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.
TIM FISH joined Wine Spectator’s Napa office in 2001 and has been a senior editor since 2013. He is lead taster for the wines of Oregon and Washington, California Rhône-style reds and Zinfandels, and U.S sparkling wines. Fish grew up in small-town Indiana, helping his dad at the grill with steaks cut by his butcher grandfather and taking cooking lessons from his mom. He studied journalism at Western Kentucky University, and after college worked for newspapers in the Midwest before moving to Sonoma County in 1989 to become the food and wine editor for the Press Democrat, covering Northern California wine country. He now lives in the town of Sonoma. You can learn about Tim on Wine Spectator, and of course, read his articles, and follow him on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?
I’m a journalist first and always have been. I studied journalism in college and worked in newspapers large and small in the Midwest before I moved to Santa Rosa in 1989. It was good timing as wine and food, and California wine country, were just taking off. As a journalist, it was a fascinating topic. I first worked for the Santa Rosa newspaper and then joined Wine Spectator in 2001.
What are your primary story interests?
I follow my wine beats – Oregon, Washington and in California it’s Zinfandel, Rhone-style reds, sparkling wine and rose. That’s a fun variety of wines. If I write about a winery, I first have to love their wines, then there has to be a story there, something that’s true. When I say true, I mean something authentic, not just an anniversary or a new tasting room. There are wineries that make great wines but don’t have an interesting story.
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?
I’ve been lucky to be a full-time wine and food writer for about 25 years now, supporting myself and a family. It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. It’s not a job that allows a lot of time to attend winery events or special tastings because you’re too damn busy reviewing wines and writing. I am constantly on deadline.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I often walk with a cane because of a series of hip surgeries I had as a teenager. I can still hike through the vineyards, etc., but my mobility has limitations. Other than that, I’m pretty much what you see is what you get. Anyone who follows me on social media or in print, must be aware of that. Part of that is growing up in small town Indiana, but it’s also part of being a good journalist. How can I expect vintners and winemakers to be as transparent as possible with me, if I’m not with them?
If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing?
As long as I can find interesting people to write about, to try to capture their personality and tell their story as truly as possible, I can write about anything.
Can you describe your approach to wine writing?
I joke that if you have writer’s block you’ve never been a daily journalist on deadline. There’s no time for writer’s block. Once you learn to write tightly and quickly, you’ve laid your foundation as a journalist and writer. Young web journalists complain a lot about being edited and I chuckle. I understand what they’re feeling, I’ve been there, but I’ve been blessed to work with some great editors, who helped me refine and focus my writing without taking away my voice.
If you do wine reviews, please describe your tasting process. What happens to al the wine?
All of our tastings are blind. As I taste, I only know the basics like the year, region, etc. I spend about 10 minutes on every wine, between tasting and taking notes in the database. We review thousands of wines a year that way, both in our Napa and New York offices. As for what happens to all that open wine. Sadly, we end up pouring out a lot. You can only take so many bottle home for dinner.
Do you work on an editorial schedule and/or develop story ideas as they come up?
We maintain a schedule and are typically working about 2 months in advance. My assignments are a mix of my own ideas and my editors.
How often do you write assigned and paid articles (not your blog)? How often do you blog? 13 Do you post your articles on social media? Why is that important?
I try to when I have time. Currently I use Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
What are your recommendations to wineries when interacting with journalists? What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?
I’ve been a journalist for 40 years and have covered many different beats. I have good relationships with publicists but frankly there’s a lot of turnover, so I generally contact the winemaker directly. I’ve lived in Sonoma 31 years and most people in the California industry know me or my reputation as a straight-forward guy. I believe in the separation of church and state. It’s not my job to sell your wine. It’s my job to give my readers the best advice I can on how to spend their time and money on wine. Most of my friends are not in the wine industry.
If you take days off, how do you spend them?
Hanging with my family – I have 2 grown children and a 3rd grandchild on the way. I have a small garden and collect old movies on DVD – Dr. Strangelove, The Apartment, Forbidden Planet. I love to cook when I have time.
What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?
About 10 years ago, I tasted the 1961 Margaux while having dinner on the terrace of Chateau Margaux on a warm Bordeaux evening.
What’s your favorite wine region in the world?
My infatuation with Sonoma County has spanned half my life. There’s something about the place that fits me. I knew it the first day I arrived in the spring of 1989 when everything was green and blooming. Few regions can match the diversity of terroir that Sonoma offers, from cold coastal Pinot Noir to ripe and jammy Zinfandels. It’s also the people, even as the region becomes more monied, pretension is limited. Winemakers are farmers, not movie stars, for the most part.
Read more stories in the series “Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers.”