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.

Hunger And Thirst: Roxane Gay x Oriol Artigas

Welcome to my first edition of #aperohourweekly in many months!

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of memoir and marvelling at the way that a well-written account of someone’s life, despite being entirely personal, can have universal ramifications. American writer Roxane Gay’s 2017 Hunger is testament to how the so-called “obesity epidemic” in the U.S. (and elsewhere) requires a broad, cultural shift in order to address its roots. It’s also a book about trauma and sexual assault. Anyone who has experienced either will strongly identify with Gay’s quest to overcome their impact on her life. But the book has lessons for those who have not been subject to such difficulties — because chances are, someone you know has.

Disordered eating was extremely prevalent when I was growing up. Teen women’s magazines were enjoying popularity, and they all promoted weight-loss and idolized thin models and celebrities. Fiona Apple’s anorexic body writhed like a snake in her music video, Criminal. On the TV show Friends, Jennifer Aniston went from probably a size 10 to a 6 over the course of a few seasons, and her colleague Courtney Cox was presumably anorexic for years. I loved the show Ally McBeal, whose shockingly thin protagonist seemed to live off air and occasional pints of ice cream.

In high school, I had a close friend who began working out both before and after school. At lunch she was seen eating grapes. Within months, she was a skeleton, with fuzzy hair all over her arms. Everyone complimented her. Other friends talked constantly about how imperfect their bodies were. At sixteen, we were often on diets. I had my own struggles with disordered eating.

Roxane Gay was not propelled into disordered eating merely because of cultural influences. She experienced an absolutely shattering sexual assault at the age of 12. Her life was altered forever, and she turned to food as her outlet. At her heaviest, she weighed 577 pounds.

Hunger is a brutally honest portrayal of Gay’s trauma, ongoing suffering, overeating, and attempts to heal herself. It also shares perspective on being “fat” in a society that worships thinness and fitness. The book is not a weight-loss success story; Gay is still “a woman of size,” as she puts it, and continues to struggle with her initial trauma.

Gay attends “fat camps” as a teenager, runs away from her Ivy League education to work as a phone-sex operator while exploring her queerness, considers gastric bypass surgery, and continues overeating and dating people who mistreat her, believing she deserves such abuse. Over time, Gay recounts in the book, she begins to find some joy in cooking. As I read about her suffering, I was waiting for this sliver of hope. I still remember, in university, when I lived with four amazing fellow students (all women) who loved to cook — and I don’t mean just throwing pasta into water. We made lasagna, shepherd’s pie, and roast chicken, all from scratch. We drank wine as we prepared our meal. We cooked for ourselves, not for boyfriends, because we wanted to eat well. We deserved it.

It was still some years before I completely embraced the pleasure of eating well, partly because for most of my twenties, I struggled to pay rent and tuition, and food seemed like an excessive luxury. But over time, I began visiting the Union Square farmer’s market, in New York. I stopped feeling guilty whenever I ate a proper, balanced dinner at a cafe, rather than shoving 2-dollar falafel or 1-dollar pizza into my mouth on the way to the library for a night of studying.

When I discovered natural wine, I found a new level of deliciousness, and an extreme form of pleasure that became a point-of-no-return for me. Once I understood the bottom line of these wines — organic farming, ethical production, minimal additions — my entire lifestyle was transformed. Understanding natural wine as a product of environmentally-conscious artisanship carried over into what I ate: I began to deeply consider the origins of the food I bought, prepared, and ate, every day.

As my friendships formed around natural wine, I found a community with which to share my newfound love for gastronomic enjoyment. I remember the first time I splurged on a dining experience: my friends and I went to Contra, the Lower East Side tasting menu restaurant where only natural wine is served. We each paid $200 and it was the most enthralling experience I’d had in recent years. Yes, I had student loans to pay, and it was harder to make rent that month — but I felt that the meal had enriched me as much as seeing a great work of theater or months of psychotherapy might.

I chose a wine from Oriol Artigas to pair alongside Roxane Gay’s book — but honestly, it was chosen at random. It could have been any great natural wine. The point I wanted to make is that reading Hunger helped me relive my own struggles to love myself, to feed and nurture myself healthfully, and to believe that I deserve pleasure, just because I am human.

In some moments, it was hard for me to read Gay’s words — because as much as she says she hates being hugged by strangers, hates cooking for herself, and feels reluctant about eating healthy and working out, I wanted to assure her that all of these things can actually bring true joy on a daily basis, and that they can make life worth living, or at least more bearable.

Oriol Artigas makes natural wine in an area called Alella, north of Barcelona. His wines are undoubtedly full of joy. He holds down a job teaching at an oenology school in order to pursue his passion for natural winemaking. He isn’t living a life of luxury. But that’s largely what natural wine is — people who have really found joy in these lighthearted, quirky wines, and devoted themselves to them in pursuit of the utmost pleasure. It’s a pleasure that also revolves around an ethically and socially minded community, rather than pure hedonism.

I happened to have Oriol’s wine handy because it’s featured in Pipette Magazine Issue 4, which has printed and is shipping now — you can order your copy online, or find it at a stockist in your town.

