Wine consultancy can take many forms, advising everywhere from the vineyard to the restaurant floor, but while there are many fields that may be sown, businesses generally employ consultants for just one thing; greater efficiency. This raises the first question aspiring wine consultants should ask themselves: "What value can I provide to my clients?"
Open your eyes, trust your instincts, look and taste and judge, and never stop learning
As the subject is so broad, any article about wine consultancy can only proffer advice in the most general terms. It’s up to you to tailor it to your own requirements, which raises another important point to bear in mind at the outset. As a consultant, your individual style is one of your tools. Your ability to communicate, interact and provide your own personal perspective is what the job is all about.
To illustrate the scope, observe. Raul Diaz DipWSET runs Wine Training UK in London which, as well as teaching WSET, consults to hospitality and wine related businesses. Australia-based Phil Reedman MW advises a wide range of clients how to "sell more wine". Madeleine Stenwreth MW of Sweden travels the world working in product development. Terry Xu DipWSET is a Shanghai-based founder of Aroma Republic offering marketing strategy to wine companies distributing in mainland China.
The range of possibilities is considerable, and there are undoubtedly opportunities yet to be capitalised on. It depends solely on you identifying a niche for your own particular talents, so you need to know, precisely, what are your expertise?
All four of this disparate cross-section of consultants have two fundamental things in common: long experience and specialist qualifications, in this case the WSET Diploma which has the advantage of being an internationally recognised industry benchmark. “Qualifications are indispensable,” says Terry Xu. "The WSET Diploma helped me acquire the ability to evaluate the quality of wine, but it’s also the cornerstone to me winning the trust of consumers."
Reedman and Stenwreth continued with their studies, going on to take their Master of Wine qualifications further down the track. That said, "the best preparation for the global wine knowledge needed for the MW is, in my view, the WSET Diploma," explains Phil Reedman.
Depending on where you see your future in consulting, however, there are a good number of equally reputable courses available, from The Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), for instance, to winemaking and wine marketing degrees offered by universities and technical colleges.
The core element of consultancy, however, is experience, the broader, the better. I worked for about twenty years before branching out. Previously I sought out work in all areas of the trade, not just out of interest but to expand my understanding of its organisation, to maximise my employment options and, perhaps most importantly, to determine what I enjoyed doing most.
I began in hospitality, where I moved towards wine, tasting and studying with increasing application. I also began writing about wine whenever I could, which has been a great benefit at all stages of my career. Next I got into marketing, managing sales both on and off premise, then retail buying and finally back into hospitality as a sommelier, this time supervising wine lists, cellars and service. The consultants above all have similar diversity of experience.
Today I’m equipped to provide broad ranging advice to producers, retailers, restaurants and bars, helping them promote their business while working more efficiently. All my previous experience comes into play, as does my own training, at WSET, CMS and elsewhere. Thus, any would-be consultant is best guided by the knowledge they’ve attained throughout their previous work.
The decision to branch out on your own will usually be stimulated by two distinct incentives: identifying a space in your market and the desire to take control of your future. "I realised I had a talent," says Madeleine Stenwreth, "and I realised I value my freedom. I wanted to be the one making decisions about my life."
If you are prepared to back your abilities and you know your target market, start planning. Determine what sets you apart and decide precisely how you will sell that. "Make a very realistic plan about what you‘re going to offer, with numbers, with money," says Raul Diaz. "You need to have something solid to base your business on."
When everything is ready, take the plunge. Hopefully you have clients in place before you get it rolling. You’ll find them, naturally enough, among people that you’ve worked with the past. Select those you have the best rapport with, always, and pitch them your new venture. Reedman agrees: "Get a contract with your key clients."
Early on you may struggle for income, typical in young businesses, so factor in some lean times while you establish your presence. Wine Training UK had a quiet period after Diaz first opened the company, but he was prepared. "Our first winter was very challenging but it was written into our business plan. I used that time to plant a lot of seeds, and now it’s going great."
One of the toughest things is knowing what your services are worth, particularly if you’re trying something new. Consider carefully the value you are providing to your client, and what your competitors may charge. It’s also advisable to deliver a thorough rundown on what’s been achieved each month with your invoice, so your client can see the value of their investment. They’ll come back if they feel their money is well spent.
In delivering your appraisals, be mindful of your client’s sensibilities. Their business is their offspring, just as yours is to you. You need to be dispassionate and diplomatic, forthright and honest, brave even. Your view of your client’s project may be at odds with theirs, so be tactful, polite and stick within your brief. It can be something of a tightrope. "I need to listen very well, to understand their position but I also have to wake them up to realise that they’re are missing something, without upsetting them", explains Stenwreth.
As work comes in more regularly, you’ll feel more secure, but remember many jobs have a relatively short life span so keep them turning over. Conversely, you may find unexpectedly that your business is a runaway success, in which case you need to be prepared and organised so it doesn’t affect the quality of your output. Asked about the major pitfalls of consultancy, Reedman is pragmatic: "Having too little work, or having too much work."
Terry Xu initially tried to accept all new contracts until he realized the company was becoming overstretched. "I thought I could do everything", he says. "In the end, we reduced the number of clients we managed to improve the quality of each project."
The real trick though is to keep abreast of developments in the trade, to stay engaged, remain relevant and keep growing. Whether it’s creating some sort of public profile, judging, writing, competing, furthering your qualifications, or just reading widely, you need to maintain the relationship you have with the industry. You will find that it is symbiotic, as well as very rewarding. "Open your eyes, trust your instincts, look and taste and judge, and never stop learning", advises Stenwreth.
Then, as you progress, your business will begin to take on a life of its own, and develop organically as you find the right balance. There may be the odd shock but there will also be unexpected delights; Raul Diaz and Terry Xu both describe how gratifying the respect of their peers has been. Madeleine Stenwreth talks of being constantly engaged by the diversity of her work, Phil Reedman of branching out into areas he would not otherwise have found. All here agree though, the journey is worthwhile.
Article prepared for WSET by Sophie Otton DipWSET - Wine Writer / Sommelier / Consultant