Katherine Cole believes that great wine should accessible to everyone. And she really means it — so much so that she put it in writing in Complete Wine Selector: How to Choose the Right Wine Every Time.
Realizing that sometimes people need a little extra nudge to feel confident about wine, Cole set out to demystify the mysterious grape juice from wine style to wine style, making the beverage accessible to the newest of the wine curious while adding deeper information at the end of each chapter to sustain the most studied wine lovers.
Cole herself falls into the latter category. She is the author of Oregon Wine, the App, for iPhone, Android and iPad. In addition, she is a contributing writer for publications such as Wine Searcher and Wine Spectator, Grape Collective and MIX magazine, as well as the wine columnist for The Oregonian. Not surprisingly, Cole has logged several hundreds of hours of wine tasting over the course of her career.
I talked with the Harvard grad, mother of two, self-described weekend warrior, wine columnist and book author about what it means to be a wine writer in the changing world of journalism, what inspired her new book, and why she doesn’t mind being a little controversial at times.
Q&A with Katherine Cole
Jennifer Cossey: What made you want to be a writer?
Katherine Cole: I always wanted to work in publishing, either as a writer or an editor. As a child, I spent a lot of time writing stories or typing them up on my mother’s typewriter. At university, I interned at The Atlantic magazine and contributed to the college newspaper. So I enrolled in journalism school straight out of college and then became a magazine editor. Wine writing came later.
JC: What brought you to Oregon?
KC: My husband and I were living in Chicago while he was attending business school and I was working as a magazine editor. It was an exciting town to be in at that moment in the late 1990s: The Bulls were dominating basketball and the dining scene was absolutely on fire. There was this feeling that something new and exciting was happening in food, and Chicago was a big part of that movement.
However, we both loved the outdoors too much to be stuck in the Midwest. So my husband got himself a job at Intel, which allowed us to move to Portland. As soon as we arrived, we packed up the skis, the bikes and the fly-fishing gear, and became weekend warriors.
JC: What was your inspiration to write Complete Wine Selector?
KC: I had a conversation with an importer the other day which convinced me that Complete Wine Selector was a good idea. He said, ‘If consumers want to appreciate wine, they need to travel to Europe. They need to spend money on the very best producers. And they need to read the wine books. Only then will they understand wine. It’s pointless to try to sell wine to ignorant people.’ Ooh, that chapped my hide! I am convinced that this sort of elitist attitude is a barrier to entry that’s hurting the wine industry.
There is this vast pool of American consumers out there who would love to try new wines but are afraid to ask about them, because they are terrified that they will ask the wrong questions and look foolish. Why are people intimidated by wine shops and wine lists? Because of the way they are organized.
If you don’t know what the wines of Rioja are like, how are you supposed to navigate a store aisle or wine-list page that says: ‘Spain — Rioja’? That information is useless to a wine newcomer. So I organized Complete Wine Selector by style instead of by geographical region. For example, a lot of people approach me and say, ‘I know I love a rich white wine, like a chardonnay. What else should I try?’ They can flip to the section of the book entitled ‘Rich, Full-Bodied Whites’ and find alternatives like Marsanne from France, Semillon from South Africa or Falanghina from Italy.
I truly believe we need to drop the pretense and democratize wine. Everyone in the United States — and the world — should have access to good wine. It will be good for the industry and good for the world at large.
JC: In your book you include the 20 best wine shops in the world. How did you pick them?
KC: To be honest, that was the most difficult part, because I’ve never been wine shopping in Tokyo or Hong Kong. Fortunately, I had access to the archives of The World of Fine Wine, the U.K. quarterly that was responsible for the editing and design of the book. Since it’s a publication with a global readership, they have listings of the top wine shops in the world. And I hired a translator in Italy who called shops throughout Europe and conducted interviews for me. Without those two resources, I would not have known where to begin!
JC: What resources did you use to gather the information?
KC: I had been covering wine for approximately 13 years when I wrote the book. So I had reams of old tasting notes and research. I basically mined my hard drive for everything I’ve ever tasted or written about and then sent out SOS signals for the rest of the info. There were a lot of 5 a.m. phone interviews with European winemakers. The New Zealand and Australian wine reps in the U.S. were both really kind … they gathered up tons of samples for me and caught me up on what has been going on down there. So it was just a matter of making phone calls to fill in the gaps in my knowledge.
JC: How is your book different from other wine books?
KC: As I explained, it’s organized by style rather than by grape or geographic region, allowing wine newcomers a way to get in the door, so to speak, without being immediately overwhelmed by an onslaught of information. It also dispenses information in colorful, digestible bites, so you can just skim it, or you can read through to the ‘Master Class’ at the end of each chapter and really dig deep and geek out.
At the same time, if you look at my lists of recommendations, they are largely from small, independent producers, and many of them are sourced from sustainable, organic or biodynamic vineyards. So the idea was to move the needle that way for the mass consumers who might pick this book up.
As an aside, this was written for the U.K. market but also distributed in the U.S. The U.K. publisher is Bloomsbury’s Absolute Press. So I had to list wines that are available in the U.S. as well as the U.K., plus markets like Hong Kong that have strong relationships with the U.K. So while I would have liked to have focused more on Oregon, my hands were tied to some degree. However, I snuck in as many Oregon producers as I possibly could!
JC: On a more personal note – how do you balance a busy career with motherhood and family?
KC: That’s a tough question, because the path I have chosen is fraught. I chose to be a writer so that I could be at home for my kids. The problem is that I make less money now than I did a decade ago. Journalism is going down the drain. So in order to work, I have to pay for childcare, but then I end up spending everything I make on childcare. It doesn’t make any sense at all. The only good news is that when I am criticized for my work, I think, ‘I am only doing this because I love it. The moment I stop loving it, I can walk away.’ Maybe it’s a terrible attitude to have, but it gives me some bravery.
Maybe I do what I do because it is meaningful work. But it is not lucrative in any way. So the moment it stops being exciting and gratifying, I will happily find another job that pays better. The reason this makes me brave is, when I write something that makes people angry, I really have nothing to lose. And I find that, over time, those articles that get under peoples’ skins make them think, and talk, and debate.
To learn more about Katherine Cole, you can visit her website.