Wine professionals - where did you start?

I’m curious about how those of you in the business got your start. I’ve always been into wine as a hobby but in the last year or so I’ve really started to entertain the idea of working in the industry. Are certifications like WSET or CMS a must? Apologies if this question has been posed already.

Are you talking about the production side of wine? If so, the certifications aren’t important.
I started in the vineyard – just as a laborer when I was a kid.

More so both the retail and hospitality side of the business. I live in NYC and my job affords me a bunch of free time so I think I could try an entry level type position and see if it’s really for me. My knowledge comes mostly from reading books, a few classes I’ve taken, and tasting at home or out with friends. A lot of times friends will ask for my help finding a bottle and I’ve come to realize it’s fun to help people find something they really enjoy. My job doesn’t really qualify me to do anything in wine (I’ve been modeling professionally for the past 10 years) which is why I mention certifications as a way to continue learning from professionals and help get my foot in the door. I’d be interested in working a harvest one year as well as my experience in vineyards is pretty scant.

In the summer of 1988 I was looking for a part-time job. There was an opening at Big Y Wines (same store that became Table and Vine) in Northampton, Mass. They needed a cashier. I knew absolutely nothing about wine, but that’s where it all started for me. 34 years ago this month.

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I think the wine shop suggestion is a good one, as long as it’s a shop that lets the staff taste extensively. After planting a vineyard on my folks’ ranch, I clerked at the Jug Shop in SF for the chance to taste a lot. When I started there, the wines I knew were mostly stocked at ankle level. If you’re on Berserkers, you’re doubtless well ahead of where I started. I was able to take the Falls off from that job to work a couple harvests in other wineries and then return to the shop in time for their holiday rush.

Working at a shop is definitely something I’ve had in mind. I’m from Cambridge, Mass myself but going on 14 years in New York. One advantage of NYC is the large number of good bottle shops throughout the city (I can always find more email list to join :joy:). A friend started working at Leon and Sons in Brooklyn and says he’s been able to taste frequently. It seems like something that could help me become more familiar with regions/styles I’m not as familiar with.

I started my wine life at Campus Corners in East Lansing, MI in 1974 at 19 (I had worked retail at my dad’s pharmacy since I was 6). Passover wine was my prior experience. Left the business almost 40 years ago now.

Read and taste. And taste some more. And be an asset to your customers (listen carefully to what THEY want). It can be hard to suppress your preferences, but if a customer is interested in branching out, you can be a valuable resource

If I was dropping in there on the way to Vermont, I would make a point to wear a sweater when shopping at T&V…that place was one of the only places I would trust a bottle that had been on the shelf ten years after release…

Big Y was my main wine source (along with Spirit Haus) in the mid '80s. Great store, and cool folks in the wine section. And yes, it was a great place to shop on a hot summer day. [cheers.gif]

You’ll be able to taste more in retail, especially at the entry level, as long as you find the right store. Restaurants have their own perks, particularly if you commit to a full time position down the road (they get offered a lot more trips, dinners, etc.). Fine dining allows you to taste more at the high end, but they’re unlikely to hire you for a wine position with no experience. The hours are another one of the big differences, and whether or not you’re okay with physical labor, which is a much bigger part of retail. That’s not to say service isn’t physical; I’m talking about moving around lots of full cases (not light) for a good part of your day, maybe even whole pallets. That’s a significant part of retail.

In either sector, certifications help but are not necessary. WSET or CMS, depending on if you want to pursue on- or off-premise. If you’re still having trouble deciding, I would suggest WSET. The general knowledge is applicable to both types of business, and you can learn the service stuff as you go if you decide on that down the road. Whether or not you’re studying formally, it’s important to learn as much as possible to work at the good places. Like David said, reading and tasting go together. Just one or the other does not cut it. Work your way up to a level of knowledge where blind tasting makes sense, and practice. Then, when you don’t know something, read about it. Memorize.

Usually when people are already making a good living, I tell them wine is a nice side business, probably not something to switch over to full-time. Often when people leave, it’s to make more money. If you want to do sales (distributor/importer), and you’re good at sales, that can be a good career, albeit stressful. You’ll learn a lot about that by working retail, if that’s what you choose. Retail is probably the better starting place in some ways, but restaurants provide more career opportunities in some ways. That’s if you like long hours and working late into the night. Distributors love hiring restaurant folk for sales positions. Then it’s sink or swim.

I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get a retail job expecting to always have the opportunity to taste if you’re starting at the bottom of the totem pole. Leverage your position to get into trade tastings and do that on your own time.

That said, send me your resume and tell me where you live specifically, lots of folks around town looking for decent, motivated entry level people. Prove your worth to get what you want.

I agree with this and should have made it clear. Good wine managers will do what they can to help their staff get familiar with the wine selection, but that’s only a tiny part of what an entry level person would do, and probably before or after your shift rather than on the clock. Trade tastings can be helpful, but it took me quite a while to learn how to actually gain something from them, including practicing the huge amount of focus it takes to get any understanding of a wine at all in a crowd like that with a (usually) tiny pour. The big ones are often a waste of time, and the smaller ones where you sit down and learn something tend to only invite buyers.

Also, take Brent up on his offer.

I used to love Spirit Haus! I think they’re still around.

I want to say they targeted 55 degrees in the wine room. It was the size of a small grocery store. I loved walking the wine rack rows in there.

I was a 19 year old firefighter working for Cal Fire (back then it was CDF) and one of my supervisors was a friend of John Scharffenberger. Late one afternoon we took the fire truck up to Eaglepoint and performed about a two acre very unauthorized control burn as a favor. It was right in the middle of fire season…a fireable offense in the modern era for sure.

Anyway, John said he was looking for help after fire season pounding stakes, clearing trees and brush and building deer fence. This was the kind of work I grew up doing with my parents. The following summer I worked fire season on a helitack crew in eastern Oregon, but was able to return in time to help with harvest.

I never went back to the fire service again. I made $700/month and a '68 Ford pickup as a company car. I learned everything about growing grapes truly from the bottom up. 2-3 years later John started the winery and pretty much put me in charge of daily operations of the vineyard. I would say it took me 10 years before I felt comfortable making decisions without input from John.