How To Become A “Natural Wine Journalist”

There are certain clichés about freelance journalism: hours spent staring at a laptop screen while nursing a coffee in a café; writing at home in your pajamas; chasing down paychecks from ambivalent editors at large publications that should have no problem issuing payments. There are also clichés about wine writing: boxes of wine samples arriving to your door (usually unsolicited); long weekday lunches involving endless schmoozing and multiple glasses of wine; wild journeys through European vineyards, getting lost a dozen times and eating your weight in cheese while touring damp, cold cellars that have been used for generations.

They’re all true, actually. But how to get there, is the question you might be asking. And while the lifestyle itself does leave much to be desired (such as reliable income), if it’s really what you are after, there are certain steps to follow.

I often get emails from writers wondering how to become a professional freelance journalist, and I do my best to answer them because I remember when I was once sending those emails, totally clueless on how to follow my dreams. What I think is important to know is that: (a) journalism is a trade that can be learned, (b) writing is a skill, and (c) reporting involves certain “nuts and bolts” without which you’ll never sell or produce a professional story. Talent is vital, but it’s useless without some knowledge of how to do journalism properly.

 

So, I thought I’d answer some of the most recent questions I received from a hopeful natural wine journalist, here in a blog post, for anyone to find. Although the focus here is specifically on natural wine journalism, since of course I publish a magazine on that topic, I think a lot of these tips can be applied to freelance food, arts, and culture writing as well.

Also, in general I do recommend blogging just for fun and practice. It won’t earn you money, but it will earn you a following and it’s a great way to stay busy in between assignments. Whenever I couldn’t sell a pitch, I just wrote about it in this section of my blog. At least the work is being read instead of sitting in my notebook.

 

What kinds of pitches do editors tend to avoid from new writers?

First of all, it’s vital that you learn the art of the pitch.

A pitch should contain several elements:

  • an intro (2-3 sentences) stating who you are, where you’ve been writing, and why you’re pitching this publication in particular – as if you were introducing yourself to this editor at a party
  • a working title for each one of your pitches (you can offer more than one at once)
  • a sexy lede (Google “lede” if you don’t know what that is)
  • the Ws (Who/What/Where/When/Why), in other words “what is this story about, why does it matter, and why now?)
  • justification for you and nobody else writing this story
  • justification for this publication and nobody else publishing this story

You can also include some info regarding how long the story might be, what work you’ve done so far (interviewed a subject already, or researched the topic, or in this case, tasted the wines with the producer or importer), and what’s left to be done, and how you plan to do that reporting (in-person, phone, email, etc).

Regarding new writers, for most editors it’s asking a lot if you’ve never worked together and you want to land a big, full-length print feature. If the magazine has a website, you might start with a web piece before venturing something in print. With Pipette, an interview or short essay or bar review might be a nice starting point. However, if you are widely published on the topic then you an aim higher.

 

What’s it like writing for X publication?

I won’t answer publicly what it’s like working for that specific publication, but I do commend this practice! In other words, if you’re interested in pitching a publication, I recommend you ask writers whose bylines appear there for insight. Ask them if they are comfortable disclosing information about the pitching, editing, and payment processes. Learn as much as you can, so you aren’t totally naïve when you do pitch and hopefully then begin an assignment.

 

 

What should a pitch for a natural wine story look like?

You’ve got the elements of a solid pitch above. Regarding natural wine, something to keep in mind is that there’s a lot of great natural wine out there these days, and new stuff all the time. You need to justify the story you’re choosing to pitch. Why is this producer deserving of a story? Have they been single-handedly rejuvenating a region through their fabulous vineyard work? Is their personal story super inspiring? Are they part of some amazing community that tells a story beyond just winemaking? It can also be a personal reason—did this winemaker change your life, or have you been transformed by their Pinot?

Access is also important. If you live in New York and you’re pitching a profile of a winemaker in Georgia, well, the obvious question is: how are you going to write this? If the winemaker is coming through New York for RAW Wine Fair, there’s your chance! Mention that in the pitch. Some publications do have small travel budgets, but it’s unlikely that you’ll get flown across the world.

Also keep in mind, if this producer’s wines are only available within a fifty-mile radius of their winery, well, it’s going to be hard to sell that story to anything except a hyper-local publication. Nobody is that interested in reading about a wine they will never taste.

