Wine business/education
July 21, 2005 12:06 PM   Subscribe

The business of wine...

I love wine, and I'd like to get involved in the wine industry. The question is, how do I go about making that a reality - how do I "break in"? All I currently know is that I generally prefer red wine over white. I've started looking around online for wine education resources, but the options are a little overwhelming: CWP, CWE, CWS, and so forth.

So, how do I sort out all the various options? Are the Culinary Institute of America's wine courses worth the time and trouble? Is there something in the DC metro area that is equivalent (or better)?
posted by Irontom to Work & Money (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Head west -- there are a number of great Virginia wineries not too far from you. Like this one. You can volunteer to help out at their tastings and other events. You'll learn a lot and make great contacts, and that will help you decide where to go next.
posted by JanetLand at 12:15 PM on July 21, 2005

Making wine at home is not terribly difficult, and will give you a good idea of the process, albeit on a small scale. Email me for details about local winemaking supply shops, if you want.

Plus, it gives you a good in with professionals; I've had some good conversations with several VA winemakers. I've been to a lot of VA wineries, and I've met several vineyard owners, and they love to talk about their craft. I know that Gray Ghost has harvest days on which you go out and bring in grapes--I'd think that'd be a terrific opportunity to get to know some vintners. Or just go to tastings. In many smaller wineries, it's the actual owner giving you your tastes. One guy I talked to told me the investment is around $1,000,000 and ten years from start-up to selling the first bottle.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:26 PM on July 21, 2005

I regularly read two wine-related blogs: 1 2. The first discusses the wine industry and trends and the second has frequent in-depth reviews of wines. Both bloggers have strong ties to the industry and though they're based in the CA wine regions, I'm sure they'd have good advice for you.

That said, I think the free CIA wine course is a good start on getting you acquainted with the basic terminology and concepts of vino. From there, find local wine purveyors or wineries, let them know you're new to wines, and that you're interested in learning all there is to know. Do tastings and wine courses at the local wine store and wineries when offered. Show that you have more than a passing interest and that you want to become involved in the industry and one of these places may give you or point you in the direction of employment opportunities. In this type of close-knit "community", it seems that getting your foot in the door is the big hurdle.
posted by junesix at 12:51 PM on July 21, 2005

Best answer: I put myself through college and early grad school in the wine trade, for what it is worth. I started out doing seasonal deliveries (I had a small trucking company, as in me and my truck) for a high end merchant during the holiday season, and then they liked me enough that they let me hang around and close the store in the evenings, which meant I got to make a few late sales and read their library (beginning with Hugh Johnson's still essential *World Atlas of Wine* and the back issues of the major wine journals) and taste whatever they had open on the N02 system. A few weeks later I was selling on the floor for them, bullshitting my way through, and after a few months at this small shop, I went to work for a larger shop doing floor sales, rising to wine dept. manager in a year. In that context I got to know the wholesaler/distributor salesmen and some of the execs (especially by attending lots of commercial tastings) and moved into fine wine wholesale to restaurants and high-end wine shops (this is all in the Boston area). Along the way I started writing wine columns in a local paper, publishing my own newsletter for family, friends, and customers, and specializing in Southern European wines. After I entered grad school I kept working part time at another small high-end shop that I ran when the owner went to France every summer, and floor selling on most weekends during the year, teaching a few classes, and maintaining the writing side of the biz.

Typical biography in the trade. There's a lot more to learn than just the wine side. (Indeed, serious wine enthusiasts are often really put off by working in the biz.) There are other paths, as well -- especially via restaurants as a sommelier, wine waiter, or beverage manager. At no point did I ever take a course, but after a few years of this I could reliably distinguish between major producers in most major styles and regions and knew a fair bit about the technology of winemaking (I did a lot of winery visits, which are different for people in the trade than for the hoi polloi). I never took any wine course, just read like crazy, tasted everything I could, kept detailed notes on everything I tasted (and challenged myself to be more accurate and to guess varietals, origins, producers, vintages, etc.), and most of all sold, sold, sold. It was the selling -- on the floor, every day -- that put me in touch with what non-oenophiles liked and didn't like, what they were anxious about in buying wine, and how many kinds of wine lovers there really are. All the knowledge of wine in the world won't help unless you are a salesman/woman in your bones. It's the wine *business.* You need to know the product, but you also need to know how to sell it. And if you are good at that, the sky is the limit in the trade. I would try to find part-time work, even volunteering (especially in the frantic thanksgiving, christmas, and graduation/wedding seasons) in as high-end a shop as you can and just put in the time. If you have both a palate and a gift for selling, you will be able to work and move up, and you can and should hone both at the same time. Hint: snobbery is a sales killer, unless you are selling to wine snobs (always an important market, in which case you need to appeal to their elitist impulses).

