How Anyone Can Be a Vineyard Manager

Miguel Ortiz holding grapes in Ponzi Vineyards
Miguel Ortiz chec­king gra­pes at Pon­zi Vine­yards / Pho­to cour­tesy Ponzi

Vine­yard mana­ger, agro­no­mist, viti­cul­tu­rist. All refer to someo­ne who’s job is to make sure that gra­pes on the vine are ten­ded to and allo­wed to flou­rish into their best sel­ves. The role is like a pro­ject mana­ger of sorts, whe­re the fruit is shepher­ded from bud break to har­vest to rein­for­ce the phi­lo­sophy that “great wine starts in the vineyard.”

You are surroun­ded by won­der­ful lands­ca­pes, in the open air, with no pollu­tion and in per­ma­nent ‘dia­lo­gue’ with natu­re,” says Manuel Iri­bar­ne­ga­ray López, tech­ni­cal direc­tor at Mar­qués de Cáce­res Group in Spain. He stu­died agri­cul­tu­re and spent six years as an agro­no­mic engi­neer in Madrid, with a focus on crop management.

 

Today, he over­sees roughly 1,500 acres in Rue­daRibe­ra del Due­ro and Rio­ja, and works with expe­ri­men­tal gra­pe varieties.

The gra­pe and the wine are totally lin­ked,” says Iri­bar­ne­ga­ray López. “What you do in the vine­yard today is what you are going to delight in the wine in five, seven or 10 years.”

If you’re pas­sio­na­te about graf­ting, pru­ning tech­ni­ques, soil pH, canopy mana­ge­ment and other fac­tors that ensu­re gra­pes reach their full poten­tial, here’s how to pur­sue a career amid the vines.

Manuel Iribarnegaray López, technical director at Marqués de Cáceres Group in vineyard
Manuel Iri­bar­ne­ga­ray López, tech­ni­cal direc­tor, Mar­qués de Cáce­res Group / Pho­to cour­tesy Mar­qués de Cáce­res Group

Start with education.

An agri­cul­tu­ral degree wor­ked for Iri­bar­ne­ga­ray López when he segued into viti­cul­tu­re. It aug­men­ted neces­sary tech­ni­cal skills like how to use crop mana­ge­ment soft­wa­re, geo-loca­li­za­tion and vigor index analy­sis by satellite.

Stir­ling Fox, owner of Stir­ling Wine Gra­pes, Inc., which is con­trac­ted to help mana­ge the vine­yards at Abbey Road Farm in Oregon’s Willa­met­te Valley, recom­mends a two- or four-year viti­cul­tu­re degree. Fox has been a pro­fes­sio­nal vine­yard mana­ger for more than 25 years. Wor­king part time at res­tau­rants during colle­ge piqued his inter­est in wine. He chan­ged his edu­ca­tio­nal focus from scien­ce toward viticulture.

Stirling Fox, owner of Stirling Wine Grapes, Inc., rappelling down a palette of wine
Stir­ling Fox, owner of Stir­ling Wine Gra­pes, Inc. / Pho­to cour­tesy Stir­ling Wine Grapes

Work in the vineyards, learn from others and be humble.

You must deve­lop the abi­lity to unders­tand what the vine is asking you [and] what it needs,” says Miche­le Pez­zi­co­li, vine­yard mana­ger at Tenu­ta di Arceno in Tus­cany, Italy. “You need to unders­tand the cha­rac­te­ris­tics of the soil and how [they] trans­mit to the plant and, ulti­ma­tely, the wine: its cha­rac­ter, struc­tu­re, mine­ra­lity, com­ple­xity and all that is requi­red to make a great wine.”

There’s a touch of mys­ti­cism invol­ved in rai­sing gra­pes des­ti­ned for a bottle rather than a fruit bowl. Wines remain living orga­nisms that con­ti­nue to evol­ve in fas­ci­na­ting ways after gra­pes have been pres­sed and their jui­ce is cor­ked. Books and degrees are help­ful, but it’s no repla­ce­ment for time spent among the vines.

Franco Bastias, agronomist at Domaine Bousquet, kneeling in the vineyard
Fran­co Bas­tias, agro­no­mist, Domai­ne Bous­quet / Pho­to cour­tesy Domai­ne Bousquet

You must be in the fields with the vine wor­kers and the plants, and get dirty,” says Fran­co Bas­tias, agro­no­mist at Domai­ne Bous­quet in Men­do­za, Argentina.

The abi­lity to lis­ten and learn from others is an inte­gral part of being a suc­cess­ful vine­yard mana­ger. Bastias’s parents spent their lives in the fields. He would accom­pany them on field trips to a Uco Valley winery whe­re a vine­yard mana­ger taught them tech­ni­ques on how to pru­ne and fertilize.

