Personnel best: hire smart to hone your competitive edge

Jane Firstenfeld

Asluggish economy. A grape glut. Acquisitions. Consolidation of distribution. Blame one, or blame them all; whichever you deem the culprit, it’s tough times in the wine industry. A survey of participants at the Wine Industry Financial Symposium in September revealed that, though optimism reigns for the long-term, industry insiders believe the next few years will see continued struggle for profits and survival, especially for small, independent growers and vintners.

The competition is keener than ever, yet the romance of wine maintains its eternal allure. How do successful operations keep their heads above water and ahead of the pack? A great product is not enough, and innovative marketing is always a challenge for the little guy. Financial savvy is as important as technical know-how and creativity. For all of this, you need trained and talented people.

Where do they come from? A check of the classified ads in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and the Napa Register on a recent weekend revealed more than a dozen industry openings, but aside from a business analyst for Korbel, a lab technician at Clos du Bois and a couple of sales positions with suppliers, virtually all the ads sought tasting room personnel. Fun jobs, for sure, and obviously key to the public image of any winery, but hardly fast-track career launchers.

Harvest work in the vineyards is, in California at least, normally handled by the droves of migrant farmworkers who return yearly to reap the crop. This year, according to a Napa Register report in late September; at least some of these veterans were looking for greener pastures. Heavy thinning earlier in the growing season brought grape yields and piecework paychecks down, and UC Cooperative viticulture advisor Ed Weber predicted some Napa growers without winery contracts would leave grapes on the vine. Perhaps forewarned by the migrant “grapevine,” fewer workers than expected showed up in Napa this year.

Then there are those who volunteer for the privilege of backbreaking toil in the glamorous North Coast vineyards. An Australian company, Bibber International sent some 75 trainees to the United States in late August, via an international exchange program to “help out with harvest and learn about the American way of life,” according to Sue Weeks, who organizes the program. “I did it myself in 1999 and had a fantastic time at Quivira in the Dry Creek Valley,” she writes.

Still, few if any of these recruits will find themselves in permanent positions, at least on this side of the world. And they probably won’t be back next year, either. For temporary bottling and vineyard labor, many small North Coast wineries and vineyards turn to Maldonado Vineyard Management & Bottling Services in Napa.

Maldonado office manager Gina Dominguez explains that this family-owned business has two facets. “Our typical clients are small wineries that do not have their own bottling employees. The wineries are too small to keep bottling employees working year round. We go and do the bottling labor, anywhere from one day to two weeks.”

The other side of the business started by Dominguez’ parents about five years ago is year-rounc vineyard management. And, “there are cases where a customer only needs our help with providing crews to do certain jobs,” she says. She emphasizes that Maldonado does not make employment placements, but supplies its own trained staff to fit client needs.

“We mostly provide labor. We send our employees to work for our customer,” Dominguez says. She comments that she has seen few changes in either the bottling or vineyard aspects of her work. Maldonado clients include Neyers Vineyards, Turley Wine Cellars, Cosentino Winery, Robert Keenan Winery, Dutton-Goldfield, Luna Vineyards, Kongsgaard Wines, Lambert Bridge Winery, Pellegrini Family Vineyards and Rudd Winery.

Management Resources

No matter what its size, every commercial enterprise tries to recruit and keep the best talent it can find, from vineyard management to winemaking to administrative, financial and creative staff. Even the largest wineries will turn to recruitment specialists to help fill key positions. Several companies located in the North Coast area specialize in wine industry placements, not just in Northern California but around the world.

Hill & Associates in Napa conducts national and international searches for the premium wine industry. Owner Tom Hill has been recruiting for the industry for 17 years, “building strong management teams for many small- to medium-size wineries,” Hill says. Corporate acquisitions have made it more difficult “for smaller wineries to compete for the consumer’s business,” he believes.

Hill & Associates works directly for the wineries, averaging 40 to 50 placements per year at the mid-management to executive level, with salaries ranging from $75,000 to $200,000 per year. Winemaking’s deep roots in tradition have signified relatively little change in the production process over the years, Hill observes.

“Changes in marketing and sales have developed more dramatically. Now, unless you are one of the few wineries with customers lining up outside your door to buy your latest vintage, you must compete in the trade for the customer,” he says. To that end, “Wineries are now looking outside of other wineries to hire talented marketing people. In the past, one winery would steal the marketing talent from another. (Now) many wineries are looking at candidates from other major consumer packaged goods companies,” Hill says. “Some wineries realize it is worth looking at candidates who can bring a fresh view or idea with them that will make their brand take off.”

Carolyn Silvestri, principal at The Personnel Perspective in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, concurs. “As our winery clients have grown, they are much more open to hiring individuals outside their industry with unique skills and experience,” she says. “They value integrating new business perspectives into their winery.” But, she adds, “In traditional positions, wine industry experience is emphasized now more than ever. Experience continues to be just as important as education.