Working in the wine trade on the retail or wholesale (as opposed to winery) side is very guild-like. There is a clear path of apprenticeship that culminates in being a top salesperson for a major importer or distributor (incomes exceeding $250K are common) or owning your own shop (bankruptcy is common). You travel a lot, spend a lot of nights eating out, and deal with a lot of alcoholism among colleagues (lesson one: learn to spit gracefully, early; when you are drunk all wine tastes the same). Your natural clock should be tuned toward evenings and nights. You should be the kind of person who can take off the tie and the jacket and help the staff load in 50 cases of Freixenet through the basement the day before Thanksgiving, put the suit back on and go upstairs and help peddle the Bollinger RD to the rich folks, while selling the Black Opal Shiraz with just as much enthusiasm to someone who finds $8.99 a stretch, and be very quick with numbers (especially multiples of 12). Wine folks tend to be, image aside, fairly gonzo people, and partying is part of the job. Finally, you should not have an ounce of homophobia. For whatever reasons (actually, the reasons are fascinating and historical and go back to the 18th century structure of the trade in Britain), a lot of gay and lesbian folks work in the fine wine biz. Oh, it helps to have at least a modest command of French, Italian, or Spanish, or ideally all three.

Courses? In my opinion they are a very slow way to proceed unless you have no previous knowledge. There are books galore, and newsletters galore, but actually working in the trade even at a low level you will taste more wines in a month than you could in a year of courses if you take the opportunities to do so.

Finally, you will want to live in a major urban center if you want to do this as a profession, at least starting out. The best wine markets in the US were (in my day) Chicago, New York, Boston, Washington DC, LA, San Fran, Dallas, Houston, and Miami, in about that order. An urban retailer, even a very classy one, puts you in contact with a much wider variety of customers and provides essential experience.

The wine market has been squishy for a few years -- it was smaller but in a phase of boom growth when I was in it. One warning: you will not love wine at the end as much as you do at the beginning. Frankly, I never drink the stuff anymore. Having developed a taste for Cos d'Estournel and Grange Hermitage and so forth, it's hard to go back to what you can afford once you no longer work in the biz (where you will rarely spend anything on wine, and get to drink great stuff all the time).

And as a friend of mine -- a warehouse worker for a wholesaler who (like everyone in the trade) moonlighted at retail account shops during the busy seasons -- once said when he had listened to one too many customers ask plaintively "Is this DRY?" --

"How can it be fuckin' dry when it's fuckin' WET?"

Don't let this happen to you.
posted by realcountrymusic at 12:57 PM on July 21, 2005 [5 favorites]

Wow - great answer, realcountrymusic.
posted by widdershins at 1:23 PM on July 21, 2005

thanks widdershins! i can wax nostalgic for the days of wine and more wine sometimes.
posted by realcountrymusic at 1:34 PM on July 21, 2005

I work in the wine industry, realcountrymusic nails the sales/distribution side of it.

However, maybe you're more interested in the production side of things. You will taste more (and more than likely, better) wines in sales, it's the easiest kind of work to get, the most glamorous, and the pay is better. But there are many kinds of jobs.

What kind of work are you doing now? Too many people have seen A Walk In The Clouds or Sideways a few times and imagine lounging around sipping cult wines with the breeze in their hair. It's not like that. It's very possible, even common, to work your way up without any formal training but what that means is working your ass off doing very plebian jobs like sanitizing tanks, scrubbing floors, mulching, pruning, cleaning out drains. It's agbusiness, it's production work. If you want to avoid several years of heavy lifting and janitorial duties, your best bet is to move horizontally into the industry. That means figuring how your experience in your current field could be valuable to a winery, vineyard, distributor or retailer. You won't end up being a world-famous winemaker that way, but you will be employed in the industry and there are still some nice perks. Fair warning: there are more people who want to work in the wine industry than there are jobs, which means you'll earn less in this industry than in another industry doing comparable work.

I'm happy to discuss working in a winery or vineyard further, but I don't quite have realcountrymusic's patience or eloquence. Feel free to email me, I'll add my address to my profile.
posted by cali at 2:29 PM on July 21, 2005

I work in the wine industry as well and just started in the last year with absolutely NO prior restaurant or wine experience.

