How To Become A Wine Sales Rep

It’s 4:30 p.m. on a Thursday, and the staff of the hottest restaurant in town is going around checking the silverware polish, making sure tablecloths look good, and testing each other on the night’s specials, when in walks a young man in a shirt and tie, toting a rolling suitcase. The servers all exchange wary glances: the wine rep is here. Will the restaurant’s wine director want to meet with this person? Perhaps. Depends on many things: his reputation, for one, and,  more importantly, the portfolio he’s repping.

Being a wine salesperson — working for an importer or distributor to establish accounts with restaurants, bars, and retail shops — is a tough job but has many lifestyle perks, including a flexible schedule, above all. “I love having the freedom to create my own schedule and choose my clients,” says Ben Stewart, a sales rep for Bonhomie Wine Imports in New York. “I get to travel to beautiful wine growing regions and visit winemakers and Instagram the visits and make my friends and family jealous. I get to go home on Thanksgiving and Christmas and, of course, there’s more free wine than I can possibly drink.” With New York one of the most competitive wine scenes in the country, we asked hardworking and experienced reps like Ben to chime in with advice for people who might want to get into the sales game.

Here are some of their insights and helpful tidbits of advice:

To be a sales rep, you must be good at working independently.

Self-motivation is the most important thing, according to Jeff Paradise, a sales rep at Communal Brands. “I’m my own boss, for the most part,” he says. Of course, there are pros and cons to this. You have to be organized and remember which accounts need attention and who is putting in an order. You also have to be constantly hunting out new accounts; this is called “prospecting.” The benefit is that nobody scolds you if you’re not “in the office” by 9 a.m. In fact, you may only need to go into the office once or twice a week. And lunch is not only guaranteed to be at your leisure, it quite possibly could take place in a fancy, decadent restaurant — with good wine.

People skills are everything.

To be a good rep, you need to be a “people person.” Learn to talk to all kinds of people — snobby, uber-cool somms as well as the old-school guy who owns that red-sauce Italian place with white tablecloths. “Chameleon” is a word that Jeff uses to describe the ideal wine rep. “There are so many different personalities among buyers and they’re all looking for something different from their reps,” he says. “Being able to figure out how to meet their needs in the way they want is the key to building a good relationship.” He mentions something important here: relationships. Buyers need to know they can count on you in the long run. Even if they take your wine off their by-the-glass lists, you can’t get pissed off at them; they are just doing their jobs. Your job is to sell them wine, not design the list.

You must love drinking wine! 

This should be obvious. But maybe, at the moment, you only like wine. That’s OK. It’s a starting point. Nathaniel Ross Center, who works for T. Edward Wines as a sales rep, got into the job at a point when he realized his music career wasn’t going to support him, but he also didn’t want to work in a restaurant where he would be “stuck in one place all day.” To learn more and educate his palate while he was starting his rep career, Nathaniel joined a weekly blind-tasting group and read a lot, and it helped immensely (I was in that group, actually; we had a lot of fun!).

If you like wine, being a sales rep is great because you have access to sample bottles and often get to use your company expense account at restaurants. Of course, this isn’t for taking your boyfriend on a date. It’s for research to see if you can open a new account or to check in on an existing one. But you can still have fun.

Payment is a long-term prospect.

Sales rep jobs are based on commission. At first, even if you have a small base salary, you won’t be reeling in the cash, as it takes time to build solid relationships and get people ordering from you regularly. Even once you’ve established some great accounts you’ll have slow months, especially August, and that’s just the way it is. Commission rates can vary from six percent to 10 percent of sales. Overall pay varies greatly. If you work for a big company, like Southern, you could make a very large salary. If boutique wine is your thing and you want to be with a smaller company, your compensation will likely be smaller, but that brings up our next, very important point.

You should love, or at least like, the portfolio you’re selling. 

Sophie Barrett, a sales rep for MFW Wine Co., who also has years of experience managing one of the city’s top retail stores, says it so well that I’ll just quote her directly here: “Quality of the wines [in the portfolio] is very important. I don’t think anyone with a soul can sling a bag of wines they don’t love, or at least like. For me, it had to be a portfolio that coincided with my taste and aesthetic. But also, it has to be a portfolio that is deep and rounded enough to lend some economic stability. There have to be cheap wines and expensive wines and enough breadth, quantity, and consistency to make it sustainable; otherwise you’re going to have to have another job to make a living.”

You need to be physically strong to hit those streets.

In New York especially — where most people don’t have a car and instead use the subway to get around — life as a sales rep means schlepping constantly. “The job is incredibly taxing physically,” Sophie says. “I’m a fit, sporty person, and I still struggle carrying the bottles, around five to 10 miles of walking per day, plus subway stairs, plus dealing with whatever weather condition prevails.” Add to that pouring wine for two hours on a Friday night while standing up at one of your retail accounts — something reps commonly do — and you may not even have enough energy left to get to the wine bar where your friends are drinking. Then again, you probably will.

Where does one find a wine sales job? 

You’re still interested? OK. Word of mouth is one place to start. If you’re already in the industry (retail or restaurant), your colleagues will be a good source for tips about job openings. If you don’t know that many importers’ names yet, start turning bottles around to look at the back label and you’ll get to know them pretty quickly. Also look at winejobs.com for sales rep jobs. And go to tastings, where you can actually meet the importer who created the portfolio and shake his or her hand. Bring a business card and act professional (i.e., don’t get drunk). You will likely be remembered when that importer is trying to fill a position or grow the company. And once you get the job, don’t expect it to be lucrative, fun, or glamorous — at least not right away. “Patience and persistence are key when you’re just setting out and trying to break into new accounts,” says Ben Stewart. Once you sign up for a sales rep job, expect to work at it for several years before you’re confident and comfortable. If you’re still interested, a lot of importing and distributing companies will probably be glad to hire you, so get to work sprucing up that résumé and your wine knowledge — as well as those biceps. You’ll need them to carry those six bottles up the subway steps.