Allen Meadows, Burghound

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.

Allen Meadows’ Burghound.com was the first of its kind to offer specialized, and more importantly, exhaustive coverage of a specific wine region/grape and pioneered the on-line format. This highly respected and critically acclaimed quarterly publication has subscribers in more than 64 countries and nearly all 50 states and provides coverage of Burgundy, Champagne and U.S. Pinot Noir. Meadows has released two important must-have reference books, The Pearl of the Côte – the Great Wines of Vosne-Romanée, and, along with co-author Doug Barzelay, Burgundy Vintages – A History from 1845. Meadows also released the Burgundy Essentials Audio series, a nearly 10-hour, 7-part program created specifically for all wine lovers, from the casual wine enthusiast to the seasoned pro.  This 3-year project-in-the-making was expressly designed to demystify what is a highly complex and even intimidating wine region yet enhance the knowledge of those already well-immersed in their Burgundy education. For more info visit www.Burghound.com

You can follow Allen on Facebook and read his reviews on www.Burghound.com

Professional Background

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

Wine was always on the table when I was young as we lived in France for 4 years when I was a child and my father picked up the custom then and continued it throughout his life. As such, it was almost natural to be interested in wine from the time I was a young adult.  As to wine writing, it followed naturally after developing a passion for fine wine during my grad school days, which lead to “blogging” in wine chatrooms in the 80s before the term even existed back in the infancy of AOL.  I enjoyed the exchange with wine collectors as well as writing about wines in my free time.

Why the focus on Burgundy and Pinot Noir?

While I spent a one-year dalliance with Bordeaux when I first began to be seriously interested in wine in my early 20s, it was Burgundy that was the first wine that really moved me so profoundly that immediately after grad school graduation, I felt compelled to visit the region and see the people and place that had created such magnificence. A few years later I had similar experiences with the brilliant pinots crafted by Burt Williams and Ed Selyem. Other than a few “side trips” with German Riesling, Port and Champagne, Burgundy and US pinot have been my primary focuses.  These wines deliver a unique drinking experience, as well as an intellectual one, that can also be emotionally thrilling.

Is it possible to make a living as a wine writer today? If so, how have you succeeded? What are the primary challenges and hurdles you face?

It depends of course on what you call a living, but it is, to be completely frank, difficult. There is no shortage of competition plus there is plenty of information available on the web for free. Moreover, with each passing year, there are fewer wine specific publications so they do not need to pay much to aspiring writers for articles. As a result, freelancing is a tough slog if one is trying to be an independent and completely self-supporting wine journalist like myself.

If you’re going to work for an existing publication, it’s necessary to have unassailable expertise and the ability to communicate your conclusions about wines in a way that readers can relate. The information provided also has to have real perceived value. For example, I doubt that “Zinfandel-Hound” would work as a concept because the cost of a mistake isn’t high enough to induce a sufficient number of consumers to pay to avoid the risk. No one likes to spend even small amounts on bad wine but would you pay for information about Zinfandel or other inexpensive wines? Probably not. Consequently, regions such as Burgundy, Piedmont, Bordeaux and Champagne are about the only ones that might reasonably support a narrowly focused publication. And I need hardly add that there is already no shortage of coverage for these regions.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

Probably that my education background is in finance rather than journalism and that I spent 25 years working in that sector before I launched a second career in wine.

What haven’t you done, that you’d like to do?

I would like to have had more time to devote to writing books. The journalistic side of Burghound is extremely time consuming, at least when you provide the detailed quarterly journals we do at Burghound, as well as the fact that I spend nearly six months a year in Burgundy visiting each producer personally.  That doesn’t leave much spare time for other projects. I love to write and even though I have written two well-received books, the Pearl of the Côte – The Great Wines of Vosne-Romanée and Burgundy Vintages – A History from 1845 (the latter one co-authored), I am eager to write more.

