Guidelines to Becoming a Successful Wine Writer

By | 27 February 2024

I believe it was Hugh Johnson who introduced us to the catchy phrase: ‘wine requires words’. Interestingly, we hardly find columns in newspapers about cheese, we hardly ever look up our favorite writers on wheat, or make all our choices about beef, apples or apricots based purely on expert recommendations, wine however, begs to differ. There are two key reasons that come to mind. Firstly, the intricacy that lies within: it’s such a segmented and widely distributed product category that there is in fact a necessity for specialists to guide consumers through the confusing lattice of options. Hence, we experience the emergence of the ‘wine writer’, along with its effective calendar of press trips and gatherings where this unique species of communicator congregates, churning out eloquent pieces on wine. Secondly, there is an inherent glamour attached. Wine exudes an allure: it is often the choice of the affluent to invest in a vineyard as a second career. It definitely holds a charm. There’s an unequaled aura around wine, rendering grapes as the celebrities of agriculture. Wine is definitely a product where the composition of the primary ingredients determines its overall quality and potential.

Expectedly, the position of a wine writer holds a significant appeal. Would you like to be one? Let’s assume you can write, you have an interest in wine and you may be considering making a career out of it. If this is indeed the case, I have both good and bad news for you.

Starting with the good news. The world of wine is always ready to embrace fresh faces! I too entered the wine domain from outside, rather late in life, and it’s now my main source of income.

I started a wine website back in the late 1990s with the advent of the internet and actively participated in various wine forums. The internet was a much smaller community then, and it allowed newcomers like myself the opportunity to mingle online with professionals, which helped me gain a great deal of knowledge in a relatively short period of time. I remember visiting my first vineyard as a consumer back in 1996 and it had me completely enthralled. My simple website on Geocities evolved into wineanorak and in 1999, I registered my domain name. In 2000, I received my first monetary commission to write a glossary for the newly launched ecommerce wine site, Virgin Wines. In 2001, noticing that the internet wasn’t getting its share of serious attention, I reached out to magazine editors and began contributing to both trade and consumer publications.

For a period of nine years, my passion for wine drove me to write about it alongside my primary profession as a science editor. My dual interest in wine and writing brought me a book deal in 2004 for Wine Science , and an opportunity to write a national newspaper column in 2005, all while I was employed full-time. This exciting journey led me to become a freelance writer in 2008, even if I didn’t have any connections or financial backing in the wine industry, nor did I have a partner with a well-paying job. The only option I had was to make my dream work.

However, the world of wine writing was on the verge of significant transformation. The very changes that had allowed me to enter this field were also set to redefine the media landscape.

When I initiated my journey, it was a time when the internet was still evolving, and the effects of this new communication platform on print and TV media were far from being felt. Newspapers continued to employ specialist wine commentators on full-time professional salaries to deliver weekly columns, typically either on a Saturday or Sunday. Wine books remained good sellers. If you were one of the fortunate ones to have a weekly column, you would be content. It’s something we cannot even imagine today. Plus, a lucrative book deal could turn you into a full-time writer.

Additionally, there was a minority of professional wine critics. These individuals were wine writers whose sole focus was to taste and rate as many wines as they possibly could. During this time, Robert Parker was the most well-known of this group, but there were others working for popular magazines, including The Wine Spectator. Although this was predominantly an American practice, their influence extended beyond the United States. It was extremely clear who was in the wine writing profession, sandwiched between the newspaper columnists and the critics’ publications. This profession was coveted but not very welcoming to newcomers – one needed an introduction to become a part of this club.

That’s the positive aspect. If you possess intriguing thoughts about wine and have managed to cultivate your own audience, there’s scope to become involved in wine communication. The gate is wide open.

However, the discouraging aspect? Earning a livelihood in this arena has increasingly become challenging. This predicament has risen due to compelling transitions in the media environment. The changes we have witnessed over the past two decades are truly remarkable! There’s been a radical transformation in media, catalyzed by the internet, and lately, the rise of social media has altered everything. Notably, Facebook and Google have seized most of the advertisement revenue that once backed professionally produced content in newspapers and magazines. Nowadays, that capital is funneled towards user-generated content on social media, draining the need for professional content considerably. There’s no longer the same financial reservoir available to compensate writers.

In 2005, when I started my newspaper column (which I’m still writing, 19 years down the line), the pay was nearly an eighth of what it would have been a few years prior for a similar position. In 2007, I began using Facebook, in 2009, Twitter and in 2013, Instagram. These social media channels have unlocked colossal new opportunities for content creators. Albeit, the majority of this engagement is unpaid.

Regardless, there are still plenty of discussions and opinions about wine. Many more people have found their voice and audience due to the blessings of the internet and social media. Some veteran writers, like me, have embraced social media, leveraging it as an additional communication tool along with printed work. However, numerous people are solely writing about wine on social media. Specifically, we now have a large community of wine enthusiasts expressing their thoughts on Instagram, with some of them achieving astonishing levels of user engagement.

The obstruction to entry has reduced, and the old guards are extinct. To publish, there’s no need to involve a commissioning editor. If you can establish a social media profile or construct a blog, then you can start to discover your group. Primarily, this transformation has been quite positive and some refreshing new talents have appeared. From my viewpoint, I wouldn’t be pursuing what I’m doing without the internet providing opportunities for me, so it would be discourteous to resist the admission of others.

However, there are some issues with this new media environment. The first one is that there is an ocean of content now, and the true signal often faces the risk of being swallowed by the noise. The second one is that as very few publications pay appropriately for content, the number of professional journalists – dedicating full time to acquiring the expertise and knowledge required to perform their job well – is enormously shrunk. And those who are sustaining a life from this can’t warrant considerable research time if they’re not compensated properly for their pieces. They must generate much more to make the money constitute a full-time income.

