The role of winemaker is romanticized. It conjures up images of daily wine tastings, schmoozing with VIPs, and tranquil vineyards.

But the truth is that winemakers deal with a lot of variables and uncertainty to produce the wine in your glass.

So, let’s talk about what don’t winemakers tell you about making wine!

What winemakers don't tell you about the job illustration by Wine Folly

What winemakers don't tell you about the job illustration by Wine Folly

The Type of Winery Defines Your Role

First of all, winemaking is not a one size fits all profession. The type of winery has a lot to do with the job.

  1. Estate Winery: Wines made only with grapes from vineyards owned by the winery. Production of wine takes place entirely on the winery’s property.
  2. Winery Cooperative: Local growers sell their grapes to a regional winery. Then, the winery produces, markets, and sells the wine. These are common in regions with smaller vineyard sizes and lower wine prices.
  3. Custom Crush: a winery that offers contract winemaking services to clients. Services may include processing fruit, cellaring, blending, bottling, and laboratory analysis.

So now that we know about where a winemaker might work, let’s start from the beginning: at harvest.

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Winemaking During Harvest

Harvest is the busiest season in the winery for everyone: not just the winemaker. Literal tons of grapes arrive for processing daily. Then the winemaking begins.

Let’s peek behind the curtain of a winery’s most exciting time of year.

There is No Secret Formula For Harvest

Deciding when to pick the grapes is one of the winemaker’s most important decisions. Pick too early and acidity might be too high, sugars not high enough, and tannins too green.

Pick too late and you’ll have the opposite problems. All winemakers have a different approach for making the picking decision. Some rely on science, others rely on their senses, and some rely on both.

Adelaida Vineyards & Winery produces wine from over 135 acres of estate owned vineyards in Paso Robles, CA. Assistant Winemaker Ryan Bosc says,

“Pre-harvest, I am running pH, TA, and brix on vineyard samples to track ripeness. Mostly these numbers are great for historical tracking and data. …If you are just going off numbers in a lab and not out in the vineyard tasting the grapes and assessing the state of the vines then you aren’t getting the full picture.”-Ryan Bosc, Adelaida Vineyards & Winery



A forklift is one of the most important tools in a winery.

How an Estate Winery Decides When to Harvest

At an estate winery, winemakers have the luxury to walk the vineyards every day leading up to harvest. They look at, touch, and taste the grapes while considering the following:

  • How tough or thick are the skins?
  • Are the seeds green (indicating unripe fruit) or brown?
  • Do the grapes taste tart or sweet?
  • Do the grapes taste good?

Doing this every day offers a frame of reference to make a more educated picking decision. Analysis on the brix, pH, and total acidity of the grapes provides data for this decision.

How a Cooperative Winery Decides When to Harvest

At a cooperative winery, growers harvest their grapes once they meet rules set by the winery. For example, Antichi Poderi di Jerzu is a cantina sociale (“cooperative winery” in Italian) in Sardinia, Italy. Currently, this winery has 450 members farming over 500 hectares of vineyards.

The winemaker there, Biagio Boi, says that growers follow phytosanitary requirements (measurements including sweetness level and acidity level) from the cooperative.

How well the growers meet the parameters determines how much they get paid for their crops. The cooperative also employs Laore, an agricultural agency in Sardinia, to help members improve their crops.

Custom Crush Wineries Don’t Decide When To Harvest

By nature of the business, a winemaker’s duties at a custom crush winery begin when the grapes arrive. Also, custom crush winemakers often see fruit from many regions.

For example, McLaren Vintners is a custom crush winery in McLaren Vale, South Australia. They aim to crush 6,000 tons of grapes annually. They process grapes from the surrounding regions of McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills, Langhorne Creek, Limestone Coast, and the Riverland.

“McLaren Vintners definitely allows for good exposure to the regions, varieties, and styles that… is unparalleled [in Australia]. This is my 8th vintage here and every year there are new things to learn.” -Matt Jackman, McLaren Vintners

But when the grapes arrive, the work’s just begun.