Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.
X

How to start a career and get a job in the wine industry

I’m fascinated by wine and want to make a career change. How can I get a job in the wine industry?

There are so many different options for working in the wine industry. The two key sectors are production and sales, but there are dozens of others to consider.

If you want to get into production then the best way to start is by getting a job at a winery as a cellar hand. Simply go and visit, and ask to speak to the Winemaker. It’s remarkably easy to get a job helping out during the harvest, which is the most exciting time of the year.

Obviously a job with a fair amount of physical labor won’t pay a fortune, but you’ll quickly figure out if production is for you. Make sure you work for someone who speaks your language, and someone who will take you under their wing. Otherwise, you’ll have no idea why you’re doing the various tasks. Ask to spend 2-3 days doing a task like operating the press, doing punch-downs or working in the lab, and then move on. It’s pointless to spend 3 months doing the exact same thing in a winery.

If you like working in a vineyard or a winery, then it’s time to take some courses. UC Davis in California is well regarded, and they have some good courses in Washington State too. Obviously France, Australia and NZ have some of the very best schools but perhaps less convenient depending on where you live or want to go.

These days it’s important to have formal training. Some growers and winemakers seem to just take a few courses here and there, and miraculously declare themselves as professionals. There’s a frightening amount of this in Canada. My suggestion, if you want to be serious, is to get a degree.

Whilst studying you could start to specialize in a certain area, because expertise in a particular field like irrigation or oak barrels will help you tremendously in your career. Maybe you can be the world expert on a tiny bug that attacks the vine, or develop a new technology to help with the science of winemaking. Then you have something…

On the sales front, many people start in wine retail. It’s pretty easy to walk into a shop and ask for a job paying a low hourly rate. But it is a great place to start. You’ll have the chance to taste lots of different wines and learn from your colleagues. Most importantly, you’ll start to understand consumer behavior and that will be invaluable in the years to come.

Alternatively, one of the best jobs is as a Sales Rep. I loved the freedom to disappear into the city with a trunk full of samples. You’ll get to meet dozens of customers in the hospitality and retail industries. Along with a start in wine retail, this is probably the best way to learn the ropes.

In terms of formal education in Sales and Marketing, you could do an MBA at a number of different schools. Sonoma State, Bordeaux and Adelaide have excellent programs. Having these qualifications, which can often be done part-time over 12-18 months can really open doors and help with your career. And don’t forget, there is much more money in sales and marketing compared to the average salaries in production so that’s something to consider too.

After getting some formal training like an MBA, you could consider working in export sales. It can be fun to fly around the world selling wine, although after a few years hotel rooms and airports quickly lose their appeal. Eventually, many people working in sales start their own import companies or become brokers, or develop their own trading business of one type or another. These can flourish.

There are dozens of other niche businesses. If you want to be a wine writer then getting accredited is a good start, although it doesn’t seem to be mandatory. Writing doesn’t seem to pay much for all but the top 10 in the world and even they seem to moan about the low pay. But they do like the incredible experiences, the travel, the wonderful wines and effectively they can live like a millionaire so that counter-balances the fees paid by magazines and newspapers. Sadly, very few people in the world are interested in reading about wine, at least compared to food.

Designing packaging and websites could be another area to consider, and the top designers can do very well. Or maybe you want to be a professional Wine Buyer or Consultant; although a certain amount of training is required before you make purchasing recommendations or dish out advice. Or maybe you want to rep a line of glasses, or have a wine storage business, or do in-store tastings en masse for large companies, or analyze wines at auction to see if they are fake, or be a Sommelier, or work in logistics, or, or , or… The good news is that there are hundreds of options. Just start thinking out of the box.

To get started you can visit www.WineJobsCanada.com , www.WineJobsUSA.com, www.WineJobsEngland.co.uk, or one of our other sites in HK, Oz, or NZ. I hope you’ll find the perfect job that meets all your needs.

What’s the story on all the different wine education providers?

Now that you’ve chosen a path you need to chose a guide. And not all Sherpa’s will get you to the top of the mountain.

I started our company Fine Vintage precisely because I was horrified by the terrible experience I had at some other schools. Shitty wines, boring instructors, and presentations that were as exciting as watching paint dry. Harsh, but true.

You have to be taught by someone who has some qualifications and experience themselves, otherwise it’s like the blind leading the blind. If the instructor doesn’t really know how to taste then they might do you more harm than good. So check-out your instructor. Ours all have the Level 4 Diploma, are in the MW program, or are industry veterans.

