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.
Allen Meadows’ Burghound.com was the first of its kind to offer specialized, and more importantly, exhaustive coverage of a specific wine region/grape and pioneered the on-line format. This highly respected and critically acclaimed quarterly publication has subscribers in more than 64 countries and nearly all 50 states and provides coverage of Burgundy, Champagne and U.S. Pinot Noir. Meadows has released two important must-have reference books, The Pearl of the Côte – the Great Wines of Vosne-Romanée, and, along with co-author Doug Barzelay, Burgundy Vintages – A History from 1845. Meadows also released the Burgundy Essentials Audio series, a nearly 10-hour, 7-part program created specifically for all wine lovers, from the casual wine enthusiast to the seasoned pro. This 3-year project-in-the-making was expressly designed to demystify what is a highly complex and even intimidating wine region yet enhance the knowledge of those already well-immersed in their Burgundy education. For more information visit www.Burghound.com
How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?
Wine was always on the table when I was young as we lived in France for 4 years when I was a child and my father picked up the custom then and continued it throughout his life. As such, it was almost natural to be interested in wine from the time I was a young adult. As to wine writing, it followed naturally after developing a passion for fine wine during my grad school days, which lead to “blogging” in wine chatrooms in the 80s before the term even existed back in the infancy of AOL. I enjoyed the exchange with wine collectors as well as writing about wines in my free time.
Why the focus on Burgundy and Pinot Noir?
While I spent a one-year dalliance with Bordeaux when I first began to be seriously interested in wine in my early 20s, it was Burgundy that was the first wine that really moved me so profoundly that immediately after grad school graduation, I felt compelled to visit the region and see the people and place that had created such magnificence. A few years later I had similar experiences with the brilliant pinots crafted by Burt Williams and Ed Selyem. Other than a few “side trips” with German Riesling, Port and Champagne, Burgundy and US pinot have been my primary focuses. These wines deliver a unique drinking experience, as well as an intellectual one, that can also be emotionally thrilling.
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 depends of course on what you call a living, but it is, to be completely frank, difficult. There is no shortage of competition plus there is plenty of information available on the web for free. Moreover, with each passing year, there are fewer wine specific publications so they do not need to pay much to aspiring writers for articles. As a result, freelancing is a tough slog if one is trying to be an independent and completely self-supporting wine journalist like myself.
If you’re going to work for an existing publication, it’s necessary to have unassailable expertise and the ability to communicate your conclusions about wines in a way that readers can relate. The information provided also has to have real perceived value. For example, I doubt that “Zinfandel-Hound” would work as a concept because the cost of a mistake isn’t high enough to induce a sufficient number of consumers to pay to avoid the risk. No one likes to spend even small amounts on bad wine but would you pay for information about Zinfandel or other inexpensive wines? Probably not. Consequently, regions such as Burgundy, Piedmont, Bordeaux and Champagne are about the only ones that might reasonably support a narrowly focused publication. And I need hardly add that there is already no shortage of coverage for these regions.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
Probably that my education background is in finance rather than journalism and that I spent 25 years working in that sector before I launched a second career in wine.
What haven’t you done, that you’d like to do?
I would like to have had more time to devote to writing books. The journalistic side of Burghound is extremely time consuming, at least when you provide the detailed quarterly journals we do at Burghound, as well as the fact that I spend nearly six months a year in Burgundy visiting each producer personally. That doesn’t leave much spare time for other projects. I love to write and even though I have written two well-received books, the Pearl of the Côte – The Great Wines of Vosne-Romanée and Burgundy Vintages – A History from 1845 (the latter one co-authored), I am eager to write more.
Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews?
A friend of mine once said, admittedly simplistically, that there are two types of critics: adjectivists and structuralists. He meant that there are those who describe wines, typically with lots of adjectives, the aromas of this or that and whether they like it or not. By contrast, structuralists tend to focus on the acid/fruit/tannin (for reds) balance. I am in the second camp as the primary aromas of a young wine won’t be there when it is finally ready to drink a mature wine. I believe that this approach is more useful to the collectors that I mainly write for. With that said, I still provide a lot of descriptions as people need to have a good sense of what they’re buying, particularly as expensive as the best burgs and pinots are today.
