English writer and broadcaster Andrew Jefford is one of the most respected wine journalists in the world. He’s been writing about wine (and other topics) since the 1980s, and has written a number of books and columns. Between 2009 and 2010 he spent 15 months as a senior research fellow at Adelaide University, and now lives in the Languedoc in France. A poet, he has brought an unusual ear for a good phrase to his award-winning wine writing. Andrew Jefford has also written against the increasing financialization of wine, and has committed to being transparent about his own earnings. He spoke to ARENI on the topic of wine and money.
Thank you so much for being with us today to discuss money, which is a key topic in wine. Money is linked to so many things of course, but what I wanted to do with you today is explore how money could be linked to diversity. Is money – or the lack of it, or the lack of transparency around money – linked to the apparent lack of diversity in the wine world? At least in the world of wine critics and wine writers? You’re the only figure in the wine world who is fully transparent about money.
Why are we so uncomfortable about talking about money?
I don’t think it’s particularly limited to the wine world. I think people are generally uncomfortable speaking and talking about money. As to why that is, I don’t really know. I think psychologists would probably have quite a lot of fun with it trying to work out. To me it’s a little bit suspect.
I can’t think of a good reason for concealing your income.Andrew Jefford, writer and broadcaster
I think income should be known. It’s a way of being honest about the way things are. Disparities between what men and women are paid, for example, only come to light when one is transparent about income. As you probably know, in Scandinavia tax returns are public information. I think that’s actually a very good idea. I’d like to see that become universal, if possible.
You’re very active in Asia and in China, in particular. Are people there comfortable around money?
I don’t think it’s particularly different in Asia. Asia is difficult for outsiders to fully understand, and certainly the whole model of revenue for journalists in China compared to wine journalists over here in the UK or in Europe in general is a little bit different. I don’t think it’s any more transparent over there than it is over here.
There’s that famous saying, “if you want to make a small fortune in wine, start with a big one,” and it usually refers to wineries and winemakers but, from your experience, how does the saying apply to wine critics, wine writers and wine commentators?
Well, I think it is a bit different for wine media. Anyone can be a wine writer or a wine blogger. It requires pretty much zero capital. All you need is an internet connection and some way of tapping out some words and then you’re up and running. I think it’s quite useful also to distinguish here between being a wine critic and being a wine writer.
Let’s say wine critics are people who review wines and who issue points or scores about wines. I think if you want to set yourself up as a serious critic, then that does require capital or at least backing from somebody who’s got some capital, because to be a critic in an ethical way means that you really have to pay all your expenses. You have to keep your judgments unaffected by commercial considerations. Exactly how far that is possible is another interesting debate on its own. Ideally you really have to market your own judgments as well and all of that costs a lot of money. You can then make a lot of money like that, if you’re good and successful. As, of course, Robert Parker did. And as many of those who followed Robert Parker are doing, but I don’t think you could really count on much of a return in anything under 10 years.
Now, let’s leave wine critics aside and go back to wine writers; those who are writing about wine in a sort of educative or a generalist way, as opposed to critics. Honestly, I think very few people of this sort ever make much money. That’s why classically it’s a great career for single people, or for people with no children, or for people with whose partner earns a significant and regular income.
To make money in this way, you need to be either lucky enough to find a sort of niche, or you need to have a good idea and exploit the first mover advantage in some way. You need to be very talented, or very pushy, or ideally both, or you need to work unethically.Andrew Jefford, writer and broadcaster
Even as a so-called successful wine writer, it still helps to have some private money of your own, or at least not to need income to urgently, because that’s the only way you can really do worthwhile work like writing books, for example. I think if you need to raise a family as a wine writer, you just have to do other things as well. And then you sort of quickly get involved in drudgery and doing other tasks and you end up overworking.
One notable thing about the wine world is that it’s full of unpaid work. Things that people expect you to do for free, because it seems pleasant or it’s prestigious or this or that, or the other. You could lead a very busy professional life and never get paid a penny in the wine world. That would be perfectly possible.
Let’s say an editor of a wine magazine asks you for an 1,800-word article for £500. Well, on the surface of it, it seems like a reasonable proposition. And if you can dash it off in the morning in the morning, that’s fine. But very often you have to do research for that article. That’s why they’ve asked you for it. It’s something that hasn’t been written about before and it needs researching. You do the research, you sort out a research trip, then you have to do the trip itself.
