The Mother Load

Family Estate winemaker Stoller Family Estate winemaker Melissa Burr and
her sons, Austin, 10, and Wyatt, 5.
Dominio IV co-owner / winegrower Leigh Bartholomew and her sons, Finigan, 11, and Quincy, 9.

By Jennifer Cossey Hendrickson

Both grapegrowers and winemakers nurture grapes from the moment they enter their worlds. They shepherd them from adolescence into maturity, influence their evolution, encourage their developing personalities and eventually wave goodbye as they make their way into the great big world to find homes in the glasses of people who will love them.

In essence, the grapes — and ultimately the wine — are their children. Some of these parents have another type of child: the two-legged kind who needs even more attention than their much-smaller, edible siblings.

Being a parent in a time-consuming profession like the wine industry is no easy task, but we found two mothers who prove it can be done, and done well, and with a little pizazz, some humor and the occasional glass of wine with friends.

Melissa Burr, winemaker at Stoller Family Estate, and Leigh Bartholomew, proprietor and vineyard manager from Dominio IV Winery, are two among the many Oregon mothers and fathers in the wine industry who strive to balance being good winemakers and winegrowers with their more significant task of being great parents.

Unlike many other occupations, wine production jobs don’t happen only in daytime hours. There are also wine dinners, national travel and seemingly endless weekend events; finding balance takes consistency, practice and patience.

As it turns out, being a mother is great training for just that as well as for careers in winemaking and growing. Wine production is nothing if not unpredictable and the challenges of parenthood give production professionals an advantage when it comes to the common and unforeseen circumstance that tend to arise in vineyards and wineries, the kind of things you just can’t plan for.

“As a mother, you are used to constant changes, constant noise, constant messes, constant attitudes (good and bad), and it teaches one to adapt fairly quickly to changing situations,” notes Burr who has worked as winemaker at Stoller since 2003.

For her, skills acquired through motherhood are helpful at moments like rain storms during harvest, botrytis or a truck driver late on a glass delivery, not to mention a bad fermentation, too. Teases Burr, “It somehow seems as normal as a day with two active small children.”

A parent’s ability to foster also comes in handy. “Being a mother brings out the nurturing side of a person,” reflects Burr. “This translates well to taking care of wines and helping to fix issues that may arise along the way.”

As with any career, balancing family time with work can be challenging, especially during a certain time of year, when production professionals forfeit their lives to harvest. It couldn’t happen without a team of help, including supportive partners, friends, family members, bosses and work crews. People aside, it also takes setting boundaries and making priorities, which means making time for their children.

“There is not a lot of energy left, or time for that matter, after long days at the winery, which poses challenges to being a mother of children, let alone a spouse,” Burr notes. “A relationship with your child is not like that of a friend or another family member. It doesn’t work to ‘catch up’ with your kids over a weekend and then you’re good for a while; they need your time every day.” 

Fortunately, for winemaking families, there are friends and families. For Bartholomew, the grandparents come to the rescue during the frantic fall days, taking the kids on the weekends. “From Friday to Sunday they are spoiled, and we get to work a few extra hours and not worry about planning meals,” says Bartholomew, who works out a harvest schedule with her husband in which she does the early morning vineyard shifts, as he gets the kids off to school; she takes dinner and bedtime, while he works in the winery.

One of the perks of working in the wine industry and having children is the ability to bring their children to work during the “slower” months, especially in the vineyards, where young boys like 11-year-old Finigan and 9-year-old Quincy can run and play and even help out with the family business. The boys, sons of Bartholomew and her winemaking husband, Patrick Reuter, help in their vineyard.

“They come out to the vineyard with us often,” says Bartholomew, who was vineyard manager for Archery Summit while she and Reuter worked to get their family brand, Dominio IV, founded in 2002, off the ground.

“We have our own vineyard out in the Gorge, and so, they were out there pruning with us this year and are often running through the rows and eating grapes,” Bartholomew adds.

Burr also appreciates the flexibility of being able to bring the children to work, although now that they are a little older and harder to keep track — compared to when they were babies — she brings them in less often than she used to. Says Burr of her two sons, 10-year-old Austin and 5-year-old Wyatt: “They are very active boys now and want to run around, so I bring them when we have outside events primarily.”

Along with all the work there must be a little play; an important factor in being a good parent for these women is being a happy parent. First, they love their jobs, and it shows in what they produce. Their passion is truly palatable. But, not to be forgotten is a little time to themselves and with their friends in order to not only be successful producers of world-class wine and ultra-premium grapes and not just mothers, but also women and individuals.

For Burr, exercise is key. It’s her chance to feel grounded, slow down and work up a sweat, not to mention a way for her to stay healthy and strong for the physical labor she has chosen for a career, and to maintain the energy she needs to keep pace with two young boys. “I try to carve out time for this; and even the drive to a class can seem like a treat when I get really busy and I always feel better after a good sweat,” says Burr playfully adding, “Later followed by a glass of good wine, of course.”

Balance appears to be an underlying theme in both women’s recipes for accomplishment. For Bartholomew, it’s about knowing when to switch off from work and tune into her children. She notes, “I have a built-in shut-off. When the kids are looking at you and wanting to spend time with you, there is no way I will say no to them. They help me balance my life, round it out.”

Though playing in the dirt and getting messy in the winery is certainly a draw for children, it’s too soon to predict whether or not these young boys will follow in the footsteps of their successful parents. Both Burr and Bartholomew want their children to cultivate their idividual passions and dreams, as they did theirs.

“I want them to do what they truly want to do, so I will be constantly looking for what interests them rather than trying to lead them to what interests me,” notes Burr. “I think that wine will be a part of both of their lives, but who knows if they will want to do it for a living?” adds Bartholomew.

Whether their children take the path of winemaking or not, these two mothers have a bit of sage advice for anyone, especially parents, who might be inspired to pursue such a career: “Preserve your boundaries, delegate, and keep your priorities and enjoy what you do,” says Burr.

Bartholomew adds, “Do it! Both jobs are amazing and I wouldn’t want to give up or to not have experienced either one.”

Balance and flexibility, boundaries and supportive people in their lives along with a sense of what is important and a little “me” time makes the task of nurturing grapes, making wine and parenting children possible for these two. As Burr states, “Go with the flow rather than try to acutely control everything. Work towards perfection but know that, ultimately, you can’t totally control nature.”

That goes for grapes, too.

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