Covid, Community & Commerce

The emergence of online engagement and eCommerce 

Many wineries, business partners and consumers are at home in some form of quarantine or under stay at home restrictions. This is a communications opportunity – to interact with other tasting room and wine industry professionals on social media – as well as with your customers, and not just to sell wine. Consumers will want to know what’s going on with the winery, and may be interested in engaging with you online. DTC marketing outreach by old school mail, email and social media will keep people informed and updated, as well as offer them online opportunities to enjoy your wines shipped direct to their homes.

Be authentic and genuine. What is Your Brand really all about? I’m reading that people don’t want more pitches for wine, but want to know what the winery is doing to accommodate followers and community during the crisis. I would hedge a little on promos, and err on the side of subtlety and indirect offers, by focusing on wine education and entertainment experiences which are brand appropriate.

Is this the long-awaited inflection point to meaningful winery eCommerce? Now is the time for wineries to find creative ways to shift their business models and shift their sales channel strategies. The last 10 years saw an adjustment from reliance on distribution sales to selling Consumer Direct. Small producers with fully established DTC programs are the most affected by this disruption and many are reacting very quickly and creatively with online solutions. I think this will be the point of transition for those wineries that have not fully embraced eCommerce, to establish online sales as a significant and ongoing part of their DTC programs.

In addition to curbside pickup and drop-off services, there has been lots of interest and many calls for Virtual Tastings from the winery associations and the media. They are looking for events that are part of your programming, so scheduling and publishing well in advance – to allow for system testing (Facebook Live, Instagram Live, Zoom, Skype, etc.) and presentation practice is important, as well as providing ample time for shipping if customers are interested in acquiring specific wines for the event. From my perspective, this could and should become part of your ongoing DTC program – post pandemic – to reach out-of-state and other targeted groups, i.e. consumers, out of state club members, trade or media – so why not get a program in place now and take a leadership position?

I also suggest you do the math and focus on “Shipping Included” promotions versus discounts. Develop a progressive schedule of different packages and gift packs for instance. Consider which wines to offer for virtual tasting events featuring winemaker and staff. You might be surprised at people’s willingness to meet and taste with you online – with either your wines or for wine education. Finally, remember the phone? I know its old school, but the human voice is reassuring. Keep your staff engaged by having them contact your best customers, not just club members. Check to see how they are doing, let them know what’s happening at the winery – and just this one time – don’t ask or mention selling them wine. You might be surprised at the results.

Here are some best practice marketing articles I’ve read that you may find helpful:

For my part as a publicist, I’m focused on shipping wines to reviewers across the U.S., not only the large national publications but also critics and writers whose opinion matters. Their reports and reviews will help my clients stay top of mind and provide important content to support their marketing efforts. I’ll also reschedule canceled March and April visits, and hopefully start booking media tours again late spring, early summer. That’s my best guess timing at this point. Of course, pitching client stories to national and regional outlets including magazines, broadcast and radio seemingly never ends.

Things that wineries can do on the digital and marketing side are:

  • Website – update all pages with current information, virtual offers and photos. Position the site as if you are an online only business, with tasting room and in person experiences coming soon. Special focus now should be on the shopping cart and mobile shopping experience. Is the site fully responsive? If not fix that. What shipping or “quarantine” promos can you run to capture online sales?
  • Photo Gallery – setup or update your gallery by category (Seasons, Views, People, Vineyard, Harvest, Events, etc.) and populate with best available high-resolution photos. Someone will need to curate your library of photos. I use this resource often for media image requests. Why is professional photography so important?
  • Content Schedule – setup and maintain a schedule for email and social media marketing. Identify content in advance – news, promos, photos, etc. This also helps me coordinate media outreach and with your marketing department.
  • Wine Club Retention – you are likely to get some cancels or credit card rejections. Offer membership suspends for 3 months, downsize club levels or at least keep them on the general email list for future “we want you back” campaigns.

I believe the 2020 pandemic will trigger an industry-wide transition to more meaningful digital and social communications, and most importantly eCommerce as a profitable channel. Not all wineries will get it done. Those that do will be in a better position going forward.

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).

Meridith May – Somm Journal & Tasting Panel Magazines

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 “Expert Opinion” series that will be featured monthly by Wine Industry Advisor.

MERIDITH MAY is the owner of two national U.S. wine and spirits trade publications: The SOMM Journal and THE TASTING PANEL Magazine. She is responsible for the publications’ branding and content. She has successfully increased each national magazine’s readership to reach over 65,000 bi-monthly for SOMM Journal and over 70,000 hospitality industry professionals 8 times a year for The Tasting Panel.

Meridith’s career in the media spans over 30 years. She began as VP Marketing for Los Angeles-based KIIS FM/KRLA radio in the 1980s working with such notable on-air personalities as Charlie Tuna, The Real Don Steele and Rick Dees.

Segueing into food and wine, she was the restaurant columnist for the Santa Barbara News Press from 1998-2001 and then took the role as Senior Editor at Patterson’s Beverage Journal where she ran the magazine until 2007, when she purchased the name, with partner Anthony Dias Blue, and began The Tasting Panel, which has evolved as the nation’s leading national wine and spirits industry magazine.

You can follow Somm Journal on Facebook and Twitter, and read the digital editions at https://www.sommjournal.com/ and Tasting Panel Magazine on Facebook & Twitter, and online at https://www.tastingpanelmag.com/

Professional Background

What are the challenges of being both publisher and contributor to your publications?

My first job is to promote the publication: through events, ad sales and other opportunities for our marketing partners. That means I have less and less time to write as the mags grow. I have a wonderful resource of fine writers and that helps us get lots of other voices to contribute.

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

I began as a restaurant columnist – and the progression was natural. But my real foray into wine writing was when I became Editor of Patterson’s Beverage Journal back in 2000. I got to interview the experts and the best in the industry!

What are your primary story interests?

Education, education, entertainment and…did I mention education? Wine and spirits brands need platforms for the trade – but hopefully the story behind every liquid can be compelling.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

I was America’s First Professional Lady Monster Truck Driver back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. That was my weekend gig. During the week I was VP/Marketing for KIIS-FM Los Angeles and then KRLA/KLSX Los Angeles.

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

Spend more time in France and Italy without worrying about business. But I don’t think that will happen.

Writing Process

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

Since we write for the professional, we need to position our articles on how they can use this in their careers – whether they be buyers, importers or distributors. So, learning about production and regions is important, but also the business of wine and how-to mentor – how to educate your staff – how to work on that bottom line. For reviews, it’s obviously subjective but I am asked to do this by the wineries to help showcase their labels – I am sent hundreds of wines a month. Not many of them make it into the books.

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

We plan our layout for editorial about four months out – some features are planned a year ahead (like cover stories). We try to be spontaneous when it comes to the actual messaging, and that’s where deadlines help.

How often do you write versus assign paid articles (not your blog)?

I write 10% and assign 90%

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

DON’T TALK ABOUT YOUR SCORES TO JOURNALISTS! That’s a turn off. And talk slowly and don’t name drop – and if you do, please spell names out or explain who you’re talking about. Don’t assume the writer knows all your technical references either.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

They know their clients – they can help with direction for the writers – and make life easier for client and journalist.

Leisure Time

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

With my dog. And if I am traveling on days off, it’s either scouting out restaurants or, yes, wineries.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world?

South of France

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).

Michael Cervin, Writer, Author, Critic

Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers” is a Q&A series profiling Wine Writers. We hope you’ll discover more about the wine writers you know, and learn about many others. The objective of this project is to understand and develop working relationships with journalists. They are after all, those that help tell our stories, review our wines and potentially provide media coverage. You can do this by learning their wine and writing backgrounds, story and personal interests, palate preferences, writing challenges and pet peeves. This is part of an ongoing series that will be featured monthly by Wine Industry Advisor.

MICHAEL CERVIN is a freelance writer based in Santa Barbara, California. Michael is an author and speaker focused on wine, spirits, food, water and travel. He is a contributor to multiple outlets including Bonforts, Forbes Travel Guides, BottledWaterWeb. Decanter (London), Fine Wine & Liquor (China), The Hollywood Reporter, The Tasting Panel, Arroyo Monthly, 65 Degrees, Gayot.com, IntoWine.com, and many others. He is the author of 7 books.

You can follow Michael on Facebook and Twitter, and read his stories and reviews on Boozehoundz.

Professional Background

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

Wine came into my life when I left Los Angeles and moved to Santa Barbara. I got a part time job at a winery tasting room and knew nothing. Many of the people who I poured for had traveled the world and helped to educate me, as did the winemaker. So, I started tasting everything and when I wrote my very first wine article, which was horrible by the way – about me driving aimlessly in my convertible visiting wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley. I was paid a mere $20. My third article was for Wine & Spirits so I jumped pretty quickly up the ladder.

What are your primary story interests?

I’m interested in authenticity, quirkiness, an emotional connection. That can be about a wine or winery, a place, person etc. My best wine articles have been in depth one-on-one conversations with people who hold nothing back. Though these types of interviews are more time consuming, I find that I get those true nuggets that I am mining for when me and my subject have time to just talk. I do feel like a lot of press releases these days are a kind of “forced narrative,” where they are trying to be quirky or outrageous for its own sake. But that is transparent.

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

For wine I’ve always been freelance. I do have columns for my Cocktail of the Month for a magazine in Pasadena, and for my reviews for The Whiskey Reviewer, as well as my wine reviews for Bonfort’s and Drink Me Magazine, and IntoWine.com. However, they all afford me complete editorial latitude. I understand the prestige of being on staff at one of the major wine mags, but I’ve also been the kind of writer who wants to do what I want, when I want and how I want. This becomes difficult because people want to pigeonhole you and for my diversity of writing, it confuses people. I write about wine, spirits, but also water issues, architecture, travel, food, history. As a freelancer I am not beholden to anything and I like that. It also allows for more transparency and honesty in my writing.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

Perhaps that I was formerly an actor appearing with speaking parts on shows like 3rd Rock From the Sun, The Young and The Restless, Grace Under Fire, and the soap opera (perhaps ironically, since this is where I live) Santa Barbara. I also did a lot of theatre and wrote and directed several plays and was Associate Artistic Director for a small theatre in Hollywood. I kinda miss it.

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

That you need to constantly explore. Rather than your “go-to” Cabernet, try another region. Don’t care for Vermentino? Try a different producer. With as many wines available to us, it’s staggering to me that most people drink myopically. I hear it all the time; I only drink Brand X Syrah; I hate rose’; I only drink reds, etc. If we limit our experiences, we lose our palate. When I was the restaurant critic for the Santa Barbara News Press I had to try foods either I didn’t like, or would normally not eat. But I was always objective and it forced my palate to be open and I can say that was one of the best experiences because I learned to compartmentalize it. I can appreciate, for example, fresh white asparagus though I would not usually eat it. With wine it’s the same. Additionally, wherever you travel, always try the local wines, beers, spirits and food. Don’t order your favorite California Cabernet if you’re in Austria.

Writing Process

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

I look for a wine to invite me somewhere. I open bottles every day and in that ritual of peeling off the foil, uncorking, or twisting off the cap I always think the same thing – please let this be a cool wine, a wine I can give a great score to so that others might try it. I love the discovery, that first sip, looking for that visceral experience of being transported. I use Riedel glasses for all wines and when opened, I slowly pour a thin stream into the glass to help with immediate aeration. Obviously, I smell it, 2-3 times, then take that first sip. And really, that first sip is pretty much all that matters. If it doesn’t grab you, take hold of your senses, intrigue you or demand your attention, then I have little use for it.

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

Probably 90% of my work is based on my own ideas and I generate a lot of stories. I tell younger writers who say, “how do you come up with story ideas?” that if you don’t have 20 ideas in your head right now, maybe you should be doing something else. Ideas are literally everywhere and you need to think beyond the confines of what a traditional story is about. Frankly, ideas are easy. Getting paid for those ideas is not.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

Simple – respond. If I call or email it’s for a reason – I need information to help promote your winery. Far too many wineries (both large and small) ignore media for reasons I cannot understand. Some don’t want to be bothered. I’m weary of wineries telling me they can’t respond because they have a small staff, or have limited resources. You know what? I’m a staff of one and I work constantly, so if you hear from me, respond in a timely manner. I have, quite literally, not written about a wine or winery precisely because they chose to ignore me. Then their story goes to someone else. It’s really simple.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

Also simple – they respond. There are a number of wine PR people that I have worked with for 20 years. It can (and should) be a mutually beneficial relationship. And that’s the key word to both these questions – relationships. I’m interested in building and cultivating long-term relationship with wines, winery owners and producers. But it takes two to tango to use an overwrought phrase. Many PR firms simply want to get a score out of me as quickly as possible. I don’t work that way. I’m in it for the long haul.

Leisure Time

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

Being a freelancer, I am not beholden to time. If I want to go to the beach or have a leisurely lunch, I can. This also means that there are times I’m at my desk at 4 a.m. writing in solitude and, quite frankly, I love the quietness of the mornings – this is my best time to write. Since I travel quite a bit, that travel tends to be a “day off” for me, though the reality is that as a writer, there is never a “day off” because writing is in my DNA. I love what I do. I recall a time when I was on a cruise with my then wife (she was speaking on the cruise) and I had scheduled to meet with two hotel properties for Forbes Travel Guides in the Bahamas when the ship was in port, even though that meant I didn’t go on a snorkeling trip, but it really didn’t bother me because I love what I do, and I got to see a part of the Island that most tourists don’t.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

That’s easy. I was invited to Champagne Bollinger for their launch of their Gallerie 1829 (a kind of museum at their property in Aÿ) not open to the public. I was fortunate to taste through a structured tasting of older vintages including 1992, 1975, 1973 (in jeroboam, magnum and bottle), 1964, 1955, 1928 and 1914. It was a singular, distinct, wonderful experience and what I recall most was that at lunch after the tasting, where all the Champagnes were opened for us, I drank the 1914, all the while thinking – this was made before World War I, and here I am over 100 years later, this time in a peaceful France, drinking a wine that has survived for a century. Though the 1928 was more fresh and effervescent, I gravitated to the 1914 because of its connection to world history, and because literally only perhaps 10 other people on the planet will ever get to taste the 1914 again. Ever.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world?

I’m asked all the time what my “favorite this or that” is, and I have the same response. I don’t believe in favorites; be that a type of grape, a region, or a style. The wonderful thing about wine is that it is a living organism and it changes constantly. Vintage variation, warmer summers, rainfall all effect every wine region, making that vintage unique. If you want sameness, go to a fast food joint, or drink bulk wine. If you want subtly drink wines that offer a sense of place. Having traveled the globe I pretty much love every wine region I’ve been to, including off the beaten path wine regions like Crete, Nova Scotia, Switzerland, Austria. Every place offers something truly idiosyncratic.

Read more stories in the series “Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers.”

CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s going on his 10th year of winery consulting. Carl has been involved in business marketing and public relations for over 25 years; originally in technology, digital marketing and project management, and now as a winery media relations consultant. Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, and the Columbia Gorge. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media).

Ellen Landis, Journalist, Somm, Judge

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 Eric Degerman of Great Northwest Wine.

ELLEN LANDIS is a wine journalist, Certified Sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers), Certified Specialist of Wine (Society of Wine Educators), professional wine judge, and wine educator, based in Vancouver, Washington. She spent four years as a sommelier at the Ritz Carlton and sixteen years as Wine Director/Sommelier at the award-winning boutique hotel she and her husband built and operated. Ellen is a moderator for highly acclaimed wine events, executes wine seminars for individuals and corporations, and judges numerous regional, national and international wine competitions each year. She travels extensively to many wine regions around the globe.

Contact Ellen at ellen@ellenonwine.com  and visit her blog at www.ellenonwine.com

Professional Background

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

It’s in my blood, my great grandfather made wine in Croatia.  As a Certified Sommelier, Wine Consultant and Professional Wine Judge, I have the opportunity to taste many wines from around the world.  In 2008 I was an invitee on a press trip to the province of Tarragona (in Catalonia, Spain). I wrote and pitched an article, which was published as the cover story for the Spring 2009 issue of the American Wine Society Wine Journal magazine.

What are your primary story interests?

1) The inside story of a winery and what makes each winery unique, 2) focus on wine regions, 3) wine competitions, and 4) the current vintage and how it measures up.

What are your primary palate preferences?

Pinot Noir, aromatic whites (Riesling, Gruner Veltliner, Gewurztraminer, Sauv Blanc), Sparkling wines and Champagne, Chardonnay.

Are you a staff columnist or freelance?

What are the advantages of both? Primarily freelance, nice to have the freedom to schedule my time.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? A few things:

1) Learning about wine at a young age was a passion of mine. I became particularly curious about this beverage. As a child I recall there was always wine on the table at family gatherings in my maternal grandmother’s home; my questions were endless.

3) Today, I typically judge more than 18 wine competitions a year (regional, national and international competitions). It is simply fascinating, and I give very careful thought to each wine put in front of me.

4) My colleagues and I, traveling in a posh stretch limo, spent an elegant and captivating evening with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. Impressive wines and bites were served.  Her Majesty was attentive, thoughtful, and a pure delight.

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

The wine world is multi-faceted. There are vineyards and wineries all around the globe, run by engaging and talented individuals, making exceptional wines worthy of appreciation. Get out and explore what suits your palate!

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

I have a background in sales and sales management which I enjoyed immensely. My father spent his entire 50-year career in sales, so that’s in my blood, too.

Writing Process

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

I like to engage with owners and winemakers at wineries to hear their story in their words.  As far as wine reviews, in judging wine competitions that include wines from around the world and attending many trade functions serving domestic and international wines, I gain exposure and the opportunity to taste a vast number of wines every year.  Many of my wine reviews come from wines tasted at these events, as well as media trips, and winery visits I have scheduled on my own.

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

Primarily I develop story ideas as they come up. When something piques my interest, I reach out proactively to pitch my story.

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

Twice a month or so. How often do you blog? Monthly, occasionally twice a month.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

Respect appointments and time commitments and don’t rush through them, and be yourself (no one can do that better!).

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

Lack of (or slow) response to questions posed beyond the interviews/appointments.

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

Robert Parker, it would be quite interesting to hear his perspective on a variety of international wines tasted blind.

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

President Thomas Jefferson, he was quite a knowledgeable wine appreciator and collector, and I am told he is a distant relative of mine (through my father’s side of our family).

