Getting into the wine trade

In recent months I have been contacted by a few different people wanting advice on how to enter the wine industry. Some are leaving school or about to graduate from University, whilst others want a complete career change. It's an alluring trade, particularly if you have a passion for all things vinous. I'm not talking about only drinking the stuff (always a plus though), rather having an acute interest in any aspect of wine, be that geography, geology, history, science or gastronomy.

My personal wine career has been a little chaotic, without much focus. I have meandered through a whole host of roles, ranging from logistics and tourism to sales and education. This is mostly down to the fact that I had no idea what I wanted to do when I entered the trade (spoiler alert - I still have no idea what I want to do) along with not having any prior industry knowledge or qualifications specific to wine. My advice would be to think about what you want to do in the wine trade. Where do you see yourself? What aspect of wine do you want to work with? There are many areas of the industry, including producing, distribution, logistics, selling, retail, hospitality, marketing and education, to name a few. Having a clear idea of what you want to achieve, whether that's day to day work, longer career goals or earning potential, will really help to point you towards a clear career path.

Working in retail was the very best first job I could have wished for, despite the long hours, terrible pay and anti-social hours (am I selling it yet?). Without realising it, over the course of 18 months I was completely saturated with wine information. Every day, wine labels eye-balled me, showing off their AOCs, vintages, producer names and grape varieties. Apart from the time I tried to sell someone a bottle of Chinon as a "delicious, fresh white wine" (it's a Loire Valley red made from Cabernet Franc) my retail life ran relatively smoothly. I had the opportunity to taste different styles at staff prices and annoy my colleagues with regular wine interrogations. Every day was a school day. Every day was also a cleaning, delivering, unloading, packaging up, customer service kind of day. Lest we forget the number of cardboard boxes I had to fold down after every shop delivery (shout out to Jeroboams in Hampstead). So in short - wine retail is very hard work and unglamorous but can be a great way to get into wine, especially if you don't know what aspect of the trade interests you. I learned a lot at Jeroboams but Majestic seem to be advertising regularly for retail positions across the UK with good staff benefits.

Taking a wine qualification is also a useful way of learning more about wine without committing to a new job straight away, particularly if you have financial commitments which stretch beyond the average wine retail salary of £20kpa. The WSET school in London offer a range of courses from one day to intensive "Novice to Professional" courses, starting from £135, and many of them can be completed around a full time job. If you're not based in London, there are hundreds of other WSET schools dotted around the world. To be clear, these courses centre around the appreciation of wine and are designed to give you confidence in communicating about wine. You will learn how to taste and why the wine tastes the way it does, drawing on theoretical knowledge of geography, climate and winemaking to understand the physical product. These qualifications are very well respected, so if you do want to apply for an office-based job in the wine trade, whatever the sector, it's worth investing in L1 or L2 to show aptitude and commitment. 

Once you have some WSET qualifications under your belt, teaching wine courses is also a possible career! Speak to your local wine schools and find out if they need support staff. If they have an official APP school (Approved Programme Provider) already set up through WSET, you'll be able to teach under their nominated Educator. Otherwise, you can create your own school, by setting up your own APP and completing the gruelling, but incredible, Educator course to teach students.  

If you want to roll your sleeves up and physically make some wine, then a WSET course is not what you're looking for. Instead, take a look at Plumpton College in East Sussex, with courses ranging from short 1 week winemaking overviews to BSC, BA and MSc qualifications. With a growing number of UK vineyards, there is also the opportunity to take part in grape harvesting, either as a picker or a cellar hand. It's a great thing to do and is really good fun! I worked the harvest at Wiston Estate in Sussex last year which fantastic, although pretty hard work! There are lots of vineyards that advertise for help during the year, some are paid, some are voluntary. It's worth keeping an eye out on Wine Jobs England in August when wineries start to recruit and also joining Facebook page "Travelling Winemakers - Living the Dream!! for all wine harvest opportunities internationally. Winery positions in Australia and New Zealand pay particularly well, but usually require some level of prior experience or schooling.

If travelling the world is more your thing, why not become a Tour Manager? Larger companies such as Andante and Martin Randall offer tours globally whilst wine specific travel companies such as Grape Escapes and Smooth Red could offer a more focused working experience. Tour management requires a lot of customer service experience and high levels of organisation, but can be a fabulous way of visiting wine regions whilst being paid to do so.

Working in the wine trade is rewarding, stimulating and fun (what other industry requires such an enjoyable level of quality control?!) I have made incredible friends for life and wake up everyday excited to learn, educate and taste. Don't be scared to make the jump across into wine, but I would advise you to be a little more prepared than I was!


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