1978-2003 Days That Used to Be
"Seems like such a simple thing to follow one's dream" — Neil Young
What follows is a partial reprint from Issue #100 written when I celebrated seventeen years of The Wine Advocate. I have updated and revised it to reflect this 25th anniversary. At the risk of appearing too sappy and/or sentimental, I would like to express my gratitude as well as share some of my strongest memories from the last twenty-five years.
One of the unfortunate yet inevitable things about being the author and publisher of this journal is that so much time is dedicated to work - the tastings, travel, writing, and dissemination of information - that little time is left for public appearances or attendance at many of the fun tastings to which I receive invitations. There have been many articles written about me and my work, most of which have tended to focus only on the unhealthy aspects of my influence in the marketplace, but this commentary represents a more personal perspective.
Helpless — The Formative Years: 1967-1977
I live only ten minutes from my birthplace, and most of the local, longtime residents of this dairy farming zone in northern Baltimore County never knew I was a wine critic until the 60 Minutes II profile was aired in spring, 2001. Born and raised in a middle-class family, who never drank wine, my first experiences with this beverage were disastrous - the consumption of a sugary sparkling wine called Cold Duck at a birthday party when I turned 18, followed by some equally horrendous experiences as a college freshman.
As I quickly learned, these cheap, fortified wines were designed for maximum destructive power. My appreciation for fine wine came as a result of nothing more than a simple twist of fate. At age 20, I left the University of Maryland in December, 1967, after the fall semester, to pursue my first true love - a girl studying in France as part of her college's junior year abroad program. To say I was naive, provincial, and un-worldly would have been an understatement. The trans-Atlantic flight I took from New York to Paris was an historic one for me - my first flight of any kind! I wore a new three-piece suit because I wanted to look as good as possible for my love, whom I hadn't seen in four months. But within a few minutes after take off, during the Baltimore to New York leg of the flight, I spilled coffee all over it during air turbulence.
Those were the days when you did not have to fly on the Concorde to reach Europe the same day because flights left earlier in the day. On the flight over I sat next to a Harvard student whose father worked in Paris. He was fluent in French (my French vocabulary was limited to a handful of words), a world traveler, and a product of one of our nation's finest private schools. Envious and in awe of his experiences, I felt like Elmer Fudd sitting next to James Bond.
I remember getting nervous about an hour before my scheduled arrival, wondering if my girlfriend would be at Orly airport, and if she was there, would she still be as much in love with me as I was with her. My nervousness led me to ask for a drink - an alcoholic one. I quickly guzzled down two miniatures and fell asleep. No greater example of my inexperience in jet travel and naivété is possible than the unembellished story that follows. My flight was scheduled to arrive in Paris at 10:30 pm. At 10:45 I awakened, looked at my watch in horror, and realized that I had missed my stop in Paris! I leaped from my seat in considerable distress to inform the flight attendant (they were called stewardesses in 1967) of my predicament. To the amusement of the young Pan Am stewardess and my seat-mate, I was informed that the plane had not landed in Paris, and that we were merely "delayed." She went on, in a smug but gentle manner, to assure me that Pan Am would never permit "a passenger to sleep through a scheduled stop."
My relief lasted only twenty minutes. It was then that the plane's Captain announced that because of heavy fog in Orly, we would be unable to land, and the flight would continue to Rome, where we would spend the night. Turning to my refined travel companion in agony, I said, in expletives I don't dare repeat, how excruciatingly painful I found this turn of events. How could a young college student, who spoke no French or Italian, and who had purchased a ticket to Paris, with a girlfriend waiting at the gate, be expected to navigate his way from Rome to Paris. Moreover, the cost might make it impossible. I will never forget his amusement as he explained to me that the airline was responsible for my lodging in Rome, and that Pan Am would fly me back to Paris the following day, at their expense! Hearing this, I sighed with both relief and joy, realizing that I was going to get a free night in Rome, a city I had not expected to visit. I suppose it was destiny, but my first impression of Europe was an olfactory one ... the smell of horse urine from a Gypsy caravan camped next to Rome's Coliseum, and across from my hotel.
I arrived in a still foggy Paris the next day and my girlfriend was waiting faithfully. She took me to a café, where I drank my first glass of dry table wine. Not only did I drink wine, I ate snails and mussels for the first time. It should not come as a surprise that I adored the wine. For the first time in my life I had an alcoholic beverage that did not bloat me (as did beer), or blind me (as did liquor). Moreover, it deliciously complemented the food.
During my six week sojourn, I drank wine and ate French cuisine every night except for a horrific meal of boiled brains I shared with a German family while traveling in that country. Since I was a European History major and Art History minor, I had developed perspectives on French culture, all of which were reinforced by this trip. In addition, I discovered that the French seemed to be professionals when it came to the enjoyment of wine, food, and life. Call it savoir faire, joie de vivre, whatever ... they knew how to savor life.
