Dorothy J. Gaiter & John Brecher, Wine Journalists and Authors

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.

Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher conceived and wrote The Wall Street Journal’s weekly wine column, “Tastings,” from 1998 to 2010. They are currently senior editors at Grape Collective (grapecollective.com). They are also the authors of four books on wine and appeared regularly on TV (from Martha Stewart to “Today) and radio, including “Fresh Air.” They met and fell in love at The Miami Herald on their first day out of college on June 4, 1973. Dottie has worked at The Herald, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. John has worked at The Herald, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News. Their papers were recently added to the Warren Winiarski Wine Writers Collection at the University of California at Davis, along with those of Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, Karen MacNeil and others. They invented the international celebration of wine, love and friendship called “Open That Bottle Night.”

You can follow Dorothy & John on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and read their stories and reviews on Grape Collective Magazine.

Professional Background

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

It was an accident. When The Wall Street Journal began Weekend Journal in 1998, the editor, who knew about our passion for wine, asked if we’d volunteer a wine column in addition to our real jobs. John was Page One Editor and Dottie was Editor for Urban Affairs. We had been enjoying and studying wine together for 35 years, but had never written about it and didn’t plan to. But the editor was a friend so we said sure. We had no idea the column would take off as it did. Two years later, we went to the brilliant Managing Editor of The Journal, Paul Steiger, and told him we couldn’t do both wine and our real jobs anymore. He asked which we’d rather do. That’s when we became full-time wine writers.

What are your primary story interests?

We like to write columns that have a story behind them. So many wines, wine regions and winemakers have interesting stories. We like to tell those stories.

What are your primary palate preferences?

We will try anything. At an event for home winemakers in Miami years ago, we tried a couple of garlic wines. One, a sparkler, was fascinating and we suspected it was a ringer. The other, a still wine, was not very tasty, but, as you can tell, we never forgot it. It had very strong hints of – well, garlic.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

When Dottie was a reporter at The New York Times, she wrote a story about thousands of elderly New Yorkers going without food on weekends because the program that fed them didn’t cover them on those days. Gael Greene read the story, called her friend James Beard and founded Citymeals on Wheels, which has now delivered more than 60 million meals. The organization honored Dottie a couple of years ago. John was the most successful Page One Editor of The Wall Street Journal (this is from his boss). The Journal won seven Pulitzer Prizes for stories he oversaw, including three straight National Pulitzers and the only two Feature Pulitzers it has ever won.

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

Visit South Africa.

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

Wine can make life more enjoyable. It makes you slow down and when you do, you can appreciate everyone around you – especially your loved ones – a little bit more.

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

We are best-known for our invention of Open That Bottle Night, the worldwide celebration of wine, friendship and love. The Journal nominated our first Open That Bottle Night follow-up column for a Pulitzer. Here is the link to this year’s follow-up story: https://grapecollective.com/articles/phelps-insignia-jackass-zin-and-a-vice-bust-how-the-world-celebrated-otbn

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

We’d be working on hard news.

Writing Process

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

We like to say that we have never written a wine column. We write a column about life, love, family and getting by every day. We use wine as our central theme to talk about those really important topics.

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

Ideally, we prefer stories to come up organically as we enjoy wine in our real lives. Sometimes they are wines we’ve bought, sometimes samples sent to us. But, of course, the calendar is important. People do want to know about bubblies for the holidays and rosé in summer and romance around Valentine’s Day. In 2019, we interviewed Heidi and Bo Barrett for Valentine’s and this year Mary Ewing-Mulligan and Ed McCarthy.

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

We are on Instagram as @dottieandjohn, Twitter as @winecouple and Facebook as facebook.com/winecouple – and, of course, at grapecollective.com. More and more people get their information on social media. It’s an important part of communication today.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

Be responsive! When we contact you with questions, please get back to us with the information we need. That may be obvious, but, man, you’d be surprised.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

When it’s something like, say, photographs or spec sheets, good publicists can make things easier for everyone. We interview winemakers directly. Sometimes publicists can help us get their attention.