So that’s probably four days, maybe even five days. Then you’re going to take at least a day and a half to organize all your notes and to write it up and to turn it into an article. And then probably there’ll be another half day’s work with the whole editorial process as it goes to and fro. So that turns into eight days work for £500 – 64 hours of work on an eight-hour day. That works out at £7.81 an hour. The UK living wage for people aged 23 or over is £8.91 an hour. So, this quite nice prospect has actually turned into something that’s below the UK living wage.
And that was the starting point of this conversation. When we talk about diversity and bringing more diverse voices to wine, one of the hypotheses that I wanted to raise is maybe they are not that many people of colour in the wine industry because we don’t pay enough. The money is not enough compared to tech, medicine or law. Is there a way we could have passion, purpose and salaries altogether, or is it two of each, but not all?
Yes. I rather fear it’s this sort of structural problem, really. Wine is a lifestyle career. It has that kind of appeal and allure to it, and therefore it attracts lots of people who don’t need to make money from it. They’re making a lifestyle choice to work in that way. That’s fine, but they don’t actually need the money. There aren’t any stringent professional qualifications. Of course, there’s the Master of Wine, which is a very stringent qualification, but it’s a very expensive one as well. I never got involved because I never had that amount of money.
The wine world is very atomized and fragmented. It’s global, but it’s often small-scale enterprises, and it’s very low margin as well.
Either you choose it because it’s family and you don’t really have a choice cause that’s where you come from, or you choose it for lifestyle. How do you see the new media? Do you see social media as a promising way to monetize skills and reputation?
Honestly, I don’t see that as a great avenue. Wine is very visual. If you’re ready to go around the world and visit wonderful vineyards and see chateaux and all the rest, that’s very expensive. Nobody wants to sit and watch people tasting wine.
Another problem with wine is it’s very complicated. It’s very intellectually challenging, so it’s never going to be able to communicate easily. The sort of TikTok formula is just not going to work very well with wine.
As far as influencers are concerned, my understanding is that these are essentially people who are paid to promote a product. And if you’re actually paid to push your product, you’re going to have zero reputation. Maybe you can make income in a short term, but you’re not going to make it last for 10 or 15 years like that.
You’re the only person who has actually publicly revealed your revenue and you’ve done for quite some time. Can you tell us a bit when you decided to go public with your revenue and why?
I think the 2011 income was the first one I put up on the website and I put it up every year since. Every so often there are kerfuffles about wine writer corruption. I can’t remember what the actual kerfuffle was about at the time, but I just thought, why can’t we make it public? What have I got to lose? I put it up. I don’t know if it’s very influential, but anyway, it’s there if people want.
And have you experienced any drawbacks?
No, none whatsoever.
In any industry, what you can ask (financially) is also related to your reputation and to your experience. Throughout the different stages of your career, how did you relate to money? How did you balance the interest versus income of a project?
This is an interesting question. And there is, I think quite an interesting answer, which is that circumstances are everything in this debate. In the early parts of my career, my partner at that time had a job as well. So, we had two modest professional incomes. We didn’t have any children. I needed to carry on working, but I could pick and choose and do pretty much whatever I wanted because we could manage. I didn’t have to think before I put something in the supermarket trolley.
In the second half of my career, I’ve been earning a living for a family of four, and that just changes everything radically. I have to work as hard as I can at whatever pays the best. And I really always have to think twice before I put something in the supermarket trolley.
Where does your income come from? How do you balance your different hats?
Well, that’s very simple. You just prioritize whatever pays the most. If something pays, well, you say, “yes, I’ll do it”. And you do it really well.
Writing is what I enjoy the most, but for the last few years it’s been under 50% of my income. I would like it to be a hundred percent of my income. You know, I’d like to be writing books plus a little bit of journalism, but nobody pays for quality and wine writing. There’s always a long queue of people volunteering to do wine writing. And quite honestly, the readers and the consumers of wine writing don’t care too much about quality of writing and nor do most editors, with one or two very precious exceptions.
There might be a difference here between Europe and the US. In France, in particular, people don’t ask for money. It’s almost bad to ask for money.
Yes, any approach from France and they will always expect you to do it for nothing.
When you look at wine, it’s a sort of hobby for affluent people. It’s a rich boys and girls’ club. That requirement for wealth means it’s a kind of ghetto. It’s a structural problem.Andrew Jefford, writer and broadcaster
I don’t see how you’ll break that down easily. I’m not enormously optimistic about diversity amongst wine writers.
I think it would be a good thing if everybody started from a presumption that the work should be paid, if the wine world didn’t expect people to work for free the whole time. That would genuinely change and help things.
This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited.
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