Then you need to taste good wines and lots of them. You don’t learn much by tasting a couple of wines that all cost under $20, but the wine school sure saves money… We spend over double, often triple what other wine schools spend on wine. Yup, it stings when I see the monthly wine expense report.

But it’s our Fine Vintage mantra to pour outstanding wines and lots of them. That is a key reason why we have over 4,000 students per year coming back to take their next course with us. We all fell in love with wine because of the amazing aromas and flavours we discovered in that first magic bottle, and that’s why we come back again and again.

Another major point for you to consider are the exam pass rates at the various schools. There’s not much point going to a school where the failure rate is shockingly high. Obviously with the higher Levels the onus becomes increasingly on you to study and prepare for exams because the body of knowledge is too voluminous to be covered exclusively in the classroom. But your Sherpa should be able to help you stay on track, on a schedule, and ensure you know what lies ahead.

At my own schools we have one of the highest pass rates around the world, and have been nominated and awarded as WSET Educator of the Year more times than any other school in the world in the last 10 years. Every day I receive copies of student’s exam results and it’s always a thrill to exchange a few e-mails with our wonderful instructors congratulating them, and then be able to tell our students the good news.

To learn more about the wonderful world of wine take a course from us at www.FineVintageLtd.com

What’s the story on wine education? What path should I follow?

If you want to take a course that will result in professional certification with international recognition then, in my opinion, there is only one choice: Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET). This is the world’s leading independent wine education institute, operating in over 75 countries and 20 languages. It’s the gold standard, simple as that.

There is an introductory WSET course called the Level 1, which is perfect for beginners. You can progress up to the Level 4 Diploma, which is a challenging 2-year course. After that, the next step is to apply for acceptance into the Master of Wine program. So the WSET offers a clear and structured path.

You can pursue other paths. There is the SWE and ISG, but those organizations have comparatively limited recognition and are more orientated towards the hospitality industry. There are also non-certificate courses by the boatload run by community colleges, private individuals and so on. Some can be good, but all too often the “curriculum” has been made up without the same professionalism you’ll find at serious institutes dedicated to wine education. So buyer beware…

For myself, I took the WSET courses for a reason and then decided to teach them precisely because I thought they were excellent.  

To learn more about the wonderful world of wine take a course from us at www.FineVintageLtd.com

What order do you serve wines in at a dinner party?

It’s best to kick off with sparkling wines, which can be sipped all by themselves or paired with light appetizers such as smoked salmon.

Following that you can move into white wines. I recommend starting with drier styles of aromatic wines like Sauvignon Blanc and then move into heavier, richer, and potentially oaked varietals such as Chardonnay.

When you start on the red wines, make sure you pour the more delicate ones first, such as Pinot Noir or Gamay. Follow the lighter reds with heavier wines that have richer and more concentrated flavors, such as an Australian Shiraz or California Zinfandel. These big reds can overpower the lighter ones and so best to work upwards in terms of body.

The debate is still out in terms of the serving order of young versus older wines. Personally, I recommend serving older wines first because they can have more delicate and complex flavors, which are harder to appreciate after a young tannic red.

Sweet wines should be next on the agenda. There are some delicious sweet wines from Sauternes, Tokaji, the Loire and Germany, not to mention Canada. The golden rule is that the wine should be sweeter than the dessert otherwise they will taste tart and sour.

Wrap up the evening with fortified wines such as a Port or Madeira. After the stronger alcoholic content of these wines it’s hard to appreciate the subtleties of the other types and styles of wine. After a glass of Port it’s hard to go back!

To learn more about the wonderful world of wine take a course from us at www.FineVintageLtd.com

What are the best white wines to buy under $20?

There are dozens of white wines under $20 that offer excellent quality for the price.

I love Sauvignon Blanc for just sipping by itself and Chile and New Zealand offer plenty of great value wines. Look for Marlborough on the label of Kiwi wines and the Casablanca valley on Chilean wines. These are the most respected regions.

The best value Rieslings come from Germany, Alsace, and Australia. Often German Rieslings can have a touch of sweetness, even at QbA level, and pair well with spicy food. Rieslings from Alsace are much drier, with crisper acidity and citrus flavors. Australians love their Rieslings too, but these can be extremely dry and only for those who like crisp, steely, austere wines.    

