This is one of the questions I get in class the most … the bottom line is, getting your first job in the wine business without any experience is hard – there just isn’t any way around it. But once you get in, it is much easier to move up and/or around. Don’t wait for the perfect starting job – it doesn’t exist. I see many students pass up starting job opportunities hoping for something better. Just about everyone in the industry has had to take a step backwards in order to move up. I figure it takes most people about 3 jobs and/or 3 years until they are doing something in the industry that they actually like doing, and are making a decent wage at it. You have to accept and commit to that. Maybe you will get there faster, but this seems to be the average.
It is difficult to get a starting job with a distributor or broker without a prior work history in something beverage related. It is a catch 22. Hospitality counts towards this (restaurants, hotels) as do other beverages (coffee, soda, beer, liquor) and this is how many get into the wine business. Most small retail stores are also hard to get into without experience, but sometimes you can pick up a position as a stocker, cashier, or in shipping at the holidays. It is much easier to get a starting job without experience at chain stores like Total Wine, BevMo and Whole Foods. The pay is typically minimal, but some offer benefits and they can be a great way to get your foot in the door.
Most people in the industry want to hire someone in the industry. Once you get into the wine business, in order to move up and around to different divisions, you need to:
- know what you are talking about (wine education + tasting ability)
- be friendly, easy to work with
- make good connections (who you know)
- be good at sales (most important)
The wine business is really about sales – so if you have a background or experience in any kind of sales, you will be able to use this as part of your work history. Additionally, when moving up – it will often be based on your sales history. Connections are also important – much of the wine business is based on relationships – so collecting business cards and networking at events can not be understated. Lastly, wine education is also a key factor – to get a position selling wine, you need to know more than the people you are selling to. This is where taking the program at UCLA Ext comes in. (Disclaimer – I teach in this program, so I am a bit partial.)
Wine certification/education is just one piece of the puzzle. By itself, it won’t get you a job – but it certainly can help, especially if you do not have experience. In my opinion, it primarily helps in moving up. It gives an employer “peace of mind” knowing that you have studied and passed exams – it is sort of like a driver’s license, in that it proves that you have a basic level of understanding on the subject. Be wary of companies that promise to make you an expert in 6 weeks (as you might imagine, this is impossible), and/or offer you a “certificate of completion” for taking 1 wine class. The wine industry scoffs at this. If you are going to go through the expense, effort and energy to get certified, you want it to carry weight in the wine industry. In my opinion, you want to be certified by a national organization, or a university program. These programs take time and effort – there is no quick or easy fix. The goal is the knowledge you gain – that is what is going to get you the job – not the piece of paper you are given. Plan to spend a significant amount of time studying and tasting wine to earn these credentials. Some gold standards in the wine industry are:
- Certification: Society of Wine Educators CSW, Court of Master Sommeliers level 2 certified, WSET level 3 advanced
(approximately 12-18 months)
- University certificate programs: Certificate in Wine Education & Management at UCLA Ext, Certificate in Winemaking at UCD
(approximately 12-18 months)
- BA or BS programs: UCD, Fresno, Cornell, Virgina Tech, WA State, Sonoma State University (4 years)
Here is a website you will find very useful: www.winejobs.com . Check out entry-level positions and see what the criteria is (don’t pay attention to the location.) Use this to figure out what skills you need to have to get those jobs. Make a list and start working on getting those skills. It will take most people 5-7 years to get to a managerial level and 10-12 to get to a director level.
Some options for getting experience without pay (volunteer): work harvest, work large tasting events, work in tasting rooms, barter some other service you might specialize in.
If you don’t have any experience at all, I would suggest trying to get a part-time job at a chain retail store. Once you are working: start looking for the next opportunity; work on building your skill set; make as many connections as you can. The holidays are a great time to pick up work on the weekends or at night at retail stores. Think of these positions as catapulting you into something better. There is also quite a bit available in telesales, especially going into September (beginning of the sales season) – not so glamorous, but again can certainly be a starting point. Figure you are going to need to do this starting job for a minimum of 6-12 months. Moving up will depend on how quickly you are able to develop the skills and make connections/relationships for the next job – and this is actually easier then you might imagine. Remember, people want to hire people who already work in the wine industry.
This book can be helpful: How to Launch Your Wine Career by Liz Thatch. It is primarily a list of different positions within the industry, categorized by group. It also gives you a list of what skills you need for each job. This book is good for overview of skills and you can find specifics for actual jobs by looking at www.winejobs.com. This book can also give you an overview of the industry and perhaps help you figure out where you might want to go next. (I am not sure that I would classify all of these as “dream jobs” but I suppose it depends on how you look at it.) Again … you have to get that starting job first.