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

We’re glad you asked. It is annoying when we write about a wine – either on social media or at Grape Collective – and later a publicist contacts us and asks, “So what did you think of the wine?” It seems to us that one of the things wineries are paying publicists for is to know when they are written about so they can disseminate kind words across their own social networks. Use Google Alerts or other tools. It’s good for wineries and it’s good for us when publicists and their clients see our work and spread it widely. And it’s insulting when publicists don’t bother to read our work.

Leisure Time

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

Maybe three or four times a year, when we go out, we will have real drinks – a martini for John and a whisky sour for Dottie. We rarely have real drinks and don’t know anything about spirits. Since we’re not having wine, we don’t geek out about the beverage in front of us. It’s like a night off.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

One of the wines that made Napa famous was the Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour 1968 Cabernet Sauvignon, crafted by the great André Tchelistcheff. When we honeymooned in Napa in 1979, Beaulieu was still selling that wine in the tasting room. We bought a bottle, borrowed a couple of glasses and drank it amid the vines. We have often said it was the greatest wine we have ever had or will ever have.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world?

We will always have a soft spot for Napa. We first visited in 1975 – the first time we’d been to a wine region – and honeymooned there in 1979. We’ve been back many times since. It holds many memories for us.

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

CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s going on his 12th year of winery consulting. Carl has been involved in business marketing and public relations for over 25 years; originally in technology, digital marketing and project management, and now as a winery media relations consultant. Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, and the Columbia Gorge. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media).

Covid’s Winery Wake Up Call

It’s About Marketing, Not Winemaking

Hear me out. I know winemaking is important, but the wine sales game has changed dramatically. Covid-19 tasting room closures have proven this. See the preceding article written at the beginning of tasting room closures back in March, 2020 – Covid, Community & Commerce.

If you doubt the premise of this follow-up article, there are several things I would ask you to consider:

  • The Covid-19 pandemic proves that the survival of your business is not predicated on making premium quality wine, but rather, marketing and selling wine in new and creative ways
  • Competing on limited production quality wine is no longer the point of difference is was 25 years ago. Wine production expertise, regional experience and enology technical advancements have leveled the playing field globally.
  • The Tasting Room model of the last 20 years is antiquated and over-subscribed
  • Large distributors will continue the consolidation of shelf space and retail presence
  • “Branded” wineries with marketing strategies, staffing and budgets are competing with family owned wineries who have real characters and stories behind their products
  • “Celebrity” wineries with funding and influence are competing and have real people behind the brands (Cameron Diaz, Kate Upton, John Malcovic, Bon Jovi, C.J. McCollum). The list goes on…
  • Professional online wine marketing organizations will sell more wine than you can in your tasting room and to your wine club, even if the quality is not equivalent
  • Providing personalized experiences is how to compete with branded and corporate wineries

Stop thinking you are in the winery production business, and start believing you are in the wine marketing business. Your competitive advantage is that consumers are supporting authentic brands that resonate with them. You are real characters. Characters with great wine and stories to engage consumers. The Branded marketing companies can’t compete with that, and you can’t compete with them unless you have a significant digital presence and online marketing strategy, even though the quality of your wine is superior.

If you are a small producer, let’s concede that financial resources are limited, and really you can’t compete with well-funded marketers. However, you can provide something they can’t – an emotional connection with your brand – by delivering exceptional personal experiences, albeit at a value-added price points. Rather, turn your focus to doing a better job marketing and selling than everyone else in your own space. This may seem counter to the collaborations small producers have established in their regions, and with the support of regional and AVA associations, but at the end of the day we’re talking about competing and survival, in business. Find an elegant and egalitarian way to do it.

In fact, to take this one step further, your tasting room is no longer the only key to your consumer direct business. Your website is, and your target market is expanding beyond those that can visit you in person. Imagine if all businesses were limited to selling product to customers onsite and in person. It’s not a business model that still makes sense. Create a sales strategy as if you were an “online only” wine business with no brick and mortar. I would urge you to do three things:

  1. Identify and profile your ideal customer. Create similar audiences and target market to them, and request introductions to their like-interested friends
  2. Look at your online stats by using website analytics to segment and target your online marketing
  3. Continue your virtual wine events to capture and expand new out of state audiences, and support club members who live outside your region. There is a largely untapped opportunity to expand online revenues, grow followers and use contemporary technologies that consumers embrace

Having an onsite tasting room is a bonus, but don’t rely on visits and club signups only. How can you convey that in-person experience and share your unique brand stories online? I think this will be our biggest challenge. The answer is about marketing. Actually, it always has been.

