Erin James, Editor Sip Northwest Magazine

Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers is a Q&A series profiling Wine Writers. I expect you’ll discover more about wine writers that 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 and review our wines. What better way to obtain media coverage than to learn their wine and writing backgrounds, story and personal interests, palate preferences, writing challenges and pet peeves. This is also part of an ongoing series that is being featured monthly by Wine Industry Network. Last month’s interview featured Allison Levine, Please the Palate, Wine Soundtrack and other wine publications.

ERIN JAMES is a seasoned writer and editor in the Pacific Northwest, with a focus on drink, food and travel writing. Outside of her desk as editor-in-chief of Sip Publishing — makers of Sip Northwest, Cidercraft and Sip’s Wine Guide: British Columbia magazines — James has been published in more than a dozen regional and national publications like WINO Magazine, Seattle Weekly, Washington Wine and more. Most recently, she is the author of “Tasting Cider: The CIDERCRAFT Guide to the Distinctive Flavors of North American Hard Cider,” published by Storey Publishing in 2017. When not tasting and scribbling notes, James can be found eating her weight in cheese and loving her dog, Josie, a little too much.

You can follow Erin on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and read her beverage publications at Sip Northwest Publishing.

Professional Background

How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?

I was one of the many lucky graduates who entered the work force at the inception of the 2007 financial crisis. Publications large and small were cutting staff in half or retreating to web-only productions — needless to say it was hard to get a job in journalism, even with the degree to back you up. The job background I did already have at this young age was in bartending, so I slipped back into what was familiar, which turned out to be the best move I could make for my future in writing. I learned how to up-sell what I was pouring from behind the rail, realizing I had a knack for talking about beverage and already had the schooling to help me put that into written word. I started a wine blog — back before that realm was overpopulated – and it helped put me on the radar. I got my first paid wine writing gig (pennies) shortly after and narrowed my niche even further into focusing on wine and food pairings. I haven’t looked back, but I have added cider, beer and spirits to my repertoire as well.

What are your primary story interests?

To echo what I closed out with in the previous question, food and drink pairing is my forte. I really like to eat. If I can add booze to that to enhance both the meal and the drink, then I’m in heaven. Most beverage-savvy cultures have long had drink on the table to enhance the meal, but this is something Americans are slowly coming around to. I’d like to speed it up and see more of it. Outside of that, I’ve developed my journalism style to lean more toward storytelling than news-breaking, I am keen to share the passions of the folks that make the drink and eats we love, bringing a human element to something edible and commonplace.

What are your primary palate preferences?

Cheese? If I had to pick one of each beverage I cover for a desert island retreat, I’d go white Burgundy, fresh hop IPA, heritage cider and a dry vermouth-laced martini (gin, of course).

Is it possible to make a living as a wine writer today? If so, how have you succeeded? If not, why not? What are the primary challenges and hurdles you face?

Oh man, kind of? I think strictly writing one beverage is financially difficult – one of the reasons why I’ve diversified. I’m very fortunate that I have the position I do as editor-in-chief of Sip Publishing, but I also freelance for other publications and do some non-industry copywriting. I think if your heart is in it, you can make any ends meet. Primary challenges: print pubs are paying less and less, and web publications already pay pretty cheaply. I’m a firm believer that you pay for what you get, so I hope to see publications continue to pay for quality work.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

I love to eat Kraft American Cheese Singles like movie popcorn (I’m an equal opportunity “cheese” lover) and I used to sing the National Anthem at collegiate and semi-pro sporting events.

What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your writing about wine?

It’s not as scary or mysterious as you think it is, eat while you do so then drink some more.

If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing? 

I’ve been really into flowers and floral arrangements – I’ve done them for four different friends’ weddings and I think I’d love running a flower shop.

How would you like the wine community to remember you?

“She sure could put it away, but she had a way with words.”

Writing Process

Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews?

It depends on the type of article I’m writing but for wine in particular, I try to keep it approachable and easy-to-swallow. Same goes for reviews, tasting notes that reference ridiculously unfamiliar culinary ingredients cause major eye-rolling. The reader wants to equate your words to something they recognize, otherwise it goes over their head.

Do you work on an editorial schedule and/or develop story ideas as they come up?

I’m fairly scheduled with our publications but certainly can develop a story as an idea forms – the internet has allowed for a lot more production flexibility there!

Do you post your articles on social media? Why is that important?

I do, and it’s extremely important because social media is where so many – especially those of a younger generation – find their news and read articles. Though you have to be clear, concise and catching, otherwise you’ll be passed up for a shinier object.

Do you consider yourself an Influencer? What’s the difference today between a writer and an influencer in your opinion?

I hope what influence I do have is positive for women of all ages in beverage — an example that even a green, 22-year-old journalism graduate battling against a national recession can still build a career in what she decided was her dream job when she was 8. I think the difference between a writer and a social influencer is just that – a writer writes, an influencer posts. Both can be impactful and should do it to further their message for the better.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

Everyone has a story – make sure the journalist knows why yours is worth telling. Sure, you are a former Microsoft/Nike exec, had the funding to leave your corporate desk and start your dream job. But why does a reader care and how can the journalist share that with what enticing angle? You’re not expected to sell a pitch to a writer, but you do want to grab them with a hook, uncover what makes your story special and dig in.

