By Andrew Pentis
The two go hand in hand: As the wine industry experiences huge economic growth, so too does the interest in wine careers. The weekend winery warrior now wants to become an official cellar master, the generic business manager wants to oversee a vineyard’s operations, and the wine enthusiast wants to be a sommelier. So, are you part of the crowd hoping to land such a career? If so, here’s a breakdown of the major jobs in wine production.
In the wine industry, production is all about crushing grapes and bottling wine. Nowhere else in America is the production as robust as it is in California. In fact, the state produces 90 percent to 95 percent of the country’s wine. Not surprisingly, California also boasts the most desirable careers and some of the top wine schools.
- The Job: The winemaker, or vintner, decides what goes into the bottle, how long it stays there, and where and when to ship it. Often times, wineries will employ executive winemakers, which in addition to bottling wine may have administrative and marketing duties. Bill Nancarrow does such work for Duckhorn Vineyards and Paraduxx, two Napa Valley wineries that specialize in producing Zinfandel, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. During harvest time, according to Nancarrow, winemakers work 14 to 16 hour days, 7 days a week, blending and tasting different wines. Their primary concern? Making sure the wine’s quality doesn’t falter during the entire process.
- The Downside: Dependence on the vagaries of nature. Too much rain, too little rain, cold temperatures, or heat can destroy the winemaker’s plans.
- The Upside: Winemakers earn a living tasting wines and meeting fascinating people. The biggest plus, according to Nancarrow, is the gratification of releasing the first bottle.
- Career Path: To become a winemaker, it’s important to have a range of experience: You should toil alongside cellar workers, manage a vineyard, and have direct exposure to most aspects of the wine production industry, nationally and internationally. Many winemakers, especially inCalifornia, will earn a degree from a university or culinary program. The top two wine schools on the West Coast, and perhaps in the nation, are California State University of Fresno, which specializes in teaching production methods, and University of California at Davis, known more for the math and chemistry behind winemaking. Nancarrow was formally trained in hospitality management, but then traveled and worked internationally. “I’m a proponent of practical experience, not necessarily a specific school over another.” Asked what an aspiring winemaker can do to climb the career ladder, Nancarrow says, “You can’t taste enough wine.”
- Average Salary: $96,253, but annual earnings largely depend on the size and location of the winery.
- Wise Words: “It’s definitely a social industry, but if you get into it for the right reasons, you are, first and foremost, a farmer,” Nancarrow says. “It’s about the wine — not the glamour.”
- Vineyard Manager
- Job: The vineyard manager makes sure everything runs smoothly so the winemaker can focus on producing the best possible wine. The manager’s job includes administrative duties, managing employees, and serving as the liaison among winemakers, consultants, and cellar masters. In most cases, he will not directly tend to the vines, but will manage those who do.
- Downside: Long days of paperwork, hiring and firing, and serving as the mediator between production, sales, and marketing professionals.
- Upside: Taking satisfaction in establishing a well-run winery. The manager is also a key leader, overseeing and working with a diverse workforce.
- Career Path: A wine degree is a good start, but like many other wine careers, diverse experience is important. Many vineyard managers become winery owners.
- Average Salary: $80,400.
- Cellar Master
- The Job: The cellar master is the poor man’s winemaker. He oversees the grapes throughout the entire winemaking process, purchases the necessary equipment, and trains cellar workers. He ensures that the wine’s style meets the winemaker’s expectations.
- The Downside: He must follow the winemaker’s taste and style – not his own. The cellar master also spends much of his time … well … in the cellar.
- The Upside: The opportunity to be involved in most every facet of the wine-making process. The cellar master tastes wines continuously and is the leader in the cellar, monitoring his workers or “cellar rats,” who clean equipment, crush grapes, organize the storage rooms.
- Career Path: Cellar masters are often former cellar rats (see above).
- Average Salary: Between $60,000 and $70,000.