How to Make a Career Writing About Booze
Hope Ewing Talks to Talia Baiocchi About the Birth of Punch
I knew Talia Baiocchi already, in theory. I’d been introduced to her by a mutual friend when I first had my bartending chops and was looking to spread the word on craft cocktails. Punch, the online magazine of which she is editor in chief, was a phenomenal source of information, not just for drink recipes and trends, but for how drinks intersected with culture. Big-picture stuff.
I’m not sure what made Talia take the chance on an unproven recent MFA graduate who sent her five too-long pitches, but she did. Over the course of four years I wrote my most insightful liquor stories for Punch, all delving into some nerdy enclave of liquor and culture. I wrote about how Irish whiskey was poised for a comeback and about how barreled gins tasted awesome. I did my best to appear professional, scatterbrained and overwhelmed with bar shifts as I was. So it was a real joy when she replied to my request for an interview.
For all the emailing, I knew little of her story. I knew she’d worked in wine retail and had been the wine editor at Eater before Punch made its debut in 2014. What I hadn’t known was how young Talia had been at each of these milestones and the kind of blistering criticism she’d endured, as only the internet age can provide.
Speaking to her on the phone for the first time, I was not surprised by her brisk and forthright manner of speaking. Having come to know the Punch house “voice” (the tone in which all articles are phrased; every magazine has its own), her speech patterns were familiar. In fact, starting my booze-writing career on her site did me a favor. I learned how to cram the most information possible into each sentence. This was true of Talia’s speech as well. She wasted no time. It made me miss Queens a little.
I knew that Talia was from California, had gone to school in New York City, and, after college, had left for Italy to work in vineyards. I asked her what inspired her to study wine in the first place.
“I was working as a hostess at a restaurant in the East Village, and I started learning about wine there through staff tastings, then I started reading and getting involved with industry tastings from there, but I had no idea what the ‘wine world’ meant. At that point it wasn’t quite as rich and diverse as it is now. Sommeliers were not yet rock stars in the way they are now and all that. I was sort of like, I’m into this.”
Sure, she was into wine, but what was the endgame? Did she envision any particular career coming from it?
She laughed. “I really wasn’t thinking about that. I was working in restaurants. I had studied journalism and political science in college. I was sort of like, I don’t see a clear career path for myself. What I do know is that while I was working at the restaurant I fell in love with wine. I felt like I had one shot to pursue that passion and see where it took me, even though I also had no idea what kind of career opportunities existed in the wine world.”
This was not the first time Talia felt called to a seemingly impractical topic. After high school, she said, she had wanted to study art history, but felt pressured to go into something more practical. Unfortunately, journalism and political science hadn’t yielded opportunities she’d been excited about. “The internships I did… I worked on a [political] campaign, I hated that.”
“I was like, I’m not going to make this mistake again. I had the same kind of connection with [wine] that I did with art history in high school.” Following this instinct, she booked a ticket to Italy, mind and return date wide open. She worked the harvest in Piedmont, and spent the rest of the summer hitting up every wine region she could until resources ran out.
“When I came back I was just like, all right, I’m just going to see what I can do with the knowledge that I’ve gathered over the past couple of years, and kind of took it from there. In a roundabout way, I ended up back in journalism, even though truthfully I graduated with no intention of necessarily being a writer or journalist.” Haha, younger self.
“[Writing] was something I always did from a young age, it was the thing in school I was best at, but I didn’t see myself, after going through college, having a career as a journalist.” Particularly since her professors at NYU tried their best to put a damper on their students’ ambitions. They’d say, for instance, that journalism was “not the glamorous career that it used to be, nobody has any money anymore, it’s tough to break into.” She’d taken these warnings to heart.
“It’s interesting that it took something I really loved to find my way back to writing. I think I just needed that thing. I needed a thing I wanted to write about in order to see a path to a career.”
Upon her return from Italy, Talia got a job at wine retailer Italian Wine Merchants. She ended up in a specialty sales division, selling blue-chip wines from Italy and France to high end clients. This sounds terrifying to me, but it was key to her continuing wine education.