Leisure Time

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

Visits with son Brian and daughter-in-law Julie and other family members (I have five sisters!), ocean cruising, and land trips to wine regions are among my favorite pastimes. Husband Ken and I have been on two World Cruises on the incomparable Crystal Serenity ship in the past 4 years. It is culturally enriching, educational, full of new experiences, entirely enjoyable, and feeds my passion for exploring wines from around the globe.  I had the opportunity to visit wine regions far and away from home, including but not limited to regions throughout Australia, New Zealand, Israel, South Africa, France and Italy. Land trips have also taken me to many regions internationally including France (Bordeaux, Rhone, Burgundy, and Champagne), Italy, Chile, and Argentina.  Within the USA multiple visits to numerous regions throughout California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, New York, Virginia, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Iowa, Ohio, and Michigan have been enlightening. Yes, this ties in with work, but it is what I enjoy doing!

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

In October 2001 in Burgundy with traveling companions husband Ken and writer Peter Smith. We met up with Becky Wasserman, at Maison Camille Giroud in Cote de Beaune, Burgundy (In 2001 she became Manager at Maison Camille Giroud, and hired young graduate oenologist David Croix, who was 23 years old at the time, who remained there as winemaker/manager until his departure in October 2016). The tasting experience included an incredible 25-year vertical tasting of the fine red Burgundy wines crafted there; extraordinary! New York born Becky found her way to France as a young woman.  She once worked as a broker for a French barrel maker, selling French barrels to California wineries.  Her wine knowledge and experience gained in France over the years steered her to opening her own business (Becky Wasserman & Co.) exporting wines from small producers in the Burgundy and beyond. It has been in operation nearly 40 years now.  She is an erudite wine professional, and simply fascinating.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world? ONE favorite?

Impossible to answer! Each region is different, and I appreciate them all for the unique expressions they bring to the table.

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).

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.

 

Wine Competition Conundrums: Too Much of a Good Thing?

This article originally appeared in Wine Business Monthly on May 29, 2019. Thank you to Erin Kirschenmann and editorial staff for sharing with this with your readers.

I’m getting push-back from my clients. Not on sending wines for review, but for submitting them to competitions. I agree with this in principal, as the number of wine competitions has proliferated over the last 10 years, as have the number of medal categories and wines awarded. Let’s examine these two issues – the increased number of competitions and awards – and lay out some considerations to help inform your decisions.

Too many wine competitions? The number of wineries in the U.S. and globally has grown exponentially, and everyone is contending for the attention of wholesalers and consumers. Receiving awards is a way to brand differentiate and gain marketing clout. How to choose those most impactful to your business? I asked two competition professionals about the “landscape” of today’s competitions.

Erin James, editor of Seattle based Sip Northwest Magazine sums up the situation. “There is such a dynamic spread of style in wine competitions across the country, from the “little league” variations where nearly everyone gets some sort of medal to more stringent operations like ours – Sip Northwest Best of the Northwest – that only awards medals to a top set of winners. I don’t think one way is better or more accurate than the other, just different options. I would like to see more competitions providing feedback to producers from judges, and elevated judging panels to ensure that feedback is educated.”

Eric Degerman, CEO of Great Northwest Wine and founder of multiple competitions summarizes why he believes medals still matter to consumers: “So within the wine industry, just as it with many things in our society, there continues to be a desire for third-party endorsement.” This makes sense as the number of wineries in the U.S alone exceeds 10,000. It is expected that the number of import wines into U.S. markets will soon exceed that. Offering consumers purchase guidance, as simple as medals awarded, appears to have some competitive value.

Too many medals awarded? Many competitions are giving out too many awards as a percentage of total entries. I think there are two main reasons for this. 1) The quality of wine has improved in all regions due to technology and winemaking experience, and 2) competitions are giving more awards because the revenue generated by competition managers is significant. More awards given equates to more wines submitted, and may lead to additional ad revenues, i.e. label placements, website ads, etc. However, the cost-benefit of awards seems less significant as the percentage of total wines awarded has increased. This also raises the quality of judging panel question. Are there enough qualified judges to go around? And, how are they performing overall? Consider the following studies.

In 2008, Robert Hodgson, Professor Cal State Humboldt, studied the performance of wine judges at the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition, and published his report in the Journal of Wine Economics. His exhaustive analysis looked at judge consistency in re-evaluating the same wines, and concordance of results across multiple competitions. You can go to the American Association of Wine Economics website, pay a fee or download from a university library to view the full reports. The net results were that neither judge consistency or wine scores are reliable or consistent. They concluded:

  • Perfect judges do not exist
  • Judges are biased after discussion
  • Male judges are about as good as female judges
  • Judges tend to increase their scores after discussion

In 2018, a French study evaluated whether winning medals in wine competitions affects price increases. In his summary review of the study, Dave Nershi, of Vino-Sphere compares French wine studies with what’s happening in the “New World”, and says “the study shows winning a medal has a strong effect on wine prices, however the prestige of the competition makes a big difference. In France, regulations prohibit awarding more than 33% of participating wines. Some contests are even more strict. Winning a Gold medal in Bordeaux is certainly meaningful – and apparently you can take that to the bank”. The study suggests a 13% increase in prices for Gold medals, and about 4% for anything less. You can read the entire French study here. Dave added, “This study is focused on France, and so it isn’t clear to what extent the findings apply to the U.S.”

I asked a few Willamette Valley clients to comment. Richard Boyles, founder of Iris Vineyards in Eugene offers this: “Awards from competitions keep Iris Vineyards’ wines in the eyes of the public and give consumers permission to try a bottle they may not have tried before. This also reinforces the perceptiveness of Iris’ loyal followers.” Tom Fitzpatrick, winemaker of Alloro Vineyard in Sherwood adds his criteria for selecting competitions: “I choose specific national competitions that are well organized, attract high caliber judges, and get some national attention. I see value with the judges, who are often buyers and influencers, being exposed to our wines. There may be some consumer exposure value, although with the large number of wines and the large number awards given, this value is less than I once thought.” Wayne Bailey, Youngberg Hill Vineyards in McMinnville sums up his view: “ I choose competitions for brand building, market base, reputation with buyers, and legitimacy of the competition.”

Will Goldring, who in 2002 founded Enofile Online, an online wine competition management system, currently provides services to over 40 wine competitions nationally. Will says “Most of the competitions we help manage are long-standing for several years, and a few are newly minted. From our perspective, success factors include association with a major media outlet or renowned event, and post-competition publicity and/or events that generate sales. I would say about 30% of the competitions we manage have significant post-competition events that make a really big impact in recognition and subsequent sales.”

Should you submit wines?

I think the two key questions are – what is your goal in submitting wines, and whose purchase decisions are you trying to influence – trade, distributors or consumers? Here are some competition strategies to consider 1) Current Vintages – submit wines that are available in your tasting room, online store, in out of state markets 2) Core Wines – submit large production or flagship wines to support distribution sales 3) Judging Panel – who are they, what are their professional bona fides, readership and influence? What are their palate preferences and where are they from, i.e. home palate? 4) Tasting Process – how are the wines being evaluated, categorized and tasted? Will your wines show well? 5) Residual Marketing Value – what is the reach of the event, will the results be promoted in print and online, and will you receive digital badges for content marketing? 6) Consumer Events – are there events and is there an option to participate? 7) Costs? Consider entry fees and bottles required against all the above.

Here’s a perspective from Michael Cervin, a 20-year wine journalist, and 15-year wine judge who likes judging panels that benefit the wineries. “The more progressive competitions disallow winemakers as part of the panel because typically, based on my own and competition directors’ experiences, winemakers find flaws and faults in wine, when the goal is to award wines. Therefore, when looking for ROI, journalists, wine buyers and distributors make up a large segment, at least here in California, in part because they write about the winning wines, they buy the winning wines for their wine lists, and they sign up wines for distribution.” This speaks to the key points of differentiation of wine competitions. Does it help build my brand? Is there marketing impact? Will there be print and digital media announcing the results? Does the competition have readers, subscribers, an email list, social media followers? Otherwise, medals without marketing are an expensive proposition.

Finally, if you are not familiar with how competitions work, read this article by Erin James, Behind the scenes of a Wine Competition, which reviews the McMinnville Wine & Food Classic – Sip! wine competition. Erin also judges and hosts a competition for her magazine and shares some thoughts on the benefits to wineries who enter competitions. “If they place or win, clout and influence! That lauded reputation is a sales and marketing tool to connect with consumers. Another advantage is to receive feedback from judges, to make the product better in the future. Top priority for our Best of the Northwest competition has always been to share the results in our magazine, and to build the year’s best drinks shopping list. We are adding an option for producers this year to receive feedback on their submissions, to ultimately bring more value to their entries.”

As always, there is a cost to enter and to advertise your winning medals. I wouldn’t consider this unless the competition does a good job of promoting award winners and has reach and readers that matter. Competitions are also worth considering as part of your retail strategy. Awards are good marketing content for retailers, to feature as signage and shelf talkers if this is part of your overall sales plan. In the end, that bottle necker or end of isle display may be what inspires a consumer to grab your wines first.

CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s enjoyed 10 years 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 and communications consultant. Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, and the Columbia Gorge. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media).

