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The world of (wine) work

31 Dec 2002 by JR

Incredible as this may seem, when I was initially looking for a job in the world of wine I was made to feel rather ashamed of it. Back then (in the 1970s since you ask) wine had nothing like the social and intellectual respectability that it enjoys today. In my milieu the term bon viveur was an insult and it was generally thought that working in wine would be a waste of my Oxford education.

Nowadays of course all this has changed. Wine - along with other matters gastronomic - has somehow acquired prestige. It has become one of those subjects strangers, and even the most high-powered acquaintances, love to discuss with you. One of the most obvious consequences of this is that far, far more, and more interesting, people want to work in the world of wine.

In the old days vines and ferments were tended by peasant farmers who had inherited them. Their brainy siblings may have been encouraged to become doctors or lawyers; wine production, and even wine trading, was seen as a fallback career. In the last two decades there has been the most amazing influx of money and brainpower into every aspect of the world of wine, which has had generally beneficial effects on the quality of the liquids now made, sold and drunk.

But today there are many more people chasing jobs that allow them to earn a living while indulging their love of wine. I receive letters and emails all the time from wannabe makers of, traders in and writers about this captivating liquid. So how do I reply?

Well, clearly, if they say they want to write about wine and seem too obviously burdened by talent, I put them off sharpish. No, I jest, I swear. In fact I have already experienced several times the warm glow of virtue when someone who has made a name for themselves in wine writing reminds me that I apparently gave them their first leg up - my talented colleague Andrew Jefford springs most obviously to mind.

If someone wants to be a wine writer or communicator, I believe the prospects are pretty good for someone with genuine talent, interest and persistence. Most media, alas, resent paying much for material on wine, which is why so many of them are delighted to be able to undercut any existing arrangement by hiring someone new and willing to work for peanuts. Indeed many wine writers get their first break by offering articles free of charge - no way to make a living but certainly a way to make an impression if you have sufficient aptitude to need only an airing.

Many a wine writer becomes established by turning themselves into an expert on a particular aspect of wine, either a region or country that few other wine writers know well enough or a subject such as organic and biodynamic viticulture. The talented Richard Neill, for instance, put time spent in Chile to good use and ended up as the wine correspondent of Britain's best-selling daily broadsheet. The fact that he decided to give all this up and go and learn to play the double bass in Chile is not germane to my argument. Scottish computer buff Tom Cannavan stole a march on the British wine writing establishment by setting up www.wine-pages.com before anyone else had thought of it.

But how about real work in wine, as opposed to the parasitic activity engaged in by us communicators? It's a funny thing but most people who tell me they want to work in wine have more or less the same idea about how they want to spend their working days: visiting wine regions, tasting wine and making the odd buying decision. Practically everyone wants to buy the stuff and hardly anyone wants the bother of selling it. And certainly foreign travel beats humping cases and long hours in a wine store any day.

But the product has to be sold if the business is to stay alive and many a high achiever in the world of wine started out stacking shelves in a wine store. Most cities and some towns have a handful of serious wine retailers which their customers treat like a club, a source of really useful advice on wine with, usually, the opportunity to taste. These can be great teaching centres for their employees, so long as those employees are as thirsty for information as for the wine itself. And they have the great advantage that you can learn about a much wider range of wines than by going to work in one specific wine region. Once you learn who makes good wine and the mechanics of trading in it, there is nothing to stop you starting out on your own account. Many a new wine business begins its operations in a garage or spare bedroom. And the internet is surely a great and inexpensive potential sales tool here.

Wine-buying jobs are, understandably, much thinner on the ground. But again, it's all about being prepared to start at the very bottom. By taking a job even as a secretary in a big buying department and showing real aptitude and efficiency, you can in my experience be promoted to something much more interesting.

It helps if you can demonstrate some commitment. Enrolling in a well-regarded course of wine education shows a potential employer that you are serious about a career in wine. The London-based Wine & Spirit Education Trust has courses, specifically geared to professionals and would-be professionals, in four languages and 24 countries now. I worked my way up through its various levels in the late 1970s and was very grateful for the sound grounding it gave me - a good springboard from which to attempt the seriously gruelling Master of Wine exam. MBAs in wine are also offered at the University of Bordeaux and the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester, England.

But nothing can match a bit of personal experience. A chance to visit a wine region should be seized with both hands. It really does help enormously to see what vines and cellars look like - whatever professional wine capacity you have set your heart on. But if you can visit only one wine region, bear in mind that philosophies and techniques and conditions vary enormously around the world.

Of course, if you want to actually make wine, it is absolutely essential that you spend some time in a winery getting your hands thoroughly dirty, your feet wet and your back broken. There was a time when even a novice could insinuate themselves into a cellar for some practical experience but nowadays tertiary courses in oenology (winemaking) and viticulture (vine growing) in places like Montpellier, Dijon and Bordeaux (France), Adelaide and Wagga Wagga (Australia) and Fresno and Davis (California) are churning out graduates in such numbers that you may well have to be qualified before being taken on even as a mere 'cellar rat'. And the global economic slowdown is not helping provide more jobs for this tide of newly qualified wine technicians.

What do all these suggested routes have in common? The fact that you have to start out earning next to nothing; you have to work hard and be genuinely passionate about wine; and then you have to realise the wisdom of that great maxim from Fitzgerald's Omar Khayyam: 'I often wonder what the vintners buy, one half so precious as the goods they sell.' In other words, concentrate on the perks rather than the bank balance.

Tags:  wine writing
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