Friday, December 31, 2010

Getting into the Wine Industry

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?

Kindest regards,

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!


Amy Gardner


Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Ghost of Christmas Future

Not being too much of a literature buff, I am going to be taking some poetic license with A Christmas Carol. Having read it over 25 years ago and seeing it on the screen every year I can remember, I hope I can pull this off.

Learn from Mr. Scrooge. There is more to life than money.

Too often I get questions from wine professionals about compensation. Some people cry and moan that they don't get paid enough, and that the wine industry is known for low salaries. Others say that there aren't enough opportunities for promotion and, in turn, higher salaries. Some people even consider leaving the industry to chase a bigger paycheck.

Since I've recruited people in a lot of lines of work, I generally am able to figure out what someone is making. I think this is unnerving to some of my friends--and why they don't ask me anymore. Most people don't want to talk about their salaries, except to say it is too low. Everyone thinks the other guy is making more money than they are. And it simply isn't true. I think it is important to look at the entire picture when you look at your career.

Money: Don't get caught up in dollar figures when it comes to your life. We could all use more money in the bank, a nicer car, a bigger house, but at what price? If you need to work two jobs to pay your car payment and mortgage--does your family need to be in a bigger house where you are never home? Yes, Virginia, Less can be More.

While you are counting your gold coins on Christmas Day, maybe you should think about the Cratchit family. They had the love of their family. Bob Cratchit wanted to be home with his family on Christmas day--not get a bigger bonus. Think about what you do have, and appreciate it.

Career: A job in the wine industry is nothing to laugh at. Regularly I receive inquires from people who want to make the switch into the wine biz. If you are already in it--count your blessings. This industry has a lot going for it. Often you get to work in beautiful surroundings, interact with interesting and intelligent people, and experience a truly remarkable product. Yes, wine isn't always the poetry in a bottle everyone makes it out to be--but there is still a lot to enjoy. I find the stories and the history surrounding wine to be fascinating.

Salaries are not that low. Yes, look at salary surveys and get to know what a market rate is. But really, I don't see a huge discrepancy between industries here. Ok, you may not be making what the winery's family members are making, but that's not the issue. Most wineries pay a good wage for all staff positions. And a lot of them have good benefits. Even outside of wine allocations.

Family: As a working woman, I know that women chronically get paid less. The latest figure I saw shows women working full-time earn 80 cents for every dollar men earn. My math says that is a 20% pay cut. Yes, this is grossly unfair. But when I think about it, I take another view. I have worked in big and small companies. At some of these jobs I have been the first person to ask for flexible hours. I have also been the first person to go out on maternity--and to return back to work at two of my employers. I have also been the first to work reduced hours to allow some work/life balance. Should I have blindly plodded along to make up that 20 cents? Or is it better that I made adjustments that allowed me to enjoy my work and my family?

I have found the wine industry to be very family friendly. This may be due to a large number of wineries being family run, but I think it is also because many of them have been around for generations. With years of dealing with the highs and lows of life, experience shows that things tend to right themselves and work goes on. With wine this is certainly true. While the last two years have been hard, a lot of great wine is in the barrel that will be ready to sell when things have turned around. And those vines that have been maturing for years are just getting ready to produce stellar grapes. These things all take time, as does life. So it seems that many wineries are in business for the long term--through the birth of babies and the deaths of loved ones. A hiccup such as a maternity leave, or a snowboarding accident is just that--a short term disturbance. So take stock in your needs and find a place where you can attain good work/family balance. You may have more of it than you think.

Happiness: Are you happy? If you are happy at home--excellent. If you are happy at work too, even better. But sometimes things need tending to, so if you need to improve your family life--do it right away. If you aren't happy at work--figure out what will make you happy, and do it. It may mean changing your responsibilities, hiring someone to help out, or possibly getting rid of a bad employee. And yes, it could mean getting a different job. So if that's the case--do it.

Health: Guess it is fitting that this is my last word of advice. New Year's is just around the corner, filled with possibilities and possibly resolutions. If yours is to improve your health--get busy. We can't be there for our family, our work, or ourselves if we aren't taking care of our health.

