Meridith May – Somm Journal & Tasting Panel Magazines

Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers” is a Q&A series profiling Wine Writers. We hope you’ll discover more about the wine writers you know, and learn about many others. The objective of this project is to understand and develop working relationships with journalists. They are after all, those that help tell our stories, review our wines and potentially provide media coverage. You can do this by learning their wine and writing backgrounds, story and personal interests, palate preferences, writing challenges and pet peeves. This is part of an ongoing “Expert Opinion” series that will be featured monthly by Wine Industry Advisor.

MERIDITH MAY is the owner of two national U.S. wine and spirits trade publications: The SOMM Journal and THE TASTING PANEL Magazine. She is responsible for the publications’ branding and content. She has successfully increased each national magazine’s readership to reach over 65,000 bi-monthly for SOMM Journal and over 70,000 hospitality industry professionals 8 times a year for The Tasting Panel.

Meridith’s career in the media spans over 30 years. She began as VP Marketing for Los Angeles-based KIIS FM/KRLA radio in the 1980s working with such notable on-air personalities as Charlie Tuna, The Real Don Steele and Rick Dees.

Segueing into food and wine, she was the restaurant columnist for the Santa Barbara News Press from 1998-2001 and then took the role as Senior Editor at Patterson’s Beverage Journal where she ran the magazine until 2007, when she purchased the name, with partner Anthony Dias Blue, and began The Tasting Panel, which has evolved as the nation’s leading national wine and spirits industry magazine.

You can follow Somm Journal on Facebook and Twitter, and read the digital editions at https://www.sommjournal.com/ and Tasting Panel Magazine on Facebook & Twitter, and online at https://www.tastingpanelmag.com/

Professional Background

What are the challenges of being both publisher and contributor to your publications?

My first job is to promote the publication: through events, ad sales and other opportunities for our marketing partners. That means I have less and less time to write as the mags grow. I have a wonderful resource of fine writers and that helps us get lots of other voices to contribute.

How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?

I began as a restaurant columnist – and the progression was natural. But my real foray into wine writing was when I became Editor of Patterson’s Beverage Journal back in 2000. I got to interview the experts and the best in the industry!

What are your primary story interests?

Education, education, entertainment and…did I mention education? Wine and spirits brands need platforms for the trade – but hopefully the story behind every liquid can be compelling.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

I was America’s First Professional Lady Monster Truck Driver back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. That was my weekend gig. During the week I was VP/Marketing for KIIS-FM Los Angeles and then KRLA/KLSX Los Angeles.

What haven’t you done, that you’d like to do?

Spend more time in France and Italy without worrying about business. But I don’t think that will happen.

Writing Process

Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews?

Since we write for the professional, we need to position our articles on how they can use this in their careers – whether they be buyers, importers or distributors. So, learning about production and regions is important, but also the business of wine and how-to mentor – how to educate your staff – how to work on that bottom line. For reviews, it’s obviously subjective but I am asked to do this by the wineries to help showcase their labels – I am sent hundreds of wines a month. Not many of them make it into the books.

Do you work on an editorial schedule or develop story ideas as they come up?

We plan our layout for editorial about four months out – some features are planned a year ahead (like cover stories). We try to be spontaneous when it comes to the actual messaging, and that’s where deadlines help.

How often do you write versus assign paid articles (not your blog)?

I write 10% and assign 90%

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

DON’T TALK ABOUT YOUR SCORES TO JOURNALISTS! That’s a turn off. And talk slowly and don’t name drop – and if you do, please spell names out or explain who you’re talking about. Don’t assume the writer knows all your technical references either.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

They know their clients – they can help with direction for the writers – and make life easier for client and journalist.

Leisure Time

If you take days off, how do you spend them? 

With my dog. And if I am traveling on days off, it’s either scouting out restaurants or, yes, wineries.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world?

South of France

Read more stories in the series “Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers.”

CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s going on his 10th 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).

Tom Wark, Wine Industry Blogger, Pundit, Activist

Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers” is a monthly Q&A series profiling Wine Writers. We hope you’ll discover more about the wine writers you know, and learn about many others. The objective of this project is to understand and develop working relationships with journalists. They are after all, those that help tell our stories, review our wines and potentially provide media coverage. You can do this by learning their wine and writing backgrounds, story and personal interests, palate preferences, writing challenges and pet peeves. This is part of an ongoing “Expert Opinion” series that will be featured monthly by Wine Industry Advisor.

TOM WARK is wine industry marketing and media relations specialist. He founded his Wark Communications consultancy in 1994 and has worked with numerous wineries, media firms, wine tech companies and associations. He is a founder of the Wine Bloggers Conference, the founder of the American Wine Blog Awards, and a longtime champion of alternative wine voices in the media. Wark also serves as the executive director of the National Association of Wine Retailers. He lives in Salem with his wife Kathy and son Henry George. He can be contacted via www.warkcommunications.com

You can follow Tom on Facebook and Twitter, and read his stories and reviews on Fermentation Wine Blog.

Professional Background

How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?

I came to wine originally through a career in marketing and public relations. My original intent was to follow my interest in how the structures of diplomacy and history impact our everyday lives into academia. However, life interrupted that plan, and I needed to leave the University and get a job. I choose Marketing, which implied public relations, which opened my eyes to the existence of wine-related PR firms. I joined a wine PR firm in 1990 and opened my own consultancy in 1994.

Ten years into my career and having invested time into the politics of wine via my work in Wine PR, I wanted to explore more deeply that intersection of politics, culture, media, business and wine. Blogging services were then just emerging and that made the creation and maintenance of an online publishing venture possible and affordable.

What are you primary story interests?

