Turning The Tables IX

Interviewing the interviewers: Tamara Belgard Turner

Photo provided

By Carl Giavanti

How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?

TBT: My journey to wine has been a long and somewhat winding road. I began my wine career working for a prominent Oregon winery as their Marketing Communications Manager. The quixotic setting (with an office overlooking acres of vineyards), combined with being around the wine process, was completely intoxicating and I became entirely entranced by the industry. From watching the seasonal development of the grapes on the vines, and learning about viticulture (rootstock, clones, brix…), to the harvest season and blending process in the cellar, I was hooked. I ultimately began finetuning my palate to better understand the different grape varieties and growing regions. When I left that position to care for a newborn child (14 years ago), I felt like I’d left a piece of myself behind. I began writing about wine more creatively and lightheartedly on my wine blog, taking a great deal of liberty in that process. That was about the time I pitched my first story to Oregon Wine Press about keg wine and I moved from recreational wine blogger to professional wine journalist, where I felt I’d found my true calling.

What are your primary story interests?

TBT: I enjoy generating excitement about wines from the Pacific Northwest. Whether that’s stories about new grapes being planted, lesser-known wine regions, or more unusual techniques being applied, I relish the opportunity to either educate people or make people excited about what is going on in this region.

Are you a staff columnist or freelance? What are the advantages of both?

TBT: I have certainly dreamed of being a staff columnist, with consistency and dependability of work. But I find that the overall advantage to working freelance is that I get to write the stories I want to write. It’s not all writing, however. Much of my free time is spent pursuing ideas for stories. Editors receive queries from so many writers that it is a challenge to stand out and get assignments.

Is it possible to make a living as a wine writer today? If so, how have you succeeded? If not,why not? What are the primary challenges and hurdles you face?

TBT: Of course it must be possible, right? Though I admit I am still figuring out how. Over the years, I have consistently worked in full-time roles and did my writing, the thing I was most passionate about, part-time on the side. I always worried about being able to place enough stories that I could pay my bills every month, not to mention the added complexities of health benefits and retirement. And the pay rate is so varied; one might make as little as 15 cents a word or as much as $2500 for an article. Don’t even get me started on the publications that are still expecting people to work for free, suggesting that the exposure is worth a writer’s time and effort. But I am finally taking that risk and jumping in the deep end. Let’s revisit this question in a few years.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

TBT: As a serious wine journalist, people might be surprised to know that I once wrote a wine blog that was very un-serious. I came at wine from an entirely different angle, which was often times provocative and suggestive or just plain comical. And though that was fun for a time, the duty to become what I consider an ambassador of Oregon wine called my name.

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

TBT: I moved from Durango, Colorado to Oregon on a wing and a prayer 20 years ago. I visited Portland for just one weekend when I made the decision to move here. I thought the city was magical, and I’d fallen in love. I’d not even ventured out to wine country yet, but the culinary scene was addictive and I knew I wanted more. I also wanted to advance my career and provide better educational opportunities for my son, who was going into high school. Living in a small mountain town was not the place for any of that. While working as a graphic designer for a newspaper, I saw a listing for a marketing job at Ponzi Vineyards that really excited me. I remember driving to that interview feeling like I’d found my home in the countryside. The smell of the cellar teased my nose, the view of the vines and ripening grapes captivated my attention, and the desire to be a part of that was so strong—I think wine country stole my heart and soul in those brief first moments. I worked at Ponzi for a few years, learning everything I possibly could about wine. Little did I understand how much there was to learn. Even now, a decade later, and now certified by the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, I recognize learning about wine will be a lifelong process.

What’s the best story you have written?

TBT: I think some of the best stories I have written were the ones where I learned something about Oregon wine, like about the first Mencia grown in the US (right here in the Columbia Gorge), or about a wine by-product I knew nothing about, Piquette. But perhaps the ones I am most proud of, are the stories that shine the spotlight on diversity and the environment, like Outstanding in Her Field (a story about the women turning male-dominated vineyard management on its heels) and one about Oregon’s smallest AVA (Ribbon Ridge) with the biggest commitment to growing green, both published in previous issues of Oregon Wine Press.

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

TBT: I’d be traveling a lot more and writing about those experiences. But let’s face it, there would probably still be stories about wine.

Can you describe your approach to wine writing?

