Careers In Wine

Careers In Wine

At one time or another just about every wine lover has fantasized about buying a small vineyard in a rustic corner of Napa Valley and making their own wine. Such flights of fancy most often arise after a glass or two of dazzling Cabernet or mesmerizing Merlot, and most folks quickly come to their senses as the warm glow from the grape fades.
But for those who are seriously considering a career in the wine industry—or are simply curious about what it’s like to work in the trade—the possibilities are boundless. In California, where 90 percent of U.S. wine is produced, more than 145,000 people work in the industry, including 4,400 grape growers, according to the Wine Institute, a San Francisco-based trade group.

What follows is a highly arbitrary and (we hope) enlightening survey of some key jobs in the wine industry. We talked with scores of people working in the trade—from coopers and cellar masters to sales reps and master sommeliers. We asked them to describe their overall responsibilities and daily duties, the things they love and (rarely) loathe about their jobs, the background and training needed to perform their jobs, the next step on the career ladder and the salary one could expect to earn at entry level and at the top of one’s chosen profession. Nearly everyone we spoke with shared at least two things in common: a passion for wine and a genuine affection for the people who work in the industry.

To make the information easier to digest, the survey is divided into three categories: Production (which includes such jobs as winemaker, consultant, vineyard manager, cellar worker and cooper); Distribution (which includes importer and exporter, distributor, marketing director, auctioneer and sales rep); and Retail, Restaurant, Etc. (which includes restaurateur, wine shop owner, sommelier, writer and educator).

Salaries are designated as follows:
$ = under $30,000; $$ = $30,000-$75,000; $$$ = $75,000-$150,000; and $$$$ = over $150,000.

Job Description: “Put great wine in the bottle,” is the way David Ramey, director of winemaking at Rudd Winery in Oakville, California, sums up his job. The winemaker is responsible for every facet of the winemaking process, from deciding which grapes to use and when to harvest them to determining when to bottle and ship the wine. She also oversees construction projects and equipment purchases, dealing with suppliers and distributors, and hiring and training staff.

Perks: Taste great wines. Dine at top restaurants. Travel to France, Italy, South America and other winemaking regions. “You come in contact with a lot of good living, great food and interesting people,” says Test. “It sure beats throwing scrap iron on the back of a truck.”

Downside: Hobnob with the rich and fatuous. Dealing with Mother Nature, which has a nasty habit of frustrating even the most brilliant winemakers. Limited job opportunities. “It’s a small profession,” says Test. “I can’t pick up my family and move to Dubuque. There just aren’t that many positions.”

How to Get There: Enology degree from the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis, California State University at Fresno or a major wine school in Europe or Australia. “International working experience is helpful,” says Ramey, “It’s particularly useful to experience the classical methodology with the varietals you plan to work with. If you want to work with Sangiovese or Nebbiolo, for example, you should go to Italy.” Hands-on experience in a variety of winery jobs, from vineyard laborer to cellar rat and lab analyst. Ramey’s advice: “Find a good, solid assistant winemaker job and spend five or six years there before going off to make your own mistakes.”

Next Step: General manager of a winery; develop your own brand.

Salary: Starting Out: $$. At the top $$$$.

Job Description: Advise growers and vintners on a wide range of issues, including property development, winery design, equipment purchases, permits and regulations, vineyard practices, marketing and personnel. Taste and evaluate wines in progress. “Timing is critical in this business,” says Tony Soter, owner of Etude Wines in Napa and one of California’s most sought-after consultants. “You have to know where to be when.” Soter says the toughest part of his job is resisting the temptation to impose his personal style on his clients’ wines. “My goal is that each winery should have its own distinct voice. My input should be subtle enough to allow the land to speak for itself.” It also helps to have a “world view” of wine, he says. “You should have a grasp of the different styles of winemaking—not just the classical method in France and Italy, but also those in New Zealand and South Africa.”

Perks: Travel. Being your own boss. “I enjoy being a teacher and mentor. It fits my personality,” says Soter.

Downside: Consulting isn’t a good career choice for winemakers hell-bent on expressing their own style.

How to Get There: A-to-Z knowledge of the wine industry. Extensive experience in the field, cellar and lab. Familiarity with different styles of winemaking. Degree from a major wine school.

Next Step: Start your own winery. Retire rich.

Salary: Starting out: $. At the top: $$$$.

Vineyard Manager
Job Description: Oversee day-to-day operations of the vineyards, including planting, irrigation, pruning, spraying, erosion and pest control, and harvesting. Prepare budgets and work schedules; hire and train field workers; ensure compliance with agricultural regulations; coordinate field operations with the winemaker, cellar master and marketing director.

Perks: Freedom to make your own schedule. Use of a 4×4 truck and cell phone. Travel to other vineyards.

