Growing up I always wanted to be a chiropractor, I’m not sure exactly when I decided this wasn’t the career for me. One day sitting at the kitchen bench with my mum, looking through the job guide and attempting to choose school subjects for the following year, she asked me to name three things I wanted to do every day – taking the focus off of the job title or subject choices. Being a bit of a smart arse, I responded that I wanted to drink wine, travel, and be outdoors.
I don’t remember how this sassy response landed me in winemaking, but after an interesting conversation with my high school careers counselor (who told me winemaking was a waste of my time), I headed off to the Clare Valley for work experience. Two days as a cellar hand, being given many of the worst cleaning jobs, and I still loved every second. Just like that, I was sold – the wine industry was where I wanted to be.
I studied winemaking at The University of Adelaide, and in my final year completed an honours project focusing on bio-dynamic viticulture. As much as I knew the winery was where I wanted to be, I have always found the vineyard side of the process so interesting. I really believe that what happens in the vineyard has more of an impact on the final product than what happens in the winery. My job is really to preserve the quality of the fruit that we start with.
Winemaking is a very seasonal job. My days, hours and life really vary throughout the year. Vintage kicks off in early March for us in Coonawarra, and when the grapes are ready for harvest it’s all hands on deck – seven days a week (and for some wineries 24 hours a day). Many of the most important decisions in a wine’s life occur during these first few weeks, with perhaps the most important decision coming first – when to pick. The flavour, sugar and acidity of the grapes are all vital to the final wine style. Leading up to harvest we spend a lot of time in the vineyard – tasting berries, chewing skins and crunching seeds to make sure we get this timing right.
Vintage can be pretty exhausting, but it’s easily my favourite time of the year. So many important decisions are made during this period, and we’re tasting constantly to keep track of the wines. It can be quite scientific – we check the temperature and sugar level of the fermenting wine twice a day, making sure the yeast are doing their job and converting the sugar to alcohol. Being able to react quickly to any changes or problems can be the difference between a good wine and a great one (or even a terrible one!!).
I think people have the impression that winemaking is a glamorous career – that I spend my days with my nose in a glass, tasting from barrels. However, it’s quite agricultural – there’s plenty of manual labour, cleaning, operating machinery, and often getting dirty in the process.
Spat out at the end of a four-year degree, you think you are a winemaker… But it is really hands on learning from other winemakers where the journey begins. In my first year out of uni, I made the most of seasonal differences in the northern and southern hemisphere and worked three vintages – first in the Yarra Valley, followed by New Zealand and finally a stint in the Kamptal in Austria. Some of these early vintage experiences really defined the type of winemaker I wanted to be.
The last two years I have been working at Penley Estate, a family winery owned and run by a majority of women. This is also the first time I have worked with another female winemaker. My graduating class at uni was 50% women, however in the industry women are represented at more like 10-20%. ‘Winemaker’ and ‘Viticulturalist’ are gender neutral job titles, yet we still constantly hear women referred to as ‘female winemaker’ or ‘female viticulturalist’. Diversity is definitely growing in the industry, but there is still a long way to go. There’s plenty of industry events where I look (and feel) out of place in among the blue check shirts and RM Williams boots!
Last year, my team supported me to apply for a travel bursary through PIRSA (Primary Industries and Regions South Australia) that allowed me to travel to one of ten ‘Great Wine Capitals’ of the world. Applications were due mid-vintage, and I submitted mine at 4am – just a few hours before the deadline. Getting the phone call a few months later to tell me I had won one of the six bursaries was definitely a surprise! In September last year, I headed off to Bordeaux in France to work a harvest season for Château Clinet in Pomerol. It was an incredible learning experience, full of challenges (a lot of these based around the language barrier), superb wines, and some incredibly generous humans.
2020 is shaping up to be a challenging year for the wine industry. Many regions were impacted by the bushfires earlier in the year, whether through loss of vines, or damage to their crop from smoke taint. While we were incredibly lucky to escape damage from fires or smoke, we had a very light crop in 2020 due to poor weather during fruit set, and COVID-19 has hit some of our major export markets pretty hard. The effect of COVID-19 will be catastrophic for some, domestically many brands rely on cellar door sales and restaurants, now shut down from mandatory closing. There is hope for direct sales to consumers, with many Australians now looking to websites of their favourite producers – a really great side effect.
I would love to tell younger Lauren to trust your gut, and stop worrying about other people’s opinions and perceptions. When making a major career decision, I would place enormous weight on the opinion of others rather than trusting my own ability to make the right call. Impostor syndrome is something that I’ve discussed with friends across so many industries, regardless of age and experience. A feeling far too common, particularly among young women. We really need to stop using the word “lucky” and own our success and abilities.
My mum always used to say, ‘If you want to be a truck driver, be a truck driver – just be a bloody good one’. Words I will be forever grateful for – there was never any pressure to follow a particular career path, just to do something I was passionate about.
Sipping wines on a Friday evening and skyping Melbourne to Coonawarra, we caught up with Rosie’s dear friend Lauren to find out about life in winemaking. Lauren has pursued her passion and is forging a path that is breaking the stereotypes and will hopefully encourage more women to follow a wine-making path out of Uni rather that an more administrative path, which is typical of many professions, including Construction. Lauren is down-to-earth and passionate about the artistry of winemaking. And we think it’s fabulous that she has found a female run winery to work at! We wish Lauren all the best for Vintage 2021. R, J & D x
P.S. inside scoop on what’s in my wine cart from Penley Estate, as recommended by Lauren – the 2019 Project Cab Sauv, the 2020 Francis (Cab Franc) and 2018 Tolmer (Cab Sauv) – D x