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Memoir: How I got into wine

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We never drank wine when I was a kid. My parents, aunts and uncles might have a glass or two of Manischevitz for Jewish holidays, but that was it. When I got into college, there was a period when I drank cheap wine–Bali Jai, Ripple and Boone’s Farm–heavily. But I quickly realized I was becoming dependent on it and so my basic common sense made me quit.

I might never have discovered wine had not a series of coincidences brought me to California in my early 30s. Certainly nothing in my background or interests prepared me for what was to become an obsession. I was living with my cousins in Benicia, a little town northeast of San Francisco. We decided to barbecue that evening, so we went to the Safeway and stocked up on steaks, potatoes and all the trimmings. My cousin Maxine then pushed the shopping cart into the wine aisle and started doing what, to me, was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever seen concerning shopping behavior: she would pick up bottles, one by one, examining the front and back labels, reading silently, thinking.

Wondering what the heck she was doing, I said, “Just grab a bottle and let’s go.” Maxine looked at me with her famous arched eyebrow that is an unspoken indictment and said, in a low voice, “You don’t just grab a bottle of wine.”

There ensued a brief discussion about thoughtfulness in the purchase of wine, during the course of which I learned that not all wines are the same and that–evidently–there was a science or art behind the purchase that had to do with considering what foods the wine was meant to accompany. As these were entirely new concepts to me, I was flummoxed. I certainly wasn’t ignorant of good food: I’d worked in a series of cook positions at decent restaurants, including as sous chef at the Deerfield Inn, which had an old-style French restaurant located in Old Deerfield, Massachusetts, where the menu included beef Wellington, baked Alaska and Caesar salad, made tableside by me. But in all my years at the Deerfield Inn, where Kings and movie stars often dined because it was on the campus of the prestigious Deerfield Academy prep school where their children went, I cannot recall a single instance of wine being mentioned or even served. After my dinner shift was over, I would repair to the bar, for enough beer to recover from the mental havoc of the cook’s line. But never, ever was it wine.

That conversation with my cousin did something that, later, I recognized as my having been bitten by the wine bug. I began to collect books about wine, to read up on it in the San Francisco newspapers, to interrogate the floor staff of wine stores. When I moved out of my cousin’s home to my first apartment in San Francisco, out in the Ingleside, I would spend each weekend traversing the city in my old, green 1976 Datsun, starting downtown at Draper & Esquin and working my way west via Connoisseur’s Wines and The Wine House south to the Jug Shop, on Polk Street, Liquor Barn, down on Bayshore, Hennessey’s, in the Castro, the Ashbury Market, above Haight-Ashbury (where I first met Wilfred Wong, whose parents owned it), and so on, all the way out to the foggy Avenues where there was a liquor store whose name I can’t recall. Everywhere I went, I learned.

I joined the old Les Amis du Vin, a national association of wine-loving amateurs, and was asked to be the San Francisco chapter leader–an honor I declined after the then president told me how much work was involved: setting up tastings, inviting speakers and keeping track of members. I was very busy at the time–going to grad school fulltime, working fulltime, volunteering for the Shanti Project where I did household chores for very sick victims of the first wave of the AIDS epidemic, working out everyday at the gym, jogging 6 or 7 days a week, maintaining a relationship, and then trying to find a few hours here and there to sleep, read or watch TV. So running an organization just couldn’t be fit in.

I was especially fascinated by the concept of a structured approach to wine tasting. That was a new one on me. I knew all about structured approaches to other things–for example, writing a term paper, or baking a baba au rhum. But tasting wine? Yet I understood at the outset that, if you were going to get serious about wine, you couldn’t just willy nilly gulp it down. You could read about it, and I did; but in the end, you had to jump in and taste, and that required a methodology. In this, my master (whom I met only once or twice) was Michael Broadbent. His Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting (6th edition, 1979) was my indispensable helpmate. It formed the basis for the way I taste today.

Those years were some of the best of my life. Wine appreciation was an underground thing (this was the mid-1980s) even in as cosmopolitan a city as San Francisco. Not too many people were into wine: when you met another devotee, it was like coming across a fellow denizen of a secret society you recognized by signals only its members knew. I worked at the time on the campus of San Francisco State University, where I was also going to school, and I actually talked the boss into giving me $150 to hold a wine education class for the staff. I remember buying a Chateau Gruaud-Larose, but I don’t recall much else. I doubt the staff was very interested. But at least I got to taste a Second Growth St.-Julien for free.

