At first glance, winemaking and specialty medicine wouldn’t seem to have much in common—most obviously, one works with plants, and the other people. On top of that, the workflows are different—vintners can invest years in cultivating a particular vine or grape, but few doctors’ patients are willing to wait that long for results. And ultimately, their aims are different, too—the mark of a great winemaker is the ability to transform a good product into an exceptional one, while even the greatest doctor must be satisfied with simply restoring patients to a state of average, everyday health.
Yet during a recent vacation in Napa Valley with my daughter, who is now in the first stages of entering the field of medicine, the similarities between the two fields kept occurring to me.
For a start, as any med student has painfully learned, treating patients is a skill that takes years and years of training to perfect. The same is true of winemaking, which is one reason why it is so often a family concern that spans generations. (Admittedly, there’s a recent trend in celebrity wines, but it’s fair to say that behind every great celebrity wine stands an already established vintner or winery.)
At the same time, despite the extensive training in both fields, ultimately, both winemaking and medicine have always involved as much art as science. Of course, the role that science plays in modern medicine is undeniable, but most people are probably unaware of the enormity of the contribution made by science to winemaking.
Related to this is the fact that both are “callings” in the old-fashioned sense of the word. For the best winemakers and doctors, it’s more than a job or a career—it’s a passion.
And finally, success in both professions is rigorously tied to outcomes. No matter how deep their involvement in the process, if the vintner doesn’t at the end deliver up a superb wine, and the doctor a healthy patient, then they have failed.
Those parallels noted, it turns out that there is actually more overlap than you would expect between winemaking and medicine—as we toured various wineries, we discovered a couple of interesting figures who have been a part of both worlds.
Robert Sinskey was a cataract surgeon, an inventor, and a teacher who pioneered modern cataract and implant surgery, driving better results by devising new instruments. The Sinskey hook is likely the most widely used eye surgical instrument to this day. A similar passion led him to develop his winery in Napa Valley in the 1980s—one of the most beautiful and well-kept in the region. The Sinskey label appears on fine wine lists around the globe, and was one of my personal favorites from my trip.
Greg Lambrecht, an MIT graduate and inventor of innovative medical technology, is also the inventor of the Coravin, a remarkably useful invention that allows you to sample a glass of wine without having to open the bottle. Coravin uses a needle-through-the-cork system that siphons wine out without allowing any oxygen in, eliminating any risk of oxidation that would spoil the remainder. It turns out that a wine cork is similar to the subcutaneous implants used for chemotherapy treatments, and so the Coravin needle was based on one inserted through the implant to inject the chemo. With the Coravin, a thin needle is inserted through the foil and cork and the bottle is pressurized with argon, an inert gas that winemakers have used for years. The positive pressure of the argon allows the wine to flow out through the needle and into the glass without admitting any oxygen. When the needle is removed, the cork naturally reseals itself, and the remaining wine can continue to age. The Massachusetts-based Coravin, Inc. has now expanded from this invention to manufacture a range of products for the wine industry.
And if that wasn’t enough, it can’t be a coincidence that winemakers live longer lives. Dr. Sinskey lived into his 90s, as did Robert Mondavi, while Mondavi’s brother Peter outlasted him to the age of 104. Back in 1976, Mike Grgich’s 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay shook up the wine world by winning the famed Judgment of Paris tasting—a group of mostly French judges ranked the California wine above some of Burgundy’s best. Grgich, who was born into a wine-making family in Croatia in 1923, was virtually a spring chicken at the time; he recently celebrated his 94th birthday.
And so, to all the physicians and medical professionals, and to all our exceptional winemakers—thank you for your passion, your skill, and your desire to enhance the status quo and deliver a higher level of your craft—a better outcome. Cheers!