I’m primarily interested in the alcohol regulatory structure, the politics of alcohol, wine marketing, wine media and communications and the ways wine works its way into the cultural zeitgeist.

What are you primary palate preferences?

My drinking preferences are vast. I love drinking bourbon straight and have spent considerable time working to perfect a Manhattan recipe. I adore Dry Cider. I’m more partial to wines with a body and structure akin to Pinot and Sauvignon Blanc, however, give me a richly structured California Cab and I’m also happy.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

I was adopted at birth. Both my parents were products of a Midwestern, protestant upraising, of the Depression and of WWII. It was a very traditional home I grew up in. Much later in my life, through DNA testing, I not only discovered I was half Jewish biologically, but I also discovered who my biological mother was via an email that arrived in my In-Box one day with a subject heading that read: “You’ve Got New DNA Matches”. That was interesting.

What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your wine writing?

While it’s true that money talks, a large group of consumers speaking in unison can mute the voice of money.

What’s the best story you have written? Please provide a link.

There are two I like in particular. One about my mother and a manifesto for change:

https://fermentationwineblog.com/2009/05/of-memories-of-broken-glass-mothers/

https://fermentationwineblog.com/2010/03/manifesto-for-change-in-the-wine-industry/

Writing Process

Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews?

I don’t review wine, however I do post at FERMENTATION very regularly. I’m an opinion writer/polemicist. So, I’m generally writing to convince or influence and my writing style reflects that orientation. As a result, I come off sometimes as a curmudgeon or a muckraker.

Do you work on an editorial schedule or develop story ideas as they come up?

If I didn’t have a day job as a wine publicist and marketer, I’d probably be posting 4 or 5 times a day at FERMENTATION. So much comes across my desk each day that deserves attention or speaks to my irony detector or my bullshit detector. In addition, I often come across new voices in the wine media that really deserve a spotlight and I like to focus my attention and writing on them. So, while I don’t have a schedule for writing and posting, I’m constantly and automatically forming opinions and views on most of what comes into my line of sight and when it does, I tend to immediately get writing.

Do you post your articles on social media? Why is that important?

I use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn to push out my posts for the simple reason that this is where people’s attention is focused today.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

Tell the truth first and foremost. Second, if a winery or any wine industry business uses media relations as a marketing tool, it’s critical to focus on a small set of stories to tell the media, then carefully understand which writers are most likely to be interested in and cover those stories.

What advantages are there for wineries working directly with a wine media professional like yourself?

If a winery understands how positive media coverage can bolster its sales, brand and marketing, then working with someone like myself who has spent decades forming professional relationships with writers and editors, watching how they work and understanding what kind of stories they cover, a winery can follow a much more efficient path to garnering coverage in the right media.

Which wine personalities would you like to meet/taste with (living or dead)?

Having gotten into the wine industry right when email began being used regularly, there are a number of wine folks I’ve gotten to know via email and phone, but never laid eyes on. Among those who I’d love to sit down with and break bread are Elizabeth Schneider of Wine For Normal People, Robert Parker, Jr., Matt Kramer, and Andrew Jefford.

Leisure Time

If you take days off, how do you spend them? 

I have a four-year-old boy named Henry George. So, when I’m not working I like to spend time discussing with him which types of dinosaurs or snakes we’d like to live with or exploring the architectural promise of Legos, Lincoln Logs and blocks. I’m also an avid golfer and enjoy cooking the classics.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

It’s not so much a “wine tasting experience” as it is a drinking experience. It was the first time I met my wife at Press in Saint Helena. I spent 3 hours sitting at the bar, drinking Pastis and talking with Kathy. I knew inside those three hours she was it. I only learned later that she wasn’t so impressed with me as I was with her. I eventually convinced her otherwise.

Read more stories in the series “Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers.”

CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s going on his 10th 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).

Michael Cervin, Writer, Author, Critic

Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers” is a Q&A series profiling Wine Writers. We hope you’ll discover more about the wine writers you know, and learn about many others. The objective of this project is to understand and develop working relationships with journalists. They are after all, those that help tell our stories, review our wines and potentially provide media coverage. You can do this by learning their wine and writing backgrounds, story and personal interests, palate preferences, writing challenges and pet peeves. This is part of an ongoing series that will be featured monthly by Wine Industry Advisor.

MICHAEL CERVIN is a freelance writer based in Santa Barbara, California. Michael is an author and speaker focused on wine, spirits, food, water and travel. He is a contributor to multiple outlets including Bonforts, Forbes Travel Guides, BottledWaterWeb. Decanter (London), Fine Wine & Liquor (China), The Hollywood Reporter, The Tasting Panel, Arroyo Monthly, 65 Degrees, Gayot.com, IntoWine.com, and many others. He is the author of 7 books.

You can follow Michael on Facebook and Twitter, and read his stories and reviews on Boozehoundz.

Professional Background

How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?

Wine came into my life when I left Los Angeles and moved to Santa Barbara. I got a part time job at a winery tasting room and knew nothing. Many of the people who I poured for had traveled the world and helped to educate me, as did the winemaker. So, I started tasting everything and when I wrote my very first wine article, which was horrible by the way – about me driving aimlessly in my convertible visiting wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley. I was paid a mere $20. My third article was for Wine & Spirits so I jumped pretty quickly up the ladder.

What are your primary story interests?

I’m interested in authenticity, quirkiness, an emotional connection. That can be about a wine or winery, a place, person etc. My best wine articles have been in depth one-on-one conversations with people who hold nothing back. Though these types of interviews are more time consuming, I find that I get those true nuggets that I am mining for when me and my subject have time to just talk. I do feel like a lot of press releases these days are a kind of “forced narrative,” where they are trying to be quirky or outrageous for its own sake. But that is transparent.

