Posted on 05 August 2010
By Mark Miller
Journalist Kerry Hannon is a specialist in careers, retirement and personal finance. For her latest book, What’s Next: Follow Your Passion and Find Your Dream Job (Chronicle Books, 2010), Kerry traveled the country interviewing people who’ve made successful career transitions at midlife-often into very colorful and happy new lives. The result is an indispensable guide for anyone hoping to pull off a mid-life career transformation; each chapter profiles an interesting career changer, followed by useful resources, tips and advice.
In this excerpt, Kerry talks with Steve Brooks, a veteran tv producer at CNN who chucked it all to become a winemaker in Walla Walla, Washington.
Becoming a winemaker—never mind a winemaker in Walla Walla, Washington—had never crossed Steve Brooks’ mind. Then he stumbled upon a New York Times story about the fast-growing wine industry in the tiny verdant town near the Blue Mountains.
That chance reading came at an opportune time. Brooks, then a veteran TV producer at CNN in Atlanta, was growing disillusioned with the gloom of the news business and the strains of his perpetual travel schedule. At the end of 2001, after a nineteen-year career at the cable network, Brooks, at the age of forty, took a buyout. He had met his wife, Lori, at CNN and traveled the world covering news stories. “The finest part of those typically long days in the field was enjoying the local wine and trading stories with colleagues,” Brooks recalls.
[amazon-product]0811871150[/amazon-product]The article sparked a yearning to make a change in his life and his family’s. “I missed spending time with my wife and two daughters, then ages two and seven. In the back of my head, I knew I had to find something else to do. I didn’t want to stay there for another twenty years and be grumpy and unhappy,” he says.
Leap. Brooks had never before made wine or even studied winemaking. “Plus, I thought only multimillionaires could afford to own a winery,” he says. Living in a town like Walla Walla, with thirty thousand residents in the remote southeastern corner of Washington State, was further from his mind. He had never even heard of it. But after talking the scheme over with his wife, Brooks told everyone he knew that he was going to start his own winery. “That way, I couldn’t back out of it,” he says with a laugh. “At CNN, I was always confident that I could do as good a job as anyone else,” he adds. “Why couldn’t I take that faith in myself to another career? Every other winemaker in the world started out at the same spot . . . knowing nothing.”
So the couple quit their high-paying jobs, sold the family home, packed the kids into their Volvo wagon, and headed to the Pacific Northwest to start anew in a town where they knew nary a soul. Brooks enrolled in the local community college’s Center for Enology and Viticulture for the hands-on study of every stage of winemaking, from planting the vines to harvesting, fermenting, and bottling. He also worked as an apprentice to top-drawer winemakers in the region.
Finally, in 2005 he began to make his own wine, buying grapes from established Washington State vineyards. “I couldn’t afford to buy land and still can’t,” he says. “That’s a gigantic investment. It’s not like growing carrots.” Instead, Brooks finds the best fruit to buy and determines when the grapes are ready to be picked. Vineyard laborers harvest the grapes, and Brooks hauls them back to a leased building outfitted with top-of-the-line equipment to work his magic.
Brooks is a one-man shop. But he’s quick to ask the advice of veteran vintners. “People here are very sharing of their information,” he says. “I wanted to make a rosé. I called up a winemaker I admired and said, “If I buy you lunch, can you tell me how you did it?’” He did.
“For the first Syrah blend I put together, I changed my mind so many times it was silly,” he says. “I asked a friend who has made plenty of well-received wines for his opinion—at least three times. Then, at the last second, I did what my gut told me to do and didn’t listen to anyone else. The Syrah got ninety points [out of a hundred from a respected wine reviewer].”
In 2009, our production is expected to rise to 1,500 cases, triple that of three years ago. Retail prices range from $16 for a rosé of Cabernet Franc to $40 for a half bottle of Sémillon ice wine. Brooks’s wines are sold in roughly 125 outlets in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Georgia. Later this year, he is starting online sales through Amazon.com and the winery’s own site.
For now, Brooks pours all revenues back into the growing business, while Lori’ s income as a freelance TV sports director keeps the family afloat until the winery begins to turn a profit. And Brooks exudes a laid-back confidence that it will: “I feel like I will never ever know everything there is to know . . . but I have a good product, thanks to the training I had from winemakers at the top of their profession.”
Trust is what his journey from news producer to winemaker is about, and it’s also the name of his winery: Trust Cellars. And he shares that philosophy with his customers in a message on his wine bottle labels: “To change, to shift. To make an about-face. To move from a lifestyle rooted in technology and speed to an existence focusing on soil and sun. Taking a giant step requires trust. The trust of your family and friends … and the trust in yourself.”
I asked Steve to look back and share his thoughts on his transition to winemaking.
What did the transition mean to you personally?
It wasn’t a touchy-feely thing. I just knew that I wanted to do something else before I died—I was bored with what I was doing, and there had to be something else out there that was more fulfilling.
In television, even though the on-screen correspondents get all the praise, in reality forty or fifty people are behind them doing everything. I wanted to do something that was just me, where everything wasn’t a group decision. There were so many things I felt got watered down to the point where they weren’t very exciting ideas anymore. I wanted to try something that was all mine—either good or bad—I was the one responsible for it.
Were you confident in what you were doing? Did you second-guess yourself at all along the way?
There are times when I second-guessed whether it was really possible to make a living. And sometimes I still think, wow, am I really ever going to get big enough to provide for everybody? It takes patience or plenty of up-front capital. If I’d start with a lot of money, I’d be better off, no doubt.