Silvestri’s company provides more than recruiting services. The Personnel Perspective also consults with clients on human resources, organizational development and training. “We have developed a niche in the wine industry over the past 15 years,” Silvestri says.

“Because of our consulting expertise, many of our clients also have worked with us through our consulting services on business issues. Therefore, our relationship is more of a partnership. Winery clients depend on us to fill key positions as well as those positions that support the key hires.

“Understanding their business and their long-term goals allows us to provide employees who will be successful in achieving those goals,” Silvestri says.

Benchmark Consulting, Sonoma, Calif., is a specialized, retained executive search firm for the wine industry. “The premise is, we don’t sell people, we find them,” according to Jodi Shepard, VP client relations. “We don’t get paid for producing a resume and that being chosen. We do a search and present three to eight candidates, each of which comes with a year guarantee,” she explains. If a match doesn’t last a year, Benchmark conducts another search for free. “That’s extremely rare,” according to Shepard.

Benchmark focuses on senior level positions: CFOs, general managers, vineyard managers, winemakers and public relations. A current client is Washington State University, which is looking for a viticulture professor. Senior managing partner Patrick Wofford started Benchmark six years ago; Shepard, whose background is in molecular biology, joined more than two years ago. Blair Bordman, with an MBA from Stanford, recently joined the firm to handle financial searches. Benchmark also supplies clients with human resources consulting. Dan Archibald has 20 years of winery HR experience and works with clients on compensation evaluation, training and organizational development.

The company typically places 50 to 60 people yearly, and tries to beat its internal target of 60 days per placement, though the logistics of getting people in to corporate headquarters for interviews can make that problematic.

Like Hill and Silvestri, Shepard has noted some changes in winery hiring practices. “In the past, the wine industry, generally, has been lacking in management. Now it is looking for a high level of talent, and looking outside the industry,” she says, though she acknowledges that some clients “desire and need someone who ‘grew up’ in the wine industry. Still, Shepard sees more interest in MBAs and advanced degrees, “even in the winemaking side. I think people are going to continue to constantly increase the level of professionalism” in the industry, Shepard says.

Not surprisingly, the economic downturn has created an influx of aspirants to wine industry positions. As all of our sources agreed, it’s a highly desirable industry, though not, they admit, the highest paying. That romantic appeal practically guarantees that applicants will bring with them a passion for the industry. In fact, “Work Your Passion” is a Benchmark slogan. But passion alone is no longer enough.

“I think intelligent winery owners realize this is the time they need to hire the best talent to be competitive and successful,” Tom Hill says. “Hiring quality people is the most important resource they can invest in during hard times. We are in for a couple of tough years ahead. To be successful, you must hire the best army to fight the battle and win the war.”


Contact the sources cited in this article:

Benchmark Consulting

103 E. Napa St., Ste. 1

Sonoma, CA 95476.

Phone: (707) 933-1500

Fax: (707) 933-1508


Web site:

Bibbers International

Phone: (08) 8563-2422

Fax: (08) 8563-2433


Web site:

Hill & Associates

1370 Trancas #165

Napa, CA 94558

Phone: (707) 258-2000


Maldonado Vineyard Mgmt. & Bottling Services

P.O. Box 4324

Napa, CA 94558.

Phone: (707) 251-0298

Fax: (707) 251-0296.

The Personnel Perspective LLC

575 W. College Ave., Ste. LOlA

Santa Rosa, CA 95401.

Phone: (707) 576-7653

Fax: (707) 576-8190


Web site:

For more resources, see the Wines & Vines 2002 Buyer’s Guide.

RELATED ARTICLE: Disabled Sue East Bay Wineries

Most of the wineries in California’s Livermore Valley are targeted in lawsuits claiming that physically disabled people cannot access their tasting rooms, restaurants and bathrooms.

Oakland-based Americans With Disabilities Advocates (AWDA) has filed some 500 similar suits against businesses throughout California, seeking to force compliance with the 1 990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires businesses to make their facilities accessible to the handicapped.

George Louie, an amputee, donates his time to AWDA. He says he puts any settlements back into more cases, and he tells each targeted winery that he will settle out of court. Californians can seek damages of as much as $4,000 for each violation of the ADA.

About 15 Livermore Valley wineries are being sued. Sblend Sblendorio, president of the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association, said, “If there are violations, we ore going to fix them right away. We will accommodate anyone.”

Louie is not impressed. “They’ve had 12 years to comply…. Since they didn’t get the message, we’ll deliver it personally, in the form of a lawsuit,” he said. Lawsuits are the only way to make businesses comply with ADA regulations, he asserted.

Wendell Lee, San Francisco counsel for the Wine institute said WI is putting together resource information for members, and suggested that if Louie dropped his suits, others would take up the slack.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Wines & Vines

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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