Jul 31, 2020 • 26M

A Conversation with Julia Coney

Listen now | We talked about how she got into wine, not being able to travel this year, and how she’s managing her new platform.

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There are few things more glamorous than having a house Champagne, and wine writer Julia Coney’s is a Lallier brut rosé. “I drink about a bottle of that a week,” she tells me, and in doing so, provides a point of inspiration. Her work itself, too, is inspiring. She’s written for publications such as Wine Enthusiast, Vinepair, Food + Wine, and more, does popular weekly “wine chats” on Instagram to introduce her followers to new bottles and regions, and has recently formed the platform Black Wine Professionals.

We talked about how she got into wine, not being able to travel this year, and how she’s managing this new platform. Listen above, or read below.


Alicia: Hey, Julia. Thanks so much for coming on.

Julia: Oh, thank you for having me.

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Julia: So I grew up in Houston, Texas, and pretty much every weekend went to my mother's side of the family in Leesville, Louisiana, which is why I always say I grew up between Houston and Louisiana—they are both a part of me.

But I grew up eating a lot of Gulf Coast seafood, which I absolutely love. I grew up eating crawfish. I grew up eating, you know, fresh vegetables and fresh meats because my grandmother kept, like, rabbits and hens and all that kind of stuff. So basically, just like to me a normal family meal was like, it was always greens on the table. It was always some type of seafood or protein, you know, meat protein, and it was just a lot of fun. My dad was the cook. My mother couldn't cook, so my father cooked.

Alicia: That's so you know, rare?

Julia: Yes, yes, but in the south a lot of men cook. I think a lot of men cook really well, actually, too.

Alicia: And you're based in DC now?

Julia: I'm based in D.C. and between D.C. and Houston a lot. So because of COVID I am here, otherwise I will usually go to Houston. This is the longest I haven't been to Houston since I moved to D.C. 15 years ago. I usually go to Houston probably every six, eight weeks, sometimes maybe a little longer, like every three months, but very often.

Alicia: And you were just telling me before we started recording that you're super busy right now, what are you working on?

Julia: Well, I am between writing assignments, helping people with panels—I'm moderating a panel next week; I’m on different panels. As you know, that happens, that people are doing those. I slowly am weaning myself, trying to take August off from not having any personal wine chats. I usually do a different wine chat most Mondays. And so I had one two days ago and I have one tomorrow, but it's not a wine chat. It's just talking with an author I really, really like. And I'm going to not actually do my own chats; I'm just going to be a participant in other people’s chats for August.

Alicia: Amazing. And how did you decide to enter the wine world, and specifically, how did you get so interested in French wines?

Julia: So, I will say this, I studied abroad in France. That was not the way I got into French wines.

I got into French wine because an attorney—I used to be a legal assistant, and an attorney I worked with, he drank a lot of California Napa Cabs, but he also drink a lot of Bordeaux. And so he introduced me, actually, to food and wine pairings. He was a person that paired, like, Texas barbecue with all these amazing high-end wines, as we would call them. And he just really made me taste a lot of food and I'm a, you know, adventurous eater, but I just—I don't know, my family doesn't drink. So I didn't come from where wine was on the table. And he could really see I was really getting into it, and he would always encourage me every week, buy a different bottle of wine, have something different with it, just try to figure out what you like, try to work on it, and make it fun. And it wasn't too pretentious. And I wasn't working in wine; I was a legal assistant. So it just became really, really enjoyable.

So for me, in my late 20s, I discovered wine. And that's when I really started traveling back to Europe to drink wine, as part of my vacations.

Alicia: How did you professionally get into wine? How did you make it your life?

Julia: Well, from the legal field, I moved to D.C. I was still a legal assistant, and in 2006, I started a beauty blog. I don't think people really know that. 

