Listening to Levi Dalton

New York sommelier Levi Dalton is the man behind wine’s most successful podcast. Jason Sych finds out how he does it.

Levi Dalton, founder, I'll Drink to That! With Levi Dalton
Levi Dalton, founder, I'll Drink to That! With Levi Dalton

Podcasts have exploded in popularity in the past decade so, not surprisingly, some people have used their lockdown time to launch their own podcasts, including in food and wine. While there’s always room for strong new voices, conquering the wine airwaves will not be easy, because today’s would-be wine media stars are up against Levi Dalton, whose podcast has been called “one of wine’s great treasures” by Eric Asimov at the New York Times. 

At 479 episodes, I’ll Drink to That! Wine Talk with Levi Dalton has far outstripped the average lifespan of podcasts by a factor of 50, making him one of the most successful wine podcasters on the internet – and allowing him to earn a living talking about wine.  

How does he do it? 

Small beginnings 

Media was not Dalton’s first career. From the early 1990s to 2011, Dalton worked in some of Manhattan’s most iconic restaurants, such as Convivio and Alto, as well as for Daniel Boulud’s Dinex Group. At the time, there was a lot of hype around being a sommelier, Dalton said. Journalists wrote a lot about the profession and the people in it, but Dalton found what they wrote mostly shallow.  

“It was frustrating for me because I knew these people, I knew how interesting they were,” he said. “I knew they had lived interesting lives, had gotten advanced degrees, and sailed around the world. Things had happened to these people. They’d lived lives and I thought there was a chance to do a different kind of interview.” 
 
As a corrective, he started a video blog interviewing fellow sommeliers. When the restaurant he was working at closed unexpectedly, Dalton decided he was no longer prepared to have a job where he was not in control. He decided to make his video show his new job, conducting the kind of interviews he wanted to see and hear. 

There was a problem, however. 

“I was doing video because everyone thinks video is better,” said Dalton, “and I was coming to this conclusion: the videos sucked.” 

Matt Duckor, a friend who became Dalton’s producer at the beginning of I’ll Drink to That!, convinced Dalton to switch from video to audio.   

“The editing that is necessary to do good video costs money,” said Dalton. “To do video well you need to be making a lot of revenue.” Podcasting gave Dalton the ability to create the kind of show he wanted, without needing funding from big brands. “That means editorial freedom,” said Dalton. “Editorial freedom to do what you want to do, not what the big brands want you to do.”  

The financial side

Dalton has been able to generate revenue from the beginning by attracting advertising. One of the early companies he signed on was SevenFifty, an online marketplace for the restaurant industry, who advertised with him for the first four years. “If you can sell advertising, you can determine your own viewpoint because you are not going to sell to the wrong people,” said Dalton. 

Advertising alone was not enough for Dalton, however.  “If you’re going to make a living from it, think about different ways to do revenue,” he said. “Not just one way. It’s not going to be enough to just do advertising, or donations, or just sell wine. You have to do all of that.”
  
As well as advertising, Dalton’s show also makes revenue from Crush Wine & Spirits, a well-known fine wine retailer in New York. It offers wine selections paired with episodes that feature a wine maker or specific wine, with Dalton getting a percentage of the sale. He also gets donations from listeners, and the three income streams – advertising, percentage sales and donations – have financed the show for more than ten years.

New episodes are released regularly, and his guests are a diverse range of wine professionals, from author Anthony Hanson MW, to geologist and terroir expert Brenna Quigley, to Becky Wasserman-Hone, one of the greatest living Burgundy merchants. The guests sound relaxed, probably because they’re recording from the living room of Dalton’s small apartment in New York.

“Sometimes people give me grief about inviting people to my small home, but that’s probably my biggest weapon as an interviewer,” said Dalton. “People come to this small home, and they relax, and that’s what you need to get a good interview. You need them to chill out and not try to talk to an audience, but only talk to you.” 

Dalton also stresses the importance of editing his interviews, as good editing makes for powerful audio. “If you look at shows that do millions of downloads, they do a lot of editing. Some of the people who are really famous as interviewers, I wouldn’t say that their interviewing skills are so great. What is great is their editing,” Dalton said. “You become a better interviewer because you are a good editor.”

Dalton has never had an ultimate, long-term goal for the show. “I look at it episode by episode,” he said. “The work you do every day becomes the work you do in your life.”

Jason Sych
 

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