In January of 2020, I ventured into the hills and river country of Canyon County’s Sunnyslope region to look for the perfect job. I had decided to become a winemaker and I drove to the county’s American Viticultural Area (AVA), where conditions are amenable to growing grapes. There, I talked with three winemakers and to laborers in the vineyards, but they all just smiled. I told one man I was looking for the perfect job. He laughed and said come back when we’re hiring for any job, sometime in late August and you will learn what we do.
That seemed fair enough, because the truth was, I couldn’t qualify as a winemaker. Maybe as a wine drinker. Wait, I take that back: I did make some wine when I was in high school. My mother poured vinegar into one of the buckets so I would never get drunk. Little did she know…but that’s another story. From that experience, I realized it is but a small endeavor to make wine that will get you drunk, while making wine that can be savored for its delicate taste ventures into the realm of hard work: the work of bringing out all of the flavors from the land.
As I thought more about my perfect job, wandering from here to there, it began to seem rather more competitive and difficult than I had hoped. Maybe rather than actually making wine, it would be better to grow and manage the grapevines—performing the viticulture of it all. Maybe that could provide me with the opportunity to secure a permanent job in the wine world. I imagined myself creating trellises for the vines to grow upon, pruning the vines, tending to their diseases and parasites, controlling the weeds, enduring the heat of summer and the cold of winter as I cleared each row for the vines to succeed, etcetera, etcetera. It began to sound exhausting. Still, I reasoned, the hard work would probably mean there would be less job competition in that phase of winemaking.
On the other hand, making the wine itself did sound joyous. Working the “crush” when grapes are harvested and stamped into juice would be enjoyable, short-lived, and intense. That’s the soul of winemaking, right? The vintner measures the percentage of sugar, the acidity in the grapes, the ripeness of the seeds, and speaks her or his wisdom: “Ah, the time is now right for the grapes to come off the land.” They‘re brought by machine or by the labor of people who gather the grapes. By a divine contrivance the juice is fermented, the wine aged (not too little, not too long), and then a big party is held to share the superb product with my many admiring guests. It seemed like sharing the wine with people would be the quickest way to find love—but then it occurred to me that, unlike the simple mechanics of creating love, there is so much that can go wrong when making wine.
On one of my Sunday drives in the Sunnyslope hills, I noticed that very few people seemed to realize viticulture is hard work. At least, I didn’t see many people with dirt on their shoes, calluses on their hands, or cricks in their backs as I drove around the sunny vineyards. I saw people out on joyrides in the country, every one of them seemed to like sipping wine in a whole lot of different varieties. And what’s not to like about that?
After approaching five wineries about finding a job in the vineyards and hearing the same sort of responses—“Come back later, you just missed the crush.” “We don’t have a job for you at the moment but try back in six months.” “I’m sorry, no jobs, but we’re serving wine!”—I got discouraged. I continued driving around the countryside until I spied a big vineyard that looked as if it could use some work weeding. The owner, Steve Robertson of Hells Canyon Winery, put me to work that afternoon. He thanked me with a bottle of wine and suggested I come back. I said if I came back, I would need money.
“OK,” he said, “I’ll give you twelve dollars per hour if you come back.”
I came back. And came back and came back and worked. Each time I came, the owner was out working in the grapevines. One day five months later, after pulling a vast batch of weeds in the vineyard, I was bone tired. The weeds that grew between the grape vines were massive—imagine skyscraper weeds—and they must be limited to provide enough sunlight and nutrients to the vines. But the wise-guy-weeds just keep growing back. As I dragged the tools of my trade back to the cellar—shovel, hoe, and rake—I knew I would sleep well that night once again. Only four hours per day of doing this work was enough to nearly kill me. Each short row of Cabernet Sauvignon vines was about 75 plants, and today I had cleaned or weeded three-quarters of one line. Yesterday, with the help of my now-dull tools, I had finished ripping out dead grasses and deep-rooted weeds on a full row of vines. It seemed like a lot of work for 75 vines.
I asked Steve how much the other worker in the vineyard had done today.
“Oh, let’s see. Salvador did about a full row in Chardonnay, about 150 vines,” he said.
Salvador is seventy years old if he’s a day, and works in the vineyard from noon until 5 p.m.
Steve noticed my discouraged look. “But he’s pruning the vines, not clearing between them. He’s doing a more efficient pruning.”
I presumed that meant I would have to clear the lines of pruning after Salvador had done his work. Salvador’s job seemed easier than mine, yet it was more exacting. Now I wanted to become a pruner! I knew that pruning the vines was vital to their productivity and the success of the next year at the winery. If you’re going to produce great wine from appropriate grapes that will survive winter, you must prune the vines correctly. But I hadn’t learned to prune and I worried that if I just went out and hacked on a bunch of vines, I would soon become infamous as the “butcher of the winery.” It seemed that I would have to be patient and learn this new skill well.
