Katherine Cole ##Photo by Addie Mannan

Turning the Tables V

Interviewing the Interviewers: Katherine Cole

By Carl Giavanti

Katherine Cole is a James Beard Award-winning wine expert, the author of five books, and an executive producer and host of The Four Top podcast. A graduate of Harvard College and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Cole is a member of the Circle of Wine Writers and has been named to the “Imbibe 75” list of “the people, places and flavors that will help shape the way we all drink.” She serves on the board of Portland Backpack and is a chair for the Portland chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International.

Professional Background

How did you decide on wine and wine writing?

KC: I grew up in Seattle during a food-and-beverage renaissance. I have childhood memories of going to Pike Place Market to buy coffee beans from this little roastery where my parents knew the owner; it was called Starbucks.

My dad helped some colleagues start up a microbrewery — a totally novel concept at the time. That small upstart business was called Redhook Brewery. My dad also dabbled in making and collecting wine. He rubbed elbows with the Associated Vintners, a group of University of Washington professors, who, more or less, launched today’s Washington wine industry. And some friends of his quit their jobs and ran off to plant vineyards in Eastern Washington.

As for my mother, she came from a beer background — her family-owned Highlander Brewery in Montana — and is a world-class cook. So, I grew up hunting mushrooms, digging clams, and tasting beer and wine. Cuisine and beverage were an essential part of culture and everyday life for me. When I moved to Portland in 2000, it reminded me of Seattle in the 1980s; there was a similar sense of excitement in the air.

How did you land the wine column?

KC: I went to journalism school after college and trained to be a hard-news journalist, but my heart was always in arts and culture, including culinary culture. I worked at a couple magazines after grad school and always greatly enjoyed editing the beverage sections, particularly any wine coverage. I am an intellectual omnivore, and I could see that wine writing could weave together history, botany, geography, geology, language, chemistry and more. I wanted to be a lifelong student, and wine represented an endless learning opportunity to me.

When I moved to Portland to freelance, I landed a couple of my own magazine beverage columns. From there, in 2002, I somehow talked myself into the wine columnist position at The Oregonian. Once I realized what I had done, I enrolled in International Sommelier Guild classes. The Oregon wine industry was still quite nascent at that time, so I found myself learning alongside the producers.

What was your editorial focus for The Oregonian?

KC: For me, the plot trajectory of Oregon is driven by a group of offbeat thinkers who wouldn’t fit in anywhere else. When I was writing the wine column for The Oregonian, I sought out irreverent wine producers who were doing things differently — to me, they personified the Oregon spirit. Most memorably, Jimi Brooks introduced me to the practice of Biodynamics.

Tell us about your books. Any in the works?

KC: My books are: “Voodoo Vintners,” “Complete Wine Selector,” “How to Fake Your Way through a Wine List,” “Rosé All Day” and “Sparkling Wine Anytime.” No more books in the works at the moment, thankfully.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you?

KC: People are often surprised to learn that I have a day job (wine writing is not an economically sustainable profession, unfortunately). I’m the communications director for Vin Agency, a creative firm serving fine wineries. I love the work, and it informs everything else I do. I work in brand strategy, marketing communications and a bit of website design. I also consult for wineries, teach seminars and moderate.

What’s the best story you have written?

KC: When I was a contributing editor at SevenFifty Daily, the two stories that generated the most feedback were about Black Chardonnay and sparkling wine’s surprising role in wartime history.

Creative Process

Describe your approach to writing/podcasting?

KC: The Four Top is a roundtable discussion of hot-button topics in wine and food culture. It’s a conversation in which four well-informed — and, I hope, entertaining — professionals pick apart and analyze issues that affect all of us. We discuss provocative, uncomfortable topics, but we keep the tone light and informative, so that anyone can tune in and have an enjoyable listening experience. In 2021, we made a number of changes: We went independent from OPB; we shifted our focus to wine; and I convinced my good friend and colleague, Martin Reyes MW, to join me as a co-host. Martin brings a wealth of knowledge and an arsenal of “dad jokes” to his role.

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

KC: People are often surprised to learn that I actually have a staff of six part-time employees making The Four Top sound as smooth as it does. We do a ton of preparatory research, including panelist selection. I write a script before each episode, and we edit each audio track separately. My social media team starts working on each episode weeks in advance.

All of which is to say that it takes months to plan and orchestrate a season. Our topics come from our reading and our interactions with folks on the ground, in the wine industry. My production assistant, Rachel, has worked for wineries in the past and is currently pouring wine at Canard, so I am constantly bouncing ideas off of her.

We’ve had very good luck so far in lining up episodes — that were months in the making — with current breaking news. For example, this past season, we ran our sustainability episode during COP26 (the UN climate summit) in Glasgow, and our episode about career burnout the same week that news outlets were reporting en masse on “the great resignation,” aka “the big quit.”

What’s your take on mixing advertising and editorial?

KC: We are independent and funded by advertising. We are happy to taste a sponsor’s product and talk about it during a sponsor break, but the line between sponsorship and editorial is firm. We do not offer any “pay to play” opportunities.

Leisure Time

How do you spend your days off?

KC: Hiking, skiing, cycling, learning and, whenever possible, traveling. I am a single mother and have not had much free time in recent years, but my kids are teenagers now, so I am going to have to figure out how to relax, as well. I have heard that it’s a worthwhile endeavor.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

KC: Driving around the south of France in a Fiat Cinquecento in search of great rosé, while researching my book “Rosé All Day” was really fun. A highlight was sitting on Kermit Lynch’s front porch in Bandol and tasting with him.

For my most recent book, memorable moments include visiting Selosse (Champagne), Raventós i Blanc (Penedès) and Ferrari (TrentoDOC). Three very different producers in very different wine regions, all doing fascinating things and making superb traditional-method sparkling wines.

What’s your favorite wine region?

KC: If I don’t answer “Oregon,” I will be drawn and quartered.

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