By Carl Giavanti
Paul Hodgins is a wine writer, arts writer and educator. He was the wine, beer and spirits columnist for The Orange County Register from 2009 to 2018. He has written three books on wine: The Winemakers of Paso Robles, Drive Through Napa and Drive Through Paso Robles. Hodgins has taught at UC Irvine, California State University Fullerton and the University of Southern California, where he received his doctorate in music. Among his honors is a 2019 National Arts Journalism Award.
During the day, Naushad Huda is a senior principal of customer strategy for a global consulting firm focused on digital transformations. At night, he’s a wine-geek and founder of I Like This Grape, whose mission is to make wine relatable to millennial audiences through unique wine events and publishing modern books and wine journals. His pop-up winemaker tasting events, VINO POP, have brought the tasting room experience out of the tasting room, while the Drive Through book series gives new or younger consumers confidence to visit a wine region.
Paul, you’ve been writing for many years. What brought you to the Drive Through book project?
PH: I was still working as the Orange County Register’s wine writer when Naushad approached me with a proposal about collaborating with him on a wine/lifestyle platform called I Like This Grape. I’d never heard of this guy before, but I liked the concept: he wanted to make wine approachable to younger consumers and present it in a larger lifestyle context that included fashion, food, music and other cultural elements. I was intrigued.
Naushad, you’re involved in tech consulting and media strategy. Why did you choose to pursue wine?
NH: I didn’t intend to, but I was motivated to learn more about [wine] through an early client of mine who was the director of digital marketing at Yamaha Watercrafts and also founded the popular blog costcowineblog.com. Through him, I became geeky about wine — it’s like baseball cards for adults!
The center of my professional/entrepreneurial career has always been customer strategy. I’m wired to think people first (tech, to me, is a commodity). When I started to think about wine and its customers, I observed a wide chasm between the wine industry and a new, dynamic consumer base. Naturally, I wanted to fill the chasm.
What wine regions are you considering for upcoming guides?
NH: The books aren’t guides, which is why they’re so popular. We have no intention of telling someone where to go in Napa or Paso. The goal is to simply give newer and/or younger wine consumers confidence to visit a wine region. But to your question, Paul, my wife, Kathy, and I talk about this from time to time, and everyone has an opinion. My vote is to do Willamette Valley soon to give some diversity.
PH: I’m from Vancouver, B.C., and my first wine experiences involved tasting and learning about wines from British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. I’d love to tackle the Willamette Valley or maybe even the Okanagan, where there are hundreds of quality wineries. Ultimately, we like to concentrate on areas where there’s a lot of consumer interest but not much information available about local wine.
What makes the Drive Through books unique?
PH: Approachability, thoroughness of research, interviews with winemakers about terroir and other relevant stuff, and laser-focused information about each region that explains its viticultural identity.
NH: The tone is approachable yet informative. It’s won design awards for content. It’s a reference book that’s not dense nor boring. It includes a diversity of content types from qualitative to quantitative. And we’ve loaded intentionality into every aspect, from design to event length (for example, Drive Through Napa is purposefully meant to be read in less than 2 hours because that’s the flight time from OC to SFO and drive time from San Francisco to Napa).
Paul, what do you recommend to [wine writers] just getting started?
PH: Find a niche that you love, figure out a unique angle that will attract readers, find the right platform fit for publication, market yourself aggressively (that includes the old-fashioned way — meeting, greeting, forging relationships with the people you cover and making promotional appearances like book signings).
What would people be surprised to know about you both?
PH: I have a doctorate in music and was a professor of music for many years at UC Irvine and USC. I started writing about wine by accident while working as a journalist at the Orange County Register. The profession chose me, not vice versa.
NH: I have a law degree and was an English major at UC Berkeley.
What haven’t you done that you’d like to do?
PH: I need to visit some of the great wine regions of the Old World before I’m done. I’ve spent time drinking great wine in France, Italy and Spain, but I’ve never made a trip to Europe just to investigate wine. That’s on my bucket list.
NH: In wine, specifically, I’d love to do an annual trip to a major wine region in the world with a handful of buddies and then write a Drive Through book for every major wine region in the world.
What’s one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your coverage of these wine regions?
