Q&A: Elaine Chukan Brown - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Q&A: Elaine Chukan Brown

Elaine Chukan Brown brings a critical yet curious eye to the world of wine. Since departing a tenure-track position in graduate-level philosophy nearly a decade ago to pursue a passion for wine, Brown has become an acclaimed writer and sought-after speaker and educator. In the last two years alone, Brown was named Wine Communicator of the Year by the International Wine & Spirit Competition and received the Legend Award in Wine Education by The Hue Society, among numerous other honors. Most recently, JancisRobinson.com appointed Brown U.S. executive editor, where they are helping to lead the wine publication’s domestic coverage and develop a platform for continued conversations on topics like climate action, sustainability, diversity and equity, and social responsibility. We caught up with Brown about their new role, how a life in academia influenced their approach to wine, and the benefits of boundless curiosity.

Imbibe: In your new editorial position with Jancis Robinson, how do you see it shaping your role in the wine world?

Elaine Chukan Brown: I think Jancis and I overlap really well on values, and we both have a lot of curiosity. She’s dedicated to honestly keeping up with what’s happening in the world of wine and has been consistently ahead of the game in terms of willingness to innovate and adopt new technologies as they’ve come out. She started her website now more than 20 years ago, when wine magazines weren’t even online yet.

It would have been easy at that time to just stay focused on someplace like France. But she was consistently willing to travel and talk to producers in unknown regions. And her site is at a point where there is an opportunity to grow the platform and take that next step. So I think my role is about being a bridge. Let’s preserve that integrity, that thorough-going curiosity, while we incorporate new ways of communicating, increase our work on climate action, and increase our coverage on diversity. 

Prior to your life in wine, you were in academia; what pulled you into the wine world, and how does your education background translate to your work today? 

Long ago when I was an undergrad, it was really hard for me to pick a major because I was curious about everything. When I found philosophy, it was a relief because philosophy trains your own thinking, and then you can apply that to anything. Wine became a way for me to resolve this in another sense, because it brings all these other topics together under one umbrella. I get to keep learning about geology, soil science, plant health, climate and climate change, social action, people’s lives … Wine was always a side interest. But I figured, you have to eat. And if you have to eat, you have time for a glass of wine. So wine was the hobby I could fit in there.

But the problem in being an academic of the sort I was is that even hobbies are not casual. I’d just go to have a glass of wine and then I’d want to know, does this wine exemplify the history of the region? How many other producers make it this way? A year or two before I left academia, I had a bottle of 2008 Eyrie Pinot Meunier. I was blown away by this wine. I fell in love with it. They essentially helped establish an entirely new wine region that’s now one of the United States’ important wine regions [Willamette Valley, Oregon]. The idea that one family could have that kind of impact and also make this wine I loved—I was blown away by that. I just kept going down the rabbit hole.

I was a full-time lecturer, so I had lots of classroom time, which helped me learn how to communicate complex, difficult topics in a way that is approachable. I think it has really informed how I write and speak about wine. People used to say, if we want to get consumers to care, we have to simplify it. But no—the romance and interest in wine are in its complexities. That’s what grabs and can hold your attention; there is so much to taste and so much to learn and so much to be charmed by. A lot of times when we simplify it, we wash out the nuance. I want to retain wine’s complexity and show how intriguing it is.

The Jancis Robinson website is an international operation, but your focus will be more on the U.S. market. What do you think exemplifies American wine today? 

I think we’re in a really interesting flux point with the U.S. wine market. There’s more divergence now in interest from consumers, but also in range of styles. Historically, there would be major, singular trends that really drove the market. And now we’re at this point where there is much more opportunity for people to create mini trends, so to speak, and to find a specific audience that’s passionate about that style. There is a greater range of styles being made, and also a greater range of interest from the wine-lover side. I think it’s fun. For me, I’m very curious and it keeps me interested to be able to taste and talk to people about lots of different things. 

The last two years saw a lot of big changes come to the industry; what were some of the most important shifts that you saw, and what are you excited about moving forward? 

I think the wine industry finally had to learn new ways to communicate. It has historically been resistant to upgrading its technology—websites, electronic communication, just basic things like that. Now we’re at a point where it is just understood that things like webinars and websites have to be there.

I’m really curious how this is going to continue, because I do see people trying to push back into in-person events, and, of course, some of that is appropriate. But I think we need to be careful about how quick and how forcefully we try to bring that back, because the other piece that the last two years have brought front and center is climate change. We need to be thinking about how we balance the need for some things to be in person and the demand to reduce how much we’re flying.

I think the third thing that has really made a lasting impact is representation in wine. Everyone at this point realizes this is a conversation, whether they want to talk about it or not. It’s impossible to deny that representation and diversity is a crucial topic in wine. But the piece we have to keep central to that conversation around representation is equity. If all we’re doing is increasing the number of photos of people with disabilities or of different racial backgrounds, or the number of people in entry-level jobs, then we’re not changing enough. We have to ensure that we’re also working on creating avenues for advancement, and to ensure that we’re transforming our culture so people feel welcome, not just hired. But there’s more active conversation happening and real work being done to fund diversity initiatives, and that’s happening globally. So that’s exciting.

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