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!!
22 thoughts on “How To Become A Wine (Whatever)”
This a good article here Joe Roberts as you give practical & applicable advice here for those of us that are trying to make the quantum leap from being wine connoisseurs/geeks to actually working in the industry. I think your points are all quite valid & useful, I did just finish WSET Level 2 last month & I am waiting for my certif as you like to call them.
But as you said though the whole logic & systematic tasting theory was educational; what was the most useful was making contacts & exchanging knowledge & ideas with industry insiders.
I do believe I am still a few years away from making the break or taking the leap, but am on the right road, (or at least I hope). Great tips & keep the good stuff coming!
Thanks, Solomon. I'm glad it was helpful. Keep us posted on your foray!
Great post! I love the "Don't Bother" section. It applies to so many "Artistic" "Creative" fields, wine or music to pick a couple. Being self-employed is challenging enough, finding motivation, self discipline are not for everyone. Hard enough even in fields where people need what you do, like roofers, electricians. Choosing to do it in fields where people would do it for free is totally bonkers. Guess I'm nuts!
Tom – yep, that makes two of us! :)
Indeeeeed, it is definitely a hard industry to break into. As a budding entrepreneur I know! If you don't me sharing a little advice, beyond attaining all of the certifications, I recommend getting your hands dirty. If you're really passionate about getting into wine, go work in the vineyard during the summer and go work a crush! The knowledge and higher appreciation I gained from toiling in the fields of Bordeaux (for free mind you! work exchange for room & board) and from actually making wine in Napa gave me invaluable experience that translates into my customers seeing that I understand the product inside and out. Sure, you can get all of the certifications and taste all the different wines you want, but life with wine changes when you understand everything that went into making that bottle.
Jonathan – totally agree. If you want to see yet another side, try helping a somm pour at an event…
Work at a wine bar…it helps to taste (I almost said drink) a lot of wine and I mean a whole lotta wine.
Tom – yep. Stints in tasting rooms can be real eye openers, too…
Making wine lists for restaurants can also be insightful. There are a lot of things you need to balance. For example, in pricing, you need to have low enough prices to give guests a fair deal, but you need high enough prices so that your business can still be running a few months later. You need some wines that people recognise, but have them just rare enough that they couldn't simply walk to the liquor store next door and directly compare the prices. You need to find high quality wines, but at low enough prices that the accountants won't strangle you. The wine list needs also to cater to all sorts of different tastes within the spectrum of the food menu, and each wine needs to be differentiated enough from other similar ones so that they're not directly competing with each other over price or quality. You'll also need to work with the chef, wine reps and distributors, the owner, the rest of the staff, and even your own clients (keeping an ear out for what they're saying about your wine list and the wines on them is very important). This all is just scratching the surface, however; there's a lot more to it than simply what I've written.
MyrddinGwin – and then there's the pressure of people pushing wines on you in order to allow you to buy the ones you really want for the list…
You know, we're actually pretty lucky with that. It doesn't happen often. If someone did attempt that on us, we'd probably laugh. There are plenty of other fantastic wines out there made by wineries that don't attempt that sort of malarkey. If the winery that tried the "You can sell this one for us only if you take this lesser one" on us was on the list already, we'd probably sell what stock we have left of theirs and take them off the list altogether. We deal enough with BS–we're not going to accept more of it just over a wine we might have considered putting on the list.
Besides, we much prefer dealing with reps who have the attitude "Any case we sell makes me happy." They're much more easy-going, and more of a pleasure to do business with.
MG – Amen to that!
In the words of the great Lowell Ford, "you'll never be a millionaire, but you'll live like one".
Gabe – ha! By the way, you won one of the books in the last giveaway, email me for details. Cheers!
whoa! cool, thanks Joe. Will do.
Thanks for another great post!
Sage advice . . ."Don't Bother"
From The Wall Street Journal “Arena” Section
(April 11, 2014, Page D6):
“Rocker of Ages: Al Kooper"
By Steve Dougherty
"The Interview" Column
Al Kooper doesn't really need to listen to the latest songs by garage bands comprised of 20-year-olds. Now 70 years old and living in Boston, he's experienced plenty of music history already.
Here are just a few of his contributions to rock 'n' roll: He played the signature organ riff on Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" and founded Blood, Sweat & Tears. He worked with Jimi Hendrix and the Who. He wrote songs, both bubble-gum (1965's "This Diamond Ring," by Gary Lewis and the Playboys) and sublime (BS&T's "I'll Love You More Than You'll Ever Know," from 1968). His French horn opened the Rolling Stones' "You Can't always Get What You Want;" he whispered Neil Young lyrics in the background on "Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynyrd Skynyrd, for whom he produced their first three albums. He and guitarist Mike Bloomfield were jam-band pioneers.
Edited from an interview:
Wall Street Journal: "What would you tell a kid like you who is 13 and starting out in music today?"
Kooper: "Go to plumbing school. Then go ahead and make music — after you've paid the rent. It's different now [than when I started professionally at 13]."
Bob – that’s perfect! Pretty much sums it all up.
It's 4 o'clock in the morning. (At least where I am.)
Get a life!
(Oh, I forgot — you're a wine blogger.)
Never mind . . .
Bob, if you haven't learned by now that I live on the easy coast, and that there are actually other parts of the country besides the west coast (& that they have different time zones)… well, I cannot help you! ;-)
. . . but if you insist on pursuing your passion, this advice:
Keep your "day job" and "moonlight" on weekends on the staff of a wine store — preferably one that has a wine bar that "programs" weekend "theme" tastings.
That apprenticeship will give great insights into whether you are cut out for the wine industry. Without losing your "safety net" (read: regular income).
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