When I tell people I’m a wine writer, they usually smile broadly, imagining no doubt that I glamorously eat and drink my way around the world. While I’ll admit to some choice assignments over the years, the reality is generally quite different. The truth is you spend most of your time alone at your computer, and it’s no way to get rich.
There are, however, other aspects of the job that I find immensely satisfying. The wine itself is the obvious one. It represents so many things to me. The contents of the bottle reach out, to time, to place, to people, to food, to culture, to conviviality and hospitality. To be engaged with this special life force, to connect through my senses, and know others connect with it in the same way, this is the reason I like wine.
The opportunities in wine writing
Nevertheless, it would be best to dispel any starry-eyed notions and approach the task with pragmatism. The wine world is a finite space, one that is already crowded with entrenched commentators who have fought long and hard to get there and aspirants jostling for their position, eager to join in. There’s not a lot of room, and it’s becoming increasingly constricted.
That said, the landscape is changing fast. Print media is in decline, digital consumption of journalism is expanding rapidly, and social media is progressively encroaching on the established orders. Meanwhile, new wine regions, wine styles and wine markets are emerging: the fringes of the field are in a state of transition, and these changes are rippling towards the core. Despite the overcrowding, there are undoubtedly opportunities about.
[Wine education is] very important. It establishes credibility and teaches you how to talk about wine. The vocabulary is important to be able to communicate, even if you're eventually talking to a general audience rather than a wine-specific one. You need the common ground.
Wine writing is like any other form of technical journalism, involving two fundamental elements; the general ability to write in a meaningful and engaging manner and a specialist’s knowledge and understanding of the subject at hand. Therefore, the best chance of succeeding in the field is to develop both these skills to the very highest standard.
How to write about wine?
To be the best writer you can be, you should study that discipline. Most wine writers have tertiary qualifications, often in the humanities, and they understand the principles of critical thinking and constructive writing. If you are serious about wine writing as a career, take a professional qualification in journalism. It will equip you with the precise skill set you require.
Tina Gellie is Associate Editor at Decanter magazine. As well as specialist wine education with WSET, she considers her writing training to have been indispensable. “The skills I learnt in my journalism degree many moons ago are still relevant now, and translatable across digital and broadcast: editing, most importantly; how to interview; finding the 'real' story by digging and asking the right questions; knowing and writing for your audience; organisation, prioritisation and time management.”
Wine knowledge and WSET qualifications
Likewise, your wine knowledge will be most soundly served by dedicated study of the subject, providing a solid framework around which you can continually build your understanding. WSET courses are the best place to start, as they are internationally recognised and graduated to varying levels of ability, allowing scholars to advance as their capacities increase.
Cathy Huyghe is an award-winning journalist and entrepreneur; she has numerous writing credits to her name, including working as a columnist for Forbes.com. After a Masters in Journalism at Harvard, she studied wine at WSET and Boston University and believes a formal wine education was critical to her position. "It's very important. It establishes credibility and teaches you how to talk about wine. The vocabulary is important to be able to communicate, even if you're eventually talking to a general audience rather than a wine-specific one. You need the common ground."
Start your wine education journey with the WSET Level 1 Award in Wines.
For me, though, the critical aspect of the job is having a good palate. Looking back on over fifteen years of writing, it has taken me over a decade to fully develop, and it is what I rely on most.
Huon Hooke, one of Australia’s most respected wine journalists, considers formal palate training essential. “The best way to learn any trade or skill is from others who have done it before you and mastered it. I studied at Roseworthy Agricultural College; these days, there are many alternatives which are probably better targeted at tasting. No one has an infallible palate, and it's important to taste with other people so you can appreciate others have different and valid perceptions.”
WSET Diploma graduate, Harry Fawkes, was Digital Publisher at Decanter and is now Head of Digital Subscriptions at DMG Media. He agrees palate training is integral to a wine writer’s articulation. “The difference between reading content from a writer with no palate training and one with is apparent extremely quickly.”
As well as higher-level WSET courses, there is any number of others that can help develop one’s tasting ability, whether they’re designed for sommeliers, by the Court of Master Sommeliers, for instance, or for winemakers by an agricultural college.
Once your education is on track, you need to read and absorb everything. Read about writing, about tasting, about the industry at large; read everything from Twitter to journal articles. It will assist you, not just to stay abreast of current trends, but to discover what kind of writing you like, which will help you become a better writer yourself.
Cathy Huyghe agrees:
A teacher once told me that the best way to become a writer is to be a reader. I believe that's true.
Breaking through in the wine industry
Qualifications are only the back-story, though, and will rarely get you the job without something more substantial. This means getting your work noticed. Join mailing lists and start attending events and tastings. Meet people, ask questions and write about your experiences. Use social media to get your thoughts out there, and put together a blog of your work, if for no other reason than to show potential employers what you’re capable of.
Next, start pitching stories - to local papers or street mag’s, to trade publications and industry newsletters. Enter competitions, especially those run by industry bodies. Join wine and writing societies. And consider specialising, something unusual that makes you stand out from the crowd.
Then, practice your writing, broaden your knowledge, sharpen your palate, and demonstrate your commitment. If you value lifestyle over income, the sensory over the material, and can enjoy both the solitude of writing and the excessive sociability of wine events, then perhaps wine writing really is your calling.
Article prepared for WSET by Sophie Otton DipWSET - Wine Writer / Sommelier / Consultant
If you're keen to discover other careers available in the wine industry, visit our career path hub. Or to start on your wine education journey, visit our qualifications page to find out more about what you can learn.
First published 24 May 2016