Wine as a Career

Pursuing wealth has its obvious rewards, but making money is much easier when you’re doing something you love. Starting a business requires plenty of time and energy, and as such it should be something that is worth trading your life to undertake.

Follow your passion, experts say, and you’ll succeed.

This aphorism certainly applies to Natalie MacLean, many times over.

The accredited sommelier, wine journalist and author of Red, White, and Drunk All Over got her business start early — she opened a dance school in her Nova Scotia basement when she was 15. She photocopied handmade notices and took them to the principals of the local elementary schools to pass them out in classes. Eventually she had 300 students and five teachers working for her, and she was able to put herself through university without going into debt.

She studied English literature at Oxford University, and earned an honours bachelor at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax and an MBA at the University of Western Ontario.

She didn’t start drinking wine until she and her husband took a wine course together at George Brown College in Toronto. She later completed a sommelier certificate while working for the computer company Silicon Graphics.

She began writing in 1998 with a column about wine for a local magazine. She eventually would write for more than 60 publications, including Bon Appetit and Food & Wine.

Today the Ottawa-based writer publishes Canada’s largest wine e-newsletter, with more than 100,000 subscribers, at www.NatalieMacLean.com.

Ms. MacLean joined us earlier to talk about turning your passion into a money-making enterprise.

Dave Michaels, globeandmail.com: Hello Natalie! So glad you could join us today. I’ll toss the first question: As a wine writer, who do you define as your core audience? The weekend shopper looking for the value-priced (under $15) cabernet, or the aficionado seeking the super Tuscans or more rarefied Vintage selects?

Natalie MacLean: Hi Dave. Like other businesses, wine writers must choose a segment within their industry. I focus on wines between $10 and $25 (many are under $15, though, for value shoppers, especially in this economy). I also match them all with food and recipes so that my customers have an idea for a complete dinner that’s affordable.

While I do review the super Tuscans, cult California cabernets, coveted Bordeaux blends and so on, these have a very small market in terms of who can afford them. They’re easy to find in the database of 50,000 wine reviews I’ve posted on my site because you can search by price, vintages, drinking maturity, region, wine name, score and so on. However, the vast majority of my wines are in the $10-$25 range, as that is the range that most consumers want. (And I’m in that price bracket myself!)

Richard Miller from Toronto writes: Natalie, I have followed your newsletter since 2003 and continue to think it is fantastic. Thank you for sharing your passion! My question is about being a wine agent. I understand generally what agents do, but could you explain the business model? How do they get paid, what are the margins like, how many wines/wineries do you reasonably need to represent to have a viable business, etc.? What are some of the pros and cons of entering that field?

Natalie MacLean: I’m delighted that you enjoy the newsletter, Richard! The business model varies by agent in terms of the number of brands represented and the regional or price point focus. There are several hundred agents in Canada, ranging from those who represent a few brands on the side (in addition to their day job) to those who make a full-time business of it and employ a large staff, such as Lifford Wine Agency, Churchill Cellars, Charton-Hobbs and others. It’s worth visiting their websites to see their portfolios.

For the best overview of an agent’s role, commissions and other variables, I recommend that you take Steven Trenholm’s course “Importing for Profit and Pleasure.” He’s based in Toronto, and hundreds of people have taken his course, either to import wines for their own consumption or to make a full-time career of it. E-mail me via my website (www.nataliemaclean.com) and I’ll put you in touch with Steven.

Dave Michaels, globeandmail.com: Natalie, what, if anything, can other businesses learn from the new ways of marketing wine? Is there a larger lesson in the critter phenomenon?

Natalie MacLean: Over the last five years, wine marketing swung from chateau-on-a-mountain elitism to critter-cute accessibility. Neither serves wine drinkers well, as one makes wine inaccessible, the other dumbs it down. Savvy wine producers are hitting the middle stride with contextual marketing: helping consumers find a place for well-made wine in their everyday lives. This means enjoying a glass or two of wine with dinner at home during the week, not just on special occasions or when dining out on the weekend. It also means that there can be a thrilling, multi-layered pleasure to wine that can be enjoyed without a sommelier certificate and without having to declare all wine as equally well-made in the name of misguided wine democracy.

Kevin Goodlad from Kingston, N.S., writes: Hello from N.S., Natalie… Any suggestions about how to get past the gatekeepers in any target organization?

Natalie MacLean: How about a good bottle of wine? :) Can you give me an example please?

Dave Michaels, globeandmail.com: Natalie, everybody loves the idea of supporting small, local businesses, but can smaller wineries really compete with the Constellations of this world?