“I cold-called people. I was twenty-two. I made some big sales and got some big clients, and got to drink a lot of amazing wine that these days is impossible to have access to without tons of money. It was a tremendous opportunity for me. I wouldn’t have the basic knowledge of wine if it wasn’t for that experience, that few years, being able to drink the classic wines of the world.”
This reminded me of my second office job, at the Met Opera in New York. At twenty-five, I saw dozens of world-class singers, enjoyed shows I would have had no chance of affording otherwise, schmoozed with donors who gave away annually twice or more than what I made in a year. All this because I could write and (to a lesser degree) talk. For an NYU graduate such as Talia with a gift for banter, high-end wine sales made perfect sense. But this position would not hold her long.“The point of all of this is I kind of just said yes and just jumped into things without ever really knowing exactly what they would entail. I just had faith that I could pull it off.”
“From there I went to launch a startup with my friend August Cardona, who was my boss at Italian Wine Merchants.” They were tasked with establishing the New York arm of a UK startup that published reviews of restaurant wine lists. Talia helped populate and edit their review database. This was edgier than it might sound. Wine reviews are old news: the critic assesses an individual wine’s quality, gives tasting notes, suggests pairings. Publishing assessments of a wine list was novel. Wine lists are most often put together by the restaurant’s sommelier, a position far more lauded now than ten years ago thanks to a barrage of popular documentaries and books about the rigors of the Master Sommelier Examination. The wine list is a testament to the sommelier’s taste and creativity, and their ability to work within (or aim above) the budgets and expectations of the restaurant’s clientele. These reviews intertwined the wine and service worlds on paper as they are in real life. Food media took notice.
“I did that, launched it, and that ended up becoming a column on Eater. From there I became the wine editor for Eater.”
Talia’s Eater columns were popular; she represented a young and knowledgeable voice in the wine writing field—a relative rarity at the time. As such, her work was often met with commenter ire for her daring having-of-opinions as a young woman, and the unorthodoxy of a wine list review to begin with. Personally, I think the first two decades of the twenty-first century will go down in history as the time when the internet gave public platforms to every mean-spirited dolt with a keyboard, and we will be ashamed of it. No matter. Talia had bigger things to think about.
“I was doing a bunch of freelance writing, then I met Aaron Wehner, who is the publisher of Ten Speed Press, at a wine dinner in Napa. We hit it off and we stayed in touch. He knew I was really interested in sherry, and he sent me an email one day and he asked if I want to write a book about it. I was like, ‘Sure!’ I had no idea what that would necessarily entail.” I could relate to this.
“The point of all of this is I kind of just said yes and just jumped into things without ever really knowing exactly what they would entail. I just had faith that I could pull it off, and I think that’s the one through line through all of this stuff. It wasn’t like I had some master plan. I think a lot of it was luck and timing and meeting the right people, but also just jumping in and not having fear.”
Wehner helped her find an agent, helped her through the process of writing and publishing Sherry—part a story of her travels through the region of Jerez, visiting bodegas (wineries) and learning about sherry’s production; part tasting guide complete with cocktail recipes. It took about a year and a half to complete.
“Sherry is incredibly complex and in many ways unknowable. Also in many ways [Jerez is] a rich and paradoxical place. I only skimmed the surface of that. I attempted to write the book in a way that brought the reader along with that journey, not as somebody writing as some kind of expert on high. I was genuinely learning at the same time.”
At the same time her first book was launching, Talia’s mentor had another question: Would she be interested in starting a website about wine and spirits that spoke to her demographic?
“At that point, I had barely edited anything, and I was like just a freelance writer that had made a name for myself in New York within our very small world. I said, ‘Sure!’” At this she laughed, as if she could hardly believe it herself. “Then over the course of the next eight months [we came] up with the idea of Punch, and I brought on Leslie Pariseau, who was a good friend of mine, as deputy editor.” Leslie came from the spirits side of the business, while Talia came from wine. “We both have a similar writing style and aesthetic and all that. We clicked creatively. Together we launched the site and grew it from there.” The two went on to cowrite another book, Spritz, about Italian aperitivo cocktails.
