Influence, Inspiration and Value in the Wine Media
I’ve often thought it would be a fascinating project to map out The Family Tree of Winemakers. The project would consist of connecting present-day winemakers to winemakers of the past and follow the influence and inspiration down the line: Smith worked under Jones; Jones worked under Washington. Washington worked under Johnson, etc, etc. In the U.S., this would essentially be an exercise in tracing back most of our great winemakers to Andre Tchelistcheff.
This could be done with winemakers because we are talking primarily about craftsmen; folks who get their start working under or apprenticing with another craftsman. It would be harder to do this with wine writers.
Writing, even reporting, is a much more solitary affair. Rarely is a piece of writing a team effort. It’s much more difficult to make the link between one writer and another. Yes, a wine writer who has worked in the business for some time can undoubtedly tell you who influenced their writing or inspired them (two different things, these), but the lineage is not so direct as it would be with winemaking. In fact, I’d bet that while most of today’s accomplished wine writers would name a few peers and writers from the past as their inspiration, they’d also certainly go outside the field of wine writing in reaching for an answer to who influenced their writing style or approach to storytelling.
This is the case with my writing.
After seventeen years of doing this, I thought it might be time to take a stab at revealing those writers who influenced how I approach this particular part of my career. But first, I think it is fair to say that my approach to writing about wine is fairly unique.
First, I write primarily about the industry. It’s “inside baseball” that I primarily do here. This is fairly uncommon within the industry where most wine writing is focused on profiling wines, wine regions, and wine personalities or providing “how-to’s”…all in the service of wine drinkers.
It’s also fair to say that my work here has been in the service of advocacy, another type of writing that is relatively uncommon in the wine realm. Many of my posts and articles have attempted to gin up support for a position or cause. It’s been about trying to motivate the readers if not to take some action, then to at least take up my position.
My writing has also been called “muckraking”, troublemaking, and bomb-throwing. As a fan of Lincoln Steffens, this moniker doesn’t offend me and isn’t far off.
But what has and still does motivate me to write is the fascinating link between social, political, and cultural trends on the one hand and wine on the other. Put another way, wine is the lens through which I see a larger world.
But who inspired and influenced me.
In the world of wine, my debt is owed to Jerry Mead, Matt Kramer, Steve Hiemoff, and Dan Berger. All of them have a style and a distinct voice. Jerry was the muckraker. Matt is the most thoughtful wine writer I’ve ever read. Steve’s best work was always very personal at its core. Dan possesses and always uses the deepest well of knowledge on the industry of any writer I’ve ever known.
Each has influenced me in terms of how I approach the writing I do at Fermentation and I still, often, will go back and read their work for inspiration. And they never fail me.
But then there is the great essayist Gore Vidal. Yes, he wrote fiction. But it was in the service of advancing the world according to Gore. Vidal’s sharpest weapon was the essay. This was a writer who, in five sentences, could provide the background, lay out the facts, indict, convict, then flay his victim right there in the public square—and leave one sentence in reserve at the end for congratulating himself for a job well done.
I’d always been attracted to and taken inspiration from the polemicists and rhetoriticians who, like Vidal, wrote beautifully in the service of causes or ideas: William F. Buckley, Christopher Hitchens, John Reed, Hunter S. Thompson, and, today, the likes of Bari Wiess.
Listing influences is sometimes an effort to align or compare one’s self with your betters. I hope my shortlist does not leave that impression. While I possess just enough hubris and a healthy ego to motivate myself to write and believe what I compose is of value, it would embarrass me terribly to know I’d left the impression I am in the same rhetorical ballpark as those listed above.
However, what I believe Kramer, Mead, Vidal, Hitchens, Wiess, and the others all have in common, and what I believe I too can deliver, is a unique voice and perspective that provides readers with value. In a few days, I plan to test this value theory.
Tom: I’ve known both Jerry Mead and Dan Berger and have always admired Matt Kramer’s work – not familiar enough with Steve’s work to similarly endorse. Perhaps you’re too young to have been influenced by Robert Balzer but I think he could almost be put in the same category for writing as you have for Andre Tchelistcheff on the winemaking side. Granted, Balzer’s approach may have been too much on the “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything” side, but he was one of the pioneers of wine writing in California at least.
