Boozy musings of a former wine blogger: Lesson #1


By Caroline Helper (@forgetburgundy)

Ok, so that’s not me, but she sure does look like she’s musing over some booze, there, doesn’t she?

I started my wine blog, Forget Burgundy, two years ago. After a year of blogging, I was finally starting to pick up work as a freelancer, while slowly coming to terms with the fact that no one in New York actually made a living just being a writer. Getting paid at all was a minor miracle – and not a very lucrative one at that. I was lucky to find an editor willing to pay 20 cents a word. For 500 words and hours of wrestling with my keyboard and tangling with the empty page, I was lucky to get $100. To make rent, all I had to do was compose roughly 6,000 brilliant words a month. To avoid chronic gout from overconsumption of Cup-O-Noodles, all I had to do was string together another 2,000 carefully chosen combinations of verbs, adverbs, and nouns. To make matters only a little more complicated, unlike Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or Hunter S. Thompson, I was a wine writer whose intake of alcohol directly corresponded to a decreased output of creative work.

While trying to figure out what to write for my blog post this week (creativity is a fickle friend who tends to come and go as she pleases) a colleague suggested I write about how I turned my blog into a job. And gosh, what a great post that would have been! But, to be perfectly honest, one had very little to do with the other. I come to work every day borne on the wings of Craigslist – another story for another post.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t things I learned writing my wine blog that translated well to my work in wine PR. Besides a frightening familiarity with wine esoterica and an infuriating need to correct misusage of the word “varietal” (it’s an adjective, not a noun, unless you’re referring to a wine made from a singular grape!), there are quite a few valuable things I learned writing a wine blog that have helped me make the transition from starving blogger to merely broke wine PR pro. Over my next few blog posts I intend to share them with you one at a time. Why not all at once? Because of all the things I picked up during my tenure as a professional writer, brevity was never one of them and I’m a girl who loves her adverbs as much as a good glass of Tempranillo.  And so, lesson #1:

Know your industry and know the players.

Imagine this: You’re invited to a cocktail party by a date who’s really into New Wave French Cinema, where the rest of the guests share a similar passion, and you have one Godard film in your pocket. Sure, it’s not the only thing you’ll talk about at the party, but you can bet it’s something people will be talking to you about a lot. How many times do you think you’ll get away with reciting the smart thing you have to say about that Gordard film before you get bored by your own opinion, resign yourself to nodding silently, and start grasping at straws (“Brigitte Bardot? She’s my favorite!”)? It won’t take long before everyone decides you have nothing to contribute to the conversation and breezes right by you while your date floats across the room to the ingénue with the bangs and beret.

While this scenario may be a bit particular to my own personal neuroses (but come on, high five for knowing Godard was New Wave!), it’s a great illustration of what its like to walk into a room filled with wine industry types. Importers, distributors, retailers, sommeliers, writers – they love nothing more than to geek out about cool new wines, producers, regions, and scandals. To walk into a room of wine professionals without something interesting to say, some insight to share, some tasting note to dole out, or some tidbit of news is to walk right off the edge of the plank into a sea swimming with sharks.  If I paint my fellow wine-soaked compatriots with a vicious stripe, you must forgive me – but one of the reasons I joined their ranks is because the wine folks that have earned those stripes can sniff out BS just as quickly as a taint of Brettanomyces, and have very low tolerance for either.

The wine industry is filled with people who are passionate about something that is as subjective and visceral as it is technical and precise. A good wine is the result of the marriage of intuition and expertise – every glass is the product of an expensive game of chance and exact calculation. Understanding what that means takes time and many many glasses of wine. To be passionate about wine requires a depth of knowledge that demands dedication – anyone can build a cellar filled with the best vintages from rockstar producers. Well, ok, anyone with the cash for it – and most of the time that’s not anyone in a room filled with wine industry folk. Which kind of makes their dedication to this fickle thing all the more amazing.  It illustrates that, perhaps, in a way, they’re much more dedicated to the idea of great wine than to that which they so rarely have access.

And so it comes down to the romance of it – a sickeningly romantic thing to say in the first place. And it also brings us back to those horrid French cinephiles. Yes, they can be snooty and intimidating, but at the end of the day, all they want is to find people who understand the craft, the magic, and the romance of good wine. What they don’t want is someone who thinks they love wine because they like getting drunk. Or dismisses all Chardonnays with a nod to Kendall-Jackson. Or doesn’t know who Robert Parker is. And if there are a few characters along the way who make for interesting cocktail conversation, well, that’s not the worst thing either.

Photo courtesy of David Akin’s On the Hill.

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