Note: This article originally ran on July 20th, 2020 as an Expert Editorial by Wine Industry Network: https://wineindustryadvisor.com/2020/07/20/covids-winery-wake-up-call

CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s going on his 12th year of winery consulting. Carl has been involved in business marketing and public relations for over 25 years; originally in technology, digital marketing and project management, and now as a winery media relations consultant. Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, and the Columbia Gorge. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media).

Randy Smith, The Wine Write

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.

Randy Smith is the man behind The Wine Write. Randy grew up in the Mississippi Delta many years ago with not a vineyard in sight. After wasting a lot of time, he caught the wine bug after taking a wine appreciation course at a community college. A lot of wine tasting and wine travel ensued. Randy started The Wine Write website and blog in 2011. There he posts weekly stories about winemakers and other wine people that capture his interest.

You can follow Randy on Facebook and Twitter, and read his stories and reviews on The Wine Write.

Professional Background

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

I was introduced to wine later in life than most via a community college wine appreciation course. I was bitten by the wine bug there and soon started planning wine trips to California, Oregon, Washington, and New York. We’ve continued to travel for wine several times each year. I was nudged into writing about wine by my wife. I enjoyed wine and creative writing, so it’s been a good outlet for me. At the time I started The Wine Write I was unaware that blogs even existed.

What are your primary story interests?

I focus on the personalities behind the labels, so I primarily interview winemakers and other people in wine. I find it fascinating to learn about how they got connected to wine, who influenced them, and how they got to where they are in the business.

What are your primary palate preferences?

I like Syrah, Grenache, Riesling, Chardonnay, Mourvedre, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Grenache Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Gruner Veltliner, Cabernet Franc, Petite Sirah, Roussanne, Albarino, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Nebbiolo. Among other varietals. And blends.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you?

When I’m interviewing someone the first question I’m often asked is, “Where are you from?” I’m pretty sure my accent causes some consternation…a lot of people think I’m from Paso Robles or the Central Coast because I’ve interviewed a number of people from there. Actually, I was born in the Mississippi Delta and now live just outside New Orleans. Not a lot of vineyards around here.

What is probably also surprising is that I have no vocational background in wine or in professional writing. I worked in the insurance business four decades. Most of my writing there was centered around medical malpractice claims. Not nearly as creative or as fun as wine.

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

There are so many more wine people out there that I’d love to interview. I keep grinding away. I’m still not done with wine travel, either!

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

There are a lot of small producers making excellent wines and most of the people behind those brands are really nice folks.

What’s the best story you have written?

I don’t know if it’s the best story I’ve ever written, but as I was talking to Richard Sanford I was thinking, “Holy shit, I’m having a conversation with Richard Sanford.” He’s a Hall of Fame vintner and one of the nicest guys on the planet. I felt so privileged to chat with him.

Writing Process

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

I try to read everything I can find about my interview subjects. I then develop a list of ten to twelve questions for them. I try to ask questions that I haven’t seen covered in the articles I came across doing my research. During the actual interview the direction may change based on what I hear from my subject. After doing the interview I try as best as I can to put everything together in an interesting fashion. I do a lot of rereads.

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

I have no schedule. I’m retired from my working life and The Wine Write for fun.

How often do you blog?

I blog weekly and post the stories each Sunday night.

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

I do post on social media to spread the word. I am on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Surprisingly to me I also get good response to sharing my posts on LinkedIn.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

Mutual respect is the key to most working relationships. I am most appreciative of the time that winery people give me. I would hope that my time and work is also appreciated. I have to say that I’ve rarely run into any issues with wineries.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

Working with a publicist makes the scheduling of interviews much easier. Background material is usually provided by publicists, so that reduces the amount of online sleuthing I have to do. That being said, the overwhelming majority of my work has been done without the involvement of publicists.

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

M.F.K. Fisher. I love her books and essays. She was a pioneering food and wine writer who was so far ahead of her time.

