Ray Fister, Life Between the Vines

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.

RAY FISTER is the creator and producer of the podcast, Life Between the Vines, which has been in production since 2008.  He can be referred to as chief-cook-and-bottle-washer as he writes, interviews, records, videos, edits and produces each program. Mr. Fister was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio with a love for Indians baseball as well as watching Jim Brown play football in the 1960’s.  He has been a musician since his early teens and still performs in bands to this day.  Ray is a professional audio engineer for over 40 years and is owner of 5th Floor Recording Company which is located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, his current home. 

Wine is a great passion for Ray.  His first trip to Napa Valley back in 2001 took that passion to higher level.  He started Life Between the Vines podcast in 2008 and has recorded interviews with over 600 wine industry professionals.  The podcast focus has always been to make wine “less scary”. Ray wanted to let winemakers tell their own stories in their own words, humor and style.  Podcast #400 will run in mid-summer of this year. Ray is the wine contributor to Milwaukee’s NPR station WUWM Lake Effect program. He has hosted countless charity tastings and wine events. Ray lives with his life partner Kathryn, on a horse ranch, south of the city of Milwaukee. When he is not enjoying his humble wine collection, he writes songs, chases his cats and dog and does a bit of editing.

You can follow Ray and Life Between the Vines on Facebook and Instagram, and watch and listen on his YouTube site. 

Professional Background

How did you come to wine, and using video and podcasts as your medium?  I learned a bit about wine in the late 70’s working at a grocery store in the beverage aisle.  From there, wine got it hooks in me.  You never stop learning and wine provides a fun and educational challenge.  As an audio professional, I wanted to let winemakers and vintners tell their stories.  On two occasions I was able to work for a week during crush (Napa Valley and Anderson Valley) to peek “behind the curtain” and document what that life is all about.  

What are your long-range plans for “Life Between The Vines”?  To grow the podcast and videos while becoming a household name in wine.  I am living my dream producing this podcast.

Is it possible to make a living as a wine videographer today? If so, how have you succeeded? If not, why not? What are the primary challenges and hurdles you face?  I have to say it would be difficult to make a full time living as a videographer in this industry seeing how the tools are accessible to most everyone these days.  I have succeeded because I have been in the production industry for over 40 years. As well as producing the podcast for 12 years.  Experience pays off.   I genuinely like people.  The major challenges are lighting, noisy set and airplanes on outdoor interviews.  

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you?  First, I engineered all the audio for the Jeffrey Dahmer trial for Court TV.  Second, I am a rabid Beatles fan and collect records and memorabilia.  Third, I’ve recorded segments for the Simpsons and Family Guy tv shows.  Fourth, I play the ukulele…poorly.

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

Meet George Harrison 😦

What’s the best video you have done?

Please provide a link. My favorite videos are from Premiere Napa Valley.  I’ve attended PNV 10 times and I do brief interviews with as many as 30+ winemakers during the barrel tasting.  I shoot video with an SLR camera, record audio on a Zoom unit all while trying to keep the same wine glass I started the morning with.  It keeps me on my toes and I have more fun than I can say doing these.  I usually choose a subject and main question which sets up the video.  Fours hours and I’m knocked out.  Here is the link to PNV 2020:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6GshUzgNIQ8&t=20s 

What’s your primary business occupation? 

I own a small commercial post production audio studio and yes, it is my intention to transition to wine full time.

Writing Process

Can you describe your approach to doing interviews?  

I love interviewing winemakers.  I am a people person and that gives me the ability to communicate easily.  I do minimal prep so I can make the interview a conversation.  It is super important to listen to my guest’s answers!  I will be self-deprecating to have a bit of fun as we go and get my guest to open up with more interesting and fun stories.  I can be a bit silly.

There are many winery podcasts & videos. What makes your’s special?

We focus on top audio quality recordings for all our programs.  That is a high priority.  We maintain that attitude for every single program.