Natalie MacLean: Small wineries can compete particularly well against conlgomerations when they focus on their market niche: local customers. Local can mean more than just those within driving distance of the winery; it can also include those on a mailing list or those with whom the small winery has developed a personal relationship. Social media tools, such as Twitter and Facebook, are helping small wineries extend their reach and devlop these personal relationships with a wider audience.

Kristi Hanratty from Fort Collins, Colo., writes: Hi! I would love to work in wine marketing, but have only taken classes (wine appreciation, WSET Intermediate, Colorado State University horticulture classes, etc.). Do I need to get a masters of marketing in wine, or are there other ways to work in the industry without further schooling?

Natalie MacLean: I’m a big advocate of education and training to be better equipped to enter your field. I don’t think it’s a requisite but it will definitely help, especially if you don’t have any industry experience yet. If you like, I’ll put you in touch with a few wine marketers in the field and you can ask their opinion. Contact me via my website please.

Mindy Hahn from Winnetka, Ill., writes: What are the best careers that marry a love of wine and all things culinary with travel?

Natalie MacLean: Wine, food and travel writing are all excellent avenues. You could also join a travel agency or become an independent tour operator focusing on one or two regions and helping your customers explore cooking schools, wineries, restaurants, etc. Another option is to work in a winery, even for a year, and make it your home base while you travel on weekends around the region.

Lawrence Crofton from Canada writes: Hi Natalie. We’re planning to start a tour business (Yeah right! Great timing! :) ) In your experience, outside of the paid advertisement model, what did you find was the best way of creating market awareness?

Natalie MacLean: Your best bet is to establish links with high-traffic wine, food and travel sites, Lawrence. (I’ll link to you :) ) Also, if you can become a regional wine expert, that would help. Offer your expertise to journalists writing about Niagara or B.C., for example. Perhaps you’re not an expert, but you know how to make the most of your visit to wine country with 10 tips for travellers.

Erin Rosar from Calgary writes: Hi Natalie. As a fellow woman sommelier I am interested to know your thoughts: Do you feel that as women we are perceived as less intimidating then men in the wine industry? And if so, with more women joining our industry are we helping to create a new and more open and relaxed arena for people to learn about wine in? Do you see this as a new side to the wine industry?

Natalie MacLean: It’s a stereotype, but yes, women are perceived as less intimidating than men in the wine industry. (I know some real tigers who prove that wrong.) However, I think that women can use this to their advantage, whether it’s setting customers at ease in restaurants and wine stores, or in using a more conversational voice to write about wine. I resist the Chardonnay-as-little-black-dress metaphors, but I do imagine a woman when I write: she’s my best friend and we’re sitting at the kitchen table enjoying a good glass of wine. It keeps it real rather than climbing into the ivory tower of which wine got 98 points out of 100.

According to three recent industry studies, women buy 70 per cent to 80 per cent of wine and drink 60 per cent of it. That’s reasonable, since as purchasers of most household items from Shreddies to SUVs, women control most wine buying. Women are also responsible for most social planning, from family meals and dinner parties to larger gatherings and celebrations. That’s why most consumer magazines, and certainly all of the largest, are aimed at women. Gourmet and Bon Appetit each have more than 1 million subscribers; Wine Spectator has about 350,000.

Chris Del Plato from Long Valley, N.J., writes: I would like to hear Natalie’s thoughts, experience and difficulties encountered relative to forging a new career/business centred on her passion while maintaining another job/career (and still paying the bills).

Natalie MacLean: It’s a good idea to transition slowly career-wise until you can jump from one moving train to another, rather than be left standing in the station with a stack of unpaid bills. I was fortunate in that I was on maternity leave from my high-tech marketing position. So I started slowly pitching ideas to different publications and then decided to make a full-time go of it at the end of my leave. But even if you’re not pregnant, you can still make that gradual transition: Start with one small piece of the pie. In my case, it would have been writing a story for a community newspaper on the weekend and then building out from there. At a certain point, just before you jump, it can be a very difficult time – stressful, yet so worth it!

Ralf Joneikies from Vancouver writes: Hello Natalie. Have you found any particular obstacles to becoming a wine writer? My own experience has been that this is a particularly closed world, and magazines and newspapers generally don’t care to look at finished articles. What route would you recommend?

Natalie MacLean: When I started, I was told that I would never earn a living as a wine writer, and that I should keep it as a weekend hobby (sweetheart). Well, that fired my burner! It took time, dogged persistence and an unshakable faith that I was doing the right thing, but eventually I broke in. Start with your community newspaper, take courses and build from there. Don’t give up!

Tom Johnson from Louisville, Ky., writes: Is the wine publishing industry specialized? That is, are there a defined group of author’s agents that specialize in wine books?