PH: There are exciting discoveries to be made if you’re willing to go off the beaten track and taste wines that are unfamiliar to you. To make those discoveries, don’t rush your way through a wine region. Stay a while, talk to people, get a feel for the spirit of the place. That will tell you a lot about its wine.
NH: A friend and colleague who happens to be an incredible contemporary artist, Brian Gillespie, told me when I first got into wine, “the best wine is the wine you like best.”
Paul, what’s the best (wine) story you have written? Please provide a link.
PH: I had a lot of fun writing this one: https://www.ocregister.com/2014/09/03/sideways-10th-anniversary-does-merlot-still-have-pinot-envy/
If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing?
PH: Trying to write the best country song the world has ever heard.
Please describe your process and approach to the Drive Through books.
PH: Research the area, including its geological and cultural history. The pioneers tell you a lot about how and why the wine industry developed the way it did in that region. Then find local experts who can help with the granular details. Finally, find respected winemakers who are willing to talk about their specific region and interview them.
Are either of you working on anything else wine-related?
PH: I’m in talks about a possible regular column for a new lifestyle website. Can’t reveal more just yet.
NH: I’m continuing a successful event series I started a couple years ago called VINO POP (vinopopevents.com), where I researched why people liked going to winery tasting rooms, and took those factors (there are 3) and bundled it into a winemaker tasting nights! I only let the community know who the winery is and make tickets available 2 weeks before the event. Attendance is limited to 40 guests. Tastings are always led by winemakers or vintners and each VINO POP sells out fast (some in less than 48 hours).
If you do wine reviews, describe your tasting process.
PH: I often do it with friends. It’s pretty unscientific, but we’re all experienced tasters. We get excited by “finds” — new wineries, unfamiliar varieties and blends. The extra wine does not go to waste, believe me.
Do you work on an editorial schedule, and how do you identify wineries to include?
PH: At the moment I don’t have a wine column, so no. I like to include wineries that are overlooked or underappreciated.
Tell us about the team and assignments to put together this type of guide?
PH: Naushad is the better one to ask about this. I work pretty independently until the design phase and make contact with local experts and influencers to begin with.
NH: Again, it’s not a guide but a reference book! The team is Paul doing all the writing, Kathy doing design and myself doing research and editing. We all come together and co-create these incredible books that we’re proud of. It’s a highly efficient team.
What are your recommendations to wineries when interacting with journalists?
PH: Have something new or unusual to pitch. The standard vintage release announcement isn’t very exciting unless you’re Screagle (Screaming Eagle). Reach out on social as well as email/voicemail.
What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?
PH: They can provide quick access to winemakers and other people I need to talk to.
Recommendations to writers interested in authoring a wine-related book?
PH: There are three routes. A. Find a publisher you like that does a nice job with your kind of wine book, make sure they haven’t published a book like yours, and pitch them. B. Find an agent to do that for you. C. Self-publish.
Which wine reviewers/critics would you most like to be on a competition panel with?
PH: Jancis Robinson and Karen MacNeil
Which wine personalities would you most like to meet and taste with (living or dead)?
PH: Steven Spurrier
NH: Raj Parr or Robert Mondavi
If you take days off, how do you spend them?
PH: Believe it or not, going to local wine regions or reading about wine. I also bike and play a little tennis and golf, compose music and write about the arts.
NH: Kathy and I have 2 girls, ages 8 and 12, so we’re jam packed and “leisure” isn’t a thing for us. 🙂
What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?
PH: Accompanying Justin Smith on a tour of his just-finished wine cave at Saxum. He used a skateboard. We then tasted a bottle of his legendary wine: James Berry 2007.
NH: Blind tasting a 1987 Chateau Margaux at Press Napa and having my world just stop.
What’s your cure for a wine hangover?
PH: Drink lots of water, especially when you wake up during the night. Also, don’t drink wine too late in the day.
NH: Protocol of high dose vitamin C and B before drinking, activated charcoal while drinking and glutathione after drinking and before bed. You’re welcome.
What’s your favorite wine region in the world?
PH: Northern Rhone. Syrahhhhhhh.
NH: Rhone for sure, followed closely by Beaujolais
Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing?
PH: Santa Barbara prawns and a nice Alsatian Riesling.
NH: A chilled, Provençal style rosé with minerality, soft red fruits and slight sweetness to cool and compliment the complex flavors of Indian food.
Carl Giavanti is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s celebrating his 14th 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. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media)