We all have to deny ourselves pleasure, sometimes. But my experiences have taught me that the joy of eating and drinking well can carry over into every other aspect of our lives. We can learn self-care by changing how we eat and drink. And we can support each other in these goals. I am grateful to every roommate or colleague I had who cooked with me or went halves with me to splurge on a bottle of wine.

I wish more young people could be exposed to gastronomic pleasures. I really suffered during my adolescent years of disordered eating. If they had gone on longer, they could have had lasting or even permanent detriments to my physical health. “Thinness” is bullshit. Enjoying real food, sharing great wine, and finding joy in self-care are true beacons in this world.

Roxane Gay has written several books of fiction as well as the highly-acclaimed 2014 essay collection Bad Feminist, which I look forward to reading sometime. I think Hunger does justice to the reality that so many of us have experienced at one point, to a certain degree: that American society has a really unhealthy and contradictory approach to eating and body image. Although that may be changing in certain subcultures, broader society is still hung-up on weight-loss TV shows and Jenny Craig plans, stuck in a cycle of self-punishment and longing for an unattainable body.

Thanks for reading this #aperohourweekly post! I hope I’ll be sharing these write-ups more regularly now. You can follow the tag below to find previous editions. Also see the “Natural Wine Producer Profiles” section to find in-depth stories about winemakers. And subscribe to Pipette (print-only) if you want to learn more about the natural wine movement!

Apéro Hour | Weekly Highlights: Remembering Georgia; Remembering Bourdain; Retasting Aussie “Favourites”

Welcome to your weekly apéro hour! 

Even more despised than the Brunch People are the vegetarians. Serious cooks regard these members of the dining public—and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans—as enemies of everything that’s good and decent in the human spirit. To live life without veal or chicken stock, fish cheeks, sausages, cheese, or organ meats is treasonous.

-Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

 

DRINKING. Just over a year ago, I was invited on a trip to the Republic of Georgia. That trip changed my life, completely; it exposed me to a vibrant culture of wine and food, and I met some people who, even if I haven’t seen them since, I consider close friends. Eight days driving around on a bus, meeting winemaking families, is a great way to bond! I also met my partner on that trip, so that was one of the obvious highlights.

At the Zero Compromise tasting in Tbilisi, all of us were impressed by tasting wines made by Mariam Iosebidze, from a light red grape called Tavkveri that’s basically the Georgian equivalent of Poulsard. Mariam makes her wine in an uncle’s mariani (cellar) and there is very little of it, so I’m thrilled that it makes its way to Australia and I had a chance to drink the 2016 the other day, over a light lunch. The wine was made with only a brief skin contact — less than three days, which is not much for a red — and fermented for one month total in qvevri. The short maceration does it well, I think — it’s got plenty of flavor but is light and driven by acidity — it tastes like crushed roses and salted cherries, with hints of curry and salami. It’s got no sulfites added, nothing but grapes in here. And it’s definitely one of those “funky” natural wines, if you’re looking for that (it has some VA — which I don’t mind, at all!)

If you want to read more about Georgian wine, here’s the piece I wrote for MUNCHIES based on that trip!

MOURNING. When I read Kitchen Confidential, it was long after its publication in 2000. I’d come late in life to the world of food writing, and discovering Bourdain’s tell-all memoir was a revelation: it was brave and brash, hiding nothing about restaurant life and his own tumultuous experience as a cook. In this age of over-saccharine social media performativism, I am sure all of us appreciate the instances where someone is raw, unguarded, and truthful. Especially when it comes to restaurants, which so many of us experience as the end-user only.

Bourdain’s legacy is powerful, and wide-reaching. It was incredible to watch the outpouring of emotion on social media and in the news, from people whose lives he had touched deeply, whether they’d had a chance to meet him, or not. They shared stories of how he’d motivated them to go to cooking school, or validated their sense of pride in Filipino cooking. Bourdain showed appreciation for simple, humble dishes at mom-and-pop restaurants around the world, and shunned fancy establishments. He ate bún cha with President Obama in Hanoi. He made his career after halfheartedly sending an exposé of restaurants to the New Yorker, on the advice of his mother (watch the video where he tells that story here).

The California-based writer John Birdsall wrote on Twitter: “After a day of being able to get nothing done and a night trying to resist sinking into panic, I figured out Bourdain’s legacy: to use whatever influence you have to champion anyone with an authentic voice, even if it’s not fully formed.”

In the wake of Bourdain’s death, I was touched by brief and touching eulogies written by the New Yorker’s Helen Rosner, and Kat Kinsman for Food and Wine. Bourdain’s suicide also triggered an eruptive discussion about mental health, particularly in the hospitality industry, and more broadly; people wrote on social media about their own struggles with depression and suicidal tendencies. As always, all one can hope with a tragic loss like this is that it sparks a profound debate, which could have lasting cultural or even legal changes and help others find their way. I hope this doesn’t sound inauthentic, because many people are saying this, but I’ll chime in: if any of you need a friend, even if you’ve never met me, please reach out. I do check my messages, probably more often than necessary, on all forms of social media and e-mail. I will make time for you if you’re hurting inside.