When it comes to samples, ask before shipping to make sure your product has a home in editorial content and, for the love of God, learn how to ship bottles correctly. That means no bottle should ever be floating in a sea of explosive packing peanuts.

What advantages are there in working direct with winery publicists?

See above about pitching journalists – publicists can hone your story, message and angle for a specific journalist, editor or publication, even specific departments and story ideas within. They can also handle the lead-up and follow-up, tasks that are sometimes uncomfortable when it is your own story.

Which wine personalities would you most like to meet and taste with (living or dead)?

Lettie Teague, the wine columnist for The Wall Street Journal. She is the reason I got into wine writing – she wrote a book called “Educating Peter,” in which she taught wine basics to Rolling Stone‘s film critic Peter Travers through a lens he could understand. I loved her approach and compelling manner in which she took something that can be so misconceived and made it completely consumable for one of the most censorious minds in media. For wine, I would have whatever she was having.

Leisure Time

If you take days off, how do you spend them? 

I do and everyone should – for sanity’s sake! I like to get outdoors when I can, whether that’s a hike into the North Cascades or at a beer garden. I fill most of my off-time with my husband Nick, Son Arlo, and dog Josie, but I am fortunate to be able to see friends and family frequently as well. I love to read, cook, sing loudly in the shower, eat cheese and binge Netflix shows like any red-blooded human.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

Considering when I go wine tasting, I’m there as media so many of those experiences are quite remarkable and I always feel lucky for the cards I was dealt. There are definite highs and lows, but this is a pretty cool gig and I’m grateful for it every day. I’m big on pairing and one of my favorite food and wine experiences was something so simple and delicious: ripe cantaloupe wrapped in Bayonne ham (French prosciutto) and matched with just-chilled Provençal rosé on the patio of our rental in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. A dream come true.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world?

I was already smitten with Nebbiolo before but after going to Piedmont in 2015, I was deeply in love with not just the variety and its differing variations throughout the region (Barbaresco, Barolo) but I really fell for the people behind the wine there. For so many of the makers, it’s still such a generations-based farming culture with humility, craft and passion. I love that. Also, it’s hard to beat the Willamette Valley in the fall.

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).

Allison Levine, Please The Palate

Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers is a Q&A series profiling Wine Writers. I expect you’ll discover more about wine writers that 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 and review our wines. What better way to obtain media coverage than to learn their wine and writing backgrounds, story and personal interests, palate preferences, writing challenges and pet peeves. This is also part of an ongoing series that is being featured monthly by Wine Industry Network. Last month’s interview featured Melanie Ofenloch, Dallas Wine Chick and other wine publications.

ALLISON LEVINE is owner of Please The Palate, a boutique agency specializing in event planning for the wine and spirits industry. She also holds a WSET Level 3 Certificate from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET), an Italian Wine Specialist Diploma from the North American Sommelier Association, a Certified Meeting Professional Certificate (CMP), and is BarSmarts Wired certified.

As a freelance writer, Allison is a columnist for the Napa Valley Register, as well as a regular contributor to California Winery Advisor. She is the host of the podcast WineSoundtrack USA, interviewing winemakers and winery owners who share their stories, insights and some humorous anecdotes. Her work has also appeared in Wine Industry Advisor, ATOD Magazine, Drizly, WineTouristMagazine, Thrillist, LA Weekly, LAPALME Magazine, BIN (Beverage Industry News), FoodableTV, Drink Me Mag, WeSaidGoTravel.com, Wine Country This Week and The Tasting Panel.

You can follow Allison on Facebook and Twitter, and read her stories on her blog: https://pleasethepalate.com/blog/

Professional Background

How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?

Wine became part of my everyday life when I lived in Italy shortly after college. I lived in a small town in Piemonte. While the town I lived in is the rice capital of Italy, it was surrounded by all of the great regions of the area. At the time, I did not know this, but I was drinking Dolcetto, Barbera, Nebbiolo and, of course, Brachetto, on a daily basis. When I returned to the U.S., I moved to Washington DC for grad school. I decided to go to a wine tasting one night and left more confused than I started.

I moved back to Los Angeles and a friend of a friend taught wine classes as a hobby. I started attending them, bringing friends with me each time. And then I got laid off from the dot.com world when the bubble burst in 2001. With lots of time on my hands, and a background in marketing communications and event planning, I offered to help the friend build his hobby into a business. I never looked back.

I have run a wine education company focused on consumers; I have sold wine for an importer/distributor; I worked for a wine critic, doing marketing and events for the wine trade. Throughout it all, I have been on a personal quest to learn anything I can about wine. After writing a lot of research papers, I had never thought about writing about wine. But, at one job, I helped launch a national trade magazine and began writing for them.

When I launched my own business in 2011, I decided to start a blog to share my experiences. Since friends always asked me where to eat or drink and where to go, I thought it was easier to write down what I was doing. I focused on my blog and would occasionally write for a couple trade magazines and along my travels, I have met some editors. Through casual conversations, I pitched a few story ideas and began writing for other outlets.

