Holly Smith

VINEYARD MANAGER AT GALLO VINEYARDS

FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

Welcome to the AgSnacc Podcast, where we take a look at careers in agriculture and the journey towards those careers. I’m your host Erin Gorter and we hope you enjoy this tasty AgSnacc. 

Erin Gorter:

So we're here with Holly Smith, a Vineyard Manager for Gallo Vineyards. Hello Holly, how are you? 

Holly Smith:

I'm good, Erin, thank you. 

Erin Gorter:

Good! So our first question that we always start off with is: describe what you do as a vineyard manager and what the typical day in your life looks like. 

Holly Smith:

So I get to farm grapes. I have about an 800 acre vineyard that I have the opportunity to oversee and manage and make decisions on how I want to farm my grapes for the whole year. We start the day with starting out crews and tractor drivers and deciding during whatever time of the year and whatever activities we have what we're going to do for that day. Usually throughout the day I'm going between different blocks of vineyards, checking on my drivers, picking  up parts, usually fixing things so there's always something going on. I'm mostly like a firefighter - I'm always around putting out fires and finding ways to keep moving forward in the vineyard with basic farming practices. I spend probably half my day in front of the computer and half the day in my truck. I have the opportunity to actually live on the vineyard that I actually manage so I'm always at work which is sometimes a good thing and sometimes a bad thing. With the vineyard, what’s neat about the vineyard is that you get to work all year long and grow beautiful grape vines for one opportunity to harvest at the end of the year, around this time of the year, which it is November right now but we harvest mostly in October. So you kind of have one payday. You work all year for this one thing so everything that we do all year, it goes to that one purpose of producing this one beautiful crop that goes to wine. Within our company, it's neat that we're able to produce grapes for our own wine and we have a lot of different kinds of labels so that’s kind of neat. So it's a very high level of what I generically do. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Awesome and what was your high school experience like? Did you play sports, were you involved in any extracurricular activities, what type of classes did you take, all that fun stuff? 

Holly Smith:

So I was definitely a nerd in high school and I loved FFA as well so I kind of did a little bit of everything. I also was in sports; particularly I loved softball and track. So I kind of was the kid that did a little bit of everything and I got to have a lot of different exposure in different items. I definitely was passionate about FFA and loving the opportunity to have a chance to be like a young entrepreneur in a high school setting. And that taught me a lot - it especially taught me a lot also about public speaking how to have other leadership opportunities and even the record book, as awful as it was when I was a high school kid, it's amazing how much you learn about budgets and managing your time and understanding how your time impacts profit and whatnot or when you lose money. And then I was like a 4.3 GPA kid so I did a lot of AP classes and whatnot so I was a go-getter and graduated somewhat young. I was younger in my class - I actually left and then I was in college by the time I was 17. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Dang so when you were 17, and kind of in high school and kind of in college, what did you want to be when you grew up? 

 

Holly Smith:

One day when I grow up… I think I struggled with it for a little bit, which I think most people do especially in high school. You have so many limited amount of experiences it’s like, ‘What do I choose, that has to be perfect,’ and then you know you don't know. But I jumped into it and I just really embraced the ag education route and so I actually decided that was what I wanted to do and I wanted to go to Cal Poly SLO to be an ag teacher. And that's exactly what I did. I only applied to one school; I did early admission, I got accepted and you know nerd focus level 1000 I went for it and I ended up getting my bachelors and Masters degree to be an ag teacher and I taught for a few years. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Yep so tell us more about after you graduated and got your teaching credential and you taught for a few years, what kind of led you to where you are now? 

 

Holly Smith:

Well I've always loved AG in general. I love the sharing of AG, I love the freedom of agriculture, the entrepreneurial spirit of agriculture, and how much you can do. You can be innovative; it doesn't matter if you grow cherries or you have cattle or you are in that technology part. To me, I love the idea of exploring and sharing. I love the people that produce, I love the work ethic and so that's where like the teaching part was just as exciting because I got to share and share those experiences with the students that would normally not do that. And then even going into the farming side I thought I'd be a better teacher having more farming experience as well and at that time like 2009-2010 the economy was really tough and we just kept getting pink slipped as high school teachers and so at that point I said well I'm going to go experience that so I can keep the legacy going in education from a different point of view. And so I decided to go into farming and I didn't need to go into grapes particularly, that opportunity kind of arose. I mean I would have farm peaches in Georgia, it didn't matter to me. So I landed with this job kind of by accident and I really enjoyed it. It was kind of like one of the things that I use this experience to also stay as engaged as I can in the ag education community to help build that as a person in industry. 

