What I tell winemakers
It used to be, for most of my wine writing career, that I visited winemakers (and winery owners) to listen, not to talk. In the beginning, I had much to learn: about viticulture and enology, about the business side, about how they had gotten into wine, about the local history and terroir and so on.
I’m a good question-asker, with a natural curiosity, and since most people enjoy talking about themselves, the conversation between me (or the reporter in me) and my interviewees never flagged. But these days, I find myself talking to winemakers (and winery owners) more than I used to. Why? Read on.
During a typical visit, the winemaker, who’s been expecting me, has probably gone over in his mind what he wants to tell me. Maybe it’s about his over-arching philosophy. Maybe it’s about a new vineyard he’s developing, or a new winemaking team he’s hired, or a new cave they’re building. Usually, the winemaker wants to taste with me, which opens up whole new areas of conversation. Often, I’ll take out my old-fashioned pen and pad of paper and take notes. This is all in the tried-and-true journalistic tradition of a Q&A where I’m “Q”, the winemaker is “A”, and the result is that odd bit of literature called “an article.”
But I’m afraid I’m turning into a gadfly lately, which is turning the tables on the old way, but when it feels right — when it feels like the winemaker has given me an invitation — then it has to be done. Here’s how it might go.
Winemaker: So I hear your blog is pretty popular.
Me: Thanks. It’s a lot of fun. [Here, there might follow a bit of chatter about how long blogging takes, why I do it, etc. Then I might ask:] So do you blog? Do you do any kind of social media?
Winemaker: [laughing] Me? No. None of that stuff.
Me: Why not?
Winemaker: Oh, I don’t even have a computer! [or a cell phone]. I don’t have the time. It’s too hard; I wouldn’t know where to begin. And I wouldn’t know what to say.
Me: It’s not as hard as you think. You probably have somebody in your employ who’s working with computers, right?
Winemaker: Yeah. [In fact, it could be the winemaker’s son or daughter.]
Me: All you need to do is have them set up the back end, the actual format of the blog. Once that’s done, all you have to do is type in the words. It’s just word-processing. If you’re not comfortable working with a keyboard, just write your blog out in longhand, and have somebody transcribe it for you. It doesn’t have to be long. Maybe 400 words.
Winemaker: [thinking] Well, but what would I say? I’m not a writer.
Me: Well, for example, you met me here this morning, right? You greeted me as the sun was rising and the mist was lifting off the hills. It was cold. Then we piled into your pickup, and you drove me around the appellation, showing me the various vineyards. I asked you questions, remember? About the difference between the hillsides and the flatlands. You talked about alluvial soils, about landslide soils, about limestone outcroppings uplifted 20 million years ago from the sea. Then we drove back here to the winery, where we’re now sitting, tasting through your ‘09 Pinot Noir barrel samples: the 114, 115 and 667 clones, the Pommard, the Swan, the Martini. Don’t you think you could write up 400 words on that?
Winemaker: [frowning] I guess.
Me: So you see, you do have something to say. Every day you have something to say.
Winemaker: Well, who would want to read about it?
Me: Are you kidding? Who wouldn’t?
Winemaker: Anyway, I have a gal I hired who does that for me. She set up our Facebook page and our Twitter account.
Me: Do you even go there?
Winemaker: Not really.
Me: Look. Nobody knows if this “social media” stuff is going to matter for a winery. It may never move a single case; it may be the future. But I can tell you two things: One, it’s basically free, so why not play around with it? You have nothing to lose. And two, don’t let someone else speak for you. Speak for yourself. A P.R. person or a social media employee can never be you. The whole point of a blog is authenticity. Believe me, artificiality shows through a blog like patch of ringworm on a face. You can’t hide it. People want to read blogs written by people who are being themselves — who let it all hang out. They don’t just want to read about facts, which can be spun and manipulated. They want to feel your personality come through, with all its joys, uncertainties, fears, hopes, dreams, enthusiasms, humor. You’re a real person. You’re being real with me right now. All you have to do is write 400 words 3 or 4 times a week and get it up there on your blog.
Winemaker: Well, how would I know if it’s working?
Me: You won’t, initially. You might not get any comments for weeks or months. You might have not have any idea if anyone even reads your blog. But like I said, what have you got to lose?
That’s when I usually see the winemaker lose interest, and I wonder if maybe I’ve overdone it — if I’ve somehow been inappropriate and lectured (or hectored) somebody who was kind enough to be my host. But then I ask them the killer question:
Me: You say you’re increasingly relying on direct sales for your business, right? Like through your tasting room and wine club?
Me: I bet your direct sales customers skew older, right?
Winemaker: Yes, they do.