The right people for the job

The wine industry needs people with passion and enthusiasm. But where do you find them? Liza B. Zimmerman reports on an industry discussion.

The question of staff hiring and retention was discussed at the Luxury Marketing Council of San Francisco’s Wineries Boot Camp.
The question of staff hiring and retention was discussed at the Luxury Marketing Council of San Francisco’s Wineries Boot Camp.

The wineries of the world have always had trouble filling their low- to mid-level positions. Many of them are located in the country, far from major cities, and require a lot of ‘after-hours’ work, so turnover among young people can be brisk. Finding the right type of personality to work in the tasting room is as essential as keeping employees happy and feeling empowered in the long-term. 

In early March, four Napa winery executives and two consultants gathered at the Luxury Marketing Council of San Francisco’s Wineries Boot Camp at the Lincoln Theater in Yountville – an hour north of San Francisco – for a lively panel discussion to share their insight about wineries’ unique staffing challenges.

They touched on how to find the right employees, train them, and keep them feeling fulfilled in the long-term in order to retain them. The panel was moderated by Alf Nucifora, the chairman of the Luxury Marketing Council of San Francisco, a networking group that brings together marketing executives within a cross section of affluent businesses from race cars to jewellery to realtors. The audience was filled with a high-powered mix of local winery management and consultants.

Attracting the right people

Colin MacPhail, a partner in VINFABULA Partners – a Calistoga, California-based company that evaluates tasting room experiences and trains winery staff – said that wineries clearly face challenges in finding and retaining the right people to begin with, for a variety of reasons.

“If you are young and fit working in a restaurant you would make 25% more,” and the average wage for tasting room positions won’t even usually cover the expensive costs of living in high-net-worth communities like St Helena in Napa, said MacPhail, making a conservative estimate. 

Compassion and comprehension are both fundamental characteristics that good tasting room staff needs to possess. Top hires, similar to wait staff, he continued, will be able to show empathy and see the customer as a human being rather than just a sales target. They have to be natural storytellers. “If you can’t build a story around the wines you are pouring, you aren’t worth having behind the counter.”

Legendary New York restaurateur Danny Meyer of Gramercy Tavern once said that while he could teach a beginner about the restaurant business, he could never instil the right attitude in a sullen professional. He has long had a successful reputation for hiring on personality, and that is what all the members of the panel said was the right thing to do for many positions in the winery world. Poaching from other wineries, joked MacPhail, is also often one of the easiest ways to fill gaps in the hospitality team.

MacPhail added that a great way to test a candidate’s personality and speaking ability is to “have them bring in a bottle of wine and tell you why it means something to them.” Challenges like this allow recruiting staff to see if the interviewee is passionate about the business and at ease talking in front of people. He also stressed the importance of conveying to new hires how fantastic the house product they will be selling is. “The most important person to sell your wine to is your staff.”

Another crucial quality in top tasting room hires is their having the “sales gene”, said Laura Larson, founder of the Napa-based Virtual Vines, a company that helps wineries better qualify their guests and capture and retain more customers. She added that the most adept employees in the customer service arena are almost always instinctively team players. She also thinks that prospective employees stand out if they have already done prior research on the winery where they are interviewing and are aggressive enough to ask outright for the job.

A passion for the job

With increasing competition from cannabis farms – that generally pay more – in some of the same rural communities, it is often hard to retain quality staff, said Catherine Durand, vice president of Inglenook Winery, which is owned by director Francis Ford Coppola.

For anyone who has seen how busy some tasting rooms can get on a beautiful summer Saturday, it is clear that having an easy-going and positive temperament is an essential characteristic of a good employee. They have to be able to cheerfully manage the crowds and pour hundreds of tastes with a smile.

When Durand and her team are hiring, she looks for people who are gracious and flexible in terms of their time commitment to the winery, given how time consuming winery work can be. She has found some of her top employees through word of mouth and through referrals by current staff.

She added that solid candidates should show both passion and precision in the interview process. “It is a deal breaker if you spell the name of the winery wrong or say that your true passion is filmmaking.”

Once aboard, keeping the staff educated and up to speed – not just on the winery’s products but on the competitive set worldwide – is essential, she said. “We expect that you will be a Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) level two,” referring to the rigorous academic wine curriculum taught all over the world. If a promising potential hire doesn’t have enough scholastic credentials, Durand says that the winery will pay for their WSET courses.

“You want someone exciting and fun,” who is able to roll up their sleeves in tasting room positions, added Jennifer Kolivosky, general manager of direct-to-consumer operations at the St Helena-based Duckhorn Wine Company. They should also have “a high level of emotional intelligence and an ability to listen.”

Candidates that are naturally curious will want to know more about who they are serving, continued Carol Reber, senior vice president and chief marketing and business development officer at Duckhorn. Inquisitiveness leads them to asking tasting room guests more questions about their “lifestyle needs and how we can be a part of serving them.

“I like Southwest Airlines’ philosophy that 95% of the work has been done by the parents of the people we hire,” she said. All those formative years make you a self-starter and “we can teach them the rest.” Once hired, ongoing training, tasting, and regular interaction with winemakers can fill in their wine knowledge blanks, she added.

Warm, friendly, and interesting are all top traits for winery employees who excel at their jobs. “I never hire anyone I wouldn’t want to have a beer with,” joked Jocelyn Hoar, director of hospitality at Hall St Helena. She also added, echoing Danny Meyer’s credo, that, “I can’t teach them to be nice,” and that their apparent passion for the business should speak for itself in an interview. She said that she seeks out potential candidates through the Napa Hospitality Network and wine country publications with job advertisements such as the Sonoma-based Wine Business Monthly.

Once hired for a position, new employees are paired with a mentor at Hall, so they have someone to turn to and of whom they can ask a question who isn’t their boss. Their winery tours and tasting room interaction skills are also audited to provide them with feedback.

Local oenological schools in wine regions can also be great sources of employees. Tracy Sweeney, general manager of hospitality and direct-to-consumer operations at St Helena-based Beringer Vineyards, which is owned by Treasury Estates, said she often turns to the student pool at the Wine Business Institute of Sonoma State University to recruit harvest interns. She added that networking in the wine community has nabbed her valuable hires and that she even asks particularly charming servers at dinner if they want to work in a winery.

The right personalities will not only be flexible about hours but show their love of wine and sense of humour in interviews. They “need to give me examples of when they have had fun at work, when they sparkle, and remember stories” to share, she concluded. Once part of the team, new hires will want to feel continually challenged and appreciated. At Beringer, Sweeney does this by exposing them to other winery departments and making sure to recognise them for their accomplishments.

When the right hires are made, according to Reber, turnover is very low. Staff sees the opportunity for growth at Duckhorn and are able to make transition from direct-to-consumer positions and go into wholesale, customer service, or wine club sectors. Those who aren’t a fit for the winery tend to self-identify and demonstrate what they are not good at. Reber says they often can be funnelled into back-office operational jobs that may better suit their personalities. “When we see talent we try to redirect them to where they can be a success and add value.”

If an employee has to be let go, which happens infrequently according to Reber, “everything is done with transparency, dignity, and privacy.” However, she joked that usually, “If anything, we have people who stay too long.” 

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