How to Become a Wine Sales Rep

When we think about the wine industry oftentimes we overlook the scale of the operation. There is more to wine than simply growing, harvesting, crushing, and fermenting grapes. There are teams of people working together to get a single bottle of wine from the winery to your table. This includes logistic coordinators, shipping companies, warehousing facilities, import and export specialists, and sales teams. 

Each role is vital to ensuring the supply chain continues operating. Sales representatives play a particularly important function. Without them, the chain would cease to exist. The people throughout the supply chain rely on sales reps to keep the inventory of wine constantly moving.

In 2020 alone, wine sales in the United States increased 4.98%, this was despite the economic slowdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This number is expected to continue to grow year over year. Therefore the demand for talented sales representatives will grow with it. The only way for a bottle of wine to get into the hands of the public is for a sales rep to bring it to them.

Before we dive into how to become a sales rep, let’s first explore what makes up their job.

What does a wine rep do?

In short, a wine rep sells wine.

When we think about sales the first thought that comes to mind is knocking on someone’s door and pitching a sale to them. But in terms of wine sales, it is much more in-depth than just that. Wine reps can be broken down into 2 categories, winery sales reps or wine agency sales reps.

Winery Sales Reps

Certain wineries will choose to sell their wine directly to a market without using an agency or other intermediary. This usually happens when the winery is selling in the same market in which they are located. For example, a winery in Provence, France will sell directly to the public or through wine shops around Provence, France. These sales will be managed by sales reps who work for the winery.

Many wineries will also have a retail outlet on their property. This would be run by sales associates. These outlets are a great stepping stone for those who want to build their skills and work their way up to large-scale wine sales.

Wine Agency Sales Reps

This is the larger category of sales reps. Wineries will partner with agencies to sell and distribute their wines in a market. Although a winery knows everything about the wine they produce and is passionate about every wine they make, the intense amount of knowledge about their brand and vision can also cloud their vision. They may think every wine will sell no matter the market. However, that is not the case. There is a tremendous amount of competition and certain wines are not of interest to certain markets.

This is where the use of an agency is valuable. These agencies have experience working with specific markets and understand the market trends of what wines will do well and which will not. They also have relationships with private clients, liquor stores, grocery stores, and restaurants to help sell the wine. Another benefit to using an agency is they assume all responsibility for selling the wine. The agency will submit a purchase order, the winery will fulfill the order, and the winery will be paid directly from the wine agency. The tradeoff is the agency has the exclusive right to represent the winery in that specific market.

These agencies will have teams of sales reps and will represent hundreds of different wineries from around the world. The sales reps will either be responsible for selling an entire agency’s portfolio or be in charge of selling specific brands from the portfolio. Some wineries will only produce a handful of cases of a specific wine. This will be allocated to different markets and countries. It’s common for a country to only get 1 to 4 cases of a rare wine. This is why it will be assigned to one sales representative to manage and sell the allocation.

Since an agency represents so many brands, a sales rep needs to have an understanding of what the client’s interests and wine needs are. This will let them narrow down the options to present to their client and increase the chance of closing the sale.

What Experience is Needed to Become a Wine Sales Rep?

Wine retail

There isn’t one specific path of how to become a wine sales rep. It depends mostly on your experience. To break into the wine sales its beneficial to meet some of the following criteria,

  • Sales experience
  • Hospitality or Restaurant experience
  • Wine training – either formal or informal
  • Winery experience
  • Beverage management experience

The most important experience is wine knowledge. It’s almost impossible to sell something if you don’t know anything about it. A wine sales rep doesn’t need to be a sommelier but they do need to understand different flavor profiles, growing regions, and grape varietals. They also need to know how to effectively communicate that information to prospective clients in a way that will make them want to buy. This knowledge can come through formal wine training through WSET or other accreditation programs or on-the-job training. 

Many wine sales reps have previous restaurant experience and sales is a way for them to still be a part of the hospitality industry without running service every day. Many sommeliers have also made the transition to sales. This is a way for them to use their knowledge to sell on a larger scale than to individual guests.

How are Wine Sales Reps Compensated?

There are three general ways a wine sales rep is compensated.

  1. Salary

This is a negotiated salary a sales rep will receive regardless of the amount of wine they sell. This is beneficial because they can rely on a steady source of income without worrying about slow sales months. This is typical of a winery sales representative. But to receive this type of compensation at an agency, a sales rep will generally need a proven sales track record. They will also need to maintain that sales level while on salary.

  1. Commission

A 100% commission-based salary can seem nerve-wracking because of the lack of steady income. However, there is the potential to make much more than a salaried counterpart. If a sales rep has good relationships and connections with clients and is willing to put in the work, they can easily surpass a salaried employee.

  1. Mixed

A mixed salary and commission-based compensation structures are very common in a wine agency and even at some wineries. The winery or agency will guarantee a low base salary and provide a commission on any wine the rep sells. A stipulation of this guaranteed base salary is the rep also guarantees they will sell at least their base salary’s worth of wine. It can seem like a lot more pressure but a good sales rep will be able to easily meet and surpass their base salary’s worth of wine sales. This structure provides the sales rep with more stability so they can plan on a regular income. But also still allows them to make even more in commission.

In Review: Is Becoming A wine Sales Rep Worth it?

A wine sales rep plays an important role in making sure the wine supply chain is constantly moving. The wine industry is growing and is forecasted to continue for the foreseeable future. The potential income to be made in this career is exponential and directly tied to your willingness to build new relationships and connections with clients.

There is the opportunity to work for a winery or an agency depending on your interests. The bottom line is you will be helping the industry continue to prosper. Not only are you helping bring wine to people around the world, but you are also helping keep a part of history alive. If you are interested in jumping into a wine sales rep role, check out the Work In Wine job board to see the industries' best jobs.

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