Erin James, Editor Sip Northwest Magazine

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 Allison Levine, Please the Palate, Wine Soundtrack and other wine publications.

ERIN JAMES is a seasoned writer and editor in the Pacific Northwest, with a focus on drink, food and travel writing. Outside of her desk as editor-in-chief of Sip Publishing — makers of Sip Northwest, Cidercraft and Sip’s Wine Guide: British Columbia magazines — James has been published in more than a dozen regional and national publications like WINO Magazine, Seattle Weekly, Washington Wine and more. Most recently, she is the author of “Tasting Cider: The CIDERCRAFT Guide to the Distinctive Flavors of North American Hard Cider,” published by Storey Publishing in 2017. When not tasting and scribbling notes, James can be found eating her weight in cheese and loving her dog, Josie, a little too much.

You can follow Erin on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and read her beverage publications at Sip Northwest Publishing.

Professional Background

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

I was one of the many lucky graduates who entered the work force at the inception of the 2007 financial crisis. Publications large and small were cutting staff in half or retreating to web-only productions — needless to say it was hard to get a job in journalism, even with the degree to back you up. The job background I did already have at this young age was in bartending, so I slipped back into what was familiar, which turned out to be the best move I could make for my future in writing. I learned how to up-sell what I was pouring from behind the rail, realizing I had a knack for talking about beverage and already had the schooling to help me put that into written word. I started a wine blog — back before that realm was overpopulated – and it helped put me on the radar. I got my first paid wine writing gig (pennies) shortly after and narrowed my niche even further into focusing on wine and food pairings. I haven’t looked back, but I have added cider, beer and spirits to my repertoire as well.

What are your primary story interests?

To echo what I closed out with in the previous question, food and drink pairing is my forte. I really like to eat. If I can add booze to that to enhance both the meal and the drink, then I’m in heaven. Most beverage-savvy cultures have long had drink on the table to enhance the meal, but this is something Americans are slowly coming around to. I’d like to speed it up and see more of it. Outside of that, I’ve developed my journalism style to lean more toward storytelling than news-breaking, I am keen to share the passions of the folks that make the drink and eats we love, bringing a human element to something edible and commonplace.

What are your primary palate preferences?

Cheese? If I had to pick one of each beverage I cover for a desert island retreat, I’d go white Burgundy, fresh hop IPA, heritage cider and a dry vermouth-laced martini (gin, of course).

Is it possible to make a living as a wine writer today? If so, how have you succeeded? If not, why not? What are the primary challenges and hurdles you face?

Oh man, kind of? I think strictly writing one beverage is financially difficult – one of the reasons why I’ve diversified. I’m very fortunate that I have the position I do as editor-in-chief of Sip Publishing, but I also freelance for other publications and do some non-industry copywriting. I think if your heart is in it, you can make any ends meet. Primary challenges: print pubs are paying less and less, and web publications already pay pretty cheaply. I’m a firm believer that you pay for what you get, so I hope to see publications continue to pay for quality work.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

I love to eat Kraft American Cheese Singles like movie popcorn (I’m an equal opportunity “cheese” lover) and I used to sing the National Anthem at collegiate and semi-pro sporting events.

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

It’s not as scary or mysterious as you think it is, eat while you do so then drink some more.

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

I’ve been really into flowers and floral arrangements – I’ve done them for four different friends’ weddings and I think I’d love running a flower shop.

How would you like the wine community to remember you?

“She sure could put it away, but she had a way with words.”

Writing Process

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

It depends on the type of article I’m writing but for wine in particular, I try to keep it approachable and easy-to-swallow. Same goes for reviews, tasting notes that reference ridiculously unfamiliar culinary ingredients cause major eye-rolling. The reader wants to equate your words to something they recognize, otherwise it goes over their head.

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

I’m fairly scheduled with our publications but certainly can develop a story as an idea forms – the internet has allowed for a lot more production flexibility there!

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

I do, and it’s extremely important because social media is where so many – especially those of a younger generation – find their news and read articles. Though you have to be clear, concise and catching, otherwise you’ll be passed up for a shinier object.

Do you consider yourself an Influencer? What’s the difference today between a writer and an influencer in your opinion?

I hope what influence I do have is positive for women of all ages in beverage — an example that even a green, 22-year-old journalism graduate battling against a national recession can still build a career in what she decided was her dream job when she was 8. I think the difference between a writer and a social influencer is just that – a writer writes, an influencer posts. Both can be impactful and should do it to further their message for the better.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

Everyone has a story – make sure the journalist knows why yours is worth telling. Sure, you are a former Microsoft/Nike exec, had the funding to leave your corporate desk and start your dream job. But why does a reader care and how can the journalist share that with what enticing angle? You’re not expected to sell a pitch to a writer, but you do want to grab them with a hook, uncover what makes your story special and dig in.

When it comes to samples, ask before shipping to make sure your product has a home in editorial content and, for the love of God, learn how to ship bottles correctly. That means no bottle should ever be floating in a sea of explosive packing peanuts.

What advantages are there in working direct with winery publicists?

