John Zuccarino talks about his career making wine. You can find John and his winery at www.silverspringswinery.com and on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.
Hello my name is John D.Zuccarino and I am a wine-maker and owner of Silver Springs Winery. I am lucky enough to do something that I love and have a deep passion for all wines and make wine.
How would you describe what you do?
First I am a farmer as growing the grapes is where the wine really is made. It all starts in the vineyard and then moves along working it’s way into the bottle. Not by magic does a wine become a wine, but by a lot of hard work. Making wine is first a very physical undertaking. The amount of lifting that goes on is often overlooked, as is the cleaning and sanitation. Just as in a restaurant all areas must be very clean and sanitized.
Tending to the vineyard consumes a lot of time and if you think you can do it all alone please rethink that concept. Team-work is key to making a great wine all along the way, so if you can’t communicate and get along with very different people from all walks of life move on, the wine business is not for you then.
I have to be a good at money management, accounting, weather forecasting, purchasing, science, sales and marketing as a small business owner. Now if you work for a bigger winery then you will have a specific job and do that job and the small jobs that encompass it as well. So depending on your situation what your responsibilities many be very different then a small winery owner wine-maker.
What does your work entail?
The season runs in cycles and so you adjust your body to this seasonal work. Doing different things at different times. In the Winter you prune the vineyard and tend to the wine in vats or barrels. The Spring you bottle and cleanup the vineyard from the winter by fixing the trellis system so it will be strong enough to carry the load of the fruit.
I also have the retail tasting-room to worry about and sales start in earnest in the Spring. So now you start to multi-task , selling wine (weekends are a must) 70% of your sales occur on weekends and keeping a eye on the vineyard as well. The vineyard needs to have the weeds controlled, so you can spray organic or not around the vines as well as start to control mildew and fungus in the vineyard.
Halfway through the summer you adjust your crop by dropping fruit so you so you don’t over crop the vines. You project your harvest and think what fruit will I sell and what will I use ? Then the fall comes thundering in and you are it’s the busiest time of year for harvest is a crazy time of year. Keep in mind sales peek in the fall and your retail operation is very busy, if you sell to a distributor then all along the year you are getting orders ready for them as needed.
Harvest is a stressful time of year, lack of sleep and trying to do as much a you can to keep the grapes from never backing up at the crusher. You have to know just how much cooperage you will need this is the storage for the juice and young wine and it often gets very crowded very fast in the tanks. Remember you are cleaning all along as well every step of the way. Remember you are multi-tasking all the time and equipment breaks and this can affect your operations.
What’s a typical work week like?
For a small winery owner it’s a cycle of paying bills, managing cash flow, taking care of what needs to be done at once and not forgetting what was pushed aside. Early days and tired nights. Once you get used to this hectic schedule you adjust and work fun, family etc into the picture. So a work week during the season is seven days a week very different than winter where you can have a lot of time on your hands. You learn to work your fun into the winter, vacations etc.
How did you get started?
I got started about 700 hundred years ago when someone started to sell wine in Italy and wine-making was passed down with passion generation by generation. First in like I was a businessman owning and operating building, manufacturing and sales companies until I was very tired of traveling around the country to make a living. Wanting to settle down and do something where I made a American product I turned to the family passion of wine, as I was taught wine-making from a very young age. So I looked for land to purchase in wine country. After buying the land I went to California to work and learn how to use the modern equipment as well as learn new methods and see how to operate a successful business. I would for the average person say work in the industry first and then make your move. While I did buy land first it was a investment and speculation on land if I did not open the winery. Everyone had a different path to the wine industry. I have met attorneys, investment bankers, farmers, printers, diamond dealers etc all who came to find their way in to the wine business. How you get the wine bug is not important, it’s the follow through and PHD you will stuff into your head that counts. In other words it’s the hard work that you do that will be the foundation learning everyday until you leave this world.
What do you like about what you do?
What I like about what I do is the education, history and culture you are exposed to as well as the people you meet. I love making a American product and selling it as this is a not easy today with the imports. Being my own boss has it’s rewards and great responsibilities something I cherish most of the time. Lets not forget the challenges that come at you everyday.
What do you dislike?
I don’t like the cost of fuel causing raw products to increase in price we just can’t pass along. The cost of fuel in general is a very big problem as well as the temp help who really don’t care about your business no matter what you pay them. The general world economic structure affects our little business down to the cork. Frost is very bad both spring and fall because in the spring the buds are tender and can damage. In the fall the frost will fry the leaves and end the ripening so you must harvest.
Last the gov regulations are very strict and compliance is almost a full time job.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
I make money selling wine and don’t pay myself until the end of the year when I do a profit and loss. The first six years I did not take a dime ,it’s been only the last two I have been able to pay myself. Starting a business is very capital intensive I would suggest working for someone first ,to see if you like it and to save money by gaining knowledge.
How much money do Winemakers make?
Average income for a wine-maker is $30,000 to $100,000 a year. It all depends on how well you make the wine and how well it sells.
How much money did/do you make starting out as a Winemaker?
As I explained above I did not make a dime for six years.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
Enology schools are very mush the new thing for new wine-makers. Either you apprentice with someone and learn that way or go to school or do both. Science understanding especially organic science is very helpful.
What is most challenging about what you do?
Not knowing your sales and product success is very challenging.
What is most rewarding?
Turning sunshine into wine and wine into money. People say oh I do it for love, well love will never pay the bills. So in short making wine that sells and being able to make more and experiment.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Go work for someone maybe a few people and really be sure you love what you do.
How much time off do you get/take?
After ten years of working straight I finally was able to take three weeks off this past winter and hope to do so now every year looking forward.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
People think you get to drink all the time and you drink wine always. Most winemakers I know drink beer more than wine. The other is that it’s an easy life. A life in wine is not easy, but rewarding if you are successful.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
My goals are to enjoy life and be able to make wine the best I can. The future would be to get involved in a project to make wine in California where the weather is easier than western New York State.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
Being a wine-maker is a skill and a art, some people have this ability naturally and some don’t. You have to be honest with yourself to be able to make a real go of it. Wine-making is a very socially acceptable way of making money and for some reason it ranks very high up in the ranks of respect.