Downside: Sore hands and “goofy hours,” says Richmond. A vineyard manager’s day often starts at 6 a.m. and doesn’t end until late in the afternoon. During crush the hours are even longer. Dealing with the exasperating vagaries of Mother Nature is another challenge.

How to Get There: Degree in viticulture and enology or fermentation science from UC Davis, Fresno State or another major wine school. However, a fancy degree is no substitute for grunt work. “Everything I learned in college I can boil down to two minutes,” says Richmond. “Most of what I know I learned in the fields.”

Next Step: Independent consultant; winery owner.

Salary: Starting out: $$. At the top $$$.

Cellar Master
Job Description: Responsible for every facet of production from the time the grapes arrive at the winery to the time the bottled wine is shipped out. Work with the winemaker to create wines that reflect his taste and style. Hire, train and supervise cellar rats. Order equipment and supplies such as tanks, barrels, gases, bottles and crates.

Perks: Taste lots of wine. Lose weight without joining a gym: Gary Young, the burly, 200-pound cellar master at Rudd Winery in Oakville, says he routinely sheds 15 to 20 pounds during crush. But, he admits, “I put them back on over the holidays.”

Downside: Long hours. At harvest time cellar masters routinely work 15-hour days, seven days a week, until the job is done. “I don’t get to see my kids very much during the crush,” says Young.

How to Get There: Start as a cellar rat and work your way up. Broad knowledge of how wine is made and how wineries operate. Degree in enology is helpful but not essential.

Next Step: Winemaker.

Salary: Starting out: $. At the top: $$.

Cellar Rat
Job Description: Do all the grunt work that transforms grapes into liquid gold: drain and shovel out the tanks; clean the tanks, presses, lines and other equipment; prep the barrels; stir and top the barrels, etc.

Perks: Learn how wine is made and taste the results. Look like a gym bunny without going to the gym.

Downside: Long hours and physically demanding work, especially during crush.
How to Get There: Have a passion for wine and a strong back.

Next Step: Cellar supervisor.

Salary: Starting out: $. At the top: $$.

Job Description: Craft the oak barrels that help to give wine its distinctive flavor. The cooper bends the staves into shape and slowly toasts them over an open fire.

Perks: For Douglas Rennie, a master cooper from Glasgow who works at Seguin Moreau in Napa, the best part of the job is working with his hands. “I get a lot of pleasure out of seeing the finished barrel,” says Rennie, a fourth-generation cooper. “I like the sound of the wood being pounded, the smell of the oak toasting over the fire.”

How to Get There: In Europe, apprenticeships typically begin while youngsters are still in school and last five years. In this country, there are no formal training programs, but Seguin Moreau, World Cooperage and other barrel makers provide on-the-job training.

Salary: Starting out: $. At the top $$.


Job Description: Cultivate relationships with U.S. and foreign wineries and winemakers. Taste new releases and keep abreast of industry trends. Hire and train salespeople. Work with distributors.

Perks: Taste great wines. Dine at top restaurants. Extensive foreign and domestic travel. Leonardo LoCascio, owner of Winebow, a New York-based importer of fine Italian wines, says he relishes the “human element” of his job. “I enjoy the process of representing producers and creating a market for their products in the United States,” says LoCascio. “Many of my Italian suppliers have become lifelong friends.”

Downside: Dealing with prima donna vintners. And maintaining a consistent portfolio of quality wines is “a constant puzzle,” adds Harmon Skurnik, president of Michael Skurnik Wines, a New York-based importer. Long hours can also take a toll. Skurnik says, “If I didn’t have to sleep, I could work 24 hours a day.”

How to Get There: Work in retail sales or distribution. Study wine and how it relates to food. “It helps to know the habitat and the language of the country you are dealing with,” says Locasio. A degree from a wine school or culinary institution is also helpful.

Next Step: Expand to other countries; start your own winery.

Salary: Starting out: $. At the top: $$$$.

Marketing Director
Job Description: Design and develop marketing materials, including brochures, press kits, newsletters, bottle labels and ads. Set prices and release dates. Determine in which markets and in what quantities to sell. Attend trade shows. Respond to customer inquiries and complaints. “My job is to create an image and develop the brand,” says Marion Groetschel, marketing director for Fife Vineyards, in Napa Valley. “We make great wines and we want to be represented in the top restaurants and wine shops.”

Perks: Travel. Attend wine events. Meet lots of interesting folks. Bonuses tied to sales.

Downside: Not enough hours in the day.

How to Get There: Business degree, ideally in marketing. “Better yet, an MBA from a top school,” says Hill. A passion for wine and a top-to-bottom knowledge of the industry.

Next step: Work for a larger winery; general manager of a winery.

Salary: Starting out: $. At the top: $$$.

