So, You Want to be a Winemaker?

Dear Marnus

So, my godson is considering becoming a winemaker. First, of course, the Matric exams you began this week must be completed successfully. But of this I am in no doubt – as your academic track-record to date shows. Then follows a year travelling through Europe, during which you will have to decide in which direction to study on your return, and your father told me you are considering a BSc in Viticulture and Oenology at Stellenbosch. Week-end past the old man asked me what I thought of this plan, seeing that I waltz around the world of wine. But you and I know one another well enough by now for me to side-step my dear friend and chat directly to you.

Until now, your exposure to wine has been one of pleasure and fascination, as it should. I think you were 14 when your father and I were discussing and drinking a bottle of Hamilton Russell Chardonnay when you asked for a taste. Perhaps you were bored, somehow, by that cellphone glued to your hands. Or maybe you had a youthful interest in the enthusiastic manner in which the two old men were describing our respective impressions of that specific wine to one another. Perhaps you, with your keen eye, were struck by the way the wine glowed golden in the glass. But you wanted a taste, and we gave it to you. You smiled. I still remember that smile. It said a lot.

That was four years ago, and since then, you have shown an increasing interest in wine, the different labels, grape varieties and the excitement some of the bottles evoked among your father and I, Uncle Carl and your Aunt Frances. You even began sending me articles you had read about Eben Sadie, Danie de Wet and Jan Boland Coetzee, as well as the label of a bottle of Sancerre you had procured a taste of at a friend’s house.

There is thus no shadow of a doubt that your interest in wine is already imprinted upon your mind, that open young mind of youth that has the world waiting to bestow its vitality on you. And if it is vitality you want, wine is it. Because wine is life.

But to follow a career as a winemaker you will need more than a fascination, although that is where it all begins and where it will end – should you go down that route.

As a possessor of a modest BA Hons degree in journalism, I cannot advise you on the demands of the BSc degree that is your stepping-stone to a vinous career. But judging by your current level of interest, I believe you will launch yourself into the aspects of soils, climatic influences and the life-cycle of the vine with keen abandon. There will be tastings and vineyard work and time in the cellars, and in your fellow students you will see that people driven by a love of and zeal for wine are truly good people in all of their different ways. Ways as diverse and engaging as the various wines and grape varieties you will experience.

You will leave university equipped to join the ranks of professional winemakers, hopefully still spurred on by the interest you now show in the subject with such starry-eyed eagerness.

One cannot predict where you will begin to ply your trade. Possibly as an assistant in one of the Cape’s cellars, or – with your father’s help and admirable international connections – at a winery in another country. Which, I believe, will be a good thing. Wine connects nations and people, and you will – whether it is France, Chile, New Zealand or Italy – share a common language and values and insights wherever you find yourself in the vineyards of the world. You will become part of that world. That world of wine. And it is a good thing. A great thing.

My experience working with various wineries allows me, however, to emphasise that there is a lot more to being a winemaker than harvesting, blending and overseeing the process to the end result.

For one, every winemaker I know has an exceptional palate, an ability to taste a wine from its cool entry to the mouth right down to the very soul from where it expresses nature through itself. There must be an ability to imagine the best state that wine can be in while it is fermenting, through to its coarse lusty youth. And by using your imagination and skill, you must decide what steps to take to ensure the best wine is created, cared for by you, from that specific year. It is on your watch that this responsibility lies. A good winemaker is a master of his or her senses. And an ability to see something in that wine that we mere mortals on the periphery and even the best critics cannot.

Just as wine and people have forged a social symbiosis over 8 000 years, you as winemaker will have to be a people’s person. (Your personality, my boy, should stand you in good stead here. Unless something goes wrong in Europe or at university.)

Your success as winemaker will largely be determined by your relationships at your place of work. With the vineyard and cellar workers. Your superiors who own the property they have employed you to work at. The various technical and marketing consultants needed to steer the business wherein you find yourself. Journalists and critics will call to pick your brain, taste your wares and hear what you have to say.

You will be entrusted with showing the bottles you have created to retailers and restaurant wine-buyers. Not only explaining the unique traits of each wine to them but convincing these sometimes-hard-nosed business folk that your relationship with the product is as trustworthy as it is with those who will buy and stock your wines. You are the brand, and the brand is you.

Broad-shoulders are required, and you should never bottle a wine of which you are not proud. The consumer and the follower of winemakers and brands will not have your intimate knowledge of grapes and winemaking, but we are not easily fooled.

But what I admire most about the good winemakers I have the privilege of knowing is that they are individuals and they are artists, restless in their respective visions of what they want to express through wine. There are many winemakers. But there will only be one that is you. And there are many wines, but there will only be certain ones that will have been made by your hands and cared for by your soul and very being.

I cannot think of anything better. Mull this over as you step out into the world before deciding what the next phase of your life will hold. And don’t forget to bring back a bottle of Corton Charlemagne for me and your old man.

Fondly yours

The Godfather

Enjoyed this article?

Subscribe and never miss a post again.


2 thoughts on “So, You Want to be a Winemaker?

  1. Emile, what an utterly delightful letter to your godson! And in your roundabout way, a great tribute to the best of our winemakers. I hope Marnus reads and takes it all in, in all its depth, in considering his future career. All the best to him, and I look forward to tasting his first vintage.

  2. Hello! I think it is very cool that your godson decided to take up winemaking. But I think it’s really a lot of work, and it there is a lot to learn – knowledge is above all if he wants to become a good winemaker. It takes a lot of time, too. it seems to me that winemaking is such a delicate and complex process.. There you need to find the formula, and in general try not to spoil the wine. Besides, I think it’s all expensive but he doesnt have problems with money, right? I wish good luck to your godson, it’s cool that you support him.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *