Fred Swan Interview, Fred Swan Wine

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 Rusty Gaffney, aka Prince of Pinot.

Fred is an SF Bay Area-based writer, educator, judge and speaker on wine and spirits. Among the places his writing appears are GuildSomm.com, daily.sevenfifty.com, SOMM Journal, The Tasting Panel, and FredSwan.wine.

He’s been an instructor at the San Francisco Wine School since 2012. Classes he teaches for trade and consumers include CSW, CWAS, FWS, Wine & Beverage Program Management, and Somm Essentials.

Fred’s certifications include WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Sud de France Wine Master, Certified Napa Valley Wine Educator, WSET Level 3 Sake, Certified Sherry Wine Specialist and Level 3 WSET Educator. He has twice been awarded fellowships by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.

You can follow Fred at http://www.fredswan.wine/ and on Facebook @norcalwine and Twitter @norcalwine

Professional Background

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

I gravitated to wine 20 years ago. I’d had exposure to it before, and some relatives in the business, but I’d never paid it much attention. Nor had I the money to buy good wine. But, around 1998, I found myself with a bit more cash and also the need to find a quantity of nice wine for an important party. So I made several tasting visits to Napa Valley and Sonoma County. That whet my appetite.

Around the same time, I found myself traveling more internationally. I had the opportunity to try more European, and then Australian, wines and to visit the producers. Ultimately, I developed a thirst not just for wine, but wine knowledge. I read voraciously and joined too many wine clubs. I attended a lot of events, including at least six Masters of Food & Wine. That exposed me to some of the best wines in the world and gave me the opportunity to chat with proprietors and winemakers.

As my knowledge grew, so did my enthusiasm and my cellar. I also became the go-to guy at my office for advice on wine, wine travel and which wines to pour at company events. Eventually, timing was right for a career change and I jumped at the opportunity. Writing was the way I could contribute immediately. I didn’t have any schooling in winemaking, viticulture, or related fields. I didn’t have the money to buy into a serious wine business. But I’d spent years writing in other fields. So I jumped in with both feet and, at the same time, began studying seriously through WSET.

  1. What are your primary story interests?

There isn’t a particular topic, region or style of story I’m obsessed with. The thing I like best about what I do is spending time with and learning from people in the industry—from winemakers, growers, and proprietors, from cellar hands and pickers. When I’ve been affected by their enthusiasm and learned something that isn’t just a detail, but really changes or enhances my understanding of something, it’s been a good day. What I hope to do in my writing is transfer those enthusiasms and epiphanies to the readers. And I hope to give them a thirst not just for the wine, but for deeper understanding of what’s behind it.

  1. What are your primary palate preferences?

I have very broad tastes and don’t have a strong preference for a particular variety, region or style. But the wines I find most captivating tend to be complex and nuanced with extremely well-balanced alcohol, whatever the actual percentage may be. And I prefer wines, whether fruity or savory, in which the dominant flavors come from vineyard rather than barrel. Great texture and length are important, as is clarity of voice.

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

I’m freelance. I’ve never been a full-time, staff writer, so I can’t speak to the pros and cons of that with authority. But, clearly, staff positions are steadier, typically come with benefits, and allow the writer to focus on research and writing. Certainly, there are meetings, etc., but staff writers don’t need to constantly promote themselves or pitch stories to dozens of other editors. I suspect the downside is potentially being limited to a particular beat, style, word count, and audience.

  1. Is it possible to make a living as a wine writer today? What are the primary challenges and hurdles you face?

It’s clearly possible to make a living writing about wine. People are doing it. But it’s very difficult and few manage to make ends meet through writing alone. The best opportunity for that is with a full-time staff position, or a part-time staff position supplemented with side gigs. And it’s crucial to have a low cost-of-living and/or a spouse with a good job and benefits. High salaries are unheard of, even among staff writers. And, as the media business changes, staff positions are less secure than they used to be. I think even freelancers who have a steady flow of dream assignments are living on the edge, if all they do is write about wine.

Personal Background

  1. What would people be surprised to know about you? 

I went to university (UC Berkeley) in order to study Egyptian archaeology, so I spent my four years studying all things Middle East, ancient and contemporary. I used to be able to read hieroglyphics.

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

That’s a difficult question, because I’m a complexity guy. If you ask me for three things, my tendency is to give five. But, if it has to be just one, I hope I influence people to not be bound or swayed by stereotypes (about regions, varieties, producers) and to approach every bottle of wine with an open mind.

  1. If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing? 
    I suspect I’d still be in some aspect of the consumer electronics industry. I’d be a lot less worried about money, but my blood pressure would be a lot higher.
  2. What’s the best story you have written? Please provide a link.
    I received a ton of positive feedback on the articles I wrote about busting various myths regarding wine production and one I wrote for GuildSomm about a broader view of terroir. https://www.guildsomm.com/public_content/features/articles/b/fred-swan/posts/winemaking-myths and https://www.guildsomm.com/public_content/features/articles/b/fred-swan/posts/terroir

 Writing Process

  1. Can you describe your approach to wine writing or doing wine reviews?

I think there are three aspects to my tasting and reviews: analytic, holistic and aesthetic. I always start tasting with technical analysis, a step-by-step process with very specific characterizations, written in a personal shorthand for speed. While that’s going on, the aesthetic aspects of the wine also make themselves obvious to me. After that, I consider all those things together and see how they flow and/or integrate to create an overall experience or impression. Whenever possible, I re-taste wines, especially reds, over the course of multiple days to see how they evolve with air.

