How to become a Wine Journalist
6th January 2022
Whenever someone new that I meet gets round to asking me what I do for work I usually always get the same reply from them – ‘you get paid to drink and write about wine, really?‘. It is fair to say that this is an accurate job description for most wine journalists from those that are employed to work for large publications to those writing / photographing / videoing wine experiences on social media. The purpose for most is to educate and enlighten people to wines be it highlighting the regions or the flavours or the winemakers etc the task is to get content out to a specific audience.
Though most would say that a journalist is someone who writes, I like to think this today stretches to photos, audio and importantly video (though vlogger and other terms are used). It is all about putting together a medium of communication out that will engage and highlight the theme of your content.
“A journalist is an individual trained to collect/gather information in form of text, audio or pictures, processes them to a news-worthy form and disseminates it to the public. The act or process mainly done by the journalist is called journalism.” source wikipedia
An important part of being a journalist is where you distribute the content that you put together. Audiences can be large and varied or smaller and more target, but when it comes to the value of the content then it is largely governed by where it is shared and whom it is seen by. You can write amazing content and have nowhere valid to share it on, you can write average content and have a massive audience open to you – The first thing to think about when considering wine journalism is where are you going to distribute your content.
It is vital (IMHO) that early on we deal with one important point, something that I know many of my fellow industry professionals will agree with, and this is that it is a tough business to get into. Most wine journalists will earn little to nothing, many will do it purely as a past time and others are happy to be paid with a free bottle of wine to review now and then. This is not to put you off (though remember that in life nothing ever came easy) and on the flip side, there are many established and also (importantly) many newcomers to the wine journalism industry that are doing very well for themselves financially.
You can of course enter the industry as a novice and have much to learn or have already accumulated an immense wealth of knowledge and now wish to apply it as a career. You can come at it with an entrepreneurial spirit (like myself and the theme of this article) or you can study wine either via college / university or by one of the many courses that are available with WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) being the most famous and globally recognised.
Things to consider:
- What is your skill set? Writing, photography, video, interviews, art etc.
- How much time have you got? Establish now if this is going to be a full time or part time effort from you.
- How big is your wine knowledge? Is it general (you are up against many others) or is it concentrated on a particular subject (gives you better opportunity).
- Where do you want to share your knowledge? Maybe you have a route to market already, but for most, it will be either working for someone else (either full time or invited to contribute randomly) or you create your own identity / channel.
- You might have to invest time and money. Have you a name for yourself / business, how about a website and what social media channels etc. This will stretch to plenty of face to face events such as masterclasses and tasting events. All this takes time and money.
Top Tips from Christopher Walkey – Leading Champagne & Sparkling Wine Journalist:
I know exactly how it feels to be in the position of questioning yourself as to how to get into the wine sector as a journalist. I knew that it was a profession that I wanted to enter and be successful at, I had to work out exactly how to do it and do it without a manual or guide… I was on my own. I knew nobody in the wine sector and I knew very little about wine (I just knew I had a passion for it boiling away inside me).
Study the Industry:
Who is in the industry, what they are doing and how successful are they was my first task. This started off online with checking Google for names of people and influential channels of communications in the wine sector – I studied their websites and importantly, social media channels. How active were they, what content were they sharing, how innovative were they being?
I also took it upon myself to get a feeling for the face to face side of the business and this, I remember it well, took me to a Champagne trade tasting event in London (back in 2014 I believe). How did you get an invite you may ask? Well, the easy answer to that is I got myself an identity.
Get yourself a brand and identity:
Whilst I was studying the industry I was also formulating an identity for myself, one that would suit very well the style of journalism I was thinking was needed and would succeed. I had already worked out that I must try to avoid copying others (unless you can excel in the competition) and also to avoid crowded areas of the sector (though strong resolve can lead to success).
“I saw a gap in the sparkling wine sector. It jumped out at me almost immediately as no other channel was dedicated to the topic and there were many holes all ready to be filled. Communication between main sparkling wine regions was poor so my idea was to bring them all closer together on a neutral and trustworthy platform, one that could be seen as the home of sparkling wine no matter if it was Champagne or Prosecco. At that moment I had my identity… ”
A big part of your armour will be your identity, spend time to realise what part of the wine sector you wish to be in, now this could be simply red wines or you could go for Slovenian wines, maybe low sugar wines is your theme or those from a smaller region such as Barolo – Whatever it is, grab that identity and take it to the next identity level.
Our example going forward is Barolo: Grab your identity now by deciding if it is you as a person you wish to promote our maybe you have a brand you wish to write under, ie you might call yourself simply your name for example if you are called Jonathan Smith, or you might play with your name and be Wine Guy Jonathan Smith – You can also not use your name and go under another identity such as Mr Barolo Lover or simply a more generic name to sit under such as The World of Barolo Wines.
Once you have both a theme and identity then you need to secure your branding and presence (online). Check out domain names, social media profile names to see what is available and secure them or the closest to them. Depending on your time and money to invest, put together a decent profile that people will find you on, at least a website with a landing page and contacts (if you can, have at least a blogging style website). Think about branding such as cartoon character profile image if you are pushing yourself or a professionally designed logo if you are going under another identity. Business cards are very useful in the early stages, as old fashioned as some may see them, you will need something to hand out to people…
Example Tasting Video on YouTube (Glass of Bubbly – Sparkling Wines & Curries)
Are you confident enough to get your face on to social media? For those that are, and if you are not you need to be coached into doing so IMHO, then the likes of Instagram and Youtube can really excel your profile. Simple how to guides or a tasting on video can start to build yourself a positive profile that others will start to associate the said wine / wine region you are focused on with your face – This in turn helps when you attend events as some will recognise you (I have done with many people using YouTube in their wine career).
Branding and Identity done, now what:
You are now at a very credible and importantly, findable stage. Now the hard work will begin and you might very well need to grow some thick skin here as though one or two may welcome a new face, others will simply see you as reducing their profits and will do their best to eliminate the competition. Sadly, this is the case in almost all industry sectors, wine or not.
“From the early days, I had some lovely warm people that not only supported my work, but also took me under their wings and open doors. Opposite to this and still, to this very day, others saw me merely as a nuisance and competition so not only did I receive cold shoulders I also had enemies to handle.”
You need to take the stage and announce yourself so for this, you need an audience. There are different routes that you can take here, though if you are starting off with a limited budget then you will need to do plenty of groundwork and leg work. The best place to start is to introduce yourself physically such as by attending events in the sector, within wine these will mostly be tastings and masterclasses.
Trade and press wine tasting events, pre this global lockdown by governments and further restrictions they are imposing (we all hope this is ending soon), are a plenty in most large cities of the world. London is a focus for many wine regions and wine labels and mostly between September to November and March to June you will usually see anything up to three or four separate tastings taking place per day spread out across the city. Some research online will highlight them, WSTA offering one of the better diary themed wine events websites to use.
“Think about getting yourself included in email lists / subscription databases”
You can simply register to attend and now of course you can include who you are and what your business is about / what your business name is. These events are not for consumers so you will highly likely be requested to not only give your name and email, but also your website / social media accounts / experience / job title and more. Once you attend then you will be added to the subscription list so likely you will be invited automatically for the years ahead.
Find wine events on Google searches (search ‘trade wine events‘) on Eventbrite and similar, also on the wine industry body websites themselves – If you are focusing in on Barolo as our example, check who is the governing body and see if they have tastings in London or go back to the basics and Google ‘Barolo Wine Tasting London 2022’ for example. Go to social media channels, especially Facebook and LinkedIn and see if there are dedicated pages to Barolo and join them, introduce yourself and make new connections.
You are now attending wine events, your face is becoming known:
To get to this stage you have done well and you are showing great determination, but we are still yet to prove ourselves neither is it likely we have made any entrenchment into making money!
I do not believe that you can learn to become an entrepreneur, you have to have some kind of nuclease of being one inside you already and then you simply build on that by experience and mostly failures… True entrepreneurs will understand what I am referring to. An entrepreneur will usually be that person who finds a gap in the market, work out how to grow and is likely to exit it also – Nothing says you need to be one to be a success, of course, my words I share with you though is having experience as an entrepreneur.
You can now look to approach the main wine communication channels (most of these are websites online) and offer out your writing / photography / video skills. This might include you offering your content for free initially to show what you can do, if they like your style of writing and the subject is in line with what they are after then they might approach you with an offer – Though once again they get flooded with requests and there is never a shortage of wine writers in fact there is never a shortage of wine writers looking to write for free for a whole host of reasons!
Think about offering your services to both gain experience and importantly, connections. A great place to start is offering to help at tasting events or judging at awards. Put yourself out to be a friendly and helpful person (this might be in your nature already) so that people choose you and involve you in wine events, this will grow your profile / experience and get your identity out there.
Build your content:
Now you can place this one step beforehand or work on it now, but at all times and without fail (so that people come to rely on you) you must share out quality content. Obviously content takes all forms today, this could be reviewing wines on your blog or sharing photos on your Instagram – You must get used to being present and with useful / eye catching content.
An obvious part of becoming a recognised face / brand is your experience of wines. Now, this should be evolving as you go step by step in your progress – You should be tasting and taking notes of wines that you are covering and importantly now sharing these with others. A great platform to review wines on to and again build a profile is Vivino – You really must look into this app that facilitates your wine tasting experience. You can follow me on Vivino here.
Take photos whenever you can and do not limit these to just those of bottles or glasses of wine nicely set – Think about taking photos of events that you are at and get used to tagging in people / businesses so that you highlight that you were present. “I discovered this wonderful Barolo from @xxxxxx at the @xxxxxxx show in London” will get you noticed – This does work, take it from me. What about interviewing people at these tasting events, all wineries will love extra free PR opportunities?
“The more content you have, the more varied that it is and the more places that you share it goes towards how likely you will be discovered / followed / liked / referred to / contacted and much more. I used to say to non entrepreneurial people, would you miss that next episode of Coronation Street or that live footy match on TV and instead write up an article that gets you closer to your success? How much effort you are prepared to put in will depend on your success full stop, yes you need luck though you make your own luck.”
Do not be shy to approach people, be it at live events or taking time to connect and communicate online. Many of the big wine labels are present at events and also many smaller producers who are always keen to gain extra feedback and exposure. Online you will find wineries on social media and the individuals such as winemakers and ambassadors on LinkedIn / Facebook. Politely contact them asking if you can review their wines (most occasions they will send a sample bottle if you have a decent presence online) or maybe you have some questions to ask about their wines / winery as part of research for an editorial.
Marketing and PR Agencies:
There will be many wineries / wine regions that choose to use external marketing agencies and PR agencies in order to gain extra exposure and also to organise the likes of tasting events and even wine tours. It is a good idea to get to know these agencies and try to build a warm relationship, this might require you to be overly helpful and like discussed above offer help at events or maybe include the winery/wineries they work for in your articles (these agencies will usually report back monthly to their clients and show all the added exposure they have achieved such as any articles in magazines / newspapers or inclusion in online blogs / social media posts).
It can be a knife edge in how you handle some of these agencies, from my experience many are wonderful and warm and I have built great relationships where we mutually help each other (nearly always no payments exchanged) though some of them are the complete opposite. You have to remember that these agencies are businesses and are after making money (just like you and I) and can become highly protective over their clients so can shut out any person / company they see as competition and who might take their client away from them.
Once you start making a name for yourself and those around you are noting your presence / work then it is likely you will start to get invites to special events and dinners (sometimes even to review venues and their wine lists) plus the opportunity to go on wine tours. These can be trips to local wineries or it can also mean wineries and wine regions abroad. These trips will be fully paid for to include flights, hotels and food and will be absolutely amazing experiences for you and will excel your presence in the wine sector. These trips will be usually packed full each day of winery visits, tastings and further wine tourism activities – To prove your worth I suggest capturing plenty of video footage and images and if you can then do capture interviews with key individuals.