Erin Gorter:

Very cool. So when you were growing up how was education and work life viewed in your household and how did that kind of influence you along your career path? 

Holly Smith:

Both my parents have very modest jobs. One was a truck driver - my dad was a truck driver. My mom worked at like the grocery store. We were very, you know just kind of a normal family where everybody was very proud of working really hard for what you had; and you didn't overspend what you didn't have. So there was always the error in my family of we kind of just didn't quite have enough but we were always really proud of what we had and we worked really hard for it. Education was really emphasized. My family before that - nobody had finished college in my immediate family so I was the first to go to university. My mom had gone and taken some classes of community college but never finished much. They really encouraged us to pursue a college education but more than anything just do what you love and be really good at it. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Speaking of doing what you love, what is your favorite part about your day at work? 

Holly Smith:

Well right now I'm walking through the middle of the vineyard looking at my plants a little bit. They look like they're a little bit shriveled up and dried right now. They usually look prettier but we just went through a frost. I love being outside. I love seeing the progress of the year when you start out and you start in January. You start fresh and give them a haircut and every single plant - I mean I have probably 600,000 plants out here - every single plant gets some attention. Like a level of attention to detail and everything that you do create like a compound growth with the plant. Every action that you do creates better quality and it's a reflection. It's very satisfying to watch the plants grow and then go all the way through harvest and harvest it and then now post harvest, they're all sleeping. They look tired and then we start all over again. So the daily process of nurturing the plants and making all these decisions and trying to find ways to like improve and it's very visual and it's very satisfying. 

 

Erin Gorter:

What’s the most challenging part about your day? 

Holly Smith:

Well there's a lot of challenges; you can't have everything too easy. I know that ironically being a teacher, there have been a lot of similarities between teaching and managing because there's a lot of personnel. The plants are relatively predictable and you kind of know what they need and you can see what ideally you need to do. But the people are unpredictable and they need a lot more attention and so really you can't do anything with farming and much of anything without people. So my biggest challenges are how do I engage the people that maybe are just here for just the day-to-day job? How do I make it rewarding for them, how to make them feel appreciated, how do we have better communication and teamwork and so that goes on both sides. Like from the people that I oversee and then also people that I also work with laterally like my bosses or winemakers. How do I make sure everybody is happy and confident? That's the trick. That's probably the trickiest part. People are always tricky so in the business of managing, marketing and producing food.  

Erin Gorter:

I think I can guess this one: what is your favorite agricultural commodity? 

Holly Smith:

Well I could say guacamole but that's not as exciting right? No, I do love wine. I mean it's kind of neat to be able to to be part of this industry because it's not something simple like growing an avocado. You kind of have a product that is just an avocado and it's either good or it's not good or it’s fresh or it's rotten or whatever. With fruit, there's so much emotional connection to it. Winemakers want to experience the vision and they want these certain flavors and then if you over crop it, the plant doesn't have the same flavors and the skins have to be you know not to sunburnt but not too shaded. I mean there's like a million variables and so the good and bad part of it is that I have the opportunity to change all these variables and try different things and sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. You get one chance to set it for that year. But it's interesting because it's up to whoever tastes the wine. I mean style, if some people like Zinfandel and some people don't, that's kind of one of those things where it's got personal preference. And of course the farming has a lot of variables where some people will agree with that style and that practice and some people don't. So it's kind of tricky. I think I got off on a little bit of a tangent. 

Erin Gorter:

But do you like wine. What's your favorite varietal?  

Holly Smith:

I personally love pinot noir which is really funny because I don't grow any pinot. I grow mostly Cabernet and other types of Bordeaux varieties that grow in Paso Robles. But I do appreciate those growers that do have those difficult regions that do grow pinot. Because they have a lot of different flavors and one hillside will taste different than the other. But the same thing with cab and serah and all these other ones like I actually have some white grapes over here. I have Chardonnay - my Chardonnay will taste way different than someone’s Chardonnay in like Santa Maria where it's cooler. It’s hotter here so you have different flavors, but I like pinot. 

Erin Gorter:

All right, can you think of any internship or volunteer opportunities that high school students could participate in to kind of get involved and learn more about being a vineyard manager? 

