10 Nov 2017 for an updated version of this article, see here.
When you say you work in the wine industry, everyone asks the same two questions. What's your favourite wine? How did you get your job?
To wine people, the first question is like asking for the answer to life, the universe and everything.
But answering the second question is straightforward enough. Here's my version, and I'll start off with how it happened for me.
My career path
My first job in wine was with Majestic. I applied for their graduate recruitment scheme after seeing an advert in the back of the Leeds Student newspaper, where I had graduated with a BA in English and Theatre Studies (that'll come in handy later) in 1999. At the time, all I knew about wine was that you could get two bottles for a fiver from our local corner shop. My first day as a trainee manager in the Harrogate branch was in June 2001. Over the next six years, I took all the WSET qualifications and moved up the ranks, variously working in the Brighton, East Grinstead, Belgravia and Notting Hill Gate branches, where I ended up as manager.
I enjoyed working for Majestic but by spring 2007 it was becoming too repetitive. I considered applying for a head office role but decided instead to try doing vintage in Australia. At the time I was 29 and newly single, so was able to make this choice with relative ease. After travelling for a short while, I arrived in McLaren Vale in February 2008 to work as a cellarhand for Kangarilla Road.
For the previous few years, I had been writing about wine with a vague idea that I'd like to do something with it. It never occurred to me to start a blog. Instead, my main focus was the annual Young Wine Writer of the Year competition, which I entered for the first time in 2007. I didn't win, so decided to send my entry to three UK wine writers, including Jancis Robinson, to ask their advice. I also mentioned that I was just about to start doing vintage in Australia, and Jancis asked if I would write something about that.
Part one of Vintage in the Vale appeared on JancisRobinson.com on 13 February 2008. When I returned to London later that year, I carried on contributing to Jancis's site. I also worked as a driver for Majestic, a viticultural assistant at Gusbourne, an educator for the London Wine Academy, behind the scenes at the annual Decanter World Wine Awards and also moonlighted as a theatre lighting lecturer at Greenwich University, thanks to a friend from my student days (told you it'd come in handy) - all of which still barely added up (in 2009-10 I earned less than £15,000).
I continued entering wine writing competitions (and still haven't won any, which is TOTALLY FINE BY ME) as well as becoming an MW student. It took me at least four years of freelancing before I felt relatively comfortable and secure in work. I was only able to survive by living above a pub, being single and using credit cards - I was constantly on the brink of applying for a real job, but then always gave myself another six months of trying.
Six top tips for getting into the wine industry
Based on my own experience, as well as what I've observed, here are some tips for getting into the wine industry in the UK.
- Earn your stripes in retail/sales. Getting experience of how wine sells in this country, be it to consumers or businesses, provides a strong foundation for a career in wine. Companies like Majestic, Enotria, Liberty, Oddbins and many others recruit pretty much constantly, so there are many opportunities. It may not be glamorous, but it's a crucial first foot on the ladder.
- Take WSET courses. This should be a no-brainer (though see also point five, below). Eventually having the Diploma on your CV is invaluable proof of your commitment to and understanding of wine. Good companies will fund your WSET education.
- Play the long game. Many starting roles in the wine industry pay quite badly, especially compared with salaries for equivalent roles in finance or property or insurance. The primary attraction of the wine industry has never been getting rich, although it's certainly possible to do so. When I work out how exactly, I'll blog about it. Instead, enjoy the perks of working with an endlessly fascinating drink, and remember that it might take you many years of pleasurable drinking before you achieve your dream role.
- Broaden your horizons. There is no substitute for working in different sectors of the business, especially in the vineyard and the winery. This usually requires travel and can be significantly disruptive - but is completely worthwhile. I've never worked in the hospitality sector, and that's a big gap in my understanding.
- Ignore all this advice and trust your instinct. No, really. Loads of wine people at the top of their game have never worked in retail or taken a WSET exam. The above tips show you one path to a potential career in wine, but that doesn't make it the only way. What really matters is that you ...
- Really want it. Maintaining your wonder for wine is paramount. The industry works because people are devoted to the cause. If you don't get thrilled by wine in all its guises, working with it isn't a good idea. But if you do, it's one of the luckiest and most enjoyable jobs going.
Wine trade job adverts
Beware recruitment agencies promising routes into the wine industry. Most wine businesses find their staff directly, via these advertising sites. And the Leeds Student newspaper, of course.