Natalie MacLean: Some literary agents don’t represent more than one wine writer at a time as they believe that it creates a conflict of interest. Whom do they promote? Others believe that there are economies of scale and learning by specializing in one or two industries and knowing them well. Often they’ll do both food and wine. So it depends on the agency.

Tara Fraser from Montreal writes: Hello Ms. MacLean! I visit your website quite frequently and think it is fantastic! I especially love that you have gone 3.0 with your wine and food pairing widget. How much have these sorts of initiatives helped with the viral marketing of your website and newsletter?

Natalie MacLean: Thanks Tara! The Drinks Matcher widget (www.nataliemaclean.com/matcher) has been an amazing 3.0 viral tool! To date, 3,256 people have posted it on their websites, blogs and social media pages like FaceBook, MySpace and iGoogle. (It takes just takes 3 clicks.) It’s all about sharing your content rather than keeping it just on your own website. A number of these folks have e-mailed to say that their site traffic has increased because people are coming back to their site for more pairing suggestions, from Champagne and sushi, to Oreos and port.

I also use other 2.0 and 3.0 tools such as interactive recipes, a blog, wine glossary, podcasts, links, events, articles, daily Twitter updates (http://twitter.com/NatalieMacLean), RSS feeds, Facebook, MySpace, Blogger, iGoogle: it all helps to build a community. Wine is about conversation, and wine online is no different. I love having a nanosecond connection with others who are passionate about wine, like you Tara. :)

Richard Miller from Toronto writes: Thanks for that! If I may ask another few questions: How well do you think Australian wine will be able to withstand the onslaught of value wines from South Africa or South America (e.g., I think Fuzion has now kicked Yellowtail off its perch)? What do you think of Torrontes (the grape)? When’s your next book due (any sneak peeks available?)

Natalie MacLean: Australia has some tough competition ahead of it from the two countries that you mention. I’m visiting Argentina next month to see what’s up with their lip-smacking delicious Malbecs and their aromatic answer to Chardonnay, Torrontes (love it). These wines have incredible depth of flavour at terrific prices. South Africa excels at both Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz. The number of wines that I recommend for less than $15 from these two countries is pretty high now. It’ll be interesting to see where it all shakes out.

I’m working on my next book now; hope to publish next year if I stay on schedule. (So many wines to try; the research never ends!) Richard, your free bottle of wine is in the mail for that unsolicited plug :)

Michelle Herrington from Canada writes: Hi Natalie, is there any advice you can give to young people starting out on how to find out what our passions are and how to turn them into successful businesses? I like to think that it would be wise to try various things and then when I find my passion, look for a niche in the market and go from there.

Natalie MacLean: You’ve got the right idea Michelle! Try lots of things, join clubs, read books, take adventure/experiential type vacations. Think about what you like to do for fun: Could you earn a living from it if you got the right credentials, set up the right business strategy? I call dining out our family sport: we’re not big into camping, etc (It’s so hard to balance a nice crystal decanter on a campsite log.) So that old adage about following your bliss, and the money will follow … it works.

Karen Sandford from Canada writes: Hi Natalie. I love your newsletter and have been following it for several years now. I’m going to be moving back to Canada from the U.S. and want a career change to the wine business. I have a passion for wine and have taught myself everything that I know. How do you suggest I start my career change? (Most of my experience is in high tech sales.)

Natalie MacLean: Thanks Karen, delighted that you like the newsletter! Congrats on your courage to consider changing jobs. Join some wine clubs, read more, taste more. You might consider taking a sommelier certificate program at night or perhaps you want to plunge right in and enroll in one of the wine MBA university programs and try getting co-op work experience as part of the program. Another option is to start slowly and volunteer at a winery in the tasting room, or go be a cellar rat for slave wages. Lots of entry points. :)

Richard Miller from Toronto writes: Given your broad exposure to wine and related markets, are there any unrealized business opportunities that you see (and are not going after yourself): Are there any un/underserved markets or segments, any customer needs that haven’t been sufficiently addressed, any areas that would benefit from having new, fresh competitors enter the space?

Natalie MacLean: No, I’ve covered them all, Richard. :) Okay, seriously, I think online wine sales and home delivery is a ripe market open for more competitors.

My passion is writing about wine, and more specifically, about the people who make, buy and drink wine: winemakers, sommeliers, retailers and drinkers. For me, wine is a pleasurable excuse to write about human nature. I raise my raise glass to everyone here!

Dave Michaels, globeandmail.com: And we’ve run out of time. Thanks, Natalie, for sharing your expertise with us today. Good luck with the next book!

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