Whether you’re starting fresh out of the gates from full-time education or considering a career change, the wine trade holds a romantic allure for many a wine lover. But as some have found, the reality can fall short of the imagined utopia of international travel and long, boozy lunches.
Here we look at five steps you can take to ensure that you build a career in the drinks industry with the strength, intention and savvy to last.
1. Learning is a lifetime’s task
It’s a bald fact that the drinks industry is one which requires specialist knowledge – but many confuse a general love of wine with the professional-standard understanding required to really excel. Lots of other industries, like Finance and Architecture, require you to sit exams to prove your knowledge if you want to progress. It’s not such a strict requirement in wine but consider taking courses and qualifications if you want to show prospective employers that you’re serious and stay at the top of your game.
Our top tips:
- Learn as you go. WSET offers a range of beginner to expert qualifications. At a basic level, WSET Awards can initiate you in the basics of wine production and tasting – ideal for those who are transitioning into the industry off the back of other specialist skills. Petri Pentikainen, Partner at Red Roof Skye says: “Gaining a WSET qualification and showing my passion and commitment to wine were major reasons my first employer decided to recruit me. They relied on the qualification and my passion as I hadn’t work in a restaurant before, yet I was going to oversee their wine list and to be on the floor recommending wines to accompany guests’ meals.”
- Get focused. For those in customer-facing roles where wearing in-depth knowledge lightly is a key skill, the WSET Diploma offers unparalleled insight. The Wine Business unit particularly is a fascinating opportunity to learn more about the mechanics of the industry from trade experts. Frank LaSusa, co-founder of Corvina Wine Company in Wisconsin, comments: “The WSET Diploma provided the foundation, support, discipline, and guidance to achieve a solid understanding of the wine trade from vineyard to the commercial aspect of the industry.”
- Exams aren’t everything. Seek out trade magazines, read blogs and taste, taste and taste some more to ensure you’re fully immersed in what’s going on in the trade.
The wine trade is a unique industry. For those willing to put in the hard graft, it holds infinite possibility – and reward.
2. Network. Then network some more.
We love to hate it – and it’s true that networking is as daunting in the wine trade as it is in any other industry. Fortunately, the drinks industry is incredibly sociable. Put aside your qualms about mispronouncing wine names to build up the network which will lead to your dream role. The key is to approach it in the right way.
Our top tips:
- Attend tastings. Check out your local industry calendar, Instagram and Twitter for relevant tastings – but don’t spread yourself too thin. Be targeted in your approach. For example, if you’re keen to break into on-trade sales, hit the headline tastings from the on-trade specialists or focus on events that specialise in your particular wine region of interest.
- Get online. Social media platforms may be famously incendiary places to hang out – but when it comes to the who’s-who of the wine trade, platforms such as Twitter are your key-card. Peter Pharos, writer for timatkin.com who secured his column through Twitter concurs: “Twitter is the only medium I have used for networking and promoting my writing…My biggest surprise (I have only been on Twitter for a little more than a year) is how approachable everyone is. People respond and interact irrespective of background and status in the industry.”
- Don’t be insular. Just because you’re a sommelier, don’t only attend sommelier-focussed events. You risk forming a skewed view of the trade.
- Celebrate your point of difference. Whether that’s exploiting your fascination with oak in the wine ageing process to become a world expert, or seeking out networking groups specifically for your niche, don’t be afraid to shout about it.
3. Bin the rose-tinted goggles
Irrespective of the degree you just secured or your last high-flying job title, there’s one factor which unites everyone in the wine trade: we all start at the bottom. And for wine, the bottom often means getting up close and personal with long hours, low pay and often physical labour. It may sound like maximum output for minimum return, but getting up close to the nitty-gritty of the industry can provide invaluable insight.
Our top tips:
- Work a vintage. Helping out with a harvest is a one-of-a-kind experience – and your ticket to understanding the true meaning of a winemaker’s exhausted assertion that everything in the winery is done "by hand." It’s an experience which will add authenticity to any sales pitch – from upselling a customer in a restaurant to writing a sales email. Sophie Thorpe, copywriter for Berry Brothers and Rudd says of her experience in Australia: “For me, actually getting into a winery and away from books was so important […it’s] confirmed that there is so much more to learn, and how subjective almost everything in wine is. I think it has also helped me feel on a more level footing …when talking to winemakers, who – I think – respect the fact that I’ve made the effort to move out from behind the desk.”
- Seeing is believing. Working at the International Wine Challenge several years ago has given me unshakable faith in the viability of the competition’s results. If you want to learn about something, getting stuck in is always the best way to do it.
4. Let's talk about money.
Or, more prosaically, let’s talk about knowing your worth. It’s many people’s dream to have a job that simulates and fulfils them as well as paying the mortgage – but can wine ever do both? It seems to be an accepted fact that there is ‘no money’ in the wine trade – and scant profits would suggest that that is indeed a reality. Honestly, you’re unlikely to ever make mega-bucks working with wine, but you should still have a keen awareness of your contextual worth when pitching for work or a new job.
Our top tips:
- Emotional fulfilment. Working with a product you love is the unassailable benefit of working in the wine trade – and many would say that it’s this emotional fulfilment which makes it all worth it. Mark Guillaudeu, beverage director at Commis in California, who hopes to one day open up a restaurant under his own name, believes that this makes the wine trade a uniquely fulfilling industry to work in: “It's a long game, but they say that if you love what you do, you add five days to every week - and Lord knows I love what I do.”
- But beware of the "passion" factor. Being satisfied with a lemonade wage is one thing – being exploited in the name of "passion" is not. It’s important to maintain clear boundaries when working in a job where the emotional fulfilment is clearly advertised as a remunerative benefit.
- Think transferable skills. This is especially relevant if you’re making a career change. If you have a strong background in marketing, don’t assume that your only route into the trade is through working a shop floor.
- Know your priorities. This is particularly pertinent for those pursuing a multi-hyphen career in the trade, but having a keen sense of your priorities and what you are and aren’t willing to compromise on will give your overall career trajectory greater clarity.
5. Flexibility will help you progress
If you’re determined to work an eight-hour day Monday-Friday, within clearly defined parameters, then wine probably isn’t for you. Hospitality, retail, sales, events – these are all jobs which require you to work unsociable hours, often travelling long distances to both glamorous and not-so-glamorous locales.
Our top tips:
- Go where there’s disposable income. Much as the idea of being a country wine merchant appeals, ambitious winos know they have to head to cities to really turn a profit.
- Be prepared to move around. Many wholesalers and retailers are based outside of main towns with close access to the connecting transport routes which keep their businesses moving. If you’re prepared to take jobs in these out-of-the-way locales, you’ll progress far quicker than someone determined to work in their city’s most fashionable districts.
- Career plans need to be flexible. Ok, so you have an idea of where you’d like to be in five years’ time, but in our rapidly changing economic landscape who can say how the industry will look even a year from today. Being flexible and open to new challenges is fundamental for any job – but never more so than in wine. Just because you’ve always dreamed of being a buyer, doesn’t mean it’s the right job for you.
The wine trade is a unique industry. For those willing to put in the hard graft, it holds infinite possibility – and reward. Making considered, sustainable career choices can lead to international travel, tasting truly world class wines and meeting like-minded people. So many people think of working in wine as the dream job. Follow our tips and you can make it your reality.
Celia Bryan-Brown is a drinks writer and content creator who has worked in the wine trade for over a decade – a fact which makes her feel very old. A WSET Diploma student, she also writes a regular column for timatkin.com and consults with a variety of drinks brands.