I shall never forget saying good-bye to my girlfriend in France in the winter of 1968, waving to her with glazed eyes as her train left the Gare de l'Est for Strasbourg. It was one of the saddest days of my life. But I took home with me the beginnings of my admiration for that country's wine and food culture, and a taste for dry wine. Little did I know that both of these appreciations would have an enormous influence on the path I would choose in life. Nor did I realize that the young American girl studying in France would be my guide along that road to wine advocacy.
Back in the U.S.A., I purchased all the available classics on wine (Alexis Lichine, Frank Schoonmaker, André Simon, and Hugh Johnson), read some of them twice, and formed a wine tasting group in 1968 with other like-minded students. My new-found enthusiasm for wine was soon to become a passion, and in some respects, an obsession.
Even in those days as an amateur trying to learn as much about wine as possible, I was lucky. Living in College Park, Maryland, in 1968, I was only a few miles from the headquarters of what was the finest wine society in the United States, Les Amis du Vin. I joined this group dedicated to the education and promotion of wine, and took advantage of the fabulous tastings they frequently held. Because of their monopoly on wine tastings and educational events, I attended lectures and tastings held by such leading wine luminaries as Harry Waugh and Alexis Lichine. Moreover, Washington, DC was an extraordinary place to buy wine, with a dozen or more great wine shops (today that number is significantly less).
After graduating from college in 1970, my wife and I spent the entire summer in Europe, as we also did in 1971 and 1972. In 1970, on the way to Spain's inexpensive beaches and the casbahs of Tangier, Meknes, Fez, and Marrakesh, I discovered Bordeaux. During those summers (when one could actually visit Europe on $5 a day thanks to the prescient writings of Arthur Frommer), Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley, Provence, Burgundy, Alsace, Tuscany, Piedmont, and Rioja all became favorite parts of my itinerary. In law school, though I was admonished by both my professors and other students that it was "a big mistake" not to clerk during my summer vacation, I thought it was more important to spend my summers in Europe, tasting wines and visiting as many places as possible. It is hard to believe, but my greatest fear during those law school days was whether I could discipline myself to get up early enough to begin a real job at 8 or 9 in the morning. For over three years I had become a late-night addict of Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson, and as a result, scheduled all of my classes in the afternoon to permit sleeping until mid-day! One aspect of my life that has never changed is that I have never once doubted that life was meant to be enjoyed and savored. While work was obviously important, time had to be made for play.
The formative years as a young law student, followed by the beginning of a short-lived career as a corporate lawyer, coincided with my growing disenchantment with the state of wine journalism. The books I purchased were often marvelous in recounting the history and significance of famous estates, but as my tasting group so frequently discovered, too many of the so-called "great" wines were not so wonderful. The idea of an independent publication on wine germinated in the mid-seventies. I do not remember the time or the place where the concept of an independent, consumer's wine publication was first discussed, but I do remember that the intention was that it would be a two-person journal. In addition to my group tastings, I often tasted with Dr. Victor Hugo Morgenroth, a dear friend, who was employed as a toxicologist for the Food and Drug Administration. We were the same age and we shared a similar philosophy about existing wine literature - superb for an historical overview, but a total failure in keeping the consumer abreast with what was going on in terms of quality. But both of us faced two more troubling issues - how to keep buying and tasting so much wine without going bankrupt, and how to avoid losing our wives because of our obsessive behavior. The solution, as we discussed sometime in 1976/1977, was to start a wine publication. At least we would be able to take a tax deduction for our business expenses. The idea of sending out a complimentary first issue was agreed upon, and in that first issue we decided to review the 1973 Bordeaux vintage. The wines were being given considerable hype by the trade as a useful, fruity, commercial vintage that was easy to drink and understand. We disagreed, finding most of these wines to be diluted, thin, and nasty. Influenced by consumer advocates such as Ralph Nader, our publication was to be first and foremost pro-consumer. Since neither of us was satisfied with existing systems of wine evaluation, especially the Davis 20-point method, we discussed alternatives. The decision to implement a 50-100 point scoring system, identical to the scoring system used by my law school professors was chosen over a lettering system of A, B, C, and D.
In the spring of 1978, Dr. Morgenroth, concluding that a wine publication might conflict with his official duties, asked for approval from the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA refused, and my potential newsletter partner was gone. I moped around for several months but rebounded, deciding that I could do it myself. Because no one knew who I was, I agreed with our original position that the first issue had to be free. I hoped that a publication that (1) refused to accept advertising, (2) took a strong position on ethical issues, (3) provided strict conflict of interest rules (paying my own way for hotels, airfares, and wines), and (4) was dedicated to consumers rather than the trade, would be enough to get the publication off and running. After borrowing a whopping $2000 from my mother, the first issue was mailed in the summer of 1978.