“After Salvador is finished, we have to run the tractor to kill the weeds between vines,” Steve said.
I liked the sound of that—by God, let’s mechanize the hardest work. But over many hard years of doing other work, I had learned not to discuss mechanization with any boss of mine, because mechanization takes away jobs. He might say, “OK, I’ll bring in a backhoe to do the digging that I hired you to do.”
Even so, there comes a time when you can’t work any harder or any more. You’re so exhausted, you’re about to flat-line. Your back aches, your arms hurt, and your mind is absent—like I felt today, and yesterday, and the day before.
“Yup,” I said, “a tractor would be nice.”
After I had nine months of firsthand experience, I regarded grapevines as crazy wraparound things that grow every which-a-way and must be cut into submission. I’d learned that the wine trellis is a crucial part of viticulture. It is designed to display the grapes and leaves to sunlight and as they are watered, mostly, by drip lines. The trellis also makes it easier to prune the grapevines well and to pick the grapes easily at harvest time. It is normally made with end-posts, mid-posts, and three or four lines of strong wire to support the vines. Each vine is placed about nine feet apart where they can be picked by an exacting harvester. With a tractor operator, Hadley, the owner of 15 acres of vines and the tasting room manager, Steve, and I put in roughly one-hundred new end posts and as many mid-posts. We re-set drip lines where they were needed and made sure that the four guy-wires between end-posts were straight and not broken. This was simple but hard work.
Pruning mature vines at three-plus years old can be done in several ways. In Jeff Cox’s excellent book From Vines to Wines, I had read the advice of John McGrew, a former USDA wine grape specialist. John offered a few guides to pruning:
1. There are two kinds of buds on a grapevine: those that form shoots that will bear fruit and those that don’t.
2. The buds that are formed on wood from the last season’s growth are fruitful.
3. A renewal spur gives rise to a vigorous shoot this year that will be retained to become a fruitful cane next year.
4. Pruning controls the size of the crop.
That advice sounds clear, but it can be confusing. Steve was particular in how we pruned the vines and I, being a rank novice, made lots of mistakes. I trimmed offshoots from the bottom of the vines so that next year the main trunks would be more productive. I left one shoot as a replacement for assurance that not everything would freeze. But once I cut a few too many fruitful buds off a number of vines. One thing I know from experience is that anyone wanting to prune grapevines effectively should talk to a person who has significant experience in knowing which canes or shoots to prune. Better yet, apprentice yourself to a knowledgeable master of the trade, watch what she or he does, and ask questions. I suppose it’s possible to figure it out by yourself with books and sound thinking, so long as you’re prepared to make mistakes. On the upside, the vines are forgiving, if crazy.
Another thing you must do in the vineyard is control pests, either by chemicals or by brute strength. Fortunately for me and the people I work for, chemicals are minimized, because the wines are produced organically. It’s true that chemicals would eliminate much of the hard work by killing weeds, and chemicals can artificially make wine taste better—so I hope people appreciate what organic wine making means. It means that what you’re drinking won’t hurt you. Well, except for the alcohol. However, one compound is critical to creating a fine and lasting wine: sulfur, the devil’s brimstone. It kills many pests of the vines and sterilizes everything in the winemaking process. It is an essential element in making wine.
Inevitably, I came to wondering if I could make a living at grape growing and winemaking. How much can a farmer earn on the vineyard? What does an acre of the vineyard produce? How much would an acre of land cost? I learned that it depends upon how much the grapevines are fertilized, how much water they get, competition the vines receive from weeds, how much disease or predation is left uncontrolled and, of course, how is the weather and climate? It also depends on which variety of grape is grown and how the vines are pruned. For example, Syrah are the unkempt beasts of the grapevines and Cabernet Sauvignon vines grow in a more civilized manner. On one acre, with the vines spaced six feet apart and the rows at nine feet from one another you get approximately 900 vines per acre. In a new vineyard you might get 4 -10 tons of grapes per acre, depending upon the grapes and land conditions. An old vineyard, by comparison, might give 2 tons per acre of premium juice which amounts to 250 gallons per acre of wine that would be aged in four oak barrels. Obviously, how much that will net to you depends in part upon the price of each bottle of wine. But at twenty dollars per bottle, which is cheap, you’d gross $25,000 for each acre of land in an old vineyard. With thirty acres of vines, that would be $750,000. Sounds pretty good to me.