TBT: My approach to wine writing involves first researching and discovering an idea that I think will resonate with readers in some way. Once that idea has percolated, I approach editors and do my best to effectively communicate the value of the story. Whether it’s talking about an old subject in a new way or educating readers about something entirely different, I interview a variety of experts in an effort to get to the heart of a story and then piece together those conversations into a cohesive article that encapsulates the original concept.

What are you working on now?

TBT: I am currently working on a few 2023 wine travel pieces focused on the Willamette Valley and British Columbia for Northwest Travel & Life magazine and a piece on River Barging through Burgundy France for an international magazine called Jetsetter.

If you do wine reviews, describe your tasting process. What happens to all that extra wine?

TBT: I don’t do wine reviews per se, though I do write wine descriptions for comprehensive articles on a particular varietal. For me, many ideas come from receiving samples, so while I don’t necessarily write reviews on all the wines I receive, they may be included in a more focused story in the future.

What are your recommendations to wineries when interacting with journalists?

TBT: First and foremost, manage expectations. Just because you sent a journalist wines or an invitation to an event, it may not necessarily culminate in an article. While I accept wines and invitations, even when I pitch ideas, ultimately, the approval to run a story lies with my editors. While I may think a story idea is perfect and want to write it, my editor may not think it fits into their editorial calendar, or may be running something similar already. Also equally important is patience. Sometimes it takes months or longer to bring a story idea to fruition. Or sometimes it goes an entirely different direction, producing an unexpected story about a different topic. My advice: Continue to nurture the relationship with the journalist, a strong relationship with a reputable journalist will likely bear fruit at some point. Lastly, I love it when wineries reach out to me with story ideas that they’re not just broadcasting in a press release to everyone. Giving me the opportunity to break a story not widely known is ideal, whereas trying to pitch and land a story that I received in a press release everyone has already seen is far more difficult as a freelancer.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

TBT: I value my relationships with winery publicists so much. Since I can’t be everywhere, having their eyes and ears tuned into what’s going in the industry is essential. They’re also typically great storytellers, so they’ll understand what is interesting and important, and what stories might sell. Above and beyond that, they’re also great resources, helpful in scheduling appointments and tracking down photography and/or interviews.

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

TBT: The person I most regret not having the opportunity to taste with was Cole Danehower. Cole was not only a gifted writer; he was a passionate Oregon wine advocate and had such a finely tuned palate. He was a plethora of wine information and generous with his knowledge. I met Cole when I’d just started working at Ponzi Vineyards and he came to interview winemaker Luisa Ponzi. Before she arrived, he was asking me questions about the vineyard, and as an industry newcomer, I was unable to answer. Instead of making me feel stupid and uninformed, he patiently explained to me about American rootstock and the benefits against phylloxera. In my PR efforts for the winery, over the next several years, I regularly sent him story ideas and wines to review, often delivering them to his home and chatting with him extensively. I had so much respect for him, and felt we had such a shared passion for Oregon wine.

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

TBT: I tend to spend much of my “free time” writing and researching story ideas or regions. But I also really do try to take some time for myself, working in my yard, cooking, hiking, snowshoeing, and paddling around the area’s beautiful lakes and rivers on my SUP. While I enjoy the winter, I revel in long summer days.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

TBT: My most memorable tasting experience was at the now-closed restaurant Irving Street Kitchen. I ordered a flight of Madeira wines called “The Happy Ending”. Three thimbles of wine were placed before me, and for a mere second, I was disappointed; the glasses were sooooo small. I don’t typically remember vintages very well, but this tasting made such an impression that I still remember them: 1973, 1968, and 1939. The youngest was the year my ex-husband was born, the middle was from the year I was born, and the oldest was from the year my father was born. I recall tasting that 1939 thinking about what might have been going on in the world at the time my father came into it. I envisioned his time-worn face, comparing it to what was in my glass, and I was moved to tears. It was perhaps THE MOMENT that an understanding of vintage really took shape for me; the understanding that a bottle could both hold and convey history; it was simultaneously emotionally moving and transformational for me.

What’s your cure for a wine hangover?

TBT: Hangovers seem to get worse with age; where I could once just drink a full glass of water and take four Advil at bedtime, now, I have to add Alka-Seltzer, Vitamin Water, coffee, and a hearty breakfast the next day. It’s taken me a minute to accept the fact that no matter how great the wines are, I just can’t drink the same amount as I could 20 years ago.

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