After months of unemployment as a result of Covid-19-related restaurant closures, some sommeliers may be considering new career moves within the wine industry. While positions in importer or distributor sales, wine production, retail, consulting, and wine writing may seem like natural pivots for somms, those who have already made the transition from the floor explain that there’s more to these moves than meets the eye.
Pursuing Sales Positions
Because a sommelier’s primary job is to sell wine to guests in order to generate beverage sales for a restaurant, other sales and marketing positions in the wine industry are common pursuits for somms looking to leave the floor. When Jeff Russell was ready to step away from his position as a sommelier at Terroir in New York, he joined the team at MFW Wine Co. as a sales representative. His wine knowledge, hospitality experience, and sales skills transitioned well, but there was still plenty to learn.
“It takes a lot more preparation than people think,” says Russell. Before visiting buyers, he suggests studying wine lists ahead of time, looking for open spots in the program, and bringing wines that will most resonate with the buyer. And for those who want to leave the floor to avoid the physical strain of restaurant work, be forewarned: In cities where personal cars aren’t prevalent, carrying a wine bag from appointment to appointment is still physically demanding.
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While wine sales positions have experienced cuts as well — Russell himself was furloughed from his most recent position as the head of sales and marketing at Eden Ciders — he expects more available job opportunities once restaurants reopen. To find potential jobs, Russell suggests that somms reach out to contacts working with portfolios they like, and getting an understanding of which territories may need to be addressed.
Being a successful sales rep takes time and investment, though. “You’re not going to make a ton of money right away,” says Russell. “That only happens once you build up your territory.”
Many sommeliers look to sales positions at wine shops — or have even worked in wine retail in the past — because there’s a relatively light lift to transition from selling wine in a restaurant to selling wine at retail. However, Russell, who is currently working at Brooklyn Wine Exchange, notes that the interaction with consumers in wine shops is often different than it is in restaurants. “Not everyone wants an ‘experience’ in retail,” he says. “Not everyone wants to talk with you, and a lot of people want to get the same bottle over and over.”
Full-time marketing or brand ambassador roles with individual companies or regional organizations are often highly coveted — and rarely offered — positions. Often, obtaining these roles depends on contacts within the industry and specialized knowledge. While Jim Clarke joined the Wines of South Africa team as a full-time marketing manager in 2013, getting the job resulted from a strong relationship with the organization that he developed early in his wine career.
“Figure out what region you are passionate enough about that you can make that personal investment,” says Clarke, who specialized in South African wines early on and freelanced for the organization regularly before taking on a full-time role. It can also be helpful to gain a foundation in marketing and seek out experience in public speaking, as Clarke notes that it is much different than speaking at a table with guests.
It’s also important to understand how the wine industry works at all levels — especially retail — and to embrace every wine being represented. “As a sommelier, you tend to work with the fine wines of the world,” says Clarke. “Working with the wine that retails for $8 or $10 in big-box stores is also part of your job.”
Leaping to Writing and Consulting
Sales positions aren’t the only wine industry options for sommeliers. Some may be interested in the flexibility that writing and consulting can offer, and others may want to make the leap to winemaking. Clarke began writing about wine before he landed his first official sommelier position and continued to write on a freelance basis while working in restaurants.
“The most important thing is to learn how to pitch,” says Clarke, who took a Mediabistro class early in his writing career to hone his writing skills. “Learning to communicate with editors that way is vital to getting in the door.” If they want to pursue writing jobs, sommeliers must also accept that they will often be interviewing other experts as sources — even if they may know the information themselves.
“You have to check your ego,” says Clarke. “Not many people want your opinion without quoting sources, so you’re giving up being an authority on the subject.” He stresses the importance of crafting stories about wine, rather than including every fact about a region or style, and warns that freelance writing rarely pays the bills on its own; most freelance writers have other sources of income, like consulting, full- or part-time positions, or spousal support.
