Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers
Written by Carl Giavanti
Elizabeth Smith’s recent appointment as a copywriter for online wine retailer Naked Wines is an example of dedicated wine writing that evolved into a full-time staff writing position. This is a profile of quality, diligence and commitment that should inspire both established and new wine writers alike.
Smith is a former community college professor who turned to writing by way of a detour through the Napa Valley and Sonoma County wine industries. She’s a copywriter for Naked Wines USA and a contributing wine, food, travel and lifestyle journalist to Food Wine Travel (FWT) magazine, Napa Valley Life magazine, the Napa Valley Register newspaper, and WineBulletin.net. Smith is also a freelance copywriter for Grovedale Winery, Matt Parish Wines, MonthlyClubs.com, and Scott Peterson Wines.
In 2017, Smith won the Born Digital Wine Award for Best Tourism Content with a Focus on Wine for her feature, “Lodi: Beyond the Zinfandel.” Smith is also a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier International Sacramento Chapter and the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association.
How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?
Around 2005, I connected with the owner of a wine marketing company through a now-defunct frequent flier form. In 2009, the owner hired me as his company’s travel manager because I knew the ins and outs of frequent flying. While working with him as an independent contractor (I was still teaching community college at the time), he referred me to other wine businesses, including Anderson’s Conn Valley Vineyards in St. Helena (Napa Valley), Trentadue Winery in Geyserville (Sonoma County) and a wine importer based in New Jersey. I became their business travel manager, too. In addition to being paid, they sent me wine as an extra thank-you.
My pivotal wine moment came in 2009 with the 2005 Anderson’s Conn Valley Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. It was like no wine I had ever tasted. Within a couple of years, I was participating in Twitter “Tweet Up” tastings and launched my original wine blog on June 16, 2011. In 2012, I took Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s (WSET) Level 1 Foundation and Level 2 Intermediate courses because as a former educator, I felt like I needed credentials. In late 2013, Anderson’s Conn Valley Vineyards offered me the role of wine club coordinator, office manager and travel manager, and I relocated to Napa Valley in January 2014. I earned the WSET Level 3 Advanced credential in spring of 2014.
What are your primary story interests?
I love delving into the personalities and history of the people behind the wine, winery, vineyards and/or brand and learning how they became enamored with a career in the industry — whether that be winemaking, winegrowing, winery ownership or management. My first interview question is always, “Everyone has a story. What’s yours?” I’m not a wine critic or reviewer. I believe wine tasting and preferences — as with food — are subjective to one’s palate in a singular moment in time.
Tell us how you landed the Naked Wines editorial copywriting role.
I feel like this role was meant to be, but I needed writing experience to earn it. When I began pursuing my writing full-time in early 2018, I applied for the copywriter role at Naked Wines, but I didn’t have the writing chops I have now. My wine industry background from 2014 through 2017 was wine club, office and travel management, although I assisted with copywriting and wordsmithing.
In March 2020, a writing peer connected me with Naked Wines’ independent winemaker Scott Peterson to write his updated biography. A couple of months later, Scott introduced me to Matt Parish, another Naked Wines’ independent winemaker and former head winemaker. I began assisting Matt with wordsmithing and social media content in May 2020. I also wrote a Napa Valley Register story about him that same year.
In February 2021, Head of Brand Christy Bors invited me to write some Women in Wine interviews for Women’s History Month. I began assisting Scott with wordsmithing and social media content in March 2021 and also collaborated with him to create the back label copy for his recently launched ROX of the Andes Argentina wines. Later that year, I wrote a Napa Valley Register story about Nova Cadamatre, MW, a new Naked Wines’ independent winemaker.
Shortly thereafter, I became an Angel – a consumer subscriber – to try more of the wines and learn both sides of the business. Earlier this year, Christy contacted me and asked if I was interested in the copywriter role. I said yes, I applied, and here I am.
Is it possible to make a living as a wine writer today?
Freelancing is intrinsically rewarding and there is a great deal of freedom, but it is financially challenging from the perspective of a single-income household. It requires a considerable time commitment to produce quality writing, including interviews and research. The rate of pay often doesn’t reflect the time spent. I’ve done other independent work to bridge gaps in income.
In your recent interview with Sean P. Sullivan, he used the analogy of a three-legged stool. If a leg is missing, it’s not sustainable. Some freelance writers seek full-time staff writer positions to ensure that balanced stool, which was my goal from the beginning.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I taught French and Spanish at Southwest Virginia Community College for more than two decades. My bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees are in community college and language education. I thought teaching was my lifetime career until December 2012, when I was laid off as part of a budgetary reduction in force due to low enrollment. I never imagined a career in wine.
What haven’t you done that you’d like to do?
I would enjoy visiting more of the world’s wine regions. My past press trips include the Finger Lakes (New York), the Okanagan Valley (British Columbia), Mendoza (Argentina), Lodi (California), and Bourgogne (France). Being a Francophile and former French professor, I’m especially enamored with Champagne and Chablis, as well as other regions in France.
What’s the best story you’ve written?
I have two. Interestingly, both were a result of working with and/or becoming acquainted with Naked Wines’ winemakers. Foreshadowing, perhaps?
- “Contra Costa’s Del Barba Ranch and Louie’s Block Quest for Survival”
- “Nova Cadamatre: The busy life of a bi-coastal winemaker”
If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing?
I would still be writing, but about a variety of topics, such as food, lifestyle and travel, which is what I’ve done for Napa Valley Life magazine, the Napa Valley Register, and Food Wine Travel magazine. When a peer referred me to contribute to the Napa Valley Register in late 2019, I interviewed with the features editor. She said, “I see you write about wine, but I have enough wine columnists and contributors. Can you write about food?” I replied, “If I can taste it, I can write about it.”
Describe your approach to wine writing.
I’m a storyteller. Readers and wine consumers want to connect with the people, learn the story and history, and experience outstanding hospitality coupled with delicious wines. My goal as a writer is to bring these to life and pique one’s interest in tasting the wines and/or visiting the winery. I especially love writing about hidden gems.
Describe your new role at Naked Wines.
I describe my role as wordsmith of compelling wine release notes and winemaker biographies. I’m a member of the marketing team, partnering with eCommerce Merchandising and Brand & Content to write copy for 10 to 15 wines per week to ensure each wine and winemaker stands out uniquely in the lineup.
What are your recommendations to wineries when interacting with journalists?
Be approachable and authentic. Host or treat me as if I am a wine consumer, not a media VIP, so I can describe the experience and wines through those eyes.
What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?
A good publicist provides detailed background and introductory information in advance, as well as assists in arranging visits and interviews, so I’m prepared to hit the ground running.
What frustrates you most about working on winery stories and/or wine reviews?
It’s frustrating to pitch a wonderful story to a media outlet and have it be rejected. It’s also frustrating to pitch a winery or brand, they eagerly and excitingly accept the opportunity, but then they do not readily provide the information I need to write the story. I often find myself chasing them down too close to my deadlines. In situations like this, a good publicist like you is beneficial.
If you take days off, how do you spend them?
I’m more mindful than ever of the importance of work-life balance. I love to travel. I feel rejuvenated after I return from a wonderful trip. I moved to downtown Napa in June 2021, where I enjoy walking around to see what’s new. I have a renewed love of where I live. My other nearby happy place is the Pacific Coast in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. The rugged coastline never ceases to amaze me.
What’s your favorite wine region in the world?
My current favorite wine region is Bourgogne. I traveled there in November 2021 and returned home dreaming of living there someday.
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