London-based Lawrence Francis started podcasting in 2017 while living in Spain. After binge watching YouTube wine videos, he soon realized that there was a distinct lack of wine content available about Spanish wines – so he got his boots on and went out to make one, driving across Spain to meet producers. This was no mean feat, considering he was still learning Spanish. He has since returned to London and begun a new podcast, Interpreting Wine. It covers a wide range of topics, from interviews to tastings, seminars and beyond, and went from zero listeners at the start of the year, to 100,000 downloads by the end.
How did you get started with the whole project?
I hadn’t really worked in wine. I was more of a wine enthusiast, but I was living in Spain in 2017 and that’s when the podcast started, from my desire to learn more about Spanish culture and Spanish. I went for a job in a tapas company and they were looking for someone to run their social media. My cunning plan was to go in with an already realised podcast with interviews with Spanish producers, and show them I could speak Spanish. That was September 2017 and what I quickly realised was that it was time consuming: there was a lot of translation and a lot of travelling, so I had to put it on hold.
At the start of last year I moved back to London and wasn’t sure what to do with the podcast, but quickly realized that all the barriers I’d had in Spain were gone – the need to travel, to translate, the time pressures. In London, I was sitting on top of all these amazing resources in terms of producers being imported here, the guys bringing in wine, the writers, all of this amazing material that was within a half hour’s travel. So I did a bit of research into who was doing podcasts because I like the format and people seem to respond to it, but nobody seemed to be doing the ‘in the field’ type.* People seemed to be doing more studio based stuff. I thought I could do the middle ground – go into restaurants and speak to people in their environment. It would be authentic, with clanking pots and other noises in the background. Gonzo style.
But did you get the job in the tapas company?
No. In hindsight it’s probably for the best!
What do you do when you’re not podcasting?
I’ve been working in a wine shop since summer, in Davy’s Wine Merchants in London. It’s a great way to improve my knowledge.
That was another reason for the podcast—the whole thing of getting in front of people who have more knowledge than me. This year my target is to get the WSET Level 3; I got level 2 last year. I’m taking a fairly slow and steady approach.
Before you began the podcast, did you have a social media or radio background?
It was more of an interest. I always liked using new platforms, but it was very much self-taught. I never worked in radio or social media, but a few people said to me they thought I had a good voice for radio, so it was just a question of diving in.
It’s one of those formats where you don’t need thousands of pounds; my kit cost less than £100.00.
What equipment do you use?
I’ve got a Zoom H1 Handy Recorder and it’s got a little tripod that doubles as a stand; a Micro SD card for recording and a wind shield for if you’re outside in the field. In terms of what I take out with me, it’s extra batteries, that’s it. When I get home I will use my Mac and I’ve got Adobe Audition, though there are a number of different programs you can use.
Do you think it’s a format that anybody could try?
It’s a format that’s open to everybody. I’m a firm believer in that, although people haven’t embraced podcasting the way they have with Instagram and Twitter.
I’d like to see more wine podcasts. I feel there is an appetite for more content in that area – people are leaving attention on the table. People are looking for good podcasts. I’ve had that growth with zero momentum.
I think of all these wonderful brands, if they had podcasts, they’d dominate the space. Especially a restaurant who has interesting wine, amazing suppliers, and fresh food, podcasting gives a way to tell, the story before the food hits the plate, rather than just showing the finished product, which everybody is doing.
How much do you know about your audience and your audience engagement?
Throughout 2018, I had more than 100,000 listens across the channel and I was very happy with that. That’s essentially from a standing start in January 2018, when I didn’t know anybody in the wine industry and they didn’t know me.
One of the things that people want to know is who is listening, but the actual hosts – the place where I distribute the MP3 file from – don’t give me that information. You put up a file and it goes into the ether. I’ve had to use my Instagram following as a proxy for who my audience is. I’ve got a couple of thousand people and am engaged with them, and that’s my main channel for feedback. I can see that the people who follow me are from the wine and hospitality industry, and people studying WSET qualifications.I asked people on Instagram who had listened to an episode and it was over 90%. It’s not a perfect way to get that data, but people are not necessarily going to give lots of feedback and I understand that. Everyone’s busy.
What have you learnt about engaging an audience with wine?
Just to give you context, I’ve had a couple of really important milestones, being invited by governing bodies to record podcasts at their fairs. I did on in Austria, to cover VieVinum and off the back of that, I was invited on a press trip to New York, to cover New York state. I did a special takeover of the podcast in summer last year, of 25 episodes – winemakers, importers, sommeliers. That got 15,000 listens altogether and five out of the eight most popular were when I was talking with sommeliers. In America, it looks like they want to hear from sommeliers and master sommeliers. There has been a lot of engagement from sommeliers in London. The episode with Pascaline Lepeltier was the most popular episode – people who are at the top of their game in the field are a draw.
What doesn’t work?
I don’t know. I’m trying lots and lots of different things. I’ve had episodes where I’ve recorded seminars that were over an hour long. There was a conversation between two winemakers about sulphur and that was arguably the most technical of any episode I’ve put out. I’ve been conscious about putting information out at the level of the person in the street, so I thought that [the sulphur talk] might go too far, but it went down very well. I got the most encouraging feedback from that. Maybe because it was a bit geeky?
I’ll also go with the flow even if things go off topic, into cocktails or whiskey. The big learning from me was to see it as a hospitality podcast more than a wine podcast.
What are your plans for 2019?
Last year I published 220 episodes, which is an average of four per week. That’s one of the most active anywhere. My hope is essentially to keep growing this podcast my goal and my aim has been to essentially establish podcasting something that people feel we should be doing and to offer it as a service. I don’t want to put this behind a paywall.
I feel like what I’ve done for myself – zero to 100,000 in a year – is something brands and interesting wine producers and regions [could do]. In London, I’ve covered New Zealand wine a lot and I have this sense that regions like that might benefit from this sort of service, because they have a limited amount of growing space and a premium product, but their markets are so far away. They need sommeliers and the people in shops to justify the higher prices and the best way is through the story. Not everybody can get to New Zealand, so this is another channel to get their message out there. Writing is done well in wine, and video is getting there, but audio hasn’t been done.
Interview by Felicity Carter.
The interview has been shortened and lightly edited
* Other wine podcasters have also done in-field work, including Erin Scala.