Though former Jean-Georges chef sommelier Kristie Petrullo expected that her consulting business would largely have her working with private collectors and managing home cellars, she quickly discovered that wasn’t the case. “Flexibility is the key to consulting,” she says. “I had to hustle and learn on the fly.” In addition to crafting beverage programs and working with private clients, she has worked as a guest sommelier, an educator and spokesperson, and more through Petrullo Wine Company.
It’s important to treat a consulting business like a business from the start: Formally create a business entity, get a business bank account, start a website, and create business cards. Most of Petrullo’s business happened organically through industry contacts, other consultants, and word of mouth, so she suggests that sommeliers leverage their networks — and be gracious to everyone they meet in their careers.
While the prospect of being independent is alluring, adjusting to a more solitary work environment can be tricky. “You need to be really organized,” says Petrullo. “You’re only held accountable by yourself.” Be disciplined with finances, time management, and schedules, and meet every client’s expectations by resisting the urge to overcommit. “Everything you do affects your reputation,” she says, “and it’s your entire livelihood.”
Moving Into Wine Production
Likewise, pursuing a winemaking position can be a shock. “Going from working in restaurants to a winery is a major change, one that wasn’t easy — physically or mentally,” says Chris Walsh, the owner of Little John Lane and the End of Nowhere in Amador City, Calif. When Walsh left his sommelier position at Corkbuzz in New York City to start his own winery in 2014, he found that his blind-tasting experience and familiarity with diverse styles of wine were helpful to the transition — but there’s plenty more for aspiring winemakers to learn.
“The more you educate yourself the better you’ll be,” says André Hueston Mack, who started Maison Noir Wines in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 2007, after leaving his position as head sommelier at Per Se. He suggests taking an online winemaking class through U.C. Davis or getting an apprenticeship. Walsh, who interned at Donkey & Goat in Berkeley, Calif., admits that he had to shake off some preconceived notions about winemaking when he started.
“I think every somm should work at least one harvest as an intern at a smaller winery,” says Walsh, adding that small wineries offer a well-rounded and hands-on learning experience. Mack agrees, suggesting that sommeliers seek out opportunities to spend time in wineries and ask plenty of questions.
“All of these things are only gonna make you stronger at your job and also prepare you for life after the floor,” Mack says. These typically unpaid learning opportunities can lead to a cellar hand position, where an aspiring winemaker will typically stay for several years, adds Walsh.
The goal of launching a new winery adds another hurdle on top of simply entering the field of winemaking; as with any new business, it takes time and financial investment. “The wine business is a huge outlay of cash, and it could be years before you see any type of return,” says Mack.
“This is the kind of career change that takes years — plural,” adds Walsh. “Don’t expect to jump into winemaking and be making good wine — or even your own wine — three months from now.” Things like licensing and compliance with local and federal rules come before sourcing grapes or planting vines.
Even after the wine is made, success relies on the ability to manage logistics like pricing, storing, shipping, and marketing, as well as finding distribution. “[A misconception] is that making wine is good enough,” says Walsh. “You have to be very savvy about selling wine as well. It’s a lot to handle.”
Launching a Wine Startup
Other sommeliers might be thinking of pursuing new business ideas outside of wine production as full-time gigs or side hustles. Russell, along with partner Will Mcleod, who has experience getting startups off the ground, quickly launched virtual tasting company Bespoke Social Club after he was furloughed due to Covid-19. With sommeliers out of work and consumers drinking more wine at home, the duo saw a long-term business opportunity.
“I think it’s going to be awhile before anything gets back to normal,” says Russell, “so there will be a paradigm shift in the way people drink.” Bespoke Social Club sells $60 tickets to themed beverage classes, which gets purchasers a flight of six 3-ounce samples shipped to their homes, along with access to the live tasting. Between paying guest somms with a per-attendee fee and profit share, purchasing materials and wines, and packaging and shipping each flight of 3-ounce wines for classes, the new business has required plenty of manpower without much profit — yet.
“It was trial and error,” says Russell, who notes that the company has recently had success with private corporate tastings. But the most important thing for starting a new business is perseverance. “Just keep going,” he says. “Don’t automatically pull back, and don’t let it bring you down.”