Engaging with Writers before “The Ask” – Part I

What do Writers really need and want?

Q&A Interview with Jim Gullo

In this two-part series, I ask Jim Gullo what it’s like to be a professional writer, and to discuss the wine business from his perspective. Jim is a self described Author, Journalist, Wine Writer, Food Eater & Pastryologist. He tweets, he writes, he eats and he’s coming back for more. His work appears regularly in the Alaska Airlines Magazine, Horizon Airlines Magazine, Oregon Wine Press and other publications. Turning to books in recent years, Jim has most recently authored “Grouch Bag,” a children’s novel about finding the Marx Brothers; “Trading Manny,” how he and his son learned to love baseball; and “Fountain of Youth,” a bittersweet novel about coming to terms with loss. He has also written 100s of magazine articles, and now writes from his perspective in the middle of the Willamette Valley wine country. You can learn more about Jim on his website and blog: http://www.jim-gullo.com/

From the interview, Jim strikes me as a writer who has been there and done that. I asked him to do this interview because I believe small wineries can benefit from his insights. I hope this discussion demystifies the business and art of writing in general and wine writing specifically. Here we go!

  1. What has been your writing career path that led to where you are today?

Well, I’ve wanted to be a professional writer since I was in high school. I used to write articles for the school newspaper and then write parodies of those same articles at night for the private reading pleasure of my friends. I studied journalism and creative writing in college, and got my first job at New York Magazine as an editorial assistant by writing a silly parody of a resume. I quit that job to pick grapes in France and have adventures in Europe, found that nobody wanted to publish articles about those things, and then got sidetracked into doing public relations work for a few years, working for the Disney Studios in Burbank, CA. But I STILL wanted to be a writer, so at the age of 30 I quit having a regular paycheck and became a freelance writer, specializing in food, golf, culture and, secondarily, wine. I found that I could eke out a modest living and have a great deal of fun if I sold 5-10 articles every month, and my work appeared in Sports Illustrated, Bon Appetit, Saveur, Islands and many other magazines. I was sent on assignment to 37 countries for stories. Almost 30 years, 10 published books and a whole lot of magazine articles later, I’m still doing it and loving it.

  1. Who were your journalist-writer mentors or inspirations? Why?

Well, everyone, myself included, in the late-‘70s wanted to be Hunter S. Thompson, the gonzo journalist of Rolling Stone magazine. The idea of being very independent, telling the story the way you saw it and the way you wanted to, with lots of flair and passion, was tremendously appealing. Later, I came to enjoy the travel writing of Bill Bryson, who also brought his unique perspective and writing skill to his subjects, but without the over-the-top persona of Thompson. From both, and from my own early writings, I learned that I wanted to tell stories from my own firm perspective and voice, and my best work has always come from a first-person, “I did this, and then that happened” style.

  1. How has writing as a profession changed since you got in the business?

Oh my gosh, it has changed completely, and made it very difficult for anyone to make a living at this. I could go on for pages about this, but suffice it to say that 20 years ago I was happily writing regular columns and features for a half-dozen magazines that eagerly commissioned 5,000-word narrative travel stories for $5,000 each. Nearly all of those publications went out of business in the early-2000s, and now writers compete to sell 500-word blog posts for $50. The magazines that stayed in business actually pay less on a per-word basis now than they did 10 years ago. Everyone can self-publish at any time — and everyone does – so the quality has plummeted and professional writing is held in dim regard. Journalism is especially reviled these days (just watch a Trump rally and see how they all jeer at the press), and newspapers have gone out of business or cut staff down to nothing. Book publishers who would once take a chance on a beginning novelist now can’t afford to take on any authors who won’t be selling tens of thousands of copies immediately. A complete upheaval of the publishing world has occurred during my career.

Also, and this is important to a winery or marketer to note, there are no expenses paid to freelancers from publications anymore. Zip, zero, nada. Every time I travel, every bottle of wine that I buy, every meal purchased to report about the best new restaurants, comes out of my pocket and won’t be reimbursed by the publication. This means I have to either rely on comps from the people I’m writing about – tastings, samples, meals – or I have to rely on secondary information (like tasting notes). This dilutes my own strengths of reporting and information-gathering, and makes me uneasy, but outside of being independently wealthy, it’s the only way to compete now.

