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 Karen MacNeil, Author of the Wine Bible.
ERIC DEGERMAN is president/CEO for Great Northwest Wine — an award-winning news website that covers the wine industry of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine in 1998 and resigned from the Tri-City (Wash.) Herald in 2012 to launch Great Northwest Wine with Andy Perdue. Eric lives in Richland, Wash., with his wife, Traci, and their pride of rescue cats. He has judged the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition since 2005. For more information on Great Northwest Wine, go to https://greatnorthwestwine.com.
How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?
My interest in wine started with Dad’s love of golf and his desire to leave the Idaho Panhandle during the winter months. He and his wife became snowbirds in Southern California, and when they weren’t playing golf, they would visit tasting rooms in Temecula. This led to their subscription to Wine Spectator. During the holidays of 1997, I looked over the year-end issue. There wasn’t much about wines of the Pacific Northwest. Then again, there wasn’t much being written in the Northwest about the industry. I remember Tom Stockley at The Seattle Times, Cameron Nagel’s culinary-focused Northwest Palate magazine in Portland and the erudite John Schreiner in British Columbia. Cole Danehower had not yet rolled out his Oregon Wine Report.
At the same time, I wanted to transition from the Western Hockey League beat at the Tri-City Herald to write a regular outdoors column and take on an editing role. Meanwhile, Andy Perdue was a copy editor at the Herald, and his duties at the time included overseeing our food section each week. Longtime agriculture reporter Bob Woehler’s weekly wine column helped anchor that section, so Andy was learning about wine, too. Andy and I often found ourselves kibitzing about wine while we were waiting for the press to start at night, and when I mentioned to him about the lack of Northwest content in Wine Spectator, I said something along the lines of “someone needs to start a magazine that’s dedicated to Northwest wine.”
Andy mulled it over, met with the Herald publisher the next morning and told him, “We want to start a wine magazine, and we want you to pay for it.” Remember, this was 1997. You could do that as part of the fourth estate in those days, and Andy had earned the trust of management by overseeing the newspaper’s niche publications and spearheading the newsroom’s groundbreaking move into pagination. He became Wine Press Northwest’s editor-in-chief and did about 95 percent of the work for the first seven years. I served as associate editor until 2005 when I left the sports desk to help Andy run the Herald’s interactive media department.
When it came to the wine part, we had some great mentors to help us develop our sensory skills. We had good fortune to be introduced to Coke Roth, a distributor-turned-attorney who lived in the Tri-Cities and was among the country’s most sought-after wine competition judges. One of the Herald’s veteran editors, Ken Robertson, had been tasting wine on a serious level since the late 1970s. And “Bargain Bob” Woehler prompted us to think about wines with newspaper readers in the back of our mind. We also attended a sensory evaluation seminar at the University of California-Davis. Historic figures such as John Buechsenstein, Ann “Aroma Wheel” Noble and Roger Boulton served as instructors. It wasn’t an inexpensive class — $500 at the time — but it was a worthy investment.
What are your primary story interests?
Much of our coverage stems from the evaluation of Pacific Northwest wines under blind conditions. We track about 50 wine competitions staged around the world for Wine Press Northwest’s annual Platinum Judging, and in our two decades as wine journalists, we have come to know many of the palates on the panels of these top competitions. Wineries that show consistently well in these judging attract our attention. In addition to organizing a number of U.S. competitions, including four for Great Northwest Wine and our non-profit partners, we also regularly convene tasting panels in the Tri-Cities to evaluate recent releases sent to us by wineries. We don’t charge wineries for those reviews, and we don’t publish negative reviews. If there’s a wine that we can not recommend, we simply do not write about it.
What are your primary palate preferences?
My palate has changed during the past 20 years. At home, I find myself often reaching for sparkling wines, food-friendly whites and Rhône-inspired reds. My appreciation has grown for wines that are lower in alcohol with minimal oak and backed by vibrant acidity. I’ve also come to appreciate reds that offer a bit of herbaceousness.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
Folks seem to find it somewhat fascinating that I was a sports writer for most of my career. However, as my friend Bill Ward, the James Beard Award winner at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, points out, wine critics such as Dan Berger, Linda Murphy and Bruce Schoenfeld also began in the sports department. https://www.cjr.org/the_feature/sports_writers_wine.php
What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your writing about wine?
Don’t think of wine as merely an alcoholic beverage but rather as an ingredient at the dining table as well as an agricultural product rooted in history and science. A large Texan in a cowboy hat once told me, “After all, viticulture is agriculture.”
If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing?
I grew up in the golf industry, and I’ve thought about leading golf and wine tours. (I put one together in the Lewis-Clark Valley a couple of years ago for the Northwest Golf Media Association.) My wife and I share an interest in conservation and protecting the environment, so working for an agency or company supporting those efforts is intriguing.
What’s the best story you have written? Please provide a link.
Perhaps the most compelling story that I’ve ever shared has been that of Clearwater Canyon Cellars winemaker/co-owner Coco Umiker and her remarkable victory over ovarian cancer at the age of 11. I spent a couple of heartrending days interviewing her and husband, Karl, at their winery in Lewiston, Idaho. What was most difficult for her to revisit was the bullying she endured at a Boise elementary school while she was undergoing chemotherapy. It’s a story that could resonate with any parent and any child. I know of at least one school that brought in Coco to talk with its students. https://www.idahostatesman.com/living/treasure/article40861260.html
Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews?
