I frequently get inquiries from interested career changers about the best way to go about getting into the wine industry. Recently, an inquiry came in that I thought would be helpful for many of my readers, so I am publishing it along with my advice. As I always say, confidentiality is very important to me, so the following message has been edited of personal information. Hope this is helpful.
I hope this email finds you well.
I currently work in public accounting for a large international accounting firm in the Midwest, I am a licensed CPA here. However, my love for wine is stronger than my love for public accounting, I have no plans to stay with public accounting forever and plan on making a career change within the next few years. When I'm ready for a career change, I would like to switch gears and start a long-term career in the wine industry. Whether it's an accounting role or not, I have no preference.
Having said that, my question for you is, what would you recommend that I do (keeping in mind I'm in the Midwest, there are few wineries here!) to gain the experience I would need to begin a career in the wine industry?
Interested Career Changer
Dear Interested Career Changer:
Thank you for the message. I understand your interest to make the change into the wine industry, and hope to give you some guidance. I think first of all you want to look at your strengths. Having your CPA is very important, and transferable to many industries. Accounting is something all companies need, and allows you several options within the wine industry. You are also working now, which means you can tailor your search to your time-line, and also pick up some knowledge if necessary while you are gainfully employed.
As you mentioned, you aren't working in the wine industry now, and that you are not located in a winery dense area. I would say these are your weaknesses at this point. But they can be overcome. Knowing a strength of yours is that you are presently working, we're going to think about options that you can do while working, located in the Midwest.
First of all, you are making the right steps by getting in touch with people in the industry. Asking those who know is very helpful, and something not everyone does. So ask several contacts in the wine industry about their thoughts on how to make the transition. You will get different insights, and build your wine network.
Next I would recommend learning as much as you can about wine. This includes wine tasting--the fun part for many, as well as getting a fundamental understanding of how grapes are grown, how wine is made and how it is marketed and sold. I think it is also important to look at the business side of wine, including the specific legal requirements for alcoholic beverage production, distribution and sales. With your finance background, a good understanding of these items will be very helpful in making the transition.
I also think becoming familiar with the business aspects of wine is important. Several universities offer extension courses in wine business and could be very helpful for your transition. Liz Thach, a Sonoma State University professor recently co-authored a book titled How to Launch Your Wine Career which could give you some great insights as well.
You might look at wine related industries that have locations in your area. These could include distributors that handle wine sales within your state. These companies are run just like all businesses, and need accounting professionals. And this could be a great bridge position to gain wine industry experience. Also, look into accounting firms that have beverage clients, which may include restaurants, bars, distributors and importers. Working within one of these firms may allow you exposure to the wine and spirits industries.
You mention that there are not many wineries in your area, but I am sure there are a few. And there also are plenty of retailers in your area that sell wine. I know it may sound silly, but get to know the people at your local wine shops. They are a fount of knowledge, and interact with people in the local wine industry daily. They also frequently offer wine education courses and winemaker dinners, all of which give you first hand information about the world of wine. And with wineries being in every state of the union now, I am sure there is a winery near you. Get out and find out who is in the wine industry in your area, and learn as much as you can. You might be surprised to find they need someone to look at their books from time to time. Great opportunity to get into the wine industry.
Hope this is helpful. Good Luck with your goal, and Happy New Year!