Sean P. Sullivan is a contributing editor at Wine Enthusiast, covering Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Canada. He is also the founder of Washington Wine Report, an on-line site dedicated to the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest. He resides in Seattle, Washington.
How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?
In 2000 I did a hard reboot on my life, moving from Massachusetts to Seattle and exploring a lot of new directions, personally and professionally. One of those things was an introductory wine class at a local community college.
After that class, I got very interested in wine and started going around to all of the local tastings every week. I’ve always been a note taker, so I wrote notes about the wines I was tasting and soon started using a home-grown rating system. Washington only had about 200 wineries at that point, so I figured I’d learn about wine and the state I’d just moved to by focusing on the wines.
In 2005, I started Washington Wine Report as a friends and family email list, where I would send out long-form, 40 or 50-page PDF reports with wine reviews and information to people on my list. Then people would forward it along to their friends. In 2007, 15 years ago this year, I moved Washington Wine Report to an online site.
At the end of 2009, I left the corporate world to start writing about wine full time. I started writing for Seattle Metropolitan magazine later that year and began writing and reviewing for Wine Enthusiast in 2013.
What are your primary palate preferences?
As a critic, the way that I taste wine is fundamentally different than the way most consumers or even most other wine industry people taste. Looking at it broadly, I try and evaluate what the wine is trying to accomplish from a stylistic perspective and how well the wine accomplishes it.
The example I typically give is Chardonnay. Some people don’t like riper styles or styles that use a lot of new oak or malolactic fermentation or whatever. But if that style is well executed, I’ll score that wine well. Similarly, if a Chardonnay is made in stainless steel and is light, lean, and racy but well executed, I’ll score that wine well too. That’s not to say that I would or wouldn’t like to drink that particular wine at home for personal enjoyment. I’m saying it’s a high-quality example of that style, and the tasting note would describe that style.
Is it possible to make a living as a wine writer today? If so, how have you succeeded?
I think it is possible, but it is certainly not easy. For many people it’s impractical.
How I’ve made it work—to the extent that I have—is to have some diversification. For me there are three legs to the stool. One leg is wine criticism, specifically rating and reviewing. Another is wine writing. And then a third is non-winery educational consulting. Together they comprise a somewhat steady source of income, but all three are required to keep the stool standing up.
I think it’s important if someone is interested in making a living as a wine writer to have realistic expectations. I am able to make a living, but I make less money today than I did 20-plus years ago at an entry level software industry job. That’s not including cost of living adjustments or benefits. So I make a living, but it is a quite modest one.
What are the primary challenges and hurdles writers face making a living?
Generally speaking, writing is not well valued, so it’s not well-compensated. That’s not just a wine industry problem. It’s a problem more generally.
Unless you are on salary, which very few people are, money arrives infrequently, usually after a story is published. So it’s hard to budget. You’re left with small amounts of money, arriving infrequently. So to make it work, you need to string together enough of those small amounts, frequently enough to pay the bills. That’s hard to do. As a freelancer, you also can never take your foot off the gas. If you’re not constantly pitching and writing stories, you don’t get paid.
For critics, trying to make a living is even more complicated. You have to avoid conflicts of interest. You can’t make any money associated with wine sales obviously. Working directly for or with a winery is also a major no no.
Can you describe your approach to wine writing?
In another life, I was a researcher, and that still very much informs the approach I take to writing about and evaluating wine. I would describe my approach to both as methodical and also passionate. I write about wine because I love the subject, and I love writing about it.
What are you working on right now?
I’m typically working on several different things at once, both for Wine Enthusiast and for Washington Wine Report. At Wine Enthusiast, I’ve been looking at the lifecycle of a wine bottle as well as recent issues with glass supply. For Washington Wine Report, most recently I’ve been focused on industry news. As I’ve never monetized my site, I tend to only have time for it when there is a breaking story that doesn’t fit elsewhere or I have a bit of space in between paid writing assignments.
Describe your tasting process as a wine reviewer.
The most important thing for people to know is that, at Wine Enthusiast, all wines are tasted blind. Personally, I sort wines by variety, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir, but I do not sort by any other factor, such as price, appellation, or vintage.
