harvests in more than one place
provides a form of “street cred” within the
industry.
“You can learn only so much from books
and lectures,” says Brad Greatrix, who makes
sparkling wine at Nyetimber, the largest
producer in England, with his wife Cherie
Spriggs, who is head winemaker. After
university, the Canadian couple set off on
what Greatrix calls “a self-imposed few years
of travelling to wine regions, each with little
notepads in our pockets”.
The journey took them to McLaren Vale
and Central Otago in New Zealand, Hunter
Valley in Australia, Margaux in France and the
Willamette Valley in Oregon. At each stop,
their experiences were doubled because
Greatrix and Spriggs would intern at different
wineries.
“At Nyetimber, we now hire about 30 or so
interns every year,” Greatrix says, “because as
a sparkling wine producer we work 24 hours a
day between the press house and the winery.”
The actual work
What jobs are involved in being an intern,
how do they and wineries hook up and how
are travel, lodging and salary arrangements
handled?
Manuel Lobo, winemaker at Quinta do
Crasto in Portugal’s Douro region, says he
hires six to eight interns each harvest, usually
for September and October. “Mostly typically,
vintage work will include such things as
vineyard sampling and grape maturation
controls,” he says, as well as pump overs, barrel
filling, cleaning the cellar, micro vinification
and other work as required.
But the experience is far from standard.
Although Sierra Zeiter grew up in California’s
grape-intensive Lodi region, she was not
from a farming family and lacked experience
when she graduated from California State
Polytechnic University. “My first internship was
at a custom crush facility, and I learned a lot of

organisational skills there, dealing with a huge
number of individual lots and working with
different winemakers,” she says.
Next was a harvest at Daou, a high-end,
smaller winery. “I got to do everything, from
walking through every row five times, tasting
grapes to see if they were ready to working
in the lab. There were just two interns, so we
sometimes worked 16-hour days six days a
week. It was one of my favourite jobs.” At her
final internship, at the very large producer, J.
Lohr, she performed the same lab tests every
day for the entire period. When she was
offered the winemaking job at Oak Farm in
Lodi, she knew she was prepared.
Jesse Katz, whose father did professional
wine photography in Bordeaux, knew early
what he wanted to do — make Bordeauxstyle
wines. “I wanted to only study Bordeaux
varieties and I wanted experience in both
hemispheres,” he says. “Every intern step was
planned.” That took him from Napa Valley
to Argentina and finally to the exclusive
Petrus in Pomerol. In 2009, he founded the
appropriately named Aperture Winery in
Alexander Valley.
Not surprisingly, such demanding but
rewarding experiences build camaraderie.
Hélène Seillan, now a winemaker at the
Jackson family’s Vérité in Sonoma County,
grew up in a Bordeaux wine family and says:
“Interns have been a part of my life forever.
They would sleep at our house and when we
had time we would all go to rugby matches.”
Todd Graff, general manager and
winemaker at Frank Family winery in Napa
Valley, has been in the wine business for more
than 30 years and hires five or six interns each
harvest. “My first two vintages were at Joseph
Phelps, where nothing went wrong,” he recalls.
“Then I went for a harvest in Australia, where
we would regularly lose water and power. It
was all duct tape and bailing wire. But along
the way, I met lifelong friends.”
One of them was Kim Crawford, the
New Zealand wine icon, who shared Graff’s
Aussie experience. Many years later, in 2017,
Crawford’s son Rory interned with Graff at
Frank Family. Graff says he and his interning
friends keep in touch. “We talk all the time,
and recently we’ve been sharing experiences
during the virus lockdown.”
“Coming up in the wine industry, I was
extremely fortunate to be mentored by
great winemakers, great cellar masters and
great colleagues in the cellar,” says Jim Close,
winemaker at Gamble Family Vineyards in
Napa Valley. “So now, one of the most satisfying
aspects of having seasonal workers, trainees
and interns is the opportunity to pay this debt
forward — part of the unwritten contract is to
share the knowledge gained over the years. It
also pays off for our operation, creating a safer,
better motivated and critical environment.”
How it works
Although arrangements vary, interns these
days seldom work for nothing.
“In France, unpaid internships are quite
rightly not allowed,” says Danielle Rolet, whose
family owns Chêne Bleu in the mountains of
the southern Rhone, “and the salary bands are
set by the government. For interns coming to
us from further away, we usually house them
at the winery. It can be a big ask to expect
people to find an apartment in rural France.
During harvest, we cook for the entire team at
lunch, and the cellar and vineyard teams all eat
together. As well as being a morale boost, this
is a very important cultural practice in France.”
Many wineries help secure affordable
housing before the intern arrives and may even
work out transportation to and from work.
Travel between the intern’s home base and the
winery is generally the intern’s responsibility.
Many of the more famous wineries are
flooded with applications, and there are
old-girl and old-boy networks that vie for
prime placements, particularly for children of
owners and winemakers. But there are also
professional agencies in most countries for
agricultural interns that help vet them and
secure the proper work visas. Online trade
journals also carry advertisements.
“Finding motivated interns is getting more
competitive,” says Frank Family’s Graff. “We
begin advertising in January, although we
prefer it if we get an intro.” He also says for nearby
applicants he likes face-to-face interviews prior
to hiring, “but that’s not possible this year
because of the lockdowns.”
Some intern situations work out particularly
well. Although primarily responsible for making
wine at Vérité, Seillan also assists at Château
Lassègue in Bordeaux, which her family coowns
with Jackson Family Wines. Her father also
makes wines at his ancestral home in Gascony.
“At the last minute before harvest 2014, an
intern from Germany had to cancel working a
Vérité,” Seillan recalls, “and we said, ‘Oh no, can
you get someone to send in your place?’” He
could — Fabian Krause, a fellow graduate of
the wine programme at Geisenheim. “Fabian
showed up a little late, but after a while we
started sort of eyeing each other,” Seillan says.
“In the middle of crush, I had to go back to
France and my father said, ‘Say, can you take
Fabian with you to help out?’ I don’t think he
knew about us, but it turned out to be a very
romantic plane ride.”
Today, Hélène and Fabian are married and
have a young daughter. Hélène continues
to make wine for Vérité, Fabian is starting a
Riesling programme for Jackson Family. If
and when the time comes, their daughter will
certainly have a good inside track for the best
jobs being a cellar rat.

8/25/20
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THE FIRST RUNG ON THE WINEMAKING LADDER