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’stempting, 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.
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 writtenmedium-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 email@example.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.
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!
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.
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 Marxby 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.
Recently, an article came out in the New York Times that really upset me; in fact it upset just about everyone I know and respect in the wine world. It was an opinion piece by a writer I know, someone I’m friendly with. My first reaction upon reading it was to feel betrayed. This is someone I’ve had a glass or two of wine with, and who I know attended RAW Wine Fair last fall in Brooklyn–which is partly why I reacted with confusion, rather than vitriol, at first. I wondered: did her agent persuade her to write this piece in order to get attention? (If so, congrats: it’s working, although I’m not sure it’s the kind of attention you want.) Also, do the author’s editors at the Times think they are being cute or smart, because natural wine is a so-called “trend” and it’s so adorable to be contrarian?
I think probably both of the above are true, and they are really disheartening to me. The desperation to sell a book should never lead to this kind of terrible, misguided journalism. And I know that a lot of editors and wine publicists like to call natural wine a “trend”; and flag it as some elitist circle of hipsters, and I have really had it with this attitude. Natural wine is a movement of people who believe in expressing what the earth says through grapes. True, sometimes they have a bit of a hipster swagger. And, yes, there are natural wines out there with tons of volatile acidity and perhaps they could have benefited from just a touch of sulfites. But you know what? Natural wine might be one of the last true hold-outs of free-thinking, libertarian, even slightly anarchistic political culture in the world, and for that it is beautiful. Nobody needs to ask permission to make natural wine the way they want to make it, and nobody is dying for you to like it.
At the same time, the movement does deserve recognition, and it is a good thing that it’s growing and spreading. Because for every single hectare that’s farmed without dangerous herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides, the soil is healthier, and the ecosystem is better able to thrive and to resist climate change–and the people who live and work around that vineyard are grateful. I know people like to point out copper’s harmfulness, and I also know that organic is not everything–with or without certification. Some winemakers I respect very much are not 100 percent organically farmed–but it’s not something they celebrate, as if they are proud to use chemicals. It’s the reality of the challenges of farming in certain climates. But I’ve stood in organically or biodynamically farmed vineyards, and it’s quite obvious that life is thriving within them: cover crops, butterflies, birds, rich and healthy soils are present, whereas I’ve also stood in a massive plantation of conventionally farmed Chardonnay in Sicily, at an unnamed winery’s estate, and gazed in horror at the cracked, dry, ugly ground. The difference is really just so obvious to see, and you can’t ignore it if you care about nature or the planet. Meanwhile, it’s also important to mention that “organic” or even “biodynamic” doesn’t mean a wine is made naturally; it’s still possible for additives to come into the picture. It also doesn’t mean that a wine is necessarily good.
People who work in mainstream wine PR, or older wine writers who seem befuddled by the natural wine movement, often ask me: “but how do you know it’s natural and that the winemaker isn’t lying to you? Aren’t people so easily fooled by marketing?” Here’s the thing: The natural wine movement is not about audits, or strict rules that determine whether you can be “inside” the club; it’s not even about cute labels only, although it does seem to excel in label design. The world if natural wine is, effectively, governed by relationships. Most naturally-working winemakers are part of a lineage–they worked for other producers who are in this movement. Their importers are constantly visiting them and providing insights from these visits (and I do these visits, too, whenever possible). The winemakers visit New York on a regular basis, to pour their wines and talk about what they do. There is no thick black curtain–meanwhile, corporate wineries do have such a thing, which is probably why they thought they were so clever, allowing Bianca Bosker the wine journalist to take a peek and report back to the public. Well, it’s not cute. It’s goddamn insulting. If people want to drink that shit, fine. I can’t stop anybody from eating disgusting chicken nuggets, or from buying factory-made clothes from China, either. But maybe what I can do is carve out a better space for wine writing that capitalizes on the incredible momentum that the natural wine movement has built. It’s not a trend; it’s hardly even niche any more–look at how many natural wine restaurants we’ve seen pop up around the U.S. in recent years! And they are continuing to open their doors, to much success.
One writer and natural wine importer has penned a great response to the Times opinion piece, which I really encourage you to read if you’re craving a view other than my own; he has written in an extremely approachable and sound way, and I’m grateful for it–check out Marko Kovac’s piece here.
And as some of you may know, I’m working on launching an independent print magazine this year–which will aim to produce really great, detailed, literary journalism about natural wines and terroir-driven foods. Stay tuned for details, and follow us on Instagram here.
Keep calm, carry on drinking great wine made by honest growers, join the ACLU, fuck Trump, and have a great weekend.
What I mean is: I wish I could write anything but journalism about wine: a poem, a novel, might better convey the aspects of wine that I really want to talk about.