With writing, I like to spend time with the people involved and go as deep as I can to gain a full understanding of what they do and why. I take notes that are as detailed as possible. I rely on my notes for detail later, but impressions and ideas from the discussions in general, and things that are particularly interesting will stick out. The story angle I take will depend on the subject and/or assignment. Sometimes it’s straightforward, sometimes based on a surprising learning, sometimes inspired by a particular quote from the subject.

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

I don’t put together a comprehensive editorial schedule. From time to time, I’ll organize a series of things on the calendar, perhaps for a particular, large project or related to planned travel. Normally though, it’s more spontaneous.

  1. How often do you write assigned and paid articles (not your blog)? How often do you blog?
    It’s varied over time. Right now, I’m trying to post on my own site at least two or three times per week. I write about four paid articles per month. I hope to step that up quite a bit.
  2. Do you post your articles on social media? Why is that important?

I always post them on social, at least on Facebook. The platforms have their pros and cons, but are the best way to start getting the word out in a world where there’s too much content and too little time.

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

I’m certainly an influencer in that I do influence people to try things, whether that be a region or a particular wine. I don’t bill myself as an influencer or make demands based on my ability to influence.

Working Relationships

  1. What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

Most wineries do a pretty good job when I’m on site. The most frequent frustration at wineries is when they want to tell me what I should smell and taste in the wines, or tell me how many points Robert Parker gave them. That may all be useful for consumers, but is, at best, unproductive with journalists/reviewers.

Some wineries make the mistake of not segmenting their contact lists well. Journalists want to receive important news, information about upcoming press events, etc. But they don’t need to get frequent emails selling new releases, or cold calls giving us the hard sell.

  1. What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

That depends on the individuals involved. But publicists are generally better at knowing how to work with writers, what information they need, responding quickly, and being proactive with information.

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

I don’t think this is a pursuit which merits a lot of complaints, nor would people be very sympathetic. Aside from the financial aspects, it’s generally excellent. But, as someone who had a very successful career in marketing and one who needs to gather accurate information quickly, I’m constantly disappointed by winery websites—how difficult they are to navigate, how limited information often is, how often there’s conflicting information, how out of date they often are. It would be of benefit to every winery to focus more energy on creating a fast, easy, informative site that is compelling, but not full of trite fluff or elements that are fun for designers to create, but just get in the consumers’ way.

Leisure Time

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

Days off certainly happen, though I don’t make a point of saying, “I’m not working on X day.” Sometimes it’s due to travel or non-wine things that just need to get done. I spend time with family and friends. I go to a few baseball games and movies. Occasionally I travel to places where wine isn’t the focus.

  1. What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

I’m very fortunate. I’ve had many, incredible and unforgettable wine experiences. This is another one that’s tough to narrow down. I’d probably have to go with a week I spent in Bordeaux back in 2007. I was with a small group on a trip led by a major US retailer. It was one spectacular tasting or meal after another, all with the proprietors. It was inspiring. Not long after, I left the industry I’d been in to go into the wine business.

  1. Pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner
    For that, I’d need wines that work with a variety of foods and are complex, interesting, and evolve in the glass so that they don’t get boring. For the white, I might go with well-aged Krug champagne or well-aged Chablis Grand Cru from the Les Clos vineyard. For the red, it would probably be a top-notch, well-aged Syrah, such as Penfolds Grange, Henschke Hill of Grace or one of the LaLa’s from Guigal.
  2. What’s your favorite wine region in the world?
    I don’t really have a favorite wine region. There are too many great regions to choose between. And most regions evolve over time.
  3. Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing? Favorite recipe/pairing?

The most surprising I’ve had was Chateau de Fargues Sauterne with raw oysters. It was brilliant. For sheer yumminess, I love high-quality sparkling Shiraz with Peking Duck.

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).

Rusty Gaffney Interview, Prince of Pinot

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 Paul Gregutt, Wine Enthusiast Magazine.

Rusty Gaffney is a retired ophthalmologist who has had a love affair with Pinot Noir for over 40 years. When he retired in 2001, he decided to devote his energies to writing the PinotFile, an online newsletter at princeofpinot.com that was among the first wine publications exclusively devoted to Pinot Noir. He tastes and reviews Pinot Noir daily, reads about Pinot Noir constantly, and visits wineries in Pinot Noir producing regions frequently. Rusty also leads wine tours, organizes wine tastings and dinners and corresponds on Pinot Noir for a popular podcast on the internet – Grape Radio. He’s participated in wine-themed videos including one on the Russian River Valley that won a James Beard Award. He has written about wine for Orange Coast Magazine, Orange County’s lifestyle magazine. Rusty has been happily married for over 40 years, has two sons, plays tennis, grow succulents, collects doo-wop music, and enjoys his Corvette.