Are you a staff columnist or freelance? What are the advantages of both?

For wine I’ve always been freelance. I do have columns for my Cocktail of the Month for a magazine in Pasadena, and for my reviews for The Whiskey Reviewer, as well as my wine reviews for Bonfort’s and Drink Me Magazine, and IntoWine.com. However, they all afford me complete editorial latitude. I understand the prestige of being on staff at one of the major wine mags, but I’ve also been the kind of writer who wants to do what I want, when I want and how I want. This becomes difficult because people want to pigeonhole you and for my diversity of writing, it confuses people. I write about wine, spirits, but also water issues, architecture, travel, food, history. As a freelancer I am not beholden to anything and I like that. It also allows for more transparency and honesty in my writing.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

Perhaps that I was formerly an actor appearing with speaking parts on shows like 3rd Rock From the Sun, The Young and The Restless, Grace Under Fire, and the soap opera (perhaps ironically, since this is where I live) Santa Barbara. I also did a lot of theatre and wrote and directed several plays and was Associate Artistic Director for a small theatre in Hollywood. I kinda miss it.

What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your wine writing?

That you need to constantly explore. Rather than your “go-to” Cabernet, try another region. Don’t care for Vermentino? Try a different producer. With as many wines available to us, it’s staggering to me that most people drink myopically. I hear it all the time; I only drink Brand X Syrah; I hate rose’; I only drink reds, etc. If we limit our experiences, we lose our palate. When I was the restaurant critic for the Santa Barbara News Press I had to try foods either I didn’t like, or would normally not eat. But I was always objective and it forced my palate to be open and I can say that was one of the best experiences because I learned to compartmentalize it. I can appreciate, for example, fresh white asparagus though I would not usually eat it. With wine it’s the same. Additionally, wherever you travel, always try the local wines, beers, spirits and food. Don’t order your favorite California Cabernet if you’re in Austria.

Writing Process

Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews?

I look for a wine to invite me somewhere. I open bottles every day and in that ritual of peeling off the foil, uncorking, or twisting off the cap I always think the same thing – please let this be a cool wine, a wine I can give a great score to so that others might try it. I love the discovery, that first sip, looking for that visceral experience of being transported. I use Riedel glasses for all wines and when opened, I slowly pour a thin stream into the glass to help with immediate aeration. Obviously, I smell it, 2-3 times, then take that first sip. And really, that first sip is pretty much all that matters. If it doesn’t grab you, take hold of your senses, intrigue you or demand your attention, then I have little use for it.

Do you work on an editorial schedule or develop story ideas as they come up?

Probably 90% of my work is based on my own ideas and I generate a lot of stories. I tell younger writers who say, “how do you come up with story ideas?” that if you don’t have 20 ideas in your head right now, maybe you should be doing something else. Ideas are literally everywhere and you need to think beyond the confines of what a traditional story is about. Frankly, ideas are easy. Getting paid for those ideas is not.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

Simple – respond. If I call or email it’s for a reason – I need information to help promote your winery. Far too many wineries (both large and small) ignore media for reasons I cannot understand. Some don’t want to be bothered. I’m weary of wineries telling me they can’t respond because they have a small staff, or have limited resources. You know what? I’m a staff of one and I work constantly, so if you hear from me, respond in a timely manner. I have, quite literally, not written about a wine or winery precisely because they chose to ignore me. Then their story goes to someone else. It’s really simple.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

Also simple – they respond. There are a number of wine PR people that I have worked with for 20 years. It can (and should) be a mutually beneficial relationship. And that’s the key word to both these questions – relationships. I’m interested in building and cultivating long-term relationship with wines, winery owners and producers. But it takes two to tango to use an overwrought phrase. Many PR firms simply want to get a score out of me as quickly as possible. I don’t work that way. I’m in it for the long haul.

Leisure Time

If you take days off, how do you spend them? 

Being a freelancer, I am not beholden to time. If I want to go to the beach or have a leisurely lunch, I can. This also means that there are times I’m at my desk at 4 a.m. writing in solitude and, quite frankly, I love the quietness of the mornings – this is my best time to write. Since I travel quite a bit, that travel tends to be a “day off” for me, though the reality is that as a writer, there is never a “day off” because writing is in my DNA. I love what I do. I recall a time when I was on a cruise with my then wife (she was speaking on the cruise) and I had scheduled to meet with two hotel properties for Forbes Travel Guides in the Bahamas when the ship was in port, even though that meant I didn’t go on a snorkeling trip, but it really didn’t bother me because I love what I do, and I got to see a part of the Island that most tourists don’t.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

That’s easy. I was invited to Champagne Bollinger for their launch of their Gallerie 1829 (a kind of museum at their property in Aÿ) not open to the public. I was fortunate to taste through a structured tasting of older vintages including 1992, 1975, 1973 (in jeroboam, magnum and bottle), 1964, 1955, 1928 and 1914. It was a singular, distinct, wonderful experience and what I recall most was that at lunch after the tasting, where all the Champagnes were opened for us, I drank the 1914, all the while thinking – this was made before World War I, and here I am over 100 years later, this time in a peaceful France, drinking a wine that has survived for a century. Though the 1928 was more fresh and effervescent, I gravitated to the 1914 because of its connection to world history, and because literally only perhaps 10 other people on the planet will ever get to taste the 1914 again. Ever.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world?