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

Generally, no.  Some of my guests are referred and some I find after I’ve tasted their wines.  I am lucky to have a great support network of PR folks that are simply fantastic and help find interesting people for me to chat with.

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

Yes, I use social media constantly – Facebook and Instagram and YouTube.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with media? 

Have fun and try not to take an interview too serious.  Don’t ask for questions in advance so you can be spontaneous. Be sincere.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?  

Many of the PR firms I work with do a great job of setting up interviews for me in advance.  They solve location issues as well as introduce our podcast to prospects.

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

Robert Mondavi.  John Daniel Jr.  Andre Tchelistcheff.  Gerald Casale.  Sam Neill.  Steven Spurrier.  Gustavo Brambila.  

Leisure Time

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

Writing music, bicycling, reading and recording music.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?  There are so many.  Tasting Mouton Rothschild with friends for the first time…that was nice. Really, the best is with some dear friends who live in Napa and are in the industry.  We eat, we laugh, we make fun of each other.  Life is good.

What’s your cure for a wine hangover? 

Sleep and Tylenol.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world? 

Napa and Sonoma.

Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing?

Favorite recipe/pairing? Best pairing, Sauvignon Blanc and scallops.  Fav recipe, home-made pizza and Cabernet Sauvignon.

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).

Allen Meadows, Burghound

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

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

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

Professional Background

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

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

Why the focus on Burgundy and Pinot Noir?

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

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

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

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

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

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

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

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

Writing Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

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

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

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

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

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

Leisure Time

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

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

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

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

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

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

Brianne Cohen, Sommspirations

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.

Brianne Cohen is the principal in a new lifestyle brand and business based out of Los Angeles, California. She has been producing events and weddings for over 10 years. To complement the event and wedding arm of her business, she added her love of wine and also offers her services as a wine educator, writer, and consultant to inspire people of all ages. Most recently Brianne judged at the International Wine & Spirits Competition and the International Wine Challenge in London. Brianne completed the entire curriculum with the Wine & Spirits Education Trust and received her Diploma certificate, which is one of the most coveted and difficult wine certifications. She also holds an MBA from Loyola Marymount University and currently blogs at www.BrianneCohen.com

You can follow Brianne on Facebook, TwitterInstagram and read her stories and reviews on https://briannecohen.com/

Professional Background

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

I came to wine, like most, as a hobby. I drank it, I loved it, and I wanted to learn more. In 2013 I started the WSET curriculum and never looked back. By the time I began the WSET Diploma (their flagship certificate and the stepping stone to the MW), I decided to write a blog to document my journey. Little did I know that starting a blog and having a wine voice on social media meant I would start getting samples, invites to wine events and requests to attend press trips! I essentially became a wine writer and didn’t even know it. At first it was all fun and games as my focus was the Diploma program and passing each of those grueling tests. Once I got my coveted PASS certificate, I realized that I had a voice, a platform, and a heck of a lot of knowledge about wine that I wanted to share with others.

What are your primary story interests?

I like to write about things that everyday wine consumers might find interesting. In my writing (on my blog, in publications, and on my social media platforms) my goal is to help you DRINK BETTER and Up Your Wine Game. This includes answering basic wine questions, offering up wine country itineraries, and reviewing wines that I would recommend to people who enjoy wine.

What are your primary palate preferences?

I consider myself a generalist when it comes to wine. When you study wine for 5+ years, you train yourself to be a student. Never try to same thing twice and be open to new things. If I was studying sparkling wine, that was my favorite. If I was studying fortifieds, that was my favorite. Now that I am no longer “officially” studying, I can’t seem to shake that mentality. I always want to try new things. I don’t generally stick to classic regions or even classic producers. Every time I drink I want a new experience. With that being said, sparkling wine has a special place in my heart.

Is it possible to make a living as a wine writer today? If so, how have you succeeded? If not, why not? What are the primary challenges and hurdles you face?