Thinking back on the years 1967-1978, there were two events that significantly shaped my future: (1) my decision in 1967 to pursue the young girl studying in France, and my marriage to her in 1969, and (2) my decision to launch a no-frills, consumer's wine newsletter.
Like a Hurricane — No Turning Back: 1978-1984
It was years after launching Volume I of the Baltimore/Washington Wine Advocate that I realized how many things I did wrong from a business perspective. I contacted no marketing experts or direct mail experts, and I had an unrealistic view regarding the percentage of subscriptions I would receive from mailing 6500 free issues. My wife and I prepared the entire issue on an old typewriter and then mimeographed it. I then left to visit vineyards in northern California, believing that I would get a 25%-35% response. When I returned two weeks later, I was depressed by the frightfully low number of subscription requests - approximately 600, or nearly 10%. As I now know, direct mail responses of more than 2%-3% are considered hugely successful. Although dejected, I remained convinced that the need for such a publication existed. The 600 subscribers provided enough funding to continue publishing, and the second issue was mailed in October, 1978. It included a blistering attack on California's wine-making philosophy and many of its wines.
After that issue, my fledgling career as a wine writer nearly came to an unexpected end. While visiting an exhibition of the works of the famous Norwegian expressionistic painter, Edward Munch, at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, I became increasingly ill. What I thought was a bad case of the flu turned out to be hepatitis (contracted from a bad batch of mussels), which forced me into bed for nearly a month. To make matters worse, no wine tasting was permitted.
Subscriptions continued to come in slowly but steadily, and after my rebound from the only serious health crisis I have had since the inception of The Wine Advocate (knock on wood), I continued to produce the publication every two months, while doing double duty as a full-time corporate lawyer. The strain of working two jobs led to numerous discussions with my wife and family about what path I would follow - the one for which I was trained , or the one my heart begged me to follow.
In 1982, my wife and I decided I could leave the practice of law and devote all my energies to The Wine Advocate when I had 10,000 subscribers. That did not occur until March, 1984, following what would turn out to be the watershed wine event of my career - the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. If my memory is vague on many things in life, I have the total photographic recall of an idiot savant when it comes to remembering things about wine. The 1982s and the events that took place after the vintage are indelibly etched in my memory.
The 1982 vintage was heavily hyped by the Bordeaux wine trade long before I traveled to France to taste them the last two weeks of March, 1983. A handful of 1986s, 1989s, and plenty of 1990s as well as 2000s recall the sheer majesty of the 1982s, but I never had tasted so many super-rich, opulent, dramatic wines that had obviously been produced from very ripe, jammy fruit. While I enjoyed strong consumer support in 1983, the wine trade did not become acquainted with The Wine Advocate (the name was changed after Issue V) until my report on the 1982 Bordeaux was published. When that issue came out (April, 1983) I had just over 9,000 subscribers. Within a month of my rave review of the 1982 Bordeaux, stating it was the greatest year for Bordeaux since 1961, and going through a detailed analysis of why it made sense to buy the top 1982s as futures (the soaring value of the American dollar, the modest prices established by the châteaux for the vintage, and most importantly, the singular greatness of the wines), I became embroiled in a major controversy. The New York Times, The Wine Spectator, and the now-defunct Robert Finigan's Private Guide to Wine came out with scathing critiques of the vintage. Their readers were advised to purchase the "more classical 1981s" or "1979s," that the vintage was "overripe," "defectively low in acidity," and that the wines were "so fragile" that they would "have to be consumed by 1990." In short, the mainstream American wine press unequivocally criticized the vintage and the style of the wines, which was disingenuously called "Californian." In June, 1983, my wife and I returned to France to look at the 1982s, and after re-tasting the wines again, I was even more impressed with the vintage's potential for greatness. I subsequently issued a second, even more glowing report on the 1982s.
Although the harsh criticism of this vintage was not reinforced by any specifics, it was difficult to dismiss given the fact it had emanated from well-regarded, established American wine writers. Because of their criticism of the vintage and, lamentably, of me, more consumers as well as the wine trade began to focus on what I was doing, and how I was doing it. The unprecedented scope, detail, candor, and depth of my work proved to be an enormous advantage. To date, many people still give me credit for being the first to proclaim the greatness of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage, but that is inaccurate. A week or so before my report appeared, the La Revue du Vin de France and its then little-known wine writer, Michel Bettane, called 1982 the finest Bordeaux vintage since 1929, arriving at the same qualitative conclusions as I had. Bettane's credibility soared once the public began tasting the wines. Today, he is widely considered to be Europe's finest taster/writer. The European wine press never doubted the quality of the 1982 vintage, making the blatantly negative position of much of America's wine media look even more suspect. I often wonder how many consumers were discouraged from buying what proved to be some of the greatest Bordeaux made last century - at what were bargain-basement prices - because of appallingly bad advice. Everyone makes mistakes, but the quality of the 1982s was a no-brainer.
