Wine isn’t always a luxury, but writing about it is


Every beginning wine writer dreams of being invited on a trip like this one I took in Cahors, with a lovely sunset balloon ride to see the terrain.  It’s a great hands-on way to learn a lot about wine and the region.  Unfortunately, though, only very experienced wine writers get invited on these trips, and only after they’ve demonstrated their ability to translate their writing into sales.  Sometimes, even that’s not enough.  (By the way, I went because I import wine, not for my writing…)

A couple of posts ago I wrote about a food writers’ workshop that was much more diverse than any wine writing event I’d ever attended.  I’m sad to say it showed me that I’d never questioned what appears to be the uniform racial makeup of the wine writing world.  So I wanted to find out more about why that world — at least the part I experience at meetings and conferences — seems to be populated almost exclusively by White people like me.  This post is a starting attempt to get answers.

Although I haven’t found statistics on wine writers by race, it’s useful to look at the wine industry – producers and sellers of wine — as a guide.  The numbers are sobering when it comes to diversity.  I recently listened to recordings of panel presentations at Bâtonnage 2019, a forum about women in the wine industry.  One panelist recounted the results of a recent survey of over 3,000 wine and spirits professionals in the U.S.  According to the respondents, 85% are White.  Two percent are African-American, 4% are Asian-American, and 7% are Latinx.  Contrast this with Bureau of Labor Statistics data on the U.S. workforce as a whole:  63% are White, 13% Black, 6% Asian, and 17% Latinx.  And while 22% of all U.S. business owners/CEOs are women, only 4% of wine and spirits businesses are owned or run by women, and only one-fifth of those 4% are women of color.

After talking with a bunch of wine and food writers, I’ve come to the conclusion that wine writing has much higher barriers to entry than food writing.  For simplicity, I’ve divided these into three categories:  financial, structural, and institutional.  There’s obviously overlap between them, but each has individual challenges.  Unfortunately, all of them contribute to keeping the non-White population of the wine writing world low.

I’ll discuss the financial barriers first.  Many of them have to do with wine itself rather than wine writing specifically.  But the point is the same.  Anything that makes drinking and learning about wine more expensive or difficult is bound to reduce the diversity of the wine writing world.

1)      It’s a lot easier to get a thorough food education than wine education through free and low-cost content

You can start at your public library and view online content to learn about both wine and food.  But the content in the food world is bigger and, generally, better.  There’s plenty of training in cooking nearly anything in old and new cookbooks (cookbooks have a much longer shelf life than wine books, I’ve found), online videos and TV cooking shows, etc.  And if you’re looking for inspiration, there’s a ton more food writing to read and help you decide where your niche might be than there is wine writing.

Teaching yourself about wine can lead to wine writing success, depending on your focus.  Jon Thorsen writes the Reverse Wine Snob blog.  He told me that he didn’t spend any money giving himself a wine education, he relied on free materials online.  He also reminded me that he blogs about wine that costs under $10 and writes his blog for wine novices.  And he has a large, appreciative audience.  Because of his target audience, he receives plenty of samples of less-expensive wines that wouldn’t make it to your average wine reviewer, so he has to spend less money on wines to review.  But he’s one of the exceptions in the more recent wine writing world.

2)      Wine writers generally pitch their content to people who know more about wine, so they need a broad range of experience

The average wine writer isn’t necessarily writing for experts, but I’d say there’s a definite geek factor.   Even general-interest publications pitch the wine writing level to people who know more about wine rather than less.  In order to appeal to them as readers, you have to speak the lingo – or at least enough of it to show that you know what you’re talking about.  And if you’re going to write about wines themselves (as opposed to the wine industry, or particular aspects of wine, wine consumption, and wine production), you’ll have to have quite a few glasses under your belt.

It’s also more difficult to be a wine generalist these days than it used to be.  With more emerging wine regions (emerging for us in the U.S., anyway), keeping up is difficult.  It’s one thing to know a lot about major European and American wines, but how about Georgian, Greek, Uruguayan, and wines coming from China?

Obviously, there are various expertise levels for readers of food writing, too.  But there seems to be a greater tolerance for food writing that’s not necessarily up to your own culinary level than in the wine world.  Perhaps it’s because we’ve been exposed to food from a very young age, and we don’t get exposure to wine until we’re adults.  Many of our formative memories are about food.  I think this is why even professional chefs have a soft spot for people making food they learned from their parents and grandparents. 

As for food generalists, there’s a different standard for food writing — no one is expected to be an expert on every cuisine.  In fact, these days readers expect that an article about a particular cuisine will be written by someone who has more than superficial cultural or experiential ties to it.  This doesn’t mean that people can only write about the foods of their ethnicity, but food writers have to be particularly sensitive to avoiding cultural appropriation – and rightly so.  This probably also helps make the food writing world more diverse.

3)      High-end wines cost a lot more than they used to

Good wine doesn’t have to be super-expensive, but great wine generally is.  And getting more expensive all the time, it seems.  Understandably, a fine hand-made product dependent on the vagaries of the weather and requiring manipulation and potentially years of storage before sale can command a high price, whether it’s wine or food.  But unlike foods, some wines are also considered investments, which raises their prices well beyond the reach of the average wine-drinking novice.  

