They’re journalists you read religiously in your local newspaper or in their own publications. Their readers trust their opinions, going to a favorite wine shop to buy something just recommended. They’re certified wine educators, Master Sommeliers, Masters of Wine; or, “other” professionals by day, wine connoisseurs by night. They’re wine competition judges, help write wine lists; have swirled, sipped, tasted, and spit. They’re life-long lovers of wine in a cast of thousands, and they’re our industry’s unsung heroes…
If these independent writers were to go away as a result of not being able to make ends meet, a narrowing of opinions is inevitable. Besides the obvious loss of talent, their independent impressions and observations will be greatly missed, the service that they provide to their communities will be lost, and all that talent will literally go down the drain.
Perhaps sharing some of their thoughts might create a paradigm shift that will benefit us all. I interviewed six highly regarded wine writers. Here are their thoughts.
As an independent writer, without the safety net of a salary, the biggest challenge is that it’s a real scramble. They have the freedom to do all the creative work they want, but they’re dancing to 14 different tunes at one time. To be an independent writer is the choice they’ve made. Usually they didn’t want to work for a paper or an agency anymore, because it limited what they could do. And, as much as they liked what they did, it was very restricting.
Striking out on their own becomes more of a struggle than they ever anticipated. How so? In newspapers, everything is time sensitive. In magazines, there’s a four month lead time. Newspapers represent the news; but, pay only a little for the work. Typically, newspapers pay 20 cents per word. Magazines pay more: anywhere from to per word. This is very economically frustrating; and, seems unfair, as the amount of effort is the same.
Many of them not only have to find outlets for their work, but the’re also becoming full-time virtual journalists. However, very few sources pay what constitutes a living. This is so difficult that when offers come, one writer said, “I could easily go away.”
Although virtual writing has a subscription base, the income from that process doesn’t begin to pay for their creative energies. What it does do is allow them to have the voice to say whatever they want to, and continue to maintain their journalistic independence. They have the freedom to speak, giving very pointed opinions. They have the freedom to report a totally balanced article based on a solid journalistic structure to a specific targeted audience.
The common problems that occur from being prohibited from speaking the truth, is that it’s the truth by a matter of degrees… Their unwritten rule is, “You have no voice; you have no passion.” The benefits to readers from their being able to tell it like it is, is what one writer referred to as, “The Two Ps: Palate and perspective.” And, they have the opportunity for creativity. That translates to positive opinions that they can share. They can put a spin on some things that are beneficial and novel style trends for purchasing decisions by industry professional. They feel that they give information that’s ahead of the curve. They also report trends that they’ve anticipated, because they come to know them.
Another little known fact became an eye-opener. “I don’t get paid unless I sell the story. I’m not on salary.” That’s pretty motivating, as writers have to think about what they’d like to focus on, do the research, write it, then sell the story. IF a publisher buys it, they get paid.
Independent writers seem to have a daily confrontation. They have to be “Jack of all trades, master of none.” If they could just spend an afternoon where they could close the door and simply get things done, it would be great. But, the phone rings, and it could be someone who wants to buy a story.
They all love their profession, and sometimes wish they could just practice it. It takes them a long time to hit some of these markers, and sometimes they feel like they could just keel over on the keys, and I wonder “Why?” They have to come to some level of success that they’ve set for themselves, but sometimes they can’t help but wonder, “Is it worth the peace of mind I have by remaining an independent writer?”
One writer answered my question, “Is it worth it?” with another question… “How many people want to tell their boss to go to hell? Having the independence I have right now allows me to deal with all the people I work with in a more relaxed manner. They’re all bosses, but now there are many, so I have more options. Now, I can help them solve their problems.”
With so many balls in the air at the same time, one has to wonder how they pace themselves.
Generally, they’re not people who are always grinding. They feel that they wouldn’t be a good sales person working a 40-60 hour week on just sales (yet, they have to sell each story). And many don’t have display advertising on their sites; but, one confessed, i’s so tempting.
How can they survive, as they constantly have to think outside of the box; and, what can the industry do to support their efforts? One would think that subscribing to their newsletters would be enough. It’s not. One writer suggested that wineries tell their wine clubs who they are, when wineries list what they’ve said. (This becomes symbiotic brand building.) Providing a link to their Websites, so consumers can easily subscribe, would help. Creating point-of-sale material that provides the writer’s Website is more support.
