How To Become A Professional Wine Writer
How do you create a career for yourself as a wine writer?
This was the question a young, ambitious woman asked me on the phone yesterday. She wanted to reach out mainly to say hello in advance of the Wine Media Conference in Eugene, Oregon where both of us will be today. Our conversation turned to wine writing and the question was posed.
I am sort of an odd person to ask that question of since I’ve only written a few dozen articles for publication outside this blog in the 30 years I’ve worked in wine. On the other hand, I’ve worked in one way or another with wine writers my whole career as a publicist and communications professional in the wine industry.
I tried to answer the question off the cuff and my new friend was satisfied. But off the cuff it was. And after the phone call, I began to think more systematically about How to Make a Careers As a Wine Writer. This is what I came up with.
1. Learn first how to write a good news article using the inverted pyramid, using good quotations and never using the word “I”.
2. Write on a daily basis to hone your writing muscles in the same way you would train daily for any competitive enterprise.
3. Learn how grapes are grown and how wine is made.
4. Learn the intricacies of the wine industry and its basic regulatory structures.
5. Learn how to pitch a story to an editor and spend at least 50% of your time pitching stories to editors.
6. Cultivate relationships with people in all facets of the industry who can help you and serve as your third-party endorsers.
7. Find out where the money is, which publications pay regularly and pay relatively well, and stay keenly aware of the status of in-staff wine writers at those publications that employ on-staff wine writers (magazines, newspapers, news wires, websites, etc)
8. Hone your palate at every opportunity via tasting events, home tastings, wine tasting groups, paid junkets, etc.
9. Write for an outlet that may not pay you well but will guarantee you regular publication or a named position.
10. Master social media and use it to promote yourself and your work and to network.
The fact is that the vast majority of people who have some aspiration to be a wine writer and to be a professional one at that generally are not willing to put in the work. Because it’s hard and it’s competitive. You really need a competitive spirit and you need to desire to be better at wine writing than everyone else. This takes work. This takes at least 40+ hours a week working on your craft, working to pitch stories and working to get your name to the top of the list.
And don’t look at the Instagram “wine influencers” and be tempted to go that route. It generally turns out to be a commitment to mediocrity and the mundane. Your job is to be really very good at telling stories. Your job is to be able to discern what is newsworthy, what is important, what is unique and what is a compelling story angle. Then you must be able to convince others that you are the person to tell that story.
May I? #3. You cannot do too much of this. Grape chemistry, seed ripening, skin thickness, fermentation chemistry, finished wine chemistry, flavors that are in oak that are not “oak”. Hike outdoors to absorb the phenols and aromatics in different soils, flora and fauna, rocks. Boy Scouts are always putting different rocks in our mouths to stimulate saliva when we are shy of water. Wine does not have personality, it has flavor, acid, aromas. (And my unpaid ad go to school at Napa Valley College or similar wine school with vines in the dirt.) Oh, one last burble: read Melville, Poe, Twain. Thanks, Tom.
If nothing else know that stuff inside and out makes writing, reporting and interviewing go much more smoothly.
I agree with most of your points, and I definitely want to see more people approaching wine writing as real journalism. However, I don’t categorically exclude serious hobbyists who write for their own blogs and don’t aspire to make money or get published in legit media. The best bloggers are journalists, and some rightfully attract regular readers. I totally understand why many aspiring wine writers don’t want to spend half their time pitching editors. That would make them better, but it’s not necessarily worth enough to justify doing it.