Friday, January 18, 2013

Adam Lee interviews W. Blake Gray

At harvest time last year, I ran a contest offering to write a blog post about three vintners who posted the lowest pHs for their grapes. Siduri owner/winemaker Adam Lee was one of the winners and, offered the chance to talk about any subject, he asked if he could turn the tables and interview me.

We met at Boulevard restaurant in San Francisco and, as you can see, we didn't do this interview dry. We also spoke at length about issues in the wine industry, but Adam thought that part was too long for a post, and I gave him editing authority. So here's a twist: this post is all about me, but I didn't write or edit it. Take it away, Adam Lee.

Do you consider yourself a writer first and a wine lover second or a wine lover first?
I would say I would be a writer first. I was a wine lover, but was one of the many fortunate people, like yourself, that managed to turn a hobby and a love into a profession. But writing has always been my profession.

I always wanted to write the “Great American Novel,” but it never has happened. How did writing for you become a career?
I have two Great American Novels somewhere in storage. If only they were actually great. The first one is probably a 75-pointer. I studied psychology in college, but I worked at the school newspaper and my first job out of college was at a newspaper.

Were you a writer, an opinion writer, a reporter?
Yes, yes, yes. I started as a police reporter, which is a great way to start. This is a huge advantage, frankly, that I have over a lot of bloggers. You learn all of the basics of reporting from being a police reporter….everything from checking records to, the last day I was a police reporter, I had to call someone at home and tell him that his son who had gone to the hospital with severe burns, was dead. He didn’t know until I called. That was not fun for me, and I wasn’t cut out necessarily for that work. But I learned a lot from it.

You do seem to write about sports now, baseball in particular, in many of your wine pieces and on Twitter. Did you write about sports as well? And is baseball your true sports love?
I was a sports writer, too, and covered hundreds of basketball games, just because there are more basketball games. And now I hardly watch basketball. But my great love is baseball.

And the love of wine? When did that start?
It is interesting to me how many Americans have a wine origin story in France, and that’s true for me. I’ve never liked beer, so that has a lot to do with it. I’ve written about all sorts of spirits and cocktails….I am very beverage-focused as a writer. I will write about iced tea. But when I was a sports writer I would go out to bars and drink cocktails, and didn’t think much about wine. Then, I quit my job to backpack around the world, and was doing some volunteer work in France, and the French government paid for our food, part of which was wine. So we had a grant from the government to go the agricultural supply store and buy some vins de table. I wasn’t smart enough to volunteer in a wine region. So we bought a 5-liter refillable jug of vin de table that we refilled every other day, from just next to the Coca-Cola and just above the insecticide. We drank it with lunch and dinner every day, and it was part of the lifestyle, and I really liked it. In the small town in the Auvergne region where I was working there weren’t many people that spoke English. There were two, one of which was the chemist at the fromagerie, and he noticed that I was interested in wine, and was ashamed that my experience with French wine was going to be from the agricultural supply store. So he took it on himself to bring me some more interesting bottles. And I was just really seduced into wine and like everybody who’s into wine it really takes off from there.

When did you start writing about wine? Was that first article particularly memorable?
That’s a good question. I wrote about food first, when I lived in Japan. And I was a big sake buff, and wrote a lot of articles about sake before I wrote about wine. But I was so into wine when I was in Japan, and the reason I moved from Japan to San Francisco was because I wanted to write about wine. I wish I could tell you what the exact first article was, but in 1999 I took a job with a website writing about wine. I believe I wrote the first interactive guide to Napa Valley.

So, doing your first wine writing online ... I know that you worked for the Chronicle and for newspapers. Did that influence you now, writing online primarily?
I still write for magazines and trade publications.

But you were an early adopter of online writing….
There was a class of print people who looked down on blogs. I never had that problem. The people who did that whole print vs. blog thing would say, “The blog by some guy writing about a wine he got from the supermarket isn’t as good as Eric Asimov writing about wine for the New York Times.” It just isn’t a fair comparison. There is more crap written about wine in print than there is online. People don’t think about the magazine you get in your hotel that has an article about wine. Or the freebies that chambers of commerce give out. Somebody writes that stuff and gets paid to do so. Most of the best articles about wine now are online. Eric Asimov wrote a great online column about wine.