Holly Smith:

Well I know we have way more for our company at the collegiate level. So Gallo definitely offers a lot of really well paid internships at that level to look forward to. If you're going into college. As far as high school level, if if this podcast is going out to anybody locally or even potentially anywhere that there is other Gallo Vineyards up in Napa or Sonoma or Washington, Lake County in California, most vineyard managers if they were to just contact them and say, ‘Hey I’d like to do an hour shadow and just talk to you about what you do for the day and just see the vineyard,’ and speak with you physically in the vineyard next to the vines, most of those people would be very happy to do so. But you can't get a yes if you don't ask, you know. I would tell everybody to just email me. 

Erin Gorter:

Yeah, for sure. There's 100% chance the answer is no if you don't ask the question. Okay so thinking about your profession, what are things that you think will change in the next 20 years, that students can prepare for now? 

Holly Smith:

Well that's the fun part. So innovation is something that's super exciting and super challenging and scary at the same time. We have to know that nothing is going to stay the same and so if you're okay with embracing that change that could bring about a lot of profit and a lot of joy, a lot of challenge and things like that. And so for our industry here labor is huge. How labor is managed, in Southern California, the limiting you know of hours going into 2022, how many hours do you work per day, per week and also the minimum wage rising is all a struggle that impacts us greatly with our product. And how we can make this fruit profitable per acre, per vine. So every single thing that we go into with labor, we're just going to completely turn upside down on its head. So I know that this next year, I've been asked to change our style of farming to accommodate for us in the supply and demand market and also the changing labor market. So because of all the stuff with covid, the market has changed a ton for the wind industry. Where say 50% of the wine was purchased in restaurants where that just went away. Now we have an oversupply and higher inventory that we didn't have. We only have another 50% going out of the grocery stores. So we have a huge surplus of wine so we've got to find a way to sell at different prices and then make our per acre more profitable. There's just a ton of different different challenges there. So they're going to ask us to ironically shift away from the less fruit per acre and higher quality, and they’re going to ask us to shift into more tons per acre and less quality. And put it into like cheaper bottles of wine because that's how the market is shifting. That's kind of a hard thing to change, but my business is driven by the sales. I am a price taker, I don't get to choose what I do. They tell us this is the demand and I have to farm to that demand and so I don't have a choice. We have to ship that and that also is what makes it profitable per acre because the labor costs are going up so much that we've got to find a way to to keep it in the positive. We have to have a good return on our invested capital per acre and so that's just how we have to ship. We're going to more mechanization, less labor and we have to find different ways to farm it that farmed per acre is cheaper. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Yeah innovation has continuously been a theme here when asked what the next 20 years will bring. So it's nice to see for the wine industry as well. So this is the last question, are you ready for it? 

Holly Smith:

I’m ready. 

Erin Gorter:

If you could go back to high school Holly, what is the one piece of advice you would give yourself? 

 

Holly Smith:

Well I was pretty good with being personable when I was when I was younger but I didn't realize how impactful it has been going forward. But I definitely want to throw out there that it's very important to know it's who you know, first, and secondarily, what you know. I think that who you know gets your foot in the door, a lot of times more so than just what you know plainly. But what you know will carry you through after you get your foot in the door. Personal relationships with everybody is so important; getting to know people, being open to people that maybe you wouldn't normally be open to. You never know 10 years down the road who those individuals will be after high school. Finding the positives in people and being kind is going to carry most success I think a lot of times and you never know who. Because people are resources, people are the number one resources of success. If you're not getting what you need, it's maybe because you're not being resourceful enough and that could be within yourself. That could be who you know and I think that people don't take that seriously especially in the young age because you don't know any different. But especially as you get, I guess as you get older your personal relationships with people are what make things move and move smoother and open doors and make deals. So that would be my piece of advice. Or even to myself back then, it would be to be even better about that and to cognitively keep that in mind. In every interaction you make with a new person, you never know the door that's going to open. So like your body language is important, how you carry yourself, how you talk, how you talk to other people, how you talk when other people are not around... Like all that stuff is vital for success. 

Erin Gorter:

Fantastic. Excellent advice, excellent advice. Alright so thank you again this is Holly Smith a Vineyard Manager for Gallo Vineyards. Thank you Holly for visiting with us today! 

Holly Smith:

Thank you Erin! I had a great time and best of luck to everybody who's listening! 

Thank you for listening to this AgSnacc, a production of the Cal Poly Brock Center for Agricultural Communication at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in collaboration with the South Coast Region Agricultural Education Consortium. For more information, please visit our website at www.agsnacc.com. That’s www.a-g-s-n-a-c-c.com