Both 1983 and 1984 were tumultuous years for me. The 1982 buying frenzy by American wine consumers served only to further distance me from, as well as antagonize the establishment wine press, many of whom, having misinformed their readers regarding the 1982s, deemed me an ever increasing threat to their spheres of influence.
Several months after officially retiring from the practice of law in March, 1994, fortune again smiled on me. I had yearned to write a book on Bordeaux, but I had no idea how to contact, much less deal with a publisher. Over a meal at my home with Kermit Lynch, the Berkeley wine importer and retailer, Lynch told me that a good friend of his, a literary agent named Robert Lescher, was a fan of my work, and would love to meet me. On my next trip to New York, I called Mr. Lescher's office and was informed that he and his wife were vacationing, but they would be delighted to receive my call. Robert Lescher and his wife, Susan, also a prominent literary agent, were told a "Robert Parker" was on the phone asking to speak to Mr. Lescher. As the story goes, Susan Lescher became excited, telling her husband that she hoped this "Robert Parker" was the famous mystery writer, an author she would be thrilled to represent. Bob Lescher (a long-time enthusiast of fine food and wine) countered by saying that he would prefer it to be "Robert Parker" the wine-writer.
I will never forget my first appointment with Robert Lescher. His office bookshelves were filled with not only the works of famous authors, but with cases of wine, much of it from the Rhône Valley. When I learned that he was passionate about Rayas, the famous Châteauneuf du Pape, as well as its sister estate in the Côtes du Rhône, Fonsalette, I sensed that fate had intervened once more to guide me to the right literary agent. The contract for my first book was consummated more easily than I ever would have imagined. Bob Lescher was a close friend of another wine lover, Dan Green, who in 1984 was the President of Simon & Schuster, in addition to also being a Wine Advocate subscriber and a fan of my work. Within four months of leaving the practice of law, I was aggressively recruited by the President of Simon & Schuster to write a book on Bordeaux. In 1984 I would have written a Bordeaux book for nothing, but my agent would have none of that. On the Amtrak Metroliner back to Baltimore that day, I wondered why I had taken so long to become self-employed. By 2003, I was the author of thirteen books, all successful, and even translated into such languages as Russian, French, Polish, Japanese, German, Swedish, and Chinese.
Act of Love: 1985-1995
So many good things happened during this decade of the twentieth century that I will leave most of it for a future memoir, but some remembrances tower above the others.
I suspect most authors would agree that the publishing of the first book is a momentous event. After surviving the publishing of twelve additional books, all of which I believe were superior to my first book, I must admit that seeing my first book in print in October, 1985, remains the most rewarding.
Unlike 1985, the 1987 vintage was not a particularly memorable year for wine, but I will never forget it. After years of frustrating, sometimes humiliating fertility tests for me and my wife, at age 40, I finally became a father. To this day I can think of no more emotionally wrenching yet exhilarating experience (not even drinking a 1961 Latour à Pomerol or 1947 Cheval Blanc or Pétrus) than the delivery on September 16, at BWI airport, by jet stork (United Airlines) of a 3-month old Korean-born baby we named Maia-Song Elizabeth. She is 16 now, and a lovely, talented, artistic person who enhances my life every day.
Subsequent years have continued to be both challenging and richly satisfying. The 1989 and 1990 European vintages provided a once-in-a-lifetime, back-to-back duo. In spite of long trips and grueling days (I normally work 10-12 hours a day when tasting in viticultural regions), it is always a thrill to taste potentially superb young vintages. In contrast, working through difficult years, while obviously disappointing as well as fatiguing, also has its rewards. The work of a wine critic is significantly more important in such troublesome years as Europe experienced in 1991, 1992, and 1993, as these vintages require far more focus and labor to discover the finest wines. That in itself has merit because the wines are usually much less expensive.
During the early nineties I wrote extensively about the wine-making revolution in California. The pursuit of more natural wines and the on-going collapse of the industrial, food- processor mentality cannot be under-estimated. Coinciding with this change in mind-set has been a remarkable string of high quality vintages, starting with 1990 and continuing through the 1997 harvest. These events loom large in my wine advocacy, and for the future of high quality wine in America.
I shall never forget the cold, clear evening in January, 1993, when I was bestowed the Cross of the National Order of Merit by the President of France. As a critic, controversy had always plagued me, and I had never expected to win any popularity contests. For that reason I still wonder how my nomination, which originated in Pomerol, made it through the numerous steps required for approval. When I found out that few Americans have ever received La Croix du Chevalier de l'Ordre Nationale du Mérite, I was humbled to the point of disbelief. The night I received the greatest honor of my life provided me with an opportunity to acknowledge the person most responsible for my career and my success.
In my emotional acceptance speech, I dedicