By Carl Giavanti, Carl Giavanti Consulting
“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 the Wine Industry Advisor.
Rusty Gaffney is a retired ophthalmologist who has had a love affair with Pinot Noir for over 40 years. When he retired in 2001, he decided to devote his energies to writing the PinotFile, an online newsletter at princeofpinot.com that was among the first wine publications exclusively devoted to Pinot Noir. He tastes and reviews Pinot Noir daily, reads about Pinot Noir constantly, and visits wineries in Pinot Noir producing regions frequently. Rusty also leads wine tours, organizes wine tastings and dinners and corresponds on Pinot Noir for a popular podcast on the internet – Grape Radio. He’s participated in wine-themed videos including one on the Russian River Valley that won a James Beard Award. He has written in the past about wine for Orange Coast Magazine, Orange County’s lifestyle magazine. Rusty has been happily married for over 40 years, has two sons, and plays tennis, grow succulents, collects doo-wop music, and enjoys his Corvette.
How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?
I am a self-taught wine writer and wine critic who developed an interest in fine wine beginning in the early 1970s when I had enough spendable income to indulge my interest. I have always been a good writer, and penned many scientific articles and chapters in medical textbooks during my years in training and as a practicing ophthalmologist. Over thirty years, I developed a love affair with Pinot Noir. In 2002, I retired from medicine and transitioned to writing about wine, specifically Pinot Noir. I read everything I could get my hands on related to wine and Pinot Noir, attended every event in California and Oregon related to Pinot Noir, and began reviewing wines. I had to earn the respect of the wine community through my writings, wine reviews and time spent at wineries.
What are your primary story interests?
My writing focuses on the stories behind the wines, including personalities, viticulture, winemaking, and challenges of the wine industry. I have researched and written extensively about the history behind California and Oregon Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. My scientific background leads me to be very accurate in my writing and never include any information that is heresy or told through a secondary party. I have found that there is considerable historical information that is simply not true.
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?
My success is partly predicated on the fact that I had a financially rewarding career, and when I retired, I had the financial wherewith-all to travel and buy wine. In the early years of my writing, I had to purchase a considerable sum of wine to review, but as I have gained recognition, 95% of the wine I review now comes from winery samples. At one point, I tried a paid subscription model for my online newsletter, The PinotFile, but I lost so many readers who had previously read the newsletter for free, that I discontinued this model after a year. To have a successful career writing about wine independently and without renumeration, requires financial independence. For example, I pay $4,500 a year for a wine locker where all my wine samples from wineries are sent and stored. There has not only been a reduction in the number of annual Pinot Noir focused wine events in California, there has been an accompanying paucity, and in most cases complete absence, of financial incentives for the media and press to cover these events. The only perk offered is usually free admission to some portion of the event, usually the walk-around tasting that is often a noisy, raucous affair not conducive to critical wine tasting. Organizers of these events and public relations people encourage wine writers to promote their event, attend their event, and then write about their event and the participating wine producers afterwards, yet offer no financial inducement to do so. With escalating expenses associated with staging these events, these “not-for-profit” events simply do not have funds or say they do not have funds to underwrite the expenses of wine writers to attend. The moral is, do not let your children grow up to be wine writers!)
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I have many interests outside of wine. I have been an avid tennis player all my life and still play today three times a week. Through the years, I collected vinyl LPs and 45s, primarily rock and doo-wop from the 1950s-1970s and have an extensive and valuable collection. I have loved Corvettes since I rode in one while in high school in the early 1960s. When I graduated from medical school in 1969, I bought my first Corvette, and have owned Corvettes continuously since, a string of almost 50 years! I am a foodie and seek out special restaurants on my wine trips (always bringing my own bottle of Pinot Noir to drink). I have a son, Dane, who has worked in the wine industry in operations for several years, including Inman Family Wines in the Russian River Valley, Scribe in Carneros, and currently Ashes and Diamonds in Napa Valley. Dane also posts my newsletter online and helps to manage the website. He has taught me everything I know about computers. I could not have done my newsletter without his assistance.
What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn about your wine writing?
I spend many, many hours each week tasting wine, researching wine stories, and composing my newsletter. I rely on no one, composing, editing and publishing my online newsletter (15-50 pages) every 2-3 weeks. Unlike bloggers, who post 500 words here and there, I have a prodigious output that belies my perfectionist nature. My spouse always complains that I am to wordy and I probably am.
What’s the best story you have written? Please provide a link.
Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews?
