Sipping the finest wine and spirits — often paired with gourmet snacks — for a living? Going through guided tastings led by renowned winemakers. Taking expenses-paid trips to the most picturesque parts of the world, to explore chateaus and wander through vineyards…. The everyday bon vivant wonders: Is this a real job that people who haven’t been born rich can hope to land?
The answer is, yes, but you have to be endlessly studious, naturally enthusiastic, constantly social, and disciplined even in the midst of an “endless vacation.” It’s not a common set of traits — which is why most people make their actual money some other way. In this Niche Expert installment, we meet a rare exception.
Allison Levine is an LA-based writer, event planner and marketing communication expert, working primarily within the beverage realm (albeit with some organic overlap into food and travel). I knew Allison before she had her business Please the Palate, but never knew her when she wasn’t working on something tasty. On a globally connected level, she’s always been both gatekeeper and most enthusiastic champion of unknown products that deserve a chance in the U.S. market. If you’ve ever fallen in love with a little-known wine or beer and wondered how you might get paid to share its story with people, follow Allison’s lead.
The beginning — a winding road to wine writing
Have you ever not been in the beverage industry? I can’t recollect.
I had been working in the dot-com world doing marketing communications and event planning. During that time I had started going to some wine classes for fun, and to learn, as I had lived in Italy after college and learned to appreciate wine. When the dot-com bubble burst, I joke that I started to drink for a living.
I offered to help my friend at the time, who taught wine classes as a hobby. Next thing I knew, five years had passed and I was running a wine education business. I was then approached for a job to sell wine for an importer/distributor. I worked there for almost a year when I was recommended for the job where I met you.
We met when you were on staff at an L.A. wine and spirits industry publisher. Did that steady paycheck allow you to stretch your wings as a writer, or did it stifle you?
At that job, I was the Vice President of Marketing and Events, working for a wine critic, and began focusing on the industry side. I began working with wineries and wine regions, organizing events for them. About a year into that, the company I was with purchased a regional trade magazine and launched it nationally. I was a part of the naming and branding, and officially was the marketing and events person for the magazine.
The first issue was in May 2007, and I wrote my first story in that issue. It was a recap of an event we had done, and I profiled the different brands. An invite came in for a press trip to the region I had lived in, in Italy. I asked if I might be able to cover it. That was my first press trip, and I wrote about it for the second issue of the magazine. From there, while marketing and events were my primary focus, I also began writing regularly for the magazine. That is how I got started writing. It was not intentional, but after writing many research papers in college, as well as my thesis in grad school, writing seemed to come naturally.
You helped build other people’s brands before you built your own. In hindsight, what was the value of “coming up” that way?
The businesses I worked for, excluding the importer, were small businesses. I was involved in more roles than what my title declared. In small businesses, you are privy to everything that is going on, and are in one way or another, involved in every part. All of my work experiences, even prior to the wine industry, have taught me so many lessons. I gained a lot of insight to what works… and what doesn’t.
When you split with your last employer, did you immediately say, “This is my opportunity to do things my own way?” Or did you consider finding a steady job with someone else?
My last employer sat down with me and said that they were shutting down my department but that I was good at what I did and should spin it off into my own business. I had often wondered what my next step in my career was, but did not have the impetus to start my own business. I was given the push.
It was Memorial Day weekend and I took the weekend to think about the next steps. I had built a network of people and had a good reputation. I had a specialty, doing trade events for wine regions, and did not know who else I could work for. The PR companies that did events were not based in Los Angeles, nor were the wineries should I want to go in-house.
Launching a business… and a blog
When did you realize that your blog was going to be a big part of your value and your product offering?
When I decided to start my business, I was focused on the marketing communications and event planning as the primary business. I already had a few clients and was working on a few projects, so it was just a matter of transitioning to my own business. I thought starting a blog might be a good way to build my brand. Because I was eating out and trying new things all the time, I thought that I would write the blog in order to keep track of it all.