Usually, for each wine tour I go on I have taken photos, videos and drone footage. I will put together a detailed editorial that I release on the Glass of Bubbly website that overviews the trip and wineries. I will also share plenty of content on social media during and after the trip and certainly include / tag-in the people and businesses I met.
Becoming an influencer:
I know that some folk in the wine industry hate this term and they do so for many reasons which are mostly so to protect themselves. Yes, it is annoying when a new kid on the block with zero experience classes themselves as an influencer, but some of them enter with major audiences such as on Instagram / Facebook / YouTube so in my opinion, they are certainly influencers and are influencing. You do not need to know the mechanics of a car in order to drive it well, you do not need to know the depths of the wine sector in order to deliver engaging content to big audiences.
Once you are at a stage that you feel confident in yourself, a stage where you have a fair bit of experience under your belt and a decent selection of contacts in the sector then you can either cement your place by continuing to do what you are doing or you could expand things further by building on your influence.
“When I created Glass of Bubbly initially we published a bi-monthly magazine dedicated to fizz. Yes, it did cost us a fair bit of money, but the exposure it gave us and the credibility it built for Glass of Bubbly was well worth the investment.”
What about considering writing a book? This is not as daunting as it sounds, today we have easy to use options online where you can publish and print books and it only costs a few hundred pounds (plus any graphic design work). The book does not have to be complicated and in-depth, I co-published one recently on what foods pair well with different styles of sparkling wines – This is now available on Amazon here. Yours could be ‘25 Top Barolo Houses‘ or ‘Beef and Barolo – Tasting and Pairing notes‘. Adding ‘author’ to your profile will bolster your identity in the wine industry as you will stand alongside many greats who have done likewise.
You can also organise events and masterclasses at this stage. If you have built yourself a decent audience then you have an opportunity to market to them and especially if you have grown a subscription / email database. Nothing stops you from contacting a selection of wine houses and presenting to them an opportunity for a mini tasting – The set up can be simple in that the venue will have the items required for such as event ie glasses, spittoons, tables, chairs or you can hire in a company to supply them or of course, you can invest in purchasing them yourself.
Venues in London will be costly, especially if you are looking to hire out large halls / rooms at established locations, though you will find (again if you have built up strong relationships) that many smaller bars / restaurants can sometimes oblige you with a free small room and especially if you are likely to be inviting many top wine professionals in to taste.
Masterclasses and educational classes are another great way for you to get your name associated with the wine / wine region you are focused on. Offering to do such an event for wineries will be very good for your CV and relationship building – Most times the wineries will be happy to cover your costs in full.
“The first official Glass of Bubbly trade tasting we put on for free and that included purchasing the wines that were being sampled – A small local country pub allowed us to use a small room for free. To get our idea off the ground we sacrificed any money earning potential and instead concentrated on learning from the event and showcasing to the industry what we could do. Three years later and our latest event which was held in Westminster saw 600 people attend with over 30 stands and 200 sparkling wines on show. We have since created mini events focused on styles and regions.”
Just how confident you become and your desire for success will determine where you will position yourself in the wine sector. There are many personalities in the wine sector, some have been around for a long time and are highly respected (you will bump into the likes of Oz Clarke and Jancis Robinson who still frequent events) and others are new to the scene and yet already known thanks to innovative marketing of themselves. Most genuine wine professionals will welcome new likeable characters, try and study who are the big names and set yourself your own unique identity.
You can also take a look at the likes of creating your own awards programme. This will be a big effort on your behalf and likely to be a financial commitment also. Though with hard work and key expertise why shouldn’t you have your very own awards such as ‘London Barolo Awards’ or ‘Top 50 Fine Barolo Awards’.
“As Glass of Bubbly built its profile within the world of sparkling wine we took a gamble and a fair bit of investment, to create our very own awards programme. We employed the expertise of a highly respected wine author (Tatianna Mann from Russia) to help us build a unique structure for judging wines. Each year the awards have grown in entries and the value of gaining a medal and the Glass of Bubbly Awards has increased.”
Christopher Walkey on GBNews – Invited guest speaker
Print / Radio / Television:
Once you have all the previously mentioned strings to your bow then do your best to get some national PR slots and this includes writing for magazines / newspapers, interviews on radio or even being invited to speak about wine on television. These are all open to you and will be free marketing and the final pieces of your already bulging wine CV.
