Getting into the wine business

It’s the question I field more often than most. “How do I get into the wine business?” There is no simple answer, but let’s talk about this for just a bit.

The wine business is not unlike other industries: more often than not, it’s who you know. This can be a daunting thing if you’re trying to change careers and really have no contacts in the business. But how you meet these contacts, how you network, is a bit different in the wine world than other businesses.  This is because it’s an industry that has been romanticized, and is constantly being entered by people who envision tasting wine all day while looking over a beautiful vineyard as a hard day at work.

If you want to work in the wine industry, you have to plant seeds early on, cultivate them carefully, and make great connections and contacts.

Many times people think the way to make these contacts is at wine tastings (especially the big tastings in major cities — here in Minnesota it’s the Twin Cities Food and Wine Experience which occurs in February), and that is wrong. At the big events the people pouring wine are 1) Usually not enthralled with being there. 2) Possibly just guns-for-hire for the event. 3) Tired of talking about wine with everybody. And 4) looking forward to how good a beer is going to taste after hours or days of wine. You need to meet the players on their own turf, be they wholesalers, retailers, or restaurants.

So how do you network your way into the wine business? Again, more than other industries, it takes time. The nature of the wine business is shaped by the calendar — a huge amount of the year’s sales are done in the last four months of the year (known as “SOND”), and therefore very few personnel changes happen in the last half of the year. Salespeople stay where they are at, brands and labels stay with their wholesalers, and everybody churns right along. But as soon as that first week of January hits, things start happening. So if you’re trying to network into the distributor side, a good time to start is summertime and keep up contacts and communication through the holidays. If jobs are going to open up on the supplier or distributor side, it’s going to happen after the holidays, and if you are already on somebody’s list you have a good shot.

The best way to meet these contacts and shake hands and get to know who is who, is to work on the retail or restaurant side during this busy season. Notice the inversion here. To get into the wholesaler or supplier side (January through May job openings), then work the busy retail and restaurant side (September through December). Many retailers, especially, will jump at a personable, flexible, temporary hire who is interested in wine and willing to have no job guarantee after Christmas. It can make for a great experience, learning how to ‘talk the talk’ while making some extra money.

HOWEVER, and here is something important — when approaching a retailer, a restaurant, a wholesaler, or a winery about getting a job, avoid the phrase “I would just love to get into the wine business” or any form of it (such as “I love wine” and “I can’t imagine a better thing to do than taste wine all day” etc. You get the idea). We hear that phrase all the time, and it’s a red flag that somebody doesn’t realize that it’s a tough business with real issues and real problems that need solving. Instead, link your past experience to the wine business in some fashion (no matter how convoluted it is), and show how your problem solving abilities in one industry can be translated into the wine business.

One final note, and this is probably the most important. The wine industry is incredibly small.  What you say, especially if it’s negative about any particular winery, wholesaler, retailer, or restaurant can zip through the channels instantly.  Twitter has nothing on the speed of wine gossip in the industry!  If you chose to go down the path of negativity, you are quickly going to find your reputation in shreds and you will not be able to repair it.  We’ve seen this happen several times in the local scene, and it’s not pretty.  So take the high road and be the person people are happy to see walk through the door, and you’ll be on your way to entering the wine industry.

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