Joe Roberts, 1 Wine Dude

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 Virginie Boone, Wine Enthusiast, who once covered the NFL for ESPN, wrote travel guides for Lonely Planet, and now mostly covers the California wine business.

Joe is a consultant, musician and professional wine reviewer in the greater Philadelphia area. He authored a freelance wine column for Playboy.com and was previously the wine expert for Answers.com. Joe holds Level 2 and Level 3 Certificates in Wine & Spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) in England. He’s a member of the U.S.-based Society of Wine Educators, holding their Certified Specialist of Wine CSW) qualification. He also holds the Wine Location Specialist (WLS) qualification from the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) and the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP), and is a member of the Wine Century Club (but that last one’s just for geeky bragging rights, really).

Joe has contributed to and/or been quoted in the L.A. TimesNew York TimesCNBC.com, The Washington Post, Mutineer Magazine, Publix® Grape Magazine, Palate PressMint.com, Parade, Wines.com, SOMM Journal, The Guardian UK, Table Matters, Wine Nabber, Wine4.Me, Nomad Editions’ Uncorked and Chester County Cuisine & Nightlife. His unique wine mini-reviews (composed in 140 characters or less via twitter) have been used in popular iPhone and PDA wine applications such as Sipp, Hello Vino, TedRec and Pocket Wine Assistant.  He’s also been a judge in wine competitions (such as the Critics Challenge International, the San Francisco International, the Lake County Wine Awards, California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition, the Wines of Portugal Challenge, and the Argentina Wine Awards), wine writing competitions, and award programs (such as the Georges Duboeuf Wine Book of the Year Award), and authored the freelance wine column Wined Down for Playboy.com.

Follow Joe at http://www.1winedude.com and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Professional Background

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

I was an avid consumer. Not a collector, just someone who fell off the deep end in terms of geeking out over wine’s combination of hedonistic pleasure, geography, history, chemistry, agriculture, etc. The blog was started as an adjunct to a business idea that never took off. The blog, however, gained influence (for reasons I still don’t fully understand), and 11+ years later, I’m still doing it (and other wine-related stuff).

What are your primary story interests?

Well, for other outlets I’ve done… pretty much everything under the sun. For 1WineDude.com, however, I tend to focus on wines and regions that don’t get a lot of media play. Consequently, I’ll get asked to visit off-the-radar wine regions, and I almost always say Yes.

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 challenges and hurdles you face?

No. It’s not really possible; not with just writing, anyway. You HAVE to segue your reputation into media/writing/competitions/speaking gigs/what-have-you. Income pooling, in a freelancing world. The number of real opportunities isn’t that large.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

I still cry sometimes when watching really poignant movies.

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

You’ve succeeded when you can vehemently disagree with someone like me and make your own informed choices about wine without having to have them validated by me (or someone like me).

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

I’d either still be doing the senior management grind in corporate America, or clawing out some kind of living as a full-time musician.

How would you like the wine community to remember you?

Great question. I’d like to be thought of as someone who was able to crack the traditional mold around “ivory tower” wine writing, and thus was able to empower people inside and outside the wine biz towards more independence, and, hopefully, increasing their love for the stuff overall.

Writing Process

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

When I get hired to write, it’s at the discretion of the editor; I can do any style that someone might want. For my website, it’s all about getting to the essence of something quickly and quirkily. For features on 1WD, I decided to take the “traditional” elements of how those stories have been structured for what seems like forever, and explode them into a huge mess; then I go through the mess, pick up the elements that I like best, and rearrange them into… something. Usually it works, though sometimes it’s like the writing equivalent of experimental jazz…

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

Generally yes to both; I aim for two posts a week on 1WD (a mini-review roundup, and some form of feature). I often have NO idea what I will write about during a trip, and story ideas present themselves often after when I am reviewing notes, etc.

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

A writer gets paid to write. An influencer has influence on others who make decisions (usually related to purchasing) within a given field. I’m fortunate enough to be/have been both. I tend to influence the influencers within wine, which I find kind of odd because that was never an intention and I write on 1WD for my own pleasure and generally more geared towards intermediate consumers. Obviously – and, I suppose, luckily – I failed.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

Do your homework. Sh*t, do ANY homework. Blanket PR pushes don’t really work anymore in a world that’s increasingly online and increasingly niche-focused. Have a specific reason as to why you are contacting a journalist, and it needs to be better than “I want to get my crap in front of as many eyeballs as possible.”

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

I’m not sure that I understand the question. And I am sober as I write this. 🙂 I actually find that the better PR folks don’t work for wineries, but have them as clients (so that each party can focus on what they do best).

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

By far the most frustrating thing is being banal. No one really cares about your marketing material, they want to connect with you on a human level. There’s a lack of that vulnerability in the wine world sometimes.