I did a beauty blog for ten years. And I could see I really enjoyed doing it. I really, really enjoyed writing. I mean, I actually have a degree in English. One of the things I kept going, Wow, I could eventually make this a job,like my job. And in 2010, I quit my legal job to write full-time. But I was writing about beauty.

And so at the end of 2015, I had been having these things going back and forth that I didn't want to write about beauty anymore. I actually wanted to move into food and wine, because I was finding more enjoyment with that. I still like beauty; I think it’s great, but something was calling me about food and wine, but food wasn't calling me to be a food writer. I could say I wanted to be travel writer more, but the wine was calling me, because also I was when I started realizing and googling, I didn't find many Black wine writers.

I knew about Dorothy Gaitor from the Wall Street Journal. I knew about Melody Fuller. I knew about a handful of people, but I just—I knew a couple of bloggers that I met because I googled them. But I didn't see anybody who was making a career out of it. So I just took the leap of faith in 2016 to write full time about wine.

Alicia: People, you know, might be hopeful writers or people interested in how people's careers start. How did you make that happen? Like, how did you get your first assignment in wine?

Julia: Well, you know, like it says everything: you pitch until you get a rejection, right? And I also kept my own blog. I am a person that believes, I think people should own something of their own, so they can also write about whatever they decide without that. 

And I was still, as having a career in legal, I was still doing freelance stuff,; I was picking up other jobs; you have to do that to really where even it keeps going. But even now, I work at a wine store part-time. It helps with being able to taste a lot of wines. That's the way I was able to really taste a lot of wines is because working at a store, you know, before COVID, people brought so many wines to the store for you to taste to see if you want to put them on the shelf and we taste as a team. We didn't, you know, it wasn't like there's a buyer and they taste–no, we all taste, everybody tastes, because the story is very small. And they allow me to have this crazy travel schedule.

So it started because I was just pitching and just knowing the publications like, okay, what's the front of that magazine, and learning those terms, because if you don't work in magazines, you have to figure out how they are laid out. But I read a lot of magazines, and I still read a lot of magazines, so I knew what part that I can get an entry to, and also, just keeping the blog helped me keep my creativity going, because I was always writing content.

Alicia: And so you recently formed the platform Black Wine Professionals. What inspired you to do that and what are your hopes for it?

Julia: Well, after I will did this Instagram Live talking about the racism in the wine industry, which a lot of people don't realize, I have been talking about this nonstop for two years, literally two and a half years, have just been really, really talking about this and writing about and speaking about it. 

I remember being on a media trip and one of the PR ladies, she said, “Well, Julia, I'm being honest, I just don't know how to find many Black wine professionals because I just don't know them.” And I remember that just kind of sparked my mind. I was like, Okay, I get what you're saying is she was like, I don't know a lot of media, especially Black wine people in media, like we're talking bloggers and podcasters that kind of thing. 

And so that had been in my head, but it took that Live and people going, Wow, we didn't know so many Black people in wine. You know, I made this little quick little Canva like photo of like, hey, please don't tell me you don't know anybody Black in wine, because here are some Black wine professionals. After that, I just couldn't sleep. So I just started to say, if I create a list and this database, and I personally visit every single person on that list, not an influencer—because I always tell people, I am making a very big distinction between an influencer and a professional, some people were a little upset about that. But I have to make that distinction, because these are the people who are honing this as a craft; these are these people's livelihoods. But then how do I get people to recognize them for projects, for wine classes to lead, and actually get paid to do that? That's why I created it. So if someone needs a somm, if they need a wine educator, if they want to talk to a wine buyer, if they want to talk to a salesperson, if they need other voices in media, here's a list of people that we have in it to say, hey, and we're going to slowly keep adding people, but we have a process. If you haven't had the experience, you have to have a certain level of certification, because that also means you have skin in the game. It's not for people who are entering the industry, and I'm working on something for people who are trying to get into the industry, but this platform isn't that.

Alicia: And how did you differentiate between influencers and professionals, because I think this is a big conversation in food, travel, beverage media?