Writers who are based in non-reciprocal state, have another challenge. According to one, “It’s absolutely terrible what I have to face each day… The samples can’t arrive unless a wholesaler is willing to go the extra mile.” They’re faced with personally buying samples for a more broad perspective; but, they can only buy what their wholesalers carry. Consequently, they’re missing artisan wines that people crave info about. Being extremely limited in their choices, they can’t do a wine justice. The system that we have is antiquated and needs revision; so, rather than reviewing wine, they get caught up caught in legislation. How can they deliver a review about your wine, when they can’t even get the wine themselves? The toughest part of all this is that they make trips to California, build relationships with a brand, and then they can’t get the wine in their own state to tell your story. It’s upside down and backwards right now. As an experiment to show how each writer has a completely different approach to tasting and reporting findings, Dave Pramuk of Robert Biale Winery volunteered a case of their 2002 Robert Biale Old Crane Ranch Petite Sirah from Napa Valley. Each writer received two bottles and was asked to submit results.
1) 5+: An outstanding Petite Sirah, in full, ripe style. Opaque black purple color. Very full-bodied, concentrated, and powerful in style; a massive wine, which is ripe and lightly oaky in aroma/flavor (blackberry, boysenberry jam, black licorice, toast, roasted nut, nutmeg, and tobacco). Very young; should age well for another ten+ years. 15.5% alcohol. 75 cases. Drink 2008-2014.
2) Biale Zinfandel from the historic Napa Valley, gravelly Dr. Crane Vineyard is sumptuous and expectations, therefore, run high for the Petite Sirah. It delivered with concentrated dark fruit aromas, complex and layered flavors on an agreeable framework with a long, dark fruit-laden finish, simultaneously depthful yet elegant. Expensive by Petite Sirah standards at , but worth it. Rating: Outstanding.
3) Typically inky, this Petite Sirah exhibits strong flavor profiles which do soften and open with aeration. Heavy on the blackcurrant, blackberry and sweet cherry, the wine’s high alcoholic content is tempered by caramel and chocolate over notes. Will be better in a few years, but drinks well already, especially when paired with strong and spicy foods.
4) The wine is dark and richly flavored, lots of blueberry and ultra-ripe flavors, thick and rich on the tongue. The alcohol is high, but the flavor’s quite accessible.
5) 89: Deep in color and generously endowed with ripe, somewhat jammy blackberry and black pepper fruit aromas, this full-bodied, weighty wine impresses in the mouth for its full-bore, densely packed, ripe grape character and for the peppery, spicy, smoky seasonings that extend its range dramatically. Unavoidably hot in the finish (15.5% alcohol), but long and tasty as well and only moderately charged with firming tannins, this Petite Sirah drifts a bit towards the oversized side while scoring big points for accessibility. Limited availability. Drink now to 2012 with full-flavored foods.
6) Powerful wine. Big, even for a Petite Sirah. Lots of Blackberry flavor with some briary notes. Pepperiness in the background. Many foods would be overwhelmed by such a wine, but we enjoyed it with T-bone steaks given a spicy dry rub before grilling over charcoal.
Each one of these writers plays an important role to not only his or her own audience, but is also immensely valuable to our industry. Don’t let your subscriptions lapse!
Some Recommended Newsletters (Alphabetically):
California Grapevine: www.calgrapevine.com ~ Nicholas Ponomareff
California Wine and Food Magazine: www.tastecaliforniatravel.com ~ Dan Clarke
Colorado Wine News: www.coloradowinenews.com ~ Harold Baer
Connoisseur’ Guide to California Wines: www.wineaccess.com/expert/connoisseurs ~ Charles Olken
Koeppel on Wine: www.koeppelonwine.com ~ Fredrik Koeppel
Restaurant Wine: www.ronnwiegand.com ~ Ronn Wiegand, M.S., M.W.
Vintage Experiences: www.vintageexperiences.com ~ Dan Berger
Wine Access: www.wineaccess.com ~ Stephen Tanzer
Wine Advocate: www.erobertparker.com ~ Robert M. Parker, Jr.
Wine Review on Line: www.winereviewonline.com ~ Robert Whitley