I was lucky, I suppose, to get hired as a wine writer by the magazine I wrote for before Wine Enthusiast. Nobody wanted to be a wine writer in 1989. Nobody even knew what it meant. Everybody wanted to get their MBA and make a pile of money in the Financial District or in burgeoning Silicon Valley. So when I lobbied that first magazine to hire me, it wasn’t like there was a lot of competition. There probably wasn’t any at all. They hired me because I knew how to string a sentence together, because I knew a thing or two about wine, and because I convinced them I really wanted to write for them. Oh, and also because I obviously wasn’t some kind of nut case. But I don’t know if I’d be able to get a job writing about wine today if I was just starting out. It’s so much harder because so many people want to be wine writers.

“I’m not the world’s most passionate guy,” Ray Davies sang in “Lola,” my second favorite Kinks song ever (“You Really Got Me” is first). Neither am I. But I did get passionate about wine as a young man, and it still consumes me, albeit in a different way than it used to. For example, the writing is more important to me than it was in the beginning. Until I was paid to write about wine, in fact, the writing didn’t concern me at all; only learning, tasting and taking notes did. Once I got hired, I endeavored to write as best I could, and I think I displayed some talent for it. It’s the writing that still challenges me most today: not only the long article form (a kind of endangered species), but the short article or profile, even a photo caption or a snappy little 40-word review. But of all the kinds of writing, the blog format gives me the opportunity to write the most creatively, which is to say, the most happily.


Remembering Mom, over a glass of wine

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Like you, I honored my mother yesterday. Gertrude died 6-1/2 years ago, at the age of 90, after a brief bout with cancer. I was with her when she passed, in the hospital. It was just the two of us, at 6:03 a.m. Something very mystical and inexplicable happened to me at the instant of her death, that I will always remember, but which I will not write about here.

Gertrude came to enjoy wine as she aged, especially after she moved to California. Her son–me–was, of course, making his living as a wine writer, so there was never any shortage of wine. She preferred Chardonnay, preferably a little sweet and oaky. That was something; I don’t think she’d ever tasted a decent wine in her life before she was 75. What wine she’d had was the occasional icky-sweet sip of Manischevitz, usually for a Jewish holiday. In that she was no different from my other family members of that generation. They didn’t know about wine, didn’t care about it, probably thought it was exotic and snobby; goyisch. The only reason they schlepped out the Manischevitz was because taking a little wine is part of the Jewish tradition, especially Passover.

Mom did like her Bloody Marys, though, although she was never a big drinker when I was growing up. Too much to get done, what with raising the kids, keeping the household running and, by the way, returning to school, in her 40s, to get her teaching credential and becoming the only mom I knew, of the vast hoards of Baby Boomer kids running around the Bronx, who worked for a living. (I know, being a mom is work. In that case, Gertrude had two jobs.) I was proud of her for that.

But like I said, after she moved to California, around 1994, she started drinking more. She had come from a dry culture to a wet one, and responded accordingly. When in Rome… I never saw her drunk, but I would watch her take a third glass of wine at a family gathering, growing more animated, her eyes sparkling a little more than usual, and it made me happy. In many respects, Gertrude’s wine journey paralleled that of America’s. As wine became more and more an accepted part of the culture in the 1990s, it became a more accepted part of Gertrude’s life, too. I remember the first time she asked me to bring “a couple of extra bottles” for her the next time I visited, so she could have something cold in the fridge for when she had “the girls” over to her apartment, which was in a nice retirement community.

Mom in 2004. See her little Kerry-Edwards button.

My father, Jack, who died 30 years ago, had been a purchasing agent for a major defense plant, on Long Island. Every Christmas, he would come home laden with bottles of scotch, gin, vodka, peppermint schnapps and cognac, gifts from clients who wished to let him know how grateful they were for him buying their company’s wares. He never brought home wine. But Jack wasn’t a big drinker, either, so he’d throw all those bottles of liquor in the closet. When I was 17, and about to leave home for the first time to go to college, I determined to see what getting drunk was all about, since, I figured, that’s what college students do, so I might as well get in some target practice. I purloined a bottle of Jack’s booze–what it was I have long since forgotten; could it have have been rye?–and, with my friend Charlie, my bad boy pal from down the block, I got blind-eyed drunk. I remember stumbling home, around midnight, with my parents already in bed. I was crashing into things, knocking stuff over, making a lot of noise. But my parents didn’t wake up.