Julia: Well, I look at if you make a certain income of your living as a wine professional, but also I went through—and it took a long time. I mean, I took a lot of hours. I went to a lot of people’s social media, not just the pictures. I went through their videos; I listened to their language. Wine is very factual. There's an emotional part of it, but the wine is factual. And if I listened to someone who couldn't explain tannin, what they're trying to—they're calling themselves an educator, and they couldn't explain it. They're not on the list. Because you're not a wine professional. That is a simple factual thing. There's a reason there's a tannin. It's one of those things you cannot see. And if there's—if you don't have that basic wine knowledge, then how can you teach someone else? And so I know there are people who are on social and they're win professionals and they have influence, but to me, I think an influencer is someone separate.

Alicia: It was interesting. I watched that Instagram Live of yours and it brought to mind so many media events that were just, you know, just I mean, yeah, you know—you know from me just saying that. I mean, I remember going to a dinner for Uncle Nearest Whiskey, and I don't know if you've heard of that brand, but—

Julia: Oh, yeah, we sell it at our store.

Alicia: Yeah, right. But you know, everyone there was white and I went home and I was like, what what was that and I you know, I emailed my friends and was like, Hey, did you get invited to this? No, okay. So how are these—the decision-making among the publicists who are organizing things is just, it's really beyond my comprehension because people who do this work are not hiding, you know? Like, by the nature of this work, everyone is out there. And so that, you know, you've had to take this time to form this platform, which is going to be great and is going to hopefully be, you know, game-changing for the wine industry and for wine media, you know, that's, you know, you shouldn't have had to take on that labor. I don't know how you feel about that. 

Julia: Here's the thing. I shouldn't have. I mean, right. But I'm glad I did, though, right? At this point, I'm just glad I did. Because now I could actually, you know, talk to publicists and go, Hey, who do you need that actually fits, right? And we can work together that way. They're not googling someone who you know, they may want somebody who, you know, could actually talk about the wine for some, you know, a class or an event, a live whatever. Now, we could actually work together. And that's why I created it and that's why I'm glad I had the time, because I will say this and I hate it. I always hate to say this, is it took COVID and a person getting murdered in the streets for actually me to have time to sit down and create this, because otherwise I would be on the road. 

Alicia: Absolutely. And that's one of my questions for you actually, is are you finding that inability to travel right now challenging, you know, how has it changed your work in your life?

Julia: So, I'm—honestly, the first month was rough, right, when I realized, I'm not going to Champagne. And I just did one of these really big cries. I grieved that, that is not happening, probably won't happen this year for me. And when I let that go, I was okay. I was like, Okay, I'm creating community with these wine chats. I'm bringing these great people who some people have never heard of, they've never known about this wine. We're just coming on and having a great chat. So I'm bringing a new set of eyeballs to these wines, into this region. And I just embrace the new way of traveling, which is in a wine glass. That's just the way it is.

Alicia: And have you been trying anything new and interesting? What have you been drinking lately? And how are you deciding what to focus on in your chats?

Julia: Well, a lot of people know me because I love bubbles. I love sparkling wine. So I love sparkling wine and I'm one of those people—I like all wines, and a lot of people think I only drink, when I say sparkling, Champagne. I, you know, am working on a Champagne certification because Champagne is usually the way a lot of people set the way they make sparkling wine. But I am able to find wines because I have, you know, work in a store, people email me, or I'm just reading other publications. Also, I find out about a lot of different wines from the UK wine newsletters; I subscribe to those. I'm just a naturally curious person, so I'm always trying to figure that part out.

So right now I am drinking—is that what you’re asking me? What am I drinking?

Alicia: Oh, yeah, yeah.

