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The essence of reporting: communication and character

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Here’s Greg Brewer, a nice guy and a great winemaker [Brewer Clifton, Melville, Diatom], on Richard Sanford [Alma Rosa], quoted in R.H. Drexel’s inaugural issue of Loam Baby: A Wine Culture Journal.

Look at Richard Sanford. When I’m in his presence, it’s special because he deserves more and he’s never spoken ill of anyone. He’s so gracious. He’s put in 40 years around here [Santa Rita Hills], for crying out loud. And he’s rolling as quietly and supportively and as politely as anyone I know. That is really special, you know? No bravado. No pretense, no “Don’t you know who I am” or “Don’t you know how long I’ve been here?”

Greg is speaking of Richard’s character, a concept that doesn’t get examined much lately. What I want to talk about–as a reporter, journalist and wine writer–are the insights I get into human character from my job.

The essence of reporting is communication. A reporter doesn’t make stuff up. We depend on people telling us things, which we then write about to report to the people who read us. It’s a three-way conversation: source to reporter to reader. But, of course, the magic can only happen if the source talks to the reporter, and then, the information is only worthwhile to pass on if it’s genuine.

I should maybe come up with different words than “source” and “reporter” because that makes it sound like Deep Throat in the parking garage at night, leaking secrets off the record to an investigative journalist. That’s part of reporting, but it’s not really what wine writers do. We have conversations–with winemakers, grapegrowers, merchants, sommeliers and others in the industry–which we learn from, and then share the fruits of our knowledge with our readers, who presumably are hungry for more education.

Richard Sanford is, as Grew Brewer said, one of the politest, most respectful and helpful people in the industry. For a reporter like me, he’s a godsend. Fortunately, the wine industry is filled with such people. Well, Richard is a cut above most everyone. But in general, wine people are good communicators.

The reason this is important for consumers is because knowledge and information are vital aspects of wine appreciation. Wine is different from bread, soup or cereal. We may eat and enjoy those things, but we don’t care much about where they came from, or who made them. We don’t meet in groups to discuss the intricacies of cereal, nor do we buy books on soup. (I’m not talking about cookbooks, obviously.)

For this knowledge and information to be passed along, it’s necessary for knowledgeable people to share what they know with the public, through the medium of the reporter. A man like Richard Sanford knows so much that he could spend the rest of his life communicating it and still have oodles of information left over. And Richard is happy to communicate, in his own quiet, unassuming way. This is what Greg Brewer sees in him: Richard’s lack of pretense. If anyone in the industry has a right to “Don’t you know who I am?”, it’s Richard. But you’ll never get that from him.

Unfortunately, not everyone in the industry is like that. There are some people–I won’t name names now, although I’m tempted to, and one of these days, I will–some people in this industry who couldn’t be bothered. They’re too puffed up with their own self-importance. (I’m thinking of one such right now, who happens to live in Napa Valley.) They’re successful, which merits respect, but they’ve let their success go to their heads. They may fancy themselves a part of the wine community, but they’re really not. They’ve cut themselves off from the true community, and walled themselves into a tight little clique that reflects back only what they want to see and hear.

The wine community, happily, is so much bigger than that. It’s a place where people from every walk of life, with every kind of job, are united in one thing: the love of wine. It’s a place where people return phone calls and texts and emails, and drink and eat together, and have conversations, and pass knowledge back and forth, and laugh. Richard Sanford understands that and expresses it in everything he does. He has character. I wish everybody in the industry did.

  1. I am sure you just alienated the 3 people who have either written or read a book about soup. . . and speaking of the winemakers and other folks who tend toward or away from character, the people that really bother me are those that are just starting out or haven’t become successful yet that carry that arrogance and hubris around already. At least with the superstars, you have the respect piece of it because they made their bones a long time ago. Unfortunately, this phenomenon doesn’t seem to be limited to winemakers either; I have come across somms, wine retailers, tasting room staff, and many others that seem to think of themselves as higher and mightier than thou because they work in wine.

  2. Greatgrapes: I don’t know about soup and maybe I am a tad sensitive, but I was offended by Steve’s dissing of bread. More than any wine book, I prize a book on bread written by Lionel Poilane that examines that product which is the foundation of civilization. And regarding the art of bread, no winemaker is more famous than Poilâne, known for his round, two-kilogram sourdough country bread baked in a wood fired oven (which his book contains the recipe and detailed instructions for construction of the oven.)

  3. @Morton: Day-um! I knew some bread fanatic was gonna pound me! I officially replace bread with celery.

  4. Richard Sanford is a truly awesome person. He embodies the spiritual path he follows. It always brightens up my day to see him.

  5. raley roger says:

    Richard Jennings….could not agree with you more, kind sir.

  6. Having to meet with some arrogant, narcissistic people in the wine industry is probably one of the occupational downsides of being a famous wine writer/critic. Fortunately such people would never condescend to meet with ordinary wine lovers so many of us never have to meet them. What I find striking is how often I hear the phrase, “wine snob” along with implications that anybody who loves wine is vain and pretentious. Yet such creatures seem to be very rare. Almost all of the winemakers, winery owners and others I have met have been down to earth, interested in sharing information and even downright humble. They often know so much that they have an understanding of how much more there is that they don’t know. Richard Sanford sounds like a very exceptional person whom we would all like to see more of in every field.

  7. Oh I’d love to name a whole lot of them on all sides of the industry. Luckily, they all seem to stick to the same cliques and rarely bother the rest of us effectively cutting themselves off from the real world.

  8. I’ve met some of those puffed-up types that you allude to, and thankfully they comprise maybe 0.05% of the people in the wine biz (from my somewhat limited exposure to it over the past five years or so). Wine is humbling, and I think the best of those working within it (sounds like Sanford is one of those) let that humility define them.

  9. Dude, did you ever meet Richard? Next time you’re in SBC you should hook up. He’s the godfather of Pinot Noir in Sta. Rita Hills.

  10. Peter Troilo, sounds like you’re thinking of the same crowd as I am!

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