Harvest Lessons: Local Winery Hosts International Interns

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on November 20, 2011)

Vanessa Guardia and Romina Regules have a lot in common.  The budding winemakers both work in the wine-buzz region of Mendoza in their native Argentina.  And, coincidentally, both are working on the same thesis toward their enology degrees, on winemaking’s carbon footprint and environmental impacts.  But the two have just recently become friends.

“We actually didn’t meet until a week before harvest started,” says Guardia, 32, in Spanish.

And that’s because the two women have something else in common: they are wrapping up their first harvest internship at Lucas & Lewellen Winery in Buellton.  They met just a few days before flying north for the summer, just before grape picking in Santa Barbara County got underway.  And now they, along with three other international winemakers, have new friendships, and plenty of new know-how, under their belts.

Lucas & Lewellen hosts interns every harvest.  The paid positions run about four months, to coincide with harvest season from beginning to end.  Winemaker Megan McGrath Gates, who’s been in charge of selecting interns for the last five years, finds prospects through an agricultural exchange program run by the state.  “We screen them digitally first, online, and then narrow them down to people with skills we’d be interested in,” she says.  “I require they either have some wine education or at least some hands-on experience.  I want people who show initiative and real interest in wine.”

This year, McGrath Gates picked five candidates with impressive global reach.  Joining Guardia and Regules for the 2011 harvest are Umberto Gaia from Italy’s Piedmont region, Gustavo Assandri from Uruguay and Mehul Patel from India.  The five are paid a stipend – they get time-and-a-half if they work more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week – and are hosted as a group in a private home that’s walking distance from the winery on East Street.  “They love it because it’s a family setting under one roof, with home cooking, Internet access and TV,” says McGrath Gates.

The workload is steady, often six days a week, based on the volume of grapes that are picked and the day-to-day demands inside the winery.

“My goal was to basically gain more experience and learn new techniques to take back home,” says Regules, 26, also in Spanish.  “And, of course, to learn new cultures and to better my English.”  She admits that most Argentinians think Napa when they think California wine, and that zinfandel, California’s purported native variety, has notoriety.  “But I have been very surprised by the variety of wines here,” she declares.  “In Mendoza, most wineries focus on two, three, maybe four varietals.  But here we’ve been working with more than 20, which is great because we’re exposed to grapes we never get to work with.”

Truth be told, Lucas & Lewellen, which was co-founded by pioneering viticulturist Louie Lucas, is one of Santa Barbara County’s most prolific producers.  The company grows some 24 grape varieties on three estate vineyards in Santa Maria, Los Alamos and the Santa Ynez Valley.  It also sells grapes to myriad wine producers throughout California.  “We made less of our own wine this year because Louis sold more fruit to other wineries, especially up north where yields were dramatically down this year,” says McGrath Gates.  “Our own yields were down, too, but not nearly as much.”

For Guardia, seeing the differences in the malbec produced by Lucas & Lewellen and that made in Argentina has been a fascinating lesson.  The Bordeaux grape is readily considered Argentina’s flagship variety.  “The softness of the tannins is similar, but here it tends to be silkier and the color is so deep and intense,” she says.

Guardia also noticed some distinction in the way wine is made.  “In Argentina, we make wine in large quantities,” she says.  “But here, they work a lot in smaller batches, and each is different and unique, often with different alcohol and acidity levels.”

Regules adds, “To work with small batches at a time is great, because you can closely see the evolution of your wine.”

It hasn’t been all work, of course.  The group has gotten to know their temporary community well.  “Everybody has been so kind and giving,” Regules says.  And they’ve done their fair share of travel, visiting tourist hot spots like the Grand Canyon and Hollywood.  “Las Vegas was a lot different than Solvang,” Guardia says with a laugh.  For her and Regules, this was their first visit to the United States.

“For me, this has been an amazing opportunity both professionally and personally,” adds Guardia.  “We all formed friendships, talked about life in our respective countries, shared stories and expanded our experience in so many ways.”

The experience is always enlightening for McGrath Gates, too.  “I ask them about techniques they’re using back home all the time,” she says, but speaks most enthusiastically about the relationships she’s forged.  “I recently visited one of our former interns from Portugal,” she says, “and she took us all over Lisbon, introduced us to these amazing cheeses and Ports, and to all these cultural treasures.” 

Methodology can change, after all, but friendships can last long.

This year’s internship officially ends on Tuesday.  But Guardia and Regules are not planning on heading back home until early December.  “We’re still hoping to visit Miami,” they echo each other with a laugh.

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