ENGAGING WITH WRITERS BEFORE “THE ASK” (Part 2)
This is the second part of a two-part series. Part one appeared in the May/June issue of The Grapevine Magazine and is available online. I continue my conversation with Jim Gullo about what it’s like to be a professional writer, and to discuss the wine business from his perspective. Jim is a self described Author, Journalist, Wine Writer, Food Eater & Pastryologist. He tweets, he writes, he eats and he’s coming back for more. His work appears regularly in the Alaska Airlines Magazine, Horizon Airlines Magazine, Oregon Wine Press and other publications. Turning to books in recent years, Jim has most recently authored Grouch Bag, a children’s novel about finding the Marx Brothers; Trading Manny, the story of how he and his son learned to love baseball; and Fountain of Youth, a bittersweet novel about coming to terms with loss. He has also written hundreds of magazine articles, and now writes from his perspective in the middle of the Willamette Valley wine country. You can learn more about Jim on his website and blog: http://www.jim-gullo.com/
I asked Jim to do this interview because I believe small wineries can benefit from his insights. In this section we’ll get into specifics about the mechanics of working with professional writers.
1.How do you juggle multiple writing assignments – your books, travel and wine writing, etc?
I have been making this up as I go along for 29 years now, so am fairly good at looking for clients, pitching stories, researching and writing them and meeting deadlines. When I don’t have specific, paying assignments I try to spend my time working on book projects, which pay even worse than magazine writing but are creatively very satisfying and have a potential upside of sales. I don’t have as much time as I would like to talk with people and explore if I don’t have a dedicated business reason to do so. Between family duties (I have two sons at home) and trying to keep my business afloat, I don’t have much time for speculative writing or research.
2.When and how did you get interested in wine, and when was your first wine themed assignment?
I grew up in a winemaking region of western New York State and was always fascinated by the confluence of agriculture, nature and craft that goes into fine wine. I quit my job in New York in 1981 to go to France and Switzerland to pick grapes, and was exposed to lots of fine wine, and the charm of winemaking villages. Travel writing has brought me to places like the Piedmont in Italy, the Hunter Valley of Australia, the Loire Valley and the canals of Burgundy in France, and the wine regions of Oregon and Washington, and my food stories would invariably be intertwined with wine. In fact, I first “discovered” the Willamette Valley on an unrelated travel writing assignment, and knew instantly that I wanted to live here and report on the people making these extraordinary wines.
3.Why is it important to read a writer’s articles in advance of contacting and pitching them?
It’s not one size fits all. There are lots of different writers doing different things, with different specific interests. My focus has always been to look for bigger stories to report, that fit my writing style, and I like to immerse myself and participate in a story where I can. It was perfect for me, for example, when Sokol Blosser recently invited me to attend one of their first cooking classes, and I could chop and cook and participate. Trade information about vineyard practices and clonal selections doesn’t do much for me. But I don’t think that everyone should know and have to keep up with every writer out there. Just keeping me in the loop of what you’re doing at the winery will allow me to decide if there is something I can use, or plug into an existing project.
4.Do you think it’s helpful to subscribe to a writer’s blog, newsletter and social media sites if they are on your target media list? Why?
No…who has time for all of that reading? That’s a job for the PR professionals. I would say that if you like something you read, and it seems to fit with what you’re doing at your winery, you should note the writer’s name and make sure they’re on your contact list.
5.Do you find that most small wineries have a unique and memorable story to tell/pitch? What makes for a strong “story hook”?
Sure, but I think that most of the stories are personal – about people. Why they’re doing this with their time and money, what brought them here, what are their backgrounds? I’m still a total believer in the Oregon paradigm of independent people coming here to craft something memorable, getting involved in the community and putting in their own sweat and tears (and money) to make great wines. The corporate and business story of rich people buying into the business and running it from afar leaves me cold. Also, there isn’t much I can do with stories about receiving scores, or vineyard practices and clonal selections, although those stories are useful to many of the wine writers and bloggers, as are Press Releases with real news.
Please keep in mind that there are now upwards of 700 wineries in the state of Oregon, 450 or so in the Willamette Valley alone. We can’t cover everybody. The people whom I wind up writing about took the time to make a personal connection, invited me to their events, allowed me to get to know them and sample their wines, and (this is important) make terrific wines. I can’t write about a winery if the wines are mediocre, even if I adore the people.
6.What SHOULDN’T wineries do in their interactions with writers?
Oh boy, another question that I could go on and on about. For one thing, you should make sure that your website, press releases and blog are not riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. We writers have a special fondness for the language, and seeing it mangled leaves us cold. When you expound on your attention to detail in every aspect of your winemaking operation, but misspell every third word and have the grammatical awareness of a sixth-grader…well, I have to question your ability to recognize details. Having a professional produced Media Kit is very helpful and save writers time by summarizing the key facts they will want to know.
Also, blowing smoke won’t get you far. I once had a regional group of winemakers blather on to me on how their wines were far superior to Bordeaux – but they’d never been to France. Other people bragged about how theirs was a top tourist destination that everyone should visit…but there was limited lodging of any size in the region, and that was a casino. And the vineyard owners who bragged that they were growing “the grapes for a $100 pinot noir”…but didn’t much like pinot themselves and hadn’t tried many. Come on, people! Let’s get real.
Keep it simple, keep it honest, tell me what’s important to you about your operation and we will find some area to work together.
If you don’t have anyone on staff with the skills and/or desire to write and pitch your stories and your wines, you should consider meeting with and possibly hiring a PR professional to assist you.
CARL GIAVANTI is Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s going on his 8th year of winery consulting. Carl has been involved in business marketing and public relations for over 25-years; originally in technology, digital marketing and project management, and now as a winery media relations consultant. Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, and the Columbia Gorge.