“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.
I met Catherine several years ago at Willamette Valley’s Pinot Noir Auction, where her talent for tasting and pure professionalism impressed me from the start. I, of course, requested she review a few of my clients’ wines on her Planet Grape wine review site. Her personal story is nothing short of amazing. Following an extremely challenging childhood, she became the world’s fifth woman Master Sommelier and is the only professional sabreuse (swordswoman) in the US.
Catherine Fallis, MS (pronounced “fall is”) is the world’s 5th female Master Sommelier and proprietor at Planet Grape® LLC, a wine consulting firm providing content, reviews, corporate and private tastings, restaurant wine program development, and speaking services. She created her alter-ego, grape goddess®, to help bring wine down to earth for consumers as well as those entering the wine industry. She is one of a handful of female professional sabreurs in the world, opening a bottle of Champagne with a sword in a dazzling theatrical performance. Fallis was recently inducted into Les Dames d’Escoffier and is a Board Member of The American Institute of Wine & Food.
How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?
Wine was not a part of my life growing up. We were poor, us kids from different couplings shuffled around a lot. I was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Then we went to Pansacola, Florida, Los Angeles and then the Lower East Side before “settling” in a tenuous area in Staten Island. We mostly lived in gang-infested areas and survived on food stamps. Wine was simply one of those great mysteries of life that I was determined to learn about. The pinnacle of my culinary experience as a child was a meal at my Flint, Michigan grandmother’s house of Kool Aid, Pringles potato chips, macaroni and cheese, and either her date pinwheel cookies or Ho-Ho’s for dessert. Sometimes she would let us eat pickles she had canned.
I remember rooting around in her fridge over the years, moving the same bottle of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine to the side to find those succulent little slices of sweet and sour heaven. Later, I started cooking for all of us. Simple things like lasagna, or fancy things I learned in college, like bananas foster. Other memorable meals include those served up at White Castle, What-a-Burger, and A & W.
I was a chubby pre-teen, then I flip-flopped to anorexia and bulimia. I practically lived on radishes. Perhaps that is what inspired me to get out and see the world, eating and drinking with the lusty appetite and equivalent culinary awareness of a truck driver. Wine, bread, cheese, pastries, chocolate, espresso, and delicious, perfectly ripe fruit—were all things I discovered while backpacking around Europe, staying in hostels and campgrounds in my early twenties. It was everywhere. It was affordable. And it reflected the local culture and personality.
I began writing about wine after reading an article about how to write a book. It suggested writing articles in multiple publications, and that is what I did. I was consulting with restaurants, so it was a nice counterpoint to always being public-facing. It also became a more significant activity for me when I left the floor to raise a family.
What are your primary story interests?
After working for years with high-level, cutting-edge technical training, I decided to switch my focus to consumer-facing topics such as finding good value, planet-friendly wines, every day wines and more. One of my most popular corporate and private event themes is Three Grapes to Know, based on my latest book, Ten Grapes to Know, The Ten & Done Wine Guide, which was written to welcome in a new generation of consumers to the wine world with open arms, including musical artists and dating profiles representing each of the ten grapes, along with food pairings for real people, such as frozen dinners and items found at Trader Joes.
What are your primary palate preferences?
Champagne of course. I think that anyone who has worked in a restaurant, running around for 8 to 10 hours or more, speaking constantly—if not shouting to be heard in the kitchen—is keenly thirsty and in need of an immediate, non-intellectual thirst-quenching beverage. High acid and finely sparkling Champagne fits that bill quite nicely, but so do other high-acid, tart wines such as Sancerre, and even tart, bitter and bone-dry wines such as Pinot Grigio. I think the palate shifts over time from sweet white or rosé, to less sweet, to dry, then to reds, starting light then ramping up to the ripe and sumptuous Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or Australian Shiraz for example. From there, the palate migrates backwards to lighter, lower alcohol, fresher/tarter wines, and certainly wines with less overt oak influence. Mediterranean reds. New Zealand or French Pinot Noir. That is where my palate is at, but that is after 25 years of tasting and drinking wine every day. But it is highly personal.
Are you a staff columnist or freelance? What are the advantages of both?
I was the wine columnist at the SF Chronicle, then the SF Examiner, and for many trade publications over the past 20 years. With a regular gig it is easy for wineries to understand your reach. As a freelance writer, with hundreds of clients around the world, it is more difficult to pinpoint that.
Is it possible to make a living as a wine writer today?
Sure, I think it is possible, given what is happening with technology and new digital wine platforms. But it is not easy to get a foot in the door. And it is hard to tell how long any gig will last.
What is your approach to wine writing and wine reviews?
Research is critical. Getting first-hand information is always better than relying on marketing information. Fact checking is very important. Always work on a draft first. Then let it simmer for as long as you can before going back in to write the final version. Repeat this process with the final version.
Do you consider yourself an Influencer? What’s the difference today between a writer and an influencer in your opinion?
Yes, in the traditional sense of the word, myself and my panelists are all influencers, maybe the OG influencers of our generation. We are multi-credentialed professionals with a deep well of established and recognized expertise. These days a writer has to have some expertise in their field and also has to get followers. Today’s influencer just has followers.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I have a very difficult time learning technical and geographical information without seeing things first hand—I am much better at experiential learning.
What haven’t you done, that you’d like to do?
Become the world’s first woman MS/MW. And—with a camera crew and friends—ride bicycles along the Routes de Grand Crus in Burgundy and taste wines from each along the way.
If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing?
Opening Champagne with a sword!
What’s the history of sabering? What’s your history with it?
In times of triumph, French officers under Louis XIV (and later Napoleon’s Hussars) opened Champagne with a strong blow from their swords. Napoleon is known to have said, “Champagne! In victory one deserves it; in defeat one needs it.” The tradition continues, though French cavalrymen often practice on beer bottles first. Once they have mastered the technique, they show their skill by riding at full gallop past ladies holding bottles of Champagne for them to saber. This is a spectacular start to weddings, feasts, formal dinners, and other special occasions.
I am a professional sabreuse, meaning swordswomen. There is no other word for it. I learned with champion French sommeliers in Monaco and have to say the number one rule is to carefully follow all safety precautions. The technique is easy but the danger is high both for the person sabering as well as folks who are nearby.
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 celebrating his 12th 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, Walla Walla, Columbia Valley, and the Columbia Gorge. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.