One of the questions I hear most often is “How do I get a job in wine?” From an outsider’s
perspective, the wine business can appear very glamorous. While most of the day-to-day stuff is pretty typical [aka your life is governed by email inboxes and spreadsheets], there are moments where working in wine really sets itself apart from the tedious drudgery of most career grinds.
International travel, amazing dinners, and of course lots of wine, absolutely make a career in wine its own reward. So how do most people get their start with a wine career?
Diego and I outlined our different paths, in the case it helps someone find their own:
From Dive Bars to Fine Dining: One Way Toward a Career in Wine
If I had a tip for aspiring sommeliers, it would be: don’t become a sommelier. But I can’t really say that, right?
Yes, the wine world can seem very glamorous. It is, however, just as hard and demanding as any other industry. My top suggestion: have an open mind and learn, learn, learn as much as you can. The wine world is always changing. There is always a new wine trend, a hot wine region, an obscure varietal that’s found the spotlight…and it can be daunting to keep up with it all. So, as a wine professional, you are always working to educate yourself.
I got my first glimpse into the wine and spirits business in school in New Orleans, bartending at a little dive bar. Pouring cheap beer and shots for the college crowd gave me just enough experience to land a side gig at Commander’s Palace, the venerable New Orleans institution that has been around since the late 1880s.
After a few months I took an interest in the high-end spirits they were slinging and began to educate myself more about these, from the various whiskeys of the world to the different botanicals used in gin. The restaurant’s sommelier noted my curiosity, and my willingness to learn. Before I knew it I was helping him haul 60-100 cases of wine and liquor into the cellar every week–which was much harder than banging out martinis for the lunch crowd.
Though it was tough labor, stocking the cellar gave me insight into all the brands that came through the doors. There were so many varietals, appellations, blends, etc. that I had never seen before. Wine became my new focus. I started studying (aka tasting all the wine I could) and immersed myself in everything related to wine. I started by going to different tastings and trying to learn from whoever was pouring the wine, and would sometimes just buy a few different bottles and taste them on my own. It’s super helpful to learn the CMS tasting grid, and learn how to talk about and consider the wine you’re experiencing. Find your people too: a study group or group that takes classes who are a bit like-minded can be a great place to learn.
In just a few years, I followed this sommelier to Las Vegas. The Wynn had just opened on the Strip, and with his help I landed a gig at the fine-dining Chinese restaurant. This was a very different wine scene than New Orleans. On a nightly basis I had the opportunity to serve [and taste] some of the most exclusive wines from some of the greatest vineyards in the world. I still consider myself very lucky to have landed that gig.
My work as part of the Vegas somm community, among so many wine professionals, wineries, distributors, and suppliers, gave me the knowledge and experience to help launch RedThumb Natural Wines with my college buddy Davey [aka Dave].
From Jazz Performances to Wholesale Wine Rep: a Unique Path to a Career in Wine
My path into wine was pretty typical, in that it happened completely by accident. In college, I studied jazz performance. I’m from a generation that was told we could be anything we wanted to be, and I was one of those starry-eyed kids that didn’t really consider economic viability when selecting a major.
For years I bounced through different jobs in banking, logistics, and supply chain management. I hit my mid-30s and I realized I was running out of time to have a career doing something I loved. Living in Los Angeles at the time, the craft beer scene here was exploding and I became an enthusiast. New breweries opened all over the place.
A move back to New Orleans was the right opportunity for a career change, and I scored a position as Beer and Wine Specialist at a newly-opened Whole Foods in New Orleans. Which is a fancy way to say I was the guy that buys the beer and wine for the store. The Whole Foods team decided I knew enough about beer, and could learn the wine side with experience in the role.
My goal: best beer selection in New Orleans. Over time, however, the wine set took more and more of my attention. Like Diego, I started educating myself: attending every trade tasting I could find, and drinking wine for pleasure more often than beer. Next up was a similar role at an independent gourmet grocer in Los Angeles that gave me more freedom [and exposure to more unique wines], and then into a role as a wholesale sales rep for small natural wine importer.
At this point, Diego and I were both pretty established in the industry, but in very different segments: He, in fine dining and me, in the wild world of natural wine. We’d talk about wine a bit when we’d see each other, I guess. But then he came in for RAW Wine Los Angeles. Diego was skeptical of the quality of wine in this new craze but he was blown away by the passion of the producers, trade professionals, and wine drinkers in attendance.
Two different backgrounds brought us to one great outcome, and we launched RedThumb just a few years later.