See above about pitching journalists – publicists can hone your story, message and angle for a specific journalist, editor or publication, even specific departments and story ideas within. They can also handle the lead-up and follow-up, tasks that are sometimes uncomfortable when it is your own story.

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

Lettie Teague, the wine columnist for The Wall Street Journal. She is the reason I got into wine writing – she wrote a book called “Educating Peter,” in which she taught wine basics to Rolling Stone‘s film critic Peter Travers through a lens he could understand. I loved her approach and compelling manner in which she took something that can be so misconceived and made it completely consumable for one of the most censorious minds in media. For wine, I would have whatever she was having.

Leisure Time

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

I do and everyone should – for sanity’s sake! I like to get outdoors when I can, whether that’s a hike into the North Cascades or at a beer garden. I fill most of my off-time with my husband Nick, Son Arlo, and dog Josie, but I am fortunate to be able to see friends and family frequently as well. I love to read, cook, sing loudly in the shower, eat cheese and binge Netflix shows like any red-blooded human.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

Considering when I go wine tasting, I’m there as media so many of those experiences are quite remarkable and I always feel lucky for the cards I was dealt. There are definite highs and lows, but this is a pretty cool gig and I’m grateful for it every day. I’m big on pairing and one of my favorite food and wine experiences was something so simple and delicious: ripe cantaloupe wrapped in Bayonne ham (French prosciutto) and matched with just-chilled Provençal rosé on the patio of our rental in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. A dream come true.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world?

I was already smitten with Nebbiolo before but after going to Piedmont in 2015, I was deeply in love with not just the variety and its differing variations throughout the region (Barbaresco, Barolo) but I really fell for the people behind the wine there. For so many of the makers, it’s still such a generations-based farming culture with humility, craft and passion. I love that. Also, it’s hard to beat the Willamette Valley in the fall.

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).

Top 5 PR Tips for Small Wineries

Why is Winery PR so difficult?

It’s difficult, because it’s about relationships. And reading. Yes, lots of reading. And research, planning, tracking, analysis and follow-up. The fun stuff, right? And things change. Just when you think you have good contacts, well planned schedules and best known methods, things change – people retire and writers move on, wine columns are canceled, writers get hired to work for savvy wineries that understand the importance of professional writing and content development – and I’m just talking about my job as a winery publicist!

What about the small family-run wineries that face the challenges of growing, producing, wholesaling and DTC marketing their wines, and with limited resources? Incorporate these five focus areas to ensure successful media outreach campaigns, and keep your brand top of consumer’s minds.

  • Planning – create a target media list, content and communications calendars, and a samples calendar. Track your accolades as they come in and use them in your content marketing. Please establish a budget for samples, shipping, shows, market trips, writing, PR consulting, etc.
  • Targeting – identify your brand POD (Points of Difference) and key messages. Align these with writer story interests & palate preferences, and their readership’s interests; Determine writing frequency, outlets, and best contact methods. Categories of writers should include wine, beverage, food & wine, travel & leisure, business and the trades.
  • Sampling – Wine Scores & Wine Competitions are still important. I once heard a writer say “I can’t review their wines if they don’t send them to me”. Same thing for the rating publications, competitions, online reviews, etc. Get your wines out there. The impact of receiving strong ratings is huge and will drive traffic to your online store and tasting room.
  • Pitching – it’s about relationships – following, commenting, sharing and obtaining their editorial calendars. Pivot your story pitch to align with their upcoming stories and interests. Give the writers what they want and need. Make it easy for them to do their jobs. Provide Media Kits, Tech Sheets (not tasting notes) with your samples; Include website and photo gallery links (with attribution) in all your communications.
  • Tracking – Interviews, samples (to publications, writers and competitions), and pitches must be followed up. Writers are too busy and circling back helps them keep you top of mind. Use your website analytics to determine the result of media hits – within close proximity to the article or wine rating being published – did it drive traffic to my tasting room, website, social sites, and email subscriptions. Was there any form of engagement, commenting, sharing that took place. How about sales? How did those new visitors hear about you? Are the results quantifiable?

Wrap up – in summary, its lots of work but must be done because the days of being “discovered” by the media are long gone. We have too much competition for the attention of wine savvy consumers. When you do receive an accolade (feature article, mention, wine review, scores, ratings, and medals of note), are you using that “Earned Media” effectively in your Content Marketing? 3rd party endorsements are hard to come by, so don’t waste that precious resource, and do let the world know that experts like what you are doing and so should they.

CARL GIAVANTI is Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s going on his 11th 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).

USE THIS CONTACT FORM TO REQUEST THE TOP 5 PR TIPS CHECKLIST

Allison Levine, Please The Palate

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 Melanie Ofenloch, Dallas Wine Chick and other wine publications.

ALLISON LEVINE is owner of Please The Palate, a boutique agency specializing in event planning for the wine and spirits industry. She also holds a WSET Level 3 Certificate from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET), an Italian Wine Specialist Diploma from the North American Sommelier Association, a Certified Meeting Professional Certificate (CMP), and is BarSmarts Wired certified.