I am not trying to make a living as a wine writer, so I cannot give a firsthand opinion. BUT about two years ago when I was really looking at my life and my business, I reached out to a handful of wine personalities and asked their opinions. Not one of them said that you can survive on a wine writer’s salary. That was a thing of the past. So, I’d venture to say NO. Early in my blogging years I heard something that still resonates with me to this day: you cannot make money on a blog. You make money by harnessing your skillset and knowledge. That is what you can sell and make money from. That is how education became my focus. I wanted to set myself apart from the wine personalities who were just that personalities, but without much substance. I started actively pitching in October of last year. Within a month I had secured my first writing gig (unpaid) in a digital wine publication. I am also proud to announce that I have secured my first PAID writing gig for a print publication! The challenge in being self-employed is to allocate your time. If 5% of my income comes from writing, I shouldn’t spend more than about 10% of my time writing. 5% to ensure I secure that income. The rest of my writing (on my own blog and on social media) I consider a marketing exercise. That is how I tell people who I am, what I do, and how they can hire me.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

People are surprised that I speak Spanish. My father was born and raised in Argentina and I identify closely with Argentina and their culture. My husband and I even tango dance!

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

I am addicted to travel. I’d love to spend a year traveling the globe or go on a world cruise.

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

I am very proud of this story about Oregon Gamay. I attended a wine writers conference in August of 2019 (I was unpublished at that point). I set a goal to be published by the end of 2019. Sent this pitch in and BOOM, this piece was published on November 17, 2019. Link HERE.

Writing Process

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

My approach to wine writing is to keep it clear, simple, and understandable. The more wine education we obtain, the less approachable our writing becomes. I see it all of the time, and have even seen it in my writing. I am now very conscious of this and always try to remember who my reader is. Someone who loves wine, loves to drink it, and perhaps wants to know a bit more. Not a lot more. Once you get technical and start talking about soils and what not, you have lost most people.

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

YES. I’d be lost without my editorial schedule. I tend to post on my blog about once a week. I use Trello (a free project management platform) to list and organize story ideas. Monthly I look at those lists and prioritize my writing for the month ahead.

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

Yes, I 100% post my articles on social media. Social media is the #1 way I send people to my website and my blog. Social media is important to me and my business because it allows me to have a consistent voice. I also use my social media platforms to answer wine questions for my audience, which is complementary to my services as a wine educator. I have booked wine classes directly from social media. I’ll say it again. I have actually made income and gotten new clients from connections I have made on social media. Aside from a direct referral, social media is my #1 marketing tool.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

There is no such thing as TOO much information. Journalists want the background stories, how you got started, tech sheets on wines tasted, retail pricing (!!!), photos, etc.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

They understand ALL Of the above.

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

I‘m sure I’m not the first person to say this: Jancis Robinson. She wrote the book….literally wrote THE book. I’d love to hear how her brain works in a competitive tasting. Sidebar: while judging at the International Wine Challenge (IWC) in London, our judging panel hit a wall and could not get a consensus on a wine. A senior judge was called over to our table to help, and it was none other than Oz Clarke. I don’t think I contributed anything the entire time (which was only 2 minutes!) he was tasting with us. Totally frozen….wine celebrity status. I came to after he walked away and I thought “did I just taste (in a wine competition) with Oz Clarke?!?!?!?

Leisure Time

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

YES! All the time. I am not one of those entrepreneurs who works nonstop and burns the candle at both ends. I set clear boundaries and always work hard to maintain a work/life balance. In my time off, I enjoy traveling, yoga at Hyperslow (my fav studio in LA), reading, and cooking. All of those things recharge me. I feel the most alive when I am doing those things.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

I recently attended the Wine Media Conference in the Hunter Valley of Australia. One of the excursions I attended was to Tyrrell’s where the group enjoyed a vertical of their Vat 1 Semillon. Chris Tyrrell (6th generation, I believe) guided us through those wines. It was an experience to be remembered.

