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Winemaker – Microbiologist

He has worked for three harvests: ten in India, two in California and one in Bordeaux. He has helped with the transition from cork to screw-capped wine bottles. He has contri-buted to reducing winemaking costs every year for his company. Meet Ajoy R Shaw, chief winemaker and general manager-winemaking at the Sula Vineyards in Nasik.

His is an ‘oranges to wines’ story. It all began in the microbiology lab, while Shaw was pursuing his Bachelors at Pune University. He was asked by his teacher to work on a project that involved making wines from oranges. “That was perhaps the only winemaking I had done before joining this company,” says the 39-year-old winemaker.

The wine industry in India is still in the nascent stage. It started around 20 years ago but has evolved only in the past seven to eight years. There are about 70 small and big wineries in India with most of them based in Maharashtra. The wine market has grown by nearly 25 per cent in the last two to three years and is expected to grow at about 20 per cent in the next five years. Wine consumption is growing rapidly though India currently has an annual per capita consumption of only 10ml (compared to Italy’s 54 litres). This could easily rise to 50ml within the next decade and that would mean an industry five times the size it is today. What is required is good quality wine, not mediocre wine in large quantities. As a result, the number of jobs in the industry is bound to rise in the next few years, with a possible requirement of at least 50-100 trained personnel a year.

Before joining Sula Vineyards in Nasik, Shaw had completed his BSc in microbiology, an MSc in Biotechnology and an MBA in marketing. A newspaper advertisement in October 1999 inviting applications for the post of assistant winemaker prompted him to shoot off his resume to Sula. “Nobody knew about winemaking in India then. It was a new turf for me and the company. A consultant from California was flown in to train us,” he says. Shaw adds that within a year, he was sent to the Michel-Schlumberger winery in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley in California for a harvest internship to get hands-on experience.

“I’ve learnt everything on the job – from working at the vineyard, to transferring wines from tanks, to bottling. I learnt more about the process during my internships in different countries during the harvest season,” he says.

Giving advice to aspiring winemakers, Shaw says, “A degree in science is essential. You could have a background in chemistry, biochemistry or food technology. It’s easy for students from these fields to adapt to this industry.”

The basic skills for a winemaker include critical thinking and planning, apart from being vigilant to avoid any spoilage. Shaw says, “My advice to youngsters who wish to take up winemaking as a career is that it involves lot of on-the-job and practical learning, apart from some technical winemaking knowledge. They should also be well acquainted with the basics of chemistry and biology. Knowledge of viticulture – the science of study of vines and production of grapes – is also beneficial.

What’s it about?
The work involves taking decisions and managing the process of winemaking at various stages, right from growing grapes to the bottle. It involves visits to vineyards for grape berry sampling, assessing maturity of grapes, and deciding harvest dates. A winemaker is required to carry out laboratory analyses to check sugar levels, acidity, and post-fermentation alcohol levels. He also needs to plan harvest activities and taste the grape juice at the wine press etc.

In short, the job involves aligning viticulture needs with those of winemaking, as well as launching new brands

Clock Work
A winemaker spends more hours at work during the harvest season as opposed to the rest of the year.
Harvest season (Jan-Mar):
8 am: Start for vineyards
9 am: Random berry sampling and check grape maturity
1.30 pm: Reach winery; walk through cellar to check hygiene and tank temperatures
2 pm: Lunch
2.30 pm: Taste fermenting juice at the tanks
4 pm: Taste juice from earlier samplings
4.30 pm: Plan crushing
5.30 pm: Discuss issues with HR/ viticulture departments
6 pm: Confirm harvest dates to viticulture department
6.30 pm: Coordinate with cellar master and plan for tasks for the next day
7 pm: Check red fermentation, give the pump over schedule for next day
8 pm: Leave for home

The Payoff
A winemaker with a leading company can earn anywhere between:
. Winemaking trainee: Rs 15,000 a month
. Assistant winemaker: Rs 15,000 – 40,000 a month
. Associate winemaker: Rs 25,000 – 50,000 a month
. Winemaker: Rs 50,000 – six digit figures per month
. Chief winemaker: Rs 60,000 – six digit figures per month

 Critical thinking and planning skills
. Expert knowledge of the fermentation process and skill in the art of blending the best lots together
. Ability to adapt to strenuous work hours during harvest time

How do I get there?
One can get into winemaking with a degree in food sciences, horticulture, agriculture, chemistry, biotech or microbiology. A course in fermentation technology also comes handy. One can start as an intern or a trainee with a winemaking firm and eventually graduate to an assistant winemaker, associate winemaker and then chief winemaker. Some firms employ specialised winemakers for white wines, red wines and sparkling wines

Institutes & urls
. Grape Processing and Research Institute, Palus, Sangli
. Gargi Agriculture Research And Training Institute (GARTI), Nashik

Short courses:
. KBR Wine School
. Tulleeho Wine academy tulleeho.com/wineacademy

. Ecole Supérieure D’Agriculture D’Angers (ESA)

. University of Adelaide School of Agriculture, Food & Wine, Adelaide
. Bachelor of Oenology 4 years full time (internal)

Pros & Cons
 It is not a regular, run-of-the-mill production job
. It involves working in relatively rural settings
. You need to be physically fit and active because this job involves physical work, especially during harvest time

It’s a big wine world

Winemaking is a combination of art and science, says a wine expert

What is the career of a winemaker like?
Winemaking has always been a subject of passion. It is a combination of art and science. Any person who believes in creativity, is open-minded and willing to take on challenges, including the vagaries of nature, can aspire to become a winemaker.

The job involves a lot of analytical skills, patience, good memory and willingness to travel.

The job of a winemaker is highly specialised. Properly following the protocol of winemaking through personal supervision is what decides the quality of the wine. This is important because some parameters are irreversible. This protocol is decided by the winemaker and is instrumental in imparting a style to winemaking. This is where art gets into the picture. The winemaker decides this style depending on the grape variety, maturity level and use of oak barrels/chips.

What about education qualifications?
In terms of education, any chemistry/food technology background is good. As for skill sets, the ability to differentiate taste and aroma is extremely important.

It is important for a winemaker to have good knowledge of viticulture as well because the quality of the wine is decided up to almost 70 per cent in the vineyard itself.

Winemakers should ideally get involved right from selection of soil and the planting of grapes, yield control and health of the vineyards.

What are the career opportunities in this field?
It is best to work abroad for about three to five years after graduation, to study and get as much experience as possible before returning to India. For wines, soil and weather play a very important role in wine quality and attending harvests in different winemaking countries adds a lot of exposure to varietals and styles.
In India, as of today, there are very few winemakers of repute and the industry does need more competent and passionate winemakers.
There might not be many options to change jobs in our country.

Abhay Kewadkar business head (wines) and chief winemaker Interviewed by Vandana Ramnani