How do you find editorial opportunities, either one-offs or columns?
Even while starting my blog, I wanted to see if I could write elsewhere. I continued to write for one year for my previous employer, but they were now paying me as a freelance writer. I also met some people who had travel websites and asked if I could contribute. They were very willing but did not pay. As I was starting out, I was willing to do a few free stories for the exposure, but since I was being paid by the trade publication, it was hard to write for free. Writing takes time and creativity.
On a press trip to France, I traveled with a great group, one of whom was the Editor of the Napa Valley Register. She had been getting invites to events for years from me, but did not have a face to the name. We became friends and I casually pitched her after our trip. To my surprise, she accepted, and I wrote my first story for the newspaper. I pitched another couple of stories, which were also accepted. After I had written almost a dozen stories, she offered me my own column. I have had a column since September 2015, and have written it almost every single week.
Over the years, I have been lucky to meet other editors and have informally pitched them. And over the years, as I have written more and more, I have been approached by some outlets to write for them. I have pitched a few stories and will continue to, but I do not have a lot of time to pitch stories.
Thriving and finding balance
You organize a lot of high-profile media and trade events, which is a very social job. But you are equally as much a writer, which is an introvert’s job. How do those two aspects of your career balance comfortably?
I am most definitely an extrovert. But, I do not think that writing is an introvert’s job necessarily. I am an experiential writer. I like to visit the places, meet the people, taste the wines and food, and then share their stories. So, there is a lot of engagement, as well as observation that I do — and then I try to communicate that in my stories.
When I first started my business seven years ago, I thought that writing would be something on the side. But writing has taken on a life of its own. This year, I was approached about a podcast and am now the host of the U.S. edition of “Wine Soundtrack”, where I interview winemakers and winery owners.
Did you get any formal education/training in wine or mixology or farming?
I started in wine as a consumer who wanted to learn the basics, and went to classes. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. That is what I find so fascinating about the wine industry. No matter how much you know, there is so much more to learn. It is never-ending. I have taken courses, and have my WSET Level 3 Certification as well as an Italian Wine Specialist Certification through the North American Sommelier Association. I continue to learn when I visit wine regions or sit down with winemakers for interviews.
You’ve worked for many big brands, but you haven’t gone in-house since… How many years has it been? What is your secret?
I started my business in June 2011 and have not looked back. I feel very lucky. I definitely have a particular niche in what I do. But I work very hard. I have developed relationships, and have developed a reputation for the work I do. I think this is the secret.
You get a lot of event/PR projects that would typically be handled by a boutique agency with multiple staffers. What makes brands believe you can do the work of many?
I believe in committing to the work I say I will do. I do not over-promise but I try to always over-deliver. I am just a one-woman show, but I have been doing this in one way or another for more than 15 years, and I think I know my business.
Your latest project, Effervescence LA, is so exciting. It also seems very time-consuming. It’s in one of the biggest markets in the world! When you announced it, you assured people that you’d continue to run your blog/business. What’s your time management strategy?
Thanks! It is an exciting new project. It is the second year of Effervescence LA, and I was referred by friends and colleagues in the industry. I am excited to work on this event in the role of general manager.
The event is in May 2019, and for the next few months, it will get the majority of my energy. I will keep my writing generally for my weekends. But, after spending 7 years building my business, I am not willing to give it up. Many of the clients I work with on a regular basis do events in the fall, so there will be no conflict. And, if other things come in the spring, I will just have to assess if I have the time to accept them. I am going to take everything one day/project at a time.
Time management is probably the biggest challenge of running your own business. I am very organized, and have daily lists that I prepare. But, I have to remember to find balance for myself. If I am not working on an event, I am working on a proposal or have a story due, or have to send invoices and pay bills, or have to build my database or…..There is always something, and there is no one else who will do it but me. But, I also have to find time to work out, to sleep and to see family and friends. There will always be crunch time in the event world, but on an average day, I try to maintain a routine so that I can be most efficient. I’m getting better at it every year!