What’s your favorite wine regions in the world?

I don’t have a favorite at all because I strive to always try wines from everywhere. As a general rule I try to never have the same wine twice. There is SO much wine to enjoy in this world! The wine region I am most excited about is Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California, Mexico. As I explain it to people, imagine the Mexican culture, hospitality, and vibe that we all know and love. Now drop that into a wine region. I find VdG SO exciting and I cannot wait to see how this region grows and evolves. For those who doubt Mexican wines or Mexico’s ability to anchor a wine region, I give you two facts that might change your mind. #1 There are Mexican wines carried at French Laundry (a Nebbiolo from Vinos Lechuza). #2 American chef Drew Deckman (Michelin star and all!) left the US and has been chefin’ it up in VdG for over 10 years. Come for the food, stay for the wine, and you won’t be disappointed. The spirit here is one of excitement and experimentation…..and I LOVE sharing it with people!

Can you speak to the timely (and overdue) conversations around representation, diversity, and inclusion in wine?

We women have demanded and (sometimes) received seats at many wine tables, which is fantastic. But it can always get better and I try to embody that as much as possible and speak up when I see a lack of diversity. This was quite evident in my wine judging experiences this past year. Without beating around the bush, these rooms were the whitest rooms I have ever been in. I can’t help but wonder about these non-diverse judging spaces I’ve been in. I think of the medals we award and how some of those wines will have collar tags or shelf talkers next to their bottles in wine shops touting their gold or silver medals along with our tasting notes. If a person of color is looking at those accolades, what does that mean for them if people who look like them were not involved with this whole process? Are these awards relevant in our diverse, multi-cultural world if diversity was not in the room to judge them in the first place? Or, better yet, how can we all advocate for representation, diversity, and inclusion in all wine spaces.  I’m thinking about writing a blog piece about this topic.

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).

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).

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).

Amy Glynn, Poet, Essayist, Wine Writer

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.

Amy Glynn is an award-winning poet and essayist whose work appears widely in journals and anthologies including The Best American Poetry. She has written about wine (and other things) for Paste Magazine since 2013. Amy currently serves as poet laureate for the cities of Orinda and Lafayette CA.

You can follow Amy on Facebook and Twitter, and read her stories and reviews on Paste Magazine.

Professional Background

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

Through poetry. I’m a literary writer by training, and wine is essentially metaphor in a bottle. As it turns out I have a good palate, so the leap was pretty obvious.

What are your primary story interests?

I am a natural history nerd, so I like getting into deep detail about different varietals’ histories, where they come from, why they’ve traveled (or not), who first cultivated them, that kind of thing. I enjoy demystifying wine and bringing under-recognized regions, techniques or grapes into clearer focus. I don’t especially care about “trends” or cults of personality. I love everything else.

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

I’ve been both. I started writing freelance for Paste Magazine in 2013, and in 2015 they made me a full-time staff writer reporting to drink, film and tv sections (yes, wine and TV. It’s as glamorous as it sounds). Recently my outlet decided full-time staff writers were a drain on the bottom line and now I am again freelancing.

Advantages of both? Honestly, I cannot say this loudly enough: Freelancing bites. As a staff writer I didn’t make a particularly fabulous salary but I had a salary, which enabled me to be much more open, expansive, and reactive to inbound pitches than I am able to be when every piece I file has to be OK’ed in advance and accounted for in a piecework budget. Articles I pour huge amounts of energy into fetch $100 (sometimes less) before taxes. It would take over 150 such articles just to pay CA property taxes on a modest home, so do the math. Add to this, no healthcare, no expectation of even notional stability, no consistent community or sense of making a valued contribution. There might be some type of writer for whom freelancing is the better option but I cannot imagine it. It is flat-out impossible to do your best work under those circumstances.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

I’m a great jazz singer. Seriously.