Julia: I'm drinking a lot of Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc from California, which is surprisingly one of the just—I just like drinking it. I really enjoy it. I'm also definitely drinking some pet-nats, sparkling, to just see how people are making them. I don't want to say that they are natural pet-nats; I don't use the term natural. I just know they're very well-made, from a very good soil, from a very good family. And also, I do drink, one of my favorite Champagnes is called—quote unquote my house Champagne—is Lallier Brut Rosé. I drink usually about a bottle a week.

Alicia: And you mentioned the natural thing. I mean, that's a huge topic in the wine world right now and it's being covered usually quite terribly, it seems, in the mainstream media. It's always just like, what is natural wine? So yeah, how did you come to not use the term natural wine? And how do you make these kinds of differentiations between things that might be, you know, low-intervention versus higher-intervention wines?

Julia: Okay, so you know how like in the food world we always say everything now is about the soil, or the soil and where it comes from and where it's grown, right? I drink wines based on that. That's how that winemaking family, company, makes wine. They don't put a label on it. They just make wines with minimal intervention, but they don't even call it natural. They just make wine that actually appreciates the land and they don't want to ruin the land. And that's what I drink; I don't think it needs to have the natural label or organic label. You have a lot of people—they don't want to pay for that organic term, and that's okay if they don't want to. They don't have to. But I think it's my job as a wine professional to say there are people who make natural wines that don't use that word. There's a lot of people in Italy, in France, and Europe in general who have been making a lot of natural wines. They just never say it. If you drink Georgian wines from Georgia, the country, they have been making natural wines for 8,000 years. They just don't have to say it. 

Alicia: And so why do you think that's become kind of a buzzword?

Julia: I think it started with a lot of somms. I think it's somms getting geeky and then you had a lot of people talking about it’s healthier for you. It's the same thing as this whole “clean wine” concept. That kind of like—that's just the way the world works, and I understand that. And I think it just took off with, like, social media. “No, it’s natural,” and you know, I've gone to natural wine festivals and some of that stuff is horrible. Some of it is not good. And people were using it like “Oh, is it like—” No, this is not good. This is not done. This is gross. And they're using the term “natural” and I’m like “hmmm.” If I wanted kombucha, I’d just drink kombucha for $3. I'm just going to drink kombucha.

Alicia: Because I know exactly what you mean by wines that taste like kombucha. For, you know, for people who might not understand these distinctions on a visceral level of like, you know, the not-doneness of a wine, can you describe what you taste in a wine that is done versus a wine that is not done?

Julia: Well, one, you know, sometimes there's a bubbling on the tongue, almost like if you put baking soda or peroxide on your tongue. That's not what I want in a wine. I want, when I taste the wine, I want to be able to experience all these great flavors, right? If it's going to be lemon, if it's going to be, you know, honeysuckle, or pineapple, I want to experience that. I don't want to drink a wine, to me, and then the whole thing is just like this very tart—and I really say kombucha-esque, because, you know, the whole thing with like, a lot of natural wines, it's like we don't filter wines and everything and natural sediment and that's perfectly fine, you know, if that's your thing, but at the end of day, whether or not they filter that, I just need to know that the fermentation that actually should have probably been longer, should have had more time in the bottle, and actually just is a well-made wine, that everything is in balance, that the acid, the alcohol, and the flavors, and some of these ones that they're missing the flavor, but the alcohol and the acid might be there. So for me, I don't mind, you know, if it's supposed to be a carbonic maceration with a little bubble, your frizzante like in a pet-nat, that's perfectly fine. But if it's supposed to be a still wine and I'm still getting that, that is to me something that's not done. Abd that’s the beauty of wine, right?

Alicia: I worked at a wine bar and we would refer to that as kind of effervescence, that would be the euphemistic way of describing that.

Julia: Okay.

Alicia: But I you know, that and it depends on whether you like that or not, but no, at the same time, it is super interesting  how people are describing all these wines and how people are creating distinctions when they're really, you know, as you say, you know, wine is wine and whether it's good or not, and whether you like it or not, or those are the those are the judgment points.