Leisure Time

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

Every day is now a day off. When I’m not writing or traveling, I may be watching grandchildren, surfing the internet, or reading. From April through September I’m also managing my fantasy baseball team.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

There have been a lot of them, but spending time with Richard Sanford in El Jabali Vineyard and touring Smith-Madrone Vineyard with Stuart Smith have to rank high among them.

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

CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s going on his 12th year of winery consulting. Carl has been involved in business marketing and public relations for over 25 years; originally in technology, digital marketing and project management, and now as a winery media relations consultant. Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, and the Columbia Gorge. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media).

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).

Winery Trade-Show Strategies

Trade Show Attendee Strategies

Rise to the challengeTradeshow season is coming up soon. Conferences usually last more than one day, so how to come out of the conference energized with ideas to grow your business? Unless you are visiting to purchase something specific (more on this later), here are three things to focus on during winery trade show – Promote Yourself and Your Brand, Market Research and Networking.

Promote Yourself and Your Brand – establish yourself and your winery business as a leader. You do this by offering information and assistance to your peers, and being participative during the trade show. This will also help you get Media exposure if it arises; requests to be a future panelist, which highlights your areas of expertise and further promotes you/your brand; and opportunities to participate in winery and industry associations. The other benefit of being active versus passive it that you’ll feel energized and recharged with new ideas and initiatives.

Market Research – you go to these shows and so does your (winery) competition. This is a prime opportunity to gather intelligence and best practices ideas. The payback for offering info is getting new ideas, techniques and emerging trends in return. Issues with stuck fermentations? Treatments for blights and bugs? POS and inventory issues? Thoughts on new legislations? How are they selling so much wine online? Is social media still working for you? How are you getting those scores and wine writers reviews? You get my point; now be sure to ask.

Networking – make friends with other winery principles and managers (also wine industry suppliers) that can help you. Don’t be afraid to initiate conversations – “First time at this conference?” “What do you hope to accomplish?” – that’s why people attend these types of events. Give some thought to your 20 second (or less) elevator pitch. Who you are, where and what you do, and what you’re hoping to get out of the trade-show. Note on boorish self-indulgent conversations – they happen! Don’t be afraid to gracefully leave. Your time is valuable. Make a nice comment about them or a comment on the conversation, then exit stage left. But, never burn bridges. I’ve been amazed over the years how someone of little interest has come back around in a valuable way.

Why not conduct business meetings during show breaks? Find new dealers and vendors to establish long term relationships. You will eventually need their help, products and services in the future. I find it helpful to immediately make notes on the back of business cards as follow-up reminders.

Note to Winery Staffers: if you are an employee being sent to the conference, this is not a paid holiday, but an opportunity to learn, network and report back to management. Establish up front goals for research, education and market intelligence. Setup a meeting to report back your findings and recommendations.

Logistics and Tactics – download and print the show agenda and attendees lists. Identify and highlight (yes, use a marker pen if you must) which “must do” classes and sessions to attend and which speakers you want to talk to. Schedule yourself and stick to the schedule. Download the trade-show mobile app. Use it to automate what’s noted above, identify attendees to seek out, initiative chatroom and feedback conversations using appropriate confab #hashtags. Our nature tendency is to kibitz with established wine business friends, taste wine and relax. Resist this and stay on plan. This is your investment of time and how you outpoint your competition. Take an end row seat in the middle of the room. This enables you to see the entire audience for influential and information contacts. It also provides easy regress when you need it.

Who else is attending the show? Highlight those contacts who have the most value and make a short list to refer to. What is it that you’d talk to them about? You’ll see them throughout the show and can spontaneously strike up a conversation. To do that, arrive early in the morning and hang out at the coffee and water stations. People will arrive relaxed and conversations are easy going. Be there early for breakfast and introductions. Look around the room and see who you want to speak to and sit with them. Stay late for wine tastings and social activities to make more connections. When “winesense” turns to nonsense, beat feet back to your room and get some shut eye in prep for tomorrows events. Review your contact notes and action items while memory still serves. Working out early in the morning and arriving top of the day’s agenda puts you one step ahead.

