Many sommeliers eventually decide to leave the restaurant floor, transitioning their wine knowledge and skills into positions in retail or wholesale. But becoming a wine consultant has become an increasingly popular choice—particularly amidst the tumultuous job market of the past year.
I know firsthand that making the decision to abandon a traditional work structure—along with regular income and benefits—can be daunting. I spent the better part of two decades as a sommelier and corporate wine director for multiple high-volume, multi-concept programs before launching my consulting business, SOMLYAY, in 2018. Taking that leap felt scary at the time, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
While many sommeliers have sought occasional gigs to stay afloat, there is much more to being successful in this arena than working with a few clients here and there. On one hand, more restaurants may be looking for wine consultants as they work to manage tight labor budgets, and virtual tastings have driven demand for well-versed wine professionals to lead them, but the field is also more competitive than ever as many experienced sommeliers determine what’s next for their careers.
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To be successful as a consultant, it’s important to treat your business as a real business, determining services and pricing and creating structure and systems. It’s also essential to lean on your network, know what your time is worth, and overcome self-doubt.
So, you want to be a wine consultant? Here’s what you need to know.
Building Your Business Plan: What Services Will You Offer?
Outlining a business plan can feel intimidating, but don’t feel pressured to create an MBA-level report. Simply determine which facets of the industry you will focus on and the types of services you’ll offer. Be realistic with yourself when it comes to your strengths: Will you offer a broad suite of services or focus on one or two core competencies?
“It’s important to know what your capabilities are and what you want to do with your company,” says Carrie Lyn Strong, who founded Strong Wine Consulting in 2015 in New York City. ”If you aren’t great with teaching, you shouldn’t offer teaching services. If you are amazing at organization, perhaps offer cellar building, buying, and organization.”
Set goals: “You have to ask yourself what your goals are, both financially and year-over-year development,” says Thatcher Baker-Briggs, who founded Thatcher’s Wine Consulting in 2019 in San Francisco.
However, a business plan is just that—a plan that serves as a jumping-off point. As time passes, services will change and evolve. In fact, for many wine consultants, their current scope of services is quite different from what they had originally envisioned.
This is particularly true for Mikayla Cohen, the San Francisco-based co-founder of GoAved Wine Consulting which launched mid-pandemic in 2020. “My transition began as completely restaurant-focused and has evolved into almost everything except restaurants,” she says. The majority of her current work is virtual blind tasting events, private cellar curation, wine gifting, and education.
When I made my original business plan for SOMLYAY, the services I planned to be my primary sources of income comprise barely five percent of what I do now. My early model was based on smaller restaurants who would hire a pro to develop and improve their programs in lieu of a full time wine director. While I do have a few of these clients, the majority of my business is based on digital wine events, cellar sourcing, acquisitions and liquidations, regional ambassadorship, and distribution brokerage.
Create Structured Collateral
Next, you’ll need to create collateral such as your pitch deck, pricing list, bio or one-sheet, and new client intake forms. In a word-of-mouth-based business, most consultants agree a website was not an initial priority (granted, this depends on the services offered).
“Websites used to be the way to get your name out there,” says Strong. “It seems a social media presence far outweighs the benefits of a website these days.” This was my experience, too: SOMLYAY’s website didn’t go live until nearly a year after the company was founded.
While a website isn’t essential, a deck of services is. It need not be fancy; just create a simple, succinct document that includes the business’s suite of services and pricing structure along with your biography, accolades, and a professional photo. This will communicate to potential clients what they are paying for—and why. It will be essential in convincing them that you can deliver on their needs while also helping you standardize pricing across the board.
Your initial point of contact at an organization will often be all-in on hiring you but might have to sell other key stakeholders or decision makers on the idea. They’ll need a tool to easily communicate who you are and why you should be hired. Your deck is that essential tool.
Sign a Contract With Every Client
Perhaps the most imperative system to implement is to create contracts for everyone—even friends, colleagues, and family. Every client should sign a contract which clearly outlines deliverables, scope of work, fee for services, timelines, payment schedules, and explicitly states expectations for both parties. Nearly every hard-learned lesson (both with my own company and as described by other wine consultants) was due to conflicting or unclear expectations, or “friends” taking liberties or reneging on payments because they were not contractually bound.
Hire a Great Accountant
Don’t make the mistake of waiting until tax time to find an accountant. Despite the financial outlay upfront, a good accountant will more than pay for themselves in the long run. Working with an accountant from the beginning will give them more understanding of how they can save you money on everything from filing articles of incorporation and annual reports to tax write-offs and deductions.
While incorporating might seem like an unnecessary expense, it allows business owners to take advantage of additional benefits and tax write-offs. For instance, vehicles, rent or mortgage, clothing, utilities, phone and more are all deductible business expenses—if the consulting business is correctly incorporated. The owner may also pay far less income tax, as the company can pay you a smaller salary that puts you in a lower personal income tax bracket.
