The ethics of wine writers? Flash back 24 years
Following the news last week that Robert Lawrence Balzer had died, there’s been a flurry of obits in the media. I never knew Balzer, although I’d certainly heard of him. His heyday was before my time, and in my considerable library of wine books I have none by him, for some reason; I certainly never avoided buying them.
Then yesterday I was reading the New York Times and came across Frank Prial’s obituary of Balzer, in which Frank wrote, concerning Balzer’s stint as the Los Angeles Times’ wine columnist [a post Frank held at the Grey Lady before Eric Asimov took over], “His own newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, mildly criticized him at one point for being too close to the people whose wines he judged.”
Suddenly the memories came back. I vaguely recalled the L.A. Times firing a wine columnist for being too cozy with winemakers, demanding expensive wines from them at expensive restaurants…but, no, that wasn’t Balzer, it was Nate Chroman, whom the late reporter David Shaw wrote about in the L.A. Times more than 24 years ago, in his six-part series, “Wine Critics: Influence of Writers Can Be Heady.” It brought back pleasant memories of David, whom I knew briefly in L.A., when he’d invited me to his home in (I think) Silver Lake, where he had just installed a wonderful wine cellar.
I read all six parts of the series, which covered Robert Parker, Robert Finigan (whom I also hanged with back in the day; we were part of the little group that helped Gavin Newsom put together the wines to sell at his first PlumpJack store), The Wine Spectator, Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wine (hello, Charlie Olken!), and Gerald Asher, then still at Gourmet. (I fancied that, had David written his article a few years later, I might have crashed the party.)
All the young bloggers should read this series. It’s the best analysis of the impact of wine writing that’s ever been done by a journalist, and the fact that David wrote it 24 years ago makes it even more remarkable. The same things we obsess with today–ethics, pay to play, accepting freebies, the abuse of power, conflicts of interest, the relationship between writers, editors and publishers–make appearances in David’s series; like the Ghosts of Christmases Past, the flit across the stage, each more disfigured than the last. One cannot read this thing without coming to the realization that some things never change, because the world remains essentially the same place it’s always been.
David, who died at the age of 62 in 2005, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for his coverage of a sexual abuse scandal at a California preschool that turned out to be a witch hunt. David was a helluva writer: careful, observant, intrepid, passionate. Unlike some today, he got his facts straight (helped, no doubt, by the L.A. Times’ fact checkers), but even if it hadn’t been for fact checkers, I’m sure his many articles would have been correct anyway, because David placed that demand on himself. He was proud of his Pulitzer, but he also was proud of his series on wine writers. He was a wine guy, bigtime–food, too–and re-reading the series, after all these years, leaves me breathless that David had the instincts to write it. Twenty four years ago, nobody spoke of such things as the ethics of wine writers. It wasn’t considered important. David realized there was something going on; he spent a long time researching his series, talking to everyone from Randall Grahm to Harvey Posert, then Mondavi’s mouthpiece, now with Fred Franzia, at Bronco. He put together a splendid tale that raised more issues than it answered, issues that we’re still talking about today, and that still have not been answered. Was it legit for Chroman and his wife to accept a junket to France, Italy, Germany and Spain? Unclear; Chroman was a freelancer, not an employee of the L.A. Times, which in any case had no policy about freebies at that time. Was it inappropriate for Chroman, who’d been asked to lunch by a wine importer, to demand the importer bring him to Scandia (the most expensive L.A. restaurant back then) and also bring along $1,000 worth of Burgundy? That seems like a stretch to me, but letting somebody who wants to get to know you pay for your lunch, I have no problem with that. I do it, not because I need another fancy lunch (I’m trying to lose weight, not gain it), but because it’s important for me, as a Wine Enthusiast editor, to form good relationships throughout the industry.
So you see, we’re still struggling with the same issues David highlighted in 1987.