Three Lessons from Labeling Wine

Growing up I worked in vineyards during the summer and part-time labeling wine in the winter. Labeling was a two-man job, so my friend Pat and I worked as a labeling team. It’s not a glamorous or particularly exciting job, but the rhythm of it and somewhat mechanical nature made it enjoyable and easy to multi-task with.

The job was pretty simple–put cases of wine down on a conveyor belt, apply a small amount of hot wax to seal the cork, let it dry as it made it’s way to the labeler, pull out a bottle at a time, but it in the labeler and then back in the case, and finally glue the case and put it back on a pallet.

The three biggest lessons I learned from that job are:

Quality matters: Working with the final product instead of just grapes makes you very aware of quality. Small mistakes that you can get away with earlier in the process, ruin your work. If you mess up, there is no wiggle room; you simply have to fix it. This helped me a lot with attention to detail and taking responsibility for my work.

Metrics matter: When you are labeling wine, it is very easy to see how productive you were– how many cases did you finish. If you slack off for an hour, there is no hiding from it or making excuses, it will be clear to everyone, so you need to show up and be consistent with your work. Having a scoreboard to pay attention to making it easy to stay motivated and engaged throughout the shift.

Be careful with dangerous work: Most corked bottles of wine have a small wax seal on top. Adding this wax was part of the job while labeling. To get the wax malleable, we chopped up wax bricks with an axe and then heated it up in pots on a hot plate. One day the hot plate was very hot, and I spilled a bunch of hot wax on my hand while refilling the dispenser. The wax started burning my hand, and my instinct was to rush to put my hand in cold water, in seconds it started cooling, but I realized that I wouldn’t be able to get the wax off, so I started pulling the wax off which unfortunately had stuck to the burnt skin and pulling a layer of it off as well.

I finished off my shift one-handed, and only later realized the seriousness as a large and disturbing blister puffed up covering the damaged part of my left hand. It took weeks to heal, and you can still see the vague scar on my hand seven years later.

I don’t often work with dangerous stuff, but this experience of burning myself made me vigilant when I worked as a cook years later.

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