Feature

How One COVID Nurse Found Respite in Winemaking

Jane Khoury was balancing work in the hospital and the cellar. And then came the pandemic

Stacy Briscoe By October 18, 2021
Photo illustration by Pix. Jane Khoury and her father Gabi Khoury celebrating the release of their 2016 Pinot Noir (left), and Jane Khoury in the Intensive Care Unit at Adventist Health, Ukiah Valley (right). Photos courtesy of Jane Khoury.

In a normal year, days are long and hard for Jane Khoury who doubles as a winemaker for her family’s Elkfield Wines and as an Intensive Care Unit nurse at Adventist Health, Ukiah Valley. But life since the pandemic began has been anything but normal, with COVID-19 putting extra strain on the tight-rope she walks between two careers. 

“It’s hectic with the nursing staff shortage. The rise in COVID cases has resulted in a rise in our overall patient load,” Khoury says. “Being extremely short-staffed, trying to help the nursing team out, and create this product as well — I’m juggling a lot more than usual.” 

In a California ICU, a nurse can only have two patients under their watch, Khoury explains. But with the rise in more critically ill patients, the ward’s eight beds are full, with only three nurses on schedule. 

“That’s when we desperately call someone to work overtime or pick up an extra shift,” she says. Because her patients are so critically ill, she’s been pushing past her typical 12-hour workday, “Sometimes I don’t get any breaks and work 14 hours straight without even a restroom break. That takes a toll on nurses and being able to safely take care of our patients.”

photo of Jane Khoury, winemaker of Elkfield Wines and Intensive Care Unit nurse at Adventist Health

Jane Khoury, winemaker of Elkfield Wines and Intensive Care Unit nurse at Adventist Health, Ukiah Valley. Photo courtesy of Jane Khoury.

These long, dragged-out days “add more to the task list,” Khoury comments. Especially during the harvest season. Days are elongated when the lunch hour includes driving back to her vineyard to tend to the vines, and coming home at the end of the day means coming home to the cellar.

“I’m balancing this rise of critically ill patients with the busiest time in my wine career. But I remind myself — I’m doing two passions,” she says. 

But Khoury says her work in the vineyard has helped her get through the most stressful times. “It helps me decompress and heal, and allows me to be my best self for my patients,” she says. “Furthermore, practicing biodynamics has helped me in my nursing practice, encouraging me to look at my patients as a whole instead of focusing on one part of them.”

Love of the land

As the youngest of six children, Khoury has always been close to her father, who immigrated from Jerusalem in 1967 and founded the family’s Mendocino-based estate in 1990. He passed on his love for viticulture like a strong familial trait. 

“I’ve always had a passion for the vineyard, connecting to the land, the vines, the wines,” Khoury says. “Because I was the youngest, when I was growing up, the vineyard was already established. Dad had more time to take me under his wing.” 

Khoury studied both viticulture and enology and pre-med while at University of California, Davis. After graduating in 2013, she dabbled in wine instead of going to medical school. “Each year we dabbled a little bit more, added a little bit more to the winery,” Khoury says. In 2013, she spearheaded the family’s decision to bond their winery — meaning to go through the complicated process of changing the tax and insurance status of a facility thus far only used for hobby winemaking, as her father had built his career selling his grapes to others.

Of more interest was her introduction to biodynamics through a post-grad internship. “It made sense from a holistic approach,” says Khoury, adding she wanted to implement biodynamics on the property in the best possible way. “I went back and immersed myself completely — conferences, classes, I picked up my own cow manure, made my own compost and biodynamic preparations. I threw myself into Rudolf Steiner, and found a mentor. I really went all out.”

Khoury is not someone who does anything halfway. Elkfield’s vineyard and winery officially received their Demeter Biodynamic Certification in 2020. 

“With biodynamics, I treat the vineyard as a whole instead of one individual plant at a time. I rely on that with nursing too. I don’t focus on individual symptoms, but look at the patient as a whole. Just like everything in our human bodies is connected, the same is true of the vineyard. This helps me connect the two together and aid patients in their progression.”

Two passions become one

Khoury completed the accelerated Bachelor of Science Nursing (BSN) program at Massachusetts General Hospital, while flying back to California twice a month to help the growing family business. “I’d always been the key point-person,” she says. “I really leaned on my dad and brother then because they were on site and I was more like a dictator.”

After her return, and not without struggle, the Khoury’s released their first commercial wine, a 2016 Pinot Noir, in December 2019 — just as COVID made its mark in the U.S. The release did not go well.

“It was a difficult time to launch. All our local restaurants closed, local businesses limited patrons and hours. Plus, we were new to the market,” says Gabi Khoury, Jane Khoury’s father and founder of the family estate. Exacerbating the situation, “Jane has been busier than ever,” he adds.

“I worry about her mental and physical health. The pandemic has been draining on us all, but with Jane working on the frontline of patient care, I think she’s seen the worst of it,” Gabi Khoury says. “When the pandemic was at its all-time high, I started to notice she wasn’t taking care of herself like she used to.” 

photo of Jane Khoury and her dog Rusty on a tractor in their Mendocino vineyard

Jane Khoury and her dog Rusty on a tractor in their Mendocino vineyard. Photo courtesy of Jane Khoury.

Khoury admits she has two very stressful jobs. “ICU nursing is a long process — our patients are with us for long periods of time. The stamina to keep going; I learned that in the vineyard.”

Her two careers have more parallels than just perseverance. Khoury explains that her family’s biodynamic and regenerative farming practices are based on the health and wellness of the vineyard as a complete ecosystem within itself, from the microbes in the soil, to the vine root, shoots, leaves, berries, as well as the surrounding natural wilderness and wildlife. 

“With biodynamics, I treat the vineyard as a whole instead of one individual plant at a time. I rely on that with nursing too. I don’t focus on individual symptoms, but look at the patient as a whole,” Khoury says. “Just like everything in our human bodies is connected, the same is true of the vineyard. This helps me connect the two together and aid patients in their progression.”

Khoury makes a point of noting that she was a winemaker before she was a nurse, who studied organics and regenerative viticulture before human health. But “all the things we do in our lives can be interchangeably used. All the skills I have in viticulture and winemaking can help me in the hospital and vice versa.”

Critical thinking, methodical assessment, experiencing the vine or human as a whole in order to make informed, complete decisions. “And trust the process,” she says. “That the time and love you’re putting in will make a difference.”