Wine merchants sell a range of alcoholic beverages including, but not necessarily limited to, wines. These products are sold to private and public consumers via licensed premises such as off-licences or directly through internet or mail order channels.
Being a wine merchant involves a range of activities. Common tasks would include:
- Running and maintaining premises from which to sell wines
- Serving customers and taking orders by email and telephone
- Organising deliveries to customers
- Sourcing, sampling and ordering new wines from producers and importers
- Hosting events such as wine tastings
- Merchandising shop space including counter and window displays
- Marketing the business
- Keeping account of sales transactions
There is a saying that, in order to make a small fortune in the wine trade, it is necessary to start with a large one. Many traditional wine merchants are facing competition from supermarkets and other retailers and the work is not usually highly paid. Working for a chain, as opposed to an independen,t may yield different remuneration but a guideline starting salary is £16,000-18,000 depending on location and experience. With more qualifications and experience this figure can rise to as much as £30,000 but rarely much more than this.
Being the head of a successful wine company will of course be more profitable but in terms of salaried positions the pay is modest and does not increase hugely, even with many years’ experience.
Wine merchants are responsible for selling alcohol in the community and need to work within strict legal guidelines which forbid, for example, the sale of alcohol to minors or to those who appear intoxicated. The job involves running a business but acting with social responsibility and taking care to avoid the abuse of the private license through illegal sales.
In theory, no formal qualifications are required to become a wine merchant, although it is necessary to obtain a private licence to sell liquor at a premises.
However, many merchants, especially those employed by a large company, will be required to pass the industry exams at Advanced level if not higher. The WSET – The Wine and Spirits Education Trust – is the body that governs these qualifications and the examinations comprise academic style questions as well as blind tastings of wines.
The introductory, and relatively straightforward, qualification is the WSET Intermediate, which does not require an extensive study period, followed by the Advanced, which usually requires a preparation period of six months or more, and finally the Diploma, a two-year degree course in wines and spirits.
These courses can be expensive, although many employers offer to fund qualifications, some on the basis of continued service after the pass date, others without such stipulations.
Being a wine merchant requires a range of skills, including:
- Good instinct for retail
- Good customer service and inter-personal skills
- The management skills to organise and run a business
- Good knowledge of alcoholic beverages
- A passion for wines
- Networking and negotiating skills to secure deals from suppliers
- Strong sales skills
Wine merchants generally work indoors in safe and comfortable premises although working for busier companies may involve lots of heavy lifting, long hours and a high intake of alcohol.
Experience of the wine trade can be important when becoming a wine merchant, although employers looking for new staff may be more interested in candidates showing interest in the product, good customer service and organisational skills, and the ability to learn quickly. Some employers will fund WSET study but many will ask for two years’ experience and the WSET Advanced qualification as a minumum. For those with no experience the best alternative is to study wine independently or show interest by doing harvests abroad or attending wine tastings.
Within the wine trade there is a spectrum from small independent merchants with one or two stores to larger national operations.
Wine merchants climb a ladder from trainee in-store to becoming a manager and perhaps even opening a store of their own. However, there are many other positions within the trade that people choose to move into after experience of retailing at the lowest level. These include buying, marketing and PR, corporate sales, directorship and so on. Larger companies in particular offer more scope to specialise, although many of the more senior positions are coveted and hard to get into.
Also known as…
- Wine retailer
- Wine buyer
- Wine taster
What’s it really like?
Joe Muller, aged 28 is manager of a medium-size branch of Majestic Wines in South West London. The store has a few corporate accounts but mostly sells wine to residents in the local area.
How long have you been working as a wine merchant?
For a little over four years now. After I finished university I found I wanted to discover more about wine and, having attended a couple of tastings and found them interesting, took it up as a career. I started as a trainee and worked in a couple of different stores before being made an assistant and then a full manager.
What do you do in a typical day at work?
How busy the store is depends a lot on the time of year but there is always stuff to do. We receive deliveries twice a week from the head office depot and this all has to be merchandised (stacked away ready for sale). We deliver locally as well so there will almost always be deliveries to organise and complete. Other than that, greeting and talking to customers about wine, taking orders over the phone and so on are big parts of the job. The organisational element can be challenging, making staff rotas, direct ordering of stock, responding to emails and so on. The shop opens before ten in the morning and shuts at eight, with a short break for lunch in-between. If we have a tasting event in store this requires extra coordination and preparation, and helping customers out with advice and recommendations is essential.
What do you like and dislike about the job?
I love talking to people about wine. Having done the diploma qualification it is nice to feel confident talking about grape varieties, wine production methods and all the other factors that contribute to the taste of the wines. I think wine is like a mix of geography, biology, chemistry and art and love the different ways in which taste and science combine and conflict. In terms of the running of the store I enjoy the business side of things, selling products, giving good customer service and so on. It’s great when people come back appreciative of your recommendations. The money is not the best and it is usually hard work but having the responsibility of running a store and having input into displays and so on can be really rewarding.
On the down side the late finish can be a pain as it means you do not get home till late and because the store is open seven days a week you often have to work weekends and take days off during the week, so your social life can suffer a bit. Physically it is much harder than other jobs, too, being on your feet all day and carrying wine around certainly keeps you in shape. The money could be better but in the long run it is a passion for the wine and an interest in selling it that makes it all worthwhile.
Any other advice?
I would definitely advise prospective applicants to study and read up about wine as much as possible. If you do not love wine then it is not the job for you. It is the interest in the product and the subject that differentiates it from other sales or retails jobs. Employers will pick up on your knowledge and interest so that even if you do not have any formal qualifications you look like someone with good potential.
The wine industry as a whole is pretty tight at the moment, with the weak pound, rising duty and high unemployment conspiring to give fewer jobs for more people so it is really important to persevere and keep applying. Even if most people ask for minimum qualifications, some will take you on if you show enough of an interest. Try doing something wine-related, like working in a bar, or grape picking, or getting relevant experience in retail or customer service. Very few people do wine degrees so you have a good chance as long as you can show the skill set and the passion for the product. If you find it really hard to get work in a shop you might have to consider completing the exams by yourself, and this is far from ideal as they are expensive and time consuming, but if you really want to get into it then do your homework and keep applying and hopefully someone will pick up on you.