Becoming a Marketing Manager

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Issue 0 | pp 29-31 | 01.04.2019

Becoming a Marketing Manager

Making the jump from the floor requires not just a shift in focus; a passion for wine and a willingness to learn are essential, too. And good timing doesn’t hurt.

One of the myths of the modern sommelier scene is that the job – or even better, certification of whatever sort – is a springboard to almost any position in the world of wine. Nonetheless, we often find ourselves at a bit of a loss when the time comes to get off the floor. What next? My enviable position as the US Marketing Manager for Wines of South Africa—and I call it “enviable” because sommeliers regularly ask how I got it, and how they might find a similar job – stands as a reminder that it’s not, or not just, the wine knowledge that prepares us for new opportunities. It’s our skill set as well.

When my time came, the leap from the floor to marketing was a “shove” as much as a “leap.” In what turned out to be my last restaurant job, at Armani Ristorante, I was part of a new management team charged with knocking the underperforming restaurant into shape. I had a great budget to work with, and took the list from drab to award winning. But plans to extend that model to other Armani locations across the U.S. were clearly years away (four years later, it still hasn’t happened), and one day my GM gave me the talk: I needed to work more hours and take on more management responsibilities – you know, “really commit myself to the restaurant,” and “put in at least 70 hours a week.”

No additional salary was mentioned, and clearly I would no longer have time to earn any supplementary income by writing. I don’t fault anyone who makes that sort of commitment, but to me, having twice had the carrot of a corporate beverage position dangled in front me and then pulled away, it seemed a sure sign that it was time for a change.

I was fortunate that Wines of South Africa (WOSA) was willing and able to take me on. Marketing is not a place where sommeliers often end up; I can’t think of another marketing manager for a regional body who came to such a job directly from the floor. Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein has floor experience, but he put in almost two decades of work creating and running education programs at major companies like Seagram’s and Allied Domecq before starting Full Circle Wine Solutions, where he now works with a number of South American and other regional accounts.

Quite frankly, almost anyone with a proper marketing background is likely to be better equipped for most of the responsibilities of regional marketing than a sommelier. Marketing as a skill is transferable across industries. I know marketing people who have moved into wine from fashion, the fruit industry, or other lines of work. As long as the passion for wine and the willingness to learn is there, they can succeed.

A sommelier’s deep knowledge of wine is rarely as essential to these positions as one might guess. The job instead calls for a broader range of work experience. Much of marketing is about broad strokes rather than details, for the understandable reason that simple messages get through the best. Whereas sommeliers need to draw spontaneously upon a vast inventory of specifics, marketing is deliberative. Ideally, one has time to gather information and strategize as needed.

But there I was. I had met Annette Badenhorst, WOSA’s first full-time American Market Manager, the day she landed in New York. As luck would have it, I was doing a seminar on behalf of WOSA that day. For years before her arrival, Rory Callahan of Wine and Food Associates had handled WOSA’s activities in the U.S.A., alongside his other clients. I had met Callahan in 2003, after winning a writing contest he had coordinated on behalf of Wines from Spain. My prize was a trip to Rias Baixas; he and I bonded during the trip, in some part thanks to a mutual interest in classical music, which his daughter, a clarinetist, was studying.

Subsequently Rory introduced me to South African wines, first in New York, then on a trip to the Vancouver Playhouse Wine Festival, where South Africa was the featured region. A major watershed came in 2006, when I flew to South Africa to participate in Cape Wine, WOSA’s triennial convention.

After that trip, Rory began asking me to help out with some events – moderating a panel at the Colorado Springs Wine Festival, helping arrange a series of winemaker master-classes, presenting South African wines to Kevin Zraly’s students, and so forth. During this progression, I was continuing my wine studies, still doing freelance writing, and working as a sommelier and then wine director at Megu.

After her arrival, Annette had little use for my services, but I was writing about South African wines and presenting them on my own at cooking schools and the like. That kept us connected, and Annette eventually resumed using me as a speaker. As my days at Armani wound down, a rare budget increase from WOSA to the USA office gave Annette the means to hire me. This arose thanks to an uptick in bulk exports of South African wines (WOSA is funded by a levy on South African wine exports). Lucky timing.

