What Will You Do with That Certification?
By the time you have your wine credential, you probably know whether you want to make the wine, sell the wine, or talk about the wine in an educational setting. As you continue to focus your career goals, here are the most popular professions in the three prongs of the industry: making, selling, educating.
Winemakers do much, much more than taste wine out of barrels all day. Wouldn't that be nice? Some winemakers work at wineries which don't own their own vineyards, so these folks must decide which grapes to buy and use for their wines.
Winemakers who have acres and acres of vines at their disposal must understand those vineyards intimately, deciding for example when to harvest the grapes. They decide how long to age the wine in barrels, which types of oak barrels to use, which blends the wines will assume, and when to bottle. If a fermentation tank springs a leak or the winery wishes to expand, the winemaker must respond to these issues.
It is true that winemakers get to attend lavish dinners, often with their wines at the center, and travel to exotic locations to learn about winemaking techniques and connect with other winemakers. However, winemakers experience the constant stress of dealing with nature, especially when frost or rain damages precious crops. In addition, there are precious few job openings for winemakers, but if you are good at what you do and patient, you can easily make $150,000 and up at the top of the profession.
Where can I find current job openings in the wine industry nationwide?
The best place to start is WineBusiness.com, a database maintained by the Wine Communications Group, Sonoma, California.
Vineyard managers are farmers, plain and simple. They need to know how to plant and replant a vineyard and deal with any pests or viruses that might give the grapevines a hard time. They need to anticipate when vineyard jobs need to be done and arrange to have a certain number of workers present for those jobs. They also work closely with the winemaker, especially as harvest draws near.
If you love drinking wine and working with your hands in the great outdoors, then this is the job for you. Vineyard managers do not show up at 9 and leave at 5. Your day can begin early and finish late, especially during harvest, as grapes are often picked in the early morning hours. At the top of this profession you can make six figures. To start, $40,000-$50,000 is reasonable.
Larger wineries will have cellar masters. At smaller wineries, the winemaker is the cellar master. Cellar masters make sure the winemaker has everything he or she needs to make great wine. Thus, cellar masters should have degrees in winemaking. From training and overseeing winery staff to ordering equipment, the cellar master's role is critical.
Cellar masters often help the winemaker with blending, so you might get to taste and evaluate wines before they enter the bottle. Downsides to the job include long hours and physically demanding work. You could conceivably make $50,000-$60,000 as a seasoned cellar master.
The name is not glamorous, but this job is one of the best ways to get your foot in the door at a winery. You don't need a wine degree or certification, just a passion for wine and big muscles. Your responsibilities will be to clean out tanks, move barrels, drag hoses from place to place, and do whatever the cellar master tells you to do. You won't make much money, but you will learn the business from the ground up. Many famous winemakers began their careers as cellar rats.
Ever wonder how that bottle of unpronounceable German wine ended up on the wine list at your favorite restaurant? An importer probably found it on a trip to Germany, brought it back to the U.S., and the restaurant wine director bought it from a distributor that an importer convinced to carry it. Importers are like talent scouts, always searching for the next big thing. To be successful as an importer, it helps to know one or two foreign languages. Comprehensive wine knowledge is also critical, so court the Court of Master Sommeliers or Culinary Institute of America.
Working long hours in the early stages will be necessary, but at the top, you can easily make six figures. Your endless days will be spent not only networking with winemakers in distant lands but also convincing distributors to pick up your newfound wine and pitch it to restaurants and wine shops.
Given the organization of the U.S. wine market, wineries cannot sell their wines directly to retail stores and restaurants. They must go through distributors, or middlemen. To be successful as a distributor, you must have a keen awareness of which wines will sell in the marketplace. You will have literally thousands of wineries courting you for your business.
You must also be cognizant of the web of state alcohol regulations. Thus, a degree in business and a certification from the Society of Wine Educators or Wine & Spirit Education Trust will serve you well. As distributors consolidate, the number of job openings will shrink, but if you get your foot in the door and pay your dues, you could see an annual salary of $100,000.