You can follow Rusty and subscribe to PinotFile at http://www.princeofpinot.com/ and on Facebook @RustyGaffney and Twitter @PrinceofPinot

Professional Background

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

I am a self-taught wine writer and wine critic who developed an interest in fine wine beginning in the early 1970s when I had enough spendable income to indulge my interest. I have always been a good writer, and penned many scientific articles and chapters in medical textbooks during my years in training and as a practicing ophthalmologist. Over thirty years, I developed a love affair with Pinot Noir.  In 2002, I retired from medicine and transitioned to writing about wine, specifically Pinot Noir. I read everything I could get my hands on related to wine and Pinot Noir, attended every event in California and Oregon related to Pinot Noir, and began reviewing wines. I had to earn the respect of the wine community through my writings, wine reviews and time spent at wineries.

What are your primary story interests?

My writing focuses on the stories behind the wines, including personalities, viticulture, winemaking, and challenges of the wine industry. I have researched and written extensively about the history behind California and Oregon Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. My scientific background leads me to be very accurate in my writing and never include any information that is heresy or told through a secondary party. I have found that there is considerable historical information that is simply not true.

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?

My success is partly predicated on the fact that I had a financially rewarding career, and when I retired, I had the financial wherewith-all to travel and buy wine. In the early years of my writing, I had to purchase a considerable sum of wine to review, but as I have gained recognition, 95% of the wine I review now comes from winery samples. At one point, I tried a paid subscription model for my online newsletter, The PinotFile, but I lost so many readers who had previously read the newsletter for free, that I discontinued this model after a year. To have a successful career writing about wine independently and without renumeration, requires financial independence. For example, I pay $4,500 a year for a wine locker where all my wine samples from wineries are sent and stored. There has not only been a reduction in the number of annual Pinot Noir focused wine events in California, there has been an accompanying paucity, and in most cases complete absence, of financial incentives for the media and press to cover these events. The only perk offered is usually free admission to some portion of the event, usually the walk-around tasting that is often a noisy, raucous affair not conducive to critical wine tasting. Organizers of these events and public relations people encourage wine writers to promote their event, attend their event, and then write about their event and the participating wine producers afterwards, yet offer no financial inducement to do so. With escalating expenses associated with staging these events, these “not-for-profit” events simply do not have funds or say they do not have funds to underwrite the expenses of wine writers to attend. The moral is, do not let your children grow up to be wine writers!)

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

I have many interests outside of wine. I have been an avid tennis player all my life and still play today three times a week. Through the years, I collected vinyl LPs and 45s, primarily rock and doo-wop from the 1950s-1970s and have an extensive and valuable collection. I have loved Corvettes since I rode in one while in high school in the early 1960s. When I graduated from medical school in 1969, I bought my first Corvette, and have owned Corvettes continuously since, a string of almost 50 years! I am a foodie and seek out special restaurants on my wine trips (always bringing my own bottle of Pinot Noir to drink). I have a son, Dane, who has worked in the wine industry in operations for several years, including Inman Family Wines in the Russian River Valley, Scribe in Carneros, and currently Ashes and Diamonds in Napa Valley. Dane also posts my newsletter online and helps to manage the website. He has taught me everything I know about computers. I could not have done my newsletter without his assistance.

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

I spend many, many hours each week tasting wine, researching wine stories, and composing my newsletter. I rely on no one, composing, editing and publishing my online newsletter (15-50 pages) every 2-3 weeks. Unlike bloggers, who post 500 words here and there, I have a prodigious output that belies my perfectionist nature. My spouse always complains that I am to wordy and I probably am.

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

“Pinot Noir Suitcase Clone ‘828’: An Intriguing Story Revealed” http://www.princeofpinot.com/article/1268/

Writing Process

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

I began writing wine reviews without scores, believing that scores were not as important as the wine description. I also did not feel that initially I had enough experience to be adept at using the 100-point scoring system. For the past 9-10 years, I have used the 100-point scoring system, but I still encourage readers to focus on the written description of the wine. I was the first wine writer to include ABV in the review and later added pH, TA and RS. Uniquely, my wine reviews always include a detailed description of the winemaking process (if available). I try to interject some humor into the reviews when appropriate.

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

I have no set editorial schedule. As the wine samples come in, I try to organize them in a theme or feature a separate article on a particular winery that warrants special recognition. I read about wine constantly, and ideas for stories seem to come to me regularly. There is so much to write about regarding wine in general and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in particular, that I never develop writer’s block.

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

 I occasionally submit a newsworthy article to the Oregon Wine Press for which I get paid.

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

I don’t have time to participate in social media. I do tweet when there is something of interest related to Pinot Noir and the health benefits of wine.

