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 Wine Industry Network.
FRED SWAN is an SF Bay Area-based writer, educator, judge and speaker on wine and spirits. Among the places his writing appears are GuildSomm.com, daily.sevenfifty.com, SOMM Journal, The Tasting Panel, and FredSwan.wine.
He’s been an instructor at the San Francisco Wine School since 2012. Classes he teaches for trade and consumers include CSW, CWAS, FWS, Wine & Beverage Program Management, and Somm Essentials.
Fred’s certifications include WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Sud de France Wine Master, Certified Napa Valley Wine Educator, WSET Level 3 Sake, Certified Sherry Wine Specialist and Level 3 WSET Educator. He has twice been awarded fellowships by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.
How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?
I gravitated to wine 20 years ago. I’d had exposure to it before, and some relatives in the business, but I’d never paid it much attention. Nor had I the money to buy good wine. But, around 1998, I found myself with a bit more cash and also the need to find a quantity of nice wine for an important party. So I made several tasting visits to Napa Valley and Sonoma County. That whet my appetite.
Around the same time, I found myself traveling more internationally. I had the opportunity to try more European, and then Australian, wines and to visit the producers. Ultimately, I developed a thirst not just for wine, but wine knowledge.
I read voraciously and joined too many wine clubs. I attended a lot of events, including at least six Masters of Food & Wine. That exposed me to some of the best wines in the world and gave me the opportunity to chat with proprietors and winemakers.
As my knowledge grew, so did my enthusiasm and my cellar. I also became the go-to guy at my office for advice on wine, wine travel and which wines to pour at company events. Eventually, timing was right for a career change and I jumped at the opportunity.
Writing was the way I could contribute immediately. I didn’t have any schooling in winemaking, viticulture, or related fields. I didn’t have the money to buy into a serious wine business. But I’d spent years writing in other fields. So I jumped in with both feet and, at the same time, began studying seriously through WSET.
What are your primary story interests?
There isn’t a particular topic, region or style of story I’m obsessed with. The thing I like best about what I do is spending time with and learning from people in the industry—from winemakers, growers, and proprietors, from cellar hands and pickers. When I’ve been affected by their enthusiasm and learned something that isn’t just a detail, but really changes or enhances my understanding of something, it’s been a good day. What I hope to do in my writing is transfer those enthusiasms and epiphanies to the readers. And I hope to give them a thirst not just for the wine, but for deeper understanding of what’s behind it.
What are your primary palate preferences?
I have very broad tastes and don’t have a strong preference for a particular variety, region or style. But the wines I find most captivating tend to be complex and nuanced with extremely well-balanced alcohol, whatever the actual percentage may be. And I prefer wines, whether fruity or savory, in which the dominant flavors come from vineyard rather than barrel. Great texture and length are important, as is clarity of voice.
Are you a staff columnist or freelance? What are the advantages of both?
I’m freelance. I’ve never been a full-time, staff writer, so I can’t speak to the pros and cons of that with authority. But, clearly, staff positions are steadier, typically come with benefits, and allow the writer to focus on research and writing. Certainly, there are meetings, etc., but staff writers don’t need to constantly promote themselves or pitch stories to dozens of other editors. I suspect the downside is potentially being limited to a particular beat, style, word count, and audience.
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?
It’s clearly possible to make a living writing about wine. People are doing it. But it’s very difficult and few manage to make ends meet through writing alone. The best opportunity for that is with a full-time staff position, or a part-time staff position supplemented with side gigs. And it’s crucial to have a low cost-of-living and/or a spouse with a good job and benefits. High salaries are unheard of, even among staff writers. And, as the media business changes, staff positions are less secure than they used to be. I think even freelancers who have a steady flow of dream assignments are living on the edge, if all they do is write about wine.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I went to university (UC Berkeley) in order to study Egyptian archaeology, so I spent my four years studying all things Middle East, ancient and contemporary. I used to be able to read hieroglyphics.
What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your writing about wine?
That’s a difficult question, because I’m a complexity guy. If you ask me for three things, my tendency is to give five. But, if it has to be just one, I hope I influence people to not be bound or swayed by stereotypes (about regions, varieties, producers) and to approach every bottle of wine with an open mind.
If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing?
I suspect I’d still be in some aspect of the consumer electronics industry. I’d be a lot less worried about money, but my blood pressure would be a lot higher.
What’s the best story you have written? Please provide a link.
I received a ton of positive feedback on the articles I wrote about busting various myths regarding wine production and one I wrote for GuildSomm about a broader view of terroir.
https://www.guildsomm.com/public_content/features/articles/b/fred-swan/posts/winemaking-myths and https://www.guildsomm.com/public_content/features/articles/b/fred-swan/posts/terroir
Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews?
