Talia Baiocchi writes about what she loves most: wine. This 30-year-old editor-in-chief of online culture magazine Punch is no boozer, but a history and art buff, a world traveller and a journalist who approaches writing about wine with the same academic curiosity as a science reporter investigating brain matter. In just a few years, she has become one of the industry’s most prominent voices on wine culture and is working on her second book.
She talks about drinking bad wine in college, discovering her passion in Italy and the determination it takes to pursue an obscure career in a male-dominated industry.
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When I was younger, I wanted to be a professional tennis player. Then I realised how difficult that would be. In high school, I’d envision myself in a windowed corner office in some job that seemed important. It wasn’t until my last two years of college that I found my focus.
I was a political science and journalism major at NYU but I loved everything about art history and travel. I started working at The Mermaid Inn in New York’s East Village as a hostess. They had a very small wine list but I could tell even at that age that it was a very good, progressive mix. The staff was very passionate about it. I wasn’t even 21 but they let me taste and become a part of the conversation. For some reason, a switch clicked in my head and I wanted to learn everything I could about wine. Before this moment, the only introduction I had to wine was the crappy plonk we bought at the discount wine store during college.
After I graduated in 2006, I thought I’d go to law school because it seemed like the responsible thing to do. I’m the first generation in my family to go to college, so I felt a responsibility but I wanted to pursue this new, passionate interest. I took all the money I got from graduation presents and any savings I had, and bought a one-way ticket to Italy.
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I travelled up and down the country, visiting every vineyard, finding odd jobs, learning everything I could about where different wines are made, the family histories behind each vineyard, and witnessing the actual winemaking process. I worked the harvest in Barolo at a winery called Ruggeri Corsini. I actually picked the grapes and helped get them from the vine to the winery. From there I just travelled on a serious budget and hostel-hopped all the way from Piedmont through Lombardia, Veneto, Emilia Romagna, Tuscany and Campania. I did that for about 2,5 months until I ran out of money.
When you’re trying to learn about anything, you want to immerse yourself in it. I wanted to understand how wine was made. It felt so esoteric to me. It’s something that is so difficult to understand just by reading about it. You have to be there. I was fascinated how these traditions were passed on in families for generations. I started that trip seeking knowledge and ended it knowing for sure that this is what I wanted to do.
When I came back from my trip, I went on Craigslist and typed ‘wine’ in a job search. I applied to the only job that seemed up my alley, which was at Italian Wine Merchants in New York. I spoke Italian pretty well and I knew a good amount about wine for someone who was only 21. I started off working in the store; within a month or two, they moved me upstairs to the offices and gave me a list of clients to call. My job was basically to nurture these deep-pocketed wine investors and get them to buy tons of wine. I was able to drink a lot of rare, expensive, amazing wine that I had no business tasting at that age.
In 2008, everyone who was buying wine was trying to sell it back because the economy crashed. I knew I didn’t want to work on that end of the business any more, even though it was the best way for me to learn about the industry. I debated moving to Buenos Aires and just blogging about wine, art and culture.
My boss at the time left to open a restaurant in the West Village. He asked me to stay in New York and collaborate with him on a new venture called Winechap.com. It was a startup website that reviewed restaurant wine lists in New York and London. He hired me to be the editor-in-chief.
That writing experience led to a job for Eater New York in 2009, writing a column about restaurant wine, which is something no-one was really doing at the time. I made a concerted effort to get out there and experience these beverages at the restaurants. I had been studying wine for three years at this point and felt confident in my knowledge, especially of Italian wines. In my writing, I tried to communicate how each of these wine lists fit into a larger fabric of drinking in New York. It wasn’t just writing about wine but examining our culture. I’d go to restaurants and evaluate their wine lists and try to figure out how each one had its own clientele, its own vibe. I looked for the stories that came from who decided to come and drink wine at each restaurant. What did it feel like? Why did it matter? I also started writing a column at Wine Spectator, which was looking for a younger voice to talk about wine culture.
In April of 2012, I got a promotion to be the first-ever national wine editor for Eater. The creation of this position felt like proof that talking about wine in this context had real value and that it was having an influence.
People think I get paid to drink all day. But I’m not at an endless lunch with a parade of wine. I have many wines at business lunches but I spit them out. I would fall asleep at the table if I didn’t do that. If you’re in a business when you are expected to drink on a regular basis, you have to take care of yourself.
In 2012, I met Aaron Wehner, who is a publisher at Ten Speed Press, at a wine conference in Napa. He sent me an e-mail one day that said, ‘Sherry?’ He wanted me to write a book about sherry, which was a surprise to me, but I was interested. After a pretty in-depth conversation, I sent him a book proposal on sherry that turned into Sherry: A Modern Guide To The Wine World’s Best-Kept Secret, which was published in October 2014. By no means was I an expert. That’s not the point. I wrote it from a very honest perspective of discovering it for myself.
While I was working on the book, Wehner called me again and asked if I wanted to launch a spirits website. It was something I had thought about for a long time. I told him I would love to do it if it had a broader view. I wanted to talk about wine, sprits and drinking culture, and how these things intersect.
I created a deck of how I wanted it to look and function, and we pitched it to Random House. They bought the idea and Punch was born. I quit my jobs at Eater and Wine Spectator and I worked on Punch for about 10 months before it launched in October 2013.
Random House is our publisher, and myself and Leslie Pariseau run the editorial independently. Leslie and I met on a press trip to Bordeaux when we were 24. We were out late one night talking about how we wanted to change the world. We thought, let’s start our own website! We bought a URL, tried to hire a designer and it failed because we didn’t know what we were doing. Four years later, the exact thing we wanted to do ended up happening.
So much beverage content you see rolled into lifestyle and food magazines is always about the beverage as a thing. The way that Punch is different is that we treat drinks as the lens through which we look at and talk about culture. With every story, we try to answer the question, ‘Why does this matter?’ It goes way beyond what the wine tastes like. We’ve written about the history of binge-drinking, the disappearance of gay bars and the cultural significance of the 40-ounce. You wouldn’t see those kinds of stories in a food magazine. Our goal has always been to uncover some of the weird subcultures that don’t get enough attention.
There are so many times this has seemed like an absolutely awful idea. I’ve had those moments when I think, holy shit, what am I going to do if this doesn’t work out? It’s such a niche industry and there aren’t a lot of jobs. With wine, there is all this specialised knowledge you’re supposed to have to be ‘qualified’ in talking about it, and it’s a male-dominated industry for sure. But more than that, it’s an industry that is older. Being young and female and trying to establish myself and also prove that my opinion is valid has been a challenge at times.
With any creative field there is a tremendous amount of risk. I’m glad I didn’t try to do something more practical. I’m glad no-one, even when I was struggling, told me to get a more practical job. Even in moments of doubt, I really believed that I could make this happen. I loved it enough and I worked hard enough. It was just going to work out. I also have no illusions about how I managed to make a career, however nascent, out of writing about wine and beverages. What motivates me is not letting the people who’ve supported me down. And happy hour. Always happy hour.
This article was originally published on Cosmopolitan.com