Getting to Know Liza the Wine Chick

Oct 31, 2022 | Business, Careers, Education

Thoughts on how to follow your heart’s desire in the wine business

Liza Zimmerman

Cristina Taccone photo

Liza Zimmerman aka Liza the Wine Chick has been writing, educating and consulting about wine, cocktails and food for more than two decades. She has worked almost every angle of the wine and food business—from server and consultant to positions in distribution, education and sales. Her approach to wine education, marketing, consulting and education are savvy, down-to-earth and unpretentious.

She has visited all the world’s major winegrowing and spirits-producing regions—50 plus countries and counting—and is one of several hundred people in the U.S. to hold the Diploma of Wine & Spirits, the three-year program that is the precursor to the Master of Wine.

Liza recently moved to Southern Oregon from the San Francisco Bay area and we were excited to talk with her about how to start a career in the wine industry.

Q1: Liza – what inspired you to pursue a career in wine and food?

A: I originally thought I wanted to be an attorney, like my parents, so I took the LSAT. Then I moved to Italy as I had studied there in my junior year of college. I taught English as a second language and happened to be teaching English to the editor of the most important wine magazine in Italy—Gambero Rosso. That is when I realized that people didn’t just have to eat and drink recreationally; some did it for a living. I initially started writing for two Italian magazines because I’m bilingual, and for the first three years, I was really a food writer who covered wine peripherally. And I found that the wine lovers were equally as interested in the food and wine, which is why I decided to shift to wine writing.

At that point, I returned post haste to the states as there were more wine writing opportunities in English (my written Italian isn’t as good) and started my career covering Italian food and wine.

Q2: What kind of training/education did you receive that prepared you for the work you do?

A: I wanted to get some kind of graduate degree, but when I was looking at these things in the mid-nineties, I knew I didn’t want to be a sommelier—as I didn’t want to study enology at Davis or some other school–and didn’t want to be a chef, so I didn’t want to go to culinary at the CIA. Unfortunately, we didn’t have choices like the Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State or the Bordeaux Wine School back then. Now there are master’s and undergraduate programs that can prepare you for a wide range of jobs in wine—above and beyond an MBA.

I opted for the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, which was a three-year program. I earned the diploma in 2000 when I was working for Marvin Shanken in New York. I consider that one of best wine education programs for professionals who don’t work in the restaurant business. The Wine and Spirit Education Trust is considered the precursor to the Master of Wine. It’s designed for everyone who’s not in service: journalists, publicists, academics and collectors. The other key career track is the Master Sommelier track, which also has multiple levels but is much more focused on buying at auction, pairing and serving. So, anybody who’s actively working in a restaurant is likely to follow the MS track. Both the WSET diploma and the MS are great places for people to start.

Q3: What were you doing for Marvin Shanken in New York?

A: I was the editor-in-chief of Market Watch, which is the trade arm of Wine Spectator. The publication covers the restaurant business, retail business and the control state business in states like Pennsylvania and Utah. I came in at a junior level and was really lucky— when I was 31— my boss left, I got promoted to editor-in-chief, and I was the youngest editor there. I also was the only female editor there, so it was, it was pretty exciting. I stayed for almost a decade. I really wanted to work for Spectator; I’d written for Spectator, but Marvin tends to have this philosophy, if you’re good where you’re working, you should stay there. And I just didn’t want to die in that chair at that desk and I also really wanted to explore the business side of wine. So, when I left Shanken in 2005, I moved to Seattle and I became an importer and a distributor. I quickly figured out that I didn’t like selling wine, but at least I had my little foray into it. And I’ve gone back now to writing and consulting.

Q4: When we last talked, you were about to leave for a month-long trip to Italy and Romania. What did you do, and what is it like to travel abroad to such exciting wine regions?

Map of TuscanyA: Well, it was a little work and a little play, which is how I try to structure my trips because living in Southern Oregon, it takes a long time to get anywhere. So, my trips have been getting longer and longer. When I lived in New York, I’d go to Europe for a week. When I moved to San Francisco, I’d go for two weeks. Now I go for a minimum of three weeks.

I was invited on a press trip to Tuscany. Publicists will reach out to you, saying, “Do you want to go to Texas and taste the wines? Do you want to go to Chianti?” So, this was a public relations agency in New York I’ve worked with for years and they invited me on this Chianti trip.

The focus was really on new sub-denominations in Chianti. There are 11 regional denominations that they’ve just created just for gran selezione, which is the highest level of Chianti Classico produced. And on this trip, there were just four of us, and we were really trying to determine the difference between sub-regions such as Radda and Panzano. A trip like that lasts four or five days. These trips are pretty busy, so I like to take extra vacation time to visit my friends in Italy since I used to live there. And my best friend is Romanian and he moved back to Bucharest from Dubai.  So, I grabbed a couple of weeks with him to do a mix of work and play.

We went to the Dealu Mare, which is probably the best-known wine-producing region in Romania. It’s also about an hour and change outside of Bucharest, so it’s kind of Napa-ish in its accessibility. We spent four days in Dealu Mare, visited six wineries, and talked to people about what they were eating. Romania’s having a very experimental kind of moment with molecular cuisine and a lot of young people running restaurants, really young somms. So, you’re seeing that many of the 20-something Romanians who’ve worked in hospitality abroad are coming home to open these great concepts. We went to a place called Kaiamo that did molecular dishes; they served something that looked like stones but were mushroom croquettes. And they served edible Lego dessert on a Lego board!

It was a great trip. It was a long trip, but it was fun and I managed to rest; I stayed in one place. I always try to have someplace I can anchor myself for a week or two so I can wash some clothes and get some work done.

Q5: Where do you publish your stories?