Here's to you and yours this holiday--and continued success in the new year.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Must Love the Outdoors

Yesterday I had a great day of spreading holiday cheer in the Napa valley. I visited many long time clients, and stopped to visit some new friends. There were a couple of interviews thrown in, so all in all, a very productive day.

I stopped by a vineyard operation that also makes olive oil on the farm. My contact has been managing the vineyards for years now, and also has overseen the olive orchards for some time, and showed me around the olive oil production facility. He didn't let me go visit the orchards because it was really muddy out there and the tractors had really mucked up the field. While I was gung-ho to still go out, we got to see some of the trees and see the picked berries go up the conveyor belt to the press.

I grew up in Northern California and my house backed up to a nature preserve. This was a favorite haunt for me; walking along the paths, picking wildflowers and breathing the fresh air. It was always surprising to hike up there and run into big groves of perfectly ordered olive trees. Looking into the history of these trees, it is believed they may have been planted during the Mission period when the Spanish friars cultivated the land. I grew up near Mission San Jose, and could see that history stood still in these groves.

Through the years volunteer trees had sprouted up--often being shaped into interesting topiaries by the cattle that grazed there. From the perfectly organized orchard to the erratic stands of younger trees I learned a lot about olives. First of all, they taste awful. This was seared into my brain at the age of 5, and never forgotten. Secondly, while they are everywhere and come ripe all at once, it isn't easy to cure them. Lastly, having lived with olive trees everywhere, I was always tracking in olive pits in the treads of my shoes. So, when I was given the chance to see how to really use those fruits, I jumped at it.

Visiting the production facility, it became evident that it takes a lot of pressure to extract the oil from those olives. While I had previously been kept out of the mud in the orchards, I learned how slippery the production floor can get. That traction flooring they use at the site was necessary--and still allowed for some slipping on my part.

It was a lot of fun to see the processing, and then to taste the finished product. I got to try some straight out of the press. I felt bad when I started to cough when the acid hit the back of my throat, but my friend said that olive oil comes in "one cough, two cough, or three cough strength". So when I was trying the finished product I wasn't as self conscious when the oil hit my throat. Tasting olive oils is something I've done infrequently, and it is always fun to swirl that viscous liquid around and then discern different flavors, and strengthes on your palate. But the protocol is a bit different because oil is oil, and hard to get out of your glass, or into the drain.

After the oil tour, I got to tour the vineyard a bit and try some experimental wines. This I have to say is always the most fun for me. I enjoy wine of course, but to me the process is even more interesting. My tour guide has worked for years on this property, and knows the soil structure and habits of the vines. He has experimented a lot with the fruit production on individual rows and varietals, making a few barrels to see how his viticulture practices affected the wine. Tasting wines that were as young as a month old, and up to two years old showed the range of variety grapes and wines can achieve. And drinking barrel samples is always a fun way to try wine.

On the way out of the property my friend was noting the continued presence of a stray Canadian goose. While this is the season that they migrate into the area, this one has been hanging around one spot of the vineyard for several days, alone. On my last visit to the vineyard we had talked about the different wildlife and about some of the river improvements he is working on to prevent flooding throughout the area and increase salmon and other wildlife habitat.

As that lone goose strolled across our path it hit me--this would be my dream job. Getting to be out in the fresh air, experiment with different viticulture and winemaking practices, donning rubber boots to walk through the fields. Yes, there is the flip side of the heat, dirt and hard work. But I've never shied away from that. Being able to track the seasons, learn what the land has to say to me, and deal with Mother Nature to produce wonderful fruit and exceptional products has a lot of appeal to me.

So what does this have to do with getting a job in the wine industry. Always think about what you enjoy and what you like to do. If you enjoy being outdoors--viticulture might be your game. If you enjoy experimenting with different juices and winemaking protocols in the cellar and the lab, winemaking may appeal to you. If you enjoy interacting with the public and enjoy creating a great experience for consumers, hospitality jobs are perfect. For some people, interacting with restaurateurs and retailers is a blast, and wine sales is an excellent career. Managing licensing and compliance is a great line of work for many people. Also, managing profit and loss statements, strategic planning and overseeing accounts receivable is an important role for every company. Think about what you like, how you can apply it to the wine industry, and be a great success. Good Luck.