It is a pleasure to introduce to you a fellow wine writer: Hillary Zio. She is also a marketer of wines, a consultant and… well, an overall wine person that is lovely talking to. We shared a bottle of wine, doners, and a walk around the magical city of Sofia, followed by some cocktails together. So, despite my efforts to give Hillary a tummy ache, I think her trip here might have actually gone well. What is more, I believe her trip to Bulgaria makes her a powerful lifelong ambassador of Bulgarian wines, especially after having read her impressions in her Unfiltered newsletter that I highly recommend subscribing to. Let me tell you this unfiltered story that begins at a hotel lobby for lack of a better post-flight meeting point.
I am pleased to meet you in Bulgaria. What is the purpose of your trip – business or pleasure?
Both! I am lucky to work in wine and it is always a pleasure. I have been to a lot of places in Western Europe but I have never been past Prague to the East – it is new to me. We are going to several Bulgarian wineries to do tastings.
Tell us about yourself?
I have been working in the wine industry for 9 years. My husband got me started. When we met he told me that his dad was a winemaker in Sonoma County, California. I thought this was cool but I was 21 and did not know anything about wine. We went to the winery and he introduced me to his family, including his sister who is now a winemaker as well. I latched on to her, listening to what she was talking about with wine and how does one smell and taste all these crazy things in wine, I was so interested. I couldn’t move to California back then but my then boyfriend now husband wanted to move to New York. We did and since I grew up in Colorado, it was a big change for me.
At this point, I had decided to start working in wine and I did a lot of internships, got certified as a sommelier which was quite rigorous after college. It took two years of intense studies and practicing. I worked in a restaurant under a Master Sommelier – Laura Maniec. It was great! She hired me because of my certification but not my experience – I had never worked in a restaurant. But restaurants in New York are open until really late, until 2 or 3 AM and you are home by 4 AM, so I only saw my husband when he was sleeping. Then, I decided to go into retail.
I worked for a luxury retailer as a consultant at New York Vintners in Tribeca and I did a lot of sales and teaching wine classes. I would end up teaching 7 classes a week plus Saturday and Sunday I would do back to back on White Wine, Red Wine, Wines of France, Wines of Italy, Wines of Spain… After 3 years of this
I decided I needed more. I decided to work for a distributor, so I could go into restaurants and shops and go into more detail, talk about soil types, sub regions and vineyards. I really loved it and I would still be doing it today if it weren’t for the City of New York and the subway system – it is so intense with the weather and having to carry all that wine on and off the train, up the stairs, to Brooklyn and Queens – it was too hard on my body, I had a slipped disk and a torn shoulder and I had to figure something else out. And it is tough. When you are new in this, all of these accounts are not just going to buy from you even if your portfolio is great because they have all of these established relationships, so I would go to some restaurants and they would say “Come on, I go on vacation with my reps, those are my best friends.” So finally, I decided to start my own thing with consulting.
Was it a moment of bravery and has it been challenging being solo?
It has been two years and I have gained clients and lost some. It is hard and you have to have a certain amount of clients all the time. I have also found out it is sort of seasonal because holidays are super busy in the wine world and people need promotion and photography. The same applies to Summer and the rose season. I have been helping restaurants write wine lists, training retail staff online and in person, I do a lot of social media for different brands, especially retailers, and writing. I don’t miss working 75-hour weeks. It allows me to get creative and I finally moved to upstate New York. I love writing! I actually wrote a little guide book to working in the industry.
Congratulations on your book “The Unfiltered Guide to Working in Wine”! I can already see how it came to be from your own experience. Please tell us about it.
At one point I started to get a lot of messages through Instagram and Facebook from random people saying “Hey, I want to work in wine. Where should I start?” I would begin telling them my story and we would end up going through these e-mail exchanges that would be very long. “Do you like working nights? Would you feel good working in a shop” From the answers I realized everybody was so different and if only there was something to refer them to… like a book. There were some books about working in a vineyard but what about everything else such as managing a wine list and being a distributor in a city where you don’t drive a car? So I sat down and wrote it. It only took a few months. I did not have a publisher and I decided to self-publish it. It came our immediately. The book is on Amazon and on Barnes & Noble and most of the sales are digital. I organized a small tour in 7 cities and it was fun. I like to say it is a “one-day read”. My husband shot the cover.
Is this a glass of orange wine on the cover by any chance?
You are the first person to ask me that! My mom said “That’s weird. Why would you do that?” But I love orange wine and it relates to the “unfiltered” title because a lot of orange wines are unfiltered. It is not really an orange wine on the picture though. It is a mix of whiskey and Sauvignon Blanc (she laughs). I think it is a little bit eye-catching. Why does this girl talk about wine when there isn’t even a glass of wine there? So many people do not know what orange wine is. And I wanted that… instead of a glass of red wine.
Does landing a book really change the way the industry looks at you? Is it one of these achievements that can really be a game changer career-wise?
Oh, no (she smiles), this is not profitable. It is meant to help people. I have a few book ideas in mind that would be fun to write and research but no.
In the book you observe the different career scenarios in restaurants, retail, wholesale, wineries and then you have the “others” category where you find writing, blogging (separately), social media for wine, wine apps, professional tasting and becoming brand ambassador. Most of the time, it seems, people go through these different career paths on their journey through the industry. What are the most interesting career paths you have come across in the industry?
Most people start in restaurants and for me it is the best place to start because you are opening so many wines a night but if you work at a restaurant which does not care about education and they don’t care about tasting a wine before serving it to a guest, then you are wasting your time. Working at Corkbuzz was the best decision I ever made because Laura Maniec made us taste every bottle before it went out and we would have these really intense trainings.
What are your impressions of Bulgarian wine so far?
Marin [Atanasov] sent me a mixed case of wine and I was so thankful but I could not believe that so many of my friends had never had Bulgarian wine. No, no, no, no. Even my friends who own wine shops – all of these experienced wine professionals and nobody had. This made me so passionate while tasting – a wine reminded me of Languedoc, another of Northern Italy. Bulgarian wines taste so natural to me and I am very sensitive to chemical additives in wine. I was so impressed and then I learned more about the history. I got my old books from the WSET and I said “Where is Bulgaria?” There is one paragraph in there for the multitude of vineyards and time period you have been making wine. Then I was talking to Stetson Robbins of Blue Danube Wine who is responsible for Hungary, Croatia and the region. He was doing a tasting in New York, I talked to him and he finally knew what I was talking about. He said he had absolutely seen a trend. There are more Eastern European wines in restaurants in New York than ever before.
I had a chance to read the “The Unfiltered Guide to Working in Wine” that Hillary signed for me and I think that if you are starting a career in wine, it can easily save you a couple of years of frustration. Unlike some wines, frustration does not age well and can easily turn into a wine fault that you simply cannot swallow. Hillary Zio has found a beautiful way of channeling information without filtering it. I guess you could call it gravity.