Leisure Time

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

Napping. Hanging out with my kiddo. Teaching myself new things. Adventuring with my girlfriend. And of course playing Rock Star for real in my band.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

Probably that time that time I visited Madeira, and the folks at D’Oliveiras suggested that, since we were going back to the old stock, we might as well taste the 1850 Verdelho because of how well it was drinking. No one has ever been more right in the history of good suggestions!

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

Right now, it’s pecan pie with the oldest Tawny Port possible.

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).

Lyn Archer Interview, aka L.M. Archer

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 Fred Swan, wine reviewer, educator and all around bon vivant.

L.M. Archer, FWS | Bourgogne + Champagne ML is a fine wine writer specializing in Burgundy, bubbles and emerging wine regions. Her works appear in numerous domestic and international publications, including Meininger Wine Business International, Wines and Vines Magazine, South Bay Accent Magazine, Oregon Wine Press, Palate Press, France Today, and Winesearcher.com. She is also a former video correspondent for Foodable Network. A member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, TASTE Awards’ Academy of Media Tastemakers, and International Wine Writers Alliance, she received a prestigious 2017 Professional Wine Writers Symposium Fellowship, and holds designation in French Wine, Bourgogne and Champagne Master Level from the rigorous Wine Scholar Guild. You can find her @lmarcherml on Instagram/Twitter, @lynmarcher on Facebook, and at www.lmarcher.com.

Professional Background

How did you come to wine, and to wine writing? Wine via access to an unlimited expense account in another lifetime, allowed for tastings through the high end of wine lists, thereby helping inform my palate. A trip to Burgundy in 2009 sparked my passion for the region; a love of history informed my insatiable curiosity about the topic in general, as wine really is the story of civilization.

Writing called me at the age of eight. However, pragmatism led to a corporate career, with stints writing for in-house and trade publications. In 2008, I attended a writer’s workshop to help me re-spark creatively; the program director allowed us to choose our final project topic. I chose wine, and realized this was what I wanted to write about full-time. However, it took me until 2012 to find the courage to make that leap of faith full time.

After leaping, I wanted to understand my chosen field more completely, and so began by studying Wine Fundamentals through the International Guild of Sommeliers. As I progressed, I realized that French wine proved a touchstone for me, and so opted to specialize in this area, earning designations first in French Wine, then Bourgogne Master Level, and finally Champagne Master Level, through the rigorous Wine Scholars Guild program.

What are your primary story interests? Burgundy, bubbles and emerging wine regions. I discovered that Champagne is the ‘flip-side’ of Burgundy – same varietals, totally different expression. And emerging wine regions specializing in Pinot Noir and sparkling wine often look to Burgundy and Champagne as reference points, but ultimately seek to express their own, unique terroirs, and cultures. Exciting, and endlessly fascinating.

Are you a staff columnist or freelance? What are the advantages of both? I have done both. Staff writing provides certainty and rigor; freelance writing allows creativity and freedom.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? Until late 2015, I suffered from acute shyness. This proved especially painful at the outset of my wine career, as I attempted to learn more about the business of wine making through tenures at a few tasting rooms, and video storytelling. A difficult experience, from which I learned a great deal about myself, and the industry.

What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your writing about wine? As a writer, I understand the journey of the artist, including winemakers; however, as a professional, it’s important to never lose sight of the fact that winemaking is also an exacting, grueling business.

If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing?   Writing historical fiction. My first historical novel, based in WWII German-occupied Burgundy France, is currently in revisions.

Writing Process

Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews? Each story varies, but all involve extensive research, quote verifications, and editing.

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

Do you post your articles on social media? Why is that important? Social media broadens the audience, and dialogue, worldwide.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists? Hydration stations and spit buckets, please!

What advantages are there in working direct with winery publicists? Publicists provide essential communications and logistical links during tours and interviews, as well as collateral materials and samples. It helps that most appear to love their jobs, and remain unfailingly upbeat, regardless the situation.

Which wine personalities would you most like to meet and taste with (living or dead)? George Saintsbury, A.J. Liebling, Henri Jayer, M.F.K. Fisher.

Leisure Time

If you take days off, how do you spend them?Getting out of my head – exercise, catching up with family and friends, ‘forest-bathing’ in nature. 

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience? A private tasting and tour at Maison Joseph Drouhin in Beaune, FR. with Véronique Drouhin while I was in town covering the 2017 Hospices de Beaune wine auction. Véronique Drouhin proved utterly charming, funny, graceful – generous in spirit, spirits, and Burgundian savoir faire. So much history under one street!

Pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner. Mercurey Village rouge and Oregon sparkling blanc de blancs wine, of course!

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).

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).