Mary Cressler gets JobShadowed about her job as a sommelier and wine consultant.  You can find Mary on her website www.vindulgeblog.com and on her Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview. 

What do you do for a living?

I run a wine education and consulting business.  I am a wine educator, sommelier, wine writer, and consultant.

How would you describe what you do?

I am not a sommelier in the traditional sense — as in I do not currently work as a restaurant sommelier.  Instead I focus on the educational component of wine.  Part of my job is to lead classes and events on wine and food for consumers, corporate, and industry clients.  I teach on general subjects such as “Introduction to Food and Wine Pairing”, to specific focuses like “Champagne and Sparkling Wine”, as well as popular topics for corporate clients such as “Business Dinner Wine Etiquette”.  In addition to leading classes I consult with restaurants on wine lists, food and wine pairing, and staff training.  This is especially popular with restaurants who do not have the budget nor the need for a full-time sommelier.  I will help the restaurant develop a wine list that suits the need of their restaurant and clientele, and train their servers on the wines and service.  I also write about wine, both on my blog, and also on a freelance basis.

What does your work entail?

Pretty much everything listed in the question above.

What’s a typical work week like?

Since I work on many projects at once I try to dedicate specific days to specific projects. One day will be a writing/editing day, the next will be prepping for an upcoming class (working on content and obtaining any wines or supplies), another day for networking or meeting with potential partners for hosting classes, and one day may be dedicated to attending trade tastings or events to learn about new wines and products.  If I have a class that week it will usually be held in the evening, on a weekday.  With my young children I try to not schedule events or classes on the weekends, as I like to try to reserve that for family time.

How did you get started?

I first started by working at a winery.  I started in the winery tasting room and moved into the role of a private event manager.  I eventually landed a job as the General Manager at a different winery; where I did everything from managing the day to day operations, customer and employee service, marketing, direct and internet sales, website management, distribution management, and staff training.  It was an excellent way to learn the ins and outs of winery management.  My passion, however, was learning about wines from all over the world, not just one region, so I became motivated to attain a sommelier certification.  While I was studying I was invited to sit on the tasting panel for a reputable Pacific Northwest wine & food magazine.  I  was a guest on the tasting panel on and off for about a year during their monthly blind wine review tastings.  It was an invaluable experience for me to learn how to taste and analyze wine from experienced professionals.

I started receiving requests from people to lead more and more classes on wine and also started working with a couple of small restaurants to help them develop their wine program.  This eventually led me to leave my job at the winery and start teaching and consulting full time.  It was a very risky endeavor, but when you find your passion you sometimes have to listen to your gut and take a risk.

What do you like about what you do?

The flexibility and ability to set my own hours.  About a year and a half ago I relocated from Oregon to Connecticut, where I also gave birth to twins.  I was able to take some time off from my business to get used to being a new mom, and also learn about the wine needs of the new region I was living in.  After a few months I was able to pick up where I left off, and continue the work I started in a whole new part of the country.  Few jobs would allow for such flexibility.

What do you dislike?

The instability and irregular paychecks.  If I am not working constantly on generating new clients, developing new classes, or submitting new articles for publication I don’t get paid.  It requires a strong level of commitment and hard work to continue to gain new clients, and generate revenue.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

For classes, events, and restaurant consulting I get paid on a contractual basis.  For freelance writing I get paid by the article (all publications pay different rates for published works).

How much money do sommeliers make? 

In general, and depending in where in the country you live, a typical sommelier can get paid anywhere from $30,000 to begin, up to $100,000+ for experienced sommeliers working in higher end restaurants.

On the teaching end, for classes I typically charge anywhere from $30-$60 per person depending on the class. This fee includes the cost of all wines and supplies, so the overall cost of the class will be dependent upon the cost of the wines being introduced.

How much money did/do you make starting out? 

Starting out in the industry I made an hourly wage, then and I began to receive an annual salary.  When I started consulting and doing classes the pay was not much.  I was often asked to work for trade, and while receiving a case of wine in return for leading a training seminar for industry employees was a nice perk, it didn’t pay any bills.  I eventually had to start seeking out revenue generating ventures.  When I teach classes in partnership with a restaurant or wine shop we usually split the net revenue — if we charge $40 per person for a sit down wine and food pairing class, we will deduct the costs of the wine and incidentals, then split the remaining.