What are your primary story interests?

I am an experiential writer and I think that people connect with the stories more than wine notes. One of my great passions is exploring different cultures. I got my Masters’ Degree in International Communications with a focus on Cross-Cultural Training. While did not pursue a career in cross-cultural training, I love that I get to interact with people around the world. Across cultural boundaries, every winery owner or winemaker has a story to share. I like to listen to the stories shared by the people at the winery and get my inspiration for my stories from what I hear.

What are your primary palate preferences?

As I developed my wine palate in Italy, I have a preference for “old world” styles. I prefer lower alcohol, high acid wines. I like minerality and earth. But I am open to trying anything and, in the end, a balanced, well-made wine is always appreciated.

Are you a staff columnist or freelance? What are the advantages of both?

I am a freelance writer. I have a weekly wine column in the Napa Valley Register, but I am not on staff.

Is it possible to make a living as a wine writer today? If so, how have you succeeded? If not, why not? What are the primary challenges you face?

I do not think it is possible to make a living exclusively as a wine writer. My primary job is working with wine regions to organize trade events. Writing is something that I enjoy doing on the side, although at times I think it consumes a lot of my time.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

I am a third generation Los Angeleno, on both sides. A real unicorn! I am also a third-generation flautist, following in the footsteps of my grandma and mom who were/are both professionals. My mom and I play in a band at our synagogue. The band only plays together once a year, but we have been doing it for 18 years!

What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your wine writing?

I hope that I am able to open up the world of wine to people. I hope that the stories I share inspire people to try to wine, go to new places and be open to the world of wine. There is so much out there and I think it is great to be open to everything and anything.

If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing? 

I am lucky to be doing what I love for a living. I organize events for wine regions around the US, I travel around the US and internationally to write about wine and I have a podcast in which I interview winemakers and winery owners, another great way to share their stories. I cannot imagine doing anything else, unless I could just travel the world full time.

How would you like the wine community to remember you?

I plan to continue to work in the wine community for a long time still. But ultimately, I hope people remember me for my joy for life, my love for meeting people and my excitement for travel and exploration. And I hope it is infectious.

Writing Process

Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews?

I love sharing the stories of people and places. I do not think anyone really cares what I think of a wine, although I do include my notes on wines, because everyone has a different palate. I hope that when people read my stories, they are inspired to learn more and taste for themselves.

Do you work on an editorial schedule or develop story ideas as they come up?

I am an event planner by day, so organization is my middle name. I keep a weekly list of tasks, listed by project. Each event I am working on, the story ideas I have developed and which outlet they are for and the podcast are all written out weekly. I schedule dates and try to stay ahead of myself as I have a lot of content. But there are always new stories to add to my daily lists.

How often do you write assigned and paid articles (not your blog)? How often do you blog?

Ideally, I write 3 original blog posts per week, plus repost my other articles on my blog as well. I also write a weekly wine column for the Napa Valley Register. The stories I write for other outlets are usually 1 or 2 per month, or as assigned.

Do you post your articles on social media? Why is that important?

Absolutely!  I hope to reach as many people as possible.

Do you consider yourself an Influencer? What’s the difference today between a writer and an influencer in your opinion?

I do not like the term “influencer”, at least how it is used today. I think influencers are defined by quantity and writers are defined by quality.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

Please do not send samples without warning and always include tech sheets and any other info. It is fair to ask if there may be coverage one time, but there is never a guarantee. And, sending unsolicited samples is not a guarantee of coverage.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

I have developed many relationships with winery publicists. The relationship is such an important part of our industry. There is better communication and openness when there is a relationship. There is an understanding from both sides…the publicist understands what I am looking for and what I need and can be honest with me about their needs and goals.

Leisure Time

If you take days off, how do you spend them? 

Luckily one of the things I love to do is eat and drink and that is a requirement of my work. I also love to travel, which is also part of my work. My work and my lifestyle are intertwined. But I make free time to swim, run errands and some personal care. I go to the theater and enjoy chilling in front of the tv when I need a break. I love spending time with my family, especially my nephew and niece who I am crafting into young foodies.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

I have been blessed to have more than one memorable wine tasting experiences. On a trip to France with an importer, we were visiting different properties in different regions each day. Standing in the cellars of Champagne Gosset was a dream come true. I had always dreamed about touching the chalk walls and when a few pieces crumbled into my hand, I stuck them in my pocket. Today they sit in a little bag on my desk. That was the culmination of the trip until they surprised us with a visit to Domaine de la Romanee Conti. A quick, unexpected visit turned into a 2-hour visit in the cellar, tasting the entire 2016 vintage in barrel. A once in a lifetime experience.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world?

The next one I visit!!! Seriously, there are too many to choose from. Piemonte will always have the most special place in my heart. Madeira is one of the most magical islands. New Zealand might be one of the most beautiful places in the world because everywhere you look is better than the next. Santorini, Greece was one of the most unique. I would love to go back to every region I have visiting and there are so many more still to explore.

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).