An accountant can also help you determine client invoicing and tracking receivables—something that is not only important for business profitability, but for client perception. “The details say a lot,” notes Baker-Briggs. “Venmo is easy but not professional. Checks have no fees but are outdated. If you carry your own inventory, having an inventory system that is robust and allows for scalability is incredibly important.” Take this time to pin down a professional company name, logo, and persona as well.
Determining What to Charge
One of the more difficult tasks when creating a consultancy business is determining what to charge for services. Unlike other industries, there is no union, no payscale, and no resource database for what various services should cost, and it is often a delicate balance to negotiate pricing between you and the client. Your own accolades, experience, and pedigree will also highly influence your rates.
“There are many factors that determine what I will charge,” says Strong. ”It’s easy to say that I deserve top dollar given my experience, but the reality of the situation is that there are few opportunities that pay top dollar. Generally, there is a minimum that I will charge for a service.”
“Rates are not flat,” says Haley Moore, the San Francisco-based founder of Acquire Wine which launched in 2013. “It is very much dependent upon the size of the job. How many hours will it take? Will I need to bring in some outside help? Restaurants tend to like to see project fees, so I take all of those factors into account before coming up with a number.” As you take on more clients, your time will become more valuable as well, justifying fee increases. Moore adds that she “began to put a higher value on my free time. Weekend rates were just a higher charge, because it needed to be worth it to take me away from my kids.”
Over the course of SOMLYAY, my rates have steadily increased every few months. This was based on a number of factors, including the realization that I was charging too little and to serve as an initial deterrent to potential clients who were not serious and might take up time but not engage in a contract. As I became busier and took on more clients, my time also became more valuable, as did the opportunity cost of that time. I therefore needed to ensure that as my free time was being diminished, my compensation was increasing appropriately.
Depending on their core list of services, many consultants have different billing strategies—project rates, hourly rates, and retainer rates for a defined number of hours each month. SOMLYAY offers all three, which offers more flexibility when negotiating with clients. For instance, a consultant could strategically detail to a client how much a project would cost at a full hourly rate, and then offer a reduced project rate. While not only an extremely effective negotiating tool to show added value, this provides clients with costs upfront and frees you up from having to track hours worked which in and of itself can feel like a second job.
Putting Your Network to Work
Once the foundation is in place, it’s time to market yourself—and your network will be invaluable. “A great resume and some accreditations will not put you on the map,” says Baker-Briggs. ”If you can’t leverage your network and don’t spend time to build relationships with continued growth, the business will easily fizzle out in a few years. Relationships are everything in this business.”
“What I found yielded the most successful results was capitalizing on genuine relationships with people in an array of different industries,” says Cohen, noting that this includes people outside of the restaurant business. Many of Cohen’s clients have hired her for events for their companies’ employees or clients. She has executed many tasting events for tech companies as an example. “Having strong connections with people who sing your praises across many channels can make or break one’s success.” This is echoed by Strong’s assessment of the market for wine consultants. “In consulting, jobs aren’t generally posted on a message board. Your reputation and the contacts you make will lead to work.”
Remember, your network extends far beyond those that you know in person or with whom you may have interacted professionally. “Utilizing social media to let your network know what you’re up to is also important,” says Moore, who has found that virtual tasting events are a great way to gain exposure to potential future clients. “Everything we are doing now is on a referral basis. Our virtual events are both a revenue stream and a marketing tool. Every time we host one, we book two to follow with new customers.”
Setting Boundaries & Saying “No”
Remember: As important as it is to always under-promise and over-deliver, it’s also critical to refuse jobs you don’t want, and to avoid working with people you don’t like or who constantly try to get your services for free or at a discount. The beauty of working for yourself is that you are in full control over whom you choose to work with.
One of the first clients I nearly fired was constantly requesting billable services for free or citing how expensive it was to start their brand as a reason why they should receive a discount from me. I finally told them that asking me for a discount because their business had high startup costs was like demanding a free night at a hotel because the flight was expensive. It’s possible you’ll encounter these people so you’ll need to get comfortable with firmly and politely telling people “no.” One of my favorite tactics when people are asking for free services is to say: “Fortunately this is exactly one of the services my business provides. I would be happy to send you a proposal.” That’s usually enough to get the point across.
One, Two, Three… Jump!
Wine consulting is a departure from restaurant life—aside from not having a regular salary, consultants also have to build their own schedule structure. Many wine professionals have made this change, especially in the last year. While the market is more competitive than ever, that should not be a reason to stop you from taking the leap.
I cannot reiterate enough the importance of having faith in yourself and the courage to take chances. “When it comes to overcoming apprehension,” says Moore, “do your best to quiet the voice of self-doubt. Be confident in what you can offer and what your strengths are. We limit ourselves when we doubt our own abilities.” Remember, too, that you have unlimited value to add to your clients and that happy clients mean sustained business. There’s no question that the last three years were an intense and difficult journey. However, it has been the most personally fulfilling and professionally rewarding endeavor of my life.
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Erik Segelbaum is an Advanced Sommelier and the founder of SOMLYAY, a wine consulting firm.