The largest distributor in the United States is Southern Wine and Spirits, which operates in 29 states.
Perhaps the most critical position at a winery after the winemaker and vineyard manager is the sales rep. These hardworking individuals convince restaurants, hotels, wine shops, and distributors to carry the wines they represent. In the brutally competitive wine marketplace, sales reps must tell the story of a winery or brand in an engaging way and develop relationships with buyers or potential buyers. Distributors also employ sales reps to present their portfolios to prospective customers.
Gallo, the largest wine producer in the world, offers sales and management training to highly qualified college graduates.
At the beginning of your career as a sales rep, you will be poor and work long hours calling on accounts. Perks along the way include fine dining at restaurants you convinced to purchase your products, as well as trips to wineries whose wines you represent. In the long run, with some tenacity, patience, and of course talent, you can make a very good living, especially if you work in large markets such as Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.
Sommelier/Restaurant Wine Manager
The title of sommelier has an air of glamour about it — the white-gloved gentleman carefully pouring the contents of a dusty old bottle into a crystal decanter and serving it gracefully. This image is not complete fantasy, but the sommelier or restaurant wine manager does occasionally have to perform unglamorous duties. Training servers, keeping the wine list updated, spending time tasting with sales reps, advising customers on which wines to buy — these tasks will find their way into your workday.
In order to make the most money and have the most career options, you should train to become a Master Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers. This course trains you not just in wine regions and varieties but in the aesthetics of wine service. The Advanced Certificate at least should be a goal.
If you do land a job at a wine-focused restaurant, you will get to taste beautiful wines and occasionally travel to the vineyards from which the wines originated. The major downside is a long workday. When people leave their jobs at 5 and head to your restaurant, your workday is just beginning.
Wine Shop Owner/Manager
Wine retail store owners and managers need a level of wine knowledge that would be expected from a sommelier. Customers will ask about food and wine pairing, which new wines they should buy, and how long they should cellar particular bottles. Like a sommelier, the wine store owner will also need to handle the sometimes mundane administrative tasks of keeping track of inventory, ordering, and training store associates. Wine store owners also need to be keenly aware of their communities, such that they don't stock their shelves with Chateau Margaux when the locals want Yellow Tail.
If this career path appeals to you, become a cashier or store clerk at a wine shop, and over time you will move up the ladder. You will learn the basics of customer service and immerse yourself in wine at the same time. You might also get to taste some really extraordinary bottles. You have the potential to make more money if you own or manage a chain of stores rather than a single store.
For many, the prospect of becoming a wine writer is the ultimate wine job. You can work from home, fly around the world visiting out-of-the-way wine regions, and have wine samples sent to your home for review. The most successful wine writers, such as American Robert Parker and Englishman Hugh Johnson, certainly enjoy these perks, but the reality is that very few wine writers can support themselves entirely from their writing. Many work day jobs as they submit articles to magazine and newspapers, or book ideas to editors. Rejection of one's work is far more common than acceptance. The keys to success are to understand the wine business inside and out, know the major players, and have exceptional writing skills.
The wine writer plays a very important role in the industry as a whole. Wine columnists employed by national publications such as the New York Times and Wine Spectator reach millions of readers, educating them to become more discerning consumers of wine. Wines reviewed positively by wine writers can sell out quickly from stores and restaurants, making winemakers and sommeliers smile all the way to the bank.
This is one of the broadest careers in the wine industry. Wineries need wine educators to work with visitors, whether they are in the trade or from the general public. Universities need professors to train the next generation of winemakers and vineyard managers. Culinary schools need instructors who can move easily between the worlds of wine and food as they shape future executive chefs.
You will need an advanced degree in your chosen field to reach the higher echelons of this career path. Master Sommeliers often teach in culinary schools. Winemakers with Ph.D.s in fermentation science will often work in higher education and conduct research that betters the industry as a whole. Good public speaking skills, good writing skills, and a passion for wine are essential is you wish to be a professional wine educator.