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

All kinds of things, but much of it boils down to this: That while it is almost infinitely complicated in some ways, wine is just not hard to understand or appreciate. It doesn’t require gnostic initiation, special training, a degree, or any rarefied skill set. You’ll get a more nuanced appreciation of it with some study, to be sure, but no one has to – you can just drink it and like what you like without justification. It’s a lot like poetry that way too.

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

“For a living.” You’re hilarious.

Writing Process

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

I’m not sure I have one unified approach, but it starts with the wine itself. I get a lot of pitches from publicists about corporate collaborations and celebrity endorsements and kitschy packaging and I am slightly baffled by the idea that there are people for whom those things matter. Maybe most often I get introduced to a producer or a region I’m not that familiar with and something just clicks. Once I personally want to know more, it’s an easy leap to think perhaps other people do too.

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

Both.

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

As a peak brat-pack Gen X-er, I consider “influencer” to be code for a kind of content (and a kind of human, in some cases) that’s exactly how I wouldn’t want to be thought of. I am absolutely not an influencer. I’m a writer. Good writers should be influential and occasionally we are, but my goal isn’t to influence anyone, it’s to communicate, and hopefully to provoke curiosity and increase knowledge and understanding in some way.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

The big one: Think twice about pitching a writer whose work you have not bothered to read. And if you do it anyway and they don’t respond? They are passing on your pitch. No need to continue asking. We get dozens, scores, in some cases hundreds of these emails a week. If we’re interested, believe me, you’ll know. And once we have a relationship it’s absolutely no problem to check in; this applies to cold leads.

Please be direct, honest, even blunt about what you are hoping for and how you think I can help you. The more I understand about where someone is coming from beyond the vicissitude-rife notion of “visibility” the more I can collaborate. I’ve been invited on costly press trips where the reality is, that region’s wines are not being made commercially available to my readers. (For a travel writer that might not be as much of an issue but in my case, the relevance goes way down once I’m talking about something no one in the US will be able to find.) Even being direct about your awkwardly-political constraints is helpful. Not long ago I was kind of upbraided and asked to delete a social media post because I had hashtagged a word the rep associated with a rival DOC. The word also had a common-parlance meaning so I was kind of perplexed (and to be honest, irritated; see above re: we do not work for you). Had the rep candidly shared with me what the underlying issue was, I would probably have been all too happy to accommodate it, but instead there was a pointlessly high-friction exchange that made dinner uncomfortable that night. The truth is your friend.

Happily, I don’t deal with this all the time, but… Sometimes I wish producers and their reps would bear in mind that I do not work for them. Sometimes when people send costly samples or invite writers to swanky events or shower us with swag (which we usually love, don’t get me wrong) they seem to develop the understandable but incorrect sense that they have in some subtle way paid for an advertorial. It doesn’t, shouldn’t and cannot work that way, and it’s very difficult to navigate when that happens.

Winemakers are passionate about what they do. They want everyone to love what they do as well –who doesn’t? When something is a labor of love it is painful when it goes unacknowledged. But sometimes I get more samples than I can quickly process, or your wine wasn’t to my personal taste and I would rather not be pressed about it, or I am working for an outlet that isn’t receptive or is behind on the calendar or whose needs have abruptly shifted… for any number of reasons you might not get what you want out of me. Probably I feel bad about that already, so treading lightly is appreciated.

Can you explain why samples sent by wineries sometimes don’t get reviewed?

I have received samples of a great many good wines I have not yet featured, and the reasons range from “for some esoteric reason it didn’t feel like it fit in this roundup” to “really similar to something else on this list” to “my bad, I forgot to include that one” to “I did include it and the editor trimmed the piece, and did so arbitrarily” to “no freaking reason on earth.” “I don’t love this wine” does come up as well, and in that case I assume you’d prefer me to quietly pass versus give your baby a negative review.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

Good publicists can make a writer’s life sooo much easier in so many ways, providing insights and access to products I might not know about (or might not be able to afford on my own), facilitating the flow of information and providing context. A rep who is honest and candid and paying attention is an invaluable asset.