Also, if the wines aren’t good, or you don’t personally care for them, why would you pitch that?

You also may need to narrow the focus of the pitch in terms of depth and approach. Think about your potential readers: are they people who drink and love natural wine already? Or are you targeting the “natural wine curious”? Also, think about your own position. Have you visited Jean-Francois Ganevat three times over the course of years? If so, pitch a really in-depth profile for people who already love his wines. Are you scheduled to have your very first visit ever with him, and you only discovered his wines a year ago? Then understand that you’ll be just barely scratching the surface of someone totally iconic. Pitch it as a short, light profile, or even an interview, or maybe just focus on one aspect of the visit, such as his vineyard work or a recent wine vintage.

The pitch will vary as well depending on the publication. A pitch about natural wine for Vogue, for example, will need to be broad and explanatory, whereas for Pipette, you’re generally talking to people who know the deal.

When I was starting out in journalism, I took a few workshops and also sat in on a class in NYU Journalism School, where I was considering applying. I learned in those contexts about the “lede,” the “nut graf,” and the “body” of an article. Honestly, you can’t do journalism without having some grasp of those elements. Find a workshop.

I also highly recommend trying a workshop in creative nonfiction so you can improve your ability to write captivating prose. Dialogue, for example, is something a lot of writers struggle with. There’s an art to it, and it can be learned.

 

What reading do you suggest for someone who wants to learn more about the science and specifics of wines?

I recommend tasting wines that call to you intuitively, or which you’ve heard a lot about, and looking them up online and finding every resource you can (usually, importer websites and blogs) and learning about them that way.

I also recommend checking out general wine books by Jancis Robinson and Jon Bonné, and Alice Feiring and Isabelle Legeron’s natural wine guidebooks. And of course, Pipette.

 

What is the state of natural wine coverage right now?

There isn’t too much covering natural wine from a serious journalistic perspective, in English, other than Pipette (which is why I started the mag). The print magazine Glou Glou is pretty great. There’s a lot of stuff on Instagram but most of it just skims the surface. Meanwhile, mainstream publications love to treat natural wine as a fashion trend, publishing listicle after listicle—it’s not a terrible thing, as those articles do often mention realities about natural wine, and provide suggestions for bottles to try. But they won’t tell you anything beyond the most basic information about natural wine, and they are quite repetitive as well.

 

How can journalists tell stories about the natural wine movement while tapping into greater themes—such as politics, tradition, rebellion, generational divides, capitalism, etc?

THANK YOU for this question. My original love for wine, and wine writing, occurred because I saw wine (and especially natural wine) as a lens to all these topics. When I wrote about Francois Saint-Lo, for example, in Pipette Issue 3, I tried to emphasize the social experiment that’s happening around his winery, just as much as the winemaking itself.

Winemakers are often really passionate about something totally other than wine, if you prod—so they might have studied film or art, or perhaps they have an interesting hobby, or they may grow something other than wine—see the feature on Gabrio and Giotto Bini in Pipette Issue 1, where the writer beautifully covered the family’s caper harvest on Pantelleria while also talking about their wines.

In journalism this is sometimes called “crossover” journalism—when you interview a painter, for example, but you focus on her fabulous home garden, and use that as a framework for talking about her artwork; or you do a profile on a filmmaker at his favorite restaurant, and his passion for great cooking comes through in the piece, showing him as a more complete human.

 

I actually have a story idea that I would like to workshop, but I’m still working on it…

Just send over what you have, using the guidelines above to the best of your ability! Maybe it won’t be perfect—in which case, the editor will either outright reject it or offer some tips for improvement. I have consistently noticed that nearly all of the pitches I successfully landed happened when I sent a full, thought-out pitch via email, and the editor wrote back with a polite “no” and an explanation, and I fired back quickly a fresh idea in just a few sentences, sparking a conversation that led to an assignment.

Don’t be afraid to just fire off a few ideas; a pitch doesn’t need to be a PhD dissertation, it just needs to contain enough solid elements that an editor can visualize it some day (perhaps with some help) becoming a publishable final piece.

LASTLY, this should not need to be stated, but apparently it does: Do not send pitches via DM or Facebook. Email them.

