Samantha Cole-Johnson became the Pacific Northwest specialist for JancisRobinson.com in 2022 after being a regular contributor to the site since 2019. Previously, she worked in production in Oregon, California and Australia. She holds the WSET Diploma and was shortlisted for a 2020 Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Award.
Cole-Johnson is also a woman on a mission — and it’s not necessarily just about wine. Read on to find out more.
How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?
My career was always going to be something food related. Straight out of high school, I wanted to go to culinary school, but my father was adamant that would be a poor decision, so I went to university for business.
Looking back at my time in university is comical. I was doing what my parents wanted, but every moment I had out of class was spent in service to my own interests. I worked at a tiny chocolate shop where I studied the correct tempering technique and the history of cacao. I waited tables at a local brewpub and learned the basics of the brewing process. Before my senior year, while everyone else was doing internships at KPMG and Deloitte, I joined the Worldwide Organization for Organic Farming and did work stays with a vineyard in France, a dairy in Switzerland, and a vegetable farm in Italy.
Somehow, I still thought it was a good idea to take a finance job out of university. That job landed me in Portland and I started tasting wine in the Willamette Valley. Within nine months, I was back on a restaurant floor and studying wine.
I got curious enough during my WSET Diploma that I went to work a harvest. A year later, before my second harvest, I found Richard Hemmings’ old harvest journal on JancisRobinson.com and thought, “This is brilliant, but it’s 11 years old.” I’d written for a publication in university and had just been shortlisted for Jancis’s annual writing competition, so I emailed to see if I could write a harvest journal. That was 2019 and I’ve been writing for her ever since.
What are your primary story interests?
If there’s something widespread in the wine industry and nobody has adequately answered why it’s happening, that catches my interest. Two of my favorite pieces I’ve written in the last year started with that question: Why do wineries in Northern California have a CO2 shortage? Why are vineyard management companies more prevalent in the United States than anywhere else in the world?
Of course, I write for a consumer audience. So, my pieces can’t all be esoteric personal interests. When I’m writing profiles for things like our Wine of the Week, I look for people who I think make outstanding wine, are intimately involved in farming, and care deeply for their soil and their people. When I write a bunch of reviews, as well as providing these to the consumer, I’m on the lookout for top notch wines from producers who are either farming for the future and/or have something unique they can teach the world. These are people I’m interested in following up with for longer articles.
What led to your current role as Pacific Northwest Editor for Jancis Robinson?
I think there are three reasons I was selected for this role but, as I’ve never asked Jancis if they’re true, this is purely speculation.
One, [JancisRobinson.com] was acquired by Recurrent, and one of its many goals is increased coverage for U.S. wine. Two, I was already writing for Jancis at a rate that exceeded many of her permanent contributors. She knew that I could produce content to deadline and that I was intensely curious. She also knew that my heart beat for the Pacific Northwest and I wanted to come home. Three, and this is most speculative of all, I think Jancis looks for empathetic writers who love people and despite that, are still skeptics.
I don’t know if it’s this way for everyone, but I do know that, when I’ve discussed it with Elaine Chukan Brown, writing isn’t and shouldn’t be easy. You have a duty to provide honest and interesting content to the consumer, make your editor and publication look good by doing meticulous research, and be fair to producers. Add in regional bodies, which, many times, fund writer’s travel to get coverage for their region, and it becomes political. Sometimes all those stakeholders are a lot, and it would be tempting to just publish the good. But without honest criticism in addition to the good, you’re not educating, you’re just marketing.
What haven’t you done that you’d like to do?
This question has 10,000 answers.
I’d like to work with local farms and an app designer to design a platform to sell produce, meat and dairy directly from local farms and arrange delivery. I’d like to plant a 2-acre vineyard and make wine. I’d like to rent a warehouse, buy wine in-barrel, bottle it in blanks with necker tags declaring producer and vintage, coordinate local delivery, and then pick up empty wine bottles, refill them, and drop them again the next week, like a milk program. I’d like to work with a cartographer to map every vineyard in Oregon and Washington. I’d like to plant a teaching vineyard like viticulture programs have, but host WSET classes for consumers and nonviticulture industry professionals.
Can you tell us about your approach to wine writing?
It’s different for every piece. In some cases, like with a profile, I have a list of things I want to touch on: history, geography, viticulture, winemaking, and my impression of the wines. For personal pieces, it’s my experience. For opinion pieces, I try to prove my opinion wrong. If I can’t prove my opinion wrong, then I try to find as many people who aren’t me to talk about the subject as possible.
You describe yourself as interested in the inside stories, how so?
Wines can be great with no context and often are, but there’s a story of a site, a vineyard steward, an intern, a winemaker, and a distributor in every bottle. That story can be rote, or it can be compelling enough that it’s no longer just a product, it’s a project you support. It’s why the natural wine movement has been successful; it’s also why consumers join wine clubs. I like the idea that people can consume in line with their values.
What are you working on now?
For the moment, I only work for Jancis in terms of editorial. I have no interest in my own site. I do teach occasionally and would like to do that more. The piece that’s sitting on my laptop right now is on what an AVA is and if it reflects much in terms of wine quality or consistency.
What are your recommendations to wineries when interacting with journalists?
I can’t speak for journalists in general, only myself. If I’m interviewing you for a potential piece, it’s because I suspect you can provide me with something educational or inspiring. It is neither educational nor inspiring if you only talk about the good parts of your story. Whether it’s trial and error, bad luck and recovery, or just something where you made a mistake, someone can learn something from that, and your candor will be appreciated.
On the technical side, the more information the better. If your background is biochemistry, go deep, even if it’s not something the consumer wants, it will give me a better understanding of the project in general. I’ll stop people to ask if I need more info on something.
What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?
A good publicist can make your life easier. If they understand your story interests, they’ll send info and events that are tailored to you. In the last couple months, there have been a couple tasting opportunities directly related to what I’ve been writing that I would have missed if not for a publicist.
How important is wine education? Can you tell us about your journey?
For some people, it’s not something they’ll need. For me, I believe it was instrumental to getting my current position and to my path through the industry.
I touched down in Portland, Ore., knowing absolutely nothing about wine. My first step toward changing that was through the Court of Master Sommeliers introduction course. After that, I started reading GuildSomm and found a tasting group. The woman in charge of that group spent hours preparing me for my certified exam. When I passed, she pushed me into WSET 3 and then WSET Diploma. Also, in that tasting group I met someone who would leave a job that I would take before it was posted anywhere. At that job, I met the national sales manager for the winery I’d go work for during my first vintage. After vintage ended, another member of a tasting group called to tell me he had an open position. I don’t know if it’s the actual education as much as it’s the shared goal between students. When you’re studying, the people you spend your time with are others who are studying. It’s no longer just a job, it’s a shared passion.
I’m now in the position I want to be in, but that doesn’t make the connections I am making in the MW program any less useful. Now it’s not about the next job, it’s about supporting people whose visions I believe in and connecting people who can help each other with shared goals. It’s also about constantly surrounding yourself with intensely curious people who challenge your views.
What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?
I interned at Harlan, Promontory, and BOND in viticulture and production. The first time I got to taste the Promontory wines it blew my mind. It wasn’t that the wines are incredible — though they are — but that it was the first time that I was so intimately familiar with a vineyard that I could tell you where each block was, what it looked like, who was the vinemaster who worked that parcel…and when I tasted it… it tasted like the vineyard. Not the AVA, or the variety, or the winemaking, but the vineyard.
Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing?
I really love Oloroso sherry and roasted bone marrow paella. Credit to Bar Casa Vale for the paella inspiration.
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