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

I know that I influence consumers who read my newsletter in their wine purchases. Wineries give me positive feedback on this. As a former physician, I have a keen interest in the health benefits of wine. I review all the current scientific literature on the subject, publish appropriate information and lengthy articles on the matter, and have given talks to groups on the relationship between wine in moderation and health. Because of my scientific background, I can approach this controversial subject with a keen perspective and believe I am an influencer more than a writer on this subject.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

Wineries should communicate with journalists in advance of sending wine samples for editorial consideration. They should always provide technical sheets on the wines by email or enclosed in the wine shipment. The MSRP of the wines and dates of release are the two bits of information that are most often missing. Wineries should offer as much intimate information as possible about the winery and its people including hi-def photos. There are nearly 3,000 wineries producing Pinot Noir in California and Oregon, so it is important for a winery to separate itself from the crowd to induce the consumer. Wineries should always include a personal note in the wine shipment that thanks the journalist for their time in reviewing the wines and invite the journalist to visit the winery (with contact information). It is very time consuming to contact every winery when a wine review is published, so wineries should follow the publication after submission to see their published review.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

Publicists respond more quickly to inquiries, and they will find answers to questions if they do not know the answer themselves. Winery owners and winemakers can be hard to track down.

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

I have met John Winthrop Haeger and highly respect his writings on Pinot Noir. I have met Alan Meadows (aka Burghound) and admire his extensive output of writing and reviews. I have never tasted wine with either of them.

Leisure Time

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

My leisure time includes walking/hiking, tennis, swimming, family activities (married for 40 years, two grown sons), hosting wine tastings and dinners at home with friends, and watching college football and professional tennis on television. I am a voracious reader of books and magazines.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

Burt Williams (Williams Selyem) has always been one of my idols as he had an extraordinary intuition for crafting Pinot Noir. In 2011, I helped organize a tribute dinner for Burt at the Dry Creek Kitchen Restaurant in Healdsburg, California. This event was attended by a who’s who of California Pinot Noir including Michael Browne, Bob Cabral, George Levkoff, Margi Williams-Wierenga, Bob Pellegrini, David Hirsch, Jeff Fink, Craig Brewer, Michael Sullivan, Ben Papapietro, Nicolai Stez, Ross Cobb, Mac McDonald and others. The dinner, prepared by chef Charlie Palmer, featured six courses accompanied by historic vintages of William Selyem Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in magnum format from the personal library of Burt Williams. Each of the winemakers in attendance brought a special bottle as a gift to Burt.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world?

My favorite Pinot Noir wine region is Sonoma County, California because it combines Pinot Noir from many different microclimates, with all the infrastructure that appeals to wine connoisseurs such as lodging, restaurants, farmer’s markets, and hundreds of wineries in a compact layout. Honestly, when I drive up Highway 101 from San Francisco on my way to Sonoma County, I am flush with anticipatory glee, and once I arrive, I feel like I have died and gone to heaven. My biggest regret is that I didn’t buy a second home (I live in Orange County, California) in Sonoma County during the last recession.

Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing? Favorite recipe/pairing?

My favorite wine and food pairing is Pinot Noir with any food. You name it, salmon, pork, duck, lamb, mushrooms, beets and on and on. Pinot Noir is simply the most versatile of all wines at the table. I am getting hungry just thinking about it.

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).

Paul Gregutt Interview, 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 with 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. The first interview in the series features Paul Gregutt, Wine Enthusiast Magazine.

Paul Gregutt is a Contributing Editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine, a founding member of the magazine’s Tasting Panel, and currently reviews the wines of Oregon and Canada. He writes a monthly column on wine in Walla Walla’s Lifestyles magazine. The author of the critically-acclaimed ‘Washington Wines & Wineries – The Essential Guide’, he consulted on the Pacific Northwest entries in current versions of ‘The World Atlas of Wine’, ‘The Oxford Companion to Wine’ and Hugh Johnson’s 2019 Pocket Guide. He is a frequent guest speaker on cruise ships and at industry symposiums. He lives with his wife Karen and his rescue dog Cookie – a terrier/Chihuahua (a genuine terr-hua!) – in a renovated 140-year-old cottage in Waitsburg, Washington. In his spare time, he writes songs, plays guitar, sings and performs with his band, the DavePaul5.

 

PROFESSIONAL BACKGROUND

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

I grew up in a family of writers, but set out post-college intending a career in music. In my 20s I worked multiple radio jobs (on-air) and wrote for a start-up alternative publication, the Seattle Weekly. My interest in wine began while tasting some good wines with friends in the business. In my 30s, while working in broadcast television, I began writing a freelance weekly wine column. Once in print I was able to get assignments from several other publications, including Wine Spectator. One thing led to another. I signed on with Wine Enthusiast in the summer of 1998. I’m the second longest-serving writer on staff. In these three decades I’ve written six books, contributed to many others, penned thousands of wine columns, and reviewed tens of thousands of wines.

What are your primary story interests?