Given that I had been giving presentations about South African wine for years, it was only natural that I would continue to do so in my new position, but that’s not necessarily part of the job description. Conducting seminars is one place where a sommelier’s viewpoint and knowledge can be valuable, as questions can take a session in any direction, but it’s not always part of the job description. In any case, it happens that I present lots of seminars. On my last trip to Vancouver I gave six presentations in two-and-a-half days, including one for the Vino Volo staff at the airport an hour before my flight home. MW Mary Gorman-McAdams presents regularly on behalf of Bordeaux, but many regions hire writers or sommeliers on a freelance basis for this work, just as I did when getting started.

Pre-shift staff training, however, doesn’t necessarily prepare one for public speaking. I’ve seen top sommeliers who were brilliant tableside, but who struggled to articulate anything meaningful about a region’s wines in a seminar setting. Whatever skill I have in it comes from years spent teaching (before wine, music theory and history, as well as English), including actually being trained as a teacher at one point. Mary, too, came to her position with years of experience as an educator, not as a sommelier.

As I’ve learned on the job, most of marketing is actually marketing: arranging and negotiating promotional activities, organizing producers for a trade show, coordinating and overseeing a PR strategy, and so forth. Restaurant work can prepare one for many parts of the job – event planning, certainly, working with importers, perhaps, though it’s a real change to work alongside an importer or distributor as a marketer compared to being one of their valued customers. Ideally, running a wine program should also give one some sense of how to manage a budget, which occupies much of my time these days, especially as I’ve watched the rand – and with it, my funding – bounce up and down the past couple of years.

But other things don’t come up as much. Among other things, learning the ins and outs of retail was new for me, and vital. Restaurants may be higher-profile, but retail is where volume happens. Few regional marketing organizations can ignore that fact (though individual brands sometimes can).

I was again fortunate that my restaurant positions allowed me the time to continue writing. Writing, especially for trade publications, exposed me to many aspects of the industry that prepared me for my current job, aspects that didn’t cross my path in the restaurant. The most helpful wasn’t the standard stuff of writing a column with a list of tasting notes. Rather, it was the real reporting – conducting interviews and getting quotes – that really gave me the chance to learn more about the wine industry aside from what happens in classes and on the floor. I was questioning and listening to the best sources I could find all the time, in all parts of the industry, including producers, sommeliers, wholesalers, and retailers.

It’s a roundabout route. Strange as it may sound, I transferred what I knew about writing music to writing about wine; nonetheless, to move forward I had to follow up with actual journalism courses after my modest initial success as a writer.

In the long run, as per Evan Goldstein’s example, it seems like importer/distributor jobs could actually be the best preparation for marketing, by contrast to restaurant work. In that capacity, one can at least rub elbows with marketing folks, take part in initiatives and programs, and see what works at various levels, whether within a city, across a state, or nationally.

Wine marketing bodies are also not the only way to dive in to a specific region, if that’s what appeals about the position. There are plenty of opportunities with specialized importers and agents, such as Cape Classics or Broadbent for South Africa, Wassermann for Burgundy, Dalla Terra for Italy, to name just a few.

Regardless of the route, it’s a matter of learning by doing. Staying plugged in, active, and engaged in the industry in whatever role is how to make opportunities surface and how one develops the skills to take advantage of them. The opportunities themselves may not be what one expects. For me, they led to South Africa and as much Chenin Blanc as my cellar can hold; if something different had happened at Armani I could be writing about Alto Adige right now. It’s great to know wine, to hone skills, to have career goals, but good sommeliers also trust their noses.

A sommelier’s deep knowledge of wine is rarely as essential to these positions as one might guess. … Whereas sommeliers need to draw spontaneously upon a vast inventory of specifics, marketing is deliberative. Ideally, one has time to gather information and strategize as needed.

Reprint from TEXSOM presents SOMMELIER Volume 0, pages 29–31