Finding Your Place in the Wine Industry

Written by Tyler Hawley, Current Sommelier Student

There are many different career opportunities available to someone with an interest in working within the wine field. Students and guests of the International Culinary Center had the privilege to sit in on a panel discussion with four professionals, each coming from their own respective position in the wine world. The four panelists shared their background stories, how they got where they are today and gave advice to those of us hoping to follow in their footsteps.

Distributor

Susan King is the regional manager of the Henry Wine Group’s San Francisco Peninsula and South Bay area. She spent twenty-five years working in sales within the technology industry. Throughout her career, Susan had the opportunity to experience wine from all around world, which sparked her passion for wine. In 2010, enrolled in ICC’s Intensive Sommelier Training program, where she became a Certified Sommelier. That combination of a career in sales and a passion for wine is what led her into the distribution field.

She describes an average day in the life of a distributor as visiting your customers and showing them new wines and spirits that they may be interested in. Someone who works in distribution has the opportunity to essentially function as his or her own CEO, by choosing their hours and how they go about selling their products to their customers. What makes distribution unique from other sales positions is that you are required to travel to your customers as opposed to them coming to you.

Anyone interested in working in the sales/distribution field needs to have strong customer service skills and knowledge of their product. They get to work with multiple different personalities, which means they need to be able to adapt their sales technique to whoever they’re selling to at that moment. Someone in distribution must be self-motivated with entrepreneurial skills because they have the ability to set their work schedule. Susan said there are many different positions available in the distribution field besides sales, such as marketing and brand management.

Typically, someone just getting started in distribution would work with larger corporate accounts until they gain enough experience to work smaller accounts. Pay within the distribution field can vary depending the company—some are completely commission based while others run on a broker system. Entry-level positions typically start around $35,000, but someone in the field can end up earning around $140,000. Once someone in distribution gains enough experience, they then have the opportunity to move unilaterally within the field.

Susan said that she loves everything about her job, but what she loves most is tasting wine with all different styles of people and finding the right solution for her customers.

Tasting Room

Michael Foley is the Manager of the tasting room at Ridge Vineyards, located in Cupertino, CA.  Michael got into wine at a young age, planting vines in his back yard when he was twelve. He started working harvest at Domenico Winery during high school and began working at Ridge in 2013.

Michael described the tasting room as “a stage” in the sense that you want to be well prepared and give your guests a show-like experience. He said that education is key—not only do you need to know the product, but you also need knowledge of the hospitality industry. Michael said that a great way to get more involved in the hospitality and tasting room side of the industry would be to work part time at a winery’s tasting room. He said the most important thing is to work somewhere you enjoy, and that hard work and dedication will get noticed and open up more opportunities.

Typically someone starting in a tasting room would make around $19 an hour, and management around $80,000 a year. However that all does depend on the winery. Michael said that working in a tasting room requires someone to be slightly extroverted, carefree, upbeat, and friendly. These characteristics help with working well with people who have different styles of personalities, and being able to adapt to situations as they happen. Michael’s favorite part about working in the tasting room is having the opportunity to create memorable experiences for his guests.

Winemaker

Ryan Beauregard is the owner and winemaker of Beauregard Vineyard, located in Santa Cruz, CA. He’s a jack-of-all-trades doing anything from farming, to wine making, to marketing. Ryan first fell in love with pinot noir, which led him to pursue studies in winemaking. Beauregard Vineyards produces around 7,000 cases of wine a year, most of which is sold direct.

Ryan spoke about how positions aren’t always readily available in the winemaking world, especially when it comes to smaller production wineries. He suggests that if you have a passion to break into the winemaking field, you should volunteer on vineyards during harvesting seasons. Do the manual labor of picking grapes, scrubbing barrels, washing floors, etc., so that you can start to further understand the winemaking process. Ryan talked about how someone interested in working in the winemaking field shouldn’t be doing it for the money, but should be doing it because they have a thirst for knowledge and want to be able to learn more about winemaking. He did say that the one thing people don’t think about is that you will be dealing with “creepy crawlies” so you have to be willing to work with nature.

To be able to understand how the terroir affects the wine and describe those subtle nuances to someone is one of the main reasons why Ryan loves being a winemaker.

Restaurant Sommelier

Aaron Babcock is a sommelier at Quince, located in San Francisco, CA. He started working at a resort in his early twenties where he fell in love with wine. Aaron said that, “you could tell there were stories within the wine cellar.” This led him to want to further his wine knowledge, so in 2012 he attended ICC’s Intensive Sommelier Training program where he received his Certified Sommelier training. He has since gone on to receive his Advanced Sommelier certification, and is training for the Master Sommelier exam.

Aaron said that there are two parts to the life of a sommelier working within the restaurant industry, the glamorous and non-glamorous. The glamorous side is being out on the floor interacting with the guests, and helping them find a wine that will help make their experience memorable. The non-glamorous side is all the things you do to prepare for service each night, such as stocking inventory. It depends on where you’re working, but a typical salary for a sommelier starts at around $50,000 a year, but there is no real ceiling. Similar to the tasting room, Aaron said working on the restaurant floor requires someone to be slightly extroverted and personable. He said that you do need to have a degree of humility when dealing with guests as well. Aaron’s favorite part of being a sommelier on the restaurant floor is being able to tell his guests stories about the producers, and help them find a wine they’ll love.

These professions share quite a few similarities, however, each is unique in their own right. One commonality is that you need to have a passion for wine and a desire to work hard and learn. Whether you’re selling wine, helping to make it, or anything in between, each panelist expressed that at the end of the day, it’s about doing what you love. The students at the ICC owe a big thank you to the four panelists for giving us invaluable insight into different professions within the wine world.