Pinot Grigio from Italy will usually run you less than $20 a bottle and these are easy drinking wines. They mainly come from the cooler reaches of northern Italy. They are dry, light to medium in body and always marked by crisp refreshing acidity. Try them with scallops and crab cakes, or simply on their own.

Gewurztraminer is under-rated and, as such, many of them are underpriced. It’s partly to do with the tricky pronunciation of the grape. But don’t let that put you off because these can be sublime, especially from Alsace. They can be very floral and tropical, smelling of roses and exotic fruits, and usually full bodied and heady.

When it comes to Chardonnay, look to Chile and Australia for real bargains. These are consistently well-made and economies of scale allow for attractive pricing. California is another option. If they are oaky then try them with richer foods, such as roast chicken.

The list could go on, given the multitude of other varietals lining our shelves, but we’ll leave the rest for another time. Oh, don’t forget Spanish sparkling wine, known as Cava. Now that’s a deal.

To learn more about the wonderful world of wine take a course from us at www.FineVintageLtd.com

How long can I cellar Port for?

Ports are one of the longest lived wines because they are fortified, they have the support of tannin, a degree of acidity, and massive concentration of fruit. These are some of the key criteria for longevity. In fact, other than Madeira, they are the longest lived of all wines. But there are a number of different styles of Port and so I have to answer your question according to each style.

Vintage Ports, the greatest wines from a single year, are designed for long term cellaring. The general guideline is that they should not be opened for at least a decade after the vintage, and most will be showing their pedigree at 15-25 years of age. Of course, it depends on the quality and style of the vintage, but a really great Port could easily mature for 40-50 years, and some of them for much longer.

With Vintage Port you must drink the whole bottle within 1-2 days of opening. These wines are bottled after just a few years in the cellar, so they oxidize faster because they haven’t been exposed to a lot of air. So beware of ordering Vintage Port in a restaurant. Often they have been sitting there for, well, much more than 2 days.  

Late Bottled Vintage Ports (LBV), which is the best value for money, are aged by the producer and only shipped when ready to drink. Whilst you certainly can age a top LBV for a few years, and you may even see some improvement, this is not the intention of the producer. The producers are hoping that you’ll pull the cork the day you buy them, given that they already matured them for over 6 years themselves.

Ruby Port is the entry level category, and these are intended for immediate consumption. They are deep red, full bodied, with heady black fruits, sweet spices and a fiery kick on the palate. If you age them for more than a few years they risk losing their freshness. So don’t cellar these.

Finally, Tawny Ports, which are my favourites, can be kept in bottle for a few years, depending on the quality and style of the wine. But the intention with these beauties is that you buy them and drink them without further cellaring. In production, they have been exposed to air for many years before bottling, sometimes 40+ years in the top age category. So they are more stable, and you can keep the bottle open for a few weeks, if you can resist the temptation.

To learn more about the wonderful world of wine take a course from us at www.FineVintageLtd.com

How to identify aromas and flavors in wine.

It can be tricky to pinpoint the exact flavors in some wines, and even amongst the experts there can be some disagreement because of the subjective nature of taste.

In fact, we all taste slightly differently. Some people have very low sensitivities to bitterness, others have a sweeter tooth, and different nationalities can have their own taste preferences. It’s for this reason that some wine producers make the same wine in different styles to suit certain export markets.

My recommendation would be to play blind tasting games with different fruits, spices, and other common aromas found in wine. Blindfold your partner, or have them close their eyes, and then ask them to smell different fruits and guess what they are. Then move into the spices. You’d be amazed at how often we get them wrong.

There are also aromas kits that you can buy from companies like Le Nez du Vin, but these can be very expensive and are not for everyone. Another option is to take a wine course where you are professionally trained to taste and describe wines.

The good news is that practice makes perfect. There are certainly some tasters that have an ability to write beautiful tasting notes and identify a wide range of flavors in wine. But keep in mind that this is a profession for such people and the skills didn’t develop overnight.

To learn more about the wonderful world of wine take a course from us at www.FineVintageLtd.com

Can you train yourself to become a good wine taster?

The short answer is that, yes, in most cases, you can train yourself to become a good wine taster. It just takes a lot of practice and, most importantly, you need someone to explain what to look for, and how to look for it. Don’t let the blind lead the blind.

