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.

Support Raisin, The World’s Only Natural Wine App

Raisin is an app that supports the natural wine community by alerting wine lovers to places they can find organic, biodynamic, low-sulfite wines made on a small scale, all around the world. It’s a simple concept, meant to help make natural wine more transparent and approachable for everyday people who might be new to the idea of such wine. Essentially, the app helps you find a retailer or restaurant that features natural wines on at least 30 percent of their menu. And for anyone who loves natural wine and has had the experience of wandering around a foreign city, trying in vain to find a glass of something acceptable to drink, Raisin is going to come in handy.

Although Raisin launched last year, it’s now seeking crowdfunding in order to deliver an android version with some more sophisticated features. I urge you to support this project if you can. I have met one of the founders and I’ve seen the beautiful Raisin posters proudly on display in winemakers’ offices all around Europe. It’s a project that could be a great bolster to the natural wine community in a general sense.

Find out more about Raisin and support their campaign, here. As of now, 35 days are left to fund, but if you like the project it’s better to put your money down now, rather than later–it will encourage future donations. And if you’re new to my blog, and want to know more about natural wine, see my primer for Esquire magazine, here

And let’s all raise a glass to the great majority of France rejecting racism and anti-cosmopolitanism. That’s really something to celebrate.

Meet The “Crazy French Woman” Behind RAW Wine Fair

screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-4-14-24-pmIf you haven’t heard yet, here’s the good news: RAW Wine Fair, the natural wine expo originally founded in London, is popping-up in Bushwick next weekend, Sun + Mon Nov 6-7 (99 Scott Av in Brooklyn, a 5-minute walk from the Jefferson L Train). There’s still time to get tickets–and you can also plan to attend one of the after-parties happening around Brooklyn and Manhattan. For Vogue.com, I profiled Isabelle Legeron, the only French female Master of Wine and an incredibly passionate spokesperson for the natural wine movement. Check out the story here.

You can find out more info on RAW Wine here (I think if you show up on the day-of without a ticket, it should be fine, FYI). Below, I’ve compiled a broad representation of the after-parties and dinners happening around RAW. The easiest thing to do is just show up at The Ten Bells on any given night between Nov 4-8 to find winemakers parties and plenty of juice flowing. See you there!

RAW Wine After-Parties, Dinners, Events // note that prices generally do not include tax or gratuity

Sunrise Sunset: Post-RAW pop-up dinner party, Sunday Nov 6th, starting at 6pm 

Keep the party going post-RAW while staying in Bushwick, with Asian-themed bar food by chef Gary Kim (Sheep & Wolves / co-founder Anju) alongside wines BTG or bottles from Alexandre Bain, Chateau de Beru, Finca Parrera and Zanotto.

Rouge Tomate Chelsea: Jean-Pierre Rietsch and Tom Shobbrook, Nov 4, 6:30-10pm

These winemakers will be taking over the bar room of Rouge Tomate Chelsea, with special BTG offerings. No tickets or reservations necessary.

Also at Rouge Tomate Chelsea: Dinner with Sepp Muster and Franz Strohmeier Nov 9, time

The 16 seats at RTC’s communal tables will be filled for this dinner, with a family style menu featuring the hosted producers. To complement the pours from these Austrian natural wine rockstars, a vegetable-focused Austrian feast will be served (spaetzle and kraut!). $99; email or call restaurant for reservations.

Il Buco: Live music and Italian winemaker dinner, Tues Nov 8, 7-11pm

Producers will be on hand for the evening and chatting with guests, including: Franco Terpin, Il Cancelliere, Cantina D’Angello, Cantina de Barone, Fabio De Beaumont, La Maliosa, Andrea Scovero, Viña Enebro and Denis Montanar. Sugarman 3 will be performing live during dinner, featuring Neal Sugarman on saxophone, Adam Scone on Hammond organ, and Rudy Elbin on drums. Buy tickets here, $75/person (drinks will be charged separately).

Barano: Andrea Scovero & Franco Terpin dinner, Monday, Nov. 7, 7:30pm

At this new casual eatery in Brooklyn, these two iconic Italian producers will host a tasting of some of the finest offerings coming out of Piedmont and Friuli. Featured wines include: Scovero 2013 Nebbiolo, 2014 Dolcetto, 2014 Barbera; Terpin 2015 Quinto Quarto Bianco, 2015 Quinto Quarto Ramato, 2008 Ribolla Gialla, 2011 Sialis Pinot Grigio Ramato, 2009 Jakot, 2015 Sauvignon Blanc. Tickets $105; buy here.

Sel Rrose: Special dinner with Theo Milan (Domaine Henri Milan), Nov 9, 6:30-9pm

In the chic, intimate Sel Rrose space on Delancey, enjoy a specially prepared, 4-course menu with 8 delicious wines from this Provence producer, including a vertical of Clos Milan from ’06-‘09. $110; email doreen@diamondsommelierservices.com for reservations.