Melanie Ofenloch, Dallas Wine Chick

Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers is a Q&A series profiling Wine Writers. I expect you’ll discover more about wine writers that 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 and review our wines. What better way to obtain media coverage than to learn their wine and writing backgrounds, story and personal interests, palate preferences, writing challenges and pet peeves. This is also part of an ongoing series that is being featured monthly by Wine Industry Network. Last month’s interview featured Michelle Williams, who writes for Forbes, Snooth, USA Today and may more consumer lifestyle publications.

MELANIE OFENLOCH is the founder and editor of Dallas Wine Chick, a blog focused on the experience of wine, which has been named in the top 100 global wine blogs by two separate entities.  She also has been named LUX Magazine’s Top Wine Blog in Texas and is a guest contributor to Snooth.

You can read her stories at www.dallaswinechick.com, and follow her on Twitter @dallaswinechick, Instagram @dallaswinechick and Facebook @Dallas-Wine-Chick

Professional Background

How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?  

It all comes down to a simple thing. I didn’t want to be known as “Sleepy Bill” at work.  Back in the early days of my career, we had an executive vice president named Bill who sat in his office and read the Wall Street Journal.  None of us ever saw him do work.  Fast forward about 12 years, and I sat with the same title working for Weber Shandwick.  With social media exploding.  I knew I had to “get it to get it” and I signed up for a Twitter account (under the generic @melanie) and stumbled my way through using it.  After 45 days of posting my random musings on marketing I realized I had only 60 followers, most of them worked for me, I decided to switch to writing about my passion – wine.  I jokingly told my husband when I hit 1,600 followers on Twitter, I’d start a blog.  That was 9 years ago in January.

What are your primary story interests? 

When it comes down to it, it’s simply about telling my story of wine. I don’t consider myself a wine expert – just an everyday person with a love for the grape. I am not a sommelier, winery owner, wine marketer or wine expert.  But I love to tell stories – so if it’s about a winemaker or a vineyard or a family or a special wine, that is in my wheelhouse.

What are your primary palate preferences?

That’s such an interesting question.  Like with food and the seasons, my palate is constantly changing.  It depends on the food I’m eating, where I am traveling and the shifting of the weather (especially in 100 degree Texas).  I used to love big reds, but I’ve found that today I am leaning toward wines with higher acidity and lower alcohol content.  I’m always on a journey to find new things from new regions.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I am the Fight of the Night recipient the first year that women could box in the Golden Gloves in 1994. I started boxing on a bet from my then fiancé (now husband) that told me that I was too much of a wimp to start boxing (he says he was joking) … and well, just don’t double dog dare me J

What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your wine writing? 

Wine is fun. It’s a journey and experience. It’s about raising a glass with friends. It shouldn’t be intimidating.  Just smile.  Enjoy.

What’s the best story you have written? Please provide a link.

In 9 years, I’ve had the opportunity to interview some amazing people. While I’ve had several opportunities to interview Peter Mondavi, Jr., this year was special with it being the winery’s 75th anniversary where I was lucky enough to attend a retrospective tasting and then had a follow up visit to the winery, https://www.dallaswinechick.com/generations-in-a-glass-celebrating-the-75th-anniversary-of-charles-krug-winery/

How would you like the wine community to remember you?

With the recent passing of my friend and blogger (Brix Chicks Liza) Liza Swift, this is a question that weighs on my mind. I hope people remember me for my humor, my sense of fun and my ability to go rogue. I hope they remember my passion for wine, my loyalty to my friends and readers and how much fun I had in this journey. And, I hope they remember me for being a great mom and wife.

Writing Process

Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews?

My approach to wine writing is how can I tell a story differently. There are great critics out there – another one isn’t needed. While I do periodic sample reviews (about 6 per year), that isn’t my focus. I really want to give a close up, behind the scenes view in my stories.

Do you work on an editorial schedule or develop story ideas as they come up? 

I develop story ideas as they come up. Dallas is a hotbed for winemaker visits and I usually see at least three a month. Throw in the Twitter and Snooth tastings, winery seminars and press trips and that gives me great base content.

Do you post your articles on social media? Why is that important? 

Yes. I find that is a great driver of not only extending the reach of my articles but increasing engagement with a number of different audiences. I find all of my social channels – Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest have different audiences and there is not as much crossover as you would think.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists? 

Please ask to send samples before sending them. I can’t tell you how many boxes just show up that I never expected to receive. Please check addresses when you are sending.  I left my last job almost four years ago and samples are still coming to that address. And finally, please send spec sheets and your contact information. I contact every winery that sends me a sample to let them know if it will or will not be featured. It would be fantastic if I didn’t have to track down your information.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists? 

I love working with great winery publicists. They always ask about samples, they always include the spec sheets and I know how to contact them with questions. A good PR person is worth their weight in gold.

What frustrates you most about working on winery stories and/or wine reviews? 

See question number 11. I’ll add not being able to get an answer to a question for a story that I’m working on in a timely fashion.

Leisure Time

If you take days off, how do you spend them? 

As someone that owns their own marketing consulting business, that’s a hard task. I love to travel, I work out daily and love to spend time with my family. You are likely to find me on a beach with a glass of wine in hand if I have my way.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience? 