But the speed of your progress will depend, at least in part, on your natural-born ability as a taster. And it is shocking just how differently we taste. Women are considered to be superior to men. And it is generally accepted by sensory scientists that the population can be broken up into 25% Supertasters, 50% medium tasters, and 25% nontasters.

The 25% nontaster statistic sends most people running to the bathroom mirror to inspect their taste buds, known as fungiform papillae, in scientific circles. But it’s hard to count the roughly 10,000 taste buds in your average person’s mouth.

The real test, which determines which category you fall into, is based on your sensitivity to bitterness. Scientists use a compound called PROP to rate your response. At one extreme, some people find it tastes unpleasantly bitter (the Supertasters). At the other extreme, some people don’t notice the bitter taste at all. In sensory science there is much talk about thresholds, because people differ widely in their ability to notice something. The nontasters can’t notice some things at all.

It’s no surprise that professional wine tasters usually fall into the Supertaster or medium taster category. So if, in fact, you turn out to be a nontaster then it might be a challenge to train yourself to become an accomplished wine taster. Discussions about tannins might be limited.

So how can you find out? You could certainly speak to your doctor and see if they could organize a test for you. Unfortunately some people actually suffer from a complete loss of smell, known as anosmia. It is less common for people to have a taste disorder, but it also exists. The Monell Centre leads the research in the science of smell and taste, and will perform testing on individuals too.

All being well, most people fall into the category of medium tasters. This means that you can confidently get on with your plan to become the next Robert Parker.

But beware of a few pitfalls. Firstly, the older you get the less sensitive you become to certain tastes and smells. So the ideal age to start your wine tasting education is straight out of High School. Another important tip is that you should do your practice before lunch, around 11 am, when the senses are heightened. Tasting wine late at night after a spicy Thai takeout is not ideal.

Also, keep in mind that you don’t taste well if you are tired or stressed out. One of the most respected tasters in history, Emile Peynaud, said that your physical health has a significant impact on your ability to taste. So if you are out-of-shape, hauling on cigars, and auditioning to be the next Bar Star then you are not exactly primed to progress at full speed.

I’ve often found that my tasting is at its best after swimming in the ocean, thanks to the effect of the salt water. I’ve also found that the impression of certain components in a wine, like tannin, changes depending on the frequency of your tasting. If you haven’t had any red wine in a while then the first taste will seem more astringent than if you were regularly drinking reds.  

So presuming that you’re fighting fit, well rested, and in a Zen-like state you can begin your training to become a good wine taster. For the average winelover the best way to progress is to buy a few different grape varieties, or regions, and try them all side-by-side. Comparative tasting is always the most instructive, and it’s even better if you can do it blind. You can also experiment by blind tasting fruits and vegetables, and smelling flowers and spices.      

If you are attempting a more serious challenge, like a wine tasting exam, then some people find themselves sitting down to 12 wines before lunch, and then another 12 after lunch. It’s a full time job. But then again some people are employed to review and select wines for magazines like Wine Spectator, major newspapers, hotels, restaurants, and retail stores.

Now that you have trained yourself to be a good wine taster, your job is to stay relevant to your audience. The issue here is that your customers, or readers, are usually not as well versed as you about wine. You run the risk of alienating them if you don’t speak their language.

Some wine tasters write in-depth reviews about tannin textures, various styles of acidity, and give a laundry list of flavor descriptors. This can perplex the reader, who then simply looks at the point score. That number is so much easier to understand.

The ultimate skill is to use your knowledge to buy wines for others that they will like, even if sometimes you might not like the wine very much yourself. A good taster can understand how others taste, and can predict what they will like. They can also describe wines in a language that the targeted consumer for that particular wine will relate to, and find helpful. And to do that you simply need to train yourself. Supertaster ability is not required.

To learn more about the wonderful world of wine take a course from us at www.FineVintageLtd.com 

Chateau Recougne, AC Bordeaux Superieur 1993 PUMP OVERS

The main activity of the day was always the morning and afternoon pump-overs, or remontage as they say. This, one of the key arts of red winemaking, was done by draining fermenting juice out of a vat, running it through a pump, and spraying it back over the cap.

This method of maceration extracted all kinds of goodies – color of course, tannin from the skins, flavor from the berries, and a host of little-understood complex elements that make up wine. We would do this for about 45 minutes per tank, twice a day, which most people these days would say is ridiculously long.

