This is part 3 of the From Ripple to RagApple series. If you are just joining me, you may want to start from the beginning of this series.
In 1988, while I was living in Butler, Pennsylvania, a good friend and winemaker for Shuster Cellars in Irwin, Pennsylvania, Steve Shepard, asked me to make some experimental champagne for him to test some different crop loads on their Seyval Blanc grapes (a French Hybrid). This was quite a leap, but I had made champagne using a process called methode champenoise (more on this in future posts) before and Steve knew I could do it. This was an interesting challenge and the wines were coming along quite nicely.
In 1989, Steve received an offer he couldn’t refuse to move to North Carolina and help build and start up Westbend Vineyards and Winery, now the oldest vinifera (the species of grape that is considered the true wine grape of the world) winery in North Carolina. Shuster Cellars presented me with the opportunity to take his place and become a professional winemaker. The owners got together with me, tasted my wines and my champagne, and made me an offer. Needless to say, this was an incredible moment in my life. However, it would be a huge change for my family, as I would be gone long hours, especially during harvest season. But my husband, who has always been my biggest promoter and best cheerleader (and still is), along with my two children, who were in high school at the time, never allowed me to second guess the opportunity. And so I started this new chapter of my life with great enthusiasm.
Not often does one get the opportunity to have their hobby turn into their life’s work. Imagine my excitement the first time I saw my name on a business card telling the world that I was the winemaker for Shuster Cellars!! However, there was so much to learn. Sure, I knew how to make wine, but I had to learn how to run all of the equipment…destemmer/crusher, press, filters, bottling line, and more. And I started just two weeks before the start of harvest. It seemed a little daunting at first. The worst part was that all of the manuals were written in Italian! Almost all winemaking equipment is made in Italy or Germany. I once again called on my friends in the wine industry to help me understand and they were happy to do so. So it was a true “hands-on” experience and, eventually, I got it all figured out. In addition, I was familiar with standard lab tests that an amateur can do, but the lab equipment is obviously much more sophisticated in a professional lab and there are more in-depth tests that need to be made. Fortunately, the owners of Shuster Cellars brought in a wine chemistry teacher for a day to show me how to operate all of the equipment in the lab.
Another tricky part about going from amateur to professional was converting from 5 gallon lots to up to 5000 gallon lots. I was asked several times to speak to high school students on career day and this is what I told them: pay attention to everything you are learning because you never know where your life will lead you. I was a typical teenager and, like most high school students, never thought I would use the things I was required to learn. Then I became a professional winemaker and had to convert so many things mathematically. I wished I had paid attention in algebra class!
After several years at Shuster Cellars, the owner’s daughter, who had taken over the winery after her father passed away, decided to close the winery and sell off its assets. The passion of wine at Shuster Cellars died along with Tony Shuster, the founder and builder, and the daughter had only kept it going for awhile as a legacy to him. With so little opportunity to build my reputation as a professional, it seemed my brief career as a winemaker had come to an end.
Next Week: Second Chances