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The ethics of wine writers? Flash back 24 years

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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.

  1. Ron Saikowski - Wine Walk Columnist in Houston says:

    The same can be said of wine judges with their alleged blind wine tasting. The bottom line is that we as a community of wine media should be underlining the need for people to believe in their opinions and on how to assess wine quality. Instead, we rate wines and tell people what to drink. Personally, these rating are there to disclose wine flaws and the wine evaluator’s personal opinion. Each person has their own unique opinion of what is quality in wine.

  2. Nice article, Steve.

    It would be unfair to call either Balzer or Chroman wine critics. They were winewriters. Balzer did publish critical reviews of wine, and some of them, like the one the uncovered the still underrated Cabernets of 1969 (Joe Heitz always maintained that his 69 Marthas was better than the fabulous bottlings of 68 and 70.

    But both of them were wine friends, and that role was something unique to the time. The real critics were Finigan, Broadbent, David Garbellano and Francis Peterson (Joel’s mother).

    Connoisseurs’ Guide and the California Grapevine started in 74, Perker in 78 and Bob Morissey started the Spectator back then as well.

    One other note on Chroman. Or is it two? Nate put together the list at Scandia, and it was a great list in its day so it was no surprise that he insisted on meeting at Scandia. And Nate was also the head of the Los Angeles Fair Wine judging back then, when that event was the biggest and most important one of its kind. Oh, and like Robert Parker, Nate Chroman was also a lawyer, but unlike Parker, the law was Chroman profession and wine was a sideline for him.

  3. Steve,

    Thanks for sharing the article. Learning there was even scandal back then surrounding wine critics was surprising. It was a bit before I started in the business, but those of us who remember what it was to write about wine before the internet can appreciate that the principles and ethics that guided us from the beginning have not changed, yet the world of information has risen around us making it easier to have what we do viewed, debated, praised and skewered.

    Charlie, I think I had forgotten that about Joel Peterson’s mother. David Darlington discussed that in ‘Angels Visits”, right?

    Regarding hospitality for writers, beyond what we provide in our policies, it is very difficult to not have wine in some way associated with food. If it is a press lunch (about the only time I see either of you anymore), I treat those differently than private tastings but even then, things can get fuzzy. A winemaker recently provided a plate of sandwiches halfway through a four hour tasting which i was grateful for. Conversely, an offer from a vintner to order off the menu in a restaurant where we were having a three hour tasting was politely declined as I generally don’t eat while evaluating wine and I wanted to avoid any confusion about obligation.

  4. Doug–

    Francis Peterson was later married to David Garbellano, and they wrote a newsletter that was contemporaneous with Balzer and predated Finigan and Connoisseurs’ Guide.

  5. Charlie, thanks, The Petersons just resonate a very special vibe to me. Your guide introduced me to Ravenswood in the early ’90s and they have been responsible for many memorable wines, Morgan Twain-Peterson is making excellent wines under Bedrock and he just released Papa’s All Blacks, the first wine he has made with Joel. Call me sentimental, but I think I will keep that empty around for a while…

  6. Charlie, I think the Balzar article LA Times about 1969 Cabernets was a feature in the Sunday section where a couple dozen winemakers (including moi) tasted a slew of 1969’s blind. We left not knowing who won, that being revealed in the piece. Color photos, big spread. The winner was ’69 Robert Mondavi. The impact of the piece was dramatic for Mondavi giving the winery a big boost at a difficult time, maybe helping Bob buy out Ranier, his partner at the time. Bob was paid $350 a week by the Times for his writing. Not exactly something you could live on. But Balzar had his books, his acting (the priest in Killer Bees), and he was the person who gave out the Holiday awards for restaurants nationally. The latter was far more lucrative. Bob never paid for a meal in a restaurant. Once in New Orleans I hosted Balzar and others to several dinners. Warren LaRuths’, Antoines, and Commanders Palace. All three establishments refused to give us a bill. When I went back into the kitchen to insist on paying, they insisted the opposite, that they would not send a bill to Balzar’s table. It made me extremely uncomfortable because I wanted to sell wine to these people, so I estimated the bill and tip and send them a check when I got home.

    Once, in the mid-70’s during a five week vacation in New Zealand (to moonlight a consulting gig), I got a call from my boss and later his boss’s boss, the head of the company. A Chardonnay I had made was seriously “out of standard.” The corporation had a central quality control lab and they had determined that the wine would change in clarity if exposed to two days of 130F temperature. (no shit?) Not only did they say it was heat unstable, but it was too yellow, the specs were water white to light straw. (I had barrel fermented the Chard in new oak, left it sur lie, and when it came time to fine it I just couldn’t bring myself to use the amount of bentonite require to make it as stable as they wanted.) They were going to pull it all out of the market and my job was in serious jeapardy. Exactly one week after getting back to the states and in the middle of a huge fight for the wine and my job, Balzar wrote an incredible article about the wine heralding it as “ground breaking.” The wine flew off the shelves, sold out immediately, and everyone got off my back, though I did get a face saving lecture or two by a couple corporate suits. So Bob saved my ass too.

    I probably had a half dozen meals with Chroman at Scandia. He would always order First Growths and run the tab up to such a point I would catch hell from my boss at expense account time. I think that thing, pulling it on someone without the big expense account, is what really got him fired. He was paid $150 a week by the Times and they acknowledged that he was independent, underpaid, and junkets were expected. But Nate would often insist that Judy and his daughters come along on the junkets. Nate would always push it to extract the most out of you, but he had another side to him, outside the wine business, and he was a kind, and generous family man. And he truly loved wine.

    It’s hard to sort out these conflicts of interest. In one case I turned this around and the conflict of interst was my own. I became buddies with a writer and together we used the company expense account to the max, to have a lot of fun, great meals, great wine, entertaining ladies, etc, but the secret deal was the writer would never write about my wines. That’s the way it should be done.

  7. I remember that infamous six-part series by David Shaw as if it was yesterday. As a fellow LA Times colleague, David and I often engaged in long food and wine discussions in the hallway. His expose of Nathan Chroman, Robert Balzer, and other wine writers at the time, lead directly to the hiring of Dan Berger, and later Rod Smith. The Los Angeles Times was known for its high degree of ethical purity and journalistic independence. The staff reporters and critics at the paper, whether restaurant, film, or music, were all under strict orders to purchase tickets to every event, and pay for every meal. Of course, today those staff reporters and critics have all been laid off and replaced with mostly “outside independent contractors,” but without the budgets to support them. Journalistic ethical purity is only as good as the resources backing you.

  8. Mr. Saikowski…please specify which wine judges you are writing about. The competitions that I’ve participated in–LA County, Riverside Int’l, Long Beach et al–employ blind tasting. You mean there are ones out there that don’t? Name names.

  9. Donn Rutkoff says:

    Caveat Emptor goes even further back than 24 years. Being as it is Latin, it goes quite a ways back. (Cistercian monks???) Maybe somebody like Richard Ledderer can do some etymology to see when it was first used in the good ole U. S. of A. for commercial relations.

  10. Donn Rutkoff says:

    Well, in answer to my own comment on Caveat Emptor, a quick peek at Wikiped takes us to the honorable John Marshall, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court writing in a 1817 case involving hogsheads of a particular ag commodity. Tobacco, not spirits. But since a lot of US law drew from British common law, does anybody out there is the ether have further detail?

  11. Bob Foster says:

    “The same can be said of wine judges with their alleged blind wine tasting.”

    Poppycock. I’ve been judging wine competitions in Calif (and Missouri and Iowa) since 1982 and not once have I known who produced the wine I was judging. You ought not to speak of things you have no knowledge about.

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