As a freelance writer, Allison is a columnist for the Napa Valley Register, as well as a regular contributor to California Winery Advisor. She is the host of the podcast WineSoundtrack USA, interviewing winemakers and winery owners who share their stories, insights and some humorous anecdotes. Her work has also appeared in Wine Industry Advisor, ATOD Magazine, Drizly, WineTouristMagazine, Thrillist, LA Weekly, LAPALME Magazine, BIN (Beverage Industry News), FoodableTV, Drink Me Mag, WeSaidGoTravel.com, Wine Country This Week and The Tasting Panel.

You can follow Allison on Facebook and Twitter, and read her stories on her blog: https://pleasethepalate.com/blog/

Professional Background

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

Wine became part of my everyday life when I lived in Italy shortly after college. I lived in a small town in Piemonte. While the town I lived in is the rice capital of Italy, it was surrounded by all of the great regions of the area. At the time, I did not know this, but I was drinking Dolcetto, Barbera, Nebbiolo and, of course, Brachetto, on a daily basis. When I returned to the U.S., I moved to Washington DC for grad school. I decided to go to a wine tasting one night and left more confused than I started.

I moved back to Los Angeles and a friend of a friend taught wine classes as a hobby. I started attending them, bringing friends with me each time. And then I got laid off from the dot.com world when the bubble burst in 2001. With lots of time on my hands, and a background in marketing communications and event planning, I offered to help the friend build his hobby into a business. I never looked back.

I have run a wine education company focused on consumers; I have sold wine for an importer/distributor; I worked for a wine critic, doing marketing and events for the wine trade. Throughout it all, I have been on a personal quest to learn anything I can about wine. After writing a lot of research papers, I had never thought about writing about wine. But, at one job, I helped launch a national trade magazine and began writing for them.

When I launched my own business in 2011, I decided to start a blog to share my experiences. Since friends always asked me where to eat or drink and where to go, I thought it was easier to write down what I was doing. I focused on my blog and would occasionally write for a couple trade magazines and along my travels, I have met some editors. Through casual conversations, I pitched a few story ideas and began writing for other outlets.

What are your primary story interests?

I am an experiential writer and I think that people connect with the stories more than wine notes. One of my great passions is exploring different cultures. I got my Masters’ Degree in International Communications with a focus on Cross-Cultural Training. While did not pursue a career in cross-cultural training, I love that I get to interact with people around the world. Across cultural boundaries, every winery owner or winemaker has a story to share. I like to listen to the stories shared by the people at the winery and get my inspiration for my stories from what I hear.

What are your primary palate preferences?

As I developed my wine palate in Italy, I have a preference for “old world” styles. I prefer lower alcohol, high acid wines. I like minerality and earth. But I am open to trying anything and, in the end, a balanced, well-made wine is always appreciated.

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

I am a freelance writer. I have a weekly wine column in the Napa Valley Register, but I am not on staff.

Is it possible to make a living as a wine writer today? If so, how have you succeeded? If not, why not? What are the primary challenges you face?

I do not think it is possible to make a living exclusively as a wine writer. My primary job is working with wine regions to organize trade events. Writing is something that I enjoy doing on the side, although at times I think it consumes a lot of my time.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

I am a third generation Los Angeleno, on both sides. A real unicorn! I am also a third-generation flautist, following in the footsteps of my grandma and mom who were/are both professionals. My mom and I play in a band at our synagogue. The band only plays together once a year, but we have been doing it for 18 years!

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

I hope that I am able to open up the world of wine to people. I hope that the stories I share inspire people to try to wine, go to new places and be open to the world of wine. There is so much out there and I think it is great to be open to everything and anything.

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

I am lucky to be doing what I love for a living. I organize events for wine regions around the US, I travel around the US and internationally to write about wine and I have a podcast in which I interview winemakers and winery owners, another great way to share their stories. I cannot imagine doing anything else, unless I could just travel the world full time.

How would you like the wine community to remember you?

I plan to continue to work in the wine community for a long time still. But ultimately, I hope people remember me for my joy for life, my love for meeting people and my excitement for travel and exploration. And I hope it is infectious.

Writing Process

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

I love sharing the stories of people and places. I do not think anyone really cares what I think of a wine, although I do include my notes on wines, because everyone has a different palate. I hope that when people read my stories, they are inspired to learn more and taste for themselves.

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

I am an event planner by day, so organization is my middle name. I keep a weekly list of tasks, listed by project. Each event I am working on, the story ideas I have developed and which outlet they are for and the podcast are all written out weekly. I schedule dates and try to stay ahead of myself as I have a lot of content. But there are always new stories to add to my daily lists.

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

Ideally, I write 3 original blog posts per week, plus repost my other articles on my blog as well. I also write a weekly wine column for the Napa Valley Register. The stories I write for other outlets are usually 1 or 2 per month, or as assigned.

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

Absolutely!  I hope to reach as many people as possible.

Do you consider yourself an Influencer? What’s the difference today between a writer and an influencer in your opinion?

