Career Wisdom from a Winemaker

On a recent vacation, I had the pleasure of visiting a few wineries in the Marlborough region of New Zealand.  I know – tough duty, but someone has to do it!  What I expected was to discover some great wines I didn’t know about before.  What I didn’t expect was life lessons and wisdom from the tasting room staff.

Since I’m always curious about the talent component of any organization, I had to ask the stewards with whom we were paired about their background.  How did they land where they are, doing what they do?  Of course, I heard some very interesting answers.

In one case, a 60-something South African gentleman named Philip had decided 10 years earlier he wanted to make his second career in the wine industry after 30 years as a Cape Town police officer.  No kidding.  And to do that, he obtained work authorization, moved to New Zealand and enrolled in a certification course on winemaking to understand the agronomics and chemistry involved.  Once certified, he secured an apprenticeship working alongside the winemaker, basically doing all the messy, hard work it takes to make the fermented grape juice we all enjoy.  So this guy knew his stuff, and it got more interesting from there.

I kept asking questions and Philip was happy to share with us not only tidbits on the individual wines we were tasting but how they got that way.  A few of his nuggets of wisdom which I think correlate to so much of real life included:

“The harder a vine needs to work to get water from the ground, the better the fruit”.  Erin’s life application: Working in a “dry climate” where you have to lean in, persevere, and find your own path to learning is not necessarily a bad thing.  The payoff will ultimately be character and more valuable skills and outcomes to offer the world.

“If you haven’t been sticky, wet, cold, or in a soda bath, you don’t know anything about wine.”  Erin’s life application: There are important things we all learn by getting our hands dirty and immersing ourselves in the details.  Don’t miss the chance to personally experience how things work in your field by doing the work yourself – even if you have to take a perceived step back.

“The more you prune a vine, the more intense the fruit becomes.”  Erin’s life application: When our passion and goals are clear, and we learn to say “no” to distractions, the quality and impact of our work will increase.  Just as a pruned vine can focus on the fruit left behind, so can we produce more “intense” results with concentration.

Suffice to say, I felt I gained a lot more from Philip than an appreciation for the wine we were tasting that day.  The courageous late-in-life career changing immigrant with whom we were paired gave us so much more – his own hard-won wisdom, and a metaphor for work and life.  Cheers!

Erin McDermott Peterson is a Partner with PeopleResults, focusing on Global Talent Acquisition.  Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPeterson, connect via email at and listen to her Podcast for Talent Leaders: Big Fish in the Talent Pool on iTunes and SoundCloud.