Some Experience Required: Getting a Foot in the Door in the Wine Business

This article, authored by Julia Burke, originally appeared on our blog in August 2017. We have updated it to reflect the current conditions for job-seekers looking to get a start in wine.

Listen to enough interviews with wine professionals and you’ll hear a familiar refrain as they tell their origin stories:

“Well, someone took a chance on me…”

“I was in the right place at the right time…”

“I was grossly underqualified, but for some reason…”

To outsiders, the wine industry can seem full of fortunate people. And that’s partly true: wine is a luxury industry, after all, and many wine professionals come from backgrounds where it was relatively easy to seize networking opportunities or take a low-paying job for the sake of experience.

But if you’re in the early stages of considering a wine career, such anecdotes can be a little discouraging: What if you don’t have family financial support to keep you afloat while you work for free? Or parents with a restaurant business giving you access to on-the-job networking?

The wine industry is no exception from the age-old career paradox: to gain experience, you need to work in the field—but it’s hard to get hired without experience.

There are a few footholds if you know where to look. Here are some potential paths for turning your interest in wine into the kind of work experience that can lead to a job in the industry.

TAKE A CLASS

If you are: Unable to quit your current job but considering a career change, this could be a good option. When I was a buyer at a small, high-end wine retailer, I taught neighborhood wine introduction classes to people who wanted to get more into wine but weren’t sure what role it would ultimately play in their lives. Many wine bars and shops offer free or inexpensive wine education programs. So, take a few to see if you catch the wine bug and if so, dig further.

Some options: Look into the WSET program’s beginning courses: Level 1 and Level 2. Read wine blogs and listen to industry podcasts during your work commute or while exercising. Look for and attend events that are open to the public. Make your interest known to your local shops and wine bars (and wineries, if you have them), and your enthusiasm will almost certainly make you stand out. This is the beginning of networking—we wine geeks all remember that excited spark we felt when we sensed that the world of wine might be a great place to spend our lives, and we love sharing that with newcomers, so much that enthusiasm and a desire to learn have trumped lack of experience on a résumé for many burgeoning wine professionals.

Where to begin: Make friends with your local wine shop, wine bar, and any wineries within accessible distance. If you attend any complimentary wine tastings, talk to the hosts or representatives of the winery if present—most of us love questions beyond, ‘Is it sweet?’ and often those attending tastings are winery employees or even winemakers. If you live in a remote area with none of the above, keep an eye out for online courses (like those offered through Napa Valley Wine Academy) and YouTube channels, webinars, and other free wine education materials. Get connected to the wine world on social media, too.

Cost/Pay: There’s a surprising amount of wine education out there that is cheap or free. Wine tastings or classes might start at $10 or $15; price structures for more intensive programs like WSET can be found here.

WORK A HARVEST

If you are: able-bodied, energetic, friendly, and able to work for low wages for a few months,

love agriculture and can endure physical labor, all while geeking out on the science and craft of winemaking—great! You’re recruited. Working a harvest is exhausting, but if you can fall in love with wine while shoveling dry grape skins out of a giant press in the late-summer heat, you’re probably one of us. Working harvest is a terrific—and humbling—foundation for just about any job in the industry, even if you ultimately decide you’re more suited to a fancy restaurant and a lapel pin than ripped jeans and purple fingernails.

When and where: From mid-June to early November in the Northern hemisphere and from January to May in the Southern hemisphere. Wineries work at a frantic pace to harvest, crush, ferment, and press their grapes to make wine—and they typically need all the help they can get.

How to get hired: Email as many wineries as you can, three to six months in advance of harvest time. If you have no wine experience at all you will need to demonstrate work ethic, friendliness, enthusiasm, and an ability to take direction and get along well with others, as well as your reasons for wanting to work the harvest.

Cost/Pay: It’s a wide spectrum. If you’re lucky, you may find a place that offers room and board to harvest interns, but usually, gis pay an hourly minimum wage or a little higher. If a winery invites you to come out and help for free, and you think it’s worth it, I have this advice to offer: the smallest vineyard I’ve ever worked for was willing to pay Craigslist pickers $10 an hour.

WORK A SIDE GIG

If you are: Able to work evenings or weekends, haven’t quite started a family, or have and have extra support, and are up for putting in extra hours to jumpstart your career in wine, this is one way to do it. Just a few hours a week in a wine shop, wine bar, or winery, or pouring for a distributor, can help you keep your finger on the pulse of the industry, facilitate excellent networking, present opportunities to taste new wines and put experience on your résumé.

Some options: You might find a gig working behind a bar or a winery that needs help bottling or labeling, or dipping in wax; you might find a gig helping pour wine, or sell wine, for a marketing company or distribution giant. Whatever the case, you’ll be making extra money and experiencing a valuable part of the business. I know many people of all ages who moonlight as presenters for wine and spirits companies, pouring their products at store tastings on evenings and weekends, and they like the income and the opportunity to sharpen their sales skills.

How to get there: Keep an eye out and mention your interest to your local wine businesses in a part-time gig; mention it to presenters pouring wine at larger retailers, too, or to representatives of a winery at a big consumer tasting event. You’ll find there is often a need and you might be able to help shape the gig if you’re savvy enough, available, and flexible on pay.

Cost/Pay: Small retail typically starts at minimum wage while presenters for distributors and bartenders making tips can bring in $20/hour or more. Working in sales typically includes base pay plus commission. Working as a kind of part-time brand ambassador

DIVE IN FOR A FULL-TIME GIG

If you are: Interested in changing careers but in need of a real job and real pay—we’ve all been there. Take a look at your résumé. What’s on there that can translate across industries? Wine companies don’t just need people who already know wine—they need office managers, bookkeepers, event planners, IT professionals, lab technicians, HR managers, warehouse staff, drivers, and developers. They need creative people with an eye toward innovation too.

Look for all kinds of positions and mention in your cover letter or introductory email that you also have an interest in wine. You’ll get to learn the wine business from the perspective of your own skill set, and you’ll be around the office when someone stops by with a case full of wine samples or your company is considering new strategies. If you’re an asset to the team and everyone knows you’re trying to learn more about wine, you’ll likely be invited to listen, taste, or even weigh in.

How to get there: Watch wine job listings and connect with companies that interest you on social media. Check regular job listings, too—if the job itself doesn’t involve wine, the company may advertise it on more mainstream channels.

Cost/Pay: Hourly to salaried with benefits depending on the job and your experience.