A career in wine is an immensely satisfying one. Successful wine merchants get to share their passion for a living, and the job requires constant learning, strong social skills and – of course – a love of the product.
Wine, paradoxically, is both eternal and ever-changing. So, a wine merchant needs to draw on a deep well of knowledge while also keeping abreast of the trends, innovations and evolutions of one of life’s great pleasures.
Wine merchant careers are also especially popular with those changing jobs, with many opting for this line of work after studying or working in something else.
For those who are entering the industry at the start of their career, or those switching mid-stream; from beginners to veterans, there is one thing all wine merchants have in common: passion.
Here’s what to expect, how to get started and (a common question) an outline of what the term “wine merchant” means…
What is a Wine Merchant?
Depending on who you ask, definitions vary on what a wine merchant actually is. The simplest and most common meaning is that they are a vintner, or one who deals in wine. This can mean a wine salesperson, an importer, a wholesaler (to shops, bars and/or restaurants) or an owner of a wine shop.
That said, there are many occupations with aspects of the trade; restaurateurs, off license managers, bar managers, bartenders, caterers and serving staff should all have a strong knowledge of wine.
What do Wine Merchants Do?
Whether they’re working with restaurants, retailers or directly with customers, wine merchants are in the business of getting that perfect bottle of red or white to your table.
This could mean sourcing it directly from a vineyard. Indeed, the best wine merchants have cultivated relationships with vineyards across the world.
You would also be expected to develop relationships with customers, whether they’re restaurants or shops.
And, as in any job driven by passion, wine merchants can trip up on the less exciting details; import/export regulations, paperwork, profit margins, market trends and stock-keeping are all things to look out for.
What is the Average Wine Merchant Salary?
Naturally, this varies, and the question is comparable to “how long is a piece of string?”. With that said, there are some markers.
In the US, salaries can range from $30,000 a year to a high mark beyond $128,000, with an industry average of $60,000 a year. A UK wine merchant’s salary can go £16,000 to £35,000 (the lowest salaries being at apprenticeship).
This doesn’t tell the whole story, though. For those who strike out on their own, there seems to be no upper limit to what they can earn: in fact, the top ten most successful drinks entrepreneurs in the UK includes many wine merchants, all of whom are worth more than £100million.
What You Need to Become a Wine Merchant
Like any vocation, being a wine merchant requires a combination of knowledge and personal aptitudes.
The ideal wine merchant is personable and sociable. It tends to involve sales, so fostering good relationships is key.
Enthusiasm is also a common factor in successful wine merchants: you should understand the joy that good wine can bring, whether that means a quiet moment to enjoy the bouquet and taste of the wine; introducing friends to an exciting flavour; or using the knowledge to pick the perfect accompaniment to a meal.
This curiosity should ideally extend to the world beyond the cellar. People often buy stories when they’re buying wine, so knowledge of the vineyard, the local cultures and preferences, and the grapes and regions of the wine world is key to what makes a good merchant.
Finally, as alluded to before, you should be prepared to embrace the other aspects of the business. Most importantly, watch the margins. The best wine in the world might not make you the most money if the profit margins are too thin.
Wine Merchant Qualifications and Experience Required
Some wine merchants begin their careers with a loan and a wholesale or retail license. But this path is incredibly risky, as you’re not equipped with the knowledge that you’ll need to weather this competitive field.
While there are no legal barriers to becoming a wine merchant without formal training, it’s advisable to get a grounding in the product and industry.
We have several wine courses at Le Cordon Bleu London. Our Diploma in Wine, Gastronomy and Management is especially popular with aspiring wine merchants, and many choose the optional internship. Our new Certificate in Wine and Beverage Studies offers a good grounding for beginners and for those hoping to work in adjacent industries (becoming a chef or running a restaurant, for instance).
Some wine merchants are continuing the family business, but experienced can be gained by starting at an entry level position or by working with a wine retailer.
See also: How To Work In The Wine Industry