Wine Industry Career Series: Understanding the Three-Tiered System

 By Karen Wetzel
WSET L3, NVWE, AWE, Career Coach

The Three-Tiered System an integral part of the alcohol beverage industry and is a rich source for wine jobs across the US. Understanding this hierarchy is critical in helping you determine what roles might best fit your needs.     


But first, a history lesson. The Three-Tiered System was born out of Prohibition in 1933 with three goals:

  1. To help states regulate and tax the production and distribution of alcohol.
  2. To keep large producers from monopolizing the industry by requiring that production, distribution, and sales all be conducted by different entities.
  3. To ensure the safety of consumption and transportation of alcohol products.  

Now, let’s break down the role each player has in the Three-Tiered System and the jobs they generate:



Tier 1 = Producer (a.k.a. supplier, manufacturer, winery, importer)  

  • Producers make the wine and sell it wine to Distributors.  
  • Nearly every state in the US produces wine in some capacity.
  • Operations Jobs:
    • Like any other production company, wine companies need people to buy or grow supplies, make their products, package it and transport it. These jobs fall under “Operations” and include supply chain personal, laborers, winemakers and logistics.  
  • Sales Jobs:
    • It also requires a sales team to manage their distributors, ensuring their wine is being inventoried, presented and sold in the market. Producers may also have their own sales team to present wines to large national accounts such as Costco or Marriott.  
  • Marketing positions:
    • Marketing, Brand, and Public Relations Managers are needed to build consumer awareness and generate sell-through.   
  • Support Roles:  
    • As with most companies, producers need to staff IT, Administration, HR, Legal, Maintenance, and even Travel Coordinator positions.

Tier 2 = Distributor (a.k.a. wholesaler, middleman)  

  • Distributors buy wine from the Producer and then sell and deliver it to the Retailer.  
  • They can range in size from a mom-and-pop operation covering one county, to large corporations working in multiple states. There are often dozens or more Distributors in each state and every state that allows wine to be sold to its citizens (even Utah) has a least one Distributor.
  • Sales Representatives and Managers:  
    • Multi-level sales teams are essential as this is the primary function of the Distributor.  Sales Reps and Managers work directly with retailers to present their products and assist with sell- through.
  • Brand Managers:  
    • This role functions as a liaison between the Distributor and Supplier and is especially important in large Distributors that may juggle many Suppliers at once.
  • Warehouse & Delivery Staff:  
    • These roles are the backbone of any distributor to ensure accurate, on-time delivery of products sold.
  • Support Roles:
    • Like Producers, larger Distributors also need personnel in IT, Admin., HR, Legal and Maintenance.

Tier 3 = Retailer (aka store, restaurant, theater, commissary)

  • A Retailer is a business with an alcohol beverage license that buys wine from a Distributor to sell to consumers (the unspoken ‘4th Tier’).
  • Off-Premise accounts: 
    • Retailer (store) where products are consumed somewhere other than the point of purchase.  
    • Buyers work with the Distributor’s sales team to choose wines to carry.  
    • Store Managers and Salesclerks assist customers with selections and ensure the shelves are stocked.  
  • On-Premise accounts:
    • Restaurants and other venues such as theaters and stadiums where products are consumed, literally on the premises where purchased.
    • Owners and Managers work with Distributors to select products to carry.  
    • Waitstaff, bar staff, and Sommeliers work directly with each guest to promote and sell wine products.

As you can see, the opportunities are vast within the Three-Tiered System, and the best part is that you don’t need to live near a winery to be a part of this historic scheme. In fact, many of the jobs we discussed do not require any wine knowledge at all, so no matter your background, there is a job waiting for you.  

Be sure and check out the next issue in our Wine Industry Career Series when we’ll break down the role of the Distributor Sales Rep as well as how to find and score the job.  

For personal, one-on-one career coaching visit us at  to schedule a session with one of our experienced mentors. To book a session with Karen Wetzel directly click here

Karen Wetzel is an employee of the Napa Valley Wine Academy.  The views expressed in this article are hers alone and may not reflect the views of the Napa Valley Wine Academy.



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