During my freshman year in college, I drank way too much. I was away from home for the first time, free, liberated, ready to be the wild party boy I’d never been before. My crowd drank a lot of cheap stuff: Thunderbird, Ripple, Bali Hai. On some days we were drinking by 10 a.m. This period did not last long, however, because I realized, in some vestigial way, that I was drinking too much–that I probably had a propensity for addiction–that I’d better cut it down. I did. Ever since, I’ve understood that I have to control my alcohol intake. I never drink during the day, not even a glass of wine with lunch. Lord knows I make up for it at night, but I don’t think I drink too much. It’s very important for people in this industry to control themselves.

Looking back over all my relatives, on both sides of the family, I don’t think anyone ever had a drinking problem. My mother’s brothers, who were from Oklahoma and Texas, were southern gentlemen who loved their “bourbon and branch water,” but I never saw them get drunk, either. I myself drink hardly any hard liquor. I do love a dry vodka martini; the taste of gin does not agree with me. I’ll have beer on a very hot day, which doesn’t occur much in the Bay Area.

So how did I honor my mother yesterday? With Champagne, of course; but that was only the outward form. I honored her with memory.


Happy Passover! Now pass the wine

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I’ve been going to seders ever since I was born, I guess; my parents no doubt brought me when I was a baby, although the first seder I can recall was when I was about six, when my Uncle Teddie gave me my first sip of wine.

I remember that day, not because of the seder, but because the wine was so awful. In Yiddish, I’d describe it as dreck. Manischevitz, it was, sweet and insipid. It’s a miracle that, years later, I was able to overcome that horrible experience and try wine again.

The Passover seder never had much religious meaning to me. It was instead a family get-together, and since I liked my family, I liked going to the annual seder. One of my aunts usually held it at their big houses in suburban New Jersey; our little apartment in The Bronx was hardly suitable for a gathering of up to twenty. We’d go through the entire Haggadah, more or less, meaning it was a very long seder, with all the ancient rituals adhered to: the drops of wine on the plate, the singing of songs, the recitation of history, and, yes, the Four Questions, which for many years I got the privilege of asking, since I was the youngest male.

Like I said, we stuck to the Haggadah, the basic how-to book of the Passover seder, because my father, his brother my Uncle Lennie, and their brother-in-law, the aforementioned Uncle Teddie, were good Jews, nominally, at any rate. I attended Hebrew School–as we called religious training–after my public school day ended, for nearly seven years, from the age of six until after I was bar mitzvahed, at thirteen. I was well educated in Jewish history and culture, and while I could read Hebrew, and still can, I can’t speak it, nor could I translate it for you, not if you paid me.

I still go to seder every year, because my dear cousin, Maxine (Lennie’s eldest) holds one, at her house in San Mateo. We use a battered copy of her daughter, Rebecca’s, Haggadah, from when Rebecca was in grade school. I tried once, about ten years ago, to write a new, more modern version of the Passover story, because I thought the old version was anachronistic. For example, in that old Rebecca version, written at the height of the Cold War, it says a prayer for the Jews of the Soviet Union. There hasn’t even been a Soviet Union since 1991, I think it was. And I never understood the part where the four sons are pitted against each other: One wise, one wicked, one simple and one who does not know how to ask a question. That seems kind of unloving and unfair to me.

My more fundamental problem with the Hagaddah is that I’ve never been able to relate to it as a religious document. It seemed to me as a kid, and still does, that the practices the Haggadah commands for the seder don’t have much to do with my conception of spirituality, or with the problems of the modern world, or even of understanding myself. It doesn’t mean much to me, but I do respect its tradition and, like I said, I enjoy getting together with my family, and honoring something that at least tries to instill meaning.

My favorite part of the Haggadah is the emphasis on wine. I like the fact that we’re encouraged, in the Hagaddah, to drink a lot. It’s great to get high in a family as political, funny and verbal as mine. As far as I’m concerned, we Jews invented wine. Maybe it wasn’t an actual Jew who discovered it, somewhere in the Caucasus (so we’re told), in the misty days of pre-history. But the Jews were the first to celebrate wine, to elevate it as a crowning achievement of humankind, to place it at the center of their most important rites and rituals, to make it a center of their poetry. (Along with olive oil. Where would Mediterranean cuisine be without the Jews?)

