I’ve always liked to wear a lot of hats. Since I was a kid I have lamented the fact that I didn’t grow up in the era of the Humphrey Bogart movies that my mom used to love watching. Sure, there were always ball caps, but you never saw men walking down the street in their suits and a nice fedora. My feelings on the subject haven’t really changed much over the years either. When I watch Mad Men I still get that pang of nostalgia for a time that I have never experienced. I even recognize how silly my feelings are, seeing as I don’t even like to shave daily. I’m pretty sure I would hate having to be clean cut and dressed in my Brooks Brothers suit on a daily basis. Still, I like to wear hats. Maybe that explains my attraction to working for small wineries.
My habit of wearing a lot of hats has always spread into the metaphorical realm as well as the literal. Most of my career has been spent working for small businesses, and as anyone who has worked in a small business knows, that generally means that you often have to fill more roles than you might in a larger company. I guess this small biz backdrop probably played into my interest in working for small wineries.
When I think about foundational experiences in my wine career, I think about visiting with Hardy Wallace when he was still working with the Natural Process Alliance. Although Hardy was hired on the strength of his social media and marketing experience, I was most impressed with the varied jobs that he filled with the NPA. Sure, he was responsible for marketing the winery, which he did very well, but he also manned the tasting room and even got involved in the production side of the winery. I’m pretty sure that Hardy probably spent some time cleaning toilets and sterilizing the NPA canteens too. Although this kind of thing wasn’t appealing to everyone, it was exactly the kind of work experience that appealed to me. When I went out looking for a job in the wine industry, I always thought of Hardy’s job with the NPA as my template for the perfect gig.
Finding a small winery in Washington is not a difficult proposition, although finding one big enough to hire someone at a decent living wage can be a bit tricky. The majority of wineries in Washington State are small producers, with a good number falling under 2,000 cases annually. Many of these small wineries have little to no outside staff, with the owners doing all of the work themselves. You will often find the winemakers also conducting tastings, performing all of the marketing tasks, updating the website, and even cleaning the bathrooms. Even when the wineries get a little bigger, versatility remains a must for anyone looking to work for a small winery.
During my time working for Alexandria Nicole Cellars, I would often get asked what I did for the winery. I would always tell people that I was the marketing guy, which meant that I handled our social media, designed marketing materials, worked in the tasting room, helped out with catering for events, and worked 80+ hours a week in the cellar during harvest. This wasn’t a complaint. I loved every minute of it, but I also would say that the life isn’t for everyone. I have known several people who started off working for small wineries and found that it just wasn’t their cup of tea. Some of them moved on to larger operations, such as Ste. Michele Wine Estates and Columbia Crest, and some of them just moved on to another field altogether.
I’ve written before about my tendency toward the more romantic idea of the wine industry, and despite having experienced the more practical side of the business firsthand, I still find romance in the wine industry. This is a business where men (and women) still wear a lot of hats. Earning a living in the wine business is hard work, but for those who have the passion for it, it is one of the most rewarding jobs on earth. In the middle of working the long days of harvest, I would still stop and look out over the vineyard as the sun rose and feel lucky to be there doing what I love.