Elizabeth Schneider: The Ramble
An in-depth talk with one of America's top wine educators/communicators and the advocate for Normal People
Elizabeth Schneider is one of the sharpest people I know in the wine biz. Over at “Wine For Normal People” she has created something of a small empire (perhaps “Duchy” is a better description). Elizabeth has a degree in International Politics, a Masters of Business Administration, a year abroad, experience working in Tech, and all this before taking a marketing position with a very, very, very large American wine producer. That last experience was not what she was hoping for. In fact, it soured her, though not so much that she wanted to leave wine. She decided she wanted to teach and explore wine in a way that “normal” people could appreciate.
After many years hanging with normal people, Elizabeth has racked up over 400 podcasts on her way to becoming one of the most accomplished of that breed. Her crazy loyal following has eaten up the various wine classes she offers. Her Patreon sponsors continue to grow and support her. Her book, “Wine For Normal People”, has risen on the charts and become a current staple among those looking for an intelligent and approachable introduction to wine.
The bottom line here is that Elizabeth’s keen intellect, her devotion to wine, and her genuine nature have made her a staple in the American wine media. I wanted to do a ramble with Elizabeth for no other reason than to see where she would take it. As you’ll read, she took me all over the place, has lots to say about the industry she loves (and is frustrated with) and she does not lack opinions and ideas.
This interview approach, “The Ramble”, begins with one question emailed to the subject. They respond in any way they choose, which in turn prompts my next question, and so on. It is a less formal way of conducting an interview, results in something a bit messier and rambling, but also produce something more interesting and authentic I think.
TOM: Thank you for taking this ramble with me and exposing yourself to my readers. You are one of the few folks I know outside my family that will always tell me the truth. Or at least you always tell me exactly what you are thinking without much filter. That’s a real gift. So, thank you. So let me start our ramble by asking you to very honestly tell me about your view of the state of wine education in the United States. That is essentially your game with the extraordinarily popular podcasting you do and with the many classes you hold for your supporters. From your perch and your experience, sum up for me the state of wine education (formal and informal) in this country.
Elizabeth: First of all, thanks for doing this with me and for being my friend and sounding board and yes, I will always tell you (and anyone else) the truth!
As you know, I started out my career in working for a big, hulking winery and it was their complete disregard for consumers' intelligence and interest in wine that motivated me to start Wine for Normal People. There is an enormous disconnect between the "wine industry" and the people who ultimately support it -- consumers. The three-tier system creates so much distance between the people who drink the wine and the people who produce it that there is almost no relationship, except in the case of small producers who welcome consumers into their tasting rooms and actually sit down with them and listen to their questions. The truth is that consumers are very interested in wine and knowing more about it so they are seeking education and are getting it. Things have improved vastly -- while large producers still put out vacuous, dumbed down nonsense on their websites, some specialty wine retailers and the WSET, in particular, have done a really good job of helping consumers understand the fundamentals about wine and how to explore the huge number of options.
Technology plays a big part in all this too. The fact that my podcast can get to people everywhere in the world and spread meticulously researched information to people anywhere is essential to wine education. I can teach students all over the world in a live wine class via Zoom and connect with them on their ideas, questions, and comments in real time. Education takes a real leap when you are not geographically limited. And the proof is in the pudding: I am constantly floored by how open people are to learning about different wines around the world and incorporating them into their wine rotation. Wine consumers are, as a group, very sophisticated and very intellectually curious, if given the opportunity and resources to explore. It has been the highlight of my professional life to see my listeners blossom and grow in their knowledge and willingness to explore, and to spread their enthusiasm by sharing what they know with others. I am a very lucky person to have a community of wine consumers who I adore and who allow me to continue to explore the world of wine with them and for them.
So overall, as the wine market has matured, we are in a much better place in terms of wine education than we were when I got into the business in 2005.
