Episode #48: Jason Wilson
Writer of the newsletter Everyday Drinking and author of Godforsaken Grapes, The Cider Revival and Boozehound.
Jason Wilson is a food, drink and travel writer based in New Jersey, just outside of Philadelphia. He is the author of three books: Godforsaken Grapes: A Slightly Tipsy Journey Through the World of Strange, Obscure, and Underappreciated Wine; Cider Revival: Dispatches from the Orchard; and Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits. He has a long history of writing for publications like the Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and many other food and travel publications and was also the series editor of The Best American Travel Writing annual anthologies. He’s a very accomplished writer and I really wanted to speak to him because he has also suddenly found himself writing a newsletter at Substack. His is called Everyday Drinking, which I highly suggest everyone interested in wine, spirits, cocktails and other adult beverages subscribe to. It’s really good and his writing about wine and spirits is far more approachable and entertaining when compared to a lot of other drink writing I come across. We talk a lot about trying to make it work on Substack and just the world of food (and drink) writing in general. Here’s a link to his newsletter:
This is an ad-free space, and all support comes from you: readers and listeners. In honor of my birthday at the end of the month, which conveniently aligns with Peru’s Independence celebration, I’m offering a 35% discount on annual subscriptions until July 31. That’s less than $25 for a full year instead of $40!!
Partial Episode Transcript
On the state of media and writing for Substack:
Nick: “So what is your been your experience been at Substack so far? Do you enjoy it? Does it feel promising to you?”
Jason: “For a long time, it didn't feel promising. It felt like I just was there, because, well, everything else was falling apart. And that was something you could do. But I did get this fellowship. Substack gave me and 10 other food and drink writers this fellowship. And it kind of worked. They gave us money, of course, which is very nice. But also, they did this three month incubator project where we would meet every week by Zoom and talk about different issues, strategies, et cetera. I did resist a lot of it. It was like you have to be every week. You have to post multiple times a week. This is how you convert. And this is…and there was a lot of kind of a truthy advice. Like, oh you know, fix your about page. And there's a lot of that kind of stuff. But when I finally just accepted some of this, it's true. My whole thing was like, Oh, I want to write long and be every other week. But that's just not a model that really builds readers. And so when I moved up to twice a week, I quintupled my subscriptions since then.
This was a really positive experience and I know a lot of people that have had negative experiences with corporate Substack. I mean, just read the The New York Times. They gleefully report all of this stuff, but I've had a pretty positive experience with it. I mean, it was weird. They did have like all of these layoffs recently, that was a little alarming. So anyway, I mean the thing is it's not just about, Substack. It's this model. I mean hopefully Substack survives, but in the end the publication is ours and the subscriber list is ours. So we could go to any platform where we wanted to really write.”
Nick: “For me, I've been trying to make New Worlder work for I don't know how many years now. At first I had a partner, and we were really ambitious. But there was no model that we could make it work financially. There was no way unless you're buying fake traffic or have some hedge fund pump money to you to put out loads and loads of content to actually make it financially work. There's just no way whatsoever. I think a lot of other publications realize that too, and unless you're Vice or something, that's putting clickbait headlines out 500 a day the advertising model doesn't work.”
Jason: “Because anything that's numbers based doesn't work, especially. And I think that in my realm, in drinks media, the big companies, it's all numbers to them. They just get coverage and they can buy their way into places. But if you're a mid-size spirits maker, or you're a region that isn't that well known, a wine region, or you're a producer that’s small or mid-sized and you're still hiring these PR firms that are just after mentions and stuff, you're going to have to learn a new way to do business because there just aren’t the publications anymore that will publish this stuff.
I get pitches all day long. And it's like, this isn't what my readers want. And their response would be, well, you don't have that many readers. It's like, Yeah, but my readers actually go out and buy these products. I mean, it may be it may be a small group, but if I mentioned an obscure wine at least some of them would go buy it as opposed to no one, in a more general magazine. There's the media, but PR is part of that media, at least in this realm of lifestyle, like food and drink. I think they're the only ones making money at this point. They're pitching writers. They're making a normal living. And they're pitching writers who are making like $200 or $300 for an article. And it's like can anybody see that the system is broken? So my feeling is, I think someone is going to see that. I'm an eternal optimist. I think someone is going to see that this system is broken. And so it's a good place to be right now to me to have a viable publication. And that's what I'm trying to build. I think you are, too.”
Nick: “I think having an engaged following is important. If I write something in The New York Times it's great. And 100,000 people might read it. But if I mention it in my newsletter, I feel like those few thousand people that read are actually going to buy the product. I think they're way more interested. They're way more invested in what I have to say. I do think it's promising. And I think there's going to be a point to where we have to ask how many newsletters can the world support? But at the same time, I think having a few thousand paid subscribers is doable for a lot of people. And it is a fairly decent living for a writer.”
Jason: “Substack is always like that. I mean, it's not just Substack, but there's this idea of the 1000 true fans. And you if you have 1000 true fans, you can make a comfortable living because these people are going to be your customers essentially for whatever it is. Your books, your newsletters, your whatever. But it's harder than you think to get to 1000 paying customers.”
Nick: “Yeah, I‘m not close to that. I've been limiting myself. I've only been doing it for six months. But I've been very shy about doing paid posts so far. I wanted to kind of build it up a little, but I'm at the point now, where I need to start making more things paid and convert readers. Because every time I do do paid posts, people do subscribe. A few here and there. But, if everything's free, I feel like no one's ever going to pay. Everyone wants to get something. They don't just want to support you, for you. As much as everyone likes to think.”
Jason: “No, they're not going to. A very small group of people, like, you know, friends and family. It's a very small group of people.”
Nick: “At first I was trying to support New Worlder through Patreon, to make everything accessible through Patreon, but it just didn't work.”
Jason: “I think I’e had this discussion a lot. I mean what is valued by some of these bigger publications? Like mainstream, legitimate publications? Is it expertise? Or is it influence? Is it just how many followers you have on social media that you can drive to a story or is it someone who actually knows what they're talking about? I mean, obviously, we know the answer to that.”
Nick: “When is the money to realize that?”
Jason: “Yeah, exactly. Maybe never, who knows?”
Nick: “Is there something you wished you realized earlier about Substack? Like, something you've had to adjust in some way?”
Jason: “I wish I had figured out the model a little sooner. But I mean, there was just no way. I'm still figuring it out. I mean, it really didn't click for me until I was in this incubator program, this fellowship. Still sometimes when I send something out, I cannot believe I worked for hours on that and it's just going out for free. So, I'm still figuring it out. It is a calculation of what am I giving away? And what am I willing to give away? But this has always been for 20 years, there has been some equation, like, what are you going to give away for free? But I think there were, until recently, enough publications around that paid decently that you could pitch and you could really say like, Alright, I'm going to save this, because I'm going to pitch this to the Post, or the Times, or whatever. I'm going to send this and this is more of like, my feelings on this. So, I'm just going to give this out for free or whatever. Or give it to a small publication that I liked. It's not paying that much, but I think that's changed. It's totally changed. Because what are you saving it for? So you can make $400? What are you saving it for? Why not just build something for yourself?
Nick: “That was the whole idea behind New Worlder eight years ago, or whatever. It was why am I saving anything at this point to send it to a magazine and get a few hundred dollars. Or try to get in favor with an editor who's going to leave in a year. I felt like I had to just I had to step away from all that and try and build something, but the economics just don’t work. Basically, fucking Facebook and social media just killed everything. It just made everything go to social media and then the algorithms kind of just screwed everything to where it just went towards clickbait and it just sensationalizing everything. Like everything about food media is just like, who are we taking down today? There are very rarely positive things that people are excited about sharing or whatever. So, I don't know.”
Jason: “But I think most readers want that. I mean, they're coming to food media because they want to, you find a recipe and cook something or learn about this new restaurant or something. Or new bar. I think that's what people by and large what they want. Obviously, you know, a lot of the criticism has been legitimate. But I mean, I think people still want a cocktail recipe. So how do you how do you balance? That is really the issue.”
Nick: “I'm still trying to have nuanced conversations about things, but it's like nuance doesn't seem to get the clicks. It's very blanket statements that everyone seems excited about.”
Jason: “I mean that's the problem. And that's a problem with DSubstack. I mean I can look at my top 10 and it all is a hot take. And people who have been kind of advising, they're like, well, you should do more. It's like, well, I don't have a hot take for every issue. If every issue is a hot take, then none of them are hot take. And you just can’t build a newsletter around hot takes, I mean, I guess you can. I mean, people do.”
Nick: “It's like the Donald Trump model. Just say something outrageous all the time and get the reaction. That's what he did. It seemed to work somehow. I mean, not to say he's not a complete disaster and going to jail soon, but I think we're living in a period where it's just outrageous things seem to work all the time. But I still have hope. And I do have hope that we're going to break out of that. I do feel like the election of Donald Trump put people in a different mindset about algorithms and social media and what they're reading online and why they're reading it.”
Jason: But people began to really look at the numbers and they saw, like, oh, it was driven by fake followers, bots. I think something that isn't talked about enough, even though it was a huge thing. Didn't Facebook lose a $900 million lawsuit? Because they were like, basically, cooking the numbers of video? Everybody pivoted to video because video was where the numbers were. And then the numbers were fake. And all the all the editorial side got fired from all these big companies, so they could have video departments, and then they realized the video numbers were not true. And it's not like they hired back writers. That pivot to video happened in late 2010 and it’s what destroyed media print media.”
