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 Advisor.
ERIN JAMES is a seasoned writer and editor in the Pacific Northwest, with a focus on drink, food and travel writing. Outside of her desk as editor-in-chief of Sip Publishing — makers of Sip Northwest, Cidercraft and Sip’s Wine Guide: British Columbia magazines — James has been published in more than a dozen regional and national publications like WINO Magazine, Seattle Weekly, Washington Wine and more. Most recently, she is the author of “Tasting Cider: The CIDERCRAFT Guide to the Distinctive Flavors of North American Hard Cider,” published by Storey Publishing in 2017. When not tasting and scribbling notes, James can be found eating her weight in cheese and loving her dog, Josie, a little too much.
How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?
I was one of the many lucky graduates who entered the work force at the inception of the 2007 financial crisis. Publications large and small were cutting staff in half or retreating to web-only productions — needless to say it was hard to get a job in journalism, even with the degree to back you up. The job background I did already have at this young age was in bartending, so I slipped back into what was familiar, which turned out to be the best move I could make for my future in writing. I learned how to up-sell what I was pouring from behind the rail, realizing I had a knack for talking about beverage and already had the schooling to help me put that into written word. I started a wine blog — back before that realm was overpopulated – and it helped put me on the radar. I got my first paid wine writing gig (pennies) shortly after and narrowed my niche even further into focusing on wine and food pairings. I haven’t looked back, but I have added cider, beer and spirits to my repertoire as well.
What are your primary story interests?
To echo what I closed out with in the previous question, food and drink pairing is my forte. I really like to eat. If I can add booze to that to enhance both the meal and the drink, then I’m in heaven. Most beverage-savvy cultures have long had drink on the table to enhance the meal, but this is something Americans are slowly coming around to. I’d like to speed it up and see more of it. Outside of that, I’ve developed my journalism style to lean more toward storytelling than news-breaking, I am keen to share the passions of the folks that make the drink and eats we love, bringing a human element to something edible and commonplace.
What are your primary palate preferences?
Cheese? If I had to pick one of each beverage I cover for a desert island retreat, I’d go white Burgundy, fresh hop IPA, heritage cider and a dry vermouth-laced martini (gin, of course).
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?
Oh man, kind of? I think strictly writing one beverage is financially difficult – one of the reasons why I’ve diversified. I’m very fortunate that I have the position I do as editor-in-chief of Sip Publishing, but I also freelance for other publications and do some non-industry copywriting. I think if your heart is in it, you can make any ends meet. Primary challenges: print pubs are paying less and less, and web publications already pay pretty cheaply. I’m a firm believer that you pay for what you get, so I hope to see publications continue to pay for quality work.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I love to eat Kraft American Cheese Singles like movie popcorn (I’m an equal opportunity “cheese” lover) and I used to sing the National Anthem at collegiate and semi-pro sporting events.
What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your writing about wine?
It’s not as scary or mysterious as you think it is, eat while you do so then drink some more.
If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing?
I’ve been really into flowers and floral arrangements – I’ve done them for four different friends’ weddings and I think I’d love running a flower shop.
How would you like the wine community to remember you?
“She sure could put it away, but she had a way with words.”
Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews?
It depends on the type of article I’m writing but for wine in particular, I try to keep it approachable and easy-to-swallow. Same goes for reviews, tasting notes that reference ridiculously unfamiliar culinary ingredients cause major eye-rolling. The reader wants to equate your words to something they recognize, otherwise it goes over their head.
Do you work on an editorial schedule and/or develop story ideas as they come up?
I’m fairly scheduled with our publications but certainly can develop a story as an idea forms – the internet has allowed for a lot more production flexibility there!
Do you post your articles on social media? Why is that important?
I do, and it’s extremely important because social media is where so many – especially those of a younger generation – find their news and read articles. Though you have to be clear, concise and catching, otherwise you’ll be passed up for a shinier object.
Do you consider yourself an Influencer? What’s the difference today between a writer and an influencer in your opinion?
I hope what influence I do have is positive for women of all ages in beverage — an example that even a green, 22-year-old journalism graduate battling against a national recession can still build a career in what she decided was her dream job when she was 8. I think the difference between a writer and a social influencer is just that – a writer writes, an influencer posts. Both can be impactful and should do it to further their message for the better.
What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?
Everyone has a story – make sure the journalist knows why yours is worth telling. Sure, you are a former Microsoft/Nike exec, had the funding to leave your corporate desk and start your dream job. But why does a reader care and how can the journalist share that with what enticing angle? You’re not expected to sell a pitch to a writer, but you do want to grab them with a hook, uncover what makes your story special and dig in.
When it comes to samples, ask before shipping to make sure your product has a home in editorial content and, for the love of God, learn how to ship bottles correctly. That means no bottle should ever be floating in a sea of explosive packing peanuts.
What advantages are there in working direct with winery publicists?
See above about pitching journalists – publicists can hone your story, message and angle for a specific journalist, editor or publication, even specific departments and story ideas within. They can also handle the lead-up and follow-up, tasks that are sometimes uncomfortable when it is your own story.
Which wine personalities would you most like to meet and taste with (living or dead)?
Lettie Teague, the wine columnist for The Wall Street Journal. She is the reason I got into wine writing – she wrote a book called “Educating Peter,” in which she taught wine basics to Rolling Stone‘s film critic Peter Travers through a lens he could understand. I loved her approach and compelling manner in which she took something that can be so misconceived and made it completely consumable for one of the most censorious minds in media. For wine, I would have whatever she was having.
If you take days off, how do you spend them?
I do and everyone should – for sanity’s sake! I like to get outdoors when I can, whether that’s a hike into the North Cascades or at a beer garden. I fill most of my off-time with my husband Nick, Son Arlo, and dog Josie, but I am fortunate to be able to see friends and family frequently as well. I love to read, cook, sing loudly in the shower, eat cheese and binge Netflix shows like any red-blooded human.
What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?
Considering when I go wine tasting, I’m there as media so many of those experiences are quite remarkable and I always feel lucky for the cards I was dealt. There are definite highs and lows, but this is a pretty cool gig and I’m grateful for it every day. I’m big on pairing and one of my favorite food and wine experiences was something so simple and delicious: ripe cantaloupe wrapped in Bayonne ham (French prosciutto) and matched with just-chilled Provençal rosé on the patio of our rental in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. A dream come true.
What’s your favorite wine region in the world?
I was already smitten with Nebbiolo before but after going to Piedmont in 2015, I was deeply in love with not just the variety and its differing variations throughout the region (Barbaresco, Barolo) but I really fell for the people behind the wine there. For so many of the makers, it’s still such a generations-based farming culture with humility, craft and passion. I love that. Also, it’s hard to beat the Willamette Valley in the fall.
Read more stories in the series “Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers.”