Lettie Teague on Optimism, The Wall Street Journal, Wine Writing and the implications of Print Journalist Hair
After spending many years as the Wine Editor and Executive Wine Editor at Food & Wine Magazine, she was recently appointed to be one of the wine writers at the Wall Street Journal. Lettie has won two James Beard Awards, including the coveted MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award. She has worked as a book editor, a publicist and in 2007 her book "Educating Peter" was published. Subtitled "How I Taught a Famous Movie Critic the Difference Between Cabernet and Merlot or How Anybody can become an (Almost) Instant Wine Expert", the book demonstrated that the common "how to" wine book need not be boring or common.
I've always enjoyed Lettie Teague's work. Her writing on wine tends to be wonderfully conversational and witty and she often brings herself into the story in a way that provokes a certain intimacy between her and her readers.
Lettie was kind enough to answer a few questions for FERMENTATION readers.
1. In your book, "Educating Peter", you describe
your former boss at Food and Wine Magazine, Dana Cowin, as
"…a perennial optimist; a great believer in people and
ideas". Where does Lettie Teague fall in the continuum between great
optimist and sorrowful pessimist?
How about on the Optimistic side of Pessimism? I’m always
looking for Reasons to Believe –in people, in wine and the importance of good
2. Before you moved into a writing career, you were once a
food and wine publicist, like me. You wrote and talked and sold ideas on behalf
of your clients. Looking back at that time in your life, is there a cache of
lessons you took away from that experience that still serve you well today?
It certainly taught me to appreciate how hard it is to be a
good publicist- and what it’s like to be treated less-than-respectfully by
journalists. I still remember the ones who barked at me and slammed the phone
down (this was back in the days when you called, rather than emailed,
journalists) even if I was calling to, say, invite them to a five-course lunch
at San Domenico
But what I think you mean is how the two professions relate-
and certainly I think it’s important for a publicist to write well, to
understand (and maybe even read!) the publication they’re pitching- just as it
is for freelance writers pitching stories ideas. When I was the Executive Wine
Editor,it always amazed me when freelance writers- and/or publicists would call or email me an idea that showed
they hadn’t read the magazine at all! But fortunately it’s the good ones-
writers, and publicists, that I remember the best.
3. Describe "The State of Wine Writing in America
Today, According to Lettie Teague".
That sounds like a seminar you’d probably want to sleep
through! But if I were to give
such a talk, it would probably address, among other things, the necessity of
telling a good story. I think that’s what people really want when they read
about wine (or, for that matter, anything that’s not a market report or a box
score.) It’s the story of the person behind the wine, or the place where the
wine is made or, what it’s like to sell wine on the streets of New York City-
those are the stories I want to tell. I want to educate, of course but I always
want to entertain (a bit) as well.
4. It has always been difficult to be a food and wine writer
in America. Generally, the pay has never been too good and a good gig was hard
to earn. Yet today, I'm having many really outstanding and well-published
writers tell me that it has become even more difficult to make a career out of
wine and food writing. What's your best advice for working writers who want to
start or continue a career in wine and food writing?
I think it’s difficult to be any kind of journalist right now. I feel tremendously fortunate to work for a newspaper- The Wall Street Journal- that is actually expanding- adding talent and pages – growing rather than shrinking. It’s thrilling to be part of this but I realize how uncommon it is at a time when magazines and newspapers are reducing, not adding staff. I guess I’d advise aspiring writers to focus first on coming up with great story ideas – and pitching to smaller regional and city magazines. I’ve been a judge in the City & Regional Magazine competition every year and I don’t necessarily see a lot of wine writing in most of the magazines. It seems like there might be an opportunity there.
5. Any thoughts on wine blogs you'd like to share?
There are some wine blogs that I read regularly (yours!) and
some discussion boards I read regularly for wine news and provocative commentary
– I’d say I probably read about 15-20 wine blogs on a regular basis (and about
as many non-wine blogs). If I had more time, I’d scout around for more if I had
the time as I think there is probably some good and/or interesting stuff out
there that I’m missing.
6. Eventually the Food Network is going to come for you.
When they do, and when they tell you that you can do whatever show on their
network that you want, what will it look like?
Alas, Tom, I just don’t think that is going to happen. I
have, after all, what can be best described as “print journalist” hair!
7. How are you approaching your work with the Wall Street
Journal differently from your work with Food & Wine Magazine?
Well, I know for example that my friend Jim Simons (the founder of
Renaissance Capital and a Titan of Industry ) reads my column in The Wall
Street Journal- I don’t think he was reading my work in Food & Wine… Obviously
there are a lot more businessmen reading the Journal than there probably were
Food & Wine (though that it purely speculative on my part.) On the other
hand, I don’t think the two audiences are that dissimilar… both are sophisticated readers with
ample disposable income and an interest in wine ranging from casual to quite