Maxine and her husband, Keith, do the cooking for the seder: traditional  stuff, like leg of lamb, roasted potatoes, Israeli cous cous, greens. The ritual foods also are there: the burnt egg, the parsley and salt water dip, the charoset, a sweet paste of fruits and nuts, said to symbolize the mortar the Jews used when, as slaves, they built the Pyramids. (Every food item in the seder has a symbolic meaning.) But I bring the wine, naturally. I don’t even pretend to try and do perfect pairings with such a culinarily chaotic table, although I always bring a nice Pinot Noir for the lamb. The Biblical emphasis is on red wine, especially when you make the droplets on the plate (ten in total, one for each plague). But, if there’s a God (Hashem, for the Jews), I don’t think she’d mind if someone who preferred white wine used that instead. She would, though, wonder about someone who didn’t like wine.


Still in love with wine

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It was on this day, Dec. 26, exactly 31 years ago that I fell in love with wine.

It happened in the Safeway store in the little town of Benicia, some 30 miles northeast of San Francisco. I’d just made one of the biggest, riskiest moves in my life–coming to California from the East Coast, to go to graduate school. (That’s a whole different story I might tell one of these days.) My cousin, Maxine, and her husband, Keith, had invited me to live with them until I got settled. I’d flown west out of Logan Airport in a blizzard, only to arrive in sunny San Francisco where the mild temperature, leafy trees and flower-choked gardens blew my mind. I mean, roses and magnolias in late December? I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto!

We drove to Benicia. I was shown my new room. Then someone suggested barbecue for dinner. Maxine went out into the garden to pick lettuce (another mindblow) for a salad, and then we drove up Main Street, past the little park with the gazebo, to the Safeway. Threw a couple steaks and potatoes into the shopping cart. Then we headed over to the wine aisle. This is where “the incident” occurred.

Maxine’s steering the cart slowly down the aisle. I’m trailing after her. I don’t remember Keith in the picture; maybe he’d stayed at home, starting the fire. Maxine picks up a bottle of wine, examines the front label, turns it around, examines the back label. Puts it back on the shelf. Picks up a second bottle and goes through the same ritual. Then a third bottle. And a fourth.

Me: “What are you doing? Just grab a bottle and let’s go.” [I was sooo New York in those days.]

Her: [arching an eyebrow of disapproval] “You don’t just grab a bottle of wine. You think about it.”

What? I can remember my reaction as if it were yesterday. What is she talking about? I know my cousin has her “ways,” but she is, for the most part, a sensible, rational human being, not subject to whims or emotional fancy. I simply could not understand why buying a bottle of wine was any different from buying a can of peas. They were all the same, weren’t they?

Things happened very quickly after that. I needed to understand. Not wanted; needed, as if understanding were as important as breathing. I bought a couple wine guides: Bob Thompson’s “Pocket Encyclopedia of California Wines” and Olken, Singer & Roby’s “Connoisseurs’ Handbook of California Wines.” I started haunting wine shops.  For sure, I didn’t have much money to spend, but I remember the pride I felt when I bought my first varietal wine: Wente’s Grey Riesling (or was it spelled Gray?). Shortly afterward, I moved out on my own, to Concord, where I shared a house with a young Diablo Valley College kid, Tim. I shared with him my passion for wine, which he quickly adopted. Together we would go to wine shops, looking for suitable bargains to drink with the dinners we cooked. That’s when I began my career as a wine educator, teaching Timmy: as long as I knew a little more than he did, I was mentor, he mentee.

I’ve thought often of Maxine examining those wine bottles. I observe the same behavior today, when I loiter in the wine departments at Cost Plus or BevMo, watching people. They’re so confused, most of the time, so apprehensive, so clueless. I don’t say that judgmentally, just objectively. Lord only knows what’s going on in their heads. I am reading now the 1950 article, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” by the great computer pioneer, Alan Turing, who came up with the concept of the “Turing test,” in which a human observor (you or me) has a “conversation” with an unseen interlocutor [in, say, another room], through a teletype screen or similar digital device. The idea is for the observor to determine whether the unseen interlocutor is another human, or a machine [computer]. The theory is that, if the computer were programmed sufficiently well, this determination would be impossible. It was Turing’s conjecture that someday computers could be programmed so that there would be no way of telling the difference. All theories of artificial intelligence begin, and end, with Alan Turing.