I do not like the term “influencer”, at least how it is used today. I think influencers are defined by quantity and writers are defined by quality.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

Please do not send samples without warning and always include tech sheets and any other info. It is fair to ask if there may be coverage one time, but there is never a guarantee. And, sending unsolicited samples is not a guarantee of coverage.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

I have developed many relationships with winery publicists. The relationship is such an important part of our industry. There is better communication and openness when there is a relationship. There is an understanding from both sides…the publicist understands what I am looking for and what I need and can be honest with me about their needs and goals.

Leisure Time

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

Luckily one of the things I love to do is eat and drink and that is a requirement of my work. I also love to travel, which is also part of my work. My work and my lifestyle are intertwined. But I make free time to swim, run errands and some personal care. I go to the theater and enjoy chilling in front of the tv when I need a break. I love spending time with my family, especially my nephew and niece who I am crafting into young foodies.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

I have been blessed to have more than one memorable wine tasting experiences. On a trip to France with an importer, we were visiting different properties in different regions each day. Standing in the cellars of Champagne Gosset was a dream come true. I had always dreamed about touching the chalk walls and when a few pieces crumbled into my hand, I stuck them in my pocket. Today they sit in a little bag on my desk. That was the culmination of the trip until they surprised us with a visit to Domaine de la Romanee Conti. A quick, unexpected visit turned into a 2-hour visit in the cellar, tasting the entire 2016 vintage in barrel. A once in a lifetime experience.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world?

The next one I visit!!! Seriously, there are too many to choose from. Piemonte will always have the most special place in my heart. Madeira is one of the most magical islands. New Zealand might be one of the most beautiful places in the world because everywhere you look is better than the next. Santorini, Greece was one of the most unique. I would love to go back to every region I have visiting and there are so many more still to explore.

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).

Melanie Ofenloch, Dallas Wine Chick

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 Michelle Williams, who writes for Forbes, Snooth, USA Today and may more consumer lifestyle publications.

MELANIE OFENLOCH is the founder and editor of Dallas Wine Chick, a blog focused on the experience of wine, which has been named in the top 100 global wine blogs by two separate entities.  She also has been named LUX Magazine’s Top Wine Blog in Texas and is a guest contributor to Snooth.

You can read her stories at www.dallaswinechick.com, and follow her on Twitter @dallaswinechick, Instagram @dallaswinechick and Facebook @Dallas-Wine-Chick

Professional Background

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

It all comes down to a simple thing. I didn’t want to be known as “Sleepy Bill” at work.  Back in the early days of my career, we had an executive vice president named Bill who sat in his office and read the Wall Street Journal.  None of us ever saw him do work.  Fast forward about 12 years, and I sat with the same title working for Weber Shandwick.  With social media exploding.  I knew I had to “get it to get it” and I signed up for a Twitter account (under the generic @melanie) and stumbled my way through using it.  After 45 days of posting my random musings on marketing I realized I had only 60 followers, most of them worked for me, I decided to switch to writing about my passion – wine.  I jokingly told my husband when I hit 1,600 followers on Twitter, I’d start a blog.  That was 9 years ago in January.

What are your primary story interests? 

When it comes down to it, it’s simply about telling my story of wine. I don’t consider myself a wine expert – just an everyday person with a love for the grape. I am not a sommelier, winery owner, wine marketer or wine expert.  But I love to tell stories – so if it’s about a winemaker or a vineyard or a family or a special wine, that is in my wheelhouse.

What are your primary palate preferences?

That’s such an interesting question.  Like with food and the seasons, my palate is constantly changing.  It depends on the food I’m eating, where I am traveling and the shifting of the weather (especially in 100 degree Texas).  I used to love big reds, but I’ve found that today I am leaning toward wines with higher acidity and lower alcohol content.  I’m always on a journey to find new things from new regions.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I am the Fight of the Night recipient the first year that women could box in the Golden Gloves in 1994. I started boxing on a bet from my then fiancé (now husband) that told me that I was too much of a wimp to start boxing (he says he was joking) … and well, just don’t double dog dare me J

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

Wine is fun. It’s a journey and experience. It’s about raising a glass with friends. It shouldn’t be intimidating.  Just smile.  Enjoy.

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

In 9 years, I’ve had the opportunity to interview some amazing people. While I’ve had several opportunities to interview Peter Mondavi, Jr., this year was special with it being the winery’s 75th anniversary where I was lucky enough to attend a retrospective tasting and then had a follow up visit to the winery, https://www.dallaswinechick.com/generations-in-a-glass-celebrating-the-75th-anniversary-of-charles-krug-winery/

How would you like the wine community to remember you?

With the recent passing of my friend and blogger (Brix Chicks Liza) Liza Swift, this is a question that weighs on my mind. I hope people remember me for my humor, my sense of fun and my ability to go rogue. I hope they remember my passion for wine, my loyalty to my friends and readers and how much fun I had in this journey. And, I hope they remember me for being a great mom and wife.