I would suggest reading "Windows on the World" by Kevin Zraly. It comes out in a new edition every year - and is truly the easiest book (written like a high school text book) I have found to help ease me into a world of wine knowledge. From there I have started buying a lot of other books and mags.

I find with a lot of my "wine savvy" friends (or so they think) - if they can't even stomach the ease of this book, they weren't and aren't interested in becoming as knowledgable as they like to make themselves out to be.

Good luck - and start drinking - I never learn more about what it means to be a Sauv Blanc from New Zealand until I taste it against Sauv Blancs from other parts of the world. let your palate develop and remember - in the end - it is just grape juice.
posted by eggerspretty at 4:07 PM on July 21, 2005

Mmmm. New Zealand sauvignon blancs rock. Marlborough Bay in particular. Closest I've had to the real thing (Sancerre, Pouilly Fume, etc.) from the New World. Never tasted a Californian, including Mondavi fume reserve, that came close for twice the price.
posted by realcountrymusic at 4:36 PM on July 21, 2005

You will taste more (and more than likely, better) wines in sales, it's the easiest kind of work to get, the most glamorous, and the pay is better.

This is why I recommend getting your feet wet (er, dry) in retail sales. You'll learn a lot about a lot of different wines faster than in any other area of the biz, you'll meet a lot of winemakers if you continue it (and one can move laterally into sales directly for a large winery with good contacts). And most importantly, you'll know what has to be on the minds of anyone producing the stuff, namely, will a harried shopper with limited knowledge, extensive anxiety, and average tastes, buy this stuff. When I was in the trade, commercial wineries often sent the owners' kids off to work retail for a few months or a year so they'd grasp the point of making wine before they took over the family biz.

I suspect the internet has dramatically changed the wine trade, like other such businesses, and there's probably a whole lot of opportunity to be chased there. I imagine that running a really excellent wine blog that develops a following could be a serious credential for someone wanting to go into sales, where the big money is.
posted by realcountrymusic at 4:48 PM on July 21, 2005

This is an incredible thread. I can add little more, as the previous comments, realcountrymusic, cali, eggserpretty, were awesome.

Regarding starting a personal log or a blog as you begin your adventure; it's the best idea. Developing wine is an art, as is your ability to describe it. It would be good to start now, and don't be afraid to use your own words.

Art has no boundaries, so have fun and good luck.
posted by snsranch at 5:17 PM on July 21, 2005

sorry, "own words" as in skip the cliches.
posted by snsranch at 5:18 PM on July 21, 2005

Best answer: I used to work in the production side of the industry. I worked for small "boutique" wineries (less than 100,000 cases/year production) in the Napa/Sonoma/Carneros region. I loved the work, and working for a small company allowed for a diversity of tasks. Harvest, while being the most intense time of the year for long hours and stress, was ironically the most fun for me. It is an energetic time, and it may have to do with my natural affinity for fall. There was no end to the interesting and fun people I met, worked with, and were my peers. And, for me, it was a good mix of the creative and scientific sides of my mind. I got to live in a beautiful part of the world, and spent a lot of time outdoors walking through vineyards.

The downside for me was the pay level. While I loved what I was doing, it still was a job. I happened to be working there during the recession of the late 1980's early 1990's so the business was in a bit of a funk at the time. At first I looked at it as combining a job as a hobby, but eventually it just wasn't satisfying enough for me to sacrifice financial gain for it, and became just a job. So I left the business, tripled my income, and have MUCH more time off to enjoy other things in life. I will say, there's a lot I miss about the business, and have considered going back.

As far as getting into it. I studied Fermentation Science at the University of California at Davis. There were quite a few people in the program who were going back to school to start a second career after hating accounting, business, whatever. It's a good way to get a foundation of why things might work, will get you a foot in the door, but is no replacement for experience. I've seen too many people coming out of school thinking that since they had a degree that they were the greatest winemakers in the world. That's one route if you're interested in the production end. You could also just take the plunge and start as a cellar rat at a good winery. If you show an interest people will help you learn. I know at Napa Community College you can take courses, but fall is a bad time to be taking courses and working harvest. I also knew a guy who worked for a big accounting firm that ended up getting an accounting job at a winery (at a big pay cut) to break in that way. I think his goal was to be a general manager/winemaker type.

