“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.
San Francisco Magazine has called Alder Yarrow “The Wine World’s Brightest Cyberstar” and he is widely accepted as a pioneer of wine blogging. He has been publishing Vinography.Com daily since 2004 and was nominated for a James Beard Award in 2013. In addition to writing for outlets as diverse as the World of Fine Wine and Fine Cooking Magazine, he is currently a monthly columnist for Jancis Robinson, and the author of The Essence of Wine, named one of the best wine books of 2014 by The New York Times and Wine & Spirits Magazine among others. In 2013 Alder was inducted into the Wine Media Guild of New York’s Wine Writers’ Hall of Fame, an honor he shares with only 24 other living wine writers. Alder was born in the heart of the western Sonoma Coast, and currently lives with his family in Oakland.
How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?
I really had no real exposure to wine growing up, other than having hung out on the lawn at a Sonoma winery or two during the summer while my dad and his parents did wine tasting.
During undergrad I did a year abroad of study at Oxford, through an exchange program we had at Stanford. We were supposed to take our meals “in college” with the other students, but the food was so horrifically, institutionally bad (this was the UK in the early 90s) I started cooking for myself in the small kitchen to which I had access. And as I sat there eating my spaghetti with sauce out of a jar, I thought to myself, “Shouldn’t I be drinking wine with my dinner?”
So I went down to the local Oddbins wine shop, and picked things off the bottom shelf that I could afford and that looked interesting. That began a fascination with wine that hopefully will never end.
As for wine writing, I started Vinography in 2004 mostly as a personal project to figure out what blogs were all about, and after a few weeks I started writing every day. It quickly became clear that the blog was an important creative outlet for me. A few months in, people started to discover it, and I basically haven’t stopped pounding the keys for the past 17 years.
What are your primary story interests?
I think stories make wine meaningful and memorable, so I’m interested in the people, places, culture and history behind wines and wine regions. Because I’m not writing for anyone else (other than my monthly column for Jancis Robinson, and the occasional commissioned piece for other outlets) I tend to follow my own whims and write about what’s of interest to me at the time, what I discover on a trip, or simply the good bottles that show up on my doorstep. I have a particular interest in emerging wine regions and indigenous grape varieties, as well as anything off the beaten path.
What are your primary palate preferences?
I’m a self-declared acid freak. I love wines with racy acidity and freshness, whether they be red or white, and I also tend to appreciate wines without too much overt oak influence. Having said that, from a purely wine criticism standpoint I think my tastes are a bit more catholic than some. I can get excited about Napa Cab, Greek Assyrtiko, and some cloudy natural wine from a tiny garage producer.
Are you a staff columnist or freelance? What are the advantages of both?
I’ve been writing a monthly column for Jancis Robinson for 10 years, but other than an occasional paid piece for a magazine or online outlet, most of my writing is unpaid on my own web site.
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?
In the United States, I don’t think it’s possible to make a living as a wine writer who is just starting out today without going the route of the influencers and leaving aside some of the ethics and policies that wine writing has borrowed from traditional journalism over the years.
I’ve been participating in the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa for many years as an attendee and as a speaker, and the number of people attending there who, even after 10 to 15 years in the business, can support themselves by writing about wine remain remarkably few. Especially in a place like the Bay Area where the cost of living is incredibly high.
For the last 17 years I’ve had a 50-to-60-hour-a-week day job. Only after selling my company was I able to step away this past April and focus primarily on wine writing for a time. I expect, however, that this will be temporary, and that in due course, I will need to go back to having wine writing simply be my “night job” as it has always been. Sadly, the almost complete death of the dedicated newspaper wine column in the past decade demonstrates there are just not enough people in this country excited to read about wine and in so doing, support a thriving industry of wine writers.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
A lot of people in the industry are always surprised that Vinography isn’t my full-time job, and that for the past 20 years I’ve had a career as a digital marketing executive and entrepreneur running my own design agency in San Francisco.
Many people are also curious about my name, which is somewhat unusual thanks to my hippie parents. I was born in a small house my father built on a commune in Sonoma County, which sits under a large alder tree. Since my parents weren’t married when I was born, they gave me my own last name (different than both of theirs). The dried stems of the yarrow herb have been the traditional medium for the I-Ching fortune-telling hexagrams for centuries.
I like to joke that I’m the world’s most biodynamic wine critic, because the biodynamic preparation 502 involves stuffing a red deer bladder full of yarrow and hanging it to dry above head height in an alder tree.
What haven’t you done, that you’d like to do?
I’d really like to go to space. I grew up as a pretty nerdy kid, and still read a ton of Science Fiction. I doubt it will ever become affordable in my lifetime, but if it was, I’d definitely want to see earthrise from the moon. It’s pretty much the most beautiful thing I could imagine seeing in person.
What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your writing about wine?