Robert Balzer was slightly before my time. Though I think he only passed about a decade ago, He wasn’t doing too much writing after I got into the business in 1990. But….God…what a career!
I was just compiling a similar list – wine writers who influenced and inspired me early on. Dan Berger and Matt Kramer, certainly, but also Bob Thompson, Richard Paul Hinkle, Harvey Steiman, Norm Roby, Gerald Asher, Charles L. Sullivan, the late Rod Smith and the Rev. Frank Henriques, author of the long forgotten but hugely entertaining and enlightening “Signet Encyclopedia of Wine.” I need to visit Powell’s or AbeBooks to retrieve a copy of that to replace the one lost along the way.
Mike…What a great list. And Gerald Asher….What a writer. And Rod Smith…what a loss. Careful with Powells. I was in there the other day and it’s heaven. But, oh, what a time suck….Hours and hours and hours an be spent in those stacks.
Wow – and no one’s mentioned the British writers – Jancis Robinson, Hugh Johnson (one of the first wine books I read), Clive Coates, Serena Sutcliffe, Oz Clarke, etc. The “Great Vintage Wine Books” of Michael Broadbent introduced me to the pleasures of Bordeaux…..
I’d add Frank Prial, Tom, you write about wine from the perspective of being in the trenches with winemakers/owners and do a great job. For wine writer history, maybe I can tempt you into coming on up I-5 for a visit my wine library. Frank Schoonmaker, Julian Street (the first to write about California wines after Prohibition), Mary Frost Mabon, Salvatore Lucia, M.D. (doctor who wrote about wine’s “well-being” 1971) and many more. You know Mead inspired my rabble rousing.
A late friend of mine–maybe the only guy I know who went to Berkeley from ’64 to ’68 w/o smoking marijuana–was assigned to drive Balzer around SF. On the other hand, he worked in a wine shop and by his 21st birthday had amassed a huge wine cellar. When they drove under the Bay Bridge, my friend nearly drove off the road when Balzer pointed at the bridge and said said, My boyfriend is hung just like that.
Rod Smith used to have Giants tickets right behind mine at Candlestick. when he wrote for the Chronicle. I’d take winemakers to the game and he would interview them. It was an all around win-win-win.
As far as winemaker trees are concerned, I’ve always thought of certain wineries as hatcheries for winemakers. This goes back to when Rodney Strong was Sonoma Vineyards and Center of Effort was Corbett Canyon. But you have to remember that there weren’t many jobs and they went to the best applicants.
Mondavi might have been the best college. Karl Werner trained Zelma Long and a few others, went on to Callaway, then to Renaissance. He is a bit forgotten. His widow makes very good olive oil called Apollo. Other winemakers Mondavi has generated include Charles Thomas, Steve Lagier, BobMueller, and Paul Hobbs. I made wine with Jim Moore. When he worked at Mondavi, he could say, I’m interested in Barolo and book a trip to visit. Those days are over.
Dick Graff’s tree in Pinot might be a big one. A lot of winemakers got their start at Edna Valley or they just learned a lot from what Dick did.
By the time you came along, Tom, Balzer, who had written for the LATimes had been swept up in a pay-to-play scandal of free wine extorted from the winemakers for writeups.
Lots of good names here of influential writers. To which I would add Alex Bespaloff and Lee Adams and Robert Finnigan (who’s still alive, I believe).
And if you count him as a writer because he writes his Corti Bros Newsletter, I would have to say DarrellCorti has probably had more influence on my wine life than anybody. I always learn so much from his Newsletter…it is very educational in addition to provoking you to buy “stuff”. From his Newsletter, and from personal interactions, Darrell towers above all others in my wine World. He is the consummate educator on many things, not just wine. At an Aspen F&W Festival, he was speaking on Spanish wines and somebody asked him about the paper used to print the Spanish wine labels. That launched him onto a 30 min lecture on production of Spanish paper for wine labels. The audience was spellbound, even though it was cutting into their time at a GrandTasting.
He onetime spoke at a SloFood event in NM on Aspargras for well over an hour, including a chemistry lecture on why your pee smells after eating aspargras that totally engrossed the audience. Alas…no demos!!