Early in our career, Andy and I were encouraged to stay away from scoring wines on a 100-point scale (which is more like a 15-point scale these days) so we chose to use a rating system that’s akin to a wine competition. A gold medal equates to “Outstanding!” in our vernacular, while a silver is an “Excellent” and a bronze is “Recommended.” If we can’t recommend a wine after opening two bottles, then we don’t write about it – aka “no medal.” In the back of my mind, would I want my brother to spend $20 on that bottle of wine? If my response is “no,” then I won’t recommend it or give it a bronze medal. When it comes to generating a review, they typically run 80 to 120 words. We include a handful descriptors, share our impressions of the structure, mention the winemaker, list the vineyards and try to provide some food pairing ideas. In essence, it’s a short story about that wine. I wish I was more proficient at generating them because many of the wineries seem to appreciate the effort that I devote to our reviews.
Do you work on an editorial schedule and/or develop story ideas as they come up?
There most certainly is an editorial schedule for our freelance work and the Northwest Wine column that we self-syndicate to more than 20 regional newspapers. As for com, we need to re-establish an editorial schedule. That fell apart in the fall of 2016 when Andy suffered his first series of strokes, but he’s working hard on his rehab and continues to improve. The Seattle Times recently cut back on its wine coverage to branch out into beer, spirits and cider. As a result, Andy is relaunching our Great Northwest WineCast, which is available on iTunes. The effort that he’s put into the painful occupational speech therapy is remarkable.
Do you post your articles on social media? Why is that important?
Ugh. This is an area that I need to work on. Wineries see real value in sharing third-party endorsements such as profiles, reviews and competition medals. As 20th century newspaper reporters, we were trained to eschew self-promotion. Perhaps that’s why I’m not any better at this than I am, but feeding social media channels is critical. It’s difficult these days for someone else to promote your work if you don’t toot your own horn at least a little bit.
What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?
Make it easy to write about your wines by providing a robust “media/trade” section on your site. I routinely get frustrated when I want to write about but can’t immediate access to high-res bottle/label images and tech sheets. Also, I realize that we all want immediate gratification, but it often is several months before our tasting panel will get to your wine. That’s why I encourage wineries to send us samples soon after they get bottled. And before I forget, please include on that media/trade section downloadable rights-free, professional images of your winemaker, your winery, your cellar, your tasting bar and any vineyard that you routinely source fruit from.
What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?
When I learn that a winery has invested time and money in a publicist, it tells me ownership is serious about its approach to media. Agencies such as the Washington State Wine Commission, Oregon Wine Board, British Columbia Wine Institute and Idaho Wine Commission perform remarkable work on behalf of their region as a whole, but no winery should rely on those organizations to promote their brand. It’s no coincidence, however, that some of the top winery publicists on the West Coast are alumni of these agencies, alliances or tourism/convention bureaus. During the course of their career, they’ve developed many of the best practices for dealing with national and international media and wine trade. They’ve learned what types of winery experiences these wine writers and travel writers are looking for. And in many instances, the itineraries created and developed by a publicist helps a writer with story ideas to pitch to editors. Publicists constantly network with writers and know who to reach out to with particular topics. After a trip, they routinely circle back with writers to learn what parts of the tour worked for them – and what didn’t. And I can always count on a trained publicist to make sure that I have access to the rights-free images that my editors need to illustrate a story. Publicists also follow industry trends, track wine competitions and monitor news feeds in order to help with their client’s social media. Bottom line, if a winery with quality juice in its cellar retains the services of a savvy publicist, that connection will generate news, grow a following and help move wine. If I owned a winery of any scale, I would budget for a publicist.
Which wine reviewers/critics would you most like to be on a competition panel with?
Lucky me. I recently judged the New Orleans International Wine Awards and had the honor of being on a panel with Heidi Peterson Barrett and Doug Frost. I won’t deny that I suffered from what golfers know as “the first tee jitters” because Heidi is one of our country’s most famous winemakers, and Doug is one of four people in the world to earn both Master of Wine and Master Sommelier titles. However, Doug is a kick in the pants, and Heidi is remarkably kind and humble. Both were extremely thoughtful judges, and Heidi deserves the credit for championing the Gewürztraminer from New York that came off our panel and went on to win the sweepstakes for best white wine.
Which wine personalities would you most like to meet and taste with (living or dead)?
My degree from the University of Washington is in history, with a focus on the U.S., so Thomas Jefferson would be at the top of my list. I’ve read a fair bit about Lewis and Clark — I graduated from LC High School in Spokane — and the Corps of Discovery traveled through the Columbia Valley, so President Jefferson had a significant influence in the Pacific Northwest. I would hope that he would enjoy seeing our vineyards and tasting our wines, although some of them might be a bit “hot” for his palate.
If you take days off, how do you spend them?
My wife works at Mount Rainier National Park, so I head over there, particularly if I want to cool off in the summer. My dad lives on a golf course and always is willing to sponsor my rounds with him – particularly if I bring him some wine. Spring and summer, I’m watching Major League Baseball, so I try to make it to Seattle once or twice a season. I look forward to the time when my hometown of Portland gets a franchise. In the fall, there’s fantasy football.
What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?
This doesn’t qualify as my “ah-hah” moment, but the DeLille Cellars 2013 Chaleur Estate Blanc ranks as the most remarkable. And that experience came in 2016. Typically, I prefer to drink Northwest whites earlier, but that experience has me using a bit more patience.
Pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner.
I will fudge on this one and reach for pink bubbles by Jay Drysdale and his natural ancestrale rosé program at Bella Wines on the Naramata Bench. For the white, no one can go wrong with the Chateau Ste. Michelle Dry Riesling by Bob Bertheau and his team.
Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing? Favorite recipe/pairing?
My Match Maker series for Wine Press Northwest magazine now is 20 years old, and the pairing that immediately jumps to mind is the Rabbit Cacciatore by chef Francesco Console at Larks in Ashland, Ore., and the Folin Cellars 2013 Estate Tempranillo made by Rob Folin, who started at Domaine Serene and recently took over at Rogue Valley showpiece Belle Fiore.
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).