I would have to say my first solo winemaker sit down for the blog came over a casual Mexican lunch in Dallas. I set up lunch with the head of marketing of Mollydooker who I had been communicating with on Twitter. She told me there’d be some others attending and they’d meet me at Gloria’s. Naively, I didn’t ask who else would be coming and assumed it would be a larger team of PR and marketing folks from Mollydooker and maybe a few folks from the Texas distributor.

I was wrong.  When I arrived at the restaurant, I noticed a team of three people in branded Mollydooker shirts bearing bottles of their top labels. As I got closer, I realized that aside from Krissy, none other than Sparky Marquis, co-owner and winemaker and his mum, Janet were joining us. He told me the story behind the story of the winery … being down to their last $17, asking the growers to forego payment and how Robert Parker almost missed the meeting that saved the winery.   https://www.dallaswinechick.com/mollydooker-the-story-behind-the-story/

What’s your favorite wine region in the world?

Tuscany.  Need I say more?

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).

Michelle Williams Interview

Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers is a Q&A series profiling Wine Writers. I expect you’ll discover more about wine writers that 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 and review our wines. What better way to obtain media coverage than to learn their wine and writing backgrounds, story and personal interests, palate preferences, writing challenges and pet peeves. This is also part of an ongoing series that is being featured monthly by Wine Industry Network. Last month’s interview featured Joe Roberts, 1 Wine Dude, who has written for many consumer and industry national publications including Playboy Magazine, and has one of the longest lived and prolific wine review sites in the U.S.

MICHELLE WILLIAMS is based in Dallas, Texas. Michelle is an award-wining freelance writer of wine, food, and travel. She has been named one of the 15 Most Influential People in Wine, and her work appears in numerous publications, including Forbes, Snooth, The Daily Meal, and USA Today’s 10Best Eat, Sip, Trip, Hook & Barrel Magazine, Plano Profile Magazine, and Basil & Salt Magazine. As a passionate wine geek, Michelle travels extensively to wine regions around the globe in search of the story inside the glass.

You can follow Michelle on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and read her stories on Rockin Red Blog and Forbes.

Professional Background

How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?

I began drinking wine in my early 20’s. Like many, I started with boxed wine and white Zinfandel. Several of my girlfriends invited me to a wine pairing dinner at a brewery in downtown Dallas. This Kendall Jackson event was my introduction to wine and food pairings. I was sold and been an oenophile ever since.

My entry into wine writing is much longer. I was completing my master’s degree and entering a discernment period of whether or not to continue into a PhD program. Thanks to a professor insisting our class join Twitter I had already become an active member of the online wine community. As graduation loomed, I was approached by a couple of wineries asking if they could send me samples to review. Review? Where? How? I did not know what to do. My Millennial daughter suggested I start a blog. Although I knew nothing about blogging and did not read any blogs I knew I needed to keep writing during my discernment period so I followed her advice. The blog, Rockin Red Blog, took off, and the rest, as they say, is history.

What are your primary story interests?

My primary story interests are wine, food as it pairs with wine, and travel.

What are your primary palate preferences?

I have an “old world” style palate, preferring to drink wines of restraint with balanced fruit and earth qualities. When able I opt for well aged wines with tertiary notes, over young wines. I have a cellar to prove it.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

Very little, I suppose.

What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your writing about wine?

I would like readers to learn not to be intimidated by branching out and trying new wines. We all fall into wine ruts, but the world of wine is vast and there are so many great wines available in all price ranges. I would also love it if readers would embrace online wine purchasing, either through retailers or direct to wineries. Distribution and shipping laws in US are not consumer friendly, buying wines online is a great way to branch out. Get your friends together, place an order, and split the shipping costs. There is much to explore.

If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing? 

I love to teach and at one point was strongly considering a PhD. If I were not writing about wine, I would be teaching it. As the Texas Brand Ambassador for Franciacorta, I am afforded the opportunity to provide some wine education. I really enjoy it. Perhaps someday, I will take on a larger role in wine education.

Writing Process

Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews?

I see myself more as a storyteller than a wine reviewer. I seek out the story inside the glass to provide the reader with a personal connection. Wine is not just a beverage, it is real people engaging in challenging work, when, more often than not, they could be making a better living doing something else. It is a labor of love, I want readers to see beyond the beverage in a glass into the people, history, culture, place, etc.

Although I am WSET Advanced certified, I prefer not to critique wine. I provide my tasting notes and let the reader decide if it sounds interesting. I save the scoring for someone else, it does not interest me.

Do you work on an editorial schedule or develop story ideas as they come up?

I am highly organized – an editorial calendar is a must. My current calendar runs six months in advance. However, since I control it, there is room for flexibility.

How often do you write assigned and paid articles (not your blog)? How often do you blog?

I write at least five articles each month for Forbes, between six and ten a year for Snooth, and freelance additional articles for a variety of digital and print publications as I am able and/or assigned. I try to add original content to Rockin Red Blog at least twice a month. I wish I could write more for the blog, but I currently don’t have the bandwidth for it. I do share all my other articles on the blog, as well.