Plan on purchasing something? Consider your most pressing problem or need. Is it related to grape growing, wine making or marketing and selling your wines? Once you identified 1-2 business needs, decide if you have budget and what the time frame is to acquisition. This will help you have a business discussion with vendors, and acquire good and competitive information about their products and services. Should you make a purchase commitment at the show? This can vary based on whether you are offered a “Trade-show Only” deal that evaporates as soon as you depart the floor. Having spent many years in sales I know that these deals can be reconstructed or re-negotiated later. My strategy is to politely decline but give the salesperson your card and ask them to follow up after the show. It’s their job after all to do so. This puts you in a better negotiating position and not subject to artificial “sense of urgency”. You can also evaluate and leverage competitive offers without the strain of show deadlines.

Trade-Shows can be fun, educational and insightful. It’s one of those times during the year when we can visit with and learn from our peer and subject matter experts. It’s up to you to make the most of the opportunity. Oh, and if you see me at an upcoming conference, please be sure to say hello and ask what my goals and strategies might be!

10 years of Winery Consulting – What I learned

A Wine Marketing & PR Perspective

I was asked recently how I got started in the wine business. My experience is not unlike many small producers who transitioned from other business lives, learned on the job, but had the determination necessary to be successful. I am fortunate and appreciative to have worked with over 50 wineries in some capacity, initially as a DTC marketing consultant and starting in 2012 as winery publicist.

Marking 10 years doing anything is milestone, especially in the wine business given the pace of change we’ve seen. Wineries continue to recreate themselves by embracing marketing best practices and technology innovations. The pace of change has picked up with no end in sight. The one constant we can all bank on are relationships. If you’re a publicist, it’s the relationships you develop over a long period of time with writers, media outlets, winery and travel associations and occasionally with other publicists and marketers. If you’re a winery, relationships that matter most are with your customers, staff, wholesalers, other service providers, and the wine community. Going forward I’m guessing that people will continue to matter most, followed by product and wrapped in good marketing and brand promotion. Here are some general observations related to small production wineries in Oregon, over the past 10 years.

2009 – The way things were

  • DTC marketing – a relatively new channel for small producers with little distribution. Focus on tasting room openings and wine clubs, starting mailing lists, email marketing and social media
  • We’re farmers – most common response to queries about marketing plans
  • Marketing plans and consulting services – those were for real businesses! And, we used to sell out in past years!
  • Paid Content – print advertising is still widely used for winery promotions
  • Wine clubs – not as prevalent – 70% had some form, many needing revision
  • Websites – many wineries upgrade to WordPress and other content self-management systems
  • Social media was a new thing – common responses included – It’s not for us. Do I need to do this?
  • Holiday weekend sales were legendary – reports of $15,000-$20,000 weekends were common
  • Staffing – Few hospitality managers and very few digital marketing managers
  • Brand Building – relied on distributors. Distribution mix to DTC was 80% to 20%
  • Distribution consolidation – started with 2008-2010 recession. Small Wineries phased out of markets. Focus turns to smaller cities and regional markets. Much effort expended on market trips
  • Wine quality – still varies by producer. Collaboration on techniques is improving uneven quality
  • Media Coverage – wineries are occasionally being discovered. Active media outreach is minimal
  • Great recession ceases in 2010-2011. U.S. stock markets reach record high. Confidence, optimism and new investment returns

2012 to 2018 – It’s getting competitive

  • Owned Content – wineries focus on updated websites, blogs, social media, news, photos, videos and designed collateral
  • Regional, AVA and Tourism Associations – emerge as marketing organizations with enhanced budgets from new member dues, grant funding, fundraising
  • Experiential marketing – became a thing around 2015, which leads to hiring of hospitality, tasting room and club managers as the new standard in tasting room staffing. Multiple “experiences” offered
  • Winery specific software – facilitates target marketing and customer relationship management. Development of applications and technology create opportunities for hospitality staff to customize customer experience and interactions. Website analytics allows tracking of activities and results
  • Competition – new vineyard planting and winery brands proliferate due to factors including changing weather, quality and integrity reputation, and significant outside investment
  • Channel Mix – is evolving to 20% Distribution and 80% DTC
  • Wine quality – quality is a “point of entry” for consumer sales, and is widely accepted due to production experience, collaboration & technical advances
  • Media Coverage – wineries recognize the need to stand out in a crowded marketplace, and recognize brand building as their responsibility, although take a passive approach to promoting themselves. Winery associations offer members exposure to media activities, contacts and inquiries.