Do not be shy to approach celebrities – Vicki Michelle with Fox & Fox 2015 vintage from 2021 Glass of Bubbly Awards
“Social Media is a great universe of connections that you can tap into. Do not think for one minute that you can not contact those from TV and radio directly as most of these people are on social media and actively so. I always made a point of connecting with and contacting celebrities and simple actions like a tweet to them can get you a response (most times you will be communicating with their agent). We carried out many celebrity interviews for Glass of Bubbly (usually re what their favourite sparkling wines were) along with connecting with presenters on TV and radio who eventually invited me to their show to speak on sparkling wine. These are key relationships and you need to grab these opportunities with both hands.”
So, what about making money in the wine sector as a journalist?
Depending on how much time and finance you can put into building your presence in the wine sector, there will come a point where earning money is the priority. As we have spoken about previously, your profile / brand identity will determine your success and the bigger and better placed you are then the more likely you are to gain from it financially.
Most wine professionals who earn a living from the industry will do so by writing articles, reviewing wines, sharing content, putting on events, writing books, guest speaking and more. There are many avenues to making a living from wine, though it may not all come at once, you just need to be confident in your value and not be afraid to charge a fee.
Most marketing agencies and PR agencies will charge their client, such as a winery, a monthly fee for gaining them extra exposure. If you have built a strong relationship with some then it is possible that they will provide you with a small fee for writing articles and providing live links so that people who read what you share can simply click over to the winery directly. These are usually classed as sponsored articles and good for online SEO (What is SEO?).
By building yourself a good website with plenty of content / reference content then you will be a desirable place for wines and wineries to be mentioned, once again sponsored content can be an avenue to explore. You need to explore your domain authority (What is domain authority) and grow your ranking for many well used wine search terms, if you are ploughing a lot of time into writing content on Barolo on your website then this will likely place you highly on Google for similar search terms. Think about at least having a wide selection of easy to read and common term articles which are likely to be searched for, ie Where does Barolo come from? or What grapes are used to make Barolo? or Where to buy the best Barolo Wines.
Approximate earnings on an average to good online presence (website & social media channels):
- Content Sharing: £30 – £250
- Article Writing: £50 – £600
- Book Writing: £500 (this will be a tough sector to earn decent money in)
- Small Tasting Events: up to £1,000
- Small Masterclasses: up to £1,000
- Large Tasting Events: up to £15,000
- Reviewing Wines: Free to £100
- Wine Tours: up to £1,000 (Sometimes key wine professionals are invited and paid to attend)
- Judging events: From £1,000 onwards
- Ambassador Roles: Free up to £25,000 annually
There is so much more I can add and so many great ideas to share with you. This is only a taster to what is required to become that successful wine journalist.
It is a tough industry to enter and succeed in. If you come into it with the vision of just making money then you are likely to be disappointed (unless you can afford to stick at it). You will be required to put in plenty of effort and innovation, lots of socialising and learning who to and also how to show respect. You will need to hold a passion for wine and allow that to be seen by others. You will at times sit alone and things you planned out thoroughly will go badly, once again you need to stick at it.
You will also find amazing, inspiring people, you will receive love and support. Wines will amaze you as will the regions they are grown in. Hard work is admired and dedication respected, people will recognise the effort and pay to work with you.
This article and structure laid out is to help you to become a wine journalist and is all from my own experience and though for me it has proven to be successful, there are many other routes to success in the wine sector. We are all individuals, we all have different financial and free time constraints, all at different ages / experiences / cultures / personalities and much more so what works for one might not for the other.
If you would like to find out more about entering the wine industry as a journalist or to improve your influence then please contact me directly. I offer coaching and advice on how to structure your concept so that you can establish a business and build your income in the wine sector just like myself and the brand Glass of Bubbly has: firstname.lastname@example.org
Co-founder of Glass of Bubbly. Journalist and author focused on Champagne & Sparkling Wines and pairing them with foods.