I’m asked all the time what my “favorite this or that” is, and I have the same response. I don’t believe in favorites; be that a type of grape, a region, or a style. The wonderful thing about wine is that it is a living organism and it changes constantly. Vintage variation, warmer summers, rainfall all effect every wine region, making that vintage unique. If you want sameness, go to a fast food joint, or drink bulk wine. If you want subtly drink wines that offer a sense of place. Having traveled the globe I pretty much love every wine region I’ve been to, including off the beaten path wine regions like Crete, Nova Scotia, Switzerland, Austria. Every place offers something truly idiosyncratic.

Read more stories in the series “Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers.”

CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s going on his 10th 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).

Ellen Landis, Journalist, Somm, Judge

Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers is a Q&A series profiling Wine Writers. I expect you’ll discover more about wine writers that you know, and learn about many others. The objective of this project is to understand and develop working relationships with journalists. They are after all, those that help tell our stories and review our wines. What better way to obtain media coverage than to learn their wine and writing backgrounds, story and personal interests, palate preferences, writing challenges and pet peeves. This is also part of an ongoing series that is being featured monthly by Wine Industry Network. Last month’s interview featured Eric Degerman of Great Northwest Wine.

ELLEN LANDIS is a wine journalist, Certified Sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers), Certified Specialist of Wine (Society of Wine Educators), professional wine judge, and wine educator, based in Vancouver, Washington. She spent four years as a sommelier at the Ritz Carlton and sixteen years as Wine Director/Sommelier at the award-winning boutique hotel she and her husband built and operated. Ellen is a moderator for highly acclaimed wine events, executes wine seminars for individuals and corporations, and judges numerous regional, national and international wine competitions each year. She travels extensively to many wine regions around the globe.

Contact Ellen at ellen@ellenonwine.com  and visit her blog at www.ellenonwine.com

Professional Background

How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?

It’s in my blood, my great grandfather made wine in Croatia.  As a Certified Sommelier, Wine Consultant and Professional Wine Judge, I have the opportunity to taste many wines from around the world.  In 2008 I was an invitee on a press trip to the province of Tarragona (in Catalonia, Spain). I wrote and pitched an article, which was published as the cover story for the Spring 2009 issue of the American Wine Society Wine Journal magazine.

What are your primary story interests?

1) The inside story of a winery and what makes each winery unique, 2) focus on wine regions, 3) wine competitions, and 4) the current vintage and how it measures up.

What are your primary palate preferences?

Pinot Noir, aromatic whites (Riesling, Gruner Veltliner, Gewurztraminer, Sauv Blanc), Sparkling wines and Champagne, Chardonnay.

Are you a staff columnist or freelance?

What are the advantages of both? Primarily freelance, nice to have the freedom to schedule my time.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? A few things:

1) Learning about wine at a young age was a passion of mine. I became particularly curious about this beverage. As a child I recall there was always wine on the table at family gatherings in my maternal grandmother’s home; my questions were endless.

3) Today, I typically judge more than 18 wine competitions a year (regional, national and international competitions). It is simply fascinating, and I give very careful thought to each wine put in front of me.

4) My colleagues and I, traveling in a posh stretch limo, spent an elegant and captivating evening with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. Impressive wines and bites were served.  Her Majesty was attentive, thoughtful, and a pure delight.

What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your wine writing?

The wine world is multi-faceted. There are vineyards and wineries all around the globe, run by engaging and talented individuals, making exceptional wines worthy of appreciation. Get out and explore what suits your palate!

If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing?

I have a background in sales and sales management which I enjoyed immensely. My father spent his entire 50-year career in sales, so that’s in my blood, too.

Writing Process

Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews?

I like to engage with owners and winemakers at wineries to hear their story in their words.  As far as wine reviews, in judging wine competitions that include wines from around the world and attending many trade functions serving domestic and international wines, I gain exposure and the opportunity to taste a vast number of wines every year.  Many of my wine reviews come from wines tasted at these events, as well as media trips, and winery visits I have scheduled on my own.

Do you work on an editorial schedule or develop story ideas as they come up?

Primarily I develop story ideas as they come up. When something piques my interest, I reach out proactively to pitch my story.

How often do you write assigned and paid articles (not your blog)?

Twice a month or so. How often do you blog? Monthly, occasionally twice a month.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

Respect appointments and time commitments and don’t rush through them, and be yourself (no one can do that better!).

What frustrates you most about working on winery stories or wine reviews?

Lack of (or slow) response to questions posed beyond the interviews/appointments.

Which wine critics would you most like to be on a competition panel with?

Robert Parker, it would be quite interesting to hear his perspective on a variety of international wines tasted blind.

Which wine personalities would you like to taste with (living or dead)?

President Thomas Jefferson, he was quite a knowledgeable wine appreciator and collector, and I am told he is a distant relative of mine (through my father’s side of our family).

Leisure Time

If you take days off, how do you spend them?

Visits with son Brian and daughter-in-law Julie and other family members (I have five sisters!), ocean cruising, and land trips to wine regions are among my favorite pastimes. Husband Ken and I have been on two World Cruises on the incomparable Crystal Serenity ship in the past 4 years. It is culturally enriching, educational, full of new experiences, entirely enjoyable, and feeds my passion for exploring wines from around the globe.  I had the opportunity to visit wine regions far and away from home, including but not limited to regions throughout Australia, New Zealand, Israel, South Africa, France and Italy. Land trips have also taken me to many regions internationally including France (Bordeaux, Rhone, Burgundy, and Champagne), Italy, Chile, and Argentina.  Within the USA multiple visits to numerous regions throughout California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, New York, Virginia, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Iowa, Ohio, and Michigan have been enlightening. Yes, this ties in with work, but it is what I enjoy doing!

