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…”
If we’re hearing these stories it’s because the people in question succeeded eventually and chose to make wine their life’s work—if things hadn’t worked out, they wouldn’t be interview subjects—but it can often seem like the wine industry is just full of lucky 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 a trust fund to keep you afloat while you work for free, or parents with a restaurant business that allows you to network on the job?
The wine industry is no exception from an age-old career paradox: to gain experience, you need to work in the field, but it’s hard to get hired without experience. But there are a few footholds if you know where to look. Here are some potential paths for turning your interest in wine into work experience that can help you decide whether and where to carve your niche in this business.
If you are: Able-bodied, energetic, friendly, and able to work for low wages for a few months
Love agriculture, physical labor, and the science and craft of winemaking? Great! You’re recruited. From about August to November (depending on the region and size of the winery) in the Northern Hemisphere and January to May in the Southern, wineries are working at a frantic pace to harvest, crush, ferment, and press their grapes for wine, and they’ll often take all the help they can get. Working a harvest is exhausting, but if you can fall in love with wine while shoveling dry grape skins out of a press in 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.
How to get there: 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 (no one wants to add “babysitting” to the cellar task list), as well as your reasons for wanting to work harvest.
Cost/Pay: It’s a spectrum. If you’re lucky, you may find a place that offers room and board to harvest interns, but usually it’s hourly pay around minimum wage or a little higher. If a winery invites you to come help out for free and you think it’s worth it, be my guest, but even the smallest vineyard I’ve ever worked was willing to pay Craigslist pickers $10 an hour.
If you are: Unable to quit your current job but considering a career change
When I was a buyer at a small, high-end wine retailer I taught neighborhood wine introduction classes to exactly this group: people who want to get more into wine but aren’t sure what role it will ultimately play in their lives. Many wine bars and shops are offering free or inexpensive wine education programs these days, and if you take a few and think you’ve caught the bug, start delving further: look into the WSET program’s level 1 and 2 courses. When you attend free wine tastings, talk to the representatives—most of us actually love getting questions beyond “is it sweet?” and some are actually winery employees or even winemakers. Read wine blogs and listen to industry podcasts during your commute. Attend any events you can 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, many beginning wine professionals.
How to get there: Make friends with your local wine shop, wine bar, and any wineries within accessible distance. If you live in a remote area with none of the above, this will be harder, but keep an eye out for online courses 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.
If you are: Up for taking a side gig
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 fun things, put experience on your résumé, and help you decide whether you like the less-glamorous side of wine. You might be working bar support, using the register, putting labels on wine bottles, or pouring the mass-produced wine brand du jour for a marketing company hired by a distribution giant, but 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. Someone always needs something, especially if you have evening and weekend availability.
Cost/Pay: Small retail typically starts at minimum wage while presenters for distributors and bartenders making tips can bring in $20/hour or more.
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 their wine—they need office managers, bookkeepers, event planners, IT professionals, lab technicians, HR managers, warehouse staff, drivers, and developers. Look for these 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.