June 2 2015 12:00 AM

Exploring career options in the wine industry

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Justin King

The coasts don’t understand Michigan. Many don’t know — or don’t care — that it’s not all rust belt and ruin porn here. Hyperbole aside, the two peninsulas have had to pivot through a recession with some help from a healthy (and tasty) beverage industry. Michigan’s beer exploits are well documented, as many consider Michigan to be a top five craft beer state. But, along with Virginia, Texas and Idaho, our pure state has an argument to squeeze into the top five of quality wine production, alongside wine bastions California, Oregon, Washington and New York.

While 20-something job-hunters flock to craft beer gigs nationwide, thus saturating the market, the consistently growing wine industry has taken root statewide and shows long-term traction for those looking for something different. So where do wine enthusiasts turn to find a career in the industry?

Retail

The Mid-Michigan market share isn’t dominated by either corporate or independent retailers. Meijer and Kroger have tried to inject personality into their operations, hiring wine specialists for some locations around the state, but other big-box retailers have little need for building a unique wine culture. That’s where independent retailers thrive.

Local stores Horrocks, Vine & Brew, Tom’s Party Store, Dusty’s Cellar and Merindorf Meats have all molded a wine set that is versatile enough to discover wines that are both in a consumer’s usual spectrum, but also beyond to the tastes of the slightly arcane. Most retail jobs are simply about selling wine to customers, but they can certainly build to something larger.

“Wine started out as a part-time job for me, while going to school,” said Curt Kosal, owner of Vine & Brew in Okemos. “Even before that, my interest grew out of a love for good food and cooking. Eventually, it turned into a full-time career.”

Local Restaurants and Distributors

The current Lansing restaurant scene is somewhat focused on craft beer and cocktails. Wine tends to take a back seat. There are still options if one wants to tackle the wine world, however, with opportunities for the self-starters and proactive learners. Those options can also lead to jobs with distributors, who sell wine to stores and restaurants.

“I worked my way up into restaurants that served alcohol and wine by getting a job at the State Room, which had a fantastic wine list and a general manager who was eager to teach the staff about wine profiles and regions,” said Kristen Pennington, now a sales representative for Woodberry Wines. “After that, I worked with a sommelier at Gracie's Place who also excelled at inspiring curiosity about the world of wine. When I knew I wanted to stay in the food and beverage industry and move up from my serving jobs, I took to studying and blind tasting with wine-passionate friends in the Lansing area, which proved to be very beneficial. They convinced me I had the knowledge and encouraged me to take the level-one sommelier exam through the Court of Master Sommeliers.”

Sommelier jobs exist in larger regional markets, with some positions more tailored to tableside service of wine, spirits and just about any beverage, but much of the work is about filling spreadsheets and lifting wine boxes. Ultimately, the cultural shift is a large pull for many in this position, as growing pains manifest amidst the contemporary restaurant industry.

“The camaraderie within the industry is fantastic,” said Gerry Baker, sommelier for Wolfgang Puck Steak and Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria & Cucina at MGM Grand Detroit.

“You can always find someone willing to share their knowledge and expertise,” Baker continued. “However, the lack of opportunities within the industry, especially on the service side, is quite disappointing. We've lost many talented people who have had to move out of state to find their spot in the industry. The wine business continues to grow in Michigan and we will need talented, knowledgeable and passionate people for that to happen.”

Suppliers and Importers

Supplier jobs generally function in larger markets, regionally and nationally, compared to distributors. But it all starts local.

“I always loved when the wine reps would come in for staff training,” said Anne Keller, Midwest sales manager for Vineyard Brands.

After working a few inspired years in restaurants and retail, Keller had built a connection to the supplier world that could bear fruit, and it started for her with a distributor in Michigan, then for Vineyard Brands. A big draw for Keller (and many others) is the chance to gain worldwide experience.

“Over the 20 years I’ve worked in the business, I’ve had incredible opportunities to dine in some great restaurants and to travel to California, Europe, South America and South Africa,” Keller said. “Having a chance to experience the wine and the culture first-hand really allows me to feel like an expert.”

Local Wineries and Studies

The Spartan Enology Society is a student-based group, dedicated to advancing student wine appreciation and knowledge.

Also, for students looking to have their hands in the dirt (or the fermenting juice), one can major in viticulture through the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources.

Jay Briggs, winemaker at Forty-Five North Vineyard & Winery in Leelanau Lake, shed some light on his transition from student to wine careerist, and the not-so-glamorous moments on the way between East Lansing and his current job.

“I was working at Beggars Banquet back in the ‘90s. The wine list was really nice at that point,” Briggs said. “I really wanted to brew beer, and checked out all angles to get in the industry. But I didn’t want to wash floors and tanks and give up bartending.”

So Briggs looked for opportunities locally, and eventually landed at MSU.

“I found a program at Michigan State under Stan Howell, studying viticulture, and started washing floors and tanks,” Briggs said, laughingly.

From these humble beginnings, Briggs worked his way up from vineyard work to his winemaking job.

“Moving from vineyards to the winery was cool because before, the rewards were always at the end — how well I could do to get the winemaker the results — but [as a winemaker], the rewards are the smiles on people’s faces.”