Writing Process

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

My approach to wine writing is how can I tell a story differently. There are great critics out there – another one isn’t needed. While I do periodic sample reviews (about 6 per year), that isn’t my focus. I really want to give a close up, behind the scenes view in my stories.

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

I develop story ideas as they come up. Dallas is a hotbed for winemaker visits and I usually see at least three a month. Throw in the Twitter and Snooth tastings, winery seminars and press trips and that gives me great base content.

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

Yes. I find that is a great driver of not only extending the reach of my articles but increasing engagement with a number of different audiences. I find all of my social channels – Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest have different audiences and there is not as much crossover as you would think.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists? 

Please ask to send samples before sending them. I can’t tell you how many boxes just show up that I never expected to receive. Please check addresses when you are sending.  I left my last job almost four years ago and samples are still coming to that address. And finally, please send spec sheets and your contact information. I contact every winery that sends me a sample to let them know if it will or will not be featured. It would be fantastic if I didn’t have to track down your information.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists? 

I love working with great winery publicists. They always ask about samples, they always include the spec sheets and I know how to contact them with questions. A good PR person is worth their weight in gold.

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

See question number 11. I’ll add not being able to get an answer to a question for a story that I’m working on in a timely fashion.

Leisure Time

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

As someone that owns their own marketing consulting business, that’s a hard task. I love to travel, I work out daily and love to spend time with my family. You are likely to find me on a beach with a glass of wine in hand if I have my way.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience? 

I would have to say my first solo winemaker sit down for the blog came over a casual Mexican lunch in Dallas. I set up lunch with the head of marketing of Mollydooker who I had been communicating with on Twitter. She told me there’d be some others attending and they’d meet me at Gloria’s. Naively, I didn’t ask who else would be coming and assumed it would be a larger team of PR and marketing folks from Mollydooker and maybe a few folks from the Texas distributor.

I was wrong.  When I arrived at the restaurant, I noticed a team of three people in branded Mollydooker shirts bearing bottles of their top labels. As I got closer, I realized that aside from Krissy, none other than Sparky Marquis, co-owner and winemaker and his mum, Janet were joining us. He told me the story behind the story of the winery … being down to their last $17, asking the growers to forego payment and how Robert Parker almost missed the meeting that saved the winery.   https://www.dallaswinechick.com/mollydooker-the-story-behind-the-story/

What’s your favorite wine region in the world?

Tuscany.  Need I say more?

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).

Michelle Williams Interview

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 Joe Roberts, 1 Wine Dude, who has written for many consumer and industry national publications including Playboy Magazine, and has one of the longest lived and prolific wine review sites in the U.S.

MICHELLE WILLIAMS is based in Dallas, Texas. Michelle is an award-wining freelance writer of wine, food, and travel. She has been named one of the 15 Most Influential People in Wine, and her work appears in numerous publications, including Forbes, Snooth, The Daily Meal, and USA Today’s 10Best Eat, Sip, Trip, Hook & Barrel Magazine, Plano Profile Magazine, and Basil & Salt Magazine. As a passionate wine geek, Michelle travels extensively to wine regions around the globe in search of the story inside the glass.

You can follow Michelle on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and read her stories on Rockin Red Blog and Forbes.

Professional Background

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

I began drinking wine in my early 20’s. Like many, I started with boxed wine and white Zinfandel. Several of my girlfriends invited me to a wine pairing dinner at a brewery in downtown Dallas. This Kendall Jackson event was my introduction to wine and food pairings. I was sold and been an oenophile ever since.

My entry into wine writing is much longer. I was completing my master’s degree and entering a discernment period of whether or not to continue into a PhD program. Thanks to a professor insisting our class join Twitter I had already become an active member of the online wine community. As graduation loomed, I was approached by a couple of wineries asking if they could send me samples to review. Review? Where? How? I did not know what to do. My Millennial daughter suggested I start a blog. Although I knew nothing about blogging and did not read any blogs I knew I needed to keep writing during my discernment period so I followed her advice. The blog, Rockin Red Blog, took off, and the rest, as they say, is history.

What are your primary story interests?

My primary story interests are wine, food as it pairs with wine, and travel.

What are your primary palate preferences?

I have an “old world” style palate, preferring to drink wines of restraint with balanced fruit and earth qualities. When able I opt for well aged wines with tertiary notes, over young wines. I have a cellar to prove it.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

Very little, I suppose.

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

I would like readers to learn not to be intimidated by branching out and trying new wines. We all fall into wine ruts, but the world of wine is vast and there are so many great wines available in all price ranges. I would also love it if readers would embrace online wine purchasing, either through retailers or direct to wineries. Distribution and shipping laws in US are not consumer friendly, buying wines online is a great way to branch out. Get your friends together, place an order, and split the shipping costs. There is much to explore.

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

I love to teach and at one point was strongly considering a PhD. If I were not writing about wine, I would be teaching it. As the Texas Brand Ambassador for Franciacorta, I am afforded the opportunity to provide some wine education. I really enjoy it. Perhaps someday, I will take on a larger role in wine education.