Job Description: The auctioneer helps set price estimates, writes the catalog and contacts potential bidders. During the auction itself, a good auctioneer is part salesman, part standup comic. He must command the audience’s attention and keep the bidding moving. “You need a stage presence,” says Fritz Hatton, a veteran wine auctioneer and former chief operating officer for Christie’s in New York. Hatton tries to sprinkle in tidbits of information about the wines to pique bidders’ interest. He says, “If an auctioneer can’t pronounce the name of the wine, it certainly doesn’t inspire confidence in the bidders.” Other useful assets: a facility with numbers and a sense of fair play.

Perks: Travel. Tasting rare, collectible wines. Raising money for good causes.

Downside: Limited career opportunities. There are only about a half-dozen people in the country who specialize in wine auctioneering.

How to Get There: “There’s no training programs for wine auctioneers per se,” says Hatton. “We don’t go to the hog-calling or tobacco-calling schools in the South.” Christie’s and other commercial auction houses provide training for their employees. Some states require auctioneers to be licensed.

Next step: Marketing and public relations; hog auctions in Oklahoma.

Salary: Starting out: $. At the top: $$. (“I know of no wealthy auctioneers,” says

Job Description: Distributors are the middlemen between the wineries on one end and wine shops, grocery stores, restaurants and hotels on the other. Distributors purchase the wine from multiple producers, warehouse it and then ship it to the end-users.

Perks: Travel. Fine wining and dining.

Downside: Competition is fierce. In New York State, for example, there were more than 30 major distributors 20 years ago; now there are only a handful. Distributors also have to contend with a patchwork of different state liquor regulations.
How to Get There: “You must be well capitalized, be knowledgeable about wine and understand how to operate an efficient company,” says LoCascio.

Next Step: Retire to a villa in Tuscany.

Salary: Starting out: $$. At the top: $$$$.

Sales Rep
Job Description: Call on restaurants, hotels, wine shops and other prospective customers and present samples from your portfolio. Place orders with distributors and wineries and deal with other administrative minutia. Follow up with customers. Meet with winemakers to find out what’s new.

Teresa Ryder, a sales manager for Michael Skurnik Wines, a New York-based distributor, says that when she was a rep she typically made five to 12 sales calls a day. “I spent my days running around to exclusive restaurants in Manhattan—Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Café, Café Boulud—meeting with wine directors, sommeliers, and sometimes chef/

Perks: Fine food and drink. Occasional trips to California and Europe to visit vineyards and wineries. Receiving special treatment when you dine at restaurants that are also customers.

Downside: Long hours. Ryder says she routinely worked 70 hours a week when she was developing her territory in midtown Manhattan. Schlepping heavy boxes of wine around chic Manhattan is also no fun.

How to Get There: Be passionate about wine and food. “A lot of sales reps in the wine industry have a certain sensibility about the arts,” says Ryder.

Next Step: Regional sales manager.

Salary: Starting out: $. At the top: $$$$.

Wine Bar/Restaurant Owner/Manager
Job Description: Craft and maintain the wine list. Hire and train staff in proper wine service. Meet with sales reps and sample new selections. Keep abreast of industry trends. “You have to love wine and be willing to spend money to buy great wines,” says Charlie Trotter, the celebrated Chicago chef, restaurateur and cookbook author. “We don’t have a formula. We just buy great wines to fill out our list and wines that go with our food.”

Perks: Wonderful wine, wonderful food, (mostly) wonderful people. Occasional junkets to California, Europe and other wine-producing regions.

Downside: Long, late hours. Dealing with boorish customers.
How to Get There: Tasting widely, frequently and fearlessly. Solid training in restaurant management and wine service. “An MBA wouldn’t hurt, either,” says Antonakeas.

Next Step: Expand to other locations or cities. Open a full-service restaurant (Antonakeas is in the process of doing just that in New York).

Salary: Starting Out: $. At the top: $$$$. (“The first year you don’t make any money; you just make sure everyone around you is well paid,” says Antonakeas. “After that, you better make six figures.”)

Wine Director/Sommelier
Job Description: Crafting the restaurant’s wine list, training staff in wine service, helping diners choose a wine and—equally important—making them feel comfortable with the wine they’ve selected. The sommelier also works with the chef to devise harmonious pairings of wine and food. Star sommeliers such as Larry Stone of Rubicon in San Francisco and Ralph Hersom of Le Cirque 2000 in New York also devote time to writing about wine (Stone pens a column for the Japanese edition of Playboy; Hersom is working on a book) and appearing at industry events.

Perks: Tasting some of the finest and rarest wines on the planet (Hersom once sold a bottle of ’47 Château Pétrus for $12,000, and he routinely decants $1,000-plus bottles at Le Cirque) and chowing down on the culinary creations of some of the world’s most talented chefs. Travel to Europe, Australia, South Africa and other wine-growing regions to visit vineyards, wineries, restaurants and resorts. Meeting celebrities. (Hersom was once summoned by Keith Richards to bring a bottle of ’82 Château Lynch-Bages to the Rolling Stone’s room at the New York Palace Hotel. And Mike D of the Beastie Boys is a regular at Le Cirque, where he indulges his passion for fine Burgundies.)