Of course, my interests have changed over the years. But my interest as a writer is always how to communicate with an audience. And the way to do that is to find topics of genuine interest to me, and share the excitement of exploring them. Wine is about as perfect and inexhaustible a topic (as far as writing) and playing and performing music has been for me through all these decades.

What are your primary palate preferences?

For me personally, I like high acid, unoaked white wines and reds from Sangiovese, Pinot Noir and unusual blends.

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

I’ve worked as a freelance writer during my entire wine writing career.

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?

I started out with published writing credentials, having reviewed pop music, theater, film and restaurants before ever writing about wine. I focused on the emerging wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest, which was almost completely unknown at the time. I was fortunate in the timing, and have been able to grow my portfolio as the region’s wines and wineries have gained international recognition. I also made it a point to write about wines from all over the world, and to travel to many of the major wine regions and wineries of the world, so as to avoid “tunnel palate.”

PERSONAL BACKGROUND

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

I don’t think most people know that I’m a pretty decent guitar player, singer and performer. I’ve written hundreds of songs over the years, and honestly many are quite polished. Back in the ‘70s I signed a songwriting contract on Music Row in Nashville, and before that I worked as an assistant engineer at Electric Lady Studios in New York.

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

Explore! Don’t get stuck in ruts. And remember – it’s always better to drink that special bottle now, rather than waiting for “the right moment” which may never arrive.

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

I’d be writing about something else. I’ve always written for a living.

How would you like the wine community to remember you?

For the love of God, don’t say “he will be missed”!!!

WRITING PROCESS

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

These days a lot of my work is simply reviewing new releases. I taste daily, write notes daily, re-visit wines daily. If I’m working on a story, I do online research, jot down ideas and just dive in when a deadline looms. I have never had writer’s block.

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

I am always jotting down ideas, but working so closely with a single magazine I’m also on a schedule, which helps any writer I believe.

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

Always. I blogged for about five years, and it’s still online (paulgregutt.com) but writing for free was not for me!

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

I post links on my Facebook page. Most of my 2700 or so “friends” are in the wine business, so it’s helpful to keep my work in front of my main audience.

WORKING RELATIONSHIPS

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

Be brief, be original, be reliable, be accurate, and be up to date. I am especially unhappy when I read a winery news release in my focus region (Pacific NW) in some other publication or website, and that winery or PR person has neglected to send me the same publicly-distributed information.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

When they do their job well, they can provide information that I could not easily find any other way.

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

When required information about retail pricing, release dates, etc. is not provided as requested, and I go to the winery website and it’s hopelessly out of date, that’s frustrating.

Which wine reviewers/critics would you most like to be on a competition panel with?

I don’t do competitions for multiple reasons.

LEISURE TIME

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

I garden, play with my dog, play guitar, cook and occasionally travel.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

There are far too many to choose from, and I hope many more will follow. But one extraordinary moment was during a visit up the Douro to Quinta do Vesuvio. We arrived just as the grapes were coming in, and joined a group of locals’ foot-crushing them in an old-fashioned lagare. They were playing Yellow Submarine and dancing while we stomped. A couple years later, when the wine was released, Karen and I bought a case. We drink a bottle on our anniversary every five years.

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).

 

Oregon Wine History Archives Interview

I was recently interviewed by Rich Schmidt of Linfield College in McMinnville, for the Oregon Wine History Archives. The Archive project includes oral video history interviews and storage of archival materials such as articles and artifacts dating back to the Oregon “Pioneer” wineries such as Erath, Amity, Ponzi, Sokol-Blosser, and includes many contemporary winemaker and winegrower interviews. If you are interested in the history of Oregon wine and specifically Willamette Valley, I would encourage you to use the archive as a source for your research.

In this interview, we discussed my 10 years of winery consulting; my start in the wine business; the transition from DTC Marketing Consulting to Winery PR & Media Relations consulting; and my view of challenges facing Oregon wineries in the future.

For more information and interviews go to https://oregonwinehistoryarchive.org/ 

Three Biggest Challenges Facing Small Wineries Today?

I think the real story in the Willamette Valley (and other small regions nationally) is that 75% of wineries produce fewer than 5,000 cases annually. It’s micro-production by any measure. They have survived because of so-called “Premiumization” and the recent fascination with their AVAs. What will happen when the next economic downturn occurs, as the distribution consolidation continues, and/or as vineyard and winery acquisitions accelerate (which they are doing now)? Are there business parallels between what is happening in Willamette Valley and other burgeoning industries such as craft beer or high tech? Is large destined to win? How will small craft producers survive and thrive in the long run?

Distribution

Distribution is one of the most challenging business problems small-production wineries face. Consider that just 20 years ago there were roughly 2,500 wineries and 3,000 distributors. The odds of having your wines represented by distributors were very high due to the demand for excellent wines. Distributors worked hard to help build winery brands. That is not the case today. There are more than 9,000 wineries in the U.S., and with the consolidation of the largest distributors, I estimate only 700 distribution companies remain. And for economic reasons, they focus on large family or corporate winery groups, high profit margins and depletions. The small winery simply cannot compete. Ironically, market research and industry studies show that today’s consumers want to try and purchase more from small craft brands (as opposed to the well-established brands that used to be consumers’ preference), but cannot find them available in the marketplace.