Writing Process

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

I see myself more as a storyteller than a wine reviewer. I seek out the story inside the glass to provide the reader with a personal connection. Wine is not just a beverage, it is real people engaging in challenging work, when, more often than not, they could be making a better living doing something else. It is a labor of love, I want readers to see beyond the beverage in a glass into the people, history, culture, place, etc.

Although I am WSET Advanced certified, I prefer not to critique wine. I provide my tasting notes and let the reader decide if it sounds interesting. I save the scoring for someone else, it does not interest me.

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

I am highly organized – an editorial calendar is a must. My current calendar runs six months in advance. However, since I control it, there is room for flexibility.

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

I write at least five articles each month for Forbes, between six and ten a year for Snooth, and freelance additional articles for a variety of digital and print publications as I am able and/or assigned. I try to add original content to Rockin Red Blog at least twice a month. I wish I could write more for the blog, but I currently don’t have the bandwidth for it. I do share all my other articles on the blog, as well.

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

It is important to reach as broad an audience as possible.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

Ask before sending samples and don’t expect coverage because you sent samples or provided a trip to your winery. Wineries/publicists often have very different wants and expectations than editors, but the writer works for the editor. Personally, I don’t want follow up emails asking if I am going to write about something, pitching me article ideas, etc. I am a professional, I do what I can, when I can, as it fits with my editorial calendar, my readers, and my editor.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

The publicist knows more about marketing and often communicates well with the journalist, I am thankful to work with many great PR agencies, but this is not always the case. There are many lazy publicists.

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

Meeting Jancis Robinson would be amazing. Her work is paramount to my wine education.

Leisure Time

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

As a wife and mother, many of my days off are spent doing chores and errands, or spending time with my family and friends. Not glamorous. As much as I travel on wine research trips, my favorite way to spend my free time is traveling with my husband. I have an unquenchable thirst to experience the world and he is my best travel companion.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

This is an impossible question for me to answer. I am blessed to travel to some of the world’s greatest wine regions, as such, I have had a bounty of memorable wine tasting experiences. To list one or two would diminish all of them.

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

Easy, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Both allow for bubbles as well as still wine, and as still they both are crafted into a wide variety of expressions. They are both food friendly, and Pinot Noir would also allow me to enjoy Rosé.

 

Wine Competition Conundrums: Too Much of a Good Thing?

This article originally appeared in Wine Business Monthly on May 29, 2019. Thank you to Erin Kirschenmann and editorial staff for sharing with this with your readers.

I’m getting push-back from my clients. Not on sending wines for review, but for submitting them to competitions. I agree with this in principal, as the number of wine competitions has proliferated over the last 10 years, as have the number of medal categories and wines awarded. Let’s examine these two issues – the increased number of competitions and awards – and lay out some considerations to help inform your decisions.

Too many wine competitions? The number of wineries in the U.S. and globally has grown exponentially, and everyone is contending for the attention of wholesalers and consumers. Receiving awards is a way to brand differentiate and gain marketing clout. How to choose those most impactful to your business? I asked two competition professionals about the “landscape” of today’s competitions.

Erin James, editor of Seattle based Sip Northwest Magazine sums up the situation. “There is such a dynamic spread of style in wine competitions across the country, from the “little league” variations where nearly everyone gets some sort of medal to more stringent operations like ours – Sip Northwest Best of the Northwest – that only awards medals to a top set of winners. I don’t think one way is better or more accurate than the other, just different options. I would like to see more competitions providing feedback to producers from judges, and elevated judging panels to ensure that feedback is educated.”

Eric Degerman, CEO of Great Northwest Wine and founder of multiple competitions summarizes why he believes medals still matter to consumers: “So within the wine industry, just as it with many things in our society, there continues to be a desire for third-party endorsement.” This makes sense as the number of wineries in the U.S alone exceeds 10,000. It is expected that the number of import wines into U.S. markets will soon exceed that. Offering consumers purchase guidance, as simple as medals awarded, appears to have some competitive value.

Too many medals awarded? Many competitions are giving out too many awards as a percentage of total entries. I think there are two main reasons for this. 1) The quality of wine has improved in all regions due to technology and winemaking experience, and 2) competitions are giving more awards because the revenue generated by competition managers is significant. More awards given equates to more wines submitted, and may lead to additional ad revenues, i.e. label placements, website ads, etc. However, the cost-benefit of awards seems less significant as the percentage of total wines awarded has increased. This also raises the quality of judging panel question. Are there enough qualified judges to go around? And, how are they performing overall? Consider the following studies.

