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.
Christopher Sawyer is an internationally-renowned
sommelier, wine judge, consultant, wine journalist and public speaker.
Voted Best Sommelier of Sonoma County 2019 by Bohemian Magazine for the
sixth consecutive year, he is also a recipient of many more prestigious
awards and industry honors. To follow his wine adventures, subscribe to his
Blog The Sommelier Files & YouTube Channel featuring The Varietal Show!, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?
My heritage with wine started before I was born. First, through my grandpa Carl Sawyer, who helped the Gallo family develop their large-scale production facility in Modesto and managed 450 workers when he retired 37 years later. Secondly, through my parents, when my mom met my soon-to-be dad, while he was the head bartender and she worked in the gift shop at the Ahwahnee in Yosemite in the late 1960s. Later, while growing up amidst the vineyards in Russian River Valley until my early teens, my first wine experiences were accompanying my mom and her friends on tasting room excursions in Sonoma and Napa counties in the 1970s and early 1980s. While watching the wine industry grow up around me, I was the editor-in-chief of the Trojan newspaper at Petaluma High School and The Oak Leaf at Santa Rosa Junior College. Then, after becoming the music critic for The Aggie at University of California Davis, I started writing articles about the world-class Viticulture & Enology department at UCD, which later spurred my interest to take classes on the topic at Santa Rosa Junior College. I also began honing my skills in food and wine service by working with a an up-scale catering company for top clients in San Francisco and Sonoma County. This all set me up for becoming #2 in command at Wine X Magazine and writing regular articles for the SF Chronicle, AAA Magazine, Wine Business Monthly, Vineyard & Winery Management, and almost two decades of working with editor Meridith May for Patterson’s Beverage Journal, The SOMM Journal, The Tasting Panel and The Clever Root. Today, that journey continues.
What are your primary story interests and palate preferences?
I don’t have any preferences on what to write about, as long as the topic has value to readers. That means everything from wine, spirits and beer; to fine cuisine and travel; and all the way to music and films. A few of my favorite impact articles include one I wrote about Styrofoam shippers, which resulted in the use of more eco-friendly shipping inserts by wineries; another I did on the rise in popularity of Small Batch Bourbon for the SF Chronicle; a detailed analysis of stemware, which I did for Wine Business Monthly with an all-star panel of Masters of Wine, Master Sommeliers, and other wine pros; and a wide range of articles I did on Biodynamics back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which helped raise the bar on that great movement.
I understand you’ve started an interview podcast series. Can you share a link and details?
While I’ve been featured on many podcasts through the years, my newest project is The Varietal Show with SawyerSomm, which my wife Simone Haslam and I launched in Spring 2020. The new episodes run on YouTube, Facebook, and my SawyerSomm.com site every week (Premiering each Tuesday on You Tube: https://youtube.com/c/ChristopherSawyerSommelier). This concept was the result of a series of great live broadcasts I did with Cellar Pass TV and other great wineries after the pandemic “shelter in place” swept across the nation earlier this year. More great shows ahead!
What would people be surprised to know about you?
At the top of this list would be the fact that I was the in-residence sommelier for Gordon and Ann Getty for 8 years and have done the same for John Lasseter (of Pixar-fame) and his wife Nancy for over two decades. That’s where my nickname “Sommelier to the Stars” came from! I was also the world’s first ever Film Festival Sommelier, which started at the Sonoma International Film Festival in the early 2000s. I also named the Petaluma Gap appellation, nearly twenty years before it was granted as an official AVA of Sonoma County in December of 2017. That’s why Ana Keller and other local producers call me the “Godfather of the Gap.” Lastly, because I’m a writer, sommelier, wine educator, wine consultant and professional wine judge, a lot of stories have been written about me in Esquire, Redbook, USA Today, Hollywood Reporter, etc.
What haven’t you done, that you’d like to do?
I’ve always wanted to have a wine show on Food Network. After I became the official Sommelier for Food Network in Concert, in Chicago in 2015, we’ve been in talks with the network about various projects through the years. Hopefully, it will all come together someday!
If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing?
As a well-known sommelier, wine educator, public speaker, and part-owner of Gravenstein Grill I already keep very busy earning a living. These sources of income have allowed me to be picky about the stories I write. It took about two decades to get to this point, but it was all worth it
Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews?
For over three decades, my style has always been based around taking detailed notes. For that reason, I have a full library of notebooks that come in handy even after I write the articles. This was especially true in the dynamic ten-part AVA series I wrote for Wine Business Monthly entitled: “The California Appellation Series 1983-2013.” This series allowed me to reflect on lessons I learned since I broke into the wine industry in the mid-1990s by reviewing my notes from prior visits to wineries that played important roles in making these special winegrowing regions what they are today. I still use this form of detailed note-taking today.
Do you work on an editorial schedule and/or develop story ideas as they come up?
I’ve always done a little bit of both. For Napa Valley Life, my main editorial column is focused on varietals and the luminary winemakers, vintners and growers that put them on the map to stay. But I also write bigger, sweeping stories like “Breaking The Mold with Food & Wine Pairings,” which featured insight from Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein and other sommeliers from the Bay Area, for the Food & Wine issue, which came out in early summer 2020. It has been a similar story with The SOMM Journal, where my regular column was concentrated on hot wine trends in Sonoma County, but I also contribute other feature stories on wines from around the globe.
How often do you write assigned and paid articles (not your blog)? How often do you blog?
To be frank, my wife won’t let me write an article unless I get paid. The general exception is when a magazine, respectable organization, or a PR guru send me a Q&A to fill out. Because I write for paid assignments on a regular basis, my SawyerSomm.com website has become a fun, interactive mixture of new blog material for The Sommelier Files, links to recently published articles, and promotion of events that I will be participating in throughout the year.
Do you post your articles on social media? Why is that important?
Absolutely! I like to promote the articles I write and the publications I work with on social media. I look at this form of promotion as a powerful tool that allows me to spread the word about new wine trends, great achievements by wineries and/or wine regions, and other hot topics to a wider range of readers, than just those that subscribe to the publication. Same is true with the recent blogs, reviews and wine judging results—all of which I promote via social media as well.
What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?
It starts with knowing the difference between a journalist, blogger, and influencer. Therefore, I would advise wineries to do some research on us before sending out generic inquiries that are sent to the masses. Personalized notes matter, too. And if they do get great mention in articles I write, thank you notes are certainly appreciated.
What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?
There is nothing more important than building relationships in the wine industry. In the case of winery publicists, it means resources are just a call, text or email away from being involved in an article you are working on. Same is true when they move on to a new winery or start working with a more multi-task communications firm. I’m happy to say I have hundreds of examples of talented publicists I have worked closely with through the years—some of whom are now among my dearest friends on the planet!
If you take days off, how do you spend them?
My days off are always spent with family and friends. That is especially true during the pandemic, which has made each moment with friends who visit my cellar (with masks) or who I meet up with in wine country that much more precious. But generally speaking, I love music, traveling, hiking, and sports (particularly playing golf, basketball with my son, and watching the NFL). In my cellar, I am also well known for playing vinyl albums, which I have collected ever since I started DJ-ing back in the 1980s.
What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?
While working as the sommelier at a special dinner event at Moon Mountain Vineyards (now Repris Winery) in Glen Ellen, I got to spend twenty minutes of one-on-one private time with former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev while sipping on wine and telling him about the beauties of Cabernet Franc as his security guards drank whiskey on the floor below.
Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing? Favorite recipe/pairing?
As a journalist and sommelier, I have so many memories of great food and wine pairings. Many of those magic moments happened when I worked with star chef Janine Falvo at The Lodge at Sonoma from 2004-2014. Other great memories are linked to when I was the Wine Director at Flavor Napa Valley as well as the tasty pairings I do annually at the Telluride Wine Festival. Same is true at our restaurant Gravenstein Grill in Sebastopol, where I’ve won Best Sommelier of Sonoma County award from the Bohemian magazine every year since we opened in 2015. But on a personal level, one of my favorites is salty chips with crème fraiche and caviar, with a refined style of Blanc de Blancs, like the Domaine Carneros Le Reve. In terms of writing, my favorite pairings were the ones I did with Foster Farms for President Obama before his blessing of the Thanksgiving turkeys in 2015, https://legacy.pressdemocrat.com/lifestyle/4676926-181/two-turkeys-to-receive-presidential?sba=AAS.
Read more stories in the series “Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers.”