Second Careers in Wine – Chapter Two

Second Careers in Wine - Chapter Two

Many people in financial services, the arts, engineering and manufacturing are finding that the wine industry holds great promise for an exciting future.

It seems as though everyone who’s visited wine country reacts like Jack, a character in the movie Sideways, did. He wonders, “Should I chuck my job and move here to make wine?”

Many have. The wine business is filled with people who took another career path only to veer mid-course and follow their dreams. Most start, however, pouring tastes for tourists or schlepping wine cases, and graduate to selling and serving wine. Few become winemakers, though the most dedicated do succeed.

Unlike many careers, the path to a life in wine isn’t always a clear one. Most winemakers and viticulturists now seek college degrees rather than learn on the job. It has only been fairly recently that a well-defined infrastructure has developed to teach sommeliers, salespeople and educators their trades.

Relatively few people in today’s wine community have formal certificates that verify their competence, a definite contrast to law, medicine, engineering or teaching. Even those with certificates traditionally seek them after working in the field, but that’s changing. “We’re seeing a dramatic increase in those who take courses to enter the field in contrast to those just seeking to increase their knowledge,” says Karen MacNeil, director of the wine program at the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies, on the Culinary Institute of America’s Napa Valley campus.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the routes people take to get to their second careers in wine.

What It Takes To Be In Wine

The wine business is varied, but like most labors of love, demands two sacrifices of most participants: hard work and low pay. There are exceptions, but most people who choose to work in wine do so at least partly because they love wine, not just to make a living. Fortunately, they’re usually repaid for their dedication. There are many chances to taste wine, and many full or opened bottles to enjoy after a challenging day.

Beyond that, the requirements vary widely, depending on the specific career. Most wine jobs involve sales, whether in a store, restaurant, wholesaler or winery. If you can’t motivate yourself and others—and take rejection—sales is not the job for you. Most sales and marketing jobs also require a lot of travel, a benefit for some, a drawback for others. Likewise, many jobs—educator, writer, publicist—require the ability to communicate well.

To actually make wine, or to choose it for a restaurant or store, a good palate is obviously required, but almost any job description involving wine also has a footnote: You must be able to lift 40 pounds, the weight of a case of wine.

If you work in a cellar or vineyard, you can cancel your membership to the gym. You’ll get plenty of exercise and weight training. And don’t plan on a lot of sleep: During harvest and other peak times, wineries operate around the clock. Fundamentally, winemaking is dependent on farming and even in ritzy Napa Valley, dining at 8pm is considered late. Many people—and all vineyard workers—are toiling when city folk are just rising.
Wine production

The perceived pinnacle of the wine business is the winery. Once largely confined to a few areas in California, wine production has spread across the nation. Even bad economic times and a surplus of wine hasn’t been enough to discourage those bitten by the wine bug. The number of U.S. wineries has exploded; there are now wineries in every state. Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia have more than 100 wineries each, joining Oregon, Washington, New York, and California.

Of course, many people simply buy or start a winery. That’s becoming increasingly expensive, however, and rules and regulations are making it especially challenging in Napa Valley and other desired locations.

In 1973, when Jack and Dolores Cakebread bought their winery, they only put $2,500 down, not an impossible sum for the former car mechanic and part-time photographer to come up with. But financial times have certainly changed.

Now Jack teaches graduate school classes about getting into the wine business. He recently started a similar program for MBA students at his winery in Napa Valley.

Jack no longer makes Cakebread’s wine, but at smaller wineries, it’s not unusual for an owner to do so. These days, owners are increasingly learning about wine the old-fashioned way: at university. Many states, including Washington, Texas and Virginia, have joined California and New York in offering four-year degrees in winemaking and grapegrowing. Two-year programs have even sprung up in North Carolina and Washington.

The most prestigious school, however, remains the University of California at Davis. Davis attracts the cream of the crop, though its facilities are rather basic. This situation will change with the completion of a new wine center funded largely by Robert Mondavi. Wine is a big draw to career changers. “They don’t want to grow broccoli,” notes Jim Wolpert, the respected dean of the UC Davis wine school. For many people who turn to wine after starting another career, Davis offers graduate studies, the usual route for those changing paths. This allows those with a strong foundation in related fields to jumpstart their new career, but Wolpert warns that it’s a demanding program. “Anyone who isn’t interested in working hard shouldn’t apply,” he says. Davis also offers short courses and distance learning for those who can’t abandon their other activities.

Fresno State University has a good reputation for producing winemakers, too, and, unlike Davis, has a working winery.

Those with degrees in winemaking tend to be hired by wine companies as assistant winemakers and enologists (wine chemists). They typically stay five to seven years, working up the chain to winemaker. Other graduates seek out small wineries, become consultants or start their own businesses.