On wine writing and that time that the Alinea pop up caught on fire:
Nick: “It seems like you've gone back to wine writing a lot. You said you get tired of spirits and cocktails and cider, maybe not cider, but wine has been much of the focus of Everyday Drinking.”
Jason: “I'll go on the record to say I'm very tired of cider. But with wine writing, you don't always just have to write about wine. I just think there's a broader thing. You can bring in the food at the table, and the wine that goes with it. And wine writing I think lends itself to more travel writing, a little more environmental writing. It lends itself to different things. You can somewhat with spirits, but I just think it's more limited. There’s also just a lot of bad wine writing. And I just you I think as a writer, when you see a whole genre that's filled with lots of bad writing, you kind of want to go coach to it and write good writing. It's an easy draw, I guess.”
Nick: “I'm really intimidated writing about wine. I admit.”
Jason: “But you've been made to feel that way. You've been made to feel that way. There are so many gatekeepers in wine that are going to nitpick you to death. I mean, it's funny, like when Godforsaken Grapes was reviewed by Jancis Robinson, the big British wine critic, they did an incredibly positive review of Godforsaken Grapes but had to have like a paragraph of like nitpicking the facts that I got incorrect. You can't get around it because you're never going to get it all right. I mean, no, Master sommelier is going to get it all right, either. So, I think people are I think people write scared when they write about wine.”
Nick: “Yeah, I do write scared. It's taken me a long, long time to even approach the subject. I feel confident drinking wine and I know a lot of winemakers and I visit a lot of vineyards, but it's taken me a while to try and kind of figure out a way to write in a way that makes sense to me. And not in a way that will make sense to, know, the wine gatekeepers.”
Jason: “A lot of wine writing is just wine people talking to one another. There are a lot of wine writers that want to be in the wine business. That's what really in the end is what they want to do. They want to roleplay as essential to the wine business and be close to winemakers and stuff. I like winemakers. I have a lot of friends that are winemakers. But like I don't care. That's not really what I'm interested in. I don't want to work a harvest, but all these guys want to go work a harvest. I posted this meme the other day about this aristocratic cat sitting there and says, ‘I think I'll work a harvest this year,’ and this winemaker DM’d me and she's like, ‘Are you serious?’ I'm like, Yeah, watch out, I'm going to come work a harvest for you. And she's like, ‘No, when you come visit, I want to take a break. We can just go have a three-hour lunch and gossip.’ That's my role, you know?
Wine is so far removed from the audience and now you're going to work a harvest, which they haven't done. And you're going to get involved with all these little technical details that people by and large, don't care about. I don't know, you're removing yourself. I'm always trying to find where am I going to meet someone who likes wine, but doesn't know anything about it. And not in like a hackneyed way, because there's also a lot of bad wine writing that is going to dispel the myths of wine, you know? It’s wine for people who aren't wine snobs, that kind of thing. And that's all crap writing too. Because people that are also like ‘If I don't care about wine, you can't make me read it.’ The person who seeks out a wine article or a wine book, wants to know something about wine.
I'm in restaurants all the time where people come, like the sommelier comes over to the table, and starts talking about like soil, and like half the table they're interested in wine, but they don't want to hear this this treatise on carbonic maceration. These people don't care about this. I mean, they care. They want to know like three seconds of it. They didn't want a three minute dissertation on this.”
Nick: “The grape, where it’s from…”
Jason: “…and a little story behind it. I do a lot of wine classes and you can tell people like three things about a wine. That's what they're going to like, so you've got to choose wisely. What three things do you want them to know about this wine? And it's not because people are dumb, it's just human nature. Like, I don't want to know that much about something.”
Nick: “It's the same storytelling by waiters at the table about the food. Where everything comes from. The chef's vision of things. And sometimes, especially at a lot of epic tasting menu places, they do this and it ends up killing the meal. They end up just over describing where everything comes from, and what the chef thought of this, the ingredients, and all this stuff. There are ways to do this, subtly, and not just some rambling story of five minutes, where everyone wants to eat their food, and they want to take a bite and then the waiter says something else and it just keeps going and then the food is cold by the time their done. Most people just want to eat and drink. The stories should kind of tell themselves, at least with food. Wines…maybe you need a little bit of info.”
Jason: “You need a little bit of context, but not that much. Not that much. I think people who want to know about this stuff can say I don't know about it and I want to know about it. I can be bullied into a lot of crazy things.