2019 until?

  • Branded versus Grower-Producer – the influence of winemaker personalities will diminish as well-funded large wine groups out-spend, out-price, and out-market small brands
  • Consumer visitation – becomes longer and more focused. Extended visits equate to less tasting room traffic, as people stay longer, visit fewer wineries but have higher quality experiences. Conversion rates increase, although less traffic equates to fewer opportunities for club sign-ups and new digital subscribers
  • Wine Club Retention – remains as issue as consumer have much choice and are gaming the system. Loss prevention becomes strategic for DTC management
  • Online Sales – this DTC sales channel has much underrealized potential. More wineries will activate eCommerce programs as an additional revenue source, and to manage customer contacts, interests, transactions and history. The overall customer relationship will be highly managed
  • Staffing – scarcity of trained and qualified staff is an issue, whether within the wine industry or hospitality industry. This calls out the need for sales automation and technology investment
  • Digital Marketing – 2019 and beyond will see the hiring of digital marketing managers as the most important role, in coordinating all marketing functions with a focus and emphasis on e-commerce.
  • Media Coverage – the need to develop “Top of Mind” awareness becomes apparent. Wineries will begin to add communications professionals to staff, at least in a part time role. Active media outreach and brand promotion campaigns will be coordinated with digital marketing staff
  • Channel Mix – some producers give up on distribution and moved to 100% DTC

These are halcyon days for the wine business. Who knows what the next economic cycle will bring? Consumers have disposable income and purchases of $80-$100 bottles are not uncommon. Update and invest in your business now, while the going is exceptionally good.

 

 

Melanie Ofenloch, Dallas Wine Chick

Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers is a Q&A series profiling Wine Writers. I expect you’ll discover more about wine writers that you know, and learn about many others. The objective of this project is to understand and develop working relationships with journalists. They are after all, those that help tell our stories and review our wines. What better way to obtain media coverage than to learn their wine and writing backgrounds, story and personal interests, palate preferences, writing challenges and pet peeves. This is also part of an ongoing series that is being featured monthly by Wine Industry Network. Last month’s interview featured Michelle Williams, who writes for Forbes, Snooth, USA Today and may more consumer lifestyle publications.

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

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

Professional Background

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

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

What are your primary story interests? 

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

What are your primary palate preferences?

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

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you?

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

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

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

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

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

How would you like the wine community to remember you?

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

Writing Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists? 

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

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists? 

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

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

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

Leisure Time

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

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

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience? 

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

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

What’s your favorite wine region in the world?

Tuscany.  Need I say more?

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

Michelle Williams Interview

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

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

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

Professional Background

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

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

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

What are your primary story interests?

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

What are your primary palate preferences?

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

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

Very little, I suppose.

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

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

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

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

Writing Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

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

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

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

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

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

Leisure Time

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

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

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

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

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

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

 

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).

Virginie Boone, Wine Enthusiast

Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers is a Q&A series profiling Wine Writers. I expect you’ll discover more about wine writers that you know, and learn about many others. The objective of this project is to understand and develop working relationships with journalists. They are after all, those that help tell our stories and review our wines. What better way to obtain media coverage than to learn their wine and writing backgrounds, story and personal interests, palate preferences, writing challenges and pet peeves. This is also part of an ongoing series that is being featured monthly by Wine Industry Network. Last month’s interview featured Lyn Archer, aka L.M. Archer, an international fine wine writer, critic, judge, and curator who covers Burgundy, bubbles, Oregon,  and emerging wine regions.

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

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

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

Professional Background

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

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

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

Is it possible to make a living as a wine writer today? If so, how have you succeeded? If not, why not? What are the primary challenges and hurdles you face? Ugh. It’s pretty hard. I feel very fortunate that somehow it’s worked out for me. But I work a lot. Most of it is relatively glamorous, social and amazing, but there are days I’m chucking a car-full of recycling into the bins at the Healdsburg dump, too. I’d say the biggest challenge is the time it takes to do all the things that don’t make money, social media first and foremost among them, but also all the box schlepping, organizing and yes, that recycling.

Personal Background

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

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

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

Writing Process

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

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

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

Working Relationships

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

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

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

Leisure Time

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

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

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

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