In 2008, Robert Hodgson, Professor Cal State Humboldt, studied the performance of wine judges at the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition, and published his report in the Journal of Wine Economics. His exhaustive analysis looked at judge consistency in re-evaluating the same wines, and concordance of results across multiple competitions. You can go to the American Association of Wine Economics website, pay a fee or download from a university library to view the full reports. The net results were that neither judge consistency or wine scores are reliable or consistent. They concluded:

  • Perfect judges do not exist
  • Judges are biased after discussion
  • Male judges are about as good as female judges
  • Judges tend to increase their scores after discussion

In 2018, a French study evaluated whether winning medals in wine competitions affects price increases. In his summary review of the study, Dave Nershi, of Vino-Sphere compares French wine studies with what’s happening in the “New World”, and says “the study shows winning a medal has a strong effect on wine prices, however the prestige of the competition makes a big difference. In France, regulations prohibit awarding more than 33% of participating wines. Some contests are even more strict. Winning a Gold medal in Bordeaux is certainly meaningful – and apparently you can take that to the bank”. The study suggests a 13% increase in prices for Gold medals, and about 4% for anything less. You can read the entire French study here. Dave added, “This study is focused on France, and so it isn’t clear to what extent the findings apply to the U.S.”

I asked a few Willamette Valley clients to comment. Richard Boyles, founder of Iris Vineyards in Eugene offers this: “Awards from competitions keep Iris Vineyards’ wines in the eyes of the public and give consumers permission to try a bottle they may not have tried before. This also reinforces the perceptiveness of Iris’ loyal followers.” Tom Fitzpatrick, winemaker of Alloro Vineyard in Sherwood adds his criteria for selecting competitions: “I choose specific national competitions that are well organized, attract high caliber judges, and get some national attention. I see value with the judges, who are often buyers and influencers, being exposed to our wines. There may be some consumer exposure value, although with the large number of wines and the large number awards given, this value is less than I once thought.” Wayne Bailey, Youngberg Hill Vineyards in McMinnville sums up his view: “ I choose competitions for brand building, market base, reputation with buyers, and legitimacy of the competition.”

Will Goldring, who in 2002 founded Enofile Online, an online wine competition management system, currently provides services to over 40 wine competitions nationally. Will says “Most of the competitions we help manage are long-standing for several years, and a few are newly minted. From our perspective, success factors include association with a major media outlet or renowned event, and post-competition publicity and/or events that generate sales. I would say about 30% of the competitions we manage have significant post-competition events that make a really big impact in recognition and subsequent sales.”

Should you submit wines?

I think the two key questions are – what is your goal in submitting wines, and whose purchase decisions are you trying to influence – trade, distributors or consumers? Here are some competition strategies to consider 1) Current Vintages – submit wines that are available in your tasting room, online store, in out of state markets 2) Core Wines – submit large production or flagship wines to support distribution sales 3) Judging Panel – who are they, what are their professional bona fides, readership and influence? What are their palate preferences and where are they from, i.e. home palate? 4) Tasting Process – how are the wines being evaluated, categorized and tasted? Will your wines show well? 5) Residual Marketing Value – what is the reach of the event, will the results be promoted in print and online, and will you receive digital badges for content marketing? 6) Consumer Events – are there events and is there an option to participate? 7) Costs? Consider entry fees and bottles required against all the above.

Here’s a perspective from Michael Cervin, a 20-year wine journalist, and 15-year wine judge who likes judging panels that benefit the wineries. “The more progressive competitions disallow winemakers as part of the panel because typically, based on my own and competition directors’ experiences, winemakers find flaws and faults in wine, when the goal is to award wines. Therefore, when looking for ROI, journalists, wine buyers and distributors make up a large segment, at least here in California, in part because they write about the winning wines, they buy the winning wines for their wine lists, and they sign up wines for distribution.” This speaks to the key points of differentiation of wine competitions. Does it help build my brand? Is there marketing impact? Will there be print and digital media announcing the results? Does the competition have readers, subscribers, an email list, social media followers? Otherwise, medals without marketing are an expensive proposition.

Finally, if you are not familiar with how competitions work, read this article by Erin James, Behind the scenes of a Wine Competition, which reviews the McMinnville Wine & Food Classic – Sip! wine competition. Erin also judges and hosts a competition for her magazine and shares some thoughts on the benefits to wineries who enter competitions. “If they place or win, clout and influence! That lauded reputation is a sales and marketing tool to connect with consumers. Another advantage is to receive feedback from judges, to make the product better in the future. Top priority for our Best of the Northwest competition has always been to share the results in our magazine, and to build the year’s best drinks shopping list. We are adding an option for producers this year to receive feedback on their submissions, to ultimately bring more value to their entries.”

As always, there is a cost to enter and to advertise your winning medals. I wouldn’t consider this unless the competition does a good job of promoting award winners and has reach and readers that matter. Competitions are also worth considering as part of your retail strategy. Awards are good marketing content for retailers, to feature as signage and shelf talkers if this is part of your overall sales plan. In the end, that bottle necker or end of isle display may be what inspires a consumer to grab your wines first.

CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s enjoyed 10 years 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 and communications consultant. Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, and the Columbia Gorge. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media).

Joe Roberts, 1 Wine Dude

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 Virginie Boone, Wine Enthusiast, who once covered the NFL for ESPN, wrote travel guides for Lonely Planet, and now mostly covers the California wine business.

