James La Mar

Alumni Profile: James La Mar, Sommelier ’11

James La Mar is a 2011 graduate of the Intensive Sommelier Program at ICC’s Campbell, California campus. Like most students who enroll at ICC, James was looking for a career change and for something that he was passionate about. Before coming to ICC, he remarks that he was “all over the place,” mostly doing odd jobs to keep him occupied. He started with no experience, very little knowledge, and no contacts in the industry, but he knew that choosing ICC would give him the proper foundation to start and advance in the competitive world of wine.

After graduating, he spent 6 years working part time at the now closed Beltramo’s Wines and Spirits in Menlo Park, mostly helping out during the busy winter season. The store was over 100 years old and was one of the most important family owned wine shops in the history of California. He shares that he’s very glad to have been a small part of a wonderful legacy.

Fast forward to today, he now owns Grape Obsession, an apparel and accessory brand geared towards Sommeliers and wine fanatics.T Shirts from Grape Obsession James manages everything within the business, including creating designs, managing social media content, website maintenance, book keeping, sales, and everything else you can possibly imagine. With Grape Obsession, James aims to help his fellow Sommeliers show their passion through fun apparel and accessories, while helping new Sommeliers establish themselves in the industry—donating a portion of the profits to scholarships that benefit Sommeliers on their quest for knowledge and self-improvement. 

When asked about a piece of advice he would give to someone wanting to pursue an education in wine, he says “the only people who don’t succeed in life are the ones who never try.  Even if failure is a high possibility, do it anyway.  The struggle alone will make you a better person.  If you know in your heart that you want to do it, stop over thinking it and just do it.”

Before starting Grape Obsession, James tried on many different hats in the wine industry, including sales, wine retail, and even working as a sommelier and wine steward to find his best fit. He also believes that working in different parts of the industry is an important learning experience for any Sommelier, and helps to develop a sense of the bigger picture and where you fit in. Below is his take on the pros and cons of each profession in the industry.

Retail/Tasting Room

Wine retail is an especially great place in the industry if you are new to the business and still trying to figure out where you want to go.

Pros:

  • The wine buyer makes sure that you taste almost every wine that sales reps bring, which allows you to develop your palate.
  • Physically inspecting the bottles and the boxes as they come in helps put a lot of your wine theory into practice and gives a lot of needed context.
  • The hours you work would mostly be normal business hours, allowing for a decent work life balance, though you should expect to work some holidays.
  • You will be meeting a lot of wine sales reps; working in retail gives you some great contacts if you want to move into sales later on down the line.

Cons:

  • Working in the day means that you may have less opportunities to go to industry tastings and trade events that normally happen during the day on weekdays, unless you work your way into a management or wine buyer position where attending trade events is a part of your job.
  • Due to the nature of working in retail, you will be expected to work many weekends and holidays.
  • Entry pay is also lower in retail, though as you move up through management, compensation can range from average to above average.
  • Lastly, work can be humbling as you will be expected to work a cash register, lift heavy wine boxes, stock shelves, break down boxes, and clean floors, windows, and displays.

Sales & Distribution

If you have a competitive spirit, sales can be an exciting area of the industry to work in.  As a salesman, you will be responsible for motivating yourself to meet with wine buyers, taste products, make sales calls and write emails, and schedule your daily tasks weeks, sometimes months, in advance.  Being in sales is brutal especially if you are new to the game, but if you stick with it and persevere, there is a great sense of pride and accomplishment when you develop your territory and build strong lasting relationships with your buyers.

Pros:

  • This is great if you enjoy being a self-starter and working unsupervised.
  • You will have more work life balance, even though you will be extremely busy, and you will have more opportunities to see friends and family at night and on holidays.
  • There can be opportunities to travel for work to represent your brand or attend staff training trips.
  • You will be meeting frequently with clients and wine buyers, so you will be able to build a strong network within the industry.
  • You will also be responsible for supporting your accounts by leading tastings and classes on your products for their staff, which is fun as it allows you to pass on your passion for the brands you represent.
  • Earning potential is higher in sales. Because you are paid mostly by commission, you have the opportunity to make as much money as you are willing to work for.

Cons:

  • If you don’t have a strong competitive nature, sales can be difficult.
  • In sales, you will be faced with constant rejection; you will have to be able to take criticism of yourself, and the brands you represent, in stride.
  • As a sales rep, you will also be expected to be the problem solver for each of your accounts. The delivery truck missed a case of wine that your account needs for the weekend?  Stop by the warehouse and take the case directly to the account yourself.
  • You will need to check up regularly on your products at retail stores or check in with restaurants to see how they are doing on inventory. If the product is moving slowly, it is your responsibility to help the account make the product a success by offering to teach classes to the staff, making store marketing materials, etc.
  • It will also take some time before the money starts to come in, usually a few months to a year of building your territory up, so make sure you have a financial cushion when you start out.

Sommelier/Wine Steward

Are you a night person?  If you are, being a Sommelier may be the career path for you.

Pros:

  • Working nights frees up hours during the day to pursue many productive facets of your life, including having ample time for exercise, running errands, going to wine industry tastings and study groups, and most importantly having time to study.
  • Guest interaction is one of the greatest benefits, as there is great joy to be found in putting the needs of others in front of your own
  • You will also have certain management responsibilities, including staff training and assisting on the floor of the restaurant, which builds up leadership experience.
  • The amount of wine you try as a Sommelier is far greater than any other job in the industry— you will constantly taste exotic wines from your vendors, during restaurant service to make sure they aren’t corked, and at many different industry trade tastings that you will be invited to.
  • As you move up into a wine buyer role as a Sommelier you can also be invited to luncheons and occasionally have opportunities to be sponsored to travel to wine country by your vendors, your employer, or industry publications.
  • You have the job of building a wine program, which allows you to be creative and develop skills in purchasing.
  • Earning potential can range from average to above average as you normally will be making tips, though as you come up in the industry and move into a wine director position, earning potential can be even greater.

Cons:

  • Working nights and holidays is a challenge for anyone in the restaurant industry. You should prepare your friends and family that you’ll be working on a completely opposite schedule than most of them.
  • Like any job in the public sector, you will be dealing with people and will need to develop finesse to serve all guests.
  • Being a Sommelier is a very social line of work— you need to be comfortable with talking to complete strangers and charming them.
  • You will need to know how to manage a team and treat everyone with respect.
  • There are non-glamorous parts of the job, like carrying 40 pound cases of wine, counting inventory, publishing a wine list, and understanding the restaurant and the needs of your guests so that you make appropriate purchasing decision

Unlike other industries where moving around from different types of work can be a detriment to your resume, the wine industry appreciates job applicants with well rounded work experience, as the skills you build in different lines of work are often transferable and show that you have a passion for everything about wine, including the parts that are sometimes difficult or uncomfortable.  It is important for any Sommelier to be well rounded and to have a variety of experience in the industry in order to succeed in the long run.

Check out Grape Obsession’s awesome apparel and accessories here: www.grapeobsession.com and be sure to follow them on social by clicking on each icon below!