Simultaneously, wineries require independent voices to discuss their wines. They allocate marketing budgets to cover for promotion. The wine business needs individuals to write about wine since this is such a complex and dynamic universe – after all, conditions shift every season.

It’s undeniable that this is currently a populated field, and there’s competition. One of the challenges for people like me is that when I began I was contesting with individuals who weren’t required to earn a living from their wine communication efforts because they either had ample funding from a previous profession or a spouse with a good-income job. This issue has worsened: there are many part-timers working, and they can provide labor for free or almost free. Some of them seem important because they have credits from renowned media conglomerates. But there are some large media labels out there who employ people to work for nearly no money to generate content. One optimistic perspective on this is that if you must earn a living, it keeps you concentrated. The struggle motivates and it eliminates the threat of complacency.

One significant evolution is the diversification of the ‘wine writer’ title. Now we have a variety of wine experts who are also excellent communicators, using a multitude of media outlets. I appreciate that certain viticulturists I follow offer top-notch content explaining vineyard happenings – and when they possess apt communication prowess, their influence is widespread. Similarly, events in the winery are now more visible thanks to winemakers who share their process on Instagram. Perhaps tho, those in the best position to educate about wine based on a deep well of knowledge are sommeliers and importers, with significant voices emerging from these groups.

Despite the constant chatter of modern media, and the decline of traditional media structures, it appears that wine communication is thriving. The most prominent voices will emerge and be recognised. There has never been a more exhilarating time to be a part of the wine world, which continues to be dynamic and inspiring.

And for those aspiring to make a living from wine communication, what advice can I offer?

If feasible, endeavor to build your career while maintaining a day job. While easier said than done, having a steady income can alleviate some of the financial pressure. If your day job is within the wine industry, even better as it grants you invaluable experience. It’s best to avoid monetary stress, as it can lead you to accept projects you’d prefer not to or make you feel inclined to promote wines you aren’t a fan of just because there’s a marketing budget available.

The universe of wine is compact. It is advisable to be kind, cooperative, and friendly. Winning is not about defeating others. Your existence will vastly improve and be more fulfilling if you abstain from viewing your peers as rivals. As a novice in the field, don’t attempt to overthrow the existing authorities. That’s not the way it functions. Recognition will be earned for the jobs you execute.

Be genuine and discover your own path. Multiple paths exist to achieve success in wine communication. Utilizing tools that you are most comfortable with will likely expedite your journey to your desired destination. There are examples of single-medium communicators who are thriving, but this comes with the potential risk of your preferred platform’s algorithm altering or it losing favor with your media tool or brand.

The life of a freelancer is unstable, with periods of abundance and scarcity – ideally more of the former than the latter. Be prepared for this (and this suggestion is not exclusive to wine writers). Budget meticulously and keep a financial safety net if you can. Living close to the financial edge could force you to make subpar choices concerning work. If you are not cautious, you might end up doing tasks you detest because you require the funds. This is one rationale for maintaining regular employment for as long as feasible. When I started, I was the primary source of income for a family of four. It was challenging, but everything worked out for the best. This advice is something I have personally lived by.

Be mindful of the potential risk of your initial triumph. It can intoxicate you. Persist in doing what led to your accomplishment and bear in mind that success can be hazardous if it breeds complacency or non-optimal behavior patterns. A winemaker friend once remarked to me, ‘You are a big deal now,’ following my inaugural award. I heeded this caution, and I altered my course of action.

Don’t hinder the progress of those who come after you. If you had an easy pathway into your current situation (as I did), why shouldn’t others also have that advantage? Don’t demand more from an aspiring wine connoisseur than what was required of you. Competition is beneficial for everyone. You will receive your share. There’s no need to surpass everyone else to be deemed successful.

Newcomers often feel warmly welcomed and supported by seasoned professionals in their industry. However, don’t be shocked if this support dwindles as you begin to establish yourself in your career. Some people take pride in helping others until those they mentor start to rise and threaten their own status. If you start to encroach on their professional standing, expect them to quickly become adversarial.

How should you price your services? Everyone’s business model is different. My approach is to charge more for certain types of work than others. Some projects are fantastic for boosting your profile, but they may not have a substantial budget. If you insist on your regular fee, you may not secure the job. Keep an eye out for projects that are falsely described as ‘profile-building’ opportunities by cash-strapped organizers. These are easy to bypass. However, other projects are genuinely beneficial and can lead to rewards down the line. Aligning your charges with your perceived value may seem logical, but doing so could jeopardize your career in wine communication. Try to gauge what others are charging. Accepting the first proposed fee is my preferred approach, but if I’m asked to state my fee and others are participating in the same event, I’ll request to be paid no less than my counterparts. For writing jobs, you’ll usually be offered a standard fee at the onset. In the UK, writing fees tend to be approximately half of those in the USA or sometimes even less. It’s advisable to be flexible and transparent during negotiations. If you kindly ask, event planners will normally inform you if your proposed fee is too low or overly high. Keep in mind that your fee is not based on hours worked, but rather your skills, experience, and reputation. If travel is required for your job, remember to keep your ego in check and avoid insisting on first-class flights, which quickly consume budgets without providing sufficient benefits. For a job I once had, I negotiated for a higher fee and flew in economy class when I was originally offered a business class ticket to Australia. They conserved on their budget, and I was compensated fairly. It was a win-win scenario.

Lastly, diversify your income. This advice is mainly for freelancers, given that full-time jobs for wine writers have become scarce. To maintain a decent income and steadier cashflow, try to establish several income streams. Having a few steady sources of income every month, such as book royalties, greatly helps stabilize your finances. Remember, nothing is permanent: different opportunities will come and go. Accepting this reality can make your line of work much more manageable.

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