“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. After all, they are the ones that help tell our stories, review our wines, and potentially provide media coverage. You can learn 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.
Mary Babbitt is a three-time Emmy Award-winning TV personality and journalist who co-hosts the podcast Sip Sip Hooray! with Mary Orlin. Babbitt worked as a news anchor for 15 years, including KNTV 11 in San Jose, Calif. She later hosted the celebrated program In Wine Country at NBC Bay Area (KNTV), which earned multiple Emmy awards and a James Beard Award, and was syndicated nationally on NBC. Babbitt is also a freelance writer, voiceover actor and on-camera host.
Mary Orlin is a wine journalist, a certified sommelier and WSET advanced certified with merit. She writes about wine for Edible Silicon Valley and Edible East Bay. In 2019, she was named a Symposium for Professional Wine Writers Fellow. Most recently, Orlin was the wine writer for The Mercury News. Previously, she created the James Beard and Emmy-award winning NBC TV series In Wine Country. Her work has been featured in San Francisco Magazine, Grape Collective, The Tasting Panel, HuffPost and Napa Sonoma Magazine.
How did you each come to wine, and to wine media/writing?
Orlin: My wine journey began post-college on a California trip, visiting Napa and Sonoma. I was hooked from the first winery and set out to learn everything about wine.
My wine journalism career started at CNN in Atlanta. I was working in the newsroom but then landed an associate producer job in the features travel unit. I knew wine and travel were intertwined, so I pitched doing wine “how to” stories — how to navigate a wine list, make sure clients didn’t order the most expensive wines, travel with wine and get the best glass of wine on a plane. They said yes and I went for it. Then I moved to Silicon Valley, where I launched a new weekly wine show for NBC. Thus, In Wine Country, with Mary Babbitt hosting, was born. After a nine-season run, I got my wine certifications and started writing wine articles.
Babbitt: My path to the wine world started in television news. I was a TV news anchor and reporter for 16 years, at KADY-TV in Oxnard, Calif., KCOY-TV in Santa Maria, Calif., and KNTV in San Jose, Calif., before stepping back after the birth of my second child. I expected to leave broadcasting altogether, but in the first few months of my “retirement,” I was offered the chance to host a new lifestyle show, about wine country, at NBC Bay Area.
What are your primary story interests for the podcast?
Orlin: We look for stories behind the label, with people who are fun and inspiring. We like telling stories that are under the radar. We look for diversity among backgrounds, women, BIPOC, LQBTQ+ and all ages.
Babbitt: My favorite thing is to meet someone new and, after our conversation, to feel as if I’ve made a new friend. Wine is fascinating and delicious, but it is hard to do a 30 to 45 minute podcast where you simply talk about the taste of various wines. Our listeners aren’t tasting with us, but they can relate to personal stories.
What are you trying to achieve with Sip Sip Hooray?
Babbitt: We’re trying to create interesting and fun content for people looking to learn more about wine. We want the show to feel like a relaxed conversation where you come away having learned something new.
Orlin: One of our goals is to tell the stories that aren’t being widely told. Take the episode with Miguel Lepe, the first Mexican American winery owner in Monterey County. He was going to study business in college but an agriculture class changed his life forever. Now he has a wine label and tasting room. https://sipsiphooraypodcast.com/2022/10/06/lepe-cellars-miguel-lepe-ep-50/
How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect the podcast?
Orlin: The pandemic provided an opportunity for us to use Zoom for our interviews. The quality was a bit rough at first, but as Zoom continued to improve its product, our sound quality got better. We still deal with occasional WiFi interruptions and drop-outs, but Zoom has been a godsend. We talked with sommeliers struggling to get by as they watched their careers evaporate, and to wineries coping and innovating during the pandemic. Now we do about half of our podcasts remotely and half in person.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
Orlin: I weight train on a regular basis.
Babbitt: I talk about my family on the podcast, but people might be surprised to learn I have four children, hence the wine drinking (ha ha ha). I ran the Boston Marathon last year and had a great experience.
What haven’t you done that you’d like to do?
Orlin: I want to write a wine book. There are lots of wine regions I’ve not been to yet. I’d love to spend a day following Antonio Galloni around on his winery review visits.
Babbitt: I have long wanted to hike the Camino de Santiago between France and Spain, and hope to make the trek with some girlfriends this spring 2023.
If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing?
Babbitt: As my children have grown [they’re now aged 17 to 24], I really miss being around little ones. For the past few years, I’ve been working part-time at my children’s former elementary school as a teacher’s aide and substitute teacher for grades Pre-K to 4th. Working with young children brings me so much joy.
Orlin: I would be making perfume and writing about perfume.