You've written a lot about the $1.2 trillion buying power of Black Americans and how the wine world has ignored that—have you noticed any changes in that or are you hopeful that there are changes in that in terms of how the wine world is marketing to and and being welcoming to Black Americans?

Julia: Well, I first want to say Nneka Okono wrote that story initially about the trillion dollars. I did want to clarify that, and so I was quoted in that and I speak on that a lot because I feel like the wine industry, the color they're missing is green. And I say this all the time: The color is green, and in their marketing, the way everyone markets now. We're in a social media marketing culture. It is not going anywhere, as much as sometimes the wine world is behind the spirits world in that. And they're missing the money on who they think is a wine drinker. It is the same reason why you shouldn't market a wine to, Oh, this is for women because it's soft and pretty. It can be pretty but are you—why are you marking it to just women? Because men like rosé. That's the perfect example. Rosé. Usually the marketing for rosé is always women; it's never mean. Why is that?

And so with that, with race it’s almost when I see your social media, you have all these beautiful vineyard photos and vineyard shots. Why are there no people of color? Why are no Black and brown people in the marketing? We all know that Black and brown labor—primarily brown labor is the reason we have wine. That's why it seems like people are voting with their dollars. And people are listening to a lot of these brands who are taking initiatives and I've talked with them, and I also tell them, as I tell myself, I have to allow everyone to have grace that this change takes time. This is not an overnight change, some things can be fast. We still live in COVID. So you can't shoot new photos for your vineyard, right? That's, you know, we have to look at that. You can’t hire all these people to be so close to each other to take a photo shoot. So understanding also, that's going to take time. But if you decide to use stock photo images on your social, you can go look for Black people drinking wine; those stock photos exist. It's not that hard.

So yes, that’s in a nutshell. I have patience. I am waiting on people. I think, in the grand scheme of things, you're going to always have people who want to be on the right side of history and you're always going to have people who don't care, and that's going to be it. I'm just going to concern myself with the people who are going to be on the right side of history.

Alicia: For you, is cooking—or, perhaps more appropriately, drinking wine—a political act?

Julia: Well, here's the funny thing: I drink wine and cook, and I cook and drink wine. And that's one of the—here's my thing, though, too, that the food world and wine world are very separate, and I don't really know people who don't drink wine with food—they've seemed very separate. But, to me, I do think, as you know, I know you had on your newsletter, the comment, “has the term ‘food is political’ been overused?” “Has ‘wine is political’ been overused?” We can say that, right. But I do think they're political, in a way, right? I can drink a wine and think, Who made it? How are they treating their workers? How, you know, do the staff that actually work for this winery feel? I can be okay with that and say it’s kind of political and do that part, but that’s me.

I think for me food and wine are political, so yes wine is political. It’s political in a way. Recently there has been who or who gave donations to the Dunk campaign—because I don't like to say his name—but I also have friends who work there who are very nice people who don't believe in that either and so it's very multi-layered and it's hard. So yeah, wine is political. It really is. It is voting with my dollar. It’s political. It’s political.

Alicia: Well, thank you so much, Julia, for coming on and chatting.

Julia: Oh, no, thank you for having me. Thank you. So feel free to reach out anytime and oh, man, your work and your newsletter is my cup of coffee on Mondays. Is it coming in? It’s in my inbox. Looking forward, it just makes me happy because you make me think about things I wouldn't think about.

Alicia: Ah, I'm so happy to hear that. And same for your work. Your work is so indispensable. 

Julia: And I'm really, really, I'm like, how do you do it? How do you do a newsletter every week? I'm just I don't know how you do it. I'm grateful to be a subscriber. Every week, goodness gracious, and all the writing you do like, which is amazing, and the cooking and I'm like, How is she? Okay.

Alicia: I'm always worried I'm not gonna have anything to say. But somehow I always end up with something. All right, great. Well, thank you so much again.

Julia: Thank you.