I just spent the last few days in a large Midwestern market traveling throughout the state working with reps. I am lucky enough to work with, in my humble opinion, one of the best distributors in that region, and was paired each day with really fun, engaging and interesting reps that I absolutely LOVE working with (this past trip I worked with some of the funniest women I have ever met, and had to pinch myself at the end of the trip wondering how it was possible to laugh that much while at work).
As I have written about before, traveling can be expensive, so as a rep for a family-owned, independent winery, getting the most out of your trip is a MUST. This visit represents the epitome of “getting your money’s worth.” Each time I have visited this particular market, I have well-planned days visiting accounts that all have good potential to do business with my wines. Additionally, at the end of every day, I have great events at fantastic accounts where I get the opportunity to speak to a crowd of 30-50 people about why wines from the Pacific Northwest are so special. Granted, my days are long: they usually start around 6 or 7 with emails and don’t finish up until about 10, but every day is packed with things that make my visit totally worthwhile.
I wrote last time about how, after a long week of travel, discussing my job with strangers can be draining. But in the context of a wine tasting, dinner or consumer event, I absolutely love it. Everyone is there because they have at least a passing interest in wine, and not only do I get to share my wine, but I get to learn about the lives from people all over the country (plus in the Midwest, people are usually incredibly friendly).
Of course, someone invariably asks, “How do I get a job like yours?” I always smile and laugh because the road to becoming a wine sales rep never is straight and narrow.
So how does one get a job doing sales “on the supplier side” (working for a winery)?
The Restaurant/Retail–>Distributor Sales–>Regional Sales–>National Sales Route
The most common path I have seen is this: most people start out working at a wine shop or waiting tables at a young age—in college or right out of it. They discover that wine sales increases their ticket and tip averages, so they begin to learn more about it. They then become consumed by the utterly engrossing and totally dynamic world of wine, and many times become the person who controls the wine list/wine buying at the restaurant or shop. They befriend many of their distributor sales reps, who help them find a distributor sales job. They usually rise to the top of the crop, and build very good relationships with winery personnel, which then leads to a regional (sometimes national) position with the winery.
The Tasting Room–>Direct Sales Manager–>Regional/National Sales Route
This is how I got my start in the wine business (I also worked as a waitress at a local wine bar, which is how I got my job in the tasting room in the first place). I have met a few people who have worked in winery tasting rooms who wanted to grow within the organization. They start working at the winery tasting room, eventually grow into a management role at the retail level for the winery (oftentimes, small wineries will hire one person to manage both Direct-to-consumer sales and national sales). As the winery grows, the DTC and National sales role will split and the person who was handling both may choose the national route.
The Family Route
Some of my best friends in the wine business have parents who own wineries. They usually waited tables or worked in retail (either at the family winery tasting room, or at an unaffiliated retail shop—or both) before their parents allowed them to spread their wings and hit some smaller markets, and then finally transitioned them into a national sales position. This seems to actually be the hardest way to get a job selling wine because parents are often harder on their own kids than they would be on a non-family hire. I feel for my friends who have to deal with the wrath of mom and dad after a particularly bad month of sales…
The Career-Change Route
I have met a couple people who have been interested in wine their entire adult lives and know just as much (or more) than some people who have been in the wine industry forever. Usually, they become more than just “regulars” at a very good wine shop in their area—they become almost a part of the team (some of them kind of remind me of the guys in High Fidelity that just keep showing up to the shop every day to work, even though they don’t get paid). Through those connections at their local wine shop, they are able to get introductions to distributor or winery personnel and subsequently find employment through either channel.
So even though selling wine means long hours, never being able to turn off your phone or email (even on vacation), handling massive amounts of rejection and probably more work than you imagined, it’s the greatest job ever. I always tell all my family friends with kids about to graduate college that it’s the best career choice I ever made. The wine industry is vibrant, dynamic and it’s growing. So if you’ve been considering it, I highly recommend giving it a shot. At the very least you will learn a ton and meet lots of wonderful and interesting people along the way.
How did you get your job in wine sales?