El Quinto Pino: Alta Alella dinner, Nov 7, 7-10pm

This is a 4-course dinner prepared by chefs Alex Raij & Eder Montero with winemaker Jose-Maria Pujol Busquet of organic estate Alta Alella in Northern Spain. $68; buy tickets here.

Brooklyn Wine Exchange: Zusslin wines seminar, Nov 2nd at 7pm

One of Alsace’s most iconic naturally-working estates, Marie Zusslin will conduct a seminar about her winery and her biodynamically made wines, showing a vertical of her Rieslings Grand Cru, no-sulfur-added Crémant de, and Pinot Noir. More info here, reserve seats by calling the store.

Diner Airstream: Joe Swick dinner hosted by Uva Wines, Nov 5th, 7:30pm

A 3-course meal paired with Joe’s beautiful Oregon wines, including some back-vintages—in a vintage airstream behind Diner! $85; for reservations email lucy@uvawines.com.

Tertulia: “Soleras & Smoke: A Night of Sherry And Wood-Fire-Grilled Fare” Nov 7, 9:30pm until late (un-related to RAW, but still cool!)

Pop-up sherry bar hosted by En Rama, with food from Speedy Romeo. Organizer Nick Africano aims to provide a relaxed, fun setting for discovering “the mysteries and myths of sherry,” for “novices and pros alike.”

The Ten Bells: “Meet the Winemakers” parties, Nov 5-8, around 8:30/9pm until late

As usual, The Ten Bells will be the point de rendez-vous for winemakers and wine lovers alike who want to get loud and rowdy. There will be 50 wines by-the-glass at low margin, so you can re-taste whatever you loved at RAW, along with—these are Sev’s words—“dancing on the tables, burning the place down!” On election night (the 8th, duh), there will be a special American natural winemakers night, featuring Brianne Day, Joe Swick, Evan Lewandowski, and more. Below is the complete line-up:

MEET THE RAW WINEMAKERS @ THE TEN BELLS

Saturday Nov. 5th, 8:30pm

Géraud Bonnet – Ferme apicole Desrochers

Jaques Perritaz – Cidrerie du Vulcain

Clémence Lelarge – Lelarge-Pugeot

Jérôme Bretaudeau – Domaine de Bellevue

François de Nicolay – Domaine Chandon de Briailles

Isabelle Jolly & Jean-Luc Chossart – Domaine Jolly-Ferriol

Luca Garbarolio – Carussin

Xavier Ledogar – Domaine Ledogar

Antonin Azzoni – Le Raisin et l’Ange

Philippe Chaigneau – Château Massereau

Even Bakke – Clos de Trias

Sunday Nov. 6th, 9pm

Marie Zusslin, Domaine Zusslin

Franz Strohmeier – Wein & Sektmanufaktur Strohmeier

Eduard Tscheppe & Stephanie Tscheppe-Eselböck – Gut Oggau

Sepp Muster – Weingut Maria & Sepp Muster

Rudolf Trossen – Weingut Rita & Rudolf Trossen

Ewald Tscheppe – Werlitsch

Petr Nejedlík – Dobrá Vinice

Kim Engle, Debra Bermingham & Katy Koken – Bloomer Creek Vineyard

Tracey & Jared Brandt – Donkey & Goat

Christian Tschida

Jason Edward Charles – Vinca Minor Wines

Hardy Wallace – Dirty & Rowdy Family Winery

Tony Coturri – Coturri Winery

Joe Pedicini – Montebruno

Monday Nov. 7th, 8:30pm (also Sev’s birthday!)

Jean-Pierre Rietsch – Domaine Rietsch

Ricardo Zanotto – Zanotto Col Fondo

Alexandre Bain – Domaine Bain

Athenais de Beru – Château de Beru

Alberto Anguissola & Diego Ragazzi – Casè

Fred Niger – Domaine de l’Ecu

Theophile Milan – Domaine Milan

Olivier Paul-Morandini – Fuori Mondo

Rubén Parera Renau – Finca Parera

Tom Shobbrook – Shobbrook Wines

Tuesday Nov. 8th – “bad ombrés and nasty women” theme, 8:30pm

Brianne Day – Day Wines

Deirdre Heekin – La Garagista Farm & Winery

Joe Pedicini – Montebruno

Joe Swick – Swick wines

Kim Engle, Debra Bermingham & Katy Koken – Bloomer Creek Vineyard

Evan Lewandowski – Ruth Lewandowski

Shaunt Oungoulian, Samuel Baron & Diego Roig – Living Wines Collective

Kenny Likitprakong – The Hobo Wine Company

Hardy Wallace – Dirty & Rowdy Family Winery

Tony Coturri – Coturri Winery

Shaunt Oungoulian – Samuel Baron – Diego Roig – Living Wines Collective

Darek Trowbridge – Old World Winery

Phillip Hart & Mary Morwood Hart – Ambyth Estate

Jason Edward Charles – Vinca Minor Wines

Lewis Dickson – La Cruz de Comal

Tracey & Jared Brandt – Donkey & Goat