A lot of this stuff is going to be in Forbes for which I do mostly consumer reporting. I do food as travel pieces, the future of food and the future of drink. I also write a fair amount for WineSearcher.com. I did a piece when I was in Romania three months ago on Marmorosch Hotel and then Dobrogea, a wine region right by the Black Sea that has a lot of maritime influence. And I’m in the process also of pitching other publications, which is part and parcel of being a freelance writer.

I also write for a lot of foreign publications. One is Meininger’s, which is a German publication that’s published in English. Another is Decanter, which is a British publication. 

Q7: The wine industry seems to have exploded in the last decade. What are the biggest changes you have seen and what do you think is on the horizon?

PenguinsA: It’s exploded because every region in the world is making wine. I mean, they’re making wine in Thailand! One vineyard’s grapes in Thailand are even being harvested by elephants. Someplace like Hungary which was just traditionally known for Tokaji, a sweet wine, is now a major league player with dry wines. Global warming is changing the face of the wine industry as we know it. Because of this, they’re producing really good sparkling wines in the Cotswolds in the southern part of the U.K. Champagne may no longer be Champagne in a year or two–and that means the same thing for Burgundy, for Tuscany—that some of your regions that will not be able to adapt are going to be pretty hard hit.

Interestingly enough, a place like Washington State, which has a whole bunch of microclimates, can do well with an enormous range of varietals. They, like the British, really stand to benefit. If we’re looking at Oregon someplace like the Willamette, that is been focused on cool-climate Pinot Noirs, stands to suffer. Southern Oregon may or may not benefit depending on how producers there can adapt to a hotter climate.

Q7: How did the pandemic affect the industry?

A: It has had a huge effect. We all know we didn’t go out to eat much and were staying at home. In the U.S. people have been spending more on wines to have at home because it’s a simple luxury. They’ve also sort of been bringing the party home. There’s been a big period where sparkling wines or Champagnes weren’t just for celebration, but now people are like, “Oh, I can have some bubbles on a Tuesday with my pizza.”

“Oh, I can have some bubbles on a Tuesday with my pizza.”

I think people are more discerning when ordering at a restaurant. The other thing about the pandemic too is that wine lists have been totally chopped down and abbreviated. During the pandemic over two years, you had places like Harris’s Steakhouse in San Francisco that basically sold its reserve list from a window on the street. You’re going to have fewer wines by the glass in restaurants and you’re not going to have these enormous library lists because restaurants just needed to make some money during the pandemic and they’re not going to restock. The pandemic has been a big game changer. We also all learned to cook a lot better. So, I think as we return to dining out, we all have a much higher bar set at home.

I don’t want to have a roast chicken or oxtail stew out. I know how to make it. If I’m going out, I want something that I can’t make it home. We are going to be tougher consumers in terms of where we’re eating and, and what we want to drink. We’ve also gotten more knowledgeable about wine, staying in and drinking it and what we want to drink with it, and understanding what it costs too. We’ve been buying these wines at retail, so your average consumer is seeing how much restaurants mark them up and they’re going to think, “Well I drank a well-known wine at home and it was $12; why is this guy charging $50 in a restaurant?” So, two cocktails have often been seen as a better value than wine throughout the pandemic, which may or may not be true.

Q8: What advice would you give someone who would like to follow a similar career path as you did?

Liza wine judgeA: Realize that it’s a profession that a lot of people want to be in. Most of the opportunities—in wine writing or restaurants—are not well-paid jobs in terms of financial remuneration. They are jobs that can give you a lot of satisfaction in being part of this great community. You can travel the world; you can eat very well. But just see if that works for you financially.

Do your homework. Don’t come into the industry not knowing some of the wine greats—the teachers, the producers, the legislators, even if they’re dead. I did a mentorship program with Gael Greene, who’s a major food writer in New York, years ago. And she said that’s one of the most important things is to do your homework. No one cares if you’re 22 years old and you weren’t around when these guys were around: you still need to know the basics.

Get up to speed on what’s going on and what matters. Get educated about the technical side of wine production and the business. I’ve been on wine trips with one writer who is invited on everything just because she has so many followers on Twitter, that when she segued from real estate into wine, everybody invited her everywhere. And we were in Burgundy at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which is maybe the most-respected winery in the world and she actually asked them if they put blueberries in the wine! It was mortifying.

Get a credential that’s worth something. The ones that matter are the WSET diploma, the MW and the Master Somm degree. There are a lot of creds like being a certified wine educator that don’t mean much. It seems like everyone is putting a whole alphabet soup after their name. And really if it’s not one of those three programs, it just doesn’t matter. Or do the business program at Sonoma State or get an MBA. Having a culinary degree is great. Mostly, get an advanced education that can apply to the wine business.

Read historical books, read technical books, read the history of wine regions, taste constantly, join a tasting group. It’s really important. Taste blind. It’s very, very humbling. But there’s no better way to learn the characteristics of wine.

Q9: What do you most enjoy about working with the wine industry?

Liza tastingA: I really love the sense of community and how wonderful and interesting everybody is. You know, you end up on a bus in northern Argentina with six other wine writers, and almost always, they’re really nice. They’re really interesting. And if you say to people, “What do you love to eat in Kuala Lumpur?” people will start fighting over the best noodle place. I just consider myself lucky not to be around stodgy, old, fuddy-duddies!

Q10: Thank you for sharing your expertise with us, Liza! Is there anything else you think a person looking for a career in wine should know?

A: They should know to be careful in the wine industry with the opportunity to overindulge. We have a lot of people with drinking problems. It’s a great industry in which to hide a drinking problem. And we also have a lot of people who don’t drink at all. They just taste and spit. But it’s a hazard to the profession that people do need to look out for. That’s about all I can think of now. Cheers!

Liza and wine group

Cristina Taccone photo

Thanks again and bon voyage!

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