“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.
MICHAEL CERVIN is a freelance writer based in Santa Barbara, California. Michael is an author and speaker focused on wine, spirits, food, water and travel. He is a contributor to multiple outlets including Bonforts, Forbes Travel Guides, BottledWaterWeb. Decanter (London), Fine Wine & Liquor (China), The Hollywood Reporter, The Tasting Panel, Arroyo Monthly, 65 Degrees, Gayot.com, IntoWine.com, and many others. He is the author of 7 books.
How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?
Wine came into my life when I left Los Angeles and moved to Santa Barbara. I got a part time job at a winery tasting room and knew nothing. Many of the people who I poured for had traveled the world and helped to educate me, as did the winemaker. So, I started tasting everything and when I wrote my very first wine article, which was horrible by the way – about me driving aimlessly in my convertible visiting wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley. I was paid a mere $20. My third article was for Wine & Spirits so I jumped pretty quickly up the ladder.
What are your primary story interests?
I’m interested in authenticity, quirkiness, an emotional connection. That can be about a wine or winery, a place, person etc. My best wine articles have been in depth one-on-one conversations with people who hold nothing back. Though these types of interviews are more time consuming, I find that I get those true nuggets that I am mining for when me and my subject have time to just talk. I do feel like a lot of press releases these days are a kind of “forced narrative,” where they are trying to be quirky or outrageous for its own sake. But that is transparent.
Are you a staff columnist or freelance? What are the advantages of both?
For wine I’ve always been freelance. I do have columns for my Cocktail of the Month for a magazine in Pasadena, and for my reviews for The Whiskey Reviewer, as well as my wine reviews for Bonfort’s and Drink Me Magazine, and IntoWine.com. However, they all afford me complete editorial latitude. I understand the prestige of being on staff at one of the major wine mags, but I’ve also been the kind of writer who wants to do what I want, when I want and how I want. This becomes difficult because people want to pigeonhole you and for my diversity of writing, it confuses people. I write about wine, spirits, but also water issues, architecture, travel, food, history. As a freelancer I am not beholden to anything and I like that. It also allows for more transparency and honesty in my writing.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
Perhaps that I was formerly an actor appearing with speaking parts on shows like 3rd Rock From the Sun, The Young and The Restless, Grace Under Fire, and the soap opera (perhaps ironically, since this is where I live) Santa Barbara. I also did a lot of theatre and wrote and directed several plays and was Associate Artistic Director for a small theatre in Hollywood. I kinda miss it.
What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your wine writing?
That you need to constantly explore. Rather than your “go-to” Cabernet, try another region. Don’t care for Vermentino? Try a different producer. With as many wines available to us, it’s staggering to me that most people drink myopically. I hear it all the time; I only drink Brand X Syrah; I hate rose’; I only drink reds, etc. If we limit our experiences, we lose our palate. When I was the restaurant critic for the Santa Barbara News Press I had to try foods either I didn’t like, or would normally not eat. But I was always objective and it forced my palate to be open and I can say that was one of the best experiences because I learned to compartmentalize it. I can appreciate, for example, fresh white asparagus though I would not usually eat it. With wine it’s the same. Additionally, wherever you travel, always try the local wines, beers, spirits and food. Don’t order your favorite California Cabernet if you’re in Austria.
Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews?
I look for a wine to invite me somewhere. I open bottles every day and in that ritual of peeling off the foil, uncorking, or twisting off the cap I always think the same thing – please let this be a cool wine, a wine I can give a great score to so that others might try it. I love the discovery, that first sip, looking for that visceral experience of being transported. I use Riedel glasses for all wines and when opened, I slowly pour a thin stream into the glass to help with immediate aeration. Obviously, I smell it, 2-3 times, then take that first sip. And really, that first sip is pretty much all that matters. If it doesn’t grab you, take hold of your senses, intrigue you or demand your attention, then I have little use for it.
Do you work on an editorial schedule or develop story ideas as they come up?
Probably 90% of my work is based on my own ideas and I generate a lot of stories. I tell younger writers who say, “how do you come up with story ideas?” that if you don’t have 20 ideas in your head right now, maybe you should be doing something else. Ideas are literally everywhere and you need to think beyond the confines of what a traditional story is about. Frankly, ideas are easy. Getting paid for those ideas is not.
What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?
Simple – respond. If I call or email it’s for a reason – I need information to help promote your winery. Far too many wineries (both large and small) ignore media for reasons I cannot understand. Some don’t want to be bothered. I’m weary of wineries telling me they can’t respond because they have a small staff, or have limited resources. You know what? I’m a staff of one and I work constantly, so if you hear from me, respond in a timely manner. I have, quite literally, not written about a wine or winery precisely because they chose to ignore me. Then their story goes to someone else. It’s really simple.
What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?
Also simple – they respond. There are a number of wine PR people that I have worked with for 20 years. It can (and should) be a mutually beneficial relationship. And that’s the key word to both these questions – relationships. I’m interested in building and cultivating long-term relationship with wines, winery owners and producers. But it takes two to tango to use an overwrought phrase. Many PR firms simply want to get a score out of me as quickly as possible. I don’t work that way. I’m in it for the long haul.
If you take days off, how do you spend them?
Being a freelancer, I am not beholden to time. If I want to go to the beach or have a leisurely lunch, I can. This also means that there are times I’m at my desk at 4 a.m. writing in solitude and, quite frankly, I love the quietness of the mornings – this is my best time to write. Since I travel quite a bit, that travel tends to be a “day off” for me, though the reality is that as a writer, there is never a “day off” because writing is in my DNA. I love what I do. I recall a time when I was on a cruise with my then wife (she was speaking on the cruise) and I had scheduled to meet with two hotel properties for Forbes Travel Guides in the Bahamas when the ship was in port, even though that meant I didn’t go on a snorkeling trip, but it really didn’t bother me because I love what I do, and I got to see a part of the Island that most tourists don’t.
What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?
That’s easy. I was invited to Champagne Bollinger for their launch of their Gallerie 1829 (a kind of museum at their property in Aÿ) not open to the public. I was fortunate to taste through a structured tasting of older vintages including 1992, 1975, 1973 (in jeroboam, magnum and bottle), 1964, 1955, 1928 and 1914. It was a singular, distinct, wonderful experience and what I recall most was that at lunch after the tasting, where all the Champagnes were opened for us, I drank the 1914, all the while thinking – this was made before World War I, and here I am over 100 years later, this time in a peaceful France, drinking a wine that has survived for a century. Though the 1928 was more fresh and effervescent, I gravitated to the 1914 because of its connection to world history, and because literally only perhaps 10 other people on the planet will ever get to taste the 1914 again. Ever.
What’s your favorite wine region in the world?
I’m asked all the time what my “favorite this or that” is, and I have the same response. I don’t believe in favorites; be that a type of grape, a region, or a style. The wonderful thing about wine is that it is a living organism and it changes constantly. Vintage variation, warmer summers, rainfall all effect every wine region, making that vintage unique. If you want sameness, go to a fast food joint, or drink bulk wine. If you want subtly drink wines that offer a sense of place. Having traveled the globe I pretty much love every wine region I’ve been to, including off the beaten path wine regions like Crete, Nova Scotia, Switzerland, Austria. Every place offers something truly idiosyncratic.
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).