Additionally, I was reminded of the purchasing power of retailers that act as wholesalers. I made a trip to Costco recently and discovered cut-rate pricing for Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs on display for Oregon Wine Month. Would you believe $10.99 for Willamette Valley label wines? Concurrently, there are active initiatives to control labeling and varietal percentages to enhance the Willamette Valley brand and presumably our price points. I can’t make sense of this discounted pricing in the long run, despite the recent large yield vintages.

Competition

While there are still many small winery operations starting up these days, there are many others that are better equipped for this hyper-competitive environment. I believe we are living in a wine bubble that is destined to pop for economic, political or other unforeseen reasons. Starting a winery today requires significant funding and marketing wherewithal to stand out in today’s crowded, competitive market. We not only have too many wineries in small regions like Willamette Valley, we’re seeing many more from all over the world that bring serious investment dollars and business savvy to bear. Many smaller wineries aren’t so well prepared.

I am also starting to see high quality and reasonably priced $20-$30 Pinot Noir – which I believe is sustainable for most small wineries – and should act as a good hedge against eventual restrained consumer spending, as well as to supply national wholesale markets.

Brand Building

Why do this? Because top of mind awareness is the only way to ensure consumers will buy wine from you when they are ready. The adage goes something like this – Repetition breeds familiarity; Familiarity breeds trust; and Trust leads to Sales. It’s the justification for advertising and media relations programs.

While getting media coverage is still essential for businesses, it is increasingly challenging due to the proliferation of wineries and dearth of established writers with ongoing columns. In other words, the days of being “discovered” and handed a strong fan base due to media coverage have passed.

Writers are not paid enough to research and discover, nor do they have time to do so. Wine brands that stand out in today’s world tend to get ongoing media coverage for three reasons: (1) They are already popular, often written about, and quick and easy for writers to review; and/or (2) They are easily found in the marketplace due to distribution; and 3) They spend advertising dollars with a media outlet. Many print and online publications rely on a pay-to-play system to survive in a post-Internet world. This leaves many small-production wineries out of the equation, and mostly for financial reasons.

Another aspect of branding is controlling your winery profiles on social media. I like to think of social media as Consumer PR. Have you claimed your profiles on all the relevant sites? I mean not only the obvious ones – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, but also the travel itinerary, wine country mapping, wine rating and mobile app sites. Monitor, post and engage consistently.

Strategies

My feeling is that a balanced approach of direct-to-consumer marketing (direct sales in tasting room/club members and eCommerce), ongoing brand building (using media coverage in your marketing), and specialized targeted distribution options (online brokers, targeted states) are required to ensure success. Unless you have been established for a long period of time (5 years or more), a reasonable goal is 20-30% wholesale and 70% direct sales.

Small do-it-all-yourself wineries are finally hiring marketing staff – DTC or Hospitality Managers – either from within the wine business or outside – experienced hospitality professionals (hotel and restaurant staff come to mind) are excellent hires. They understand the importance of the customer service experience and can quickly acquire sufficient wine knowledge. And they have direct experience with seated tastings, proven to generate higher sales per visitor. Give them a mobile POS and cut them loose.

Consider creating a staff position to manage your wine club, and choreograph the sales path with your staff. Why? Loyalty programs might be the saving grace for small producers. Revenue is recurring and mostly predictable. Members refer friends when treated well and their business is appreciated. Get a handle on this important aspect of your direct sales program while wine clubs are still viable.

Doing outreach and getting media exposure will continue to build awareness of your brand and unique market position to support these goals. Using third-party expert opinions (feature articles, wine reviews and scores) in your content marketing will help you to stay top of mind with your customers.

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).

Winery PR Doesn’t Sell Wine!

Winery PR Doesn’t Sell Wine!

Winery PR does not directly sell wine, nor is it intended to do so. This is not a retraction from my previous article – Does Media Coverage Help Me Sell Wine? Media Relations is about showing the media real stories and wines that fit what they need or want to write about. Communications professionals and publicists help you earn media by trying to influence and facilitate that coverage.

I recently heard a tasting room staffer state “There are two types of wine. The kind you like and the kind you don’t”. I believe there is a third type – the kind you haven’t yet experienced. And that is why wine is a “Discovery” item for consumers. PR’s job is to facilitate discovery through media coverage. Therefore, PR is about lead generation not about sales generation. Unfortunately many wineries do not understand this or can’t afford to engage in a media relations campaign.

While media coverage can have an immediate impact on sales, doing these types of communications and outreach are more akin to a triathlon than a sprint, not one off projects based on cash flow need, backed up inventory, facility openings and new wine releases.

There are also those winery owners/winemakers who believe all they need are great scores in Wine Spectator to sell wine. Due to score inflation and the mountain of wines submitted (estimated 1,200 – 1,500 labels/month), even Wine Spectator scores don’t matter these days unless you receive 94+ points. What happens if your current vintage marks are sub-par? Is this when you start up your PR efforts?