First and foremost, I would hope people learn that the wine world offers an unbelievable array of flavors, aromas, stories and experiences. The best possible reaction to something I write would be someone saying to themselves, “I want to learn more about that,” or “I want to try that wine,” or both. Curiosity is one of the chief virtues for any wine lover or aspiring wine lover to cultivate, and I’d love for my writing to spark that kind of interest.
Can you describe your approach to wine writing?
When I started Vinography, my goal was to write about wine in the way I wanted to read about wine: with intelligence, clarity, and a focus on the unique synthesis of humanity and a particular sense of place that is at the heart of great wine. Mostly I want to tell stories that make wine more meaningful and memorable to the people who drink it, while turning people on to wines that they will love.
If you do wine reviews, please describe your tasting process. What happens to all the wine?
I tend to taste wine in three contexts: as press samples, on press trips, and at large public tastings. I produce reviews from all three, though the format varies for each.
Press samples are tasted in batches in my home, and tend to be grouped by type, though I mix it up a bit to keep myself from getting bored. I taste everything that gets sent to me, but write about the stuff that I really like. Occasionally press samples that really turn my head will result in me doing a full profile of the producer, but most get published as part of my weekly press sample roundup I call Vinography Unboxed. I taste press samples now with Coravin, and then foist the bottles off on my neighbors through periodic giveaways. Any unopened duplicates are given to charity functions or auctions.
When I go on press trips, I tend to write a lot of individual producer profiles, as well as regional overviews with wine highlights.
At large public tastings (remember those?) I tend to score a lot of wines and jot some notes, and present those as large sets of scores. Only in this last context do I tend to publish the lowest scores and notes as well as the highest.
How often do you write assigned and paid articles (not your blog)? How often do you blog?
Since I’ve now taken a break from my corporate life for a little while, I have taken on more random commissions, perhaps one every couple of months. I’ve also written a couple of tasting articles for Jancis Robinson, in addition to my regular monthly column there. I try to blog 3-5 times per week, but sometimes it’s as many as 5-6 times depending on how much time I have and what inspiration strikes me.
What are your recommendations to wineries when interacting with journalists?
Assuming that the journalist has reached out to the winery, the number one recommendation I have, which is so basic but I see so rarely, is simply to ask questions. What is the journalist interested in? How do they like to work? What would they like their visit to include? What kind of information will help them?
If the winery is reaching out to the journalist cold, then the winery definitely needs to have done its homework and actually read the journalist’s work, and formulate a pitch based on what they have read. They need to suggest, based on what they’ve read, why they think the journalist might be interested in their wines or their story, and then make their pitch for sending samples, or getting their winemaker interviewed, etc.
In 17 years I have personally never written a single piece based on a press release that someone has sent me, however I do know some wine journalists who often write stories based on press releases, so again it’s a question of knowing your audience.
What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?
The good ones are sometimes worth their weight in gold, as they can be much more responsive than winery staff, and often have the kinds of resources at their fingertips that journalists need to do their job, from bottle shots to winemaker bios. Good Marketing and PR firms can also take the time to get to know journalists, their preferences, and the way they work, something that few wineries have the time or sensitivity to do, even if they did have the inclination. A publicist who has built a solid relationship with a journalist can both make the journalist’s life easier while getting a higher hit rate for their clients’ pitches.
Which wine personalities would you most like to meet and taste with (living or dead)?
There are a number of winemakers that I really wish I had managed to spend time with before they passed. I never got to meet Dr. Bailey Carrodus, the founder of Yarra Yering winery in Australia, whose wines I adore. Another Australian winemaker I never managed to spend time with was Taras Ochota, which is a disappointment. I met Serge Hochar of Chateau Musar enough times that he knew my name and face, but one of my great regrets is that I never made it to Lebanon to visit him and taste at his winery.
If you take days off, how do you spend them?
With a 12-year-old daughter and a new puppy, most of my time off is spent with the family doing things such as hiking in local parks, finding fun places for the dog to explore, and visiting local beaches. When I get the chance, perhaps only a few times per year, I enjoy fly fishing and snowboarding.
What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?
It’s hard to beat sitting in the midst of centuries-old vines, tasting the wines that come from the very spot you’re sitting, all while the Etna volcano is busy erupting over your head. Sure, you occasionally had to fish bits of ash out of your wineglass, but talk about a terroir immersion…. I will always remember that experience.
What’s your cure for a wine hangover?
Spitting. I can count the times I’ve been hungover on the fingers of one hand. While I love wine, I don’t love overindulging, and don’t like how I feel when I drink too much. I try to drink a lot of water alongside my wine, get plenty of sleep, and be judicious about my drinking.
What’s your favorite wine region in the world?
The one I haven’t been to that I’m going to visit next, wherever that might be.
Read more stories in the series “Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers.”