It seems like everyone wants to work in the wine industry.
It’s elegant. It’s the epitome of luxury. It’s sophisticated.
Just like in Hollywood, we have lines of people trying to break into the wine industry — either because of their passion for wine or their passion for the lifestyle.
Sadly, the sheer number of candidates means that, as a result, we pay pretty poorly, and despite having so many interested, the lower pay repels so many different people who could have been transformative to our industry. Often, we hire the B, C, or even D-level talent because they are willing to take less money for the opportunity to work in wine. Further, those who are amazingly talented often attrite after 18 months when they realize they can’t affect change — — or that free wine (a perk of the job) won’t fill the gas tank.
We also typically fail to allow outsiders in and force them to ascend through a gauntlet, meaning, we put them through hell to pay their dues in order to be considered qualified. We do this, sometimes, even knowing that our industry could gain so much more if we opened our eyes and learned from them, instead of forcing them into the mold we’re setting in from them.
In other words, our insularity continues to isolate us from real talent.
You know what the worst secret of our resource problem is in our wine industry? NoCal Kindness. Culturally, we tend to be focused on hospitality, kindness, and avoiding conflict, and as such, many of the B, C, and D players who persist despite the bad salaries get promoted. This isn’t because they’re more talented. Instead, it happens because they have the constitution to endure — and in the end, we reward that behavior. Because of that same culture — that kindness and conflict-avoidance — no one calls them out on poor performance.
Everyone in the wine industry knows a person who fits these descriptions:
- The consultant who gives DTC advice, but has never actually worked in that discipline (inside or outside the industry) in their entire career.
- The winery CEO hired because they have been a master sommelier but never a student in sales or marketing (AKA, they may know wine, but they don’t have any executive or sales experience).
- The petulant winery owner who’s the heir to the winery kingdom but has never worked in the winery a day in their life.
- The MBA who just finished interning at a CPG company and happened upon the role of being a marketing director in the wine industry.
- The owner’s children who are taking over the social media and online marketing because they’re “millennials” and they “know how to work with the social platforms.” (Oftentimes this happens without the hire having any real experience in this realm).
- The winery owner’s wife/husband who insists she’s/he’s a marketing genius (maybe even has a degree in marketing) but has never worked a full marketing day in her life.
- The winery GM who has a legacy of self-dealing, bad management, a limp handshake, and a general lack of ethics — — but still somehow manages to convince small wineries he can help them succeed.
- The brand manager who now runs DTC but has no idea how a tasting room, wine club, or e-commerce effort operates.
- The consultant who, at any moment, can share their public relations card, their marketing card, or their strategic sales card . For some reason, we don’t seem to care if they are the jack of all trades and master of none, because wow, they’re so nice and personable, right?
- The vendor who has never fulfilled their promises but keeps customers because they live in the valley and just so happen to golf with tons of winery owners.
- The bully winemaker who makes business decisions despite only having skills in winemaking, not in the rest of the winery’s operations.
- The winery CEO who grew up in a small, high-end, family-owned, allocated, vanity winery working as a tasting room server, then gradually moving up to become the manager, then director of marketing, then VP of sales, then CEO. They have no experience outside of that specific winery but explain their innovative customer approach (AKA a lucky score) as if it was their genius strategy that made the winery successful.
You know what the worst part about this list it? No — it’s not that I published it. It’s that if you work in the wine industry, you’ve met not just one, but multiple people who fit each of these personas I wrote down.
Our problem is simple — we don’t call them out. Our community is so small, and our towns are so interwoven between personal and professional that we can’t definitively say someone isn’t a good employee or that they lack the skills to do their job without fear of some kind of repercussion.
With that reticence, coupled with our inability to pay fair wages, we constrain our industry from attracting top-tier talent and fill it with “empty suits” who fit those criteria instead.
PS: Just after I finished writing this blog post, I received an email from an incredibly successful marketing executive outside of the wine industry.
She runs major campaigns for Fortune 100 companies, has won multiple awards for her work, and consistently churns out enviable campaigns. But you know what? She just received their third auto-response rejection to marketing positions at a major winery. My heart breaks. But you know what’s worse? She’s willing to take that kind of job (which pays less than requires a much lower skill level) because their spouse has a job in Napa. That breaks my heart, too.
I know another VP of a major East coast wine company (an importer and distributor) who is moving to Napa. They have a huge pedigree, are incredibly talented, they’ve managed sales and marketing for a luxury wine portfolio for years — but the West coast wineries are lamenting that because they haven’t worked for a winery directly, they might be a risk to add to the company. Even more heartbreak.