“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 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 Alberty, aka The Storyteller, is headed to Wine Enthusiast magazine as its Oregon, Washington and Canadian wines reviewer. He also writes about wine for The Oregonian, the oldest continuously published newspaper on the west coast, as well as Decanter, Sunset, Terre, Pipette and Kansas City Magazine. As he embarks on this latest career opportunity, he shares with WIA readers his personal background and deep experience in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, weighs in on the state of wine journalism today and reveals his bespoke cure for wine hangovers. Enjoy the read!
You have deep experience as a “Storyteller.” How did you come to wine, and to wine writing? Wine was a part of my household when I was growing up in the suburbs of Portland, Ore. My dad was a surgeon and worked with Joe Campbell of Elk Cove Vineyards at The Portland Clinic. When Dr. Campbell started making wine, discussions of what was going on in the Willamette Valley ramped up at my family’s dinner table. Elk Cove, Eyrie and Tualatin Estate bottles seemed to be the ones I would see getting poured most often at our house. The wine writing part was easy. I was managing a retail wine store in Champaign-Urbana and the local independent newspaper, The Octopus, asked me if I would write a wine column. It was about Bordeaux. I used [British television series] Rumpole of the Bailey as a hook. I’d probably recoil in horror if I was forced to read it now.
What are your primary wine story interests?
I like telling people about something they haven’t heard of or tasted before. At the same time, I try to check myself from chasing bright new shiny objects all the time. I have a deep reverence for Oregon’s wine history and the folks who put us on the map. I try to maintain a balance between the two when I select stories to write.
Congrats on your new role with Wine Enthusiast. How did this develop and, given your workload, why take on reviewing Oregon, Washington and Canadian wines?
It happened out of the blue. Paul Gregutt contacted me on a Friday to let me know I should call the publisher at Wine Enthusiast. The call happened on a Saturday and I signed a contract not too many days after that. As far as the workload, at first, the thought of tasting and reviewing thousands of wines in a year scared me. Then the challenge of it all started to appeal to me. I liked the idea of being forced out of my comfort zone to try something new. As long as I don’t fall behind on my tasting schedule, I should be fine.
You are still covering wine for The Oregonian. How did they come to hire you? What’s the back story?
In 2018, The Oregonian’s advertising department was preparing to team up with a local wine merchant to start a wine club for its readers. The wine merchant suggested that, if this was going to happen, it would be a good idea for the newspaper to have a wine writer. I was called in for an interview and it seems to have gone well.
This is the newspaper I grew up with and it’s an honor to write for them. When I was in junior high school, I delivered newspapers for The Oregonian. I never dreamed that one day something I wrote would appear in its pages.
The funny thing is, the interview almost never happened. The editors at The Oregonian didn’t have an email or phone number for me, so they sent a Facebook message. The problem is, they sent it to the wrong Michael Alberty. Thankfully, years ago I tracked down the small handful of Michael or Mike Albertys in the United States and, as a bit of a lark, we all became Facebook friends. The fellow who received the message, coincidentally, manages a liquor and wine store in Oklahoma. He forwarded it to me and said, “I think this might be important.” I still owe him a case of wine. If he had been on vacation, who knows how this would have turned out?
What are your plans for producing wine-related editorial going forward?
I have an outline for a wine book that involves a piece of Oregon wine history. Just what the world needs, another wine book, right? Now all I need is more time in a day and a publisher.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I helped my Samuel Taylor Coleridge house win a rugby championship while attending the Henry Compton School for Boys in London.
What haven’t you done that you’d like to do?
Hike the new Loch Ness 360° Trail in Scotland.
Describe your wine reviews tasting process. What happens to all that extra wine?
I haven’t started tasting wines for Wine Enthusiast yet, so this is my best guess: Wineries will send their wine to my storage room at Portland Wine Storage. I have an assistant who will unpack the wines and stage the tastings. The assistant will bag the wines. When I taste and review, I will not have a clue as to the identity of the producers. I will likely have the assistant enter my notes and scores into Wine Enthusiast’s database.
How important is the blind tasting process in your new role?
Extremely important. I’ve already heard from numerous winemakers that wanted to make sure that the blind tasting protocols would remain in place.
Do you work on an editorial schedule and/or develop story ideas as they come up?
I don’t have a schedule set up yet for my Wine Enthusiast work. For The Oregonian, I keep a notebook of ideas as I stumble across/into them. I write a winery spotlight every week for Here is Oregon, which is The Oregonian’s new sister publication. I usually do those over a weekend for publication on Monday. I write one wine article for The Oregonian each week as well.
What is the state of wine journalism today, and what of “separation of church and state” (editorial and advertising)?
I feel like I’m seeing more and more of what I suspect are articles commissioned by travel companies, importing companies and such. If someone wants to pay a writer to do this, fine. All I ask is for transparency about what is happening. If it isn’t a bad practice, why not be open about it? I’ve always felt that just about every facet of life involves a conflict of interest of some kind, but that readers should be given the information they need to decide how to resolve those conflicts when deciding to buy a wine, visit a restaurant or to make some other decision.
What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?
It can save me a lot of time tracking down winemakers for interviews, fact checking or securing photos if I need them. If I can give a publicist a list of things I need to accomplish and then get on with my day, I really appreciate that.
What frustrates you most about working on winery stories and/or wine reviews?
Word count limits.
If you take days off, how do you spend them?
If I can get away for more than a day, you’ll usually find me with my family at the Oregon Coast. Neskowin and Manzanita are our two favorite spots. If it is a single day off, we live on a quarter acre lot that requires a lot of gardening and yard work.
What’s your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?
Many years ago, I delivered Jancis Robinson to a surprise private wine dinner at Nick’s in McMinnville. Jancis was visiting Oregon, I think to research a possible television series, and David Lett wanted to visit with her. Jason Lett set it all up and asked me to get Jancis there without giving away the surprise. I had the privilege of sitting there as Nick Peirano and David Lett swapped Willamette Valley stories and rehashed memories with Jancis. Some pretty special bottles were opened that night.
What’s your cure for a wine hangover?
My last wine hangover was in 2001, but I can remember a few doozies that occurred in the 1990s. My answer back then was sparkling water, orange juice, four shots of espresso, a bagel and half a tube of Berocca tablets.
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 the Columbia Gorge. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.