We accept pitches for Pipette via pipettemagazine@gmail.com. Here are our submissions guidelines. Although if you’ve read what’s above, that should be enough guidance!

And remember, editors are busy — if your pitch doesn’t get a reply in 2-3 weeks, follow-up. But don’t follow up the next day. If they say no, ask for feedback, but if you don’t get any, it’s not personal — you need to do your own work to figure out how to improve. And please, never pitch a publication you haven’t read!

Let me know if you have more questions I haven’t addressed and I’ll do my best to answer them : )

All photos here are by the Adelaide, Australia based photographer Lewis Potter and should not be used without permission.

A Travel Book For Unconventional Travelers

This week, instead of offering the usual wine and book reviews, I’m letting you know about my latest self-publishing project: Nomad, a short illustrated book about the ups and downs of living on the road, without a fixed home, as I’ve been doing for just about one year now. 

When I left New York, having given up my apartment, packed up my books, and shoved some clothes and my laptop into two suitcases, I knew I needed a change of scenery, badly. What I also found was that I was heading into a time of self-change. I learned to be more adaptable, less attached to material things, kinder and more empathetic toward others — all in very concrete situations. Most of these situations are things we do encounter in regular, daily life, but I found that they were more heightened while living as a modern nomad.

I felt the need to share these lessons by committing them to the page, and to do so with illustrations as well as a mixture of storytelling, advice, and even provocation. I’m guessing many of you dream of giving up your job or life and traveling for a year or moving to a new city, perhaps abroad. Or maybe you know someone like this, who needs a fresh start.

Moving or starting a journey without a concrete plan are difficult things to do, but sometimes they are the necessary path toward creative fulfillment or renewed happiness. Nomad is a book to support and encourage these dreams, and coax them into reality. I’ve made a Kickstarter (link here) which features a video of myself explaining the project in further detail.

I hope you can take a moment to check out the Kickstarter, and I look forward to sharing the book with you in just a few months!

If all goes to plan (i.e. my nonstop hustling results fruitful), I’ll have Nomad on sale in independent bookstores around the world — and I plan to donate 10 percent of those sales to the International Rescue Committee, an established non-profit organization that works globally to support displaced communities, help out in humanitarian crises, and engage in policy work — because not everyone chooses to be a nomad.

Back to your #apérohourweekly with the next edition of this blog!

xRachel

I Can Only Confirm That I Wrote This Story (But Not Which Parts Are True)

Most of you who follow this blog probably don’t know that wine and food journalism is only part of my overall writing repertoire. Fiction, as well, is a large part of my life, and it’s actually because of my desire to learn fiction writing that I fell into this whole wine thing: I was writing a novel, and taking a really engrossing workshop called the Writers Institute, at the City University of New York. Having hostessed and served in restaurants throughout high school and college, I figured that working in a restaurant would be the logical way to support these unprofitable habits. Just a few tastes of the vin nature at Reynard, and as soon as the manuscript was finished I cast it aside–the proverbial first novel in the drawer; I’m glad I wrote the whole book but I don’t think anyone needs to read it–and I promptly delved into wine study.

But today, I am really happy to share a published short story, that I wrote back when I was studying fiction at the Writers Institute, on the Daily Beast. I hope you’ll find a moment to sit back with a glass of wine (or two? It’s a fairly long piece) and read it–link here. And if any of you out there are fiction writers, I’d love to hear what literary publications you’re into at the moment. I might start polishing up some more of these old workshop stories to send out!

Only one request . . . if you do read my story, “Dancer,” which takes place in Costa Rica, please don’t try to get me to divulge what parts of it are true. I’m sure it’s tempting, but don’t even bother; I am a seasoned writer and I know when to zip my lips, only offering the phrase, “I can neither confirm nor deny.” (OK, I can confirm that I’ve been to Costa Rica. But that’s all! No more concessions.)

Written from a quiet hillside in Italy, where I’m on the Franciacorta trail at the moment. Stay tuned.

How To Pitch Any Magazine, But Especially How To Pitch Terre

Now that I’m the new editor of a print publication, I am fielding pitches, and I think it’s time to share some guidelines as to how that’s done. Because I’m getting a lot of these kinds of pitches from writers:

“Hey! I’m happy to write about something related to cider in California. Here’s a story I did a few months back about cider. Let me know!”