AUSSIE DRINKING. Back in Australia, it’s pine mushroom foraging season. They are everywhere! We’ve been sauteeing them and having them on toast, or in an omelette; I also pickled some, just because there are so many.

And it also means: back to drinking Aussie wine. And I’m very lucky to be doing so, because all over this country, natural winemakers are making some of the freshest, most gluggable juice out there. Australia’s natural wine scene is largely concentrated in the Adelaide Hills area, but that’s far from the only place it’s happening. Take, for example, Momento Mori, made by Dane Johns in Victoria; these are small-batch wines featuring mostly Italian varieties made with skin contact. I’ve enjoyed them a few times, had the pleasure of re-tasting them at a recent event in Melbourne called Handmade.

I also got to retaste some favorites from Travis Tausend, located in the Adelaide Hills. His winemaking is inspired by his time working with Sebastien Riffault and Daniel Sage in France. That should be enough motivation to try them! Tausend’s wines do make it over to Europe and the U.S. in small amounts, so keep an eye out.

(By the way: my spellcheck now autocorrects “favorites” as “favourites.” Is it only a matter of time before I make the switch??? Oh, and happy birthday to the Queen! That feels really weird to write.)

I also love this Savagnin from the Barossa-based duo Yetti and the Kokonut, which I drank recently with some friends here in the Basket Range. The story behind Savagnin in Australia is funny — it was brought over mistakenly labeled as Albariño. What a happy mistake for us Jura lovers! And re: the fireplace, yes, it is “winter” here. I am sorry, but I grew up on the East Coast — an average of 14 Celsius with sunny days does not make a very scary winter! But it does get cold inside the houses here. I’ve become very good at building a fire! Watch out Scandinavia, Basket Range hygge is totally a thing.

WRITING. I’ve been working on a short story lately — as in, fiction! Nothing to do with wine. As soon as I send this, I am going to return to that. Also, I have something else in the works completely unrelated to wine writing; I guess you could call it a travel book, or a guide to traveling? But it’s written by me, so it’s not exactly your average travel guide. Stay tuned for more on that in a month or so.

And, are YOU a writer? Are your friends writers? Please share with them the submissions guidelines for Pipette Magazine, my new indie mag venture (Terre, rebranded, essentially). The first issue is already shaping up to be pretty good! Follow along on the Pipette Instagram and via the newsletter.

Have a good start to your week! Long live the Queen! Cheers! RS

 

 

Introducing Pipette Magazine (Take Deux)

Today, I am writing with some bittersweet news. Essentially, Terre Magazine will be no more in the coming weeks.

I write this with some level of sadness. Over the past year and a half, I saw that Terre was really exciting to people, that this magazine added some joy and wholesome intellectualism in their lives. Over the course of two issues, I have had the pleasure of working with authors and photographers in truly rewarding ways, seeing a vague idea develop substance and then become a solid draft — and finally, something we could be proud to publish in print.
But the good news is: I won’t be giving up. I’m starting a new magazine.
The new magazine will be called Pipette. A “pipette,” you may know, also called a “wine thief,” is a glass siphon used to draw tastes of wine from barrels. I am naming the new magazine Pipette in honor of a very special experience I had recently while visiting Slovakia. The winemaker Zsolt Suto of Strekov 1075 brought us to visit a friend of his, a Hungarian man making natural wine in a beautiful old cellar, with no commercial intent, at all–he bottles the wine for his own consumption, only.
This winemaker, Gabor, led the tasting using the most lovely pipette I had ever seen. He also had us tasting out of 100-year-old wine glasses! I remarked on how beautiful the pipette was — apparently it’s common in the region but I had never seen the style before. Gabor, noticing how enamored I was, ended up cleaning it carefully and giving it to us as a gift. It was very touching and symbolic of the non-commercial nature of what he does as a natural winemaker. The pipette unfortunately broke during a dash through the Vienna airport — but that generosity will remain in my memory forever.
And that’s what is important. Natural wine to me is about generosity. Writing, even, is about generosity. My financial benefit from writing is basically nothing. My personal benefit, however, is massive, when I hear from readers that something I’ve written has touched them or shown them a fresh perspective. And the same return is involved in editing, and working with talented creatives, to make a unique print product that brings us away from the constant noise of social media and fake news.
That’s all I ever wanted to do by founding a print magazine about natural wines: add beauty and thoughtful discourse to the world, in a time when there’s so much consumerist bullshit and greed. So, I’ll be doing that with Pipette. The magazine will, as with the previous iteration, be print-only, and it will still have minimalistic design with great photos and artwork, and hopefully still enjoy wide distribution around the world. I am going to have to re-do a lot of work, from scratch. It’s hard, because I was already so strapped for time, editing Terre while building its network, also making wine and doing assignments for magazines. But I’ll write emails in my sleep to make it happen.
I will have more news soon; I know that many of you subscribed and are wondering what will happen to your subscriptions. For now, if you could please follow the new magazine on Instagram so I can re-build a following, it would get me off to a great start. And please spread the word!
Thank you for your support!
xxRachel