Watching those wine shoppers, I try to imagine what’s happening in their brains. I can’t, in that particular situation, because I know too much about wine to be confused in a wine aisle. But I get confused in many other situations: for example, anything that involves mechanics defeats me. So I can recall my confusion when dealing with automobiles and imagine it inside the head of the Cost Plus wine shopper, and I feel empathy. Could a machine ever feel empathy? Is that what makes humans different from machines? I don’t think that’s the case, because I can imagine a computer behaving in such a way as to simulate empathy; and since I can’t crawl into the computer’s brain, any more than I can crawl into yours, I would just have to assume, based on its behavior, that the computer actually was empathic.

I would have loved to ask Turing, who died in 1954, if a Turing test could ever determine if a computer liked wine. Actually, he anticipated such a question in his article. Can a computer “enjoy strawberries and cream?…Possibly a machine might be made to enjoy this delicious dish, but any attempt to make one do so would be idiotic.” That’s how Turing dismissed the idea of programming a computer to have esthetic or hedonistic preferences: that it would be “idiotic” to do so, presumably because the effort involved would be vast, whereas the payoff would be meaningless. Why not use the same effort to program a computer to find a cure for cancer?

Maybe it’s idiotic for us humans to fall in love with anything–strawberries and cream, wine, each other. Yet Mother Nature gave us that capacity. It happened to me on that long ago winter day, and you know what? I’m still in love with wine.


Looking back, abroad and forward

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This being the last day of the year, I’m in a look-back mode. The first wine I ever tasted was a sip of Manischevitz from my Uncle Teddy’s glass. I must have been six or seven, and the event was probably a Passover seder. Uncle Teddy was one of those friendly, boisterous guys whom everyone likes and who’s always at the center of attention. I think he offered me a sip of his wine at the table because everybody was watching, and Teddy knew that no matter what I did, it would be funny. I guess it was, because all the adults laughed when I made a face and spat the wine out because it tasted so evil. That may account for the particular loathing I have to this day of table wines, red or white, that should be dry but have residual sugar.

Wine didn’t re-enter my life until my freshman year at college when, away from home for the first time in my life, I went on a rampage. Freed from the constraints of parental oversight, I did anything and everything I could to celebrate my new-found freedom, including drinking. Lots of drinking. I remember well the favorite libation of me and my similarly reckless young friends: Bali Jai. I think it was made by Italian Swiss Colony. Anyhow, it too was sweet, but as I was drinking, not for flavor, but to get inebriated, I didn’t care (and Bali Jai was the cheapest rotgut you could find). A step above Bali Jai were Mateus and Lancer’s. Already I was establishing a hierarchy of wine in my head: I knew they were better wines, but they also cost $5 more per bottle, which put them out of my price range, and besides, I had no need of better wines.

By my sophomore year, I had enough sense to realize that drinking Bali Jai, starting some weekend mornings at 10 a.m., was not a very smart thing to do. So I stopped. Disciplining myself with regard to my alcoholic intake is something I’m still good at (fortunately, given my profession), having developed the habit long ago, and being in possession of a pretty acute radar that warns me when I’m coming too close to doing anything in excess. So wine effectively passed out of my life for more than a decade until I moved to California and re-discovered it, a process I have previously written about.

When I think about my own wine journey, and then look at what’s happening in China with wine, I think of that old saying, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”, which, if I may so describe it, means that the human embryo goes through successive stages of development, each of which resembles an earlier phase of human evolution. Thus, as the embryo grows in the womb, it looks, first, rather tadpole- or fish-like, then like some kind of small mammal, then finally assume a more anthropoid state until, on the day of birth, out pops a tiny little new human person. I think that in our (human’s) wine-drinking habits, we similarly go through stages, regardless of whether we’re Chinese or New Yorkers. You start off (in most cases) with hideous junk, like Bali Jai, then you realize that wine is inexorably connected with things we value, such as status, fun and the need for love and affection; and as this realization increases, so does your appetite for better wine. This explains why the Chinese, with their nouveau wealth, mix Coca Cola with Lafite–and it also explains why that bizarre phase probably will not last much longer, for the Chinese are fast learners.

At what point, though, does this upward spiral of our desire for better wine result in a tipping point that can blossom into snobbery and elitism? This is a question that deeply interests me, and has at least since my days writing The Collecting Page for Wine Spectator. There, I saw the Dark Side of a love for wine: the self-absorption, the insularity of the Old Boy’s Club and their membership of fatuously bragging egotists, constantly trying to one-up each other, piling up such massive collections that neither they nor their children or grandchildren could ever possibly consume it all. And to what point? I saw men who equated meaning in life with the possession of 19th century pre-Phylloxera Bordeaux or verticals of every vintage ever made of Mouton; but who then called their winetasting dinners with their friends “pissing matches,” a vulgarity but illustrative of their motive for gathering: Who could bring the oldest, costliest bottle, thereby winning the contest and humiliating the losers?