Writing Process

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

A friend of mine once said, admittedly simplistically, that there are two types of critics: adjectivists and structuralists. He meant that there are those who describe wines, typically with lots of adjectives, the aromas of this or that and whether they like it or not. By contrast, structuralists tend to focus on the acid/fruit/tannin (for reds) balance. I am in the second camp as the primary aromas of a young wine won’t be there when it is finally ready to drink a mature wine. I believe that this approach is more useful to the collectors that I mainly write for. With that said, I still provide a lot of descriptions as people need to have a good sense of what they’re buying, particularly as expensive as the best burgs and pinots are today.

Also, my approach is unique because I do not review wines at En Primeur (or trade) tastings, since most serious Burgundy collectors know that those samples are not always representative of the final wines.    I choose to take the methodical route, going from cave to cave and tasting  carefully and at the right time with the vignerons – not a “line ‘em up and knock ‘em down” approach.  This is why I spend nearly six months a year in Burgundy tasting grower by grower.  And no wine is reviewed if it has not yet finished its malos because there is an enormous likelihood that a wine will radically change and evolve between the pre and post-malo stages.

And finally, we have an established statement of principles and we don’t accept advertising or support of any kind and I pay all my own travel and business expenses.

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

We at Burghound have a quarterly publishing schedule that we rigorously adhere to because readers are highly interested in having timely information on which to base their purchases. And with the most highly sought after and tightly allocated pinots and burgundies, time is very much of the essence. Story ideas are not really a primary focus at Burghound as we have a consistent coverage sequence so the subjects of each issue are largely predetermined. We have a set annual schedule that covers four quarterly issues.  Our issue release schedule is:  January covers the current vintage of reds in barrel in the Côte de Nuits; April covers the current vintage of reds in barrel in the Côte de Beaune; July covers the current vintage of whites in barrel in the Côte d’Or; and our October issue covers the current vintage in barrel in Chablis, Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais.  Many producers during those visits also present the previous vintage in bottle so I am able to provide our subscribers with an updated review of what was previously reviewed in barrel.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

We at Burghound provide no recommendations other than perhaps with respect to background information on the wines reviewed. There are strictly no, to use a term much in vogue these days, quid pro quos or “pay to play” provisos. Nor has there ever been a fee involved with reviewing submitted wines (or getting copies of the reviews) and there never will be.  Integrity is a journalist’s best asset and it is something we protect vigorously.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

At Burghound we employ no publicists and do no advertising, but I definitely think that it can be quite helpful for wineries. I say this because those that we at Burghound deal with do a great job of keeping us informed of important changes, reaching out with pertinent information and generally just being a direct link to the winery’s key constituents.

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

Reaching back in time, it would be fascinating to meet Dr. Jules Lavalle or Camille Rodier for dinner. They were, respectively, among the leading lights of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries for the wines of Burgundy. Somewhat more recently, wine loving authors such as Alexis Lichine, André Simon, George Saintsbury or P. Morton Shand would all be exceptionally interesting to meet. I would like to add that I am in no way slighting the admirable, and considerable, efforts of many more modern scribes, it’s just that I have had the honor of meeting, at one time or another, virtually all of them.

Leisure Time

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

At the risk of sounding excessively obsessive, I rarely take days off, or if I do, it’s a day here or there. Let this be a word to the wise to any aspiring wine writers that this is definitely not a business that tolerates a leisurely approach to the near constant workload augmented by the ever-present publishing deadlines. With that said, wine writing is hardly digging ditches and I genuinely enjoy and am still passionate about what I do, as well as meeting with and learning from producers, and meeting with other wine enthusiasts and subscribers.  But in short, either you’re physically and psychologically built for the grind or you’re not. In October we at Burghound will be celebrating our 20th anniversary and it’s something that we are quite proud of.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

I wrote about this epiphany moment in detail in my first book, The Pearl of the Côte.  It’s a bit like your first kiss or the first time you fall in love. It’s not necessarily (and thankfully so) the best kiss or the best love or the best wine you will ever experience but at that particular moment, it was the best thing imaginable. In my case, it was a 1967 Richebourg from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti drunk in 1978 that was like that first kiss.  And it was purchased for less than $25!