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

In October 2001 in Burgundy with traveling companions husband Ken and writer Peter Smith. We met up with Becky Wasserman, at Maison Camille Giroud in Cote de Beaune, Burgundy (In 2001 she became Manager at Maison Camille Giroud, and hired young graduate oenologist David Croix, who was 23 years old at the time, who remained there as winemaker/manager until his departure in October 2016). The tasting experience included an incredible 25-year vertical tasting of the fine red Burgundy wines crafted there; extraordinary! New York born Becky found her way to France as a young woman.  She once worked as a broker for a French barrel maker, selling French barrels to California wineries.  Her wine knowledge and experience gained in France over the years steered her to opening her own business (Becky Wasserman & Co.) exporting wines from small producers in the Burgundy and beyond. It has been in operation nearly 40 years now.  She is an erudite wine professional, and simply fascinating.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world? ONE favorite?

Impossible to answer! Each region is different, and I appreciate them all for the unique expressions they bring to the table.

Read more stories in the series “Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers.”

CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s going on his 10th 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).

Winery Trade-Show Strategies

Trade Show Attendee Strategies

Rise to the challengeTradeshow season is coming up soon. Conferences usually last more than one day, so how to come out of the conference energized with ideas to grow your business? Unless you are visiting to purchase something specific (more on this later), here are three things to focus on during winery trade show – Promote Yourself and Your Brand, Market Research and Networking.

Promote Yourself and Your Brand – establish yourself and your winery business as a leader. You do this by offering information and assistance to your peers, and being participative during the trade show. This will also help you get Media exposure if it arises; requests to be a future panelist, which highlights your areas of expertise and further promotes you/your brand; and opportunities to participate in winery and industry associations. The other benefit of being active versus passive it that you’ll feel energized and recharged with new ideas and initiatives.

Market Research – you go to these shows and so does your (winery) competition. This is a prime opportunity to gather intelligence and best practices ideas. The payback for offering info is getting new ideas, techniques and emerging trends in return. Issues with stuck fermentations? Treatments for blights and bugs? POS and inventory issues? Thoughts on new legislations? How are they selling so much wine online? Is social media still working for you? How are you getting those scores and wine writers reviews? You get my point; now be sure to ask.

Networking – make friends with other winery principles and managers (also wine industry suppliers) that can help you. Don’t be afraid to initiate conversations – “First time at this conference?” “What do you hope to accomplish?” – that’s why people attend these types of events. Give some thought to your 20 second (or less) elevator pitch. Who you are, where and what you do, and what you’re hoping to get out of the trade-show. Note on boorish self-indulgent conversations – they happen! Don’t be afraid to gracefully leave. Your time is valuable. Make a nice comment about them or a comment on the conversation, then exit stage left. But, never burn bridges. I’ve been amazed over the years how someone of little interest has come back around in a valuable way.

Why not conduct business meetings during show breaks? Find new dealers and vendors to establish long term relationships. You will eventually need their help, products and services in the future. I find it helpful to immediately make notes on the back of business cards as follow-up reminders.

Note to Winery Staffers: if you are an employee being sent to the conference, this is not a paid holiday, but an opportunity to learn, network and report back to management. Establish up front goals for research, education and market intelligence. Setup a meeting to report back your findings and recommendations.

Logistics and Tactics – download and print the show agenda and attendees lists. Identify and highlight (yes, use a marker pen if you must) which “must do” classes and sessions to attend and which speakers you want to talk to. Schedule yourself and stick to the schedule. Download the trade-show mobile app. Use it to automate what’s noted above, identify attendees to seek out, initiative chatroom and feedback conversations using appropriate confab #hashtags. Our nature tendency is to kibitz with established wine business friends, taste wine and relax. Resist this and stay on plan. This is your investment of time and how you outpoint your competition. Take an end row seat in the middle of the room. This enables you to see the entire audience for influential and information contacts. It also provides easy regress when you need it.

Who else is attending the show? Highlight those contacts who have the most value and make a short list to refer to. What is it that you’d talk to them about? You’ll see them throughout the show and can spontaneously strike up a conversation. To do that, arrive early in the morning and hang out at the coffee and water stations. People will arrive relaxed and conversations are easy going. Be there early for breakfast and introductions. Look around the room and see who you want to speak to and sit with them. Stay late for wine tastings and social activities to make more connections. When “winesense” turns to nonsense, beat feet back to your room and get some shut eye in prep for tomorrows events. Review your contact notes and action items while memory still serves. Working out early in the morning and arriving top of the day’s agenda puts you one step ahead.

Plan on purchasing something? Consider your most pressing problem or need. Is it related to grape growing, wine making or marketing and selling your wines? Once you identified 1-2 business needs, decide if you have budget and what the time frame is to acquisition. This will help you have a business discussion with vendors, and acquire good and competitive information about their products and services. Should you make a purchase commitment at the show? This can vary based on whether you are offered a “Trade-show Only” deal that evaporates as soon as you depart the floor. Having spent many years in sales I know that these deals can be reconstructed or re-negotiated later. My strategy is to politely decline but give the salesperson your card and ask them to follow up after the show. It’s their job after all to do so. This puts you in a better negotiating position and not subject to artificial “sense of urgency”. You can also evaluate and leverage competitive offers without the strain of show deadlines.

Trade-Shows can be fun, educational and insightful. It’s one of those times during the year when we can visit with and learn from our peer and subject matter experts. It’s up to you to make the most of the opportunity. Oh, and if you see me at an upcoming conference, please be sure to say hello and ask what my goals and strategies might be!

10 years of Winery Consulting – What I learned

A Wine Marketing & PR Perspective

I was asked recently how I got started in the wine business. My experience is not unlike many small producers who transitioned from other business lives, learned on the job, but had the determination necessary to be successful. I am fortunate and appreciative to have worked with over 50 wineries in some capacity, initially as a DTC marketing consultant and starting in 2012 as winery publicist.