A way to taste a bunch of wines is to go to one of those tastings where you buy a glass and there are a bunch of wineries represented. My strategy is to decide on what Variety I'm interested in (Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, whatever), and only taste that variety first. Then you go and try all the rest and get loaded. It's not the best environment for serious tasting, but it'll do in a pinch. I can't stress enough tasting lots of wines, especially with people that know their stuff. There are a lot of bullshitters you'll meet, so keep your eye out. Several of the places I worked for would have weekly tastings of outside wines for the staff, and I also belonged to a tasting group which met twice a month. Don't worry too much about what other people think. Drink what you like, taste lots of different wines, and you'll become more sophisticated. Just don't become a snob.

Winemaking at home, unlike beer brewing, has very little in common with making wine commercially.

(and on with realcountrymusic's derail, I never understood the idea that Mondavi should be the measure of good wine. They are popular, but that doesn't always equate to good. I do like the NZ Sauvignon Blancs and used to quite enjoy Cloudy Bay. From California the ones that compete are from the Dry Creek Valley, though being away from there for so long, and not drinking a lot of whites anymore, names just don't come to mind. I could go on with bitches about the marketing world, but I'll just shut up. ;) )
posted by Eekacat at 6:01 PM on July 21, 2005

I only mention Mondavi reserve because that wine was the style-setter in "fume"-styled (I think the name was Mondavi's invention) knockoffs of Loire rather than Bordeaux models, or the sweet and insipid stuff that was at the time uniquely Californian (early 70s I believe). There are indeed far better California SB's, such as Matanzas Creek.
posted by realcountrymusic at 6:09 PM on July 21, 2005

Winemaking at home, unlike beer brewing, has very little in common with making wine commercially.

Just curious; I was wondering if you'd be able to expound on that a bit. I thought it would be the same basic process, just on a smaller scale.
posted by mach at 10:07 PM on July 21, 2005

mach, I'd imagine the biggest thing missing would be actually growing the grapes--that's really the hard part of winemaking, and most home brewers just buy juice. I use oak chips instead of oak barrels, so that's another difference. But I've been to quite a few small wineries and have talked to several vintners, and everything else seems basically the same, even down to the machine we use to put corks in the bottles.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:41 AM on July 22, 2005


And if you like New Zealand's sauvignon blancs, watch out for our pinot noirs. Hot summers and crisp winters! Mmm!

posted by TiredStarling at 1:21 PM on July 22, 2005

I am just noticing we've been sideblogged. This has been a cool thread. While it's still up, let's toss around a favorite game in the wine trade: the most surprisingly great wine you ever had. Not your favorite -- mine is Domaine Tempier Bandol, but I expect that to blow me away every time, especially for the price. My example: in my 2d year in the trade, the guy who was mentoring me in my second job shared with me a bottle from a case he had put away of a very humble 1978 Hillsmith Shiraz from Australia. This was around 1985-6. This was a $3.99 wine in current vintage at the time. The bottle was extraordinary, as good as any Gigondas or Cote Rotie I have ever had. It taught me a very important lesson.
posted by realcountrymusic at 2:56 PM on July 23, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks to all for the great answers! Especially the two I've marked as best - very helpful stuff.

realcountrymusic, can you send me an email? I've got questions for you, but you don't list an email addy in your profile.
posted by Irontom at 8:29 AM on July 25, 2005

Fucking fantastic thread. RCM, my obvious faves are the Paolo Bea and Caprai sags but there's a rioja called Baron de Oña that comes in about $20 and I really like it. Also, there's a Valpolicello ripasso from Tommasi at about that price point that's a fruit bomb.
posted by nicwolff at 12:20 AM on August 6, 2005

Hi Irontom,
I work in the wine industry. I am in direct sales and I help people host private wine tasting parties for thier friend or clients. I take 6 bottles of amazing California wine (that the host buys at a discount) and teach people about the flavors and aromas, talk about food pairing ideas and do general wine education. I represent small independent wineries that make wonderful handcrafted wine. I also sell corporate gifts as well as a fantastic wine club with legendary parties exclusive to wine club members. The company I work for has been around for 10 years and has relationships with wineries in California and Oregon. (Did you know that 2 out of 3 bottles of wine purchased in the US come from CA?) We have a few famous winemakers that make wine for us exclusively- St Supery, Shug and the Graziano family as well as small boutique wineries. This is available to you in Virginia if it sounds like something you are interested in. It is a great way to learn about different wine and food pairing and get your foot in the door. Not to mention all of the money you can make! Please email me if you would like more information.
posted by vinosoldi at 4:33 PM on August 10, 2005

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