What do you do for a living?
My husband and I own and operate a small orchard, vineyard and winery in Oregon. We grow cherries, pears, and winegrapes, plus some apples, plums and berries, all on around 50 acres. Most of our fruit is sold through a local packing house. Our small winery, Hood River Vineyards, produces around 3000 cases of wine/year, including whites, reds, ciders, ports and sherries, sold mostly through our tasting room and distributed statewide. We’ve been doing it for about 20 years now.
How’d you get started in this job, or what was your first job in the plant world?
We started by buying a small orchard. After that, we looked around for more property to plant winegrapes, with the idea of planting a vineyard and eventually starting a winery. The vineyard and winery we have now was up for sale at the time, and we kept circling back around to it, eventually buying it.
My husband spent some time as a youngster on farms and has made wine for many years, but for me the learning curve was pretty steep (I think some of our farming neighbors were taking bets about how long we would last!). I had some gardening experience, but gardening often doesn’t translate into farming, especially if you want to make a living at it. Other than that, I had no jobs in the plant world before this. My earlier work experience was mostly retail and managerial, with some science lab work and office work. I studied Russian language and culture in college, and did some traveling; I was a stay-at-home mom for almost 5 years. Not exactly ag-oriented, right? But all of these experiences have helped in some way; the problem-solving, the people skills, and some familiarity with various kinds of paperwork. My cross-cultural skills helped too, not only with managing a work crew, but also with integrating into a small rural farming community.
What’s your typical day like?
There is no typical day, ever! I’m never bored, I wear many hats. Everything, from farming to production to marketing, is seasonally driven, and also determined by the weather.
That said, most of the individual tasks are very repetitive (no surprise to gardeners): pruning, raking, mowing, tying up vines, thinning fruit, crushing, punching down, bottling, labeling and capsuling, stacking wine cases, etc. A lot of assembly-line-type work, both indoors and out. Some people find this tedious and frustrating—you have to do these things over and over, and conditions are often not ideal—but I kind of like it. No two days are ever alike.
Also, I spend a lot of time working in the tasting room. In between pouring wine for customers, there are a million other winery tasks to take care of, from production to paperwork.
Dovetailing winery activities around farming activities can be a puzzle; farming is day-time work, winery activities sometimes involve evenings. Once in a while, that’s a real challenge.
What’s the coolest thing you get to do at work, and what’s the nastiest, most boring, most soul-sucking awful thing you have to do at work?
Well it will be no surprise to gardeners that I most love working in the orchard or vineyard. We live in a beautiful place, and there are many serendipitous moments out in the orchard or vineyard; I see a lot of things in the natural world that are cool, and I can pause to enjoy them usually. I have to say I have a big preference for the vineyard over the orchard. I’m not big into ladder work, and trees are just not as easy or fun to fiddle with as grapevines.
I have a love-hate relationship with working in the tasting room. I like people, and farming by itself can be isolating, so sharing our wines with people from all over the world is enjoyable, a very social activity. I’ve met a lot of cool and interesting people over the years, watched some families grow up through their visits to the tasting room. But sometimes my “people bucket” gets full, and not everyone who visits is easy to deal with.
As for the nastiest, most soul-sucking part of the job? That’s easy; all the paperwork, bookkeeping, and the regulatory stuff, which makes you feel like you’re always under someone’s microscope. I think I once counted that, between the farming and alcohol-making sides of our business, we answer to over 12 different regulatory agencies, each with their own fees, reporting requirements and inspections. Some are easier to work with than others.
What’s the most common misconception about what you do?
That it’s always fun. No job is always fun! And no, my life is not a long series of wine dinners and parties!
Another one: that because I own a winery, I must be rich. A vineyard and winery is just a farm with a value-added business attached. Yes, there are a lot of wealthy people in the wine business (who have often made their money somewhere else), but there are a lot of us Regular Joes and Josephines too, just trying to make a living.
There’s also a lot of mythologizing of the wine industry, which I loathe: the golden-lighted vision of life on a chateau patio, twirling a wine glass with a beautiful person standing next to you and a gourmet feast on the table, a fantasy that many in the industry perpetuate in the marketing of their products. There’s so much posturing and fantasy, when the real thing is both more interesting, and much earthier, to my mind anyway (but then, I’m the kind of girl who likes dirt under her fingernails). And actually, I often do twirl a glass of wine on my deck watching the sunset, only in much simpler surroundings than the fantasy!
What does the future look like for your job? Are there technology changes, outsourcing, or other forces at work that are going to change your job going forward?
The answer to this would fill a book! But one thing I will say; farming is an industry in dire need of a younger generation to carry on, and replace all the old farmers currently out there. Feeding people is an issue that will never go away.
What advice would you give to somebody thinking about getting into your line of work?
A good starting point is to honestly answer the question, “Why do I want to do this?” Be realistic, find out if you even like doing the kind of work involved. If you think you want a vineyard for example, try growing a few vines for a few years first. If you think you want to make wine for a living, make some wine first; get a job at a winery during crush; and brush up on your accounting, paperwork and mechanical skills.
Think about how you want to spend your time: if you like to take vacations during the growing season, spring through fall, forget it; too much going on! If you want a tasting room, farm stand or to sell at a farmer’s market, be prepared to work weekends and holidays, or to hire reliable workers. If you’re the kind of person who likes routine and knowing what your day is going to be like, or likes getting a regular paycheck, don’t get into farming or winemaking!
Both farming and winemaking involve pretty big capital investments to get established, and it can take a long time to recoup your start-up costs (there’s a saying in the wine business: “It takes a large fortune to make a small fortune”). The more you can boot-strap your operation, the happier and more successful you’ll be.
Finally, never be afraid to ask questions!