“Hello, I would love to write for Terre. Please take a look at my website, where I blog about wine and food, and see if anything interests you. Thanks!”

“How about a piece looking at the rise of natural wines in restaurants across the U.S.?”

The writers sending these pitches might be very talented, but there’s not much for me to work with here. Writers, you should not make your editor think of a story for you; it is up to you to figure out what the editorial approach of a magazine is (and yes, we don’t have an issue out yet, but we did explain our approach via text and video on our Kickstarter, which raised almost $17K, thanks to many of you who supported it, and I also have a lot of published articles on this site which indicate my interests and views) and propose articles that might fit based on that.

A good pitch should provide a glimpse of what the article itself will look like. It can begin with a colorful lede; for example, you might offer a few details of a person or place that peak an editor’s interest. This also helps to show your writing style; the rest of a pitch will be somewhat more technical and practical. You’ll want to outline the 5 W’s of journalism: who, what, where, why and when…

And regarding “why,” the pitch should address the timeliness or significance of the story you’re pitching. In the case of Terre, we are not really looking for “trend pieces,” such as “5 Restaurants Serving Natural Wine To Try Now.” This would be more the territory of a website looking for clicks.

Being a boutique print magazine, we want articles with a lot of substance and energy, and we are looking for in-depth, colorfully written medium-form stories, in the 1500-2000 word range. For this kind of feature, I would love to see pitches that promise a story which will move from the specific (“this winemaker has an interesting vineyard because X”) to the general (“this vineyard is an example of how indigenous grapes respond to climate change, which applies to broader questions like X”), as much as possible. I realize this is difficult to do, but I think it’s important to do more than simply profile an interesting producer; we need to make connections to the bigger picture.

As well, a good pitch should address the following:

  • why are you the writer to take on this story?
  • how will you do this differently than anyone else?

This could be answered in a number of ways, and it will be specific to the publication. For example, if you are writing a memoir about working on a vineyard, I as an editor would like to know what literary skills you have, because memoir is a genre that really depends on beautiful, talented authorship. If, however, you simply want to pitch an interview with a renowned winemaker who is difficult to access, you could offer your prowess as a reporter or perhaps your language skills (maybe the winemaker only speaks Croatian, and you do?), and your knowledge of wine in that region.

Also, it’s great to pitch several ideas at once, so an editor can see your general range of thinking, and also, you might get more than one assignment! Every pitch should begin with a proposed headline. It won’t be the final headline, but it does help to frame the pitch.

So, a few more tips here, and also a review of the points above:

  • give your pitch a headline
  • use a colorful lead
  • pitch something you’re passionate or curious about that you think fits the publication
  • explain why you’re the person to write this
  • offer a sense of your approach and what you envision as the approximate word count
  • explain why this story should be written now, and why for this publication
  • check back, and make sure you’ve at least tried to address the who/what/where/why/when of this story…
  • and finally, but this is also the most important: pitch stories, not topics–i.e. look for something that’s actually happening, or a new phenomenon, or a person who is remarkable right now, and construct a narrative around that

Was this useful at all? I really hope it was, and that it helps those of you who are writers, whether you’re pitching Terre or someplace else.

And in case you’re a writer, and you’re wondering: yes, Terre will pay contributors. Send pitches to terremag@gmail.com, and soon! Many assignments have already gone out.

Want to keep up with our progress at Terre Magazine? We have a newsletter, which will send out very occasional updates; sign up here. Cheers from Paris, where we’re slogging through a brutal heat wave; I’ve taken refuge at a friend’s apartment to work until I’m brave enough to venture back out for a glass of wine.

 

 

 

Terre Magazine Featured In Edible Brooklyn

I’m still so high off the incredible excursion earlier this month in Georgia. Stay tuned for my full story on the country’s wine and food culture soon on Vice MUNCHIES, and in the meantime I’ve put up some detailed tasting notes on this blog.

But this month has continued to be a gem, because the Terre Magazine fundraiser on Kickstarter has not only taken off successfully, but it has already reached its funding goal, and we are beyond thrilled. We knew there would be support for our project, but we didn’t anticipate that we’d reach our initial target in under two weeks, and then continue to raise money beyond that. Wine retailers around the country have pre-ordered copies in bulk, and people as far away as South Africa are ordering copies to be delivered to their homes. Working on the editorial calendar now, and I’m personally so excited about the articles and artwork we’ll be putting out.