Marking 10 years doing anything is milestone, especially in the wine business given the pace of change we’ve seen. Wineries continue to recreate themselves by embracing marketing best practices and technology innovations. The pace of change has picked up with no end in sight. The one constant we can all bank on are relationships. If you’re a publicist, it’s the relationships you develop over a long period of time with writers, media outlets, winery and travel associations and occasionally with other publicists and marketers. If you’re a winery, relationships that matter most are with your customers, staff, wholesalers, other service providers, and the wine community. Going forward I’m guessing that people will continue to matter most, followed by product and wrapped in good marketing and brand promotion. Here are some general observations related to small production wineries in Oregon, over the past 10 years.

2009 – The way things were

  • DTC marketing – a relatively new channel for small producers with little distribution. Focus on tasting room openings and wine clubs, starting mailing lists, email marketing and social media
  • We’re farmers – most common response to queries about marketing plans
  • Marketing plans and consulting services – those were for real businesses! And, we used to sell out in past years!
  • Paid Content – print advertising is still widely used for winery promotions
  • Wine clubs – not as prevalent – 70% had some form, many needing revision
  • Websites – many wineries upgrade to WordPress and other content self-management systems
  • Social media was a new thing – common responses included – It’s not for us. Do I need to do this?
  • Holiday weekend sales were legendary – reports of $15,000-$20,000 weekends were common
  • Staffing – Few hospitality managers and very few digital marketing managers
  • Brand Building – relied on distributors. Distribution mix to DTC was 80% to 20%
  • Distribution consolidation – started with 2008-2010 recession. Small Wineries phased out of markets. Focus turns to smaller cities and regional markets. Much effort expended on market trips
  • Wine quality – still varies by producer. Collaboration on techniques is improving uneven quality
  • Media Coverage – wineries are occasionally being discovered. Active media outreach is minimal
  • Great recession ceases in 2010-2011. U.S. stock markets reach record high. Confidence, optimism and new investment returns

2012 to 2018 – It’s getting competitive

  • Owned Content – wineries focus on updated websites, blogs, social media, news, photos, videos and designed collateral
  • Regional, AVA and Tourism Associations – emerge as marketing organizations with enhanced budgets from new member dues, grant funding, fundraising
  • Experiential marketing – became a thing around 2015, which leads to hiring of hospitality, tasting room and club managers as the new standard in tasting room staffing. Multiple “experiences” offered
  • Winery specific software – facilitates target marketing and customer relationship management. Development of applications and technology create opportunities for hospitality staff to customize customer experience and interactions. Website analytics allows tracking of activities and results
  • Competition – new vineyard planting and winery brands proliferate due to factors including changing weather, quality and integrity reputation, and significant outside investment
  • Channel Mix – is evolving to 20% Distribution and 80% DTC
  • Wine quality – quality is a “point of entry” for consumer sales, and is widely accepted due to production experience, collaboration & technical advances
  • Media Coverage – wineries recognize the need to stand out in a crowded marketplace, and recognize brand building as their responsibility, although take a passive approach to promoting themselves. Winery associations offer members exposure to media activities, contacts and inquiries.

2019 until?

  • Branded versus Grower-Producer – the influence of winemaker personalities will diminish as well-funded large wine groups out-spend, out-price, and out-market small brands
  • Consumer visitation – becomes longer and more focused. Extended visits equate to less tasting room traffic, as people stay longer, visit fewer wineries but have higher quality experiences. Conversion rates increase, although less traffic equates to fewer opportunities for club sign-ups and new digital subscribers
  • Wine Club Retention – remains as issue as consumer have much choice and are gaming the system. Loss prevention becomes strategic for DTC management
  • Online Sales – this DTC sales channel has much underrealized potential. More wineries will activate eCommerce programs as an additional revenue source, and to manage customer contacts, interests, transactions and history. The overall customer relationship will be highly managed
  • Staffing – scarcity of trained and qualified staff is an issue, whether within the wine industry or hospitality industry. This calls out the need for sales automation and technology investment
  • Digital Marketing – 2019 and beyond will see the hiring of digital marketing managers as the most important role, in coordinating all marketing functions with a focus and emphasis on e-commerce.
  • Media Coverage – the need to develop “Top of Mind” awareness becomes apparent. Wineries will begin to add communications professionals to staff, at least in a part time role. Active media outreach and brand promotion campaigns will be coordinated with digital marketing staff
  • Channel Mix – some producers give up on distribution and moved to 100% DTC

These are halcyon days for the wine business. Who knows what the next economic cycle will bring? Consumers have disposable income and purchases of $80-$100 bottles are not uncommon. Update and invest in your business now, while the going is exceptionally good.

 

 

Eric Degerman, Editor Great Northwest Wine

Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers is a Q&A series profiling Wine Writers. I expect you’ll discover more about wine writers that you know, and learn about many others. The objective of this project is to understand and develop working relationships with journalists. They are after all, those that help tell our stories and review our wines. What better way to obtain media coverage than to learn their wine and writing backgrounds, story and personal interests, palate preferences, writing challenges and pet peeves. This is also part of an ongoing series that is being featured monthly by Wine Industry Network. Last month’s interview featured Karen MacNeil, Author of the Wine Bible.

ERIC DEGERMAN is president/CEO for Great Northwest Wine — an award-winning news website that covers the wine industry of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine in 1998 and resigned from the Tri-City (Wash.) Herald in 2012 to launch Great Northwest Wine with Andy Perdue. Eric lives in Richland, Wash., with his wife, Traci, and their pride of rescue cats. He has judged the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition since 2005. For more information on Great Northwest Wine, go to https://greatnorthwestwine.com.

