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 an ongoing monthly series featured by Wine Industry Advisor.
Virginie Boone reviews and writes about the wines of Napa and Sonoma for Wine Enthusiast Media and is a longtime resident of Sonoma County. She began her writing career with Lonely Planet travel guides, writing guides to the American South, South America, Northern California and the Loire Valley, which led in a roundabout and perfectly sensible way to California-focused wine coverage for The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Savor Magazine, Sonoma Magazine and others. She is a regular panelist and speaker on wine topics in California and beyond.
How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?
I’ve always loved wine, my mom is French and even though she was on a military wife’s budget, we always had wine in the home. But as a writer I came to it via travel writing. My life’s goal was to get paid to travel and so I became a travel writer, working for Lonely Planet guidebooks for many years, as well as my share of startup magazines and websites. I had a travel assignment for Rough Guides I believe, to New England, set to depart my home in Northern California in September 2001. Well, 9-11 happened and everything changed. I did that travel assignment, but it was eerie, landing in Boston 10 days or so after 9-11 to a quiet airport full of heavily armed soldiers. My flight home was delayed because of suspicious graffiti in the bathroom. Soon after I did another guidebook to the Loire Valley (which was amazing), but the travel was again pretty fraught. My husband and I had just moved up to Healdsburg from San Francisco and I thought, why don’t I write about my own backyard, that can be travel, too. Soon enough I was writing a weekly feature on wine for The Press Democrat as a full-time staffer. It was the best education I could have had.
What are your primary story interests?
I know a lot of people say it, but I like researching and writing stories about people, how they got into the wine world, what keeps them interested, who do they work with, how do they make it work. A lot of my work involves tasting, scoring and writing reviews, which is much more about the wine than what’s behind it. It’s good to have a balance between this and the bigger narratives about wine. With that, I’m increasingly interested in issues of sustainability, labor and where wine fits into those bigger picture issues. And of course, the travel element around wine is a natural go-to that’s hard to resist.
Are you a staff columnist or freelance? What are the advantages of both?
I’m sort of an odd hybrid of both. I am technically an independent contractor, but I work almost exclusively for the Wine Enthusiast and do own a beat, Napa and Sonoma. It’s the best of both worlds most of the time. I work independently but have colleagues all over the world who do what I do. We meet in person as a magazine a couple times a year and of course are otherwise fairly regularly in touch. But I do also like to stretch my wings and write elsewhere, especially if it’s outside of my day-to-day beat and has to do more with travel, teaching, speaking on panels, that sort of thing.
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?
Ugh. It’s pretty hard. I feel very fortunate that somehow it’s worked out for me. But I work a lot. Most of it is relatively glamorous, social and amazing, but there are days I’m chucking a car-full of recycling into the bins at the Healdsburg dump, too. I’d say the biggest challenge is the time it takes to do all the things that don’t make money, social media first and foremost among them, but also all the box schlepping, organizing and yes, that recycling J.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
That I love wine and all that goes with it, but it’s not my everything. If I wasn’t making a living writing about it I don’t think I’d write about it for free or in my free time. I think about it in the context of a lot of other things, from music to sports to old Hollywood to politics. That said, in addition to being a travel writer and editor in my former life, I once covered the NFL, SF 49ers predominantly, for an ESPN product called Sports Ticker. It was pretty funny. And yes I’ve seen players in the buff.
What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your writing about wine?
That it doesn’t have to be a big deal. That doesn’t mean I think people should like shitty wine, or wines made in a cynical way, but that getting into wine means trying lots of things, hopefully traveling along the way, even if it’s nearby and not about how much money a bottle costs. I think we’re turning a corner on wine being a precious commodity that’s too good for most people to have. Even if it’s expensive, it doesn’t have to be exclusive or untouchable.
If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing?
I’d be making Ken Burns-like documentaries about old Hollywood stars and jazz musicians.
Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews?
Doing wine reviews is the most routinized. We taste blind, so I have an assistant set up flights for me to taste. I typically won’t do more than 12 wines at a time of one variety or more than two flights in a day, especially if I’m tasting at a winery for general information on the same day. Wines are often opened 30-60 minutes before tasting, especially young Cabernets. I’ll go back to a wine several times if it hasn’t opened much on the first taste. I write my notes longhand in a notebook. I have a shorthand only I can understand, plus it’s helpful when there are questions about a vintage or designation. I always trust my notes. By the end of every month those reviews go into a central Wine Enthusiast database and eventually into print or online publication. I taste around 250 wines a month this way and that’s barely keeping up with how much wine is coming in.
Do you work on an editorial schedule and/or develop story ideas as they come up?
Wine Enthusiast plans its big features once a year at our summer edit conference. We pitch, they accept or decline, and stories get slotted into every issue, with some wiggle room. Front of book and web stories, that sort of thing, are pitched throughout the year, though increasingly we’re scheduling web stories quite a bit ahead. This is true of other people I write for as well.
Do you post your articles on social media? Why is that important?
I try. It depends what it is. The Wine Enthusiast will post from its social media accounts and that usually reaches a much bigger audience of people. But I do think it’s important to get wine stories in front of people who don’t necessarily think they want to read a wine story. That’s where travel, food, people, etc. often come in.
What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?
Be normal. Nothing wrong with reaching out directly person to person, but do understand what that journalist does, their level of experience and what might interest them. I don’t like spending a lot of time looking at cellars and tank rooms unless it’s pertinent somehow; I also don’t need to taste 50 of your wines at a time, again unless it’s somehow relevant to a bigger story. I don’t need a four-course meal for no reason, nor do I want zero food if we’re tasting 50 of your wines. I’m pretty happy to just walk around a vineyard, grab a sandwich and talk about what you’re up to. It’s fairly simple for me. And this is how a lot of younger, more interesting brands are handling things because they don’t have huge facilities or budgets. Also, say thank you when something good happens, like when you make the cover or top 100 list.
What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?
I see lots of advantages, from the relationships publicists have built over many years to their understanding of publishing schedules, submission guidelines and general vision of each publication and journalist. Pick wisely and I see only upside. Most publicists I’ve met are positive, energetic and great people-people and that’s worth a lot. I could never do their jobs.
Which wine personalities would you most like to meet and taste with (living or dead)?
Not long ago I saw the documentary André, about André Tchelistcheff. I never had the chance to meet him but have met many winemakers who did, and who were mentored by him. He had a fascinating life, one we couldn’t imagine, having to flee Russia and later losing a family farm in France before finding his way to Beaulieu in the Napa Valley. He’s done so much for California wine.
If you take days off, how do you spend them?
It varies. I have a 13-year-old son so it often involves driving him around and hanging out at home. I drive a lot during the week. My husband and I like to cook and entertain. I also like to hike and am lucky to have Annadel, Sugarloaf and Jack London state parks in my backyard. But usually I’m also tasting and writing sometime during those days off.
What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?
I had the chance to interview this world-famous Japanese musician named Yoshiki a couple years ago. He was one of the founders of this monster metal group called X Japan but is also an amazing classical musician and composer. He has a wine project with Rob Mondavi and Rob was kind enough to make the introduction. The closest I could get to meet him was New York City, where he was making his debut at Carnegie Hall. We sat in the front row and cried our eyes out, it was incredibly moving. Yoshiki has had a very dramatic life and the sadness and grandeur of that is in his music. We said hi back stage, stopped by an after party and went out for Chinese food until the early morning. The next day I interviewed him amidst his legit entourage in a hotel room in Manhattan while it started to snow outside. I’ll never forget it. A fan of Opus One, Yoshiki and Rob’s Cabernet is stellar, too.
What’s your favorite wine region in the world?
Tie between Sonoma and Napa.
Read more stories in the series “Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers.”