“I should have asked for help before, but I was stubborn and thought I could do it myself.” Sound familiar? A while back, I spoke with Elyse Lambert MS, who opened my eyes to the importance of mentorship. It took Elyse over six years to complete her journey to becoming a Master Sommelier in 2015, and as you might have heard, the road to becoming an MS is long, stressful, and often overwhelming. After taking numerous attempts at the exam (and not passing), she fearfully opened up to the wine community for help. She realized that if she was going to pass the exam, she was going to need some guidance – she needed some mentorship. Looking back, she told me that if she could have asked for help earlier, it would have changed everything. But the reality is, mentorship is one of the hardest things to ask for. In fact, I’m not very good at it myself, but after discussing with several people in the industry, we all agreed that mentorship is the key to success, and that we could all benefit greatly if we just ask for it.
Mentorship can take on many different forms. Sometimes we learn through observing the actions of others, or sometimes we learn by asking for advice. We can all agree that things move quickly when mentorship takes place, and the wine industry is no exception. Take a look at Oregon’s wine industry—in the early 2000s, the wine community came together to organize the first-ever Steamboat Pinot Noir Conference. It was an industry-wide get-together where viticulturalists and winemakers alike could discuss winemaking techniques and share insights. Throughout that decade, the quality Oregon’s wine improved and the region rose to fame as one of the greatest places for Burgundian-style wines. It is no coincidence that during the annual Steamboat Conferences, winemakers still share each other’s wines and openly discuss viticulture, winemaking, and market insights. This conference has helped elevate the industry as a whole by providing support and mentorship within the industry, which leads to better tasting wines and, inevitably, better sales. If you ask any winemaker, they would agree that mentorship throughout their careers is essential. In fact, it’s not uncommon for young winemakers to make several vintages abroad where they gain new skills and techniques to perfect their art. No matter the facet of the wine industry, I believe that we should seek mentorship throughout our career.
“Everyone needs a helping hand. I know lots of people gave me a helping hand on the way up and so I do try to encourage people (who are starting off).” ~ John Stimpfig, Content Director for Decanter Magazine
Simply put, mentorship is when someone who is more experienced in what you want to accomplish helps to provide insight and guidance along your journey. Mentorship can take various forms, from a brief initial conversation of ideas, to reviewing a project deck or providing feedback on work. It’s important to note that mentors are not here to do the work for you, but rather to guide you on the right path. All this goes to say that, in the end, it is up to you to cultivate the right relationships and drive the outcomes that are best for you. Wine superstar Andrew Caillard MW once told me, “You only get what you put in, and if you want me to help mentor you, you need to show me your work and commit.”
Find a mentor who you connect with and who makes you believe that they would be supportive throughout your journey - Elyse Lambert MS
Mentorship is useful regardless of where you are in your wine career. No matter if you’ve just started off in the industry or if you’re a seasoned “expert,” there is always something that might challenge you, or something that requires another outside opinion. The first step is to understand what type of support you require. It is important that you take time to self-assess—ask yourself where you are headed and what skills you need to develop to get there. Taking this time to introspect will help you identify what type of mentorship is right for you. Are you studying for the WSET Diploma? Seek someone who has finished the course, or create a study group of like minded classmates all working towards the same goal. Not sure about how to navigate managing a new team? Find a mentor with delegation skills or experience in similar situations. Think broadly about who can become a mentor – a manager, a business leader? How about a colleague? You would be surprised how many people are willing to help! During an interview with John Stimpfig, Content Director for Decanter Magazine, he mentioned how inclusive the beverage industry really is: “My feeling is that everyone needs a helping hand. I know lots of people gave me a helping hand on the way up, and so I try to encourage people (who are starting off).”
Finding the right mentor means finding someone who has “been there, done that,” but not everyone who’s successful is the right mentor for you. Mentorships are just like any personal relationships; they take time and energy to build and sustain. For myself, I am most comfortable opening up to someone who I’ve worked with for a long time. My old boss is still my mentor to this very day—he knows my personality, understands how I work, and can provide advice that is well-suited for my specific needs. I truly believe that he wants the best in my career—and on this point, I would have to add that the best mentors are those that don’t categorize you as competition. Elyse Lambert MS suggests finding someone who you connect with and who makes you believe that they would be supportive throughout your journey. A mentor should truly want to see you succeed.
Success is driven by constant improvement, so resist the temptation to be defensive; that will only work against you.
Think through how you’ll make time to connect. Could you invite them to a dinner where you connect over wine and conversation? Could you plan a monthly coffee catch-up near their office? Establishing and maintaining a line of communication throughout the relationship is essential, but it is important that you respect your mentor’s time. Everyone is busy with their own priorities, and the fact that they are willing to help you is already going above and beyond. I personally like to set clear times to meet with my mentor—just like a work meeting, I prepare a list of questions and stick to them, making sure that we don’t run overtime. This way, your mentor will feel that his or her time is being used wisely.
No one else can do the work for you but yourself
Elyse Lamber MS
Last but not least, learn how to listen. Take notes and ask constructive questions to deepen their explanations. The hardest thing might be to listen to suggestions or constructive criticism on your work. Success is driven from constant improvement, so resist the temptation to be defensive; that will only work against you. If anything, listen carefully and reflect on what tips work for you. Take accountability into your own hands. While guidance is important, it’s what you do with the information that will determine the outcome. Show them your progress, share the results. As Elyse Lambert MS told me: “No one else can do the work for you but yourself.” Your mentors need to see that you are serious about your development, or it may end the relationship all together.
While asking for mentorship may seem like a challenge, it starts the journey to a better self. Looking back on all our careers, mentorship might have been there without us even noticing! In the end, if you find yourself looking for someone who could help you on your wine journey, don’t forget that this industry is built on collaboration. There is mentorship available if you know where to look and how to ask for it.
Listen to the full podcast about how John Stimpfig, Content Director for Decanter Magazine got started
Written by Emilie Steckenborn, host of Bottled in China