What does a winery PR campaign look like?

I get inquiries all the time asking about winery PR, and what exactly do I do? The short answer is that I help wineries sell wine by generating media coverage and wine reviews for their brands. Why is that important? There are three reasons. Media coverage 1) implies endorsement from a third party authority 2) introduces your winery to new customers, who will hopefully seek out your brand and 3) provides valuable marketing content for existing customers, followers and subscribers.

  • Consumers need validation, whether from a journalist telling your story or reviewer rating your wines. You can’t rely on Spectator and Enthusiast ratings alone.
  • You can’t keep going back to the same well. There are simply too many wonderful new wineries out there and customer attrition can be brutal
  • Third party content helps you to stay connected and market to existing customers and subscribers, and reminds them of their patronage by sharing your accolades (articles, reviews, scores). More brand impressions and touch points breed the idea of familiarity and quality.

Can you afford not do have an active PR Program?

Sadly and honestly, I believe the answer is negative. Here are three current news items to consider. The big players control the game because 1) large distributors already control the second tier 2) the largest producers will soon control their own second tier 3) legislation benefits the large players the most

  • Consider the consolidation of distributors for a moment. I recently read that New York State fined Southern Glazer $3.5M for bribery, aka pay-to-play with their retailers. With this much money at stake this comes as no surprise. The current wholesaler “mob” and the largest retailers are winning at this game and small production wineries are not in play.
  • Fred Franzia of Bronco wines (Two Buck Chuck) is building its own rail and freight systems to move wine direct to retailers and reduce their shipping costs. This of course increases their margins and puts additional price pressure on everyone else.
  • The recent federal reduction in winery excise tax barely benefits wineries with 5,000 cases of production. The sweet spot is about 100,000 cases if I understand the tax tables correctly. Are you one of the 85% of wineries in the U.S. with less than 5,000 cases?

So what’s a small winery to do?

The answer is not necessarily to engage in PR efforts and media campaigns, not if you aren’t ready. The answer may be to get ready quick. Here are three actionable things you can do now. I suggest you start by 1) identifying your winery’s next marketing role 2) enhancing your winery’s position in your local and regional marketing associations and 3) having your media and trade readiness evaluated by a professional consulting firm or trusted industry advisor.

  • Marketing positions might include tasting room manager (assuming you still manage TR staff) responsible for goals and functions related to consumer direct sales; direct sales manager (assuming you have a tasting room manager) responsible for all aspects of direct sales including tasting room, wine club, offsite and onsite events, and even direct to trade sales; wine club manager once you club gets to critical mass (about 500 active accounts); marketing manager (assuming you don’t have someone else with strong experience in digital marketing) responsible for all platforms including email, blogging, website maintenance, social marketing, etc.
  • Winery associations are getting more involved and getting more requests from writers, buyers and distributors, and are increasing sharing information and recommendations with members. Volunteer for the member board and participate in the marketing committees to stay ahead.
  • Are you trade and media ready?

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).

How to Taste with Professional Reviewers and Critics

Sampling your wines is important. Writers will not review your wines unless you send and they taste them. Even better than just sending samples? Invite professional reviewers and wine critics to visit you at the winery. How better to understand your dirt, special sense of place, the facility where wines are produced, and to meet you, the winemaker in situ?

What to do, what not to do?

If you assume that most small producers have a plan for such visits you would be wrong. I’ve found many wineries that rely on personal interaction to engage consumers and casual wine media do not necessarily know what to do with professional reviewers. This article is based on a conversation with Rusty Gaffney aka Prince of Pinot (www.princeofpinot.com) who has been writing his eponymous Pinot Noir devoted newsletter for over 15 years. Rusty accepts shipped samples of Pinot Noir from around the world, but what I find compelling about his program is that he actually makes it a point to visit wineries and taste onsite whenever possible. Also, Rusty has received winemakers in Orange County where he lives. Feel free to contact him if you’re working the market or if you’ll be in Southern California.

Our interactions were intended to demonstrate how to receive a wine critic and what to do specifically to make the critic’s limited time useful and leave the most favorable impression possible. As Rusty says “This is the kind of stuff they don’t teach at UC Davis or OSU”. Here’s what we discussed and Rusty’s candid and detailed responses.

Conduct a focused tasting that is well prepared in advance

Rusty: Organize the tasting – either finished bottles or barrel – based on the time of year and how you can best show off your wines. It can’t be emphasize enough that the winery needs to be prepared ahead of time and well organized so the reviewer is comfortable and can perceive that preparations have been made in advance.

Rusty: I believe the winemaker should be prepared ahead of time with some idea of how he/she plans to utilize our time together. They can give options but should have planned the options ahead of time considering when wines were bottled and what wines in barrel are appropriate to taste at that time. If it is a sit down finished bottle tasting, the tech sheets on each wine each wine should be available at the tasting so I don’t have to keep asking details including MSRP. Prepare and hand out appropriate information about the winery/yourself. Water should always be available as well as spit cups/receptacles.