That said, we have a long way to go. I think one of the biggest issues we have is the lack of education for servers, wine shop staff, and distributor reps. I mainly work with consumers, but you would be astonished at the number of people who work for Total Wine or large restaurant chains who find the podcast because they are desperate to gain some accessible, well-researched knowledge about wine that they can pass on to consumers. Clearly they are not getting solid training. You would also be astonished at how many of my listeners come to me with questions about misinformation they hear from retailers and sommeliers. Let me be clear: it's not the end of the world that this stuff is wrong -- we're in wine, not in brain surgery -- but I wish there was more concern for standardized education for wine professionals who work with consumers.
I really am rambling, but I do also want to bring up the concern I have about the industry failing to educate the public about the benefits of wine. One of those benefits is something you and I have discussed, which is that wine is something that brings people together and (for those without addiction) can be great for mental health. I think it's a symptom of the cultural isolation that wine consumption is declining and people are less likely to share a meal over a bottle or have a glass after work together to relax and enjoy life. It seems like what I'm saying is marketing bullshit, but in actuality, it's part of the education about wine and what its historic and cultural legacy brings. The failure of the industry to point out that wine has so much depth and can be an occasion to bring people together in an increasingly isolated society is another education point we miss and something that can be of great societal benefit. Sorry, had to throw that in there even though it's not about formal education.
TOM: This isolation you point to, it does have us in our corners and cubbies to a degree it didn’t years back. I blame the Internet. But you make a good point about wine’s legacy. For folks who work directly in the wine business, without the acknowledgment of wine’s cultural and historical touchpoint, what we do can really seem frivolous. One of the things I listen for in your podcasts is the way you and your guests speak to the meaning of what you do and the meaning of wine. This brings me to something I don’t think you and I have ever touched on.
You are a very good interviewer. You get the most out of your guests. How do you do that?
ELIZABETH: I actually used to be a terrible interviewer and I still prefer the straight-up education shows I do with my husband, but I've learned something about interviews over the years. When I first started talking to people, I was so worried about proving I knew about wine that I tried to show off my knowledge and talked too much. Over time, I got more confidence (the secret of all success, no?) and the interview shows got better.
There are a few things that make a huge difference in interviewing people:
1. You have to do really deep research on the person you are talking to and on the topic about which they are talking. You have to know the answer to all your questions that aren't opinions and you have to spend hours delving into the subject. Leave no stone unturned! And ask questions other people won't ask or don't think of. My job consists of two things: researching like everything I present is a thesis (I should have been a professor, let's face it), and then translating my findings into something that is compelling and totally understandable/relatable to normal people listening. Oh, and to add levity if possible. Life sucks without humor.
2. You have to listen to what the other person is saying. That was my downfall in the beginning -- I used to try to get my points in. Now I just try to let people riff. Editing can take out anything that is unclear or irrelevant but if you let people say what they want to say, you make them feel like they want to be there and that what they are saying is awesome (which, on my show, it always is!😂). That said, most of the people I interview have never been on a podcast and aren't used to being interviewed (see the next point), so sometimes they miss some things I'm trying to get at or want people to know. I've been accused of answering my own questions sometimes, but the goal of my show isn't to make everything a pretty little bow, it's to educate. If I have to bring up points that my guests forgot to answer, fine. The podcast is free, people can turn it off if they don't like it.
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3. I am ridiculously selective with my guests. Since my show is not guest-driven and my audience is a tight-knit community, I only have guests on whom I personally know or who are recommended highly by friends in the industry. The way I look at guests is similar to how I'd look at invitations to a party I am hosting -- I would always invite friends, and those friends bring friends they know will work well at my "party". I nearly never have guests on whom I don't know -- the few times it has happened, it's been fairly unsuccessful so for the last 11 years, I've followed this invite etiquette and it's worked well. In other words, it's a rare pitch I will accept, and that makes the interview shows like a conversation between friends. I've shared a glass of wine with almost everyone I've spoken to for the show. And about 95% of them are from small, family-owned wineries that don't have PR agencies (no offense, Tom) and don't have big marketing budgets. I may be the only mouthpiece they have. All that matters in making a great connection to someone and a good show.
