Interpreting Wine with Lawrence Francis

Lawrence Francis is at home in London. His smile almost obscures the wall-mounted monitor in the backdrop of the Google Meet call. The Interpreting Wine podcast founder and host is a cheerful, alert interlocutor with none of a professional interrogator’s hesitation about being peppered with questions.

Photo courtesy Lawrence Francis

Francis’s graciousness and good humour make it easy to see how, since 2017, he’s built what its website dubs “the world’s premier drinks trade podcast”. Interpreting Wine runs to more than 450 episodes and spans the world of wine from China to Spain, Armenia to Oregon, and points in between. In some respects, it is a long way from his background in psychology, but both his previous and current occupations attest to curiosity and a desire to understand what makes people and things tick.

Interpreting Wine harnesses these impulses in the aid of storytelling. Francis looks for stories others might miss, stories the wine industry has not always been good at telling. “Wine is not a spectator sport,” he says. “A lot of content is just talking about the wine in the glass – how it looks, smells, tastes. That’s interesting up to a point, but not for long. Wineries have so much to tell.” And, with Francis’s help, they are being heard more than ever.

Where are you from?

London. I’ve moved around a fair but, but I always come back.

What is your current profession?

I’m the founder of Interpreting Wine. I work with some of the biggest wine brands in the world and help them engage the global wine trade via tens of thousands of hours of podcasts.

What brought you to this?

Long story short, I was trying to get a job doing social media for a tapas tour company so I could stay in Madrid, where I was living. I didn’t have any credentials so I thought, ‘I’ll start a wine podcast’.

One of the biggest problems wine has is how to story tell at scale. It is easy to get your story across when you’re sitting at the winery but that doesn’t scale up.

What was your introduction to the world of wine?

I used to be a little bit scared of wine. It was too complicated for me. But I happened across a YouTube channel where the [presenters] were specialists in Spanish wine. What was so interesting was the tone. It was friendly, it was like you were sat there with them. Their focus was on telling the story of the producer. It wasn’t just about the wine. It drew you in with the story.

What was your knowledge of wine growing up?

I drank beer. Maybe some of the groundwork was laid there, when I realised the mass-produced stuff wasn’t so interesting. Craft beer was an important step in my interest. The first wines I was interested in were very much on the craft side, small production, natural wine.

What was the ‘aha!’ moment where you know you wanted to work in wine?

It started with the podcast. I didn’t get the job to stay in Spain, so I came back [to London]. Then realised, maybe there’s some mileage in this. There wasn’t anyone really doing a wine podcast in the way I wanted to. It felt like doors were open. It was only when I got back to London I saw how big the scene was, how many stories there were to tell. It was a good place to be.

Did you start out with a trade focus or a consumer focus?

I started to go to trade tastings, to try lots of different wines, which everyone said was important. At those tastings I asked people, what’s the go-to trade podcast? What do you listen to?

There wasn’t really one that was winning. I thought, okay, I can do that. I wanted to give myself the freedom to go into different directions, so the trade angle was more interesting.

What is the first bottle of wine you really remember?

The first tasting that really blew me away was wines from Austrian winemaker Claus Preisinger. They were special. To be able to then interview people and get the story was an amazing thing.

What has been your wine education?

I’ve done the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) Level 2 but I’m maybe not the most motivated student. The podcast itself is my education. Though in late 2020 I did the Spanish Wine Scholar, which was cool, to bring it all full circle.

Photo courtesy Lawrence Francis

How has the wine industry changed during your time in it?

I’ve changed, in terms of realizing the value of podcasting and the problem it solves. The pandemic brought that into stark relief. Wine regions realised it was a channel worth paying for. After 2020, I started working on a paid basis. People realised that they couldn’t rely on ‘in-person’ – they needed to think about a hybrid.

Whose example have you followed? Or is your business structure totally DIY?