Can you describe your approach to podcasting?
Orlin: Our goal on Sip Sip Hooray! is to tell a good story, make a connection for our listeners and take the snobbery and intimidation out of wine. If you’re looking for a geeky technical wine discussion, we’re probably not going to be on your podcast list. But if you’re looking for a fresh approach, learning something you didn’t know about our guests and hearing an engaging chat with laughter, please tune in!
Babbitt: My approach is to make it conversational and keep it interesting. I try not to get too far into the weeds on any given subject and to keep the podcast moving along. I want our podcast to feel like time well-spent with friends.
What are your future plans for the podcast?
Babbitt: We would like to continue to grow our audience and grow the scope of the podcast. We’d like to travel to more wine regions and bring those wines and stories to our show.
Orlin: We want to develop relationships with wine regions, do short form videos on social media and participate even more in the wine community, whether it is leading talks, online forums, wine judging or advocating for social justice, inclusivity and diversity.
Why don’t you review wines on the podcast?
Babbitt: There are plenty of sites out there for people looking for reviews. Reviews are limited to a particular vintage and we want to be about more than that.
Orlin: Giving wine a score can detract from the story behind the label. If you say, “This wine got a 92, that’s all I need to know,” we feel you miss what makes that wine special.
What are your recommendations to wineries when interacting with journalists?
Orlin: Tell us what makes your story unique, never before told, emotional and real. Have several photos of the people we want to interview. Head shots are OK, but let’s see them in action — in the winery, vineyard or doing a hobby they enjoy. Get creative!
And do your homework. Listen to our podcast, read my most recent articles, check out my Instagram feed. My biggest pet peeve is getting a pitch about the person or winery I’ve recently done a podcast or article on. Also, please send samples, not just pitches. We have to taste wine to talk or write about it.
Babbitt: Be honest with journalists and don’t over-promise. On a practical level, be realistic about the time required to put together a shoot, a podcast recording or a photography session. Agencies should prepare their clients with interesting stuff to talk about. Help them feel at ease, encourage them to be down to earth and real. Give the crew space to get their technical stuff together before bombarding them with people to meet and chat with. Be helpful with outlets, extension cords, duct tape and water.
What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?
Orlin: It’s easier to get things done and plan location podcast tapings. [Publicists] are more responsive because that winery or winery group is their sole focus. They have more resources to respond to sample, photo and video requests.
What challenges did you face working with wineries while hosting In Wine Country?
Babbitt: My experiences with wineries were almost always positive. The only negatives we ever experienced were wineries and/or publicists not understanding what we were looking for — which was a great story and not a sales pitch/commercial for the winery. Very occasionally, we would bump heads with winery folks on the focus or goal of the shoots. Also, we were occasionally hindered by publicists and others hanging around when we needed to get work done. That can be awkward because you’re trying to be nice, but you need to write or prepare for the shoot.
Orlin: Another big issue was managing wineries’ expectations about how long filming would take. Wineries would send us a schedule, which we’d always laugh at. For example: interview, 15 minutes, B-roll 20 minutes. Done in an hour. We needed more interview and B-roll time, plus time to set up lighting, break it down and deal with the elements (wind, sun, planes, blowers).
Which wine personalities would you most like to meet and taste with (living or dead)?
Orlin: Dorothy and John Brecher, Jancis Robinson, Antonio Galloni, Jeb Dunnuck, Kermit Lynch.
If you take days off, how do you spend them?
Babbitt: My days off are spent with my family, working in my garden or taking long runs or hikes with friends. I can also often be found working as a substitute teacher or teacher’s aide as Ms. Mary.
Orlin: I spend time with my husband and friends, workout with weights, take long walks or hikes, cook, listen to beauty podcasts and get lots of pool time.
What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?
Orlin: It’s hard to name just one. I’d say tasting with Paul Draper at Ridge’s 60th anniversary, the Judgment of Paris 30th anniversary tasting, tasting with Nicolas Catena in Buenos Aires, meeting and tasting with Georges Dubouef in Beaujolais, and tasting Domaine Huet older vintages in Vouvray.
Babbitt: My favorite winery experience was touring Pisoni Vineyards with Gary Pisoni. He drove me around the vineyards in an old jeep. He drove very fast over huge bumps and made questionable turns, which added to my fear and delight. Then he had me look into an old bathtub on the property. He surprised me by turning on a geyser-like faucet right at my face. The next thing I knew he jumped in for a quick bath! I thought I would die laughing. The shoot ended with a huge barbecue dinner prepared by his family. We all agreed it was the best ever.
CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s celebrating his 14th 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 Columbia Gorge. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.