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Wine writer ethics, an obituary, and a segue to Tom Jones

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When I was still a beginning wine writer, one of the giants of our trade was Nate Chroman, who died last Friday at the age of 83.

I am looking now at his 1973 book, The Treasury of American Wines, which I have owned for many years. It’s a fine read, although for me its usefulness is limited by the fact that it has no index.

Nate was the wine critic for the Los Angeles Times in the 1970s and 1980s, but lost his job after another Times reporter, the paper’s media critic, David Shaw, wrote a series of articles on wine writing in which he questioned Chroman’s ethics. (I wonder if they ran into each other at the water cooler.) Nate, it seems, had accepted meals and travel from wineries, whose wines he then reviewed in the paper. This was the first instance, so far as I am aware, of a wine writer’s ethics being questioned in the media. My oh my, how far we’ve come. As we all know, gotcha! articles about wine writer ethics have become a staple these days, especially in the blogosphere (paging Jay Miller). Nate Chroman had the dubious distinction of being the Alan Shepard of that agonizing trip.

I met David Shaw, who passed away in 2005, in the 1990s, at his home in the Silver Lake district of L.A., where he had a modest wine collection he wanted to show me. Yes, David was a wine lover, and a knowledgeable one. Although he’d come under fire for what some perceived as an unnecessary persecution of Nate Chroman, who evidently was well-liked (I never met him), David never apologized or reneged. He had a sense of justice, not to mention a nose for a good story (he won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting about a preschool child abuse scandal) and felt strongly that wine writers should accept nothing for free from the wineries they cover.

I think David was a little harsh. Reporters can err too much on the side of being judgmental, especially if it makes for lurid reading. The worst thing I heard about Nate (I can’t locate a copy of David’s series, so I don’t know if it was in there) was that Nate used to demand that winemakers who invited him to lunch or dinner bring super-expensive bottles of wine, like Lafite, which he then wouldn’t even drink, but take home! I don’t know whether or not that was true, but it made the rounds, in those pre-Internet days when you heard things from an actual person’s lips.

I personally don’t think it’s a big deal to occasionally accept a meal from a winemaker. I do it on rare occasions, almost always lunch at my local Whole Foods, not exactly the Everest of haute cuisine, but convenient for me. Obviously I would never ask a winemaker to bring an expensive bottle, especially one he didn’t himself make. That’s over the line.

This next is a little irrelevant to the topic, but mentioning Jay Miller made me think of Robert Parker, so I went to his website where he’s described as “the million dollar nose.”

That made me remember the actress Betty Grable, who was described as having “million dollar legs.”

Through the magic of The Google Machine I learned the following:

The TV star, Holly Madison, has a million dollar insurance policy on her boobs.

The porn star, Keiran Lee, has a million dollar policy on his penis.

Head & Shoulders shampoo took out a $1 million insurance policy on the hair of the NFL star, Troy Polamalu.

Gene Simmons, of KISS, insured his tongue for $1 million.

And according to the same website, Tom Jones “allegedly” insured his chest hair for $7 million.

When I was in my 20s I was in a rock band [on keyboards]. We were good enough for Mr. Tom Jones to audition us as the opening act for his upcoming tour. My band had 8 or 10 female backup singers (the number varied over the years). They were all beautiful, sexy women. It turns out that Mr. Jones didn’t hire us, but he did put the moves on the ladies, whose reactions can be summed up in the word “Eeeew.” And finally, for your listening pleasure, here’s Tom singing “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” on YouTube.

  1. What Shaw may not have said or been able to prove was that Chroman was no just passively accepting freebies. He was actively asking for them – or so some have told me. Maybe that is what made Shaw so resolute…

  2. since i was there, i have to comment. in the days before california wines “arrived,” nathan was enormously helpful with his columns. he was also an investor and legal advisor to some wineries. he was aggressive in his requests for bottles, cases, specific restaurants and even travel. when he wanted the NV auction to pay travel expenses for some of his family as well, david shaw got wind of it and came to napa to investigate. david was a true newspaperman and was embarrassed for the Times. he wrote the story and nathan was terminated by the paper but continued to write. the brouhaha came to the attention of the NY Times, whose editors thought that if wine was that important, they should cover it, and they got urban issues writer frank prial to do their column. con vino y esperanza, todo se alcanza. harvey

  3. @Harvey Posert, many thanks for your interesting and historical comment!