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?

It depends.  At the end of the day, experience trumps many certifications.  But for someone starting out getting basic training and certification can help one get his or her foot in the door.  In a competitive market I encourage those with little to no experience to find a certification program that fits into their goals.  It shows a potential employer that they are serious about wine as a career, and not just a hobby.  There are many training programs that will teach students about wine, food, and service.  The recommended path will be based on what area someone wants to work in (restaurants, education, winery work, etc.).  The best skills, however, are attained on the job.  If someone wants to be a restaurant sommelier, they should start by working at a restaurant with a good wine list and knowledgable staff and train under that restaurants sommelier.  While they are doing on the job training they should also seek out getting a sommelier certification on their own, going to as many wine tasting events as possible, visiting wineries, and traveling to wine regions.

What is most challenging about what you do?

Being my own motivator, setting my own hours, and knowing when to shut everything off for the day.   I think this goes for many who run their own businesses or work from home — it’s being disciplined in creating that work-life balance.

What is most rewarding?

Helping my customers and clients understand wine in a safe and unpretentious way.  When I hear a customer ask a simple question like “what is the difference between a red wine and a white wine”, I know I have done my job of taking any snobbery out of wine and allowing them to feel safe enough to ask me anything about wine.  I like to make wine fun for my clients and it is rewarding to be able to break through on that level.

With restaurants it is when I can help them build a small, yet strong and successful, wine list that compliments their food — and one that is easy for customers to navigate, non-intimidating, and one that is not based on generic grocery store wine labels.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

It is what you want to make it.  There are many areas of focus in the wine industry and many things you can do with a sommelier certification.  Many choose to enter the restaurant field and work as a restaurant sommelier.  I never wanted to be a full time restaurant sommelier. I spent over ten years working in the restaurant industry and knew that the hours and lifestyle wasn’t something I wanted to commit to — but I loved wine and educating people about wine.  For those interested in learning about wine I suggest that you dive in and get involved in every aspect you can — work at a winery, it is the best place to understand the process of how wine is made.   Work a harvest to understand what it is like to be out in the field, or in the cellar sorting through grapes.  Travel to as many wine regions as possible to experience as many styles of wine, on their own territory. Speak with winemakers — learn their stories and get to know the people behind the products.  Work in wine retail if possible, to understand what consumers want.  Work in a restaurant to understand sales and service.  Take classes and get certifications (they can’t hurt and demonstrate a commitment to learning).  Never stop learning.  Read every book on the subject.  Keep many journals of experiences and tasting notes.

How much time off do you get/take?

Again, I set my own hours since I run my own business, so I take time off when I need and want to.  But when I don’t work, I don’t get paid.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

That it is just a lot of drinking, eating, and traveling.  What those of us in the business do is hard work.  Take wine judging for instance.  While it may seem like fun to be a wine judge at a competition you are responsible for tasting (often) hundreds of wines in one day.  That is a lot of wine, and there is no swallowing.  You have to be focused and, needless to say, completely sober, to successfully analyze those wines.  You are not drinking those wines. You taste, analyze, and then spit them out.  Same goes for sampling wines for a restaurant wine list.  You need to be able to analyze a wine to understand if it will be a good fit for the restaurant, so you need to remain focused.  It is not just drinking and partying.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

To eventually have my own retail space to both sell wine and lead classes and events.

What else would you like people to know about your job/career?

That working as a sommelier and wine educator doesn’t have to be in only in a restaurant.  While that is the traditional route, it doesn’t have to be the only.  There are many small restaurants in need of wine list overhauls.  They may have great food, but are usually run by passionate chefs or business owners that may be too busy to develop a wine focus for their restaurant.  Consulting with them on building a complementary wine list to their food menu is an alternative to the traditional sommelier route.  More and more people are becoming interested in learning about wine, and the more educated consumers become the more they will be able to know if a wine list is bogus or not.   In addition to consulting, there are a wine variety if jobs one can do while working in the wine industry.