Planning 2011 in New York
I’m in New York, where the entire staff of Wine Enthusiast gathers this time ever year to plan the following year’s book, or editorial schedule. This year, it’s the 2011 schedule. This is a complicated task, mainly because there are only so many pages available to be filled, and far more ideas than can possibly be accomodated in them.
Our magazine has 7 regional editors: Paul Gregutt up in the Pacific Northwest, Roger Voss in most of Europe, Monica Larner in Italy, Mike Schachner who covers Spanish-speaking countries, Joe Czerwinski who does Down Under, Lauren Buzzeo, whose beat is South Africa, and of course yours truly. There’s also spirits and beer. Since all these editors are eager and hard-working and anxious to write as much as possible about their territories, there’s pretty intense competition to get into print. In this Darwinian struggle, we all sit around a table and present the strongest arguments we can for each pitch; also at the table are representatives of senior management, sales, marketing, art and layout, the tasting department, etc. etc. It’s a fairly pure democracy and, being a democracy, it’s not always pretty. But somehow, it works. The prime objective is to get the most wonderful, interesting and relevant magazines out there, and it doesn’t matter what we go through behind the scenes to make it happen. As the old show biz adage says, Never let ‘em see you sweat.
I myself represent California, which means I’m trying to think 6, 8, 12 months ahead and imagine what will be interesting and important for people to read in 2011. That’s impossible, of course, but I have to try my best. An editorial calendar, such as the one that will be developed after our meetings, can only be a guideline, though. You can’t adhere robotically to it. What if (God forbid) an earthquake on the San Andreas Fault cuts a path of destruction through Sonoma County? If I’d been scheduled to write an article on bed-and-breakfasts of the Russian River Valley, that would obviously have to be shelved in favor of instant news reporting.
We used to like to plan future articles with greater detail than we do now. For example, years ago if I’d suggested something on the Sierra Foothills, people would have wanted to know exactly what. Which wineries? Which wines? What places to stay will you recommend? Whom will you interview? Which counties among the nine in the AVA? What’s the precise story line? I never liked this micro-managerial approach. My attitude was, look, wine writing is like news writing: you don’t know what you’re going to find until you get your butt to that place and start snooping around. (I wasn’t the only one who felt like that.) Over time, this approach has dominated, so now we have “place-holder” articles. I know I’ll be doing something about, say, Russian River Valley next summer, but I don’t know exactly what. When the time comes, I’ll pull out my reviews from our database, scrutinize them for patterns, note if there are any interesting newcomers, then set up a visit, with places to stay, and spend a while running around. That’s how I wrote my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River. I had told my editor at University of California Press, “Just let me spend a year traveling from one end of the river to the other, having adventures and writing about them.” The danger of too-precise planning is that you rule out spontaneity. There’s another huge danger in wine writing I would point out particularly to younger writers and bloggers: Beware the template. There’s a tendency to write the same article year after year in which only the details change. Example: What wine to drink with Thanksgiving turkey? All magazines are guilty of this, to some extent, including Wine Enthusiast; but I think we’re less guilty of it than most, because we’re not as hidebound as some wine magazines I could mention.
Another thing I like about our annual summer editorial meeting is that we editors get to renew our bonds. We like each other, but don’t see each other very often since we live so far apart, although we are in frequent email contact. It’s nice to have those nights together in someone’s hotel room. Armed with a few choice bottles, we talk shop, get alternately serious and silly, and count our good fortune to be able to have the jobs we do. If Paul Gregutt is there with his guitar, there might even be some group singing. That’s a lot of fun, although, to be honest, you probably wouldn’t want to hear it.