You can follow Eric and Great Northwest Wine on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and read their editorial and wine reviews at https://greatnorthwestwine.com

Professional Background

How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?

My interest in wine started with Dad’s love of golf and his desire to leave the Idaho Panhandle during the winter months. He and his wife became snowbirds in Southern California, and when they weren’t playing golf, they would visit tasting rooms in Temecula. This led to their subscription to Wine Spectator. During the holidays of 1997, I looked over the year-end issue. There wasn’t much about wines of the Pacific Northwest. Then again, there wasn’t much being written in the Northwest about the industry. I remember Tom Stockley at The Seattle Times, Cameron Nagel’s culinary-focused Northwest Palate magazine in Portland and the erudite John Schreiner in British Columbia. Cole Danehower had not yet rolled out his Oregon Wine Report.

At the same time, I wanted to transition from the Western Hockey League beat at the Tri-City Herald to write a regular outdoors column and take on an editing role. Meanwhile, Andy Perdue was a copy editor at the Herald, and his duties at the time included overseeing our food section each week. Longtime agriculture reporter Bob Woehler’s weekly wine column helped anchor that section, so Andy was learning about wine, too. Andy and I often found ourselves kibitzing about wine while we were waiting for the press to start at night, and when I mentioned to him about the lack of Northwest content in Wine Spectator, I said something along the lines of “someone needs to start a magazine that’s dedicated to Northwest wine.”

Andy mulled it over, met with the Herald publisher the next morning and told him, “We want to start a wine magazine, and we want you to pay for it.” Remember, this was 1997. You could do that as part of the fourth estate in those days, and Andy had earned the trust of management by overseeing the newspaper’s niche publications and spearheading the newsroom’s groundbreaking move into pagination. He became Wine Press Northwest’s editor-in-chief and did about 95 percent of the work for the first seven years. I served as associate editor until 2005 when I left the sports desk to help Andy run the Herald’s interactive media department.

When it came to the wine part, we had some great mentors to help us develop our sensory skills. We had good fortune to be introduced to Coke Roth, a distributor-turned-attorney who lived in the Tri-Cities and was among the country’s most sought-after wine competition judges. One of the Herald’s veteran editors, Ken Robertson, had been tasting wine on a serious level since the late 1970s. And “Bargain Bob” Woehler prompted us to think about wines with newspaper readers in the back of our mind. We also attended a sensory evaluation seminar at the University of California-Davis. Historic figures such as John Buechsenstein, Ann “Aroma Wheel” Noble and Roger Boulton served as instructors. It wasn’t an inexpensive class — $500 at the time — but it was a worthy investment.

What are your primary story interests?

Much of our coverage stems from the evaluation of Pacific Northwest wines under blind conditions. We track about 50 wine competitions staged around the world for Wine Press Northwest’s annual Platinum Judging, and in our two decades as wine journalists, we have come to know many of the palates on the panels of these top competitions. Wineries that show consistently well in these judging attract our attention. In addition to organizing a number of U.S. competitions, including four for Great Northwest Wine and our non-profit partners, we also regularly convene tasting panels in the Tri-Cities to evaluate recent releases sent to us by wineries. We don’t charge wineries for those reviews, and we don’t publish negative reviews. If there’s a wine that we can not recommend, we simply do not write about it.

What are your primary palate preferences?

My palate has changed during the past 20 years. At home, I find myself often reaching for sparkling wines, food-friendly whites and Rhône-inspired reds. My appreciation has grown for wines that are lower in alcohol with minimal oak and backed by vibrant acidity. I’ve also come to appreciate reds that offer a bit of herbaceousness.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

Folks seem to find it somewhat fascinating that I was a sports writer for most of my career. However, as my friend Bill Ward, the James Beard Award winner at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, points out, wine critics such as Dan Berger, Linda Murphy and Bruce Schoenfeld also began in the sports department. https://www.cjr.org/the_feature/sports_writers_wine.php

What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your writing about wine?

Don’t think of wine as merely an alcoholic beverage but rather as an ingredient at the dining table as well as an agricultural product rooted in history and science. A large Texan in a cowboy hat once told me, “After all, viticulture is agriculture.”

If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing? 

I grew up in the golf industry, and I’ve thought about leading golf and wine tours. (I put one together in the Lewis-Clark Valley a couple of years ago for the Northwest Golf Media Association.) My wife and I share an interest in conservation and protecting the environment, so working for an agency or company supporting those efforts is intriguing.

What’s the best story you have written? Please provide a link.

Perhaps the most compelling story that I’ve ever shared has been that of Clearwater Canyon Cellars winemaker/co-owner Coco Umiker and her remarkable victory over ovarian cancer at the age of 11. I spent a couple of heartrending days interviewing her and husband, Karl, at their winery in Lewiston, Idaho. What was most difficult for her to revisit was the bullying she endured at a Boise elementary school while she was undergoing chemotherapy. It’s a story that could resonate with any parent and any child. I know of at least one school that brought in Coco to talk with its students. https://www.idahostatesman.com/living/treasure/article40861260.html

Writing Process

Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews?

Early in our career, Andy and I were encouraged to stay away from scoring wines on a 100-point scale (which is more like a 15-point scale these days) so we chose to use a rating system that’s akin to a wine competition. A gold medal equates to “Outstanding!” in our vernacular, while a silver is an “Excellent” and a bronze is “Recommended.” If we can’t recommend a wine after opening two bottles, then we don’t write about it – aka “no medal.” In the back of my mind, would I want my brother to spend $20 on that bottle of wine? If my response is “no,” then I won’t recommend it or give it a bronze medal. When it comes to generating a review, they typically run 80 to 120 words. We include a handful descriptors, share our impressions of the structure, mention the winemaker, list the vineyards and try to provide some food pairing ideas. In essence, it’s a short story about that wine. I wish I was more proficient at generating them because many of the wineries seem to appreciate the effort that I devote to our reviews.