I could not do any of this without my incredibly talented and brilliant co-founders, Katie June Burton and Erika DaSilva. Their artistic perspectives balance out my journalistic approach, and I have to say, it feels really good to say that Terre is a women-run publication. 

To learn more about who we are, what Terre is, and what it means that we are women-run, check out the recent feature on our magazine by local writer Alicia Kennedy in Edible Brooklyn. You can still support the project on Kickstarter (link HERE) until June 8th; the more funds we have, the more we can offer our contributors in terms of compensation, plus we’ll be able to hold launch events to support our retail partners.

We are really looking forward to sharing Terre with you, and already the process has been so creatively fulfilling and challenging in all the right ways. We have a newsletter via Tiny Letter where you can sign up for occasional updates from Terre, and we’re also on Instagram.

Cheers to you all for your early support of this endeavor! Bon weekend!

Meet Terre Mag This Weekend At #FOODBOOKFAIR2017

It’s been many months in the works–and it all started at that damn wine bar, Wildair, where I keep going back, again and again, unable to resist the funky wines, the fried shrimp dish, the raucous tattooed kitchen staff.

The hostess, as well, was incredibly friendly, and as I showed up more and more regularly, she always blessed our glasses with a much welcomed splash of Les Capriades pét-nat as we waited for our seats. Over time, I got to know her: Erika, an artist; I discovered her Instagram and fell deeply, madly in love with her wine- and food-themed gouache paintings. 

Finally, I got up the courage to blurt out, as she was ushering me to my seat one night: “I’m obsessed with your work. We have to collaborate!” Being modest, she blushed and adjusted her eyeglasses. Then she said, “Sure! Give me a call,” and filled my glass. We worked together for this article about natural wine on the Lower East Side for Food Republic, but we knew there could be something bigger. We began scheming, planning, brainstorming over coffee, grain bowls, and of course, wine.

Months later, Erika and I found our third counterpart, a talented food photographer and pop-up chef named Katie (she took the fantastic photo you see here, as well as most of the shots on our Instagram/Kickstarter) and we formed Terre Mag: an indie print mag about natural wines and heritage foods. 

This coming weekend, we will be representing Terre Mag at the Food Book Fair, taking place on Saturday and Sunday 12-4pm both days, at the Ace Hotel in Manhattan. For $5, you can pass through and meet tons of indie food mags like us. We’ll be giving away beautiful wine tote bags, printed with one of Erika’s original paintings, to a select handful (if you mention you saw my blog post, you’ll totally get a bag). Honestly, it’s a fun event–I’ve gone several years in a row–and a great place to meet people. So, get the F off Tinder, and go to Food Book Fair to flirt with some cool people who love to eat and drink well!

And more importantly, we need some early support for our Kickstarter! Check it out here. We have less than a month to raise $10K to get this biannual magazine going. Please go check out the Kickstarter and if you can, at least pre-order your copy of Terre Mag, and spread the word on social media (you can start by following our Instagram). Shout everywhere and anywhere about Terre Mag; your help is much appreciated.

Thank you so much!

Over and out, your fellow lover of sincere, wild, delicious terroir. 

 

What Does It Mean To Be A “Critic” In Wine And Food Writing?

the store Uncommon Objects, in Austin, TX

Most of the time, writing on this blog is like dancing alone in my living room; nobody sees me except, perhaps, a few dozen onlookers clustered in the apartment across the way, who casually glance over as I flail around clumsily, to some tune they can’t hear, or the proverbial beat of my own drum.

In other words, I write here for the small group of readers (for whom I’m extremely grateful) that are interested in my voice, my writing. I am not, by any means, the most authoritative perspective on wine and food in the world; my writing here is often diluted, or hastily composed due to the fact that I am far overworked, and it’s also probably a bit snarky from time to time, which might be derived from my overall neurotic composure thanks to almost nine years of living in New York City. This blog was never really meant to be a blog; I always saw myself as a journalist, and used this site as a portfolio for prospective editors. When an audience came, I was glad, but it wasn’t something I’d fished for, and I also wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.

