How To Become a Winemaker Extraordinaire (by Julien Fayard)
The role of “flying winemaker” is one of the coolest wine jobs out there. What’s a flying winemaker? Well, it’s a winemaker-consultant who has multiple wine projects in multiple regions. Flying winemakers essentially get to travel the world chasing an “endless harvest” and making great wines along the way. I know what you’re thinking (because we definitely are): “where do I sign up?”
We asked consulting winemaker extraordinaire, Julien Fayard, to fill us in on what it takes to do his job.
So You Want to Be a Consulting Winemaker?
The first thing you need to know is that patience and multitasking will be your greatest assets, followed by the depth and breadth of your winemaking knowledge and experiences, as well as a keen ability to manage different projects – and your clients’ expectations.
“Patience and multitasking will be your greatest assets.”
Growing up in Provence with a family who has had a winery for several decades certainly gave me a unique introduction to the wine business. However, while I wasn’t interested in making a career in wine at first, with each new seasonal job my experience grew and I got into it. I traveled and worked in different corners of the wine world. Some would call it “vagabond” winemaking but, in truth, this is how you learn the craft.
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Do a Realistic Self-Examination
While it’s important to draw inspiration from other successful winemakers and follow their examples, you have to write your own story, develop your own style and be honest with yourself, your identity and your skills. Where do your interests lie? What are your abilities, strengths, and weaknesses?
- What are you cut out for?
- Do you want to focus your work on a specific wine region or do you want to travel internationally?
- Do you prefer to work with a small, select group of boutique brands, a large collection of high-producing labels, or somewhere in between?
This is a very personal journey where you have to rely on you.
There is one common misconception about the role of a consulting winemaker. The job isn’t so much about making wine as it is about managing an orchestra of moving parts. Each vintage has new, uncontrollable factors that make it challenging to meet or exceed your goals with each project.
Education and Experience
When it comes to learning the craft of winemaking, I value experience over education.
Living and working in another culture is one of the best ways to learn different working styles and new or traditional approaches to winemaking. Being exposed to diversity helps you understand differences. Travel around and dedicate a few years to working with different winemakers you admire. Find people who can teach you how to work in the cellar, participate in harvest, and assist with winemaking.
“Travel around and dedicate a few years to working with different winemakers you admire.”
A formal education will bring you more tools to understand the process and refine your skills. Math, chemistry, and viticulture are fundamental studies for any winemaker. For example, you’ll need to understand all the plant and vegetative cycles of the vine, as well as the various reactions in wine – you’ll use this knowledge daily.
Landing a Job at the “Right” Place
I am frequently asked how I landed a position making wine for Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, one of the world’s most respected producers in Bordeaux.
What most people don’t realize is that by the time I applied for the position, I had already interned there for 5 harvests. I got the internship after many years of academic and practical experience. It took years of effort (and earning a Master’s degree in enology) to give me actual confidence to ask for the job I wanted… and I succeeded!
Don’t disregard the small, unknown wineries.
Winemaking is a long, cyclical process that requires the same steps performed in the same order each and every vintage, so the work is much of the same no matter where you get your start. If you have the opportunity to start learning at a winery —any winery— take it! It is all about the hands-on practice and experiences you will take away that prepare you for your next position.
When I applied to Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, my resume did not include any grand winery names, but it did have a list of technical positions, such as working a plate filter, operating a forklift, running a pump, destemmer, and so on. My sole responsibility at one of my first jobs in Pomerol was to empty and press fermented tanks every day, and that was it. It wasn’t glamorous, but it meant I could shovel and run a press. Once you know the equipment, you know its subtle quirks.
Remember that wineries are hiring new talent every year.
Be perseverant. Don’t just apply to a winery because of its name and reputation. Strongly consider what you want to learn. Explore other corners of winemaking to confirm what you want to do in the long-term and then identify wineries that will help you gain the experience you need to achieve those goals.
It helps to have a degree and recommendations from peers, but those will get you nowhere without the right attitude. Be curious. Be receptive to feedback. Be ready to change and question yourself.
The Best Things I Learned From My Mentor, Philippe Melka
I credit much of what I learned about being a consulting winemaker to Philippe Melka. Napa Valley is very complex and competitive and it’s one of the greatest growing regions in the world. My time spent with him afforded me the opportunity to get to know Napa intimately.
The average winemaker in Napa is working with 50-100 lots, but a consulting winemaker can be working with as many as 500 lots in a year! The exposure to these different vineyard sites gave me a depth of knowledge and accelerated my understanding of the nuances in the area. As a result, I have seen and experienced many situations in winemaking that I continually apply to issues I encounter today.
He also taught me about the level of service you deliver to your clients, being reliable, adding value beyond the winemaking, and building a reputation in your backyard.
The Hardest Part of the Job
While Mother Nature is often seen as the biggest challenge for winemakers, she is also predictable. You can prepare for rain, heat, hail, and frost. You just have to be resilient, willing to take risks, and prep well for those events by having solutions readily accessible. In fact, the more experience you have making wine under these circumstances, the better you will become at predicting outcomes (or simply being prepared!). Your most challenging vintages will reveal your true abilities as a winemaker.
“the hardest part of the job is the fact that winemaking is not an exact science.”
Instead, I think the hardest part of the job is the fact that winemaking is not an exact science. You don’t want the wines to taste the same, so you can’t rely on a recipe and need to avoid the cookie-cutter approach. Treat each wine individually, as a reflection of its place of origin and vintage. Make them as naturally as possible with a hands-off approach.
You must decide if you want to make wine for hire or wine for conviction.
Making great wines with integrity to the vines and the people I’m making it for is what drives me. You must decide if you want to make wine for hire or wine for conviction. As you are dealing with taste, it can be easy to fall back on personal preference, but keep in mind that your personal preference may not deliver what the client wants or expects. Find a balance between personal preference, the taste of the vineyard and the vision of the owner(s).
What Makes a Good Consulting Winemaker
Be prepared to work a lot and focus on details. Everyone starts at the bottom to learn the basics, then moves onto more complex matters. Don’t skip any steps or rush this process. Embrace it.
Winemaking is a long process from start to finish, so the trajectory for learning can be slow if you don’t find other ways to learn or take advantage of opportunities that allow you to make other wines domestically or internationally. Be patient, sensitive, book smart, and empirically learn the craft.
Surround yourself with good people. A diversity of traits is important. Learn to hire your weaknesses. Train them well and learn to delegate. Accept that you aren’t the answer for everything and be at peace with it. The environment and team you create around yourself is what will make you a better consulting winemaker.
If I could do anything differently, I would have purchased property much earlier in my career, as real estate is so expensive now. Owning a winery and having a consulting business are wonderful privileges, and to an outsider it can portray a glamorous lifestyle. But, just like anything else, it has its burdens that you don’t realize until you have it. There’s a reason why it’s called work!
“Sign me up. I like a good challenge!”
Be honest with yourself and follow the path that feels right for you. Immerse yourself in it. Don’t be afraid to spend the time it takes to build a solid foundation of education, experiences, and sweat equity. There are no shortcuts to success. The longest way is the most reliable way.
Take your time and do it right.