I was just talking to someone about this the other day. So Alinea, the restaurant somehow got affiliated with, I think Absolut Vodka, maybe 10 years ago, and they were going around doing these special dinners for trade and media and stuff. And I went to one of them in Washington, and I forget where the event was, but everything was like, look at this and smell this before you eat. And it was like this big sensory experience. And at one point you had to do it this way, like eat this piece first and this piece second and do this. And it was very much prescribed. And then at some point in the meal, at the end, I think they poured Absolut Vodka on the table and lit it on fire. And this was supposed to be some kind of sensory experience thing. And they set off the fire alarm and everybody's sitting there. And it's like the fire alarms are going on in the room. Like something's on fire. But everybody's just sitting there because it's like, well, is this part of the sensory experience? The security guards had to come into the dining room and tell everybody they had to leave. The place might be on fire, the fire departments coming and so we all shuffle out, but that's the how bullied we were in this meal. Like it was like, Oh, this must be just part of the thing. Like I'm just going to sit here and burn to death.”
On natural wine entering its dumb phase:
Nick: “You wrote a story for Everyday Drinking called “Natural Wine Enters Its Dumb Phase.” You say it feels tired, but you say it's a good thing, right? It's a good thing.”
Jason: “The dumb phase is a good thing. I mean, dumb, that word, obviously I'm being a little cheeky with it. But like the dumb phase is something that happens with long aged wines. Wine that’s going to age for 20 years, it goes into this dumb phase, where it sort of loses itself. People who are collectors of wine open their wine and it's okay, then after some time it goes to this other phase. It comes out of the dumb phase and it's the spectacular. That is what people are looking for when they age wine. That's where the magic is. I'm saying not only does everything feels tired, it's like the message feels tired. But also there are all these people who are against natural wine and that feels tired. And it's like all the conversations around natural wine feel tired. Like the wine itself doesn't. It's just the tropes and the ideas.”
Nick: “I mean, it's on both sides. I think there's so much like pro natural wine hype, just like total thoughtless talk about natural wind, but also the backlash is also just stupid. And I think it's just kind of worn off.”
Jason: “Right, like old man shouting at cloud or whatever. Get off my lawn, you know, that's what it felt like. And of course, because most of the wine critics are middle aged white men it feels so reactionary. And so, both sides dig in and it just becomes stupid, because it's about natural wine. And a lot of it is amazing. Like, the thing is, there's a lot of natural winemakers who don't go in for what we come to know as natty wine. Like with the hip labels, cartoon labels and sort of ironic labels or whatever. Like, they just still have the Chateau that they always had on there, but it's a natural wine. They’re limiting the use of sulfites and growing biodynamically, organically or have very low intervention. Whatever. All the things you know. Skin contact whites, the whole bag of things, but they're not out being part of natural wine fairs and they're not sending the 37-year-old son out in a cap dressed like a skateboarder. They're just doing what they've always been doing.
So, I love natural wine. Most of the wines I drink are, you know, I think would be on the spectrum of natural wine. And it's a spectrum. That's the thing. It is a spectrum. Because what I might consider natural is not really hardcore. A lot of those wines might not pass muster with the real, you know, evangelistic natural wine crowd.”
Nick: “Me too. Most of what I drink is probably on the spectrum, as well.”
Jason: “It's not like something made up. You really do get a blowback from older wine people. The really snide thing is when I covered Loire for Vinous. The other critics were very dismissive of these kind of wines.”
Nick: “I feel like they've a lot of them have come around, right? Or still, are the older ones are still hanging on to…”
Jason: “The good ones. The good ones have come around. Some of them haven't come around. I mean, they're still sort of…I mean, a lot of them haven't come around. I mean, it was ones that you see scores in the store with their names on it have not come around.”
Nick: “I think there's a lot of talk of the wine industry changing. Usually, it's pointing out millennials. It seems everything is pointed at millennials, any kind of trend whatsoever.”
Jason: “I mean, millennials are 40 years old at this point. People have been talking about millennials in the wine business for 20 years.”
Nick: “I think the nature of the wine business has changed a lot. And it doesn't really have to do with age groups. I think it just has to do with information. Maybe I'm wrong, but I feel like everyone's more open to different grapes. They're not just looking for noble grapes. They're open to that weird Turkish wine at dinner if the sommelier recommends it.”
Jason: “Totally. That's the new mark of I know something about wine. If I have something obscure, which is nice. That was what Godforsaken Grapes was all about. It's great. The reason why that is though, let's be honest, it's because the prestige wines have gotten so overpriced. I wouldn't say they're overpriced, but they're priced out of reach of most people, whether they're overpriced or not, that's for another discussion. They're not what most people can afford. So, you look for alternatives. And so that becomes this hunt for regions you've not heard about, different grapes that you've never heard of before and that hasn't stopped. That's every wine list now.”
Quotes from this interview have been gently edited for context and clarity.