How I became a Winemaker

People ask me, why did you become a winemaker?  The simple answer is “I love wine”.  But there is much more to this answer than a simple love for wine.  Truth is... I am much more than a simple winemaker. So, let`s start from the beginning.

People that create a product from agricultural crops are outdoor people, they work, play and spend much of their time engaged with the flora and fauna which they make their living upon.  The life cycle of the grape vine is no exception, shadowed by the winemaker the vine begins and ends it`s annual season with the winemaker coaxing the best quality fruit from the vine.  I personally don`t know of any winemakers who are not concerned when temperatures in the dead of winter plunge to the nether region. Even though It is beyond our control we feel compelled to use positive thinking to control the damaging effects of mother nature.  Most of the time it works!

As spring approaches, we are back in the vineyard insuring pruning is completed before bud break and deciding the crop load for this season and always wondering how this seasons harvest will be, did we make the correct choices. As spring arrives bud break, spring frost, rain during flowering, mildew, weeds and pests all of which are ongoing concerns for the winemaker. Any mistakes made at this point could jeopardize the entire crop to which there is no going back to fix this one. If you make it through the spring with only minor wounds, then summer is a place to build quality.  Fine tune the crop load by dropping fruit early or green harvest, leaf stripping and maintain leaf health.  In the dog days of summer, you would think the winemaker could just relax, but harvest is around the corner and it is time to organize and prepare for picking and the beginning stages of wine making.  Questions of tonnage, tank space and barrels fill our heads. And before we know it it`s here.  Waiting to last moment when ripeness is perfect and then hypothetically” pulling the pin” and all hell breaks loose.  The mad rush to harvest before rain, wasps or worst rot consumes a year’s worth of work.  It seems like all I am talking about is grape growing, and I thought this was about the winemaker.  Truth is to be a winemaker you must wear many hats. So, this hat is viticulturist.  I hope this helps you understand the old saying “wine is made in the vineyard” and thus as winemakers we are merely steering the rest of the process to avoid problems. A somewhat simplistic answer to what we do for the raw materials we need to made the thing that we love. Wine!

So why make wine? Wine is there when people are together. Think of any heartfelt gathering such as birthdays, funerals, anniversaries, Wine is always there to cheer or console.   Wine has history.  For thousands of years wine has be made and consumed, coveted and controlled and Wine has aristocratic tenure. Only the best wines were consumed because life was too short to drink second rate wine and they could afford it.   But for me wine is my gift to humanity…too much! Seriously there are only four beverages that can say they are important to society, coffee, tea, beer and of course wine. Who wouldn’t want to be part of this short list.  So why make wine, I make wine because I can! and making wine gives me purpose.

 I wear many hats, some learned others are instinct some are necessity so for now I am a farmer, I am also a weatherman, I am a mechanic, I am an optimist , I am an entrepreneur, I am a chemist, I am a salesman, I am a father and husband, I am someone’s best friend, I am a taste tester, I am many things, but for sure I am a winemaker and proud of it!

Omar Khayyam a Persian poet once said “I wonder often what the vintner buys half as precious as the wine he sells” . With quotes like that its no wonder wine has a certain cachet associated with it.  For some people it is their life`s dream and others it`s tradition, for me I woke up one day a said "I am a winemaker".  How did that happen? Son of a Pressman, grandson of a Master Machinist. Let’s just say that doing is in my blood.  Dream first and then figure out a way to get there.  Its not a road for the weak-willed and for those willing to follow their dreams, it requires passion, hard work and vision.  Of course, to get where I need to go I sometimes need to ask for help. This is where family comes in, without the help of many family members I could not have realized this dream.  It’s a tricky road asking for help, after all you are asking someone to give up their time for your dream. Ask too many times and they will avoid you like the plague, after all its not their dream.  So, choose wisely and reward those who believe in you, not with money but kind words, fellowship, food and of course wine.  Wine as currency, I feel that this has been happening for thousands of years.  To answer the question what a Vintner buys half a precious as the wine he sales. In this case its time!    

How did you become a winemaker? I am not even sure I can answer this question. I am so much more than a simple winemaker.  It appears to be one of the many things I do or even the culmination of all that I am.  But nothing gives me more pleasure than watching people smile when they sip a glass of wine and I can recall the moment when the first vine was planted, the first harvest, the first vintage and the first smile.


Chris Karja

Wine Maker

Gravel Hill Vineyards.