Advice to emerging wine writers: be known for something, but be careful

Would you like to be a wine writer? Are you already a wine writer, but would like to take the next step?

Normally, I’d say you shouldn’t listen to advice from modestly successful people, but I reckon that the properly successful wine writers haven’t go enough time to dispense this sort of advice, so here are a few of my thoughts.

In the past, if you wanted to be a wine writer you had to get past the gatekeepers: editors. This bottleneck restricted the supply of wine writers, and so there was plenty of work to go round those who made it through. The result? A reasonably large community of professional wine writers who made a living out of wine writing alone.

Things have changed, and it’s largely the fault of the internet. First, anyone with a laptop, an internet connection and access to wine can be a wine writer. [I guess that’s how I started out, so I’m not knocking this new opportunity: I could never have become a full-time wine dude without the internet.]

But when I started out, I was one of a few talking about wine on the internet. That was an advantage. Now there are gazillions of voices, and a veritable tsunami of wine content is being published every day. That’s a good thing if you are looking to consume wine media, but if you are a professional trying to make a living, there’s a lot of competition, and your voice can get drowned in the noise.

Second, while peoples’ media consumption may have increased a bit, it can only increase so much. And now many consume their media via the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. So the growth in media sources has outpaced the growth in media consumption. More voices, but not more ears or eyes. The losers? The print publications. And they are the ones who have budget to pay for contributions. So there has been a reduction in editorial budgets, allied to an increase in the number of wine writers. Which all spells trouble for the professional writer trying to make a living in this social media age.

So what would my advice be for anyone who wants to write about wine full time? How do you stand out from the crowd?

It’s a given that you need to write well, and write fast. I don’t need to say any more about this.

You need to be known for something. There are just so many voices out there, but you can still be heard if you are offering something of value and you are recognized as having expertise in a particular area. This requires a degree of commitment. You need to research. You need to visit on a regular basis (if it’s a region that is your speciality). And you need to show good critical ability: it’s not sufficient to be enthusiastic about everything. Choose who you champion with care because that will determine your credibility.

Being an expert in a region will also make you internationally relevant, in the long run. You may think that someone local would end up being the go-to person for their own region or country: the problem here is that often they don’t have the credibility that comes from having travelled and tasted widely – which gives the international context to put the wines of their own region or country into.

But you don’t want to be pigeon-holed. It’s all very well being the go to expert for the wines of Georgia, but how often do articles on Georgia get commissioned? If you are an expert on a small or minor region or country, you’ll be seen as a small-time player and this could work against you. It all depends what you want from your career. So there’s a balancing act: be known for something, because without that you’ll find it hard to stand out from the crowd, but don’t restrict yourself overly or you’ll be pigeon-holed.

A word of warning. If you become an expert in the wines of one country, beware becoming a stooge for that country’s wines. Stay objective and critical. I’ve seen a few writers become too close to the generic body of a country they are expert in. They start doing masterclasses, which is fine, but before long their income is heavily dependent on support from that country, and even specific producers from that country. If you are a writer, you should try to keep writing your main income, or else it can get messy. Do you find yourself becoming less critical? Do you find you’re being a little more enthusiastic about a country’s wines than is strictly necessary? Do you find yourself writing for the producers rather than your readers? Then you’ve been taking too many gigs and your impartiality – and thus your usefulness as a writer – is at risk.

Finally, modest success as a generalist is often what stops writers taking that extra step and really cracking the big time. You can spend all your time writing low-paid, low-profile pieces out of necessity, for the very good reason of paying your bills and being able to afford to feed your family. But this sort of work can keep you trapped and prevent you from being more strategic, and – in the long term – happier in your work.

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