so you want to be a wine writer!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

I am often asked how I became a wine writer, and I understand why there is interest in finding an answer, but I have never really taken a crack at writing it down. My other blog – which runs weekly on – got me thinking about it again, and I wrote a brief summary (entitled 'Threads') of the long and winding road that got me to where I am today.

But however I ended up where I have, it is certainly not a road map for anyone else, and the world has changed dramatically and irrevocably since I began writing for a living 35 years ago. The emergence of social media, and especially the impact of blogging on wine writing, is the engine driving change today, but change was happening long before Facebook, Twitter or even the internet came along.

Today blogging provides instant entry to anyone willing to put in some time to collect their thoughts on the subject of wine, and it makes for lively discourse and a real sense of community. What it does not make, however, is a living for anyone. Old media is still the best way to do that, but the path to success is probably more difficult than ever, and opportunities for employment seem to be shrinking. So what does an aspiring wine writer do?

One thing that has opened up dramatically is formal training. The various degrees in wine – from MW to MS to studies at colleges and community colleges, along with such enterprises as WSET, that offers a series of increasingly difficult levels of study – did not exist for all intents and purposes when I began my own studies of wine. Today’s would-be wine writers have all sorts of opportunities to train their palates and increase their knowledge of the subject, and they can acquire a chain of impressive letters after their names proving their expertise.

That’s all good. But it’s not enough. What is also required, if you want to be an authority whose voice is heard above the blogging din, is a talent for communicating. Writing is still the most common tool for good communications, but it’s not essential. As Gary V has proved, a big personality and a cheap video camera can take you a long way. But I think for most bloggers, who may lack an outsized personality, writing is going to be quite important. And that brings you back to an understanding and command of basic journalism.

How to do an interview. How to gather facts. How to structure an argument or invigorate a debate. How to attract a reader’s interest and hold it through the course of a blog or column or article or book. How to do it over and over and over and over and over without being bored, boring or simply irrelevant.

You want to be a wine writer? Study wine all you can. But don’t skimp on the journalism either. You need both.


Frank Haddad said...

Paul I agree, being able to communicate is as important as having some basic wine knowledge

Michael Wangbickler said...

Great advice Paul. All the wine knowledge in the world isn't going to matter if you can't string a couple of cogent sentences together. Knowing about wine doesn't make you a wine writer.

pat said...

Until we reach a point where people are able to sample tastes through the electronic media, it's 90% about the communication, the personality you project and your skills. To taste and enjoy wine makes one an oenophile: to describe it so others taste and enjoy and want to go out and experience the same takes real journalism chops.

Barbara Keck said...

A good place to start is with a weekly newspaper. Weeklies are often economically challenged, but their editors understand the benefit of original material that's well-researched and where the writer is both competent and has a good "voice". I started writing the weekly column "It's Grape" for the Tahoe Weekly Newspaper (serves the Lake Tahoe and Reno areas) for a whopping... $0. That's right, no pay. After 6 months, I was given a small honorarium, and after 6 more months, that was doubled. The nice thing is that I retain the copyright to my material and can re-use it on my blog or even sell it to other newspapers (which the kind editor has encouraged me to do!) and it has provided a wonderful toe in the door to many venues that provide a great exposure to the wider world of wine than I might otherwise have found on a solo adventure.
As a result, two years on, I know practically everyone involved in the wine scene in that region, and have been well accepted by Sierra and Foothill winemakers as I work on my book project on "Pioneering Winemakers of the Sierra and Its Foothills."
So... look around. We can't all start with the big wine magazines, large newspapers, and create a top-10 blog instantly.
Ya gotta pay yer dues. No surprise there.

Barbara Keck

(you can see my newspaper columns on my blog at

Erika Szymanski said...

From one of the youngun's, Mr. Gregutt, thank you for sharing your perspective on the best road to travel. I wonder, though, what you think it means to be a good journalist in light of the massive changes taking place in writing-based media. Is it sufficient to be a solid writer, or has it become mandatory to be a good videographer, a good lightening-fast informal commentator via Facebook and Twitter and the like, a good marketer of your own personal brand, ect? Do you think that what it means to be a good communicator has and/or will fundamentally change?

PaulG said...

Barbara, as I wrote in the 'Thread' piece linked here, I too began at a weekly newspaper. Any entrée into print is a good start if you work it. I didn't start at the big papers and pubs either. Erika, good questions as always. But journalism is the gathering and organizing of information, sometimes seasoned with opinion. It's not the same as marketing or brand building. Read my second to last paragraph - that is a distillation of what it takes to do good journalism. Shooting video may be a kind of journalism, but most video shooters are just picture takers.

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