I try (but don’t always manage – I claim SAHD status!) to answer just about every piece of email that gets sent over to 1WD HQ. Usually these messages are of the “I found some older wine in a relative’s basement and I’m not sure what to do with it,” or “what wine should I buy for [ insert occasion here ]” varieties, but lately I’ve been receiving a disproportionate amount of requests asking “how can I become a wine [ taster / certified-type-person / critic / whatever ].” I’m guessing this volume had something to do with me spilling the beans on how I’m now able to pursue my dream job professionally, and a few folks starting to wonder if doing something along similar lines is possible for them, too.
Those latter emails I’ve yet to answer (apologies if one of them is yours!), mostly because the topic is so complex that I’ve had trouble trying to determine where it’d best to begin when writing about it. Really, it’s almost like asking “why drink wine?” – the answers depend on both where you’re starting, and where you want to end up.
So here’s my attempt at answering those too-long-neglected requests, in the hopes that it will be helpful to at least a handful of you lushes intrepid wine-loving folk.
Let’s assume for the sake of simplicity that you’re asking because you want to end up somewhere professional (sommelier / writer / critic / beverage director / whatever) with this, in which case my first inclination is to tell you not to bother…
Seriously, choosing a self-employed, entrepreneurial path in a niche market (wine) of a niche market (food/lifestyle/leisure/travel) is borderline nuts. Not only are you facing global competition with an enormous head start on you, but you’re also getting into a professional area that’s so insanely cool that thousands of people are willing to do it for free (or next-to-nothing). If that doesn’t scare you, then it’s because you’re not paying attention, are too drunk to care, or know very little about market research (or a combination of all three). So the best advice I can give to you is not to bother, to run the other way, and to pursue this wine thing as a pleasing side endeavor to enhance your life without turning it into “work” (it doesn’t help that most of the careers in wine are poor vehicles for building up the kind of wealth you’d need to retire comfortably, if at all). Unless…
Be totally in love with it
The only way I know of to make this wine thing work professionally is to be crazy, head-over-heels in love with the stuff. That kind of focus, passion, and (let’s be honest) obsession will be evident in everything that you do, which is essential in an age when everyone’s bullshit meter is tuned to hair-trigger accuracy. Passion is the mantra, and you’ll need it, because otherwise you’ll look like the hosts of people who treat the wine biz as just another job, and so will be unlikely to be hired because you will be unlikely to do what I did, which is to…
Stand out by building your own personal brand (yes, this mean YOU)
If I have one take-away, one thing that I can impart to you if you’re dead-set on slaving away in some aspect of the wine world, it’s to constantly be building your reputation, network, and “the brand of you.” It’s also the common denominator in the career advice I’ve received from Pulitzer prize winning writers, best selling authors, and in-demand speakers. Long gone are the days of establishing wine authority by getting a steady gig with a big masthead, brand, etc. YOU are the masthead/brand/etc. now. If that makes you uncomfortable, stop reading now and go buy some wine, because this biz isn’t a good match for you. I’m a lucky guy for many, many reasons, but one of those is that I came from a brand-building corporate environment and lucked into the approach that 1WD would become a brand on its own, slowly and organically and naturally over time based on years of hard work and (hopefully) good material. People now call me to offer me great gigs; that wouldn’t have happened without focusing on 1WD as a brand of sorts, and ensuring that all my dealings under that “label” were on the up-and-up.
Don’t manage your career like mine
For all of the above chatter, I am one of the worst examples of building a wine career to follow that I can imagine. For starters, I can give it a whirl, experimenting as one of the (very) few people starting online and trying to bootstrap my way into the wine biz, because I don’t need to build a whole lot more wealth. Bad start right there, but it gets worse; I don’t hustle for gigs. The gigs kind of fall into my lap. That is, for sure, the worst way to go about building a wine career, and mine should have stalled and faltered. But in the few hours I do have to work on those gigs, I bust my tushy wide open making them as awesome as possible. Don’t wait for things to find you, go make them happen (here’s one way that no one is following that I am quite convinced will put you on the fast track to that).
If you’re really, truly, honestly still interested… then get certifiable
Still with me? Congratulations, you might just have the gumption to give the wine thing a go. It will help to start with the end in mind. Figure out exactly what you envision yourself doing with respect to wine, and then start getting the best certifications related to those areas. The key thing about the certs? It’s not the education (though that certainly helps) or the systematic methods of tasting that they teach you (though learning those will actually put you ahead of probably 75% of the professional critics out there); it’s the relationships you will build with others along the way. They will start to get the message that you’re serious about breaking into the wine thing.
Tap the community (now)!
Finally, stay involved. Don’t lose touch with the wine community (locally, online, etc.), because its members will almost certainly go overboard to help you get where you want to be; they are the most amazing support network in the known Universe. The journey into this crazy business is well worth the work, given the amazing people, juice, places, and events (okay, and dinners) to which you’ll be exposed. It’s salt-of-the-Earth, heart-warming work most of the time, and that’s due in large part to the great and generous people involved. Give to them, and you will be rewarded ten-fold, I can assure you of that.
Cheers – and good luck!!