I think there are three aspects to my tasting and reviews: analytic, holistic and aesthetic. I always start tasting with technical analysis, a step-by-step process with very specific characterizations, written in a personal shorthand for speed. While that’s going on, the aesthetic aspects of the wine also make themselves obvious to me. After that, I consider all those things together and see how they flow and/or integrate to create an overall experience or impression. Whenever possible, I re-taste wines, especially reds, over the course of multiple days to see how they evolve with air.
With writing, I like to spend time with the people involved and go as deep as I can to gain a full understanding of what they do and why. I take notes that are as detailed as possible. I rely on my notes for detail later, but impressions and ideas from the discussions in general, and things that are particularly interesting will stick out. The story angle I take will depend on the subject and/or assignment. Sometimes it’s straightforward, sometimes based on a surprising learning, sometimes inspired by a particular quote from the subject.
Do you work on an editorial schedule and/or develop story ideas as they come up?
I don’t put together a comprehensive editorial schedule. From time to time, I’ll organize a series of things on the calendar, perhaps for a particular, large project or related to planned travel. Normally though, it’s more spontaneous.
How often do you write assigned and paid articles (not your blog)? How often do you blog?
It’s varied over time. Right now, I’m trying to post on my own site at least two or three times per week. I write about four paid articles per month. I hope to step that up quite a bit.
Do you post your articles on social media? Why is that important?
I always post them on social, at least on Facebook. The platforms have their pros and cons, but are the best way to start getting the word out in a world where there’s too much content and too little time.
Do you consider yourself an Influencer? What’s the difference today between a writer and an influencer in your opinion?
I’m certainly an influencer in that I do influence people to try things, whether that be a region or a particular wine. I don’t bill myself as an influencer or make demands based on my ability to influence.
What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?
Most wineries do a pretty good job when I’m on site. The most frequent frustration at wineries is when they want to tell me what I should smell and taste in the wines, or tell me how many points Robert Parker gave them. That may all be useful for consumers, but is, at best, unproductive with journalists/reviewers.
Some wineries make the mistake of not segmenting their contact lists well. Journalists want to receive important news, information about upcoming press events, etc. But they don’t need to get frequent emails selling new releases, or cold calls giving us the hard sell.
What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?
That depends on the individuals involved. But publicists are generally better at knowing how to work with writers, what information they need, responding quickly, and being proactive with information.
What frustrates you most about working on winery stories and/or wine reviews?
I don’t think this is a pursuit which merits a lot of complaints, nor would people be very sympathetic. Aside from the financial aspects, it’s generally excellent. But, as someone who had a very successful career in marketing and one who needs to gather accurate information quickly, I’m constantly disappointed by winery websites—how difficult they are to navigate, how limited information often is, how often there’s conflicting information, how out of date they often are. It would be of benefit to every winery to focus more energy on creating a fast, easy, informative site that is compelling, but not full of trite fluff or elements that are fun for designers to create, but just get in the consumers’ way.
If you take days off, how do you spend them?
Days off certainly happen, though I don’t make a point of saying, “I’m not working on X day.” Sometimes it’s due to travel or non-wine things that just need to get done. I spend time with family and friends. I go to a few baseball games and movies. Occasionally I travel to places where wine isn’t the focus.
What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?
I’m very fortunate. I’ve had many, incredible and unforgettable wine experiences. This is another one that’s tough to narrow down. I’d probably have to go with a week I spent in Bordeaux back in 2007. I was with a small group on a trip led by a major US retailer. It was one spectacular tasting or meal after another, all with the proprietors. It was inspiring. Not long after, I left the industry I’d been in to go into the wine business.
Pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner
For that, I’d need wines that work with a variety of foods and are complex, interesting, and evolve in the glass so that they don’t get boring. For the white, I might go with well-aged Krug champagne or well-aged Chablis Grand Cru from the Les Clos vineyard. For the red, it would probably be a top-notch, well-aged Syrah, such as Penfolds Grange, Henschke Hill of Grace or one of the LaLa’s from Guigal.
What’s your favorite wine region in the world?
I don’t really have a favorite wine region. There are too many great regions to choose between. And most regions evolve over time.
Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing? Favorite recipe/pairing?
The most surprising I’ve had was Chateau de Fargues Sauterne with raw oysters. It was brilliant. For sheer yumminess, I love high-quality sparkling Shiraz with Peking Duck.
Read more stories in the series “Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers.”