Punchdrink.com launched in 2014. It focused on the intersection of drinks and culture, with an emphasis on long-form narrative journalism. That is, seeing beer, wine, and spirits as “a means to discover the sense of ‘place’ psychologically ingrained into a region over centuries—or a peek into a specific era and its ambitions.” It’s all terroir all the time.
I had heard previous interviews with her in which she mentioned what she felt was rampant discrimination against younger writers in the wine world. I asked her how she approached the experiences of being the editor in chief of a major drinks site and publishing her first booze book at this time, knowing there could be pushback.
“I always tried to be honest about whether I did or did not know something. It’s an uncomfortable place to be, being young, in my mid- to late twenties. I was 28 when Punch launched and I felt really insecure about that. Sometimes, especially with Eater, people would kind of come after me and put me down, because I think there was definitely ageism there. A lot of people ask me about being a woman, and it wasn’t so much about being a woman but more about being young. Wine hasn’t been particularly hospitable to young voices until recently. That’s another piece of advice: just be honest about what you know and don’t know. Which is hard for a lot of people.”
In 2015 Punch won a Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Award for Best Cocktail & Spirits Publication. It became a source for information about obscure liqueurs, affordable and unusual wine recommendations, cocktail recipes, and stories about a city’s drinking culture. It was a rare middle ground between a general-interest magazine and a trade publication in that it appealed to people inside the industry and out. It started, and remains, digital only. I asked Talia if she had any print ambitions for it.
“Punch, from the very beginning, [has been] a digital magazine that’s essentially part of the gigantic publisher—not just Ten Speed but Penguin Random House. There’s always been a real interest in trying to bring these tools together and have a brand that can be in both [digital and print] spaces in a meaningful way. I think we do that in the books.” Starting this year, Ten Speed Press will publish books under the Punch brand. Still, “Digital is always going to be our priority and where we live; we are going to explore that relationship and how we can be in print in different ways.” She said they are exploring a print magazine extension of the brand, “not a monthly or even a quarterly, maybe just a biyearly. A place where we can really flex our muscles a little bit and do some of those really big stories that deserve the kind of epic treatment that print can offer, that sometimes feels impermanent on the web.”
She thought for a moment, and continued: “Every time we see a lot of photography that ends up on the cutting-room floor, and a lot of stuff that feels like it would be more dynamic visually if we were able to lay it out in print. It’s not only about the text but about the visuals, and that’s an especially important part of who we are.” Beautiful photography has always been central to Punch’s identity. A print magazine ensures that photos are viewed in their best formats, rather than someone’s cracked smart phone screen. Rather than prioritizing one medium over another from an abstract notion of worth, why not choose based on content?
It seemed that Talia’s publishing career, which she had given up and then come back around to via wine and spirits, was still growing. There was one more thing weighing on me. Talia had mentioned earlier that she established her writing career at a time “when it was possible to do so.” I asked her what she meant by that.
It’s not that people can’t make a living by writing about wine and spirits, she says, “it’s two things. There’s a lot more people who are in it. I think there’s a lot more competition, but there’s also a lot more opportunity. I don’t know how that compares if you look at the balance today vs. the balance five years ago. I feel like there was a moment where it was quite easy to have more access.”
Access to what, exactly? People. Building relationships in the writing world is important, she said, and as the scene becomes more crowded, that part becomes more challenging.
“I don’t mean this in a superficial way. You hear people say, ‘Oh, you need to go out and build relationships,’ and [it] feels like something where you have an agenda and it feels disingenuous. It’s more like if you want to be a part of this industry, be a part of this industry. Be curious and ask questions and be open. It’s cliché, it’s assumed knowledge, but I don’t think that a lot of people realize how important that simple thing is.”
Being honest about what you know and being open, interested, and nice to people. These were her two big pieces of advice for those coming up in the booze-writing world. I could handle that.
From Movers and Shakers: Women Making Waves in Spirits. Used with permission of Unnamed Press. Copyright 2018 by Hope Ewing.