It’s extremely difficult, in today’s media climate, to do justice to truly great wine, as a writer. I get a lot of offers from well-funded wineries to travel to their properties, and I typically turn these down—yes, I reject free trips to Tuscany—because I know I won’t like the wine, and I’ll have marketing literally shoved down my throat. Meanwhile, many of the profoundly interesting and moving experiences I’ve had while visiting producers are rejected by editors as “too niche.” Often, it seems that the best approach to writing about the small producers I love actually might be to take really great photos of their bottles with me wearing some hot tiny outfit, saying funny shit, but, well, ha, that job is already taken (and done quite well).
Considering that wine is, in the grand scheme of things, relatively unimportant—the stakes are much lower when it comes to, say, discussing the merits of organic wine, versus reporting on cancer research or the war in Sudan or fill-in-the-blank with thousands of subjects—wine writers deal with disproportionate levels of criticism and pressure. We are, privately or publicly, slammed by strangers and people we know, when we write something people disagree withor if we’ve made a mistake in our description of a wine. (As well, I think wine writers in the natural wine scene are viewed with skepticism because we’re highlighting very small producers whose juice is quite limited.) It’s completely impossible to please everybody, and it’s also really hard, unless you’ve made wine before or you’re a goddamn whiz of a researcher, to get every detail right—especially considering that just about none of the wine publications out there employ fact-checkers (if they do, sometimes they know nothing about wine; these are typically college interns). Of course, I am not exempt from lashing out against other wine writers who pen stuff that I find offensive. And I am deeply respectful of people—like Alice Feiring and Peter Liem—who have figured out business models that work for them in order to write independently, and I’m trying to figure this out for myself.
The long-standing cliché that wine is “bottled poetry” bears some relevance here. It’s really hard to translate a vintner’s relationship with land, and thousands of years of history—or a few hundred years or decades, as in most New World scenarios—into something communicable to a general audience. (It is literally “lost in translation.”) I’m thinking now about a wine I tasted at Benoît Lahaye’s estate in Champagne, when I visited this past February. I adore the dry-as-a-bone, electric Champagnes of Lahaye, who farms just under 5 hectares in Bouzy with biodynamics (certified by Biodyvin).
“Violaine” is a vintage wine, consisting of 50/50 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, that Lahaye makes since 2008 completely without sulfites (sans soufre); it also receives no dosage. It is named for the village his grandfather and his wife’s grandfather came from; Lahaye’s grandfather, if I understood correctly (this was all discussed in French) was orphaned at a young age, and Benoît’s wife’s family actually took him in—so in other words, this couple’s grandparents were once living under the same roof. As I write this, I’m a bit worried that I’m not getting all the details right, but the point is: inextricable family histories, intangible connections, all these deeply personal things are put into a bottle and no matter how hard I try, I’ll never quite be able to replicate their essence in words. Nor do my tasting notes: “intense, pure chalkiness, rich texture, throughline of minerality but also a satisfying roundness” actually really convey the experience of tasting this wine, especially once Lahaye had explained the story behind its name.
But the fact that I’m not 100 percent sure of the details of the story is an excellent demonstration of how difficult it is to write about wine: to confirm, I would need to return to Lahaye’s home and re-interview him to make sure I understand every part of it correctly—which, obviously, would delight me—but to do all that I would need money and time, both of which are rare currency for wine writers. (This, of course, is related to my earlier point, that wine is not as vital as medicine or as impactful as politics.)
But this specific wine and this specific story are only one of many that make wine—true wine; “natural” wine; meaning wine that reflects small, specific places and does not attempt to mask the whims of climate—so incredibly difficult to explain and capture. There’s an element of mysticism. I’ve heard great winemakers stumble in trying to express it; I’ll never forget my first wine trip to France—I really lucked out and got to tag along for a few days with the Becky Wasserman crew in Burgundy, and they brought me to Frederic Mugnier’s cellar. I think I asked him some kind of prompt about the meaning of the word “terroir,” and he thought very carefully before responding: “We try, and we look at the soil, but we don’t really know exactly what it is.” That moment has come back to me many times in my wine research. I don’t think he meant, of course, that soil type doesn’t matter. But there are these oddities of life—an ancestor who shared a home with your spouse’s ancestor; a difficult vintage that turns out masterfully; a grape nearly lost to humanity that, somehow, persists in growing—which give wine its true magic. And, as much as I would like to try to communicate these things, I am often at a complete loss.
Fortunately for every one of us, the simplest way to experience wine is without any mediation at all, by simply drinking it. Maybe the stories I want to tell about wine are best relegated to some kind of Proustian novel about all the incredible personalities I’ve encountered or befriended as I spend more time studying the culture of natural wine. Often, when I taste a really striking wine, or I meet a bold, renegade winemaker, I ask myself: how can I, as a writer, be more like this winemaker, or produce something as incredible as this wine? And I’m at a loss for an answer, most of the time. But I guess the reason I keep writing is that I hope, one day, that I will find the answer, and that I’ll deliver some work of writing that even comes close to the elegance I’ve found in so many bottles. And that I’ll be as strong-willed, proud of my labors, and, well, “unfiltered,” let’s say, as the winemakers I admire.