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 12th 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).

Virginie Boone, Wine Enthusiast

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 Lyn Archer, aka L.M. Archer, an international fine wine writer, critic, judge, and curator who covers Burgundy, bubbles, Oregon,  and emerging wine regions.

Virginie Boone reviews and writes about the wines of Napa and Sonoma for Wine Enthusiast Media and is a longtime resident of Sonoma County.

She began her writing career with Lonely Planet travel guides, writing guides to the American South, South America, Northern California and the Loire Valley, which led in a roundabout and perfectly sensible way to California-focused wine coverage for The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Savor Magazine, Sonoma Magazine and others. She is a regular panelist and speaker on wine topics in California and beyond.

You can find and follow Virginie on Facebook , Instagram and Twitter.

Professional Background

How did you come to wine, and to wine writing? I’ve always loved wine, my mom is French and even though she was on a military wife’s budget, we always had wine in the home. But as a writer I came to it via travel writing. My life’s goal was to get paid to travel and so I became a travel writer, working for Lonely Planet guidebooks for many years, as well as my share of startup magazines and websites. I had a travel assignment for Rough Guides I believe, to New England, set to depart my home in Northern California in September 2001. Well, 9-11 happened and everything changed. I did that travel assignment, but it was eerie, landing in Boston 10 days or so after 9-11 to a quiet airport full of heavily armed soldiers. My flight home was delayed because of suspicious graffiti in the bathroom. Soon after I did another guidebook to the Loire Valley (which was amazing), but the travel was again pretty fraught. My husband and I had just moved up to Healdsburg from San Francisco and I thought, why don’t I write about my own backyard, that can be travel, too. Soon enough I was writing a weekly feature on wine for The Press Democrat as a full-time staffer. It was the best education I could have had.

What are your primary story interests? I know a lot of people say it, but I like researching and writing stories about people, how they got into the wine world, what keeps them interested, who do they work with, how do they make it work. A lot of my work involves tasting, scoring and writing reviews, which is much more about the wine than what’s behind it. It’s good to have a balance between this and the bigger narratives about wine. With that, I’m increasingly interested in issues of sustainability, labor and where wine fits into those bigger picture issues. And of course, the travel element around wine is a natural go-to that’s hard to resist.

Are you a staff columnist or freelance? What are the advantages of both? I’m sort of an odd hybrid of both. I am technically an independent contractor, but I work almost exclusively for the Wine Enthusiast and do own a beat, Napa and Sonoma. It’s the best of both worlds most of the time. I work independently but have colleagues all over the world who do what I do. We meet in person as a magazine a couple times a year and of course are otherwise fairly regularly in touch. But I do also like to stretch my wings and write elsewhere, especially if it’s outside of my day-to-day beat and has to do more with travel, teaching, speaking on panels, that sort of thing.

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? Ugh. It’s pretty hard. I feel very fortunate that somehow it’s worked out for me. But I work a lot. Most of it is relatively glamorous, social and amazing, but there are days I’m chucking a car-full of recycling into the bins at the Healdsburg dump, too. I’d say the biggest challenge is the time it takes to do all the things that don’t make money, social media first and foremost among them, but also all the box schlepping, organizing and yes, that recycling.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? That I love wine and all that goes with it, but it’s not my everything. If I wasn’t making a living writing about it I don’t think I’d write about it for free or in my free time. I think about it in the context of a lot of other things, from music to sports to old Hollywood to politics. That said, in addition to being a travel writer and editor in my former life, I once covered the NFL, SF 49ers predominantly, for an ESPN product called Sports Ticker. It was pretty funny. And yes I’ve seen players in the buff.

What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your writing about wine? That it doesn’t have to be a big deal. That doesn’t mean I think people should like shitty wine, or wines made in a cynical way, but that getting into wine means trying lots of things, hopefully traveling along the way, even if it’s nearby and not about how much money a bottle costs. I think we’re turning a corner on wine being a precious commodity that’s too good for most people to have. Even if it’s expensive, it doesn’t have to be exclusive or untouchable.