Do you work on an editorial schedule and/or develop story ideas as they come up?

There most certainly is an editorial schedule for our freelance work and the Northwest Wine column that we self-syndicate to more than 20 regional newspapers. As for com, we need to re-establish an editorial schedule. That fell apart in the fall of 2016 when Andy suffered his first series of strokes, but he’s working hard on his rehab and continues to improve. The Seattle Times recently cut back on its wine coverage to branch out into beer, spirits and cider. As a result, Andy is relaunching our Great Northwest WineCast, which is available on iTunes. The effort that he’s put into the painful occupational speech therapy is remarkable.

Do you post your articles on social media? Why is that important?

Ugh. This is an area that I need to work on. Wineries see real value in sharing third-party endorsements such as profiles, reviews and competition medals. As 20th century newspaper reporters, we were trained to eschew self-promotion. Perhaps that’s why I’m not any better at this than I am, but feeding social media channels is critical. It’s difficult these days for someone else to promote your work if you don’t toot your own horn at least a little bit.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

Make it easy to write about your wines by providing a robust “media/trade” section on your site. I routinely get frustrated when I want to write about but can’t immediate access to high-res bottle/label images and tech sheets. Also, I realize that we all want immediate gratification, but it often is several months before our tasting panel will get to your wine. That’s why I encourage wineries to send us samples soon after they get bottled. And before I forget, please include on that media/trade section downloadable rights-free, professional images of your winemaker, your winery, your cellar, your tasting bar and any vineyard that you routinely source fruit from.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

When I learn that a winery has invested time and money in a publicist, it tells me ownership is serious about its approach to media. Agencies such as the Washington State Wine Commission, Oregon Wine Board, British Columbia Wine Institute and Idaho Wine Commission perform remarkable work on behalf of their region as a whole, but no winery should rely on those organizations to promote their brand. It’s no coincidence, however, that some of the top winery publicists on the West Coast are alumni of these agencies, alliances or tourism/convention bureaus. During the course of their career, they’ve developed many of the best practices for dealing with national and international media and wine trade. They’ve learned what types of winery experiences these wine writers and travel writers are looking for. And in many instances, the itineraries created and developed by a publicist helps a writer with story ideas to pitch to editors. Publicists constantly network with writers and know who to reach out to with particular topics. After a trip, they routinely circle back with writers to learn what parts of the tour worked for them – and what didn’t. And I can always count on a trained publicist to make sure that I have access to the rights-free images that my editors need to illustrate a story. Publicists also follow industry trends, track wine competitions and monitor news feeds in order to help with their client’s social media. Bottom line, if a winery with quality juice in its cellar retains the services of a savvy publicist, that connection will generate news, grow a following and help move wine. If I owned a winery of any scale, I would budget for a publicist.

Which wine reviewers/critics would you most like to be on a competition panel with?

Lucky me. I recently judged the New Orleans International Wine Awards and had the honor of being on a panel with Heidi Peterson Barrett and Doug Frost. I won’t deny that I suffered from what golfers know as “the first tee jitters” because Heidi is one of our country’s most famous winemakers, and Doug is one of four people in the world to earn both Master of Wine and Master Sommelier titles. However, Doug is a kick in the pants, and Heidi is remarkably kind and humble. Both were extremely thoughtful judges, and Heidi deserves the credit for championing the Gewürztraminer from New York that came off our panel and went on to win the sweepstakes for best white wine.

Which wine personalities would you most like to meet and taste with (living or dead)?

My degree from the University of Washington is in history, with a focus on the U.S., so Thomas Jefferson would be at the top of my list. I’ve read a fair bit about Lewis and Clark — I graduated from LC High School in Spokane — and the Corps of Discovery traveled through the Columbia Valley, so President Jefferson had a significant influence in the Pacific Northwest. I would hope that he would enjoy seeing our vineyards and tasting our wines, although some of them might be a bit “hot” for his palate.

Leisure Time

If you take days off, how do you spend them? 

My wife works at Mount Rainier National Park, so I head over there, particularly if I want to cool off in the summer. My dad lives on a golf course and always is willing to sponsor my rounds with him – particularly if I bring him some wine. Spring and summer, I’m watching Major League Baseball, so I try to make it to Seattle once or twice a season. I look forward to the time when my hometown of Portland gets a franchise. In the fall, there’s fantasy football.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

This doesn’t qualify as my “ah-hah” moment, but the DeLille Cellars 2013 Chaleur Estate Blanc ranks as the most remarkable. And that experience came in 2016. Typically, I prefer to drink Northwest whites earlier, but that experience has me using a bit more patience.

Pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner.

I will fudge on this one and reach for pink bubbles by Jay Drysdale and his natural ancestrale rosé program at Bella Wines on the Naramata Bench. For the white, no one can go wrong with the Chateau Ste. Michelle Dry Riesling by Bob Bertheau and his team.

Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing? Favorite recipe/pairing?

My Match Maker series for Wine Press Northwest magazine now is 20 years old, and the pairing that immediately jumps to mind is the Rabbit Cacciatore by chef Francesco Console at Larks in Ashland, Ore., and the Folin Cellars 2013 Estate Tempranillo made by Rob Folin, who started at Domaine Serene and recently took over at Rogue Valley showpiece Belle Fiore.

Read more stories in the series “Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers.”

CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s going on his 10th 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).