TOM: You talk about your listeners as a “tight-knit community”. What creates that kind of community? Clearly, it revolves around, first, a love of wine, but also around an attraction to you. What can you tell us about this community you’ve created—a community, I’d add, that is among the largest in the wine podcasting space. Are they just Normal People? And if they are just Normal People who are interested enough to lap up your podcasts and online classes, what should this tell the people making and selling the wine in the U.S.?
ELIZABETH: I wish I could tell you the answer to that! I have never done advertising for the podcast and the audience has built slowly over time. I have been very upfront with the fact that if people don't like me, my opinions, my voice, or my attitudes about wine they are more than welcome to turn off the (free) show. I have even answered some of the more brutal emails I've received over the years by directing people to other podcasts they may find more serious or less opinionated. In doing this, and in making a show that is factual but personality-driven, I think I have been able to only attract a loyal and close community.
Although the community I have is of wine lovers, it's a very different group of people than you'll find anywhere else. I have a Patreon community that is a subset of my listenership and I look at them like they're my family. I have always tried to treat the listeners like they are my close friends because we are a community of people with a common interest and a common outlook on wine. When I meet Patrons or listeners, there is a thread of similarity that runs through them. They are smart and eager to learn, but they're also a little snarky, they like to laugh, and they are totally respectful towards me and each other. There's nearly no fan I've met who I don't want to hang out with or share a drink with. That said, I'm a one-person company (ok, I have a part-time VA but I do pretty much everything myself) and I have the luxury of being able to have this kind of relationship with my listeners.
What does this mean for the industry? Small wineries should absolutely be striving to build the same kind of wine community I'm talking about. They should be getting to know their wine club members and they should be encouraging community events. In a world where people are so alone and disenfranchised, wine has a really unique place and, maybe even responsibility, to bring people together. It's not all about money, it's about caring about the people who are buying your wine. And I don't mean the damn wholesalers! I mean the people who actually are responsible for wineries staying in business -- the humans at the other end of the bottle. Sometimes we are so focused on business that we forget that without them, there is no wine. Consumers should be the first priority for anyone who sells wine. The best small producers I know get this. They welcome visitors like they were guests in their home. They may do a free consumer tasting or hang out at a wine bar when they are traveling to meet their local fans. And although it's harder the bigger you get, wineries still need to figure out how to value their end customers and find ways to bring them together as a community with a shared, common interest.
Sorry to really ramble but there's a caveat to this community idea. I hate how the idea has been co-opted, but if you build something that involves consumers, you have to be true to yourself and march to your own beat (except if it's weird or creepy, obviously). Better to have a small community of people who you adore and who adore you than to have a big, faceless group who you don't know and don't really care about. This is hard. If you're tempted to try to copy your neighbor who does this well and put their ideas into place, you will fail. Someone once called me a "lone wolf," citing that my opinions and views don't line up with any sommeliers or wine writers they read. That may be the biggest compliment I ever received. I'm my own person, and my community is a reflection of my values, my attitude, and my (gasp!) biases -- which I will always admit. Wineries who try to do something that's inauthentic and think consumers will buy the gimmicky shit and remain loyal underestimate wine drinkers at their own peril. That may work for big, hulking wineries who treat wine like it's Oreos but it doesn't fly for the rest of the wine universe.
That may be completely off-topic but it's a ramble, right?
TOM: If you aren’t off-topic on a Ramble, it’s not a Ramble. So, well done, Elizabeth.
OK…Fun question here: I tried to count the number of guests you’ve had on the Wine For Normal People over the years. I stopped counting. But here’s the question: Top Five Guests in the History of WFNP and Why?
ELIZABETH: I think the ratio is like 60/40 education to guests so we can say it's probably around 175? Maybe fewer since in the first few years I didn't even try to do guests. This is an impossible question since I only have guests on who absolutely love and I don't want to offend anyone. I guess I can talk about it more from a "memorable content" perspective and because I'm getting older, a lot of that is recent 😂.
