How to Become a Wine Editor
Wine editor of Food & Wine, Ray Isle, didn’t always love wine. Rather, he got a taste for the stuff after he took a fellowship at Stanford University, near to Napa and Sonoma’s finest wineries. Soon—when Isle wasn’t at what had become a lectureship at the university—he was working in those nearby wineries. “I was literally what they call a cellar rat,” Isle says.
He continues, “I was hauling grapes around in bins and driving a forklift and pumping wine here and there, and when I got to the end of the lectureship, I decided I preferred wine to academia. I’d fallen in love with wine itself, as a thing to drink and a thing to write about.”
It took Isle several more years to work his way onto Food & Wine’s masthead, to a position that affords him the opportunity to taste up to 100 wines a week—“You always spit or you end up wiped out and lying on the floor,” he laughs—and write and speak about the drink.
Some weeks Isle travels to tour new vineyards or renovated wineries. On others, he spends time sifting through freelancer’s pitches and then polishing pieces for an upcoming issue.
It’s a job that many might dream to one day have. And if you’re one of them, you’re in luck: Isle has shared the steps you, too, can take to become a wine editor at another media outlet.
1. Get an education.
Isle didn’t study journalism—he studied English and creative writing instead—but his ability to write has been crucial in this career. So has his knowledge of the wine world. “The truth is both the writing and editorial skills and the wine knowledge are equally and crucially valuable [as a wine editor],” Isle says. “You can’t edit without knowing how to write—and write extremely well—and you can’t write or edit anything about wine unless you know an enormous amount about wine.”
Take classes that will help you hone your writing skills. And then, “you need to taste every wine you have ever come across,” Isle advises. “You need to start tasting diligently and assiduously as much as you can, and learn as much as you can.” Wine classes, as well as sommelier programs, are aplenty and will help you gain needed wine knowledge.
You may also consider working in the wine industry. Isle worked at a wine importer for two years before making the switch to the editorial side. (He made his big editorial break after he successfully pitched Stanford’s alumni magazine a story about wine.) It was in that job—and in those ol’ cellar rat days—that Isle learned a considerable amount about wine.
2. Get published—anywhere.
As he was working as an importer, Isle pitched a wine piece to Stanford’s alumni magazine. And when it published, the article drew the attention of an editor at Wine & Spirits, who offered Isle some freelance work and, eventually, an editorial position. (Isle worked at Wine & Spirits until he joined the Food & Wine team.) Because of his experience, Isle encourages anyone who wants to become a wine editor to “try to publish anywhere you can. The fact that the first thing that got me a job at a magazine was a story published in an alumni magazine that someone randomly saw tells you [it can work]. You can’t always immediately go to the biggest visibility sites or magazines, so write and publish everything you can—even if it’s your own blog.”
3. Get social.
Both media and the wine world are social businesses, Isle says. “Those two social worlds don’t entirely overlap, but if you’re a hermit and you hang out in your room by yourself never talking to anybody, it’s much harder to get a job in those worlds,” he says. “Network is tedious word, but the truth is, the more people you know in the business, the more likely you are to get assignments and at least know when there are jobs available.” If you’re working in the wine business, attend trade events such as tastings. If you don’t, you can attend consumer events, such as the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, to meet people. When it comes to media events, you might have to work a little harder to find opportunities to hobknob, but they’re out there. (There’s even a national conference for wine bloggers.)
4. Don’t be too rigid.
Just as you may not land your dream publication the first time you pitch a piece, you also may not walk a linear path to becoming a wine editor. “Don’t rigidly say, ‘I will be a wine editor or nothing else,’” warns Isle. “Anyone may find that the avenue toward getting this kind of job is working for a couple of years in wine importing and writing on the side, or it may be working in an editorial assistant job at an unrelated-to-wine media platform and making connections and writing again on the side. There is not a linear path—there are a whole bunch of possible ways to end up in a job like this.”