The podcasts put me in touch with potential customers. One of them helped me, in 2020, develop my media kit and draw out from my data key points: reach, who’s listening, what is the engagement on a monthly/annual basis, what is the outcome. Naively, I assumed that the outcome was obvious, but there was a lot to unpick. That was a big move forward. From there, it has been just trying to demonstrate the value now and in the future.

What are the hidden challenges of working in wine?

The thing that makes wine amazing is a threat as well: tradition. The wine industry doesn’t always always realise when consumers are looking for something else, or communication styles and channels have changed. It risks losing relevance at times.

What is the most common misconception about wine you encounter among consumers?

That everyone who likes wine, or swirls their glass before they drink, is a snob. I don’t see myself as a snob, or hang out with people who are. There are lots of ways to enjoy wine.

What is the most common mistake or misconception made by wine professionals?

People who make wine want to talk too much about the wine itself. I’ve identified through my data six wine stories that I recommend wineries tell instead of just focusing on what’s in the glass.

What are the six wine stories?

People, culture, geography, geology, vineyard and vinification. The producers who come on the podcast and tell these six stories get 100-400% more engagement and listens than those who don’t.

Where is your favourite winery or wine region to visit?

The Willamette Valley. I spent seven days there in January 2020 and interviewed 20 winemakers. It was intense. I was struck, first and foremost, by the people. They were some of the most eloquent, engaging, interesting winemakers I’ve ever met. Meeting them one after another made for an overload of information.

Experiences like that make me appreciate how lucky I am. Everything, the welcome, the food, the wine association, the trust they had [in me], made it one of my best series and best experiences ever. I didn’t sleep very well the week after the trip; it was such a dense experience, my brain was still processing.

Check out Francis’s interviews with Vinediction favourites Maysara and Elk Cove. Revisit the Vinediction features too — Elk Cove and Maysara.

Maysara Winery photo CW

What is your favourite piece of media related to wine (book, film, song, etc.)?

Bottle Shock, about the judgment of Paris. A movie about wine shouldn’t be about wine, it should be about people, telling a story.

What is one change you’d love to see in the wine industry?

The way the wine industry communicates. There is too much emphasis on trade fairs, tastings, the traditional model. There isn’t enough experimentation and openness to newer channels. New media is cheaper than traditional channels. You also get the potential double whammy of attracting younger people, which is going to be more and more important.

How does new media allow new people to reach wine and increase diversity and representation?

It democratises the experience. People can listen [to a podcast] from anywhere around the world. It can bring someone in and who knows where that can go. That’s why I don’t plan to ever charge for my content.

What are your professional goals?

Working with new and interesting wine regions. Collaborating and educating with the industry to show how powerful podcasting is for getting their story across and reaching new audiences. I want to make the marketing part of their business more efficient.

Where is your favourite place to drink a glass of wine?

In London, I’m a big fan of Quality Wine in Farringdon. It is a very European-style spot, there’s a wall of wine, a mini-kitchen, lots of tables crammed together. The hospitality is amazing.

Take five:

  1. The up-and-coming winemaker…

Kyra Wines from Armenia. They are making areni noir, the classic [local] grape in a very pure way. It’s a small family project, about 800 bottles.

  1. The perfect Sunday lunch bottle…

Just one? [laughs] Lichtenberger Gonzalez make this rosé I absolutely love. It’s a gastronomic rosé with a lot of colour and structure.

  1. The perfect celebration splurge bottle…

A white Rioja from Bodegas Bhilar in the Rioja Alaveza. It’s one of the most phenomenal wines I’ve ever tasted. If you like the complexity of sherry, you’ll love this.

  1. Must-visit wine region…

Galicia. I started with godello and the white grapes then went back for the reds. The Ribera Sacra is not stereotypical big bold reds. It is completely different.

  1. The relaxing Friday night at home tipple…

Something simple like a Cru Beaujolais.

***

Learn more

Join one of Francis’s live small group marketing sessions online to learn more about how podcasting can help wine regions and producers be heard.

Registration is open for the next session at www.interpretingwine.com/roundtable

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