Joe is a consultant, musician and professional wine reviewer in the greater Philadelphia area. He authored a freelance wine column for Playboy.com and was previously the wine expert for Answers.com. Joe holds Level 2 and Level 3 Certificates in Wine & Spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) in England. He’s a member of the U.S.-based Society of Wine Educators, holding their Certified Specialist of Wine CSW) qualification. He also holds the Wine Location Specialist (WLS) qualification from the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) and the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP), and is a member of the Wine Century Club (but that last one’s just for geeky bragging rights, really).

Joe has contributed to and/or been quoted in the L.A. TimesNew York TimesCNBC.com, The Washington Post, Mutineer Magazine, Publix® Grape Magazine, Palate PressMint.com, Parade, Wines.com, SOMM Journal, The Guardian UK, Table Matters, Wine Nabber, Wine4.Me, Nomad Editions’ Uncorked and Chester County Cuisine & Nightlife. His unique wine mini-reviews (composed in 140 characters or less via twitter) have been used in popular iPhone and PDA wine applications such as Sipp, Hello Vino, TedRec and Pocket Wine Assistant.  He’s also been a judge in wine competitions (such as the Critics Challenge International, the San Francisco International, the Lake County Wine Awards, California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition, the Wines of Portugal Challenge, and the Argentina Wine Awards), wine writing competitions, and award programs (such as the Georges Duboeuf Wine Book of the Year Award), and authored the freelance wine column Wined Down for Playboy.com.

Follow Joe at http://www.1winedude.com and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Professional Background

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

I was an avid consumer. Not a collector, just someone who fell off the deep end in terms of geeking out over wine’s combination of hedonistic pleasure, geography, history, chemistry, agriculture, etc. The blog was started as an adjunct to a business idea that never took off. The blog, however, gained influence (for reasons I still don’t fully understand), and 11+ years later, I’m still doing it (and other wine-related stuff).

What are your primary story interests?

Well, for other outlets I’ve done… pretty much everything under the sun. For 1WineDude.com, however, I tend to focus on wines and regions that don’t get a lot of media play. Consequently, I’ll get asked to visit off-the-radar wine regions, and I almost always say Yes.

Is it possible to make a living as a wine writer today? If so, how have you succeeded? If not, why not? What are the challenges and hurdles you face?

No. It’s not really possible; not with just writing, anyway. You HAVE to segue your reputation into media/writing/competitions/speaking gigs/what-have-you. Income pooling, in a freelancing world. The number of real opportunities isn’t that large.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

I still cry sometimes when watching really poignant movies.

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

You’ve succeeded when you can vehemently disagree with someone like me and make your own informed choices about wine without having to have them validated by me (or someone like me).

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

I’d either still be doing the senior management grind in corporate America, or clawing out some kind of living as a full-time musician.

How would you like the wine community to remember you?

Great question. I’d like to be thought of as someone who was able to crack the traditional mold around “ivory tower” wine writing, and thus was able to empower people inside and outside the wine biz towards more independence, and, hopefully, increasing their love for the stuff overall.

Writing Process

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

When I get hired to write, it’s at the discretion of the editor; I can do any style that someone might want. For my website, it’s all about getting to the essence of something quickly and quirkily. For features on 1WD, I decided to take the “traditional” elements of how those stories have been structured for what seems like forever, and explode them into a huge mess; then I go through the mess, pick up the elements that I like best, and rearrange them into… something. Usually it works, though sometimes it’s like the writing equivalent of experimental jazz…

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

Generally yes to both; I aim for two posts a week on 1WD (a mini-review roundup, and some form of feature). I often have NO idea what I will write about during a trip, and story ideas present themselves often after when I am reviewing notes, etc.

Do you consider yourself an Influencer? What’s the difference today between a writer and an influencer in your opinion?

A writer gets paid to write. An influencer has influence on others who make decisions (usually related to purchasing) within a given field. I’m fortunate enough to be/have been both. I tend to influence the influencers within wine, which I find kind of odd because that was never an intention and I write on 1WD for my own pleasure and generally more geared towards intermediate consumers. Obviously – and, I suppose, luckily – I failed.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

Do your homework. Sh*t, do ANY homework. Blanket PR pushes don’t really work anymore in a world that’s increasingly online and increasingly niche-focused. Have a specific reason as to why you are contacting a journalist, and it needs to be better than “I want to get my crap in front of as many eyeballs as possible.”

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

I’m not sure that I understand the question. And I am sober as I write this. 🙂 I actually find that the better PR folks don’t work for wineries, but have them as clients (so that each party can focus on what they do best).

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

By far the most frustrating thing is being banal. No one really cares about your marketing material, they want to connect with you on a human level. There’s a lack of that vulnerability in the wine world sometimes.

Leisure Time

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

Napping. Hanging out with my kiddo. Teaching myself new things. Adventuring with my girlfriend. And of course playing Rock Star for real in my band.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

Probably that time that time I visited Madeira, and the folks at D’Oliveiras suggested that, since we were going back to the old stock, we might as well taste the 1850 Verdelho because of how well it was drinking. No one has ever been more right in the history of good suggestions!

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

Right now, it’s pecan pie with the oldest Tawny Port possible.

CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background, 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).