The move to blogging, are there different things that you do when you are writing for a newspaper than when writing for a blog?  Is it somewhat different, very different?
It is very different. And I think that most print people could make the transition to blogs. The other way is a lot harder. But it’s not because print writing is better. It is because it is more limited. I have to assume when writing for a newspaper that some of my audience doesn’t know what a Pinot Noir is. When I am writing for a blog, I am able to assume that people know what Pinot Noir is and where Sonoma Coast is. I may explain the region a little, but I won’t need to explain what “cool-climate" is. For a newspaper you have to explain all of that, and that takes getting used to. That said, what I miss about writing for newspapers is that I miss the opportunity to introduce people to wine. I don’t think that people who don’t know much about wine read wine blogs. And I don’t think if I were to make my blog focused towards people who didn’t know about wine, that they would necessarily find it. I think I would just lose the readers that I have now.

I posted online, on Facebook and Twitter, and told folks I was going to be interviewing you and asked for suggestions on questions. They all seemed to revolve around how do you get your audience and how do you make any money doing this?
That’s a great question…the best question. The answer is not very well, honestly. I am making negative income. I'm one of the 47%. I am working at a time when the economic environment is bad for everyone, but if I had no savings and wasn’t married, I wouldn’t be able to do what I am doing. And I won’t be able to do what I am doing indefinitely. But I do think I have a certain amount of credibility, and that has paid off for me very recently with some new assignments. And I hope that as the economy in general gets better my personal economy gets better. I could not go the rest of my life with negative income.

You received an award recently, Best Industry Blog. Does that help you get new assignments, new followers? How do you track your readership?
I can track fairly accurately how many hits I get. I have ramped up the amount of trade publication writing I have been doing, and I think the award had something to do with that. Frankly, it was a shock to me at the time to get the award. I always assumed I was writing for a more general audience, and still I don’t think of myself writing for an industry audience. But obviously people in the industry love wine and so they are a lot of my readers.

You’ve written about topics that I’ve not seen other people write about. Not all of the topics are interesting to me personally, but I am sure they are to others. And some I am interested in haven’t been interesting to others. But you’ve definitely covered topics that others haven’t.
That’s always my goal, to be interesting. Not every post is going to be interesting to everyone, but I want to write something that interests me. Sometimes it is something stupid, but sometimes it is about something more important. But if it’s not interesting that’s when I’ve failed.

Are bloggers journalists? I bring this up because an Oregon district court case where a blogger was sued and the ruling was that bloggers weren’t journalists. Are there journalistic standards that bloggers have to live up to?
I was terrified by that court decision. The First Amendment provides me a lot of protection as a journalist. But if I am not considered a journalist I am not sure what I’d write. I mean, what if I write, “Winery X’s wine is bad," and they sue me? If I am not a journalist it is terrifying. Now I personally think that I could make a strong case in court that I am a journalist, stronger than the case in Oregon, because I’ve broken national news on my blog. But that case was terrifying and should be to all bloggers. I suggested to the Wine Bloggers Conference in Oregon that they should present a seminar on Libel in Wine Blogs, but they said there wasn’t any interest in it. That’s a shame. Bloggers should think about this, because many bloggers make very strongly opinionated statements and being sued could take over their lives.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

You can find Siduri wines here. If you like Pinot Noir -- who doesn't? -- you should give them a try. Adam would say, correctly, that it's not all about the pH. But he did post some good ones.


Amalie Robert Estate said...

I just left Boulevard after a wonderful dinner of Ahi Tuna and Lamb T-bone. - Well Done!

Jon Bjork said...

Thanks for keeping up the blog, Blake, even though there's very little direct money in it! I used to write a blog that was also published in the local newspaper, but the lack of sufficient income eventually forced me to stop. I spent 20% of my working hours on it, but it returned only 1% of my income.

Unknown said...

I really enjoyed reading this. Sorry I missed you at the Wine Market Council presentation. Happy New Year!

Lisa Mattson

nrc said...

Thanks Adam and Blake, nicely done and interesting. Blake, have you written about your 'round the world adventures, they sound interesting as well?

W. Blake Gray said...

NRC: Here's one:

Bob Henry said...


Regarding your comment . . .

"There is more crap written about wine in print than there is online."

. . . there are purportedly 1,423 (sic) recognized wine blogs -- far outnumbered wine writers in print media.


Is this "more crap" characterization just hyperbole, or do you staunchly defend this opinion?

~~ Bob

W. Blake Gray said...

Bob: Go to Wine Business Monthly, any weekday. Read the best stories on blogs. Then look at the best stories in print. The great majority of print articles published on wine are vapid and worthless, which is worse than blogs because these articles are paid for and professionally edited.

W. Blake Gray said...

Bob, I know you want to keep arguing about this, but this is a 6-month old blog post and if I spend my time doing that, I won't have any time for new work.

And yes, I did get paid by the LA Times.