Some well-known winemakers have even taught themselves, perhaps starting as home winemakers or beginning as cellar rats, pulling hoses and cleaning tanks. Ultimately, palate, reputation—and marketing skill—are more important than a degree in determining success. “You’re only as good as the last wine you made,” says Wolpert.

Not all jobs at wineries involve making wine, of course. Wine can never be better than its grapes, and though growers and viticulture experts aren’t as visible as winemakers, they are in great demand.

Likewise, marketing and sales staff are vital in selling wine even though the owners and winemakers serve much of that function in smaller wineries. The entry job is often pouring tastes and peddling bottles in a winery’s tasting room.

Restaurant service and sales and marketing

Many people who work in the wine business gain their first experience working at a restaurant. Most start at the bottom and work their way up, first by busing tables, then serving. That could lead to a position as a barkeeper or sommelier, though increasingly restaurants want to hire experts for these positions.

Peter Marks, now director of the wine program at Copia, The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts, in Napa Valley, started in food service because of his interest in nutrition, but migrated to wine retailing and headed the respected program at Drager’s Markets in the Bay Area for many years. “I can’t think of a better way to get into wine than a good retail position,” he says.

Likewise, many people start by selling wine in stores, some moving into positions with wholesalers and importers. Many learn on the job, but these employers increasingly seek formal education and recognition. Fortunately, courses in wine are taught all over the country and a few programs stand out.

Of course, many people move from sales jobs in other fields into wine. They may argue about whether wine knowledge or sales skills is most important, but few would argue that personality and empathy are critical to success in selling.

Getting certified

The Master of Wine (MW) is a demanding program that signifies true mastery. Based in the U.K., The Institute of Masters of Wine has only 246 members, about 75 outside the U.K. Its seminars and examinations, which are extremely challenging, are held in the U.K., the U.S. and Australia. A relatively academic focus attracts salespeople, educators and marketers. (

Like the MW, the Master Sommelier (MS) program began in the U.K., though there are now about 60 Master Sommeliers in the U.S. It is oriented toward wine service and involves taking two courses and passing their exams, then sitting for the MS exam, which requires outside study. (

The Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) is another British-based organization. Courses are taught in a number of locations, with advanced exams given at the International Wine Center in New York and Copia in Napa Valley. WSET offers basic classes, and courses that lead to diplomas. “It’s really taken off,” says Peter Marks, who manages the program at Copia. He adds that the WSET and the Institutes of Masters of Wine are coordinating their programs to make the WSET program a better springboard for the MW. (www.

A new wine program at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley trains the Certified Wine Professional and Advanced Certified Wine Professional. The program offers classes about wine for distributors and importers, as well as other wine and food professionals, though it doesn’t cover much wine service. The center offers a four-day program in career discovery to introduce students to the wine business. “We give them a peek into what it’s really like to work in wine,” says MacNeil. This year the CIA will add an intense month-long program twice a year for those wanting to change careers. (

Many graduates of these programs teach classes, but one organization focuses on wine education. The Society of Wine Educators conducts classes, trips and exams leading to certification. It has 1,450 members in 19 countries. (

With this short overview of careers in wine, we should add a caveat. Like any other business rooted in passion, wine’s rewards are sometimes more psychic than financial. A lot of people want to work in wine, and that results in tough competition and high barriers to success.

“It’s easy to fall in love with the romance,” says Karen MacNeil. “The first decision you make must be whether you’re willing to work long hours and learn so much for a lot less money than you’ve been making.”

For many, it’s worth that tradeoff.

Wine Career Case Study
Former engineer: Victor Cruz

Though Victor Cruz’s father was a farmworker, he encouraged his son to follow another path. Cruz did just that. He got an engineering degree and spent 15 years at Westinghouse before becoming Washington State’s first Hispanic vintner. He is now co-owner and winemaker at Cañon del Sol.

In 1997, Cruz and long-time friend and winemaker Charles Hoppes started talking about running a winery, a dream they realized in 1999. Cruz is working at it full time, assisted by Hoppes. “I pretty much do everything,” says Cruz.

Meanwhile, he’s discovered that his Hispanic heritage, which he didn’t even think about when he started the winery, is giving him a boost of publicity.

The winery has sold out of its 2,000 or so cases and is working on the next vintage. “In the end, though, the wine has to stand up for itself,” Cruz says.

Wine Career Case Study
Ed Muns, former computer network manager

Ed Muns started out as an engineer, but when he retired from Hewlett-Packard after 32 years, he was managing its important Unix computing and networking businesses. He had bought his 77 acres high in the Santa Cruz Mountains just to live in the country. “I wanted a place to erect antennas for my ham-radio hobby,” he admits.

Muns soon discovered that part of his new property had been planted as a vineyard in the early 1980s, then abandoned, and that led to him clearing and replanting vines.

