What it’s like to work a harvest in Napa Valley

When I graduated from the Viticulture & Enology program at UC Davis, my degree had prepared me for what to expect when working a harvest. I also had several friends who had worked in production post-grad so I had a pretty good understanding of what a harvest internship would entail. However, in my 3 years in Napa I’ve worked with many interns who didn’t study wine but decided to pivot careers and come work in the wine industry. Many of them have told me that there is little to no literature on the internet describing what working crush would actually be like. It’s already intimidating changing your whole career path, but especially so if you’re going in blind. There should be more out there about what harvest is like for people who aren’t yet connected in the wine industry, so hopefully this helps paint a picture. Note that this is based off my personal experience and perspective.

You get to make the wine

Before I get into the nitty gritty, it’s important to know that every player is crucial to making sure the wine gets made. Wineries need interns to help make that happen and Napa Valley makes so much wine that it would literally be impossible without harvest workers. Even if you are ultimately interested in front of house/DTC, the hands-on experience you will gain from working a harvest will set you apart and allow you to talk about the wine on a different level when selling it. From pressing the fruit to barreling it down when the fermentation has gone dry, everyone plays a part in the winemaking. It’s amazing to see that hard work get bottled and then to be able to share that with your friends and family and tell them that you made it.

Wine production is probably the least glamorous aspect of the wine industry. It’s quite messy and you will likely never leave a day of work without having wine stains on your clothes, hands, or even face, but that’s the fun of it – it’s one of the most rewarding things you can accomplish. How many other jobs are there that require you to use your hands and make something from the earth?

It’s physically demanding but extremely rewarding

I’m not going to sugarcoat it, working a harvest in the cellar is extremely physically demanding. You will be expected to drag hoses, lift buckets of grapes and wine of up to 70 pounds, push heavy pumps around, put oak barrels onto racks, dig pomace out of tanks with heavy metal rakes, power-wash for hours, get inside presses and clean them out, among other tasks. You might also be working outside for many hours a day and Napa can get hot in the late summer.

It will be your life for 3-4 months but the adrenaline will fuel you

A typical intern day for a medium to large scale winery starts at 5:30/6am and goes until 4 or 5pm (or later) if you’re on the day shift. Most wineries will have a night crew that comes in during the afternoon and leaves later in the night or sometimes early morning. You’re working 6 or 7 days a week. The moral of the story is you’ll be waking up really early and going to bed pretty much right when you get home. You’re at the mercy of what your supervisor needs of you and there’s no hard cut off for when your day is over. You’re pretty much dedicating your entire life to the grapes during crush and probably won’t have a life outside of work for a few months. I call it the harvest bubble and it’s actually kind of cool because everyone in the bubble is in the same mindset of working extremely hard to accomplish a common goal. Waking up to your 5 am alarm is the hardest part – once you get to work the energy can be so upbeat and exciting that it motivates you to get through the day, especially when the music in the cellar is going. You will also catch some of the most beautiful sunrises on your way in and that always made the early mornings special for me.

A Saint Helena harvest morning, 6:30 am

Depending on what kind of winery you work for, you might have a one month long harvest or a four month long one. If you work at a sparkling house like Mumm, Schramsberg, or Chandon, your harvest could be 1 – 2 months long and will likely be during August to early or mid September because grapes for sparkling wine are harvested earlier. This might be ideal if you would like to get harvest experience but you’re still a student and school is starting back up in September. Wineries with larger scale production start with the white grapes in August/September then process red fruit up until late October. I actually recommend this experience because you get a lot of hands-on work with different varietals, exposure to many winemaking techniques, and more time to absorb the information.

Get ready to clean

Common winery practices (that you will learn on site) are driving a forklift and dumping fruit bins into presses, pumpovers, punchdowns, rack and returns, barrel downs, nutrient additions, inoculations, and others. The biggest winery practice across the whole industry is cleaning, and lots of it. This includes sanitizing tanks and equipment, power washing (macrobins, presses, the crush pad, honestly power washing pretty much anything and everything), squeegeeing, and lots of floor spraying. Maintaining a clean and sanitized winery is essential for producing high quality wine and is equally as important as any of the winemaking practices listed above.

The takeaways are priceless

Harvest is rewarding not only because you get to make a product and see it from start to finish, but you also bond with the people you are working with. I’ve met some pretty incredible people and formed life-long friendships with some of the people I’ve worked harvests with. When you’re on the grind with these people 6 or 7 days a week for 2/3 of the day, you get to be pretty close with them. Some of the best times are on your 13th hour of work at 11:30 at night when you’re so delirious laughing about something so silly with the people you’re working with. Those were some of my favorite memories and that camaraderie and good morale are truly what get us all through the long days. And what make it all worth it! 

Wineries will usually provide lunches at least once a week if not everyday. I always cherished these times during harvest, when everyone comes together even on a crazy day to relax and bond. Two of the other interns I worked with became my roommates of over 2 years and two of my best friends, and we still reminisce about working our first harvest in Napa together. The wineries will usually wrap up the season with an end of harvest lunch or party, and most will send you off with a few bottles as well.

It will be one of the best times of your life

Harvest, especially your first one, has the potential to be one of the best and most memorable times of your life. It’s fast-paced, exciting, grueling, sweaty, fun, and inspiring all at the same time. On top of making some of the best wines in the world, you will make incredible new friends, drink some pretty killer wines, be exposed to a thousand-year old industry, and likely be in the best shape of your life. The juice is worth the squeeze!!!

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