Do you post your articles on social media? Why is that important?

It is important to reach as broad an audience as possible.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

Ask before sending samples and don’t expect coverage because you sent samples or provided a trip to your winery. Wineries/publicists often have very different wants and expectations than editors, but the writer works for the editor. Personally, I don’t want follow up emails asking if I am going to write about something, pitching me article ideas, etc. I am a professional, I do what I can, when I can, as it fits with my editorial calendar, my readers, and my editor.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

The publicist knows more about marketing and often communicates well with the journalist, I am thankful to work with many great PR agencies, but this is not always the case. There are many lazy publicists.

Which wine personalities would you like to meet/taste with (living or dead)?

Meeting Jancis Robinson would be amazing. Her work is paramount to my wine education.

Leisure Time

If you take days off, how do you spend them? 

As a wife and mother, many of my days off are spent doing chores and errands, or spending time with my family and friends. Not glamorous. As much as I travel on wine research trips, my favorite way to spend my free time is traveling with my husband. I have an unquenchable thirst to experience the world and he is my best travel companion.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

This is an impossible question for me to answer. I am blessed to travel to some of the world’s greatest wine regions, as such, I have had a bounty of memorable wine tasting experiences. To list one or two would diminish all of them.

Pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner.

Easy, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Both allow for bubbles as well as still wine, and as still they both are crafted into a wide variety of expressions. They are both food friendly, and Pinot Noir would also allow me to enjoy Rosé.

 

Does Media Coverage Help Me Sell Wine?

The Ultimate Question. The Ultimate Answer?

The only question more difficult than this one for a publicist is “Show me exactly how much wine I sold as a result of the media coverage you obtained for us”.

I was on the phone with a longtime client recently, and received a question I didn’t expect – Does media coverage help us sell wine? – It’s a difficult and broad discussion, and there are so many ways to respond, so instead I deferred and asked “Maybe you can be more specific”?

Let me give this a shot. Generally speaking I would say yes, although it’s difficult to quantify. But I think the question could more appropriately be – Does media coverage encourage consumers to buy wine from us eventually? – as I don’t think there is an instant and direct correlation (with the possible exception of 94+ point scores in Spectator and a few other high end publications) between media hits and selling wine. The reason for this is that people buy from brands they trust and have experienced. Short of that, consumers rely on 3rd party expert opinions to justify their purchases and loyalty. Readers respect writer’s opinions, much as they trust selected wine shop’s palates to guide their purchases.

Media coverage is one aspect of a comprehensive marketing program, and if you aren’t getting media endorsements – articles, reviews, scores – about your winery and wines, it creates an additional barrier to entry for consumers as they have too much choice and information to sort through these days. So yes, media coverage helps new customers discover your brand and wines, which should eventually lead to sales. The point is staying top of mind, and when the time is right and someone is ready to buy you should reap the harvest (couldn’t resist that analogy).

Andy Perdue of Great Northwest Wine says “ I ask wineries featured in my Seattle Times column what kind of consumer feedback they got, and it ranges from a few calls and sales to the phone ringing off the hook, and a ton of sales and wine club signups. I also get feedback from wine shop owners mentioning upticks in sales when the column comes out. And if I review a wine that is difficult to find or happens to be sold out, I hear about it from the consumer.” Andy’s partner Eric Degerman adds that “Wineries can do themselves a favor by quoting and linking back to reviews of wines. Sharing on social media is important. And promoting a post for $20 will often get a lot of good reactions from consumers.”

Tracking the impact of an article via website analytics is worth the effort but tricky. You can correlate spikes of traffic within 7-10 days of an article or magazine review, but it is anecdotal at best. How many readers signed up for your email list after reading an article or review? What about Social Media follows and engagement? You can track these pre-sales actions, but you can’t track sales as easily. However, you now can market directly to those new subscribers, resultant from the media coverage, and hopefully eventually sell them wine. It is an ongoing process and requires vision and patience.

Online articles about your brand are directly track-able when linked back to the winery’s site. If you place a related ad, you can use promo codes for readers of those publications. You know exactly how many visitors came from that coverage because of the unique link or code, and if they purchased.

There are other potential results of media coverage to consider – What about retail store purchases? The wine shop or restaurant customer sees your winery on the list, and recognizes the brand, somehow. Maybe they don’t know from where or why but feel comfortable making a purchase because of some previous media impression. So no, media coverage doesn’t typically directly sell wine, but it greases the skids and removes barriers to enable new customer to find you and purchase your products.

That’s all fine and good and understood, but here is an even tougher question from said client – How do we get the writer’s audience to take action, i.e. to buy our wines? Should the writer be promoting wines that they like to their readers?

This brings us into the cutting edge realm of “Influencer Marketing” which is a hybrid of earned media and advertising, and includes both “they” (the writers) and “we” (the winery) promoting action. Where we want to be extremely careful is not to be perceived as collaborating with writers on advertorials like certain wine travel magazines offer, because people are savvy to that, and professional writers and reviewers lose credibility. There are writers for hire that are more focused on billings than investigative journalism that you can approach to promote your brand.