Tasting blind is designed to eliminate biases that knowledge of a producer, vintage, or region can bring. For example, let’s say that I know that a particular wine is from a highly regarded producer, and it’s widely believed to be a great vintage. That knowledge can cause biases that affect score. Tasting blind eliminates that.
Additionally, all wines are tasted in a standardized environment. For me, this means I taste at the same location, at the same time, using the same stemware, with the wines at the same temperature and other factors. This provides consistency in approach across wines to make my scores comparable to each other.
When you combine the two, what you have is wines that are tasted blind in a consistent fashion, where every wine gets the same shot as the wine that came before it and the wine that comes after it. Very few publications do that. I believe it adds legitimacy to our scores.
Do you work on an editorial schedule or develop story ideas as they come up?
I do both. Wine Enthusiast has an annual editorial calendar that gets determined in advance of each year, where certain stories are scheduled. That is for the print magazine. Additionally, I pitch stories as I think of them. If accepted, those would ultimately be published online or perhaps in the magazine if space allows. But I’m always thinking about new story ideas and new trends in the areas that I cover as well as the larger industry. It’s part of how I make my living.
What are your recommendations to wineries when interacting with journalists?
I always encourage wineries to try to develop relationships with writers. Like any relationship, that’s something that only happens over the course of time as you get to know each other.
Many wineries in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere are small, family wineries, where the people and the winery have a story to tell. Ideally you want writers to know what that story is, why it’s important, and how that story evolves over time.
What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?
Again, relationships are important. Ideally the publicist knows the writer, knows what types of stories they are interested in, knows what their schedule looks like, and can steer stories toward or away from them appropriately.
Too often many publicists take a transactional approach, where they have no established relationship with a person, and they are essentially saying to the writer “I’m hoping that you will help me use your outlet to promote something for one of my clients to help my business.” That is rarely successful.
What frustrates you most about working on winery stories or wine reviews?
In terms of reviews, I’m always surprised at how many people are unaware that I taste and review wines blind and in a standardized environment for Wine Enthusiast. They are also unaware that many other sites do not. That seems strange to me. If you’re submitting wines, wouldn’t you want to know something about how it’s going to be reviewed?
It’s also challenging that sometimes winemakers can take disappointing reviews very personally. That can be true whether it’s an 83-point score or a 93-point score by the way. Some winemakers get very attached to their wines. And because the wines become so personal to them, I think sometimes they think the scores might be personal too. It’s never anything personal. It’s always my perception of the wine.
Why do you think there’s that disconnect?
Speaking generally of course, I think some winemakers tend to overestimate their own wines in terms of quality, so when they get scores that don’t meet their expectations – even if the score for that particular reviewer and magazine is very good – they are disappointed.
I think this happens for a few reasons. First, most winemakers pour their heart and soul into their wines. I get that. Second, scoring at some outlets has become overly generous in my opinion. This increases the misalignment between perceived quality and actual quality. Finally, a lot of winemakers are not tasting their own wines blind in competitive flights. What I mean by that is that they are not tasting their wines along with a range of other offerings in the same category across different price points, to see how they’re doing on a more objective level.
When doing that, by the way, it’s important to have some qualitative range and price differences in there. Otherwise, if you’re just picking all top flight wines, it’s easy to say, “These are all great, and mine is great too.” That’s an example of tasting bias, where you think something is good because you know it’s supposed to be. Blind tasting is a great equalizer. I encourage more people to do it.
I also want to note that, when I’m talking about reviews, I’m not saying by any means that my scores are always right. They are not. I make mistakes. We all do. But that shouldn’t be someone’s first assumption. Each score is my take, tasting blind in a standardized setting, as someone who has been reviewing Northwest wines for 17 years. Nothing more, nothing less.
“Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers” is a Q&A series profiling Wine Writers. The objective is to understand and develop working relationships with journalists—those that help tell our stories, review our wines, and provide media coverage—by learning their wine and writing backgrounds, story and personal interests, palate preferences, writing challenges and pet peeves. This is an ongoing Wine Industry Advisor series.
Have suggestions for interviews? Contact [email protected]
CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s celebrating his 12th year of winery consulting. Carl has been involved in business marketing and public relations for over 25 years; originally in technology, digital marketing and project management, and now as a winery media relations consultant. Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, Walla Walla, Columbia Valley and the Columbia Gorge. Visit Carl Giavanti Consulting