A Working Wine Vacation That Feels Free
If the idea of working on vacation seems interesting, you should consider the idea of a “crush” vacation. Working the crush means helping a winery pick, de-stem, press, and move juice, barrels, and waste during the harvest. It is one of the most unique cultural experiences you can imagine. I’m not going to lie... this is a physically demanding vacation. But in the end, you get a vacation and a few bottles of good wine to take home.
For the 2007, ‘08, and, ‘09 harvest, I traveled to Calistoga, Calif., and stayed with my friends, owners of the Mutt Lynch Winery. Their Sonoma winery produces some of the best unwooded (fermented in steel tanks rather than traditional oak ones) chardonnays I’ve ever tasted. The description on their website says it all: “Fresh, juicy fruit aromas and flavors of peaches, pears, and apples, with a creamy and zingy finish. The fruit ‘jumps out of the glass’... .”
For more than a week, I worked for the Lynch family. I did everything from helping the grape pickers pluck dead leaves under a warm September sun, to dumping the pomace at the end of the day. I didn’t get paid a thing and the work conditions were sometimes a bit difficult, but the benefits included room, board, and a great experience. Most importantly, I learned about winemaking—from world experts.
One of the experts I learned from, Phyllis, is half owner of a winery called Deux Amis that shares space with Mutt Lynch. I watched (and helped) Phyllis and her colleague Brenda measure levels of sugar and pH in the fermenting juice and “punch down” grape skins floating in the nascent wine to ensure a uniform fermentation. Seeing them monitor and adjust the winemaking process to tease the flavor they want from every unique batch of grapes taught me how much of an artist’s touch great winemakers bring to their work. It’s not the sort of perspective you get from reading the Wine Spectator.
Phyllis and her partner Jim have been in the wine business of northern California for more than 70 years combined. It was an honor to learn from them.
It turns out there are dozens of small local wineries like Mutt Lynch and Deux Amis around the world who desperately need help during the harvest season. These tiny wineries simply can’t afford to pay for full-time help. Instead, they offer free room and board to ordinary folks who are looking for a memorable experience.
In most of America’s wine-producing regions—including Napa and Sonoma in California, Willamette Valley in Oregon, and New York’s Finger Lakes region—you can work a crush. If you’re interested in a wine-country vacation, I recommend you contact your favorite vineyard directly.
For example, some smaller and less-known vineyards of Ohio love having volunteers help them with the harvest. Simply register your interest prior to the season by contacting the individual winery, or just visit the winery on public picking days that get advertised in local newspapers. In Ohio, you can try these vineyards:
|•||Debonné Vineyards in Madison, Ohio (tel. 440-466-3485; www.debonne.com),|
|•||Troutman Vineyards in Wooster, Ohio (tel. 330-263-4345; www.troutmanvineyards.com),|
|•||Rainbow Hills Vineyards in Newcomerstown, Ohio (tel. 740-545-9305; no website), and|
|•||Slate Run Vineyard in Canal Winchester, Ohio (tel. 614-834-8577;www.slaterunwine.com).|
By the way, my friends at Mutt Lynch specialize in dog-themed wines. Their wines include names like Merlot Over and Unleashed Chardonnay. Give them a call or check out their website.
And it goes without saying, by mentioning their info I get nothing from my friends... other than a thanks.