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Making a Living in The Wine Business

So you have fantasies about telling that corporate job to shove it and becoming a cellar rat? Got a carboy of wine under the kitchen table and dreaming of being a winemaker? Just have a passing interest in what people actually get paid to stomp grapes? I'm here to tell you: not much.

Well, some people are making a decent living in the wine business, but not everyone. It's a glamorous business, but like so many businesses which deal with products that have an inherent romance, the wine business is a tough place to earn a buck if you don't own the land.

The wine business monthly annual salary survey results were released last week and here are some of the highlights for the annual salaries of key folks in California Wine Country.

Head winemaker: $92,435
Assistant winemaker: $53, 054
Vineyard manager: $76,685
Vice President for sales for a corporate winery: $151,555
Tasting room manager: $47,217
Cellar rat: $32,756
Tasting Room staff: $24,701

(By way of comparison, the median household income in the United States is $43, 318 per year.)

There are some interesting bits of data to go along with the numbers above. Salaries are only slightly lower in Sonoma than Napa. You actually make more as a winemaker for a smaller winery than you do for a big one, but you make more as an assistant winemaker for a larger winery. There are plenty of other interesting bits in the full survey results.

Seems the numbers make it tough to contemplate working your way up from the bottom and might justify going to get that enology degree at Davis before you dive in. But then again, people do all sorts of crazy things to have a job that they love.

Comments (20)

Joe wrote:
04.02.06 at 11:54 AM

You left out the salary for super cool wine bloggers :)

John wrote:
04.02.06 at 12:00 PM

It's possible to make a very good living as a home winemaker. It all depends on what your day job is!

Rick Kasmier wrote:
04.02.06 at 5:53 PM

I started with the 5 gallon carboy, but it was out in the garage. I now have a small winery in Kenwood. My production is now 2500 gallons about 1000 cases. I did not have a degree but a passion for creating wines that I like. Low and behold others have also. I also wanted to make the winery, as I call it, the way it used to be. Small, fun, and me the owner/winemaker pour my stuff. My family creates and prints the labels as well as bottling everything by hand. I've help start 20 vineyards and 3 other wineries in the last 20 years. Giving back is what its all about!

Duane wrote:
04.02.06 at 6:32 PM


The only thing less profitable than making wine is owning a winery! It is a labor of love all the way from the owner right down to the cellar rat.

That is the reason we keep beer in the fridge, coffee beans in the freezer, and give out bottles like candy. Nobody is making a killing, so you better have some fun and make it enjoyable for everyone involved. Passion drives the business, thank goodness. If we only did what was rational, we would make ok wine. It takes passion and commitment to make great wine.


Justin wrote:
04.02.06 at 7:56 PM

The median household income in the United States may be ~$43K, but what is the median household income in "California Wine Country?" I suspect its a bit higher and a $24,701 annual tasting room wage would entitle a single person in Napa to a back alley studio apartment and a well-used Honda Civic.

Marshal wrote:
04.02.06 at 8:51 PM

Just to reply to Justin's comment that he suspects Tasting Room salary in Napa to be more than $24,701(around $12hr) per year. I live here in Napa and currently work as a Wine Educator at Robert Mondavi Winery being paid a bit more than a Tasting Room Attendant. Before my current position I worked at Franciscan Winery in the Tasting Room making....you guessed it $12hr. I moved here as a First Level Sommelier with over 13 years managing Hotels. I can comfortably state that most wineries pay $12.00 an hour or less. Employees can supplement their income if they are savvy at Wine Club sign-ups. The other problem is that hours are often cut to 32 hours or less in the Winter. I applied at Niebaum-Coppola (now Rubicon Estate) in April 2005 and they offered $10.00 an hour to work in the Tasting Room. I think when you visit Napa Wineries you will tend to find that Tasting Rooms are populated with people just out of college and retirees. Excluding Winemaking and the Lab, I can count on one hand the number of people age 28 - 44 that work at RMW. Until wineries are willing to invest in higher wages I suspect that you will find recent grads and retirees the primary Tasting Room staff.
P.S. Summertime finds many College students on Summer break working at wineries.

rama wrote:
04.02.06 at 9:14 PM

thanks for crushing my dreams...