So how do we get THEIR readers to take action? – It is not the writers’ job to sell your wine as this is conflict of interest for any objective journalist. It is your job to leverage their content in your marketing.  See my article on using media coverage in your content marketing.

One way to leverage articles and reviews is to advertise on their site, place a banner ad or pay for a review. Take a look at Catherine Fallis’ Planet Grape website as an example – upper right hand corner are banner ads. Consumers will hopefully click, which could lead to sales. There are many other ways to pay-to-play with wine reviewers such as The Sommelier Company who will review your wines for a fee. I don’t believe the paid nature influences the actual score, although this always depends on the integrity of the reviewer or publication.

Another example are video reviewers who are paid to review wines, and will say nice and positive things, and post the video on YouTube and their social sites exposing your brand to their followers. I am also actively talking to other influencers in the wine, food and travel industries, and other outlets about doing the same. I think this is a better, superior option to simply running static print ads, and should be part of an overall advertising budget. Vetting the source, type of consumers and marketing program is a must before dedicating advertising dollars to any project.

In the end, no winery can afford not to do all the things that generate sales – either directly or indirectly – including marketing, PR and paid advertising (including Influencer marketing). It’s just too competitive out there and consumers have too much choice.

I think most of you inherently know this, so hopefully this article offers some points of clarification on the topic. Bottom line – Wineries will get more out of media coverage when they put more into it after it’s published. Please comment or email and let me know your thoughts.

Kudos to one of my long time client for continuing to ask the tough questions. You know who you are!

CARL GIAVANTI is Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s going on his 8th 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).

 

‘PASSION’ SHOULD NOT BE A NOUN BUT A VERB

By Alan Goldfarb

So, Mr. Doclawyer, I’ll be conducting this interview so that we can tease out your winery’s story so that we’ll be able to entice some poor schnook of a wine writer out there to pay attention to your wines, even though there are a million others out there like you and yours.

May I call you by your first name? Do you go by Robert or Bob?

Here goes: What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of what it is you’re trying to achieve here; and to separate yourself from the ocean of wine that is getting higher (and not just due to climate change)?

Oh, I see… You have “passion”. Should I write that with two or three exclamation points? Passion. I’m so glad you used that word because it tells me something about yourself and your, well passion. So, does that mean that you have devotion to the business of wine? Or maybe it’s fervor? Would enthusiasm get it? Are you enraptured with wine? Or are you enchanted, infatuated, or is it that you merely adore wine?

Because I want to tell you Bob, I’d like to have a sawbuck for e-v –e-r-y winery owner who tells me he’s got p-a-s-s-i-o-n. The fact that you have passion is the oldest cliché in the annals of wine clichés. And the media – at least those that pay attention– have had it up to here. And so have I.

Do you think I want to read, yet again, from that wonderful muckraker Ron Washam – the blogger who calls himself The HoseMaster of Wine – excoriate us flacks that he’ll never again drink a passionate vintner’s wines if the producer uses the P-word again? I’ve long before The HoseMaster wrote about it, tried to break the yolk of platitudes in my clients.

The point is Mr. Vintner or Mr. Doclawyer or Ms. Technick, mean what you say and don’t spout all that overused, hackneyed pile of arble-garble such as “wines are made in the vineyard” or my wines are “balanced” and “we practice minimalist winemaking”. Chances are none of these vacuous words have much meaning, especially as they pertain to your wine. It’s like using “natural” or “sustainable”. They’ve been used so many times, for the purpose of making things sound better than they actually are, they’ve become useless.

But more important, it is my job as your publicist, your representative – to instruct you and to offer you alternatives to this tired, empty jargon, signifying nothing.

When you declare that your wines are made in the vineyard, prove it. Prove that you do nothing else to the grapes in the cellar but squeeze the juice – gently, of course. Prove that there’s minerality in your wines by explaining why and pinpointing those aromas and tastes. When you talk of your terroir, tell me how that manifests in my glass. Can I taste the wind? Is there evidence of your obsidian-laced soil?

Finally, really show me your passion; don’t tell about it. From here on, passion is not a word that lays there like a lox without substance. If you’re going to be my client, passion is no longer a noun, but a verb; as actionable evidence. I want you to cry in your vineyard, the way the late great André Tchelistcheff once did one afternoon when he stood in front of me in the Beaulieu Pinot Noir vineyard in the Carneros, holding a wind-ravaged broken shoot in his hand.

Or, when Josh Jensen had me smell the limestone in his vineyard in one of his Calera vineyards in the Gavilan Mountains of central California. I really did taste the white chalk in his Pinots. And when loveable crazyman Gary Pisoni almost killed me as he raced me around his property in his beat up, open-topped green jeep; all the while pointing out the nooks and crannies of his Pisoni vineyard, while in the other hand, he held a blunt.

Now, that was passion. That was real. That was exciting and in every case, those ethereal moments manifested in the glass. These men made wines of passion, idiosyncrasy, and difference. They all did so well in the marketplace because the media gathered around them like the flocks of seagulls that hover over the SF Giants’ ballpark every night.