But even with money, I’d still have to build the brand name and reputation. Since I’m not a stock car driver or a golfer with name recognition, I wasn’t going to release twenty thousand cases of wine and expect to sell it all in a year’s time as I needed to. I had to start smallish and build and build and build.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
There are little things, but to be honest, not really. I wish I had saved up more money and started with more capital. It is not safe and easy to head off on your own. And I missed those benefits and that paycheck every two weeks. But I would do it again, that’s for sure. I’m pretty happy with how things unfolded.
Have there been any big surprises or unexpected rewards?
I have certainly met a lot of people who are very fun and very cool. That is really the best part of it, hanging out in the tasting room all weekend and meeting people from all over the country. It is not something I ever really thought about ahead of time. And I have gotten some really good reviews that I didn’t think I would get this early.
Is spending more time with family a bonus?
Well, that was originally part of the idea! Right now I work more than I did before, way more. I honestly didn’t think that was possible. I very rarely take weekends off. During harvest it can be twelve to sixteen hours a day, seven days a week for six to eight weeks. The rest of the year it seems to be usually eight- or ten-hour days, but that’s still seven days a week. I’m not complaining at all, though—for me, even the longest day at the winery is far better than the shortest day before at CNN.
How big a role did potential financial rewards play in your decision?
Money was not a motivator for me. It helped, of course, that Lori was still pulling in a good income from her freelance work as a TV sports director. Having a partner to share the financial load during these start-up years is an important piece of why I am able to take on this second act.
How did your preparation help you succeed?
You have to get your family on board with your dream. You can’t do it otherwise. Especially for something as drastic as moving across the country. Our kids weren’t crazy about it, but they are glad now.
Second, I didn’t just say I was going to start a winery and boom it was off and running. It took three years to get here. I left CNN at the end of 2001, and we got out here in 2003. During those years we were spending a lot of time looking at property, trying to figure out where to go.
The best part was that once I got here, I was able to learn firsthand what the job was all about by working for other wineries and vineyards. That was the best training. I actually got paid at some of them, although it was minimum wage. I was a cellar rat, and I did that for three years off and on. During that time, I was putting my business plan in place. I took pertinent classes—the science of winemaking and vineyard management at the local community college’s Center for Enology and Viticulture.
What do you tell people who come to you for advice on starting a second act?
I tell them to first find out what it is really like. Specifically to winemaking, people think it is glamorous, and it’s awesome, and all you do is sit around and drink wine all day. Like many other jobs, that’s not the reality, and it’s important for people to know. Take a “work-cation.” Working vacations let you set up for a few days at a winery, a B&B, or something that you think you really want to do. You find out what it is like working at those jobs even if it’s for a brief time. Chances are the reality is nothing as enchanting as what it seems.
How do you measure your success at this point?
I figure there are two things you can look at—sales and reviews. They don’t always equate. Reviews are all over the place. I have submitted the same wine and gotten everything from great reviews to “not recommended.” A better measure for me is sales. People talk with their wallets. If you can sell wine to people in the tasting room where they’re tasting it, that’s good. Last year our profit was up pretty close to threefold. Still not huge numbers, but I can tell it is going in the right direction.
An alternative getaway
Want to find out if that dream job is so dreamy?
Brian Kurth can help. In 2004 he founded VocationVacations. Based in Portland, Oregon, the company lets you get a taste of what it might be like to be a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker, and much more.
The idea is straightforward: take your dream job and do it (without quitting your day job). The hands-on training trips, lasting up to three days, are conducted under the guidance of expert mentors, who are typically small- and medium-business owners and operators, both for-profit and nonprofits. “It’s a true career transition tool either for people who are planning for the future or for people who fear they are going to be laid off,” Kurth says.
Since its inception, VocationVacations has enlisted more than four hundred career mentors in over 180 vocations across the country. Among the occupations: chef, private investigator, sports announcer, and fishing guide. Also available for sampling are a number of careers that may never have crossed your radar, for example: alpaca rancher or sword maker. Vacationers pay a fee ranging from $545 to $2,000 (airfare and lodging not included), though most pay under $1,200.
Today, 80 percent of those who sign up for a VocationVacations adventure are looking to change careers, according to Kurth. “We deal with people who are actually making career transitions, making dreams a reality. About 20 percent of our alums are now in their dream jobs.”
Kurth developed the idea for VocationVacations back in 1999. “I wanted to be my own customer. I was doing the corporate grind in Chicago, working for a telecommunications company. I was burning out and daydreaming one day stuck in traffic on the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago, staring at brake lights, thinking there’s got to be more to life than this.”
He began to wonder what it would be like to try a new career. His three choices were to work in the wine industry, become a dog day-care owner or dog trainer, or become a tour or travel guide. The idea of forming a company that offered short-term career internships for adults to learn more about these kinds of jobs seemed like a no-brainer. But it took a pink slip nearly five years later to light the fire.
Freed from his job, Kurth spent six months traveling across America asking people in various stopping points what they did for a living, what they wish they could do, and what their job would be if they could follow their passion. He jotted their answers in a journal. That on-the-road homework gave him a working list of job categories his new firm could line up for VocationVacations.
A VocationVacation is designed as the first step in a series of moves to get to your ultimate dream job or dream business. “It’s the due diligence, personal and professional, of exploring a career change without taking any risks. You’re spending a couple of days, but you aren’t changing your life—yet,” he says. As an added bonus, your VocationVacation includes two phone sessions with a career coach. To be honest, deciding in two days to transform your career by 360 degrees is probably not going to happen. “It is a weathervane directional of telling you where do I want to go from here,” Kurth says. “But if your passion hasn’t dimmed when you get back from your experience, then you might begin the process to take it to the next level—budgeting for a transition, adding new skills by going back to school, and writing a business plan.”
Top ten vocation vacations
3. Bed-and-breakfast owner
5. Dog day-care owner
6. Fashion buyer/designer
7. Boutique hotel manager
8. Music producer
9. Nonprofit director