At first, he hired a vineyard management firm, but started tending the vines full time after he retired in 2001. He does all the work himself except during planting or harvest, and has taken every viticulture class offered through the UC Davis Extension program.

He now has 14 acres of Pinot Noir. “I enjoy the farming,” he says. “I never intended to make wine.”

The former executive soon realized the realities of farming in the rugged Santa Cruz Mountains. “There’s no money in grapes,” he observes. He made a trade with Soquel Vineyards to make wine from his grapes. He will start selling the 2004 shortly; Soquel is already selling futures of its share for $40 per bottle.

This year, Muns will crush at Beauregard Vineyards, and he’s now talking about building a winery of his own. He’s already completed one winemaking course at UC Davis, so it seems likely that he will take on that task one day as well.

Wine Career Case Study
Former power company executive: Mac McDonald

Mac McDonald worked for Pacific Gas and Electric for 32 years, starting at the bottom before moving up to be a manager and buyer, but he always had wine on his mind.

His father was a bootlegger in east Texas. When one of his clients gave him a bottle of Burgundy, “his friends called him a Commie for drinking French wine,” laughs the affable MacDonald.

Eventually, McDonald relocated to wine country, and he started his winery in 1995, picking up winemaking from Italian buddies and Chuck Wagner of Caymus Cellars, who took McDonald under his wing.

Unlike many winemakers, he relishes the travel that’s part of the job. “You need to be close to your customers; they want to know the person behind the wine.” An African-American, he especially enjoys pouring wines at country clubs and fancy restaurants throughout the south. “Who could have imagined I’d be the guest of honor at a fancy country club in Alabama,” he muses.

Wine Career Case Study
Physician-turned-winemaker Dr. Marc Cohen

Dr. Marc Cohen was a successful urologist on the faculty at New York University, but he couldn’t get Napa Valley out of his mind after he visited in 1982. “I knew I wanted to make wine,” he says.

He bought 21 acres on Howell Mountain in 2000 after two years of looking for the right plot, and then he “retired.” Being in a community of Seventh Day Adventists, however, he ran into opposition from neighbors in establishing a vineyard, then winery. He eventually was able to plant nine acres of Cabernet, and 3.5 are now producing. He’s converting a building on the property into a small winery while he makes his wine elsewhere.

Though Cohen has taken many classes at Napa Valley College and the Culinary Institute, he leaves the vineyard management and winemaking to professionals. His winemaker is Sarah Gott, the former winemaker at Joseph Phelps, who left a full-time job at Quintessa after having a baby.

Cohen may be financially comfortable, but he’s not a rich dot-commer. He bemoans the escalating cost of establishing the business, knowing he won’t be releasing his wine for another year. “Sarah keeps telling me, ‘You have to spend money to make great wine,’ ” he laments.

He is keeping busy as a principal of the new San Francisco restaurant, Myth, where he and wine director Alex Fox created the wine program.

Wine Career Case Study
Lyn Kirimli, former brand manager

After Pittsburg native Lyn Kirimli got her degree in English and communications, she became a copywriter at a local ad agency, but admits, “I wanted to work for a company that did great advertising.” Admiring the ads Hal Riney wrote for E & J Gallo, she applied at the wine company, and became an assistant brand manager there, working up to manager of Canadian marketing.

Fearing she was pigeonholed in wine, however, she joined Dreyers ice cream in 1994, and eventually managed that company’s joint venture with M&M.

For six years, however, she kept in touch with friends at wineries. “My heart never left the wine business,” she admits.

She eventually started a wine business with a friend, then sold it to the Wine Group, America’s third largest wine company. She then helped reposition Glen Ellen and Concannon after they were bought. She became a consultant after her third child was born.

She now works with several clients, including Concannon, which gives her a welcome opportunity to work on several different products.

Wine Career Case Study
Former sales & marketing executive: Joe Spellman

Joe Spellman never expected wine to become his career when he started working his way through college tending bar in restaurants. “I had no background in restaurants or wine. I just worked there because my friends did,” he says.

As a bartender, he developed an interest in wine through the restaurant’s by-the-glass promotions, and became a sommelier, earning his Master Sommelier certificate. He briefly left the restaurant business to go into wine sales and marketing, then returned to restaurants until he became director of advanced wine education for Paterno Wines International, a leading wine importing and marketing company. He now helps educate staff at restaurants and retail stores about wine.

As for his preparation? He thinks a classic liberal education is a good start. “We deal with geography, history, botany, biology, philosophy,” he says.

He adds that his employer expects its hires to have experience, notably in wine sales, and most hires worked at distributors and retailers. He does find classes very helpful, though now he’s the one teaching them. “Learn about wine. You can learn about your business on the job,” he says.

photos andy katz photography; david toerge/npn worldwide

Published on May 1, 2005