Rusty: The winery should dictate the tasting and not ask the reviewer what they want to taste unless the reviewer demands certain arrangements.

Carl: I was just at a long standing professional wine conference with 30 wineries pouring. There were 2 dump buckets in total, both became immediately full. There were no water pitchers or stations anywhere near the event space. How is it possible to miss those details?

Sit down Versus Stand up tastings

Rusty: Have a sit down venue available if possible with proper glassware, water, spit cups, pen, paper, and wine tech sheets that include the date of release and MSRP.

Consider giving writer time to taste alone and then discuss the wines. The last time I went to Willamette Valley, one of the wineries had five vintages of the same wine lined up with glasses and allowed me to taste in private before discussing. And they didn’t interrupt. I liked this. It is hard to adequately taste wines when the winemaker is hovering over you and engaging you in conversation. On the other hand, it is very helpful to have the winemaker’s insight and comments, and general impressions about the vintage and wines are welcome information to the reviewer as long as they are not obviously over enthusiastic.

Carl: Offering a private space to accommodate writers that to taste privately is an excellent idea. You can show them what you’ve setup when they arrive and ask if they’ like to taste alone. If so, revisit the wines with them after and answer questions they may have.

Create a Relaxed Meeting Experience

Rusty: Make yourself available over a generous time period. The writer should determine how long the encounter will be. The mood should be relaxed and not rushed. It is important to talk personally beyond the wine and winery discussion to give the writer insight into yourself and provide background info for a write up.

Carl: If the tasting takes place in a public space such as your tasting room, have someone there to take care of other guests during open hours. I know this sounds obvious but I’ve seen winemakers dashing between tasting guests and media and it makes a negative impression.

What to Say/Not to Say to Writers

Rusty: Do not discuss finances of the winery or how difficult it is to get distribution.

Rusty: the winery should know in advance how much time the reviewing critic plans to spend at the winery. The winery or publicist should inquire ahead of time about the time frame of the visiting reviewer.

Carl: Upbeat and heartfelt personal greetings matter. Show the writer what you have prepared and planned for their visit. See if the setup meets their expectations. If you are working with a publicist they will typically know how the writer likes to interact and taste through the wines. If you are uncertain of their schedule or if they are running late, ask how much time they have allowed and keep to that schedule unless they would like to extend.

Carl: Be sure to have some key brand points of difference ready to share at the right time. Although this is a formal tasting, personalities and relationships matter. They may love your wines but may not make the extra effort to write if you don’t make a personal connection and if the experience is somehow uniquely not memorable. No, it’s not all about the wine.

Carl:  There is no need to tell the writer your opinions before they taste. Your personal preferences for a specific vintage or style of wine are not necessarily theirs.

Wrapping Up

Rusty: Offer to give the writer opened bottle(s) as they may wish to re-taste later. Also, giving an unopened bottle is a nice gesture for the writer’s time and makes an impression.

Rusty: Always send the writer a follow-up email within 24 hours thanking them for the visit and offering any further information or samples needed. Invite them back anytime if appropriate.

Carl: If you are not working with a PR firm or have communications staff, be certain to let the reviewer know you have bottle and label images and any other winery asset they might need. High resolution photography is not optional (yes, I mean no iPhone bottle shots!).

Rusty: It also is critical that the winery uses the reviewer visits in all their social media (take a photo of reviewer at winery) and on their website. The fact that a reviewer spent the time to come to their winery is a Huge marketing ploy. Be sure to give the reviewer who visits recognition in every way possible. No reviewer who chooses to visit should be minimized.

Remember, reviewer visits are a FREE marketing advantage and I cannot overemphasize the importance of the reviewer’s impression after the winery visit. I receive many inquiries from readers asking advice about what wineries to visit, and the impression winery’s earn will have a major impact on what wineries I recommend. Those that reach out to me to receive recommendations are serious wine buyers and these are the type of customers that wineries want to embrace.

Carl: If you are successful getting important wine critics to visit your winery, and if they like the wines and review them or write a feature article about your brand and wines; please be certain to get the article or wine review online links; a copy of the article if in print and use the content in your marketing. Be sure to tag the author, and use proper hashtags so others see the content. This will drive up the value perception of your brand, and we all know how difficult it is to get attention in today’s marketplace, so be sure to leverage the opportunity.

WILLIAM “RUSTY” GAFFNEY, MD, aka the “Prince of Pinot,” is a retired ophthalmologist who has had a love affair with Pinot Noir for nearly forty years. Upon retirement from medicine, he devoted his energies to writing the PinotFile at princeofpinot.com, an online newsletter that was among the first wine publications exclusively devoted to Pinot Noir. Rusty tastes Pinot Noir almost daily, reads about Pinot Noir constantly through all of the available resources on wine, and visits Pinot Noir producing regions frequently. He also leads wine tours, organizes wine tastings and wine dinners, and participates as a judge in wine competitions. He can be reached by email at prince@princeofpinot.com.

CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s going on his 9th 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).