Turning The Tables VIII

Interviewing the Interviewers: Pat Hellberg

Photo By Addie Mannan

ABOUT THIS COLUMN: This Q&A was conducted by Carl Giavanti and modeled on the Wine Industry Network Advisor series, flips the script on wine writers by asking them about their own profession.

Pat Hellberg, aka Pat The Wine Guy, is a freelance writer, video producer and television personality. He started his wine blog five years ago, focusing on reliable wine buys that are easy to find retail or online. Since then, he has reviewed hundreds of “everyday” wines and posts a weekly newsletter dealing with wine, current events and culture. A former television news and sports reporter, Pat has been a regular guest on the Portland lifestyle program, KATU Afternoon Live. Pat has reached WSET Level 2 certification. He also has produced and appeared in numerous wine education videos on YouTube. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram: @patthewineguy..


Professional Background

How did you choose wine, and wine writing?

PH: When working at Nike, I wrote a quarterly wine review newsletter. After leaving the company, I turned it into a blog and rebranded it as Pat The Wine Guy.

What are your primary story interests?

PH: My focus has always been on finding good wine values for the everyday wine drinker. I post at least one wine review each week. I supplement the review with a weekly newsletter that touches upon wine, popular culture and life.

What are your primary palate preferences?

PH: I love the big red blends from southern Rhône and eastern Washington. I know this is blasphemous, and I might have my Oregon driver’s license revoked, but as much as I like the Oregon Pinot Noirs, I like many of the California Pinots a little more, especially those from the Sta. Rita Hills AVA.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you?

PH: I spent a dozen years as a sports anchor/reporter in local TV news.

What’s the story - how did you decide to live and write in Oregon?

PH: I’m a native Oregonian from the tiny town of Lebanon. It’s not known for its wine selection unless you’re into Ripple or Blue Nun. Fast forward to Nike, where people discovered I knew a little about wine. They asked for recommendations. It always bothered me that I could find glowing reviews about wine but couldn’t find the wine itself. So, I started writing a quarterly wine review, always making sure my Nike friends could find the reviewed wines at local stores. I listed prices and exact locations to buy the wine. I guess I was a poor man’s Vivino several years before Vivino launched.

What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your writing about wine?

PH: Everybody has their own palate. Everybody likes what they like. I can tell you whether a wine is well made, but I can’t guarantee that you will like it. Only you can determine if a wine is for you.

What’s the best story you have written?

PH: Last May for Oregon Wine Month, I wrote an ode to the Oregon wine industry. Not sure it’s the best, but it’s certainly the most personal.

If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing?

PH: I would be writing about something else. I’m a masochist. I like to write. It’s in my blood.

Writing Process

Can you describe your approach to wine writing?

PH: My goal is to make wine interesting to casual, not-so-serious wine drinkers. My followers aren’t geeks nor are they obsessed. They like wine but they have many other interests. I try to keep my writing humorous, thoughtful and relevant for the “wine isn’t everything” demographic.

When you review wines, describe your tasting process. What happens to all that extra wine?

PH: I look, I sniff, I taste and I spit. After the initial taste, I cork the bottle, put it in the fridge, and try it again the next day because most people don’t finish the bottle in one night. Thus, it’s important to comment on whether the wine being reviewed evolved positively or negatively overnight. The extra wine goes down the drain. Our glass recycling container is somewhat embarrassing as it’s full every week. I call it the “bin of shame.”

Do you work on an editorial schedule and/or develop story ideas as they arise?

PH: I write one newsletter and one review per week. That doesn’t sound like much until you start doing it, every week/month/year. I’m constantly searching for new developments in the wine world that I can turn into essays that will interest my readers.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when interacting with journalists?

PH: I know the journalist typically asks questions about the winery. But I believe the winery should also ask questions of the journalist. I suggest the winery do a little digging and find out if the journalist has a pre-conceived “angle” or approach for the story. Why are they interested in your winery? What are they looking for? If the winery has insight into the journalist’s focus/mission, it streamlines the process and benefits both sides.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

PH: They can be invaluable in taking care of the details and logistics associated with setting up the interview and/or shoot. The publicist saves the writer and winery time and makes the entire process much more efficient.

What frustrates you most about working on winery stories and/or wine reviews?

PH: I’m not sure “frustrating” is the correct word. But I think I speak for many when I say the vast “sea of sameness” in winery stories and reviews is tiresome. I will confess…I’m as guilty as the next writer. I lean on some of the same descriptors time and time again in my reviews. But I’d rather use and re-use expressions my readers understand, like “dark fruit” or “buttery,” than confuse them with the likes of “forest floor,” “wet sidewalk” and “cat pee.”

Which wine reviewers/critics would you most like to be on a competition panel with?

PH: Matt Kramer, Eric Asimov and Karen MacNeil, not necessarily for their palates but for their expertise. They’re all such accomplished writers.

Which wine personalities would you most like to meet and taste with (living or dead)?

PH: Gary Vaynerchuk, to absorb some of his energy, and Madeline Puckette, to experience her quirkiness.

Leisure time

When you take days off, how do you spend them?

PH: I like to play and watch sports. I’m also a member of the Oregon Sports Angels, a Shark Tank for entrepreneurs starting companies around new sports and fitness products and technologies. They pitch us. If we like the pitch, we invest in their ventures.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

PH: My wife, infant son and I were in the Italian region of Umbria on 9/11. We tried repeatedly to find out exactly what was happening in the U.S. We had the sense that something terrible had occurred, but details were very difficult to come by. Still worried about what little we knew and anxious to learn more, we went out to dinner that night in Spoleto. With our meal, we had an incredible bottle of the local specialty, Montefalco Sagrantino. Over the course of the next few days, we learned the specifics about 9/11. But as we enjoyed the meal and the extraordinary bottle of wine, we momentarily forgot about the events of the day. I can’t remember the meal, but I’ll never forget that bottle of Montefalco Sagrantino.

What’s your cure for a wine hangover?

PH: An hour on the treadmill.

Which is your favorite wine region in the world?

PH: Tuscany. The hill towns of Montepulciano and Montalcino are magical.

Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing? Favorite recipe/pairing?

PH: The tried-and-true: grilled salmon and Oregon Pinot Noir.

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