Leisure Time

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

I have kids, so spending time with them is a priority. When money allows I love to travel, I love theater and live music, and in the past I’ve had some unforgettable experiences at writers’ conferences. I garden a lot, and I enjoy entertaining­–having a group of friends wander over on a weekend afternoon to hang out in the backyard, cook and open some nice bottles? That’s an entirely satisfactory way to spend a day off. In reality, my “down” time is also what I have available to do my non-commercial writing, so that ends up getting privileged quite often.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

Hard to narrow down. The first time I read Randall Grahm’s tasting notes at Bonny Doon was eye-opening. Tasting a flight of Gary Farrell Pinots with Teresa Heredia was likewise. The first orange wine I ever tasted (late bloomer) was a revelation (it was Donkey and Goat’s skin-contact Roussanne, “Stonecrusher”). But as a whole experience, maybe it’s this:

It’s 5pm, and four of us have rolled into San Gimignano in the unfortunate position of having skipped lunch. We are starving. Loath to be the American tourists looking for dinner at 5, but starving. Finally we find a place that’s open and get a table on the sidewalk, and proceed to order a bottle of local Supertuscan while we devour some painfully unsalted bread. An old man is watching us while he smokes a cigarette, one bootheel up on the wall he’s leaning against. He watches us as the server pours the wine, no doubt sneering inwardly at our gauche ways. The wine’s delicious and everyone launches into an animated discussion of its virtues. The old man stubs out the cigarette and approaches. “You like the wine?” he asks with an impenetrable Tuscan accent. We do! It’s fabulous. “I make the wine,” he says. “Ah, you make wine?” “I make this wine,” he said, and we all had a crazy linguistically challenged discussion of its characteristics. It was such an only-in-Italy moment, but also, there I was assuming the dude was laughing at us for being rubes when he was actually dying to know if we thought his Sangiovese was worth buying. It was great to get that reminder.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world?

I’m not sure I can narrow to one region, but the one-word answer is “Italy.”

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).

Howard Hewitt, Newspaper Editor/Writer

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.

Howard Hewitt is a retired writer, marketer, and digital marketing professional located in Indianapolis, In. He now works part time in retail wine sales. Howard spent 22 years in the newspaper industry and capped his career as a suburban editor for the Indianapolis Star. He wrote an every-other-week column from the fall of 2007 to October of 2018. He still writes occasional features for his more-than-20 newspapers and a few specialty publications. He is active on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. His site is: www.howardhewitt.net

You can follow Howard on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter, and read his stories and reviews at www.howardhewitt.net.

Professional Background

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

I developed an interest in wine in the 1990s. We all start innocently enough. For me, it was Riunite when I made a little pasta. From their I graduated to Rieslings – and thought the Germans were way better than everyone else. Who knew I had an aptitude for vino?

I came to writing as a career choice. Though I spent most of my career as a newspaper editor, I was writing the entire 22 professional years and beyond. I worked at small town newspapers as a reporter, writer, editor, and a short stint as a publisher. I continued to write for 14 years before retiring in late 2016, then working in the marketing  departments of Wabash College and Purdue University.

What are your primary story interests?

I most enjoy the story about the people in the wine industry. Let’s face it, wine is made largely through the same process but no two winemakers are alike. Sure, there are twists and different techniques in wine making but people that make decisions to try something different hold the most interest for me.

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?

No, no, … just not enough paying opportunities – and it was never a goal.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

For quite a few years I was a B-level competitive racquetball player. I also rode Century (100 mile) bike rides in the early 1990s.

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

I would hope that readers would pick up on the sense of adventure in wine. There is always something new to try or a twist on an old favorite. I have always tried to educate too, about visiting wine country anywhere in the world and how to make the most of your trip.