Thomas wrote:
04.02.06 at 10:14 PM

I work in a wine cellar at the moment and I love it, but to be honest I wish I was paid a bit more. I think that the best money in wine can be made in sales and working on commision for a distributor with many high buying clients. The wine business is very rewarding indeed but I think sales is obviously where all the money is.

Justin wrote:
04.03.06 at 5:23 AM

Thanks for the personal experiences, Marshal.

For the record, I was suggesting that the average household income, not the average tasting room salary, was higher in Napa. :)

Todd wrote:
04.04.06 at 11:08 AM

What I've heard is, "know how to make a small fortune in Napa Valley? - Start with a large fortune. . ."

Still, life's not all about the money, right? Thanks for the info.

Josh wrote:
04.04.06 at 11:39 AM

I'm a brand manager for a smallish (8,000 cases) Napa winery, and I can tell you that it's hard to make a decent buck unless you're a distributor exec. No one in the chain of production at small and medium wineries sees a lot of money from what they do. We pay our hospitality people $14-$15 an hour, plus revenue sharing from a common pool, plus wine club bounties. All in all, my people make several thousand dollars a month after taxes--not riches, but also enough to allow them to do other things (everyone we employ is 20 to 30 hours a week max by choice). The sales liaisons don't see much more than that because while they do get a percentage of what gets pushed through the distributor, distributors could care less about pushing most small brands. They hire kids right out of college as their reps; we bring them up and wine and dine them, trying to get them to understand what we're all about, and they still could care less--they have portfolios of hundreds of brands. As for those of us in the "back office," even our owner/winemaker sees less than $5K a month in take-home pay. Yes, we make good wine, and yes, we try hard to get noticed, but we also aren't in it to give up the very things that make us unique--going corporate is only good until you lose your job in a buy-out and restructuring, as has been happening again and again in the Valley the last several years.

Alder wrote:
04.05.06 at 9:56 AM


Negative numbers would have looked bad on that chart.

Alder wrote:
04.05.06 at 10:00 AM


Thanks very much for sharing your experiences.

helenjane wrote:
04.05.06 at 10:30 AM

Don't forget all those other jobs that have to do with promoting the wine and maintaining the property and accounting.

I manage the web site development and creation for a large winery in Napa and couldn't be happier.

You can apply your skills to any industry.

jd wrote:
04.07.06 at 3:51 PM

I've worked in the wine industry for over ten years in various aspects and my income is perfectly enough. Granted I will never top the Forbes wealthiest list with my earning status, but I am doing fine - comfortably fine, vacation worthy fine, occasional shopping splurges fine.

This is not a get rich quick industry (look to dotcoms or pyramid schemes for that), rather it is an industry fueled by passionate, interesting people who value lifestyle as much as salary.

Bruce Macumber wrote:
04.09.06 at 8:53 AM

I was the first Sales Manager of Sterling Vineyards (1973-1980) and, as a new winery starting to sell our first release (Ric Forman) wines, it was FUN! Other wineries freely offered me advice setting up USA distributors, especially Jack Davies @ Schramsberg, as we all wanted to promote Napa Valley. We were fairly well paid but it was so exciting - we loved it. Then, it became more & more business & less & less fun! I'm still thankful for those rewarding early days of Napa Valley marketing!

John Skupny wrote:
04.09.06 at 10:35 AM

Someone needed to state the old adage,"If you want to make a small fortune, in the wine business, start with a big one". I would agree with Bruce Macumber's comments however just when I want to get cynical and bummed by the 'current' climate of the global wine business I am once again inspired by the many young who show the same spark and passion, for wine, that brought many of us into the business a generation ago!..

victor honoré wrote:
04.15.06 at 5:39 AM

Writing articles, organizing and charging for professional blind wine tastings, organizing wine fairs, organizing wine clubs, creating sommelier schools, vineyard real estate sales, creating logistics for a small wine company are all marginal businesses at best. Perhaps you would do OK if you did all of the above.

The best possible way to make a decent living in the wine business is to be a wine broker. THIS IS VERY LONG TERM. The most difficult part is to find buyers (i.e. importers, distributors, wholesalers, etc.)...and the long term contractual commitment from the winery.

