Resume vs Reputation-How to Get More than 15 Minutes in the Wine Business

1 04 2009

Almost weekly I get a call or email asking what it takes to be in the wine business.  For awhile I even got calls saying, ok, so I just got in the wine business last quarter and I have taken a few classes, so I was wondering how I can do what you do?!

I respond, “Well, it’s a long road!”  And I explain my path… College education in food & beverage, great connections,  lucky chances, bartending, retail experience, waiting tables, inventory, stocking, intensive study for the MW, money spent on travel, humility, etc. and then they say, “Well, I want to do what you do but in 3 years, not 10.” 

WOW!  Do they realize how insulting that sounds?  I think to myself, “So do you really mean to say that I wasted all that time stocking and serving drinks and such, and that you could just take a class and be a professional.  Really?”  Sure if I had just had that bright idea of calling up a professional in the industry and asking for an informational interview I’d be Jancis Robinson today.  NOT!   

I was fortunate enough to be trained by the best in the business, those that were at the top of their game and I believe that if you ask most of them they will tell you that there are no short cuts into the wine business.

 Of course there will be those that say, “But I have a fantastic resume!”  And sadly a lot of those folks do get very impressive sounding jobs.  I’ve been seeing a lot of this lately.  Now that anyone can blog, who needs real world experience?  Ironically many publications will hire someone just on a resume (lucky you!) and allow you to write a column or feature or whatever because they think you have great credentials.  But the truth is do they fact check?  Do they know that your last five “gigs” were incredibly unhappy with your performance?  Do they realize that REAL educators actually then have to step in and perform crisis control?  Do they understand that you are actually a fraud?  All too soon they will realize that not only is their new hire not qualified, but they are not respected in the industry. 

I may sound overly critical, but I just really don’t want you to fall into the same trap.  Credentials may help get you to the top, but you won’t be able to stay there and it certainly won’t make you any friends. It reminds me of one of the greatest management concepts I learned at Cornell, the Peter principle, “In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence.”   This happens more often than you can imagine and it’s a recipe for a quick rise in the industry and a quick fall from grace. 

Believe me, I understand the desire to take the fast track, but when you guys who want the fast track ask me for my advice and then tell me that you are not willing to put in the time and effort to get there, I immediately lose respect.  Ask any MW/MS and they will tell you that achieving success in the wine industry is not a short term proposition.  It takes years, even a lifetime or generations.  You are dealing with a product that is many years in the making.  Patience in the wine industry is more than a virtue, it’s a necessity.

So here are my top 10 suggestions for becoming successful in the wine business (not to imply that I am a success by the way.)

10.  Be OPEN to ideas.  There is no one right way, no one credential or degree that can buy you a spot at the top of the business.  There is no perfect job to launch your career.  Don’t forget that it’s not the destination but your path that is what makes you an asset to the wine industry.  I never did achieve the Master of Wine title but if I did not devote so much time and energy to it I would not have made it to where I am today.  I would not trade those years for any initials after my name.

9.  Be INQUISITIVE.  Ask questions, get opinions, do research, find out as many possible explanations as possible and then search for the answers.  

8.  Be PROACTIVE.  No one, not even the very best educators out there, will be able to teach you what you need to know to become an expert.  You must always be learning, searching, enriching yourself.  This is not a static business but requires constant research.  Take what resonates with you from each mentor and find your own truth by combining all these lessons.

7.  Be SOCIAL.  Your best possible asset is the network you create.  Getting to know the major players can be helpful, but do not discount your peers or those you would think are “behind you.”  You never know where these people are going to pop up.

6.  Be GENUINE.  It’s all too obvious when someone is out there trying to gain momentum by stepping on the shoulders of others rather than taking the time to chart a course all their own. 

5.  Be RESPECTFUL.  Do not assume the business owes you anything.  We are very fortunate to have opportunities to taste, experience, dine, and travel.  Take these for granted and you will have lost an incredible lesson. 

4.  Be KIND.  Don’t forget that you are not in the business alone.  There are plenty of support staff that help you do what you do.  A busser or dishwasher in a restaurant, a delivery person, vineyard workers, these people all incorporate their work and effort into making you look good and making you a success.  The way you treat them ultimately reflects on your reputation.  I am amazed at how I have seen people treated.  You would be surprised to find that it does not go unnoticed and immediately reflects on your character.

3.  Be PROFESSIONAL.  It seems so simple, but the wine business is still a business.  You are expected to conduct yourself in a manner that is comparable to other businesses.  For example, that does not mean that you do not return phone calls, emails, etc. (I am definitely email/voice mail “challenged” but I never DELETE an email or voicemail without EVENTUALLY following up).  It also seems like second nature, but even at times when the business becomes social you should still be a consummate professional, ie you should not be getting drunk at tastings, driving under the influence, etc.  The benefits of this business are great but the pressures that alcohol consumption can place on you are also great, so be aware that your behavior always reflects upon your reputation whether at a tasting, event or party.  It’s a balancing game between being a fun addition to a party while still maintaining respectability.  (There are of course times I have slipped off that balance beam, I’m no Mary Lou you know.)

2.  Be GENEROUS.  With your time, your passion.  And hopefully your wine.

1.  Be HUMBLE.  Humility is an essential tenet of the industry, there is always more to learn, another vintage, another region, another paradigm shift.  Don’t ever be cocky, and don’t forget where you started, try to inspire those just starting on the same path.



6 responses

3 04 2009
E Crane

Thank you for writing this!

3 04 2009

Excellent thoughts! As one who is just starting to serve the local wine industry in a creative role, these are spot on comments. There are all types of folks involved in the wine business and I am working mainly with the ones who grow, make and market their own products.
It’s very hard work rampant with the great rewards of a legendary vintage and bitter (literally) disappointments and you never know which it will be from year to year. Your comments about “posers” is so apt right now. As in winemaking, you just can’t skip steps. You will be called out or worse – ignored. I have a long journey ahead of me and look forward to it.

22 05 2009
Dick Boushey

Wow, great top 10 advice for anybody getting into the wine business especially in these blog happy times. You just confirmed the good instinct I’ve had about you.

11 09 2009
David Glancy

I could not agree with you more. This is great food for thought which I will pass on to all of my students as they navigate their entry into the wine business.
– Passion – Service – Humility

14 09 2009
Jillian Dowler


This was prabaly the BEST article I’ve ever seen written. I believe quite a few aspects of this would be applicable in all industires, and if people would really try and apply said points (that you have been so kind to lay out, everyone would be doing a lot better in their careers).

We can only hope and thank you so much for passing this on.

This article was so well written. Rebecca, no wonder you are famous!

Thanks again,

15 09 2009

Thank you Jillian! I am blushing.

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