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

Features on interesting people.

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

Not sure about best – I have several I really liked. This is one of those:

https://howardhewitt.net/2016/03/27/olivers-pinot-a-statement-wine/

Writing Process

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

I hardly ever do wine reviews any more other than Vivino, the phone app. I’m just not sure another opinion is needed in all of the fog of ratings and such. I use Vivino because that’s for the geeky people anyway. And since I now work a bit part-time in retail wine, I do get asked often about my wine preferences.

My approach to writing is probably different than many as a career journalist. I want the wine sources to tell the story as much, or preferably, more than me. When I started writing in 2007, I thought there was way too much first person in wine writing. The writing then was way too much about what the author thought and not nearly enough from winemakers or winery owners.

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

Every other week schedule when I was doing column. As they come up now.

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

I have posted to social media for years. It draws attention to my work. I honestly believe blogs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. I might have 100 or more view a blog post, but I have nearly 2,000 friends on Facebook.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

Accessibility is always a key issue. May I talk to the winemaker? Is the owner available for a brief chat? The more authoritative people the winery can offer a writer the better they are going to like the final result.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

I think it is mainly an advantage. The publicist not only can get the necessary access but help ‘coach up’ the winery spokesperson on how to best take advantage of a good marketing/PR opportunity. At the same time the publicist can help guide the journalists with a few questions or areas of interest to the interview subject. The publicist can also manage a winery’s expectations.

Conversely, the publicist works for the winery. The best men and women in the field maintain an important distance to the process so the writer doesn’t feel he or she is being used strictly to market a bottle or two.

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

Does anyone really care about my opinion (when writing reviews)?

Leisure Time

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

In recent years my time off has often been related to wine. I took a group to Burgundy in 2016, a smaller group to Oregon in the fall of 2016 and did a short visit to Oregon in the fall of 2018. I love going to wine-producing regions but think in 2019 I’d like to take the time to better appreciate the history and culture of those regions – beyond wine.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

That’s a tough one because I’ve been fortunate. Near the top would be a fall press trip to Chablis. Not only did our small group have access to winemakers, but we were there for the annual fall festival. We were able to take part in the multi-part formal dinner with lots and lots of Chablis. The locals named the four of us from the US. Chabliesiennes.

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

Pinot Noir and White Burgundy

What’s your favorite wine region in the world?

Oregon

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).

Meridith May – Somm Journal & Tasting Panel Magazines

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

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

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

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

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

Professional Background

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

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

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

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

What are your primary story interests?

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

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

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

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

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

Writing Process

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

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

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

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

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

I write 10% and assign 90%

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

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

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

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

Leisure Time

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

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

What’s your favorite wine region in the world?

South of France

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

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

Tom Wark, Wine Industry Blogger, Pundit, Activist

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

TOM WARK is wine industry marketing and media relations specialist. He founded his Wark Communications consultancy in 1994 and has worked with numerous wineries, media firms, wine tech companies and associations. He is a founder of the Wine Bloggers Conference, the founder of the American Wine Blog Awards, and a longtime champion of alternative wine voices in the media. Wark also serves as the executive director of the National Association of Wine Retailers. He lives in Salem with his wife Kathy and son Henry George. He can be contacted via www.warkcommunications.com

You can follow Tom on Facebook and Twitter, and read his stories and reviews on Fermentation Wine Blog.

Professional Background

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

I came to wine originally through a career in marketing and public relations. My original intent was to follow my interest in how the structures of diplomacy and history impact our everyday lives into academia. However, life interrupted that plan, and I needed to leave the University and get a job. I choose Marketing, which implied public relations, which opened my eyes to the existence of wine-related PR firms. I joined a wine PR firm in 1990 and opened my own consultancy in 1994.

Ten years into my career and having invested time into the politics of wine via my work in Wine PR, I wanted to explore more deeply that intersection of politics, culture, media, business and wine. Blogging services were then just emerging and that made the creation and maintenance of an online publishing venture possible and affordable.