If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing? I’d be making Ken Burns-like documentaries about old Hollywood stars and jazz musicians.

Writing Process

Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews? Doing wine reviews is the most routinized. We taste blind, so I have an assistant set up flights for me to taste. I typically won’t do more than 12 wines at a time of one variety or more than two flights in a day, especially if I’m tasting at a winery for general information on the same day. Wines are often opened 30-60 minutes before tasting, especially young Cabernets. I’ll go back to a wine several times if it hasn’t opened much on the first taste. I write my notes longhand in a notebook. I have a shorthand only I can understand, plus it’s helpful when there are questions about a vintage or designation. I always trust my notes. By the end of every month those reviews go into a central Wine Enthusiast database and eventually into print or online publication. I taste around 250 wines a month this way and that’s barely keeping up with how much wine is coming in.

Do you work on an editorial schedule and/or develop story ideas as they come up? Wine Enthusiast plans its big features once a year at our summer edit conference. We pitch, they accept or decline, and stories get slotted into every issue, with some wiggle room. Front of book and web stories, that sort of thing, are pitched throughout the year, though increasingly we’re scheduling web stories quite a bit ahead. This is true of other people I write for as well.

Do you post your articles on social media? Why is that important? I try. It depends what it is. The Wine Enthusiast will post from its social media accounts and that usually reaches a much bigger audience of people. But I do think it’s important to get wine stories in front of people who don’t necessarily think they want to read a wine story. That’s where travel, food, people, etc. often come in.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists? Be normal. Nothing wrong with reaching out directly person to person, but do understand what that journalist does, their level of experience and what might interest them. I don’t like spending a lot of time looking at cellars and tank rooms unless it’s pertinent somehow; I also don’t need to taste 50 of your wines at a time, again unless it’s somehow relevant to a bigger story. I don’t need a four-course meal for no reason, nor do I want zero food if we’re tasting 50 of your wines. I’m pretty happy to just walk around a vineyard, grab a sandwich and talk about what you’re up to. It’s fairly simple for me. And this is how a lot of younger, more interesting brands are handling things because they don’t have huge facilities or budgets. Also, say thank you when something good happens, like when you make the cover or top 100 list.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists? I see lots of advantages, from the relationships publicists have built over many years to their understanding of publishing schedules, submission guidelines and general vision of each publication and journalist. Pick wisely and I see only upside. Most publicists I’ve met are positive, energetic and great people-people and that’s worth a lot. I could never do their jobs.

Which wine personalities would you most like to meet and taste with (living or dead)? Not long ago I saw the documentary André, about André Tchelistcheff. I never had the chance to meet him but have met many winemakers who did, and who were mentored by him. He had a fascinating life, one we couldn’t imagine, having to flee Russia and later losing a family farm in France before finding his way to Beaulieu in the Napa Valley. He’s done so much for California wine.

Leisure Time

If you take days off, how do you spend them? It varies. I have a 13-year-old son so it often involves driving him around and hanging out at home. I drive a lot during the week. My husband and I like to cook and entertain. I also like to hike and am lucky to have Annadel, Sugarloaf and Jack London state parks in my backyard. But usually I’m also tasting and writing sometime during those days off.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience? I had the chance to interview this world-famous Japanese musician named Yoshiki a couple years ago. He was one of the founders of this monster metal group called X Japan but is also an amazing classical musician and composer. He has a wine project with Rob Mondavi and Rob was kind enough to make the introduction. The closest I could get to meet him was New York City, where he was making his debut at Carnegie Hall. We sat in the front row and cried our eyes out, it was incredibly moving. Yoshiki has had a very dramatic life and the sadness and grandeur of that is in his music. We said hi back stage, stopped by an after party and went out for Chinese food until the early morning. The next day I interviewed him amidst his legit entourage in a hotel room in Manhattan while it started to snow outside. I’ll never forget it. A fan of Opus One, Yoshiki and Rob’s Cabernet is stellar, too.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world? Tie between Sonoma and Napa.

CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background, 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).