Why wine makes fools of some people, I’ll never know, but it does seem to accompany excessive income, especially when it has been accumulated quickly. Think of all those high-priced athletes and rock stars whose tastes, once they are newly riche, span the gamut from indulgent to merely offensive to downright vulgar. I’m sure they love their Cristal and Lafite, as much as my Uncle Teddy loved his Manischevitz. Yet somehow Uncle Teddy’s love of his wine seems in kind different. He loved his wine for the way it brought people he loved together, and made them laugh and be happy; not, as I have seen in some collectors, to satisfy some inner lack of joy.

Happy New Year! I’ll be back here on Monday morning!


A look back

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In 1989, I lost my job. I’d gone to grad school (S.F. State) to get my M.A. in Educational Technology, a weird hybrid of a major that the school designed because they understood that computers were going to be important, but they didn’t know which department should investigate their uses. So they stuck it in education. It was a silly major, and I never used a single thing I learned (BASIC?); but I did work on campus in the Career Center, so I learned a thing or two about college career counseling, and when it came time to get my first post-graduate job, it was as the director of the career planning and placement center at California College of Arts & Crafts (now California College of the Arts), here in Oakland.

As jobs go, it was a disaster. I struggled for the better part of three years to make it work, but ran into academic politics of the worst kind. I was hopeless at the backstabbing and maneuvering it takes to survive campus in-struggles, with the result that the school’s personnel director called me into her office one day and told me it was all over. Everything I’d gone to school for, and worked so hard to achieve, went down the toilet.

I was in shock. Fired from my first job! I thought I’d never recover from the blow. Went home, slept, drank, lost myself in a whirlwind of indulgence. I had no money, a mortgage and car payments to pay, the whole dreary mess. Needed a new job asap. But what? That’s when I told myself, “Self, you can’t go through another debacle. It’s pretty obvious you’re not cut out to be a suit-and-tie wearing, briefcase-toting bureaucrat. You’re a creative, fanciful, non-conforming independent sort, and you need to do something that allows you to express that part of yourself.”

As a career counselor, I’d often told my students, “When it comes to choosing a job, don’t just pick something you think will earn you money. You’re going to be working for the next 30, 40 years, and studies tell us that 70% of Americans hate their jobs. Do you really want to be doing something you hate until you’re 65? So find your passion, and get a job doing something you love.”

I asked myself, What do I love? Two things: writing and wine. I practically came out of my mother’s womb wanting to write. I can distinctly remember being 3 years old and doodling on pieces of paper, pretending I was writing in script. I couldn’t wait to write. I was an early, avid reader and an early, avid writer. I was writing poems and short stories by ten. So I knew I wanted to do something involving writing.

And I loved wine. Fell head over heels in love with it in the late Seventies. Went off the edge, around the bend, out of my mind in the pursuit of wine knowledge, way beyond what any normal person should do. So in that awful aftermath of getting fired, I decided to put the two things I loved together. Writing + wine = wine writer.

Fine, but how to make it happen? I did a lot of visualising (a method of thought projection and imagination that was popular in those days). I established a resumé by writing for our local free newsweekly, the East Bay Express, and for the Oakland Tribune as a stringer. I quickly developed writing skills: how to construct a story, come up with a strong lead, check facts, meet deadlines and word counts, work with editors. And then it was time to find an actual wine writing job. I think I’ve previously described here on my blog how I pestered Jim Gordon, at Wine Spectator, so mercilessly that he finally broke down and gave me an assignment. And the rest, as they say, is history.

If there are lessons to be learned by my experience — and I think there are — it’s that younger writers who want to make it in wine writing should do these things:

1. educate yourself as thoroughly as possible in wine.
2. work constantly on your writing skills.
3. believe in your dream.

Of course, things are a lot different now than they were when I started. Back in 1989, few people wanted to be wine writers, so the field was wide open. Today, everybody seems to want to be a wine writer. Another thing that’s different is the advent of the Internet. In 1989, you could only be a wine writer if somebody hired you to be one, because only publishers controlled the press. Today, anybody can blog. Self-publishing is an advantage, but it’s also a liability, because the very ease of digital publishing means that young wannabe wine writers might not discipline themselves with the severity needed to mold an unformed passion into honed talent. It’s always taken talent to make it as a wine writer. Still does.


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