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Dipping a toe into a new career

Vocation Vacations gives the curious a chance to try out new jobs, be it cheese maker, dog trainer or innkeeper.

October 30, 2005|Kathryn Robinson | Special to The Times

Salem, Ore. — BOB MULROY thinks he may be a pioneer.

Or an idiot.

On an October day at Oregon's Cristom Vineyards, he was laboring to figure out which.

Mulroy, an electrical engineer from Ellicott City, Md., had purchased 28 acres in Howard County, Md., and was thinking of planting some of the land with wine grapes.

His was no idle rumination: He was trying to decide whether to stay in engineering or become a vintner.

"First, I wanted to find out whether I'm making a mistake trying to grow grapes out there in the first place," he said. "There are no registered wineries in Howard County."

So Mulroy contacted Vocation Vacations, a Portland, Ore., organization that connects individuals interested in a particular career with mentors who are succeeding at it.

That's how Mulroy met up with winemaker Steve Doerner, a 14-year veteran of Cristom, a 28-year veteran of the winemaking trade and one of the most highly regarded crafters of the noble Oregon Pinot Noir.

Vocation Vacations operates on a simple principle: It lets curious individuals test-drive their dream careers.

Prospective clients contact Brian Kurth, the founder and president of Vocation Vacations, with their fantasies.

They tell him they want to be a sports announcer, a brew master or an innkeeper, for example; then he sets them up to shadow a professional in that field for an average of two to three days, from a list including more than 130 professionals in 70-plus lines of endeavor.

Most test drives cost between $349 -- that's for one day with an animal therapist in West Palm Beach, Fla., or with a cheese maker in Seattle -- and $2,000.

Some are even higher: You would spend $3,500 for two weeks with a boot maker in Guthrie, Okla., or $5,449 for eight days with a fishing outfitter in Dillingham, Alaska.

Unlike the Alaska adventure, which includes camping and meals, most vacations exclude airfare and accommodations. Mulroy's Vocation Vacation, which consisted of two lunches and two days of intensive immersion at Cristom, cost $995.

Realizing dreams

"THE idea for Vocation Vacations came while I was stuck in traffic," Kurth says. "It was the late '90s, I was living in Chicago, working the corporate grind, commuting two to three hours a day, not loving my lifestyle. I thought, 'I have a vacation coming up; wouldn't it be great to spend it finding out whether I really want to go work in a winery?' "

But instead he did what so many do: He jumped off the corporate ladder and into the dot-com industry for a couple of years -- only to be laid off. He decided to travel for six months, and it was on that trip that he refined his dream.

"I was amazed at how many people we met [who] apologized for the work they did," he says. "They'd say, 'I'm a lawyer, but I really would rather work with animals,' or 'I'm in banking, but I'd love to move to L.A. and get a job in the film industry.' "

He made note of every dream job someone mentioned.

Eventually settling in Portland, Kurth began working in sales in a family winery.

He thought that was his dream job, until he realized he was continuing to dream about the career matchmaker company.

In January 2004, with a stable of 10 mentors, he launched Vocation Vacations on the side. Two months later -- fueled by media coverage and word of mouth -- it had grown so large that he had to quit the winery.

"I was fortunate that Oregon's state tagline was 'We like dreamers,' " he says. "Luckily, there were enough dreamers here who got what I was trying to do."

His more than 130 mentors work in such fields as entertainment (sports announcer, TV producer); culinary arts (cheese maker, chocolatier); animal work (dog trainer, dog day-care owner, horse trainer); style (makeup artist, wedding coordinator); sports (raceway manager, pit crew member); and hospitality (innkeeper, chef). The company's most recent mentor: a private investigator from Boise, Idaho.

Mentors receive a nominal daily fee; Kurth won't say how much, but Doerner reports making $150 for every day he mentors.

And there's another intangible benefit: "The main thing I hope to get out of this is a long-term customer," Doerner says. "But I tell you what -- I love my work. I think it's incredibly rewarding to share it with folks who are as passionate about wine as we are."

The good, the bad and the ugly

DOERNER communicates that passion with straightforward good humor.

"Is this how you do it?" Mulroy asks as he takes the shears to a large cluster of grapes in one of Cristom's vineyards.

With a chuckle, Doerner says, "Yeah, that's how you do it, only about 10 times faster."

By the midpoint of Mulroy's first day, he had logged time at the sorting table, plucking stems and leaves from the grapes; topped wine barrels in the cellar; and taken two rather harrowing turns behind the wheel of the forklift. "I did wonder whether forklift driving was the best thing for me to be doing," Mulroy says.

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