  1. What’s your biggest challenge as a writer (as it relates to the wine biz)?

Telling the truth and keeping the stories interesting. The wine business is a lot of fun, but the stories all begin to blur. [WINEMAKER & SPOUSE] left their jobs as [EXECUTIVE, ROCKET SCIENTIST, MARKETING SPECIALIST] to follow their passion for wine. They bought [12, 40, 125] acres in [THE DUNDEE HILLS, VAN DUZER CORRIDOR, ROSEBURG] and learned how to produce [PINOT NOIR, RIESLING, BORDEAUX BLENDS]. They think their wine is remarkable, and want to give me a tour of the vineyard. Trying to find a broader perspective and to find something unique to write becomes difficult – I’m not a trade journalist, and I don’t want to write the same story over and over, as a wine business magazine contributor would do. Also, everyone is falling all over themselves to over-describe the wines these days, and again I find that contrary to being truthful to readers and writing from an honest perspective. I am hardly a wine expert, nor do I have an educated palate, but I’ve tried wines that were borderline undrinkable, only to read later about these vast nuances found in them (notes of honeysuckle, a touch of cinnamon on the mid-palate, aromas of sandalwood, etc.). Editors and bloggers have now accepted this as a standard for wine coverage, and I think it’s wrong.

  1. Have blogs and social media impacted the market for quality writing and investigative journalism?

Yes, and it is an interesting combination of market forces, the changing nature of the writing/media business and what the readers want, which is short, quick, practical information. Media outlets that have staff positions available hire “social media editors,” not writers or journalists. Their job is to get page hits and grow readership, which is driven by catchy headlines and great images, which in turn will boost ad rates and attract paying advertisers. The quality of the writing is completely secondary, and there is no money in this business model to pay writers or photographers. For example, I used to write a travel column for a website that attracted an enormous 4 million hits/day, and they cut the column because they couldn’t afford the $50/week they were paying me for the column. Writers are also now expected to provide photographs to back up their copy…for free. At the same time, independent bloggers make zero money (not a little money, not a modest income…zero), and their blog serves as an introduction to people who will pay them for content – often the same wineries, marketing organizations and corporations whose wines they review. You will notice that hardly anything negative is ever written in the blogs or trade publications – that wine was horrible! How could anyone enter this swill in a competition?!  – because the blogger wants to build relationships WITH THE INDUSTRY, NOT HIS READERS. Most bloggers will tell you that they simply won’t write about people and/or wines they don’t much like, so that makes the stories they do write look blandly similar, with the same cast of characters featured. And look, we live among these winemakers, our kids go to school together, we are friends. I want them to succeed, and I won’t get much access to wineries or tasting events if I start ripping winemakers. Nor is there any business purpose for me to do so, since nobody is paying for this copy anyway, so for the most part I choose not to write negative things. But that takes away from providing honest reporting to the reader – another casualty of the internet age.

  1. Number one thing for a winery to keep in mind in its relations with writers?

Be there and respond to queries promptly. Return phone calls. If I’m on deadline for a piece and need some bit of information to finish it, it drives me crazy to not be able to reach someone at the winery. You’d be amazed by how many wineries don’t respond to e-mail or phone inquiries, don’t follow-up and don’t have basic information on hand – what year were you founded? How many wines do you make? How do you spell the owners’ names? How many acres are planted? – to share with reporters, or the blogosphere at large.

Well, it appears that I’ve unleashed the inner writer in Jim, so we decided to split the interview into two parts. Stay tuned for the second half of this interview in the next edition. I’ll be covering some very specific details about working with writers in next installment.

CARL GIAVANTI is Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s going on his 8th year of winery consulting. Carl has been involved in business marketing and public relations for over 25-years; originally in technology, digital marketing and project management, and now as a winery media relations consultant.  Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, and the Columbia Gorge.  (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media).

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