I began writing wine reviews without scores, believing that scores were not as important as the wine description. I also did not feel that initially I had enough experience to be adept at using the 100-point scoring system. For the past 9-10 years, I have used the 100-point scoring system, but I still encourage readers to focus on the written description of the wine. I was the first wine writer to include ABV in the review and later added pH, TA and RS. Uniquely, my wine reviews always include a detailed description of the winemaking process (if available). I try to interject some humor into the reviews when appropriate.
Do you work on an editorial schedule and/or develop story ideas as they come up?
I have no set editorial schedule. As the wine samples come in, I try to organize them in a theme or feature a separate article on a particular winery that warrants special recognition. I read about wine constantly, and ideas for stories seem to come to me regularly. There is so much to write about regarding wine in general and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in particular, that I never develop writer’s block.
How often do you write assigned and paid articles (not your blog)?
I occasionally submit a newsworthy article to the Oregon Wine Press for which I get paid.
Do you post your articles on social media? Why is that important?
I don’t have time to participate in social media. I do tweet when there is something of interest related to Pinot Noir and the health benefits of wine.
Do you consider yourself an Influencer? What’s the difference today between a writer and an influencer in your opinion?
I know that I influence consumers who read my newsletter in their wine purchases. Wineries give me positive feedback on this. As a former physician, I have a keen interest in the health benefits of wine. I review all the current scientific literature on the subject, publish appropriate information and lengthy articles on the matter, and have given talks to groups on the relationship between wine in moderation and health. Because of my scientific background, I can approach this controversial subject with a keen perspective and believe I am an influencer more than a writer on this subject.
What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?
Wineries should communicate with journalists in advance of sending wine samples for editorial consideration. They should always provide technical sheets on the wines by email or enclosed in the wine shipment. The MSRP of the wines and dates of release are the two bits of information that are most often missing. Wineries should offer as much intimate information as possible about the winery and its people including hi-def photos. There are nearly 3,000 wineries producing Pinot Noir in California and Oregon, so it is important for a winery to separate itself from the crowd to induce the consumer. Wineries should always include a personal note in the wine shipment that thanks the journalist for their time in reviewing the wines and invite the journalist to visit the winery (with contact information). It is very time consuming to contact every winery when a wine review is published, so wineries should follow the publication after submission to see their published review.
What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?
Publicists respond more quickly to inquiries, and they will find answers to questions if they do not know the answer themselves. Winery owners and winemakers can be hard to track down.
Which wine personalities would you most like to meet and taste with (living or dead)?
I have met John Winthrop Haeger and highly respect his writings on Pinot Noir. I have met Alan Meadows (aka Burghound) and admire his extensive output of writing and reviews. I have never tasted wine with either of them.
If you take days off, how do you spend them?
My leisure time includes walking/hiking, tennis, swimming, family activities (married for 40 years, two grown sons), hosting wine tastings and dinners at home with friends, and watching college football and professional tennis on television. I am a voracious reader of books and magazines.
What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?
Burt Williams (Williams Selyem) has always been one of my idols as he had an extraordinary intuition for crafting Pinot Noir. In 2011, I helped organize a tribute dinner for Burt at the Dry Creek Kitchen Restaurant in Healdsburg, California. This event was attended by a who’s who of California Pinot Noir including Michael Browne, Bob Cabral, George Levkoff, Margi Williams-Wierenga, Bob Pellegrini, David Hirsch, Jeff Fink, Craig Brewer, Michael Sullivan, Ben Papapietro, Nicolai Stez, Ross Cobb, Mac McDonald and others. The dinner, prepared by chef Charlie Palmer, featured six courses accompanied by historic vintages of William Selyem Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in magnum format from the personal library of Burt Williams. Each of the winemakers in attendance brought a special bottle as a gift to Burt.
What’s your favorite wine region in the world?
My favorite Pinot Noir wine region is Sonoma County, California because it combines Pinot Noir from many different microclimates, with all the infrastructure that appeals to wine connoisseurs such as lodging, restaurants, farmer’s markets, and hundreds of wineries in a compact layout. Honestly, when I drive up Highway 101 from San Francisco on my way to Sonoma County, I am flush with anticipatory glee, and once I arrive, I feel like I have died and gone to heaven. My biggest regret is that I didn’t buy a second home (I live in Orange County, California) in Sonoma County during the last recession.
Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing? Favorite recipe/pairing?
My favorite wine and food pairing is Pinot Noir with any food. You name it, salmon, pork, duck, lamb, mushrooms, beets and on and on. Pinot Noir is simply the most versatile of all wines at the table. I am getting hungry just thinking about it.
Read more stories in the series “Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers.”