  4. Tom Ferrell says:

    I met Nate and Judie while still a student of enology and viticulture at Davis. I was working as an intern for Joe Heitz and living in the winery guest house the summer of 1969. The night was memorable as it was my first experience of the interaction between a journalist and a winemaker over dinner. Nate had brought a $1.59 French wine as “evidence” to his contention that California wines had become over priced. It was a lively discussion to put it mildly, since Joe’s wines were among the priciest at the time.
    Later that evening we watched Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.

    Over the years as a winemaker I shared many meals and wines with Nate. His candor and honest criticism of my wines were helpful in my growth as a winemaker. He never minced his words. Because of his disability, at quite a few large wine tastings where there were hundreds of wines, I would find myself being a “runner” for Nate, bringing him wines that we would both taste. He had a good palate and I valued his opinion. Our friendship never influenced what he wrote; if anything it made it less likely he would write about my wines. Nate always wrote what he truly believed and he was an advocate for the consumer.

    Nate was an important voice and influence in the wine industry during the emergence of California wine on the world stage and he deserves to be recognized and remembered for his many contributions. All prominent wine writers at the time accepted meals and junkets. He was unfairly singled out. Nate may have seemed little more aggressive than other wine writers at the time because of his disability having his wife along was a great help to him in travel. And if he could get one of his girls along on the trip too, so much the better. And that was the real Nate, a loving husband and father. My heart goes out to Judie, Lucie, Gina and Stacy for their loss.

  5. Nate’s book on American Wines (published back in 1973, I believe) was the first book I purchased about wine. I’m not sure what happened to my copy but oddly enough I took out a copy from the local library and read it from cover to cover again a few days ago. It was a good read. It also makes you appreciate the incredible changes in the wine industry over the last 40 years!

  6. Nate was the original wine curmudgeon.
    I’m wondering what his approqch to, say, Screaming Eagle might be today? For all of his tactics, California’s wineries and the consumer were the better for it. Thanks, Nate.

  7. Ray’s comment brought up a family memory…most revolved around wine in some way or another. My father, who was the VP of Sales at the family winery worked in Southern California a lot back in the ’70s and ’80s, was close to Nate and a bunch of his non-wine business friends from the LA/Pasadena area.

    This time in the wine business bears absolutely no resemblance to today. The challenges were different then. Today, we have thousands of competitors; then, you had to prove that California deserved attention and the “wine press” was more collegial in a lot of ways.

    Anyway, I remember, as a child, spending a Thanksgiving with my father, sister, step-mother-to-be and Nate and his family and other close friends in a house in Yosemite. We arrived on a clear Wednesday and awoke to snowfall, the wreathing of woodfire on Thursday. It was a magical trip…deer coming by the door, feeding them carrots, great food, the washing of dishes.

    Nate was in a wheelchair and seemed a daunting figure even though I looked down on him at 10 years of age. His family was wonderful (I may have had a crush on his daughter…). I never knew Nate in his capacity as a wine writer, but knew him briefly and innocently as a child.

    I’ve heard stories of Nate from my father and others of that time. The details were meaningless to me then and mean even less now. All I can say for sure was, like my father and me, Nate loved wine. He found magic in the stories of production and was so compelled by wine’s bottomlessness that he devoted a lifetime to it.

    My condolences go out to his family. The memories can never be erased.

  8. I had the honor to spend time with Nate Chroman over some memorable meals. He was generous with his knowledge of California wines and I could sit for hours listening to his stories. He was always the consummate gentleman and I appreciated his honesty.

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