Also, my approach is unique because I do not review wines at En Primeur (or trade) tastings, since most serious Burgundy collectors know that those samples are not always representative of the final wines. I choose to take the methodical route, going from cave to cave and tasting carefully and at the right time with the vignerons – not a “line ‘em up and knock ‘em down” approach. This is why I spend nearly six months a year in Burgundy tasting grower by grower. And no wine is reviewed if it has not yet finished its malos because there is an enormous likelihood that a wine will radically change and evolve between the pre and post-malo stages.
And finally, we have an established statement of principles and we don’t accept advertising or support of any kind and I pay all my own travel and business expenses.
Do you work on an editorial schedule and/or develop story ideas as they come up?
We at Burghound have a quarterly publishing schedule that we rigorously adhere to because readers are highly interested in having timely information on which to base their purchases. And with the most highly sought after and tightly allocated pinots and burgundies, time is very much of the essence. Story ideas are not really a primary focus at Burghound as we have a consistent coverage sequence so the subjects of each issue are largely predetermined. We have a set annual schedule that covers four quarterly issues. Our issue release schedule is: January covers the current vintage of reds in barrel in the Côte de Nuits; April covers the current vintage of reds in barrel in the Côte de Beaune; July covers the current vintage of whites in barrel in the Côte d’Or; and our October issue covers the current vintage in barrel in Chablis, Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais. Many producers during those visits also present the previous vintage in bottle so I am able to provide our subscribers with an updated review of what was previously reviewed in barrel.
What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?
We at Burghound provide no recommendations other than perhaps with respect to background information on the wines reviewed. There are strictly no, to use a term much in vogue these days, quid pro quos or “pay to play” provisos. Nor has there ever been a fee involved with reviewing submitted wines (or getting copies of the reviews) and there never will be. Integrity is a journalist’s best asset and it is something we protect vigorously.
What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?
At Burghound we employ no publicists and do no advertising, but I definitely think that it can be quite helpful for wineries. I say this because those that we at Burghound deal with do a great job of keeping us informed of important changes, reaching out with pertinent information and generally just being a direct link to the winery’s key constituents.
Which wine personalities would you most like to meet and taste with (living or dead)?
Reaching back in time, it would be fascinating to meet Dr. Jules Lavalle or Camille Rodier for dinner. They were, respectively, among the leading lights of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries for the wines of Burgundy. Somewhat more recently, wine loving authors such as Alexis Lichine, André Simon, George Saintsbury or P. Morton Shand would all be exceptionally interesting to meet. I would like to add that I am in no way slighting the admirable, and considerable, efforts of many more modern scribes, it’s just that I have had the honor of meeting, at one time or another, virtually all of them.
If you take days off, how do you spend them?
At the risk of sounding excessively obsessive, I rarely take days off, or if I do, it’s a day here or there. Let this be a word to the wise to any aspiring wine writers that this is definitely not a business that tolerates a leisurely approach to the near constant workload augmented by the ever-present publishing deadlines. With that said, wine writing is hardly digging ditches and I genuinely enjoy and am still passionate about what I do, as well as meeting with and learning from producers, and meeting with other wine enthusiasts and subscribers. But in short, either you’re physically and psychologically built for the grind or you’re not. In October we at Burghound will be celebrating our 20th anniversary and it’s something that we are quite proud of.
What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?
I wrote about this epiphany moment in detail in my first book, The Pearl of the Côte. It’s a bit like your first kiss or the first time you fall in love. It’s not necessarily (and thankfully so) the best kiss or the best love or the best wine you will ever experience but at that particular moment, it was the best thing imaginable. In my case, it was a 1967 Richebourg from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti drunk in 1978 that was like that first kiss. And it was purchased for less than $25!
Read more stories in the series “Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers.”