There are over 150,000 labels in the world. If you look to export a U$3.00 FOB wine, the question importers or distributors will ask is 1)is it rated?, 2)what country is it from?, 3) what varietal? Initial orders from importers are one to two pallets (140 cases).The "industrial" producers (200,000 cases or more) already have their distribution lined up...they are generally owned by multinational firms. Take, for example, the Argentine market. Perhaps five large LOCAL industrials (who export) are left in the country (Luigi Bosca, López, Bianchi, Catena, Zuccardi). The rest of the giants are foreign owned: 30 French groups, 6 Italian, 8 Spanish, 8 Chilean, 3 American, 1 Portuguese, 1 Dutch, 3 Swiss and, of course, the transnationals Allied-Domecq/Pernot Ricard and Diageo.

Consider that a container holds 10,000 bottles. That is a sizeable initial order. It will take 6 months (no less) to land that first container in the US and at least 90 days to get paid. So, we are looking to make in a 9-month period U$3.000 on the first container (FOB 3.00 x 10% commission x 10,000 bottles)...and if there is a broker on the other side, then you look to make U$1.500. Margins are small, more than 10% total commission is just not justifiable.

If you look to ship FOB U$10.00 wines (which translates to U$30 to a consumer)there is not enough wine to go around. Highly-rated Achaval Ferrer Finca Altamira (WS 96 points), and much more expensive than U$10.00 FOB, produces a total of 8,000 bottles, some 4,000 go to the US and are mostly pre-sold. The winery originally hired a high-profile importer/marketer in the US (TGIC Imports) to do all the PR work with the magazines and follow the successful route of distributing to the same channels as Chilean Montes Alpha (one of TGIC´s other wines). If you were a broker for such a prestigious wine you would make approx. U$12,000, before sharing the commission with the US correspondent, before taxes, etc. AND Achával Ferrer is such an exceptional wine that they would never work with a broker anyway!

An interesting observation. We were sitting at a restaurant in Mendoza with some winery owners and a wine store owner from the US asked: "Name one Argentine winery which exports 10,000 cases of a U$10.00 FOB (30 dollars retail) wine to the US. The answer was none, not even close. Consider: 1) 80% of wine sales in the US is less than U$10.00 retail (U$3.00 FOB), 2) 14% of sales is over U$14 retail (U$5-6 FOB), 3)Argentine wine is 1.0% of the total US wine consumption (3 million cases part of 300 million)

There are many large importers/ distributors in the US who are overwhelmed with hundreds of labels they already represent. In some cases, these importers will hire someone locally to work as their exclusive Importer´s Agent (some times not exclusive). For example, Epic Wines of California works with a local representative who looks for special boutique wines for them. For example they found Melipal, a start-up winery in 2002, who is now selling almost all of their harvest to Epic. Bear in mind, the first year the wine received 91 points from Wine Spectator, 92 points from Gismondi, 5 stars from Restaurant Wine, etc. Superb wine, by the way, available in 70 restaurants in Calif. EPIC works this way in several countries. They are known for their Aussie portfolio, Ted Schrauth lives part of the time in Australia and is always searching for new Aussie gems ; all of Ted´s wines are rated more than 90 points by Parker, and all of his wines go to EPIC.

To summarize: 1)LOCK IN THE BUYER FIRST, 2)KNOW YOUR DISTRIBUTION CHANNELS NATIONWIDE, 3)KNOW WHAT THE MARKET IS BUYING (don´t try to sell Chilean merlot, for example), the easiest part is finding the sellers. It´s the buyer´s part you must have locked in, if you´re going to have a viable business.
Best, Víctor

afinta wrote:
04.16.06 at 1:47 PM

This is an interesting thread. I am a wine lover who is living in Florence. I sold wine briefly 20 years ago for a well known NJ distributor. I just passed my first level sommelier course. I am learning Italian, making contacts, visiting wineries, tasting a lot, etc. I was hoping to start some kind of wine consultancy where I could rep small wineries, etc. to distributors in the states - thinking along the lines of matching people up, people who need wine to sell with people that have it - perhaps working with an already established importer that may need someone that is in Italy. Although prices here in Tuscany are sky high for their own products there are diamonds in the rough. If anyone has any ideas/advice, pro or con, I would love to hear it.

prasad pawar wrote:
09.07.08 at 3:24 AM

i have adequate education with these following post thank you

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