Of course, the costs of production play into defining profit. Do you own or rent the land? Is it already developed for vines? Is it all in production? Is it already irrigated or will you have to buy water rights and put in an expensive irrigation system? Is the climate warm or cold? How much does labor cost each year? Can you even get the labor at the right time or will you have to mechanize it with expensive, specialized harvesters? How many losses will you endure this year? Now subtract the costs, and you may realize that, say, buying a new tractor for eighty thousand dollars represents a significant risk for your operation.
Steve’s tractor is a 1949 rig that just got out of the shop. It looks marginally ready to do the job, because I saw it in the cellar a couple of days ago when the magneto was kaput, and now the magneto is working. I’ve learned one thing about tractors: their age doesn’t mean anything specific, except that an old tractor tells me the farmer is prudent with his expenses. The guy who has a brand new tractor this year may be out of business next year, because of steep payments. Unless he is wealthy. Steve’s farming equipment has been in service for forty years, because that’s how long he’s been a winemaker. All of the equipment on his property is well used and paid for up-front, because you never know what disasters are in the future of a crop—like the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, which threw one heck of a wrench into last year’s and potentially next year’s wine sales. The costs of production are minimized by every practice on this vineyard. Naturally, whatever product isn’t sold can be saved for next year if you have a cellar and presumably sold at a greater profit: that is, if your payments don’t rise and swallow you whole with all of that “liquid” capital just sitting there.
Steve owns his land and the operation is profitable. More than a hundred, fifty-gallon oak barrels are stacked in the cellar, and the wood helps refine the taste of the wine for production in coming years. White wine, primarily Chardonnay, is the flagship for this winery and it takes about one year to produce. The red wines, made from Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot grapes, are more time consuming and a bit finicky before they can be put into a bottle. But they fit more into my style of drinking. Rose, with that lovely blush, is created with red grape skins taken out of the winemaking process early on, leaving a slight and beautiful rouge stain in the wine. Hadley, co-owner of Zhoo Zhoo wines, has decided to produce a piquet, a variety that holds less alcohol and provides a unique flavor from their grapes. It is a bow to the ever-changing tastes of the buying public.
I imagine it also helps the bottom line to be a family operation. Steve and his wife Leslie, who have three daughters and a son, are now in their second generation of proprietorship. The family has a second winery, Zhoo Zhoo Winery, which they run out of the same property. Steve and his daughter Hadley along with her husband do much of the work, but they are helped by the family’s other two daughters, winemaker Bijou and publicist Jocelyn.
One time, Steve told me that grapevines growing along big rivers and waterbodies is the key to the productivity of their vineyard. “We’ve had some cold weather here over the years but large waterbodies temper the climate.” Just above his acreage, the Snake River runs placidly along toward the Columbia River.
Boise gets 2,990 sun hours per year, which is similar to Walla Walla, Washington or Napa, California. Our winter is more severe and the land higher in elevation than in those places, although global climate change is warming our climate. When you think about where global climate change is conferring the best chance for hardy grapevines to continue growing, Idaho is as good as any place, and better than most. The Finger Lakes in New York and the vineyards in Chile, Venezuela, and in Australia are others. If the average temperature increases by one to three degrees over the next twenty years, the places that are marginal will soon have an improved climate for grapes. The tolerance of grapes to temperature swings varies with different grape varieties and daily temperature variations at higher elevation vineyards can freeze grapevines in the shoulder seasons, in April and October.
As anyone can tell you, to make high-quality wine you need high-quality grapes and clean water. But I fully realize now that the knowledge of grapes has to come from the judgment of an experienced winemaker working in the right vineyard, in the right climate and weather, with proper soils, appropriate nutrients, on a south facing hill with good air circulation. To wind up with a fine-tasting wine, the winemaker has to harvest the grapes at the perfect time and be rewarded with remarkable luck in fermentation and aging.
After everything I learned on the job, the upshot was that I decided it isn’t so bad being a worker who gets a guaranteed income of twelve dollars per hour. But the fact that I am not paid any benefits or health care has me rattled, because I’m no spring chicken. Imagine if I got into a car wreck on my way to work, or had a work-related accident in the vineyard—neither is a good prospect for me. However, the greatest reward that I had after tending grapevines for the better part of a year happened when we crushed the grapes, fermented them, and set them aside to age. That was a platinum few weeks in the year-long winemaking season. The whole staff worked together to bring the wines out of the land, smelled the fermenting grapes, and stored and concentrated them in the barrels like memories for another year. In life as in winemaking, disasters wait close by and it always pays to celebrate when you can and recognize when you’ve found the perfect job!