A wine industry friend told me that she feels lucky to be old enough to have been able to experience drinking and learning about great wine because she doesn’t believe she’d be able to do it these days.  (The 1980s seem to have been a particularly good time for this.)  You don’t need to drink a huge amount of expensive wine to learn about it.  But it’s important to put wines in the context of their regions and of other regions producing similar wines.  if you’re going to say that a low-priced Côtes du Rhône drinks like a more expensive Côte-Rôtie, you’ll have to have tried enough of them to know what you’re talking about.

It’s easy to get media invitations to producer tastings, and those can be a way to learn about wines from a particular region.  However, those tastings generally focus on a relatively narrow price range that the organizers hope will appeal to local importers and distributors who will want to buy them.  This generally leaves out the higher end.  Only after you get established as a reliable wine writing source will you start getting samples of more expensive wines to taste and review, or be sponsored on trips to wine-making regions that really show you what’s going on there.  But even being “established” doesn’t guarantee samples and access.  A super-good DC-based wine writer recently told me that she has a job at a wine shop to get herself the employee discount so she can afford to buy and taste a wider variety of wines and keep herself current.

This isn’t to say that people aren’t drinking nicer wines without a wine shop job.  I’ve heard more than one recounting of groups of people coming into a wine shop and selecting a couple of more expensive bottles to try together.  One wine shop employee told me, “I’ve never seen anything like it before.  One in the group will pay, and the others will Venmo her their share right there in the store.” 

But it’s a whole lot easier to have similar group experiences in restaurants, even high-end ones.  Everyone has to eat, so why not have food education as part of your weekly food outings?  Restaurants in all price ranges are making this easier by populating their menus with smaller plates to share.  As annoying as I find this trend myself, it allows a table of four to try 16 different dishes – plus those small plates look great on Instagram (which I’ll discuss more with the structural barriers to wine writing).

4)      Professional wine training is expensive, and the work-your-way-up options are becoming harder to find 

Working at a wine shop used to be a reliable way to get introductory training and taste a bunch of different wines.  But these days, many of the better wine shops want you to have some sort of wine course certification in order to work there.  A friend with a wine store told me several years ago that he looked for employees who would be good salespeople, since he could teach them about wine but not how to have a good personality.  Recently, however, he advertised for help and required a particular level of certification as one of the qualifications, along with retail sales experience.

The professional-level courses that give you the classic sommelier or wine reviewer-type training are anything but inexpensive.  It’s hard to blame shop owners for wanting certified employees, though.  The shops have to provide added value by means of education that their customers can’t get at grocery stores or Costco. 

Some restaurants still train their servers to help customers with the wine list.  Lots of sommeliers told me that this is how they got their initial training.  But as restaurants want their wine lists to be on par with the food, they’ve moved to having more certified staff.  As with wine shops, it’s part of the customer experience they can provide that less-expensive restaurants can’t necessarily.

Culinary training isn’t cheap by any means, either.  But as far as I can tell, restaurants and nicer food stores don’t require their employees to have cooking school training to work the customer side of the businesses.  And it isn’t impossible for front of the house staff to make their way into the kitchen.

Plus, cooking school training isn’t required to write about cooking at home, which covers the vast majority of food writing.  Many of my favorite professional food writers and cookbook authors don’t have professional cooking training.  That’s also true of traditional wine writing, but those self-trained wine writers tend to have way more years of writing experience than the newer wine writers with professional wine training.  I learned from a reader of my blog that many current professional wine writers started out as sports writers and taught themselves about wine.  I suspect that’s going to be less true in the future. 

Well, that’s a lot for one post.  Although I tried to organize it, I suspect I didn’t do as good a job as I should have.  Sorry about that.  I hope anyone reading this recognizes that while there are plenty of reasons that wine and wine education are expensive (or difficult and time consuming), the end result is that the economics will favor less diversity in the wine writing community rather than more.

In an upcoming post, I’ll look at the structural and institutional barriers to wine writing.  Then after that, a post on how the wine and wine writing industry can help break down some of those barriers.  

No recipe this time – it turns out there’s a time management barrier to food writing with this post!


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5 Responses to Wine isn’t always a luxury, but writing about it is

  1. Pingback: Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Cult Cloudburst

  2. Sue says:

    You DID do a good job organizing your thoughts. You gave us so much to think about that never occurred to me before. You are definitely right that food writing is a lot easier to break into than wine writing. Plus let’s be honest…wine knowledge is a lot more esoteric. Of course, culinary mastery is hard to achieve, but its wine counterpart is impossible for most mortals…Adding the financial issues makes it an even harder hill to climb. It’s great to think about all of this and I look forward to hearing how you think the situation can be changed.

    • firstvine says:

      Thanks, Sue! Both have challenges, but the costs involved really make a difference. I’ll write about the other barriers soon. The wine and food writing worlds have a lot of differences that make food writing easier to break into.

  3. Pingback: Winebits 596: Tariffs, wine writing, wine prices

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