The art of the interview
I’m headed up to Napa Valley today, in the rain (groan), to visit with Mr. Francis Ford Coppola. This is for an upcoming feature story in Wine Enthusiast (the print edition here in the States as well as the new Mandarin edition, debuting in June), so I’m not going to steal my own thunder by talking about it now. But it does have me thinking about how great it is to live so close to the wine country I report on. I suppose I could be a wine writer if I lived in Indianapolis, but it wouldn’t be as easy, or as much fun.
I remember my first winery visits as a working reporter. That was when I worked for “the competition.” They sent me to two Napa Valley wineries on the same day: Flora Springs and Chateau Potelle. The former was owned by the same family that owns it today; the wines were very high in quality and still are. The latter no longer exists, and it was by sheer coincidence that I received a tasting sample last week from Marketta du Formeaux, who was one of the original Potelle owners. It was a Sauvignon Blanc from her new Marketta brand, and quite a good wine, indeed.
I remember sitting on Potelle’s balcony, high up on Mount Veeder, sipping their own Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel with Marketta and her then-husband, Jean-Noel, a funny man who insisted I call him “Johnny Christmas” and who joked (referring to the rutted dirt road that led up to the property) that the winery really should have been called Chateau Pot-Hole.
I also visited, early on in my career, two wineries in Paso Robles: Eberle and Wild Horse. Eberle is, of course, still going strong, but Wild Horse like Potelle no longer exists under the guidance of its founder, Ken Volk, who now runs his own eponymous brand. When you’ve been around a while, you see wineries come and go. Mostly, and fortunately, they stay.
It’s an honor and a privilege to be hosted at a winery by the proprietor/s. I never forget that I’m a guest in someone’s home, that my hosts are proud of their accomplishments and that I’m there to hear about them. You don’t have to be servile when you’re a guest, but you do have to pay interested attention to everything around you, and to be alert to your host’s words. On the other hand, some proprietors have a tendency to go robo. They’re on message all the time, repeating the same hidebound formulas they talk about all the time, to every reporter. This is only natural, but in my experience it’s because they’re nervous and don’t know what else to talk about. It’s the writer’s role to loosen them up, get them to be comfortable in the experience instead of tense. That’s the art of the interview. I think I’m a good interviewer, having been doing it for a long time. But some people are easier to interview than others.
My last book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff, was all interviews. Some of them were tortured. Others flowed as easily as if we were sitting by the fireside on a winter night, drinking red wine. At that time, I’d decided never to arm myself with prepared questions. When I first started interviewing, I’d do my research and come with a list of 30 or 40 questions, then ask them one at a time, in order. That is an approach, but not a very good one. I began to notice, when I’d get home and transcribe the recordings, that I’d allowed certain remarks that were alive with implications to pass by unexplored, so fixated was I on asking the next question on the list. It was as though the conversation went like this:
So tell me, where did you learn how to make wine?
Well, I went to U.C. Davis, but it was really during my summer internship at the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti that I learned.
And what year did you graduate from Davis?
I’d read that later and think, Oh, s**t, I failed to ask him about his internship at DRC? Doh! So for years now, I go to interviews without lists of questions, armed only with background information in my head, prepared to have an actual conversation in which I can be mentally alert to where the chat wants to go, instead of forcing it in a particular direction.
I always thought Larry King was a good interviewer. True, he had his detractors, who said he only gave his guests puffballs. But I saw him ask some very tough questions over the years. It was precisely because his guests trusted him that they relaxed their guard enough to sometimes let their true selves out. Mike Wallace, who died yesterday, was Larry King’s complete opposite. He came on strong, looking for blood, and always seemed to know exactly where to stick the knife. He was good at it, and it was fun watching him skewer the rich and powerful on Sixty Minutes. But that aggressive approach isn’t mine, and besides, this is the wine industry. Interviewing winemakers doesn’t call for the same style as interviewing mafia chiefs.