First Jobs: A toast to how winemakers got their starts

NEW YORK(Reuters) - Not all of the world’s most notable winemakers are to the manor born, and they are not all from France or Italy. Some took a more circuitous route to the vineyard and now toil anywhere from Napa Valley to New Zealand.

FILE PHOTO: Red grapes are pictured before their harvest in a vineyard near Leuk, Switzerland, September 30, 2016. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

For Reuters’ latest “First Jobs” column, we talk to a few of the world’s best winemakers about how their careers came to fruition.

Erica Crawford

Country of origin: South Africa

Co-founder of Kim Crawford Wines and Loveblock Wines in New Zealand

First job: Research scientist

I began my career as a young medical research scientist, looking at the genesis of heart attacks. But I got so sick of it. Sometimes you just know when you are not cut out for something. So I raided my little bank account, applied for a job in sales and started work for a chemical company in the UK.

Sales was a very humbling experience. It is one of the most difficult things you can do, especially since the material was so technical. But one of the most important lessons I learned was that ‘No’ doesn’t mean ‘Never.’ I also learned that everything in business in ultimately based on relationships.

Eventually I came to New Zealand, which is where I really cut my teeth on business. No matter what field you are in, the lesson is always the same - human relationships are the most important part of business.

Janet Myers

Country of origin: United States

Director of winemaking, Franciscan Estate in California

First job: Fruit orchard

My family had a commercial fruit orchard business in southern Illinois, so I started with them around 13 or 14. I used to run the cash register, or thin out the crop on the peach trees using long poles, or tend to the blueberry bushes.

Sometimes people would pick their own fruit, so I used to go into the fields and help them choose. I had to greet them and explain what to do and show them how and what to pick, so it taught me a lot about presentation skills and how to control a group of people.

My dad didn’t want any of us to take over the farm, because he saw the future of small family farms was not very bright. But I loved the orchard: the harvests, the cadence of the year, the smell of it. In fact, it was my dad who asked me to help him blend different apple ciders. I think that was the earliest foreshadowing of my career blending wine.

Pauline Lhote

Country of origin: France

Lead winemaker, Domaine Chandon in California

First job: Farmer

When you grow up on a farm in Champagne like I did, the first job you get is helping your parents in the fields. So as early as I can remember, when I was 10 or so, I was helping them with the potatoes, wheat, alfalfa and sugar beets.

I remember I wasn’t even strong enough to pull the sugar beets out of the ground. They also had a vineyard, growing grapes like pinot noir and chardonnay.

They also tried to put me on the tractor, but I wasn’t a good enough driver, so they had me prepare sandwiches so all the workers had enough to eat. As kids we were expected to work for free, that was just life. We didn’t get to do whatever we wanted. But every year, after we were done, we got to go to the south of France for vacation.

Paul Clifton

Country of origin: United States

Director of winemaking, Hahn Family Wines in California

First job: Bottle sorter

I worked for a Pepsi bottler, back in the days before plastic bottles. I had to deal with piles of Pepsis, Orange Crushes and Squirts and sort all the recycled glass into the right boxes. I made $8 an hour, which I know because I recently found a box with all my old pay stubs.

I started delivering soda all over Monterey County, which is what I thought I would do for the rest of my life. But then I started making wine at home, because of my family history. My grandparents had originally come from Switzerland in the late 1800s and made wine in the family cellar during Prohibition - they even built false walls to hide everything behind.

I was down there with my dad one time and we found all this old stuff - hand presses, old barrels. We made our first wine in that basement. It was terrible.

(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Editing by Beth Pinsker and Leslie Adler