My number one guest of all time is Jean-Baptiste Cordonnier of Château Anthonic in Moulis (Médoc, Bordeaux). He absolutely blew me away with the new techniques he's employing to combat climate change through agroforestry. Any person in the wine industry should know about this and follow his teaching. He is brilliant and he is actually making a huge difference in Bordeaux he could change the entire face of viticulture if people listen to him. One of the best humans in wine and one of the smartest people I've met. It's a must-listen.
Denise Marrone of Agricola Gran Pietro Marrone in Barolo is a FORCE. She and her sisters are taking over the winery from their dad and they are the future of Barolo. I love her for her positivity, knowledge, and her raw honesty. I told her I thought her wines had improved so much over the past two years and, whereas other people would be kind of defensive about that, she said "I agree!" and then told me why. She is my ideal guest -- chatty, fun, smart, honest, and she gives us a window into life as a small producer. Like so many of my guests, she's become a friend and I think you can hear our mutual affection in the show. And visiting her is like going to your best friend's house. They have a kitchen and cook authentic Italian food. It will be the best meal you have if you go to Piedmont!
Serge Doré of Serge Doré Selections is an importer out of New York and he is a regular on the show because I love him and so does everyone else. He is a dear friend of mine and he has taken us on virtual tours of nearly all the French regions, sharing his more than 40 years of experience of meeting people and working with small, family-owned producers in France. He has impeccable taste (his portfolio knocks my socks off), more passion than anyone I know, and every story he tells is fun, funny, and charming. I just recorded another show with him and I can't wait for our next one!
Another recent show that I loved, as did the listeners, was with Elizabeth Gabay, who is the foremost authority on rosé and an MW, and her son and co-author, Ben Bernheim. If you want an entertaining show and one that will give you deep, deep knowledge of a topic, this is it. If you think you have a handle on what rosé is, think again. These two are excellent storytellers, fantastic people, and they are going to change how rosé is viewed in the world. YES, it can age. And yes, there are some people taking it seriously. She and Ben are also friends of mine and I had to edit our conversation down because we could literally talk for hours and still have more to say. They are brilliant and I'm looking forward to learning more from them in the future.
Thibaut Le Mailloux, Communications Director for the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) sticks in my mind because he was so forthcoming about Champagne and the things they go through to protect the region and the Champagne brand. It drove home how essential it is to preserve history and heritage and how, even though Apple may think Champagne is a cute name for their phone color, it is something that the Champenoise find objectionable. I really understood why that was after speaking to him. He was also one of the first people to openly talk about breeding new grapes to deal with climate change. It was fascinating. I have to say, I always love having the heads of the appellations on. I need to also give a nod to the marvelous Thierry Fritsch, the head oenologist and chief wine educator of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d'Alsace, and to Laurent Delaunay, head of Maison Edouard Delaunay and head of the Bourgogne Wine Board (BIVB). Both outstanding people and outstanding shows.
Oh, and I have to say, there's a guy named Tom Wark out of Oregon who is a wine writer, PR mogul, and who is fighting for interstate shipping in the US. He is incredibly intelligent, he's doing great work, and he regularly comes on the show to give us a debrief on how he is trying to slay the dragon of the wholesaler stranglehold on interstate commerce in US wine. He is top shelf and I especially love doing shows with him because it takes me half the time to edit because he is so well-spoken.
TOM: That last dude you mention is a troublemaker.
Your interview preferences gravitate to those who don’t appear to have any interest in bullshit. That makes sense. Clearly, these folks make better, more engaging guests. Then there are those that simply want to discuss their or their company’s talking points and are well trained to stay on message. In my position, I’ve often prepared clients for interviews and we do lay out certain points about the company that we absolutely want to present. I go over talking points with them. But I try to remind them that this is wine, not a U.S. Senate debate and in the end the degree to which you engage honestly will usually determine the degree to which the audience feel an affinity for you and your company.
