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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Interview with Wine Spectator Executive Editor Thomas Matthews: Part 2!

Thomas Matthews
Do you think credentials are important for pursuing a career in the wine industry?  

I think my generation came into the wine market when there were no credentials. I mean, I don’t have a journalism degree, I never trained as a wine buyer or sommelier, I kind of picked it up as I went along through experience and apprenticeship and I think for most people that sort of passion driving an apprenticeship is still the most common path. That said, I am all in favor of education. I think whether you take a wine tasting course with your local Society of Wine Educators person or take it with our [Wine Spectator] website online or do one of the certifications, all that’s very helpful, but for me when I look at a resume, I’m looking for experience and then in the person I’m looking for passion. Usually people who’ve got those things already have a credential, but it’s not crucial or sufficient. 

Did you have a mentor or someone who influenced your career along the way? 

Well, I had a literature professor when I was at [Bennington] college, Claude Fredericks, who really was a bon vivant. He was a great cook, well-traveled. He had a wine cellar and he sort of gave me a taste for the good life. He was a playwright in New York in the 60’s kind of an avant-garde kind of guy and a good friend of Jimmy Merrill, the poet. He was a very unique and creative guy and he deserved more recognition than he got. He also always encouraged my writing so that I would say is the person who sort of set me on the path, but I stumbled along pretty much on my own from college graduation until thirty-five when I got hired by Wine Spectator. Once I got here, Marvin [Shanken] has been the person who’s kind of brought me along and has helped me develop as a person.

What advice would you give someone interested in pursuing a career as a wine writer?

These days I think writing a blog is an excellent way in because that forces you to write and allows you to build a body of writing you can share with whomever might want to hire you. There’s not that many outlets for wine writing left; it used to be that more newspapers and more general magazines had wine columns or at least used freelance wine work and that’s a hard road right now. Writing on your own and of course learning and traveling and experiencing and interviewing people so that what you write has weight and heft is a way to build your own portfolio of clips. Ultimately, it’s the clips that count for anyone that’s considering hiring you as a writer.

Also, certification is not a bad route to take and working in some industry whether you’re writing or in a restaurant or working for a distributor or whatever just to gain more of the skills. I would say that most of our magazine is staffers and most of our staff writers have come young and inexperienced and have grown with us. So they started doing routine news reporting or writing small pieces and as they learned they got bigger assignments. The freelancers that I use tend to be based in wine regions so that they have their fingers on the pulse of someplace important to us. They tend to have some wine experience whether they’re former salesman or former winemakers or something like that so we know that they know the subject. 

How has the advent of the Internet and its increasing popularity affected the magazine? 

Marvin likes to say that Wine Spectator Magazine is by far the world’s largest circulation of a wine magazine, we have audited circulation of over 400,000, and that Wine Spectator online is the second largest. So really they have been built as separate entities, publications, businesses although they share a lot of content. Everything we put on the web is original to the web and is aimed at a slightly younger user to be a little brighter, a little easier to digest. Our [magazine] readers tend to be a little older, they’re still attached to print and we feel like people like to hold that in their hand, but I think we’re creating something on the web that’s more flexible, more diverse and hopefully will help us draw the younger generation more into our world of wine. 

Tell me more about the creation of the Wine Spectator website. It is incredibly comprehensive! 

Well, it’s a big effort. We launched in 1996 and we’ve been building ever since. We have some very talented people both on the content side and the design side and the fact that it accesses more than 250,000 tasting notes, which is really the world's biggest library of professional tasting notes, that alone makes it unique and I think very useful for people who are interested in learning. 

How does the Wine Spectator tasting department work?

We have eight people whose sole job is to handle the wines and the wine database. We take it very seriously and we have, I believe, the strictest and most objective and fair methodology for tasting of any wine critic I know. It starts with receiving the wines which come either as solicited samples from producers or importers or unsolicited samples...or purchases of wines for one reason or another that we can’t get submitted but feel we have to taste, that’s thousands of dollars every year. So the wines come in and they have to be unpacked and the first, and key step, is putting them into the database. Wine names are complicated and the database is huge and if you make a keystroke slip that wine could get lost forever so the tasting coordinators have to be incredibly orderly and conscientious to make sure they enter the wines in correctly. Then the bottles go into our cellars. We’ve got three cellars here in the building and they have probably 6,000 bottles at any given time because we're tasting about 10,000-12,000 wines a year here in this office. 

So then the tasting coordinator will pick the wines to set up into a flight of 15-25 wines based on some coherent theme. I might get 20 Riojas: ’09, ’08, and ’07 or maybe 20 Riojas ’08 depending on what’s in for tasting. Then they’ll all go into bags, the bags will all be coded, the codes will be entered into the database and I’ll sit down at a table with 20 bottles in the bags and the computer screen that has the codes on it and take the notes. After I’m done they have to bring those notes into the database, clean up after the tasting and set up another tasting. They’re also in charge of exporting those notes to the magazine for the buying guide, to the web for all of our web online features, and whatever other form we need. The tasting department also takes care of our Restaurant Awards Program which is about 4,000 restaurants. They also take care of our auction database where we track 10,000-15,000 wines at auction and probably 20-30 auctions every year. We then have to enter all that data, so it’s a very multifarious and technically oriented job but most of our senior editors have actually come through the tasting department. While they were in that tasting department tasting, they joined our apprenticeship program and passed, and became official tasters and started writing about the wines they were tasting and ultimately they’re in Bordeaux like James Molesworth visiting Chateau Latour. 

What are some of of the biggest changes that have happened at Wine Spectator during your tenure? 

I think the two biggest things that have happened since I’ve been with the magazine are in 1993 when we took the magazine from newsprint to a glossy, lifestyle magazine, and then the other thing was launching the website in 1996. It’s a team effort but I have to give most of the credit to Marvin. He’s really the visionary, he’s the guy that sets the pace and the goals and pushes everybody to get there. If I’ve done anything it’s nurture talent and set high standards for the quality of the content and the ethical integrity of the publication. I mean as we’ve seen recently, wine writing and ethics is a big question and hard to nail down but we have a clear set of policies and guidelines that I hope will keep us journalists first. That will give us trust and credibility with our readers, and that’s what makes a magazine successful. I would say quality content and quality people, those are my goals.

Stay tuned for the third and final installment of my interview with Thomas Matthews as he discusses his thoughts on social media, wine bloggers, and favorite food and wine pairings.


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