Lis­ten to the peo­ple who work with you, who many times lack for­mal edu­ca­tion, but having grown up and spent most of their time wor­king in a vine­yard have a lifetime’s worth of advi­ce and tech­ni­ques to offer,” he says. Know what you don’t know, and be open to let others with more expe­rien­ce show you.

Miguel Ortiz, vineyard manager, Ponzi Vineyards, checking grape harvest
Miguel Ortiz, vine­yard mana­ger, Pon­zi Vine­yards / Pho­to cour­tesy Ponzi

Use your management experience.

Vine­yard mana­gers work with mul­ti­ple crews and jug­gle a moun­tain of hec­tic tasks, par­ti­cu­larly during gro­wing and pic­king sea­sons. Draw on any expe­rien­ce in your back­ground whe­re you had to mana­ge others, and tap into exis­ting skills in dele­ga­tion, moti­va­tion, team­work and training.

I teach and pro­vi­de the pro­per tools to the vine­yard crew so they can per­form their jobs to the best of their abi­lity,” says Miguel Ortiz, vine­yard mana­ger for nearly 25 years at Oregon’s Pon­zi Vine­yards. Born in South­west Mexi­co, he emi­gra­ted to Ore­gon as a young adult and began as a stan­dard emplo­yee befo­re wor­king his way up the ranks to fore­man and mana­ger. He con­ti­nues to edu­ca­te his 15-per­son crew about the impor­tan­ce of thought­ful farming.

Work hard, be honest and always be open to lear­ning,” says Ortiz.

Iri­bar­ne­ga­ray López points out that the job doesn’t stop at the estate’s boundaries.

Nowa­days, a vine­yard mana­ger is not only in char­ge of the vine­yards that belong to the winery,” he says. “[They’re] also in con­ti­nuous con­tact with all the wine­gro­wers that have rela­tions with the com­pany.” This means visi­ting and moni­to­ring outsi­de vine­yards as well. Iri­bar­ne­ga­ray López stres­ses that com­mu­ni­ca­tion and orga­ni­za­tio­nal deve­lop­ment is key.

Maya Hood White, associate winemaker/viticulturist, Early Mountain Vineyards, tending to her vines
Maya Hood Whi­te, asso­cia­te winemaker/viticulturist, Early Moun­tain Vine­yards / Pho­to cour­tesy Early Mountain

Get a job in the cellar.

Cali­for­nia-born Maya Hood Whi­te, asso­cia­te winemaker/viticulturist and for­mer vine­yard mana­ger at Early Moun­tain Vine­yards in Madi­son, Vir­gi­nia, first stu­died mathe­ma­tics and engi­nee­ring. Her curio­sity led to stints in wine cellars to gain expe­rien­ce, though she doub­ted her com­pe­ten­ce in the vineyard.

I strug­gled gro­wing basil plants in my hou­se,” says Hood Whi­te. “How could I even con­si­der vines?”

At the Uni­ver­sity of Cali­for­nia, Davis she ear­ned a master’s degree in viti­cul­tu­re and enology. During that time, her inter­est grew as her res­pon­si­bi­li­ties expan­ded to vine­yard work and mana­ge­ment. Hood Whi­te recom­mends a com­bi­na­tion of study and expe­rien­ce in both aspects of the industry, rather than fee­ling the need to pigeonho­le one­self into either gra­pe-gro­wing or winemaking.

At times, I felt the need to pick bet­ween a role in the cellar or vine­yard,” she says. At Early Moun­tain, the lines bet­ween gra­pe gro­wing and wine­ma­king are highly blu­rred. Today, Hood Whi­te splits her time bet­ween tasks like scou­ting vine­yards for pests or disea­ses, and balan­cing aro­ma­tics with barrel influen­ce in the winery’s sin­gle-vine­yard Tannat.

I wish I knew how natu­ral and seam­less ope­ra­ting in two dif­fe­rent spa­ces could be,” she says.

Michele Pezzicoli, vineyard manager at Tenuta di Arceno, in the vineyard
Miche­le Pez­zi­co­li, vine­yard mana­ger, Tenu­ta di Arceno / Pho­to cour­tesy Tenu­ta di Arceno

Relish your role in the winemaking process.

Though Mother Natu­re gets a lot of the cre­dit when a vin­ta­ge turns out per­fectly, so should the vine­yard team.

The­re is something incre­dibly spe­cial and gra­tif­ying to follow and sup­port vines through a por­tion of their life,” says Hood White.

Fox agrees, citing it as the coolest part of his job. “Deli­ve­ring beau­ti­ful, con­sis­tently ripe fruit for wine­ma­kers who appre­cia­te our atten­tion to detail and qua­lity is a proud moment every time, every year,” he says. “It’s what our work is all about.”

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