Careers In The Wine Business — Insider Career Strategies Resume Writing & Career Coaching

Wine isn’t just a product. It’s a world, all over the world. A winery in Bordeaux, a restaurant in Chicago, a sales office in London, a retailer in Los Angeles, and a wine school in Barcelona, are just a few of the interlocking pieces of the amazing (and fun!) world of wine. Wine is a gateway drug that will get you hooked on the human race.

Wine professionals straddle the white-collar and blue-collar worlds. To know wine means to have specialized knowledge about wine, countries, geography, history, culture, food, and the list goes on. It means reading and writing and understanding how business works. Being a wine professional also means moving and unpacking boxes, stocking, making deliveries, and working a cash register. 

Wine professionals typically start as wine enthusiasts who take their passion to the next level. However, there are many pathways to becoming a wine professional and there are many opportunities across multiple disciplines such as retail and hospitality. The very first thing to know about  working in wine in the United States is the industry (wine, spirits, and beer) still operates under Prohibition-era regulations called the “three-tiered system.”

The three-tiered system is an anathema to anyone who doesn’t work for a large distributor and it isn’t good for the consumer (that’s you). The Volstead Act, which ushered in an ignominious period of American “sobriety,” was passed in 1919 and, to give you an idea of how well it was received, the next decade was called “The Roaring Twenties,” it created America’s first organized crime syndicates, and, to this day, over 100 years later, ensures that consumers will pay a lot more for a bottle of wine than they should. It is safe to say that Prohibition was an unmitigated disaster that haunts our wallets to this day.

Unfortunately, the three-tiered system survived Prohibition’s repeal, and its structures remain in place. Here are the three tiers:

Tier 1: Producers. In the United States, if you make wine (or any alcoholic beverage) you cannot sell directly to the consumer except in a few exempt circumstances such as serving wine in your winery’s tasting room or direct-to-consumer shipments if you join a “wine club,” and even those have strict volume and shipping restrictions. For the most part, producers sell their wine to Tier 2 – distributors/importers.

Tier 2: Distributors/Importers. This is the “middle man” tier and the most powerful. Every well-paid lobbyist on K Street is from Tier 2 because they are the only tier that benefits from Prohibition-era law.

Tier 3: Retailers/Restaurants/Hospitality. Distributors and importers lay out a lot of money to purchase wine from the producers. They mark up the wine and resell it to retailers, restaurants, hotels, and any other hospitality-related business that may need wine. If you are a business that sells wine, you don’t buy it from the producer. You buy it from the middleman (Tier 2).

In every tier, there are many careers but, for the most part, they are sales jobs. The category that is the exception is the viticulturists (i.e., farmers) who grow the grapes.


·      Winemakers

·      Vineyard managers

·      Vineyard workers

·      Nurseries

·      Grape pickers (seasonal)

·      Cellar workers

·      Chemists/lab workers



·      Large companies that own multiple brands. Examples: Constellation (U.S.) LVMH (France)

·      Family-owned wineries. Examples: Silver Oak (Napa Valley, CA), Billecart-Salmon (Champagne, France)

·      Winemakers. Examples: Paul Hobbs, Heidi Peterson Barrett (U.S.), Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon (France), Angelo Gaja, Marchesi Antinori (Italy)

·      Executives

·      Legal

·      Marketing

·      Tasting Room staff



·      Companies that distribute wine (or any other beverage). Examples: Southern Glazers, Chambers & Chambers, Skurnik

·      Importers who import wine from foreign countries. Examples: Kermit Lynch, Rosenthal

·      Executives

·      Acquisitions (people who find new brands to add to the company “book”) 

·      Sales

·      Marketing

·      Legal

·      IT staff

·      Warehouse workers

·      Drivers



·      Owner

·      Beverage Director

·      Wine Director

·      Sommeliers (high-end restaurants)



·      Owner

·      Buyers (these are the people who travel around the world to choose wine to import into the U.S.)

·      Administrators

·      Legal

·      IT staff


Wine Retail

·      Owner

·      Buyers

·      Sales Associates

·      Marketing

·      Operations Staff

·      IT Staff


Wine Education

·      Wine certification organizations. Examples: Wine Spirits Education Trust, Society of Wine Educators, Wine Scholar’s Guild, Court of Master Sommeliers

·      Teachers

·      Administrative Staff

·      IT staff

·      Wine education organizations. Examples: Wine Folly



·      Auction Houses. Examples: Christie’s, Heritage Auctions

·      Wine Tourism Companies


As you may have noticed, if you want to work in wine there are many options. While wineries are concentrated in certain areas (California, Oregon, Washington, and New York), there are distributors, retailers, restaurants, and hotels in every town in every state. Whether you’re a chemistry whiz who can apply your talents to the winemaking art or someone who can sell ice to an Eskimo, there is a place for you in the wine industry.

The pathways are varied but simple.

Love the outdoors? Love growing things? Love wine? If you are a farmer and an artist, viticulture may be your calling – and it’s a calling. Growing grapes is hard work. Making wine is hard work. You must be passionate and adventurous and have an intimate connection to land and nature.

If you want to take an academic route, many colleges and universities offer enology degrees (most notably the University of California at Davis), many wine education organizations offer professional certifications, and any business or financial degree can be applied to any wine business in any tier.

If you want to sell wine, wine retailers are on the front lines. From Mom & Pop wine shops to regional retailers like K&L Wine Merchants, or ones with a national imprint like Total Wine, retail is one of the most immersive ways to learn about wine from around the world – and sell it. The top of the retail world (besides the owner) is the wine buyers. These are the professionals the wineries, distributors, and importers woo to carry their products. They are the decision makers and the best ones get to travel the world and taste wine to find the next best thing.

If you love the food and wine connection, open a restaurant. Wine will most likely be an important part of your business model. If you don’t have the resources to be a restauranteur, go the Sommelier route or become a Beverage/Wine Director. It’s a difficult schedule, but the rewards are great. Somebody at every restaurant is the buyer and the buyer decides what to buy and what will go into the diner’s glasses.

If you’re all about sales, earning big-time commission money, and climbing the corporate ladder, working for a distributor may be for you. You can also be a political lobbyist who spends your days convincing the U.S. Senate and Congress to pass laws more favorable to the wine industry as a whole.  This is where the money is.

If you love drinking wine, talking about wine, and teaching other people about wine, you can become a wine educator or start/be employed by a wine tourism company (that organizes group wine tastings). There is no end to wine knowledge. You can study it every day and still only know a small amount of what there is to know.

To be a wine professional, all you need is a love of wine and a strong work ethic. If you’re armed with those two traits, success (and a whole lot of fun) awaits you in the amazing world of wine.

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