What are you primary story interests?

I’m primarily interested in the alcohol regulatory structure, the politics of alcohol, wine marketing, wine media and communications and the ways wine works its way into the cultural zeitgeist.

What are you primary palate preferences?

My drinking preferences are vast. I love drinking bourbon straight and have spent considerable time working to perfect a Manhattan recipe. I adore Dry Cider. I’m more partial to wines with a body and structure akin to Pinot and Sauvignon Blanc, however, give me a richly structured California Cab and I’m also happy.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

I was adopted at birth. Both my parents were products of a Midwestern, protestant upraising, of the Depression and of WWII. It was a very traditional home I grew up in. Much later in my life, through DNA testing, I not only discovered I was half Jewish biologically, but I also discovered who my biological mother was via an email that arrived in my In-Box one day with a subject heading that read: “You’ve Got New DNA Matches”. That was interesting.

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

While it’s true that money talks, a large group of consumers speaking in unison can mute the voice of money.

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

There are two I like in particular. One about my mother and a manifesto for change:

https://fermentationwineblog.com/2009/05/of-memories-of-broken-glass-mothers/

https://fermentationwineblog.com/2010/03/manifesto-for-change-in-the-wine-industry/

Writing Process

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

I don’t review wine, however I do post at FERMENTATION very regularly. I’m an opinion writer/polemicist. So, I’m generally writing to convince or influence and my writing style reflects that orientation. As a result, I come off sometimes as a curmudgeon or a muckraker.

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

If I didn’t have a day job as a wine publicist and marketer, I’d probably be posting 4 or 5 times a day at FERMENTATION. So much comes across my desk each day that deserves attention or speaks to my irony detector or my bullshit detector. In addition, I often come across new voices in the wine media that really deserve a spotlight and I like to focus my attention and writing on them. So, while I don’t have a schedule for writing and posting, I’m constantly and automatically forming opinions and views on most of what comes into my line of sight and when it does, I tend to immediately get writing.

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

I use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn to push out my posts for the simple reason that this is where people’s attention is focused today.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

Tell the truth first and foremost. Second, if a winery or any wine industry business uses media relations as a marketing tool, it’s critical to focus on a small set of stories to tell the media, then carefully understand which writers are most likely to be interested in and cover those stories.

What advantages are there for wineries working directly with a wine media professional like yourself?

If a winery understands how positive media coverage can bolster its sales, brand and marketing, then working with someone like myself who has spent decades forming professional relationships with writers and editors, watching how they work and understanding what kind of stories they cover, a winery can follow a much more efficient path to garnering coverage in the right media.

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

Having gotten into the wine industry right when email began being used regularly, there are a number of wine folks I’ve gotten to know via email and phone, but never laid eyes on. Among those who I’d love to sit down with and break bread are Elizabeth Schneider of Wine For Normal People, Robert Parker, Jr., Matt Kramer, and Andrew Jefford.

Leisure Time

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

I have a four-year-old boy named Henry George. So, when I’m not working I like to spend time discussing with him which types of dinosaurs or snakes we’d like to live with or exploring the architectural promise of Legos, Lincoln Logs and blocks. I’m also an avid golfer and enjoy cooking the classics.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

It’s not so much a “wine tasting experience” as it is a drinking experience. It was the first time I met my wife at Press in Saint Helena. I spent 3 hours sitting at the bar, drinking Pastis and talking with Kathy. I knew inside those three hours she was it. I only learned later that she wasn’t so impressed with me as I was with her. I eventually convinced her otherwise.

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

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

Michael Cervin, Writer, Author, Critic

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

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

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

Professional Background

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

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

What are your primary story interests?

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

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

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

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

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

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

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

Writing Process

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

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

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

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

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

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

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

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

Leisure Time

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

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

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

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

What’s your favorite wine region in the world?

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

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

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