Of current writers, I would add Jason Haas and our one & only Tom Wark…never miss one of his blogs.
And I forgot Patrick Comisky & Russ Parsons.
Interesting that noone mentioned Robert Parker or James Suckling. Wonder why???
Bob Thompson has been mentioned, but he was the consumate journalist, an advocate for the people, not for the wineries; who deserves much more recognition. Not many journalists in this landscape; many are merely wine lovers. Thompson is the emus (the real deal and the truth).
Tom Hill, I took Tom Wark’s initiative to mean wine writers to influence us early in our careers. In that regard, Alexis Bespaloff was an oversight on my part, and to this day his “The New Frank Schoonmaker Encyclopedia of Wine” remains a starting point of reference on just about any wine topic. Darrell’s newsletters and persoanl counsel have been invaluable, but given his broad culinary grasp I wouldn’t group him in the exclusively wine-writing community. Robert Parker and James Suckling didn’t become forces until the 1980s, and even then while they could be diverting I didn’t look to their writing as instructive compared with the others I mentioned.
Agree, Mike. Darrell is not exclusively a wine writer. But his influence on my wine education towers above all the exclusively wine writers I valued. I just sorta broadened Tom’s mandate.
And nobody mentioned Charlie Olken & Earl Singer of the (early) Connoisseur’sGuide. Those early CGtCW were very/very educational and packed with information. They introduced me to many wineries (like KenBurnap & MontereyPennisula) that I’d have not known about. I could hardly wait for the next CGtCW to arrive.
Alas, CGtCW eventually segued into just another Newsletter with TN’s. I was no longer being edumacated by it & let my subscription lapse.
Anyone mention Paul Gillette, the Wine Investor?
And how could I have missed Rich. Great friend! And Lew Perdue, who is still going strong!
This has been very educational. I have a wine library that I started in the 1970s. The authors listed here were very inspirational to me as I was learning about wine. In the 1970s there was very little published on wine, so I had to check out the Toronto bookstores to find the British writers. Keep up the good work, Tom.
Bob Finnegan died a few years back. He was a lot of fun but maybe too much fun for his own health.
I got into the wine trade in 1972. The wine books I read back then:
Harry Waugh’s diaries
Frank Schoonmaker on German wines.
The Lichine and Wildman books on French wine.
Amerine and Singleton’s basic book on wine
Hugh Johnson’s Wine Atlas
Hurst Hannum and Bob Blumberg’s book on California wine…I did a Medical Friends of Wine talk a few year’ back. Bob was president of it … as well as being an executive for Kaiser Permanente.
Nicholas faith’s books on Bordeaux and Cognac…very good on the history of BX.
Of course, nowadays we have books on every wine region…and a Riedel glass to accompany.
Well,first–I love this piece. Felt like you were talking right to me, which is true of much of what you write. I’d be remiss if I didn’t count you as an influence as a wine writer.
But as a writer, wine is not all I write about. I’m a journalist and I write about general topics. Right now, in the service of the Puget Sound Business Journal, I write profiles and features about people of interest in many different fields–wine among them. I was an English teacher for 30 years and an English major before that, so I admit I’m “influenced” by classic authors–I love reading Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne and their styles are always on my mind. But that almost seems absurd calling those authors influencers.
Matt Kramer was the first real wine writer I came across and when I was writing about wine and food mainly, I read his stuff all the time. Not long after, I read your blog and that turned me toward the authors you’ve mentioned, Heimoff and Berger were influential to me.
Writing is my first love and wine is my second, I suppose. Or maybe its further down than that, but I do love it. And I love writing about it too. Thanks for this great piece, Tom.
My applauz to write content that inspired so many to submit reply to you, Tom Wark Applauz!! Don Neel, Editor, Practical Winery & Vineyard
I count Dorothy Gaiter and John Bretcher as huge influences on me becoming a wine writer. I also love reading Gerald Asher and Jancis Robinson. Kermit Lynch showed me the importance of telling the story behind the label. But two writers who really inpsired me – Joy Sterling.While she heads her family’s Iron Horse Vineyards, years ago she wrote A Cultivated Life and it totally caputred my imagination. Then Jay McInerery’s columns in House and Garden magazine and his book Bacchus & Me were big infuences too.
great writers they all were !!