So, with candor on our mind, let me ask you this: We recently saw the demise of the new wine search engine PIX, and along with it the demise of its sister media arm, The Drop. This leads me to wonder about your thoughts on wine media. I personally think the wine media arm of the industry is more interesting now than at any time during the past 30 years. But from your perch, not only as a member of that media but as a consumer of it, do you think we have a responsible wine media that is producing good and necessary, and diverse perspectives on this drink we all love?
ELIZABETH: I know you are bullish on wine media and the voices we're hearing now but I actually think we are at a real low point in wine media. When I first started in wine, it was the heyday of blogs and there were so many talented people writing about wine (there were also a lot of untalented people writing about wine, but they have mostly stopped!). Gary Vaynerchuk was the big thing, and people were experimenting. We had the staid, more conventional news, and then we had people like the Hosemaster of Wine, making us laugh through sardonic commentary. There was a lot of shit, but some great voices emerged and there was excitement.
Today, I see very little real wine news and virtually no critical thinking about the industry. I have been continually frustrated by alleged wine journalism from certain outlets that call themselves "news" but then sensationalize stories for clickbait. If I have to dispel articles about Bordeaux being on fire (it's not, most of Médoc looks to have a small but very excellent 2022 and the Right Bank is looking similarly good) or interstate shipping going away in all 50 states because of a new proposed law (thank you, Tom, for helping me correct that one), then we have problems with accuracy. And consumers are reading this stuff, not just industry people, so I think it's a little irresponsible to report things that aren't exactly true.
And I would STILL say that the gatekeepers ignore voices and sometimes stories that consumers care about. The wine writers of the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Wall Street Journal etc. go to the same sources over and over again when they are looking for material. To be honest, the better articles on wine are often written by staff writers, not the wine columnists (the strong exception to that statement is the drivel that often comes out of the AP or Reuters about scientific studies about wine that are misrepresented or stories in mass media that often spout terrible information about wine). Lest we forget that the scandal about the Court of Master Sommeliers was broken not by the New York Times wine writer, but by a woman investigative journalist. I'm sure there are a million excuses that your readers will give me about church and state and not getting involved in the investigation, etc., but that entire situation and his lack of involvement seemed really disconnected from what people care about in wine media. It was a perfect opportunity to make commentary and be involved in shaping thought and it was a punt, frankly. It's just another example of how thought leadership in media is often in short supply.
The most interesting voices in wine media for me are the ones who look at wine in novel ways. David Morrison from the Wine Gourd immediately comes to mind. He's a scientist who looks at data sets and makes really interesting observations about things like why we will never really know if wine is good or bad for us, and whether or not we should trust wine scores. Jamie Goode does a great job with making wine science accessible and has for more than a decade. There are still some good writers out there that cover very specific niches -- Jane Anson, Matt Walls, Elizabeth Gabay, Amanda Barnes -- but in general wine media has few hard news sources.
I don't really follow influencers, but I think they are also thinking about wine in new ways and I think they are a bright spot in the wine media diet. I really appreciate the gateway they open into the world of wine. I know they get criticized but I think they serve a really important function in welcoming people to the wine world. Often people follow them, want to learn more, and then move on to other resources. I have never begrudged them for doing what they do -- I could never do video or take pictures like that! And to your point, the influencer world is where we see so much diversity, and I do love that -- no offense but wine is not just for middle-aged white dudes and it's nice to see that reflected on Instagram!
And sorry, to answer your question, I was sad to see the editorial arm of PIX fail for the sole reason that Felicity Carter is one of the best and only true journalists in wine now and until she lands somewhere we will be at sea in the world of wine news.
TOM: Thank you, Elizabeth.
Two of my favorite wine writers/speakers in one drop! Speaking of which: the demise of Pix/The Drop was news to me. Likely b/c I'd not yet really made them a go-to sorce yet, but they'd intrigued me. Will you be talking more on that in the future?