Downside: Long, arduous days (and nights). Sommeliers at top restaurants typically begin work before noon and often don’t hang up their tastevins until well after midnight. “It’s a lot of gritty work and long hours, but if you love wine and you love people it’s a great job,” says Stone. Being harassed by pompous pooh-bahs is another occupational hazard.

How to Get There: Taste. Taste. Taste. “You have to love wine and love people and be excited to find the perfect match of food and wine,” says Stone, whose enological explorations began at age 16 when he made wine from apple concentrate in the laundry room of his parents’ Seattle apartment building. Mike Bonaccorsi, head of beverage at Spago in Beverly Hills, recommends aspiring sommeliers form tasting groups with like-minded friends. Read everything about wine you can get your hands on. In terms of formal training, the Court of Master Sommeliers, formed in England in 1977, offers a three-part program leading to certification as a master sommelier. Only about 40 people hold the title in the United States.

Next Step: Buy an estate and start making your own (Bonaccorsi already has two vintages under his belt); consultant; educator.

Salary: Starting Out: $$. At the top $$$$. (Including commissions or a cut of the gross revenue from wine sales. )

Job Description: Depending on the publication you are working for, the job involves writing on myriad subjects, from profiles of prize-winning wineries and winemakers and explorations of noteworthy new releases and industry trends to advice on wine etiquette and wine angst. John Brecher and Dorothy J. Gaiter, authors of the weekly “Tastings” column in The Wall Street Journal, focus on the consumer end of the industry. “The industry has made wine a very scary thing, something with snob appeal,” say Brecher. “We try to make it more accessible. You don’t need a Ph.D. in wine to enjoy it.”

Perks: Dining at fine restaurants. Attending glamorous, gluttonous wine events. And, of course, tasting wonderful wine. (Brecher and Gaiter conduct blind tastings in their kitchen nearly every night, pouring through several hundred dollars of the Journal’s money each week.)

Downside: Attending glamorous, gluttonous wine events.

How to Get There: “Be genuinely passionate about wine,” says Brecher. A well-developed palate and a flair for writing are also helpful. Brecher and Gaiter recommend aspiring writers read Wine Talk, a collection of columns by Frank J. Prial, the veteran wine writer for The New York Times and, naturally, their own book, The Wall Street Journal Guide to Wine.

Next step: Write a book; make your own.

Salary: Starting out: $. At the top: $$$.

Wine Shop Owner/Manager
Job Description: Create a comfortable, convivial atmosphere for customers. Hire, train and supervise staff. Build inventory to meet a wide range of tastes—from a connoisseur hunting for a rare $150 vintage to a neighborhood resident looking for a decent $8 bottle for dinner. Advise customers about what wines to pair with particular foods, and how much to buy. Keep abreast of new releases and industry trends.

Perks: “We see the dramas of people’s lives,” says Guelld. “We get street people playing the harmonica and people buyingwine for weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals. It’s like operating a little theater.”

Downside: Long hours, short (as in impatient) customers.

How to Get There: Experience as a retail purchaser and/or manager. Be passionate and knowledgeable about wine. “It’s important to know the association between wines and the regions they come from,” says Guelld.

Next Step: Expand to additional locations. Open a restaurant or wine bar.

Salary: Starting out: $. At the top: $$.

Job Description: Wine educators generally fall into two categories: those who teach at professional training schools, and those who offer classes and seminars to amateur enthusiasts. Faculty members at the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology—considered the Harvard of wine schools— spend only part of their time teaching the department’s 150 full-time students. The rest of their time is devoted to research and troubleshooting for growers and vintners who run into problems. “Our job is to help people make great wine and to make sure California’s wineries stay among the best in the world,” says James Wolpert, chairman of the UC Davis department. Affairs of the Vine, a San Francisco-based company, runs “wine boot camps” around the country. “We demystify wine,” says company president Barbara Drady. “You don’t have to understand ‘malolactic fermentation’ to enjoy good wine.”

Perks: Lots of good wine and food. Travel. Meeting interesting, successful people.

Downside: Faculty at UC Davis and Fresno State are often overwhelmed by requests for help because of the rapid growth of the industry in recent years. Some 400 new wineries have sprouted up in California in the past decade alone.

How to Get There: Be passionate about wine and teaching. Hands-on experience in vineyards, wine cellars and research labs. Degree from UC Davis, Fresno State or another distinguished wine school. Depending on your specialty, a degree in chemistry, horticulture, plant biology, ecology, plant pathology or etymology wouldn’t hurt, either.

Next Step: Independent consultant.

Salary: Starting out: $$. At the top: $$$.


Published on May 1, 2001