This interview is an ongoing quarterly column in collaboration with Great Northwest Wine, and “turns the tables” on Pacific Northwest wine industry writers by asking them about their own profession. The Q&As are modeled on the Wine Industry Network Advisor series, which features national and regional writers and journalists. You can also read it on the Great Northwest Wine Website.
When not writing about wine or judging wine competitions, Dana Van Nest works as a copywriter and communication strategist, helping organizations to bring their values into their voice. The Seattle resident earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Washington, a master’s of fine arts in creative writing from Emerson College and the Level 2 award in wine from The Wine & Spirit Education Trust. Her website is DanaVanNest.com.
How did you come to wine and to wine writing?
In my mid-20s, I lived in Boston while going to grad school at Emerson. The wine I drank was usually terrible, but I had no idea how to determine what “good” wine was. I bought a copy of Wine for Dummies — it was surprisingly informative — and started going to local liquor stores to read wine labels. When I returned to Seattle, the Washington wine scene was on the upswing, and I jumped in and started tasting and learning.
Five years ago, I opened my communication consulting practice. Concurrently, I started taking classes at Northwest Wine Academy and later online at Napa Valley Wine Academy to take my wine interest from a hobby to a profession. I asked for a lot of introductions and attended a lot of events.
A few years ago, I spoke to Eric Degerman and he invited me to work as a chief judge for Great Northwest Wine competitions. It was daunting to be the newbie in a room full of professionals who had decades of experience, but I got the hang of it and from there began establishing myself as a wine writer.
How does your experience as a marketing and communications professional inform your writing?
I think a great deal about audience. Who’s reading this magazine? What’s their wine education level? I want to find that sweet spot: not talking down to people and also not talking over their heads. The articles I write are for entertainment and information, so I’m always watching for jargon and insider speak.
If we want to expand our audience and encourage more people to drink wine and support the industry, we must be welcoming and inclusive in our language.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
My “claim to absolutely no fame at all” is that I co-wrote a screenplay that was produced by the Danish Film Institute. It was shown at the San Jose (Calif.) Film Festival in 2003.
What haven’t you done that you’d like to do?
I’d like to try rock climbing — at a gym though and not on actual outside rocks. I want to be all geared up with lots of people around to catch me if I tumble.
How do you describe your approach to wine writing?
I tell engaging stories that don’t require a degree in enology to understand. The wine industry should not be elite and neither should the writing about it be. If we want people to buy wine, we need to provide access points for people to join the party.
What is your approach and perspective on judging wine competitions?
I find it fascinating to be on judging panels. I’ve met many lovely people who are interested in a collaborative process and a number of real snoots who act like their presence is a gift from the wine gods. I’m not having that. Go mansplain Tempranillo to somebody else, buddy.
When judging wine, I want to determine if the wine is true to its varietal characteristics. If it is not, can we figure out why? Can it be weird in a good way? And it’s important to put personal preferences aside. For example, I’m not big on oaked Chardonnays, but I know a well-made one when I taste it.
How do you describe your tasting process for writing reviews? What happens to the leftover wine?
I follow the WSET tasting format and go through all the categories, making notes. My final notes give the reader a guideline of what to expect — but in an evocative way.
Last year, when I was writing tasting notes for the Sip Magazine Best of the Northwest, I worked my way through three cases of wine. I kept a few but took open bottles with me whenever I had a meeting or appointment. I was very popular that month.
If you take days off, how do you spend them?
Hell yes, I take days off. I love my work, but I also love dance classes, reading, walks with friends, vacations and cooking.
What is your most memorable wine or winetasting experience?
In 2018, my husband and I wine-tasted and hiked our way through New Zealand. We visited Central Otago, Waipara, Queenstown, and Waiheke Island. In Queenstown, we had a seven-course seasonal wine dinner at Amisfield Winery. The plating was so inventive! It took me a while to realize the bowl of pretty rocks was not a decoration and actually cleverly disguised butter.
Is it possible to make a living as a wine writer today? What are the primary challenges and hurdles you face?
Wine writing and judging is a super enjoyable aspect of my career, but it would be challenging to pull together enough work to actually pay the bills, plus I like the balance of having a variety of clients and projects.
What are the best stories you have written? Please provide links.
What are your recommendations to wineries when interacting with journalists?
If a winery has a story to tell, let a journalist know. We are always looking for stories that need telling.
Also, wine writers have a large network. Be nice.
I was at a winery recently and was treated like I was trying to just get a free tasting and that my presence was a burden — which was funny because the tasting room was empty, except four employees standing around chatting. It was such poor customer service. I identified why I was there, who I was writing for and paid for my tasting.
And then I told a whole bunch of people how crappy I was treated.
What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?
Publicists have material already prepared and typically can get you whatever assets and info you need within 24-48 hours. They often have an interesting angle to pitch that a winemaker or owner wouldn’t because they’re mired in the details and/or humble.
CARL GIAVANTI is in his 14th vintage of working with West Coast wineries as a public/media relations consultant. His background includes technology sales, digital marketing, project management, and public relations for more than 25 years. Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, Walla Walla, Columbia Valley, and the Columbia Gorge. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com)