So, as a publicist – while it’s easy to tell the stories of these dream clients – it’s my challenge to show the world that you too, Mr. Stockbroker, really do possess the passion to transfer your zeal and bravado into your wine. Only then and with that, will your wines be truly unique and recognized.

Get to Know Your Wine Blogger: They’re the New Media

By Alan Goldfarb

We in the wine public relations trade are witnessing the evolution of how we conduct our business. As liaisons between the wine industry and the nation’s media, many of us are realizing that we have to change the way we engage with writers and radio hosts; while identifying who those entities are. As the influence of the Wine Spectators and the Wine Advocates of the world begin to erode, it’ll take hard work to put eyeballs on your wine because wine writing and communication is entangled in an amorphous and ever-expanding sphere. Woe be it to those that don’t try to rein that world in and comprehend it. Otherwise, you’ll be left in the ashes as your brand tries to gain traction with the media, as concurrently wineries are running in place in the miasma of brand proliferation.

When my partner, Carl Giavanti and I began our media relations consultancy a few years ago, we boasted of a database (our strongest asset after our media relationships) comprised of about 800 media members – 75 percent of which were traditional print or broadcast radio people. Today, that list has grown to approximately 1,200 names – 65 percent we estimate, is made up of online writers , aka wine bloggers. What an unfolding development.

With that in mind; as well as intuitively understanding that online/blogging media members are rapidly and exponentially becoming our target audience, we set out in July for Buellton, north of Santa Barbara, for the Wine Bloggers Conference or as it’s known in the blogosphere, WBC.

That’s right, wine bloggers, for the last seven years, have been gathering in ever-increasing numbers in various wine regions for an annual confab where they meet and greet, listen to tales of how to conduct their craft (or hobby, as is often the case), and engage with each other in speed dating-like sessions in which tastings of wine – within about 15-second windows – are tweeted to anyone in the world who might be out there. The WBC, I suppose, enables wine bloggers to feel a part of something bigger than themselves, to revel in like-minded camaraderie, and to give a sort of legitimacy to their endeavors.

To those of us flack types; it was an arena in which 250 wine writers were gathered in the same place for three days with almost unfettered accessibility, to engage these new-world media members. The idea was to put a face in front of and to build relationships with those writers with the hopes that they’ll post something, sometime, about our clients.

Additionally, it was another opportunity for us – and the astute half-dozen or so other winery PR consultants who were also there working the room – to vett the writers in order to separate the more serious types from the hobbyists. The latter obviously have realized that writing a word here or there about wine, which is not larded with monetary rewards, does come with extraordinary perks. Or, as I witnessed at one seminar in which a professional blogger — who by a show of hands saw that no one(!) in the room was making a living writing about wine — suggested there were other ways to line one’s pockets. To which about half the participants, in unison and sotto voce giggled, “W-i-n-e”. Meaning: the opportunity to receive abundant free samples of wine. The requisite apparently, was to post a few words once in a while – sometimes superficially or lacking in original thought – in order to have samples delivered to one’s door.

That’s part of why it’s so difficult to know which writers will bring your winery the most rewards and why it’s imperative to try and grasp who is doing what on the vast Internet. Carl and I go through an arduous series of vetting protocols and hierarchies to understand with which writers we want to put our clients and their wines together.

It’s a Sisyphus’s task to collect any real data on how much traffic a writer’s blog or site attracts. Numbers from multiple sources vary wider than a pitcher’s curveball. But if one is paying attention and digs deep into where a blogger may have some penetration, a pattern emerges as to whose stories, reviews, and mentions have meaning.

How many people read Justgimmethewine.com? Does I’mawinebloggerandyou’renot.com have impact? Does IknowwhatI’mtalkinabout.com know what they’re talking about? They most decidedly don’t have the cachet and gravitas of Jim Laube or Robert Parker and while it would be folly to ignore those arbiters of wine, the websites and blogs of a rapidly growing and important new kind of media – collectively – are too many to dismiss. In fact, you now must embrace them, nurture them, and realize – this is the future and they’re fast becoming the present of what constitutes wine media in the nascent stages of the 21st century.

I saw one of these bloggers at WBC shopping for dresses and shoes online while three seasoned (read: traditional print writers) tried to impart their wisdom on the new media members in the room; while another leaned over to me to comment, “It’s time to move on” in an admonishment of traditional journalism. This is our new reality.

Amateur wine writers might be proliferating faster than krill, while bloggers who choose to dismiss journalistic wine history, are commonplace and often shallow, there is a small cadre of worthwhile bloggers who are emerging. You would be remiss to discount an opportunity to engage with them.
Get to know the new online wine media; and love them. You’ll sell more wine.

ALAN GOLDFARB has been on both sides of the media-relations aisle, first as a 25-year wine journalist, and now as a winery media relations consultant. His writing has appeared in Decanter, Wine Enthusiast, and he was the wine editor at the St. Helena Star in the Napa Valley where that assignment was not unlike covering Catholicism at the Vatican.

Alan is partnered with Carl Giavanti (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media) in their winery media relations consultancy. Their clients are or have been in Napa Valley, the Carneros, Dry Creek Valley, Willamette Valley, and Columbia Valley.