But although just Bordeaux Superieur, this property made wines that could age well for 30-50 years. We had regular samplings of the 1952 with clients to prove it. This is one of the amazing things about Bordeaux, where some unclassified estates, known as petits chateaux, can make very long-lived wines, and wines that are quite stunning at 20+ years old.

There are lots of different methods of macerating red grapes. My favorite is the foot stomp, known as pigeage. I had the pleasure of spending a week in McLaren Vale in Australia doing just this to Eileen Hardy, their top wine, and winner of Best Red wine in Australia that vintage.

All you need is a pair of swimming trunks and a ladder to place across an open top concrete fermenter. You simply stand on the cap, slowly sink down, pushing the skins into the juice, and then just before you drown you use the ladder to drag yourself up and shuffle to a new spot.

At the top estates making Port many winemakers still like the fast maceration they can get by packing a shallow concrete tank full of Portguese workers and getting them to perform a military style march to the beat of a drum.

The workers march back and forth, knee deep in must. It’s a somber mood. But then they have the libertad, the so-called freedom, it’s party time in the tank. The music turns upbeat, people dance together, they pass around wine and drink from the bottle.

Another method is punch-downs, often used on Pinot Noir because it is considered a more gentle technique of extracting delicate flavors and tannins from that delicate grape, Pinot.

When you really want to aerate the must, which may help stimulate yeast activity, you can use a more aggressive technique known as delestage. Here, you drain the entire vat into another container, and then spray it all back over the grape skins. It is a very vigorous maceration and extraction method. As with all techniques, they have to be selected and modified to the needs of the fruit, and only a skilled winemaker can adapt their techniques to the qualities of the berries each year.

There are many key stages in red winemaking, but I’d put the maceration among the most important. Macerate too little and you miss the potential goodness in the berries. But if you over-do it you’ll end up with a deep dark inky wine that has massive tannins, is generally unbalanced, and potentially has a hard bitterness that may never go away no matter how long you age it. So selecting the best method and the rigor and regularity of its use is an important art of the winemaker.

But keep in mind that these decisions can often be made very fast because a typical winemaker is often busy with many tanks, staff, administration issues, and trying to make it to watch their kid play sports later that afternoon. It can be frantic at some wineries. This is the beauty of small production. At a small place with low volumes you often have the luxury of more care and attention because you have more time.

One of the things I love about pump overs is just the sheer beauty of watching red wine gush out of a tank’s valve, or being sprayed over the cap. It smells so good, so heady and sweet, and you can imagine that one day, in many months, or maybe many many years, the juice will turn into something so incredible, so delicious, that it will bring immense pleasure to the people lucky enough to drink it. 1947 Cheval Blanc was just fermenting grape juice at one stage.

Le Sucre – harvest at Chateau Recougne, AC Bordeaux Superieur 1993

1993 – Well I couldn’t have picked a worse vintage to start my life in wine. It rained almost every day for what seemed like 6 weeks. Torrential. One day in the office I saw the owner looking out of his office window at the rain, all glum and depressed. He murmured that the only happy man in Bordeaux was the guy who sold the sugar. In poor vintages back in the 90’s the Bordelais sure loved to pour sugar in the vats, called chaptalization. Of course now with climate change things are much better.

So there we were, most days, heaving these huge heavy brown sacks of sugar around the winery and dumping them into bins where they would be mixed with wine during a remontage, or pumping over. The sugar would give the yeast more food, and increase the alcohol degree.

There are strict laws in France on this topic. You have to apply for permission with the local authorities to chaptalize, you have to specify the tank, the volume, the current alcohol potential, and there are limits to which you can bump it up. Then, when the sugar man shows up with his lorry you have a certain amount of time to actually do it, like 24 hours.

Ideally you chaptalize fairly early in the ferment, but there are different logics. It usually increases the alcohol by about 1% in Bordeaux, and there is a maximum you cannot go beyond. The extra alcohol can bring more richness, weight and power to the wine and it can make an average wine taste good. It can also help very fine wines, although ideally the lower yields in fine wine should have helped obtain good grape maturity. Chaptalization is not flavouring per se, although alcohol has a taste. You are making up for a deficit in ripeness in a poor year usually. The bottom line is that all winemakers would rather not use it, partly because it is an expense too.

And in a winery during the fermentation it is very important to keep records. Because you definitely wouldn’t want to make the mistake of chaptalizing the same tank twice by accident…