Grape expectations: How to get into the wine industry

Virginia Matthews
Wednesday 21 May 2008 14:47 BST
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Some studentsmay think they have good noses, but can they cut it in the wine industry?

The student grant may not run to regular cases of champagne or Premier Cru, but for graduates with a taste for the finer things in life, a career in the wine trade offers an alluring mix of business and pleasure. Whether you opt to become a wine merchant based in a retail outlet, or a specialist buyer or importer who travels overseas to seek out new varieties, career paths in the wine industry are rarely structured. Passion for the grape – as well as sound industry qualifications – tend to be seen as far more important than academic achievement.

The salaries aren’t enormous – trainee managers can expect to earn around £15,000 to £18,000 and even top earners don’t necessarily get beyond the £35,000 or £40,000 mark, but the perks in terms of discounts on products and extensive travel can be very attractive. Although the study of wine has yet to feature on the country’s growing list of undergraduate degree subjects, the four core awards offered by the UK based Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), the largest wine training organisation in the world, are an essential precursor to a career in the field.

Qualifications range from the level 1 foundation certificate in wines or level 2 intermediate certificate in wines and spirits to the level 4 diploma in wines and spirits; which includes 128 hours of classroom time and covers subjects such as viticulture and production, marketing and global trends, such as old world versus new world wines. It is also a recognised stepping- stone to achieving the ultimate accolade of becoming a Master of Wine.

While around 80 per cent of the students trained each year by the WSET are already working in the industry, the rest are what chief executive Ian Harris calls “passionate hobbyists.” He says: “Being a bon viveur who loves good wine and good company is very different from having the commercial nous necessary to become a top-class wine merchant. Although tasting is an essential part of the education process, it’s important to recognise that there’s a lot of hard work to do if you want to make this a career.”

While wine was once steeped in elitism and cellar snobbery, Harris believes this has changed. “The democratisation of wine began in the Sixties with the launch of the first Oddbins and it has continued via the supermarkets ever since. The love of wine has moved from being very public school to being something that all of us can enjoy.” Although most people have a natural “nose”, it’s only by specialist training that we can learn to develop a true appreciation of the finest Shiraz or Soave. “Wine tasting is a multisensory experience and to understand its full complexity, it is necessary to look at and smell the wine as well as taste it. Our courses are very successful at harnessing a natural nose and bringing out the very best in it,” says Harris.

Majestic Wines, now the UK’s biggest wine warehouse chain with 144 stores, recruits around 150 graduates a year as trainee managers; the majority of whom will be sponsored for a WSET course. Says Ailsa Thorpe, Majestic’s HR manager: “We’re always willing to consider people with experience rather than a degree, but on the whole, we believe that graduates tend to be bright, sparky people who can engage with our customers and learn a terrific amount about our product in a reasonable amount of time. “We don’t mind what the degree subject is, how long ago they did it or whether it was a 2.1 or not, just as long as the cultural fit is there and they’re able to forge relationships with customers.”

Typically, a graduate at Majestic begins at trainee manager level, is promoted to assistant manager and, ultimately, achieves store manager level, all within two to three years. With a portfolio of converted pubs, car showrooms and garages up and down the UK; as well as three outlets in Northern France, trainees are encouraged to work in different locations so they can see at first hand the differences in market conditions between, say, Aberdeen and Aylesbury.But if you don’t love wine, there’s little point applying.

“Nobody expects a student to regularly blow £15 on a single bottle, or to talk with any knowledge about different champagne vintages, but we do expect our applicants to know what kinds of wine they prefer and why,” says Thorpe. “We can teach people a massive amount about regions, viticulture and modern marketing, but if they don’t basically like the stuff we sell, this really isn’t the right job for them.” Once in the firm, retail is king, she adds. “It is certainly possible to diversify into a wine buying career later, but first and foremost, Majestic is all about the shops and that’s where we expect your heart to lie.”

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