Life before dentistry: the winemaker

Posted on 16th February 2021

The path to becoming a dentist isn’t always straight and predetermined. More often than not, there are a few twists and turns along the way, as Brooke Evans-Butler discovered when she asked the question: “What did you do before you were a dentist?”

Dr Jane Forma fell in love with winemaking after spending her high-school holidays working in the vineyards around Margaret River. This led her to complete a four-year Oenology degree at Adelaide University, followed by four years of working in wineries and travelling overseas.

It was a magic time, and the lifestyle and travel opportunities were incredible I did harvests in France, Italy and California and made lifelong friends from all around the world,” Jane recalls 

Winemaking seems a world away from dentistry, but Jane says it was tooth sensitivity that led her to switch careers.  

Wine has a pH of around 3-4, well below the critical pH of enamel,” Jane explains. During the winemaking degree we had some lectures from the dental school about the occupational hazard of acid erosion and tooth sensitivity from wine tasting. I think this was very forward-thinking as it is critical to educate winemakers about oral health when they are basically guzzling acid for most of the working day! 

I also participated in a research study analysing the effects of acid erosion on young winemakers’ teeth, and after five years my teeth were inevitably showing the effects of constant wine acid exposure I developed problems with erosion and sensitivity.  

It got to the point where I could barely touch white wine, certainly not chilled. Many of my friends in wine were in the same boat. My housemate did a week of wineshow judging and went to see his dentist just before and after he came home with fluoride varnish everywhere and funny tubes of “mousse” for your teeth. He had even been told to not brush his teeth for the entire week and after tasting 100-plus red wines per day, his smile was a hideous black by the end I was totally fascinated!  

My friend and now colleague, Kate, was a dentist and her passion for it was infectious, and it got me to thinking that maybe I could do something to help myself and others. With very sore teeth and homesick for WA, my plan was to move back to Perth, see if I could get into dentistry, and then fix all the winemakers’ teeth. And so began my career change to something completely unrelated my family thought I was crazy. 

Jane continued to work part-time in wine during the early years of her dentistry degree but had to give it up when the study workload became too much (and her black-stained hands from grape tannins began to startle the patients). 

She laughs that she was much more popular at dinner parties as a winemaker, but Jane’s time in the wine industry has also given her some valuable experiences that have been beneficial as a dentist.  

During the grapeharvest period, you work incredibly long hours and often night-shifts with a small team of people they become your world,” she explains. It gives you a great appreciation for the importance of teamwork when youre exhausted and working hard, which I think translates to dentistry and your practice team and culture.  

Also, obviously, life experience in general helps when you’re starting out in dentistry with patient communication, empathy, and generally looking a bit wrinkly from all those night shifts. My awesome forklift and truck driving skills are sadly redundant, but I have my confined spaces ticket for working in tiny dental surgeries! 

This story first appeared in the February issue of the Western Articulator. Read the full article here.