Which is all to say: it’s very startling to, suddenly, have large numbers of people watching me dance. All my awkward moves are revealed, my lack of formal training and my imperfect sense of rhythm. An artist would have to navigate such an impromptu performance with only the highest level of confidence, or she would fail immediately; weakness would take over, she would be booed offstage.

When I wrote a response to Bianca Bosker’s piece last week, I was very emotionally moved, as if her article had somehow been affront to me personally. That said, my response wasn’t entirely impulsive; first, I let a few days go by after her article came out, and I read what other people had written and asked myself if I really wanted to chime in, as people were already posting rebuttals. But then what I wrote came out so quickly, and it just felt right. It was like those moments on the dance floor when you’re just in the flow and your body knows what direction to move in, you don’t need to guide it. 

It may have been impassioned in a good way, and people do seem to have appreciated my take on the Times article (and I do stand by what I said–I really, really do love natural wine and it’s important to me that people are at least aware of its presence, if they are in the slightest bit interested in such things) but I don’t feel like I gave the most elegant performance. I feel there could have been a slightly more . . . rehearsed way of doing it, perhaps?

Sweeping aside the dance analogy for now (although I’m having fun with it), I want to reflect on the role of criticism within wine and food writing. Typically, the idea is that we, the writers, are all out here critiquing the producers and the makers, the winemakers and the chefs, the restaurants, and so on. Criticism, in this vein, is sort of the highest form of service journalism; we’re directing people who already have some level of good taste (because they are reading food or wine writing in the first place) to the experiences and things they will probably appreciate. The same goes for art, music, film criticism.

But what about criticism amongst us writers? How best can we approach this?

Tonight, triggered unsuspectingly by a photo (above) that I took in a shop in Austin, Texas, where I was visiting for an assignment last week, I went rummaging through my old college and grad school books. God, it’s been a long time since I read some of this stuff. After poring through a few sections of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Baudrillard’s America, I found my dog-eared copy of All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, a canonical study of Marx by the late Marshall Berman, who taught at CUNY. As if by magic, I opened to a page where I had underlined this quote:

“Criticism, as [Marx] understood it, was part of an ongoing dialectical process. It was meant to be dynamic, to drive and inspire the person criticized to overcome both his critics and himself, to propel both parties toward a new synthesis. Thus, to unmask phony claims of transcendence is to demand and fight for real transcendence.”

I read this, and it sank in: my response to Bianca felt wrong because I hadn’t proposed any kind of synthesis. Instead, I’d been defensive and polarizing.

When Bianca’s article came out, a lot of people brought it into the current political context by calling out, “fake news!” And then the other day, someone commented on a blog post about my writing (ugh, yes, we’re all blogging about each other’s blog posts now), again: “fake news”–!! We’re pointing fingers at each other, rather than looking for transcendence. We’re of the misguided belief that to critique means to be “against” someone; and that the only other choice is to “like” someone (literally, to give them likes on Instagram, etc, to be a follower/supporter). In other words, we think we either have to be nice, on someone’s “team,” or we are against. I don’t want that, and I don’t think it’s productive if we as a group of writers, focused on food and wine, or any group of writers, are to achieve anything with our efforts. I’m not really happy with the way it came out that you had, on one side, the “natural wine defenders,” and on the other side, supposedly, Bianca and all the supposed “natural wine haters.” This doesn’t seem like the right configuration, and it makes the phrase “natural wine” (which I use all the goddamn time, lacking a better signifier for the genre of wines I enjoy and want others to know about) seem even hollower than it already is. (Thank you, Blake, for pointing out this pointless dichotomy.)

Criticism, more so now than ever, should serve to make us better at what we do. It’s not about pinpointing “fake news” and scapegoating the author of such prose. Antonio Gramsci famously spoke of “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” How can we better apply an effectively critical mindset when regarding other writers’ work?

I don’t know, quite yet. But I’m thinking about it. What I do know is, if my super left-wing grad school professor–who wore all black and knew Das Kapital the way some Master Somms know their vintage charts–knew that I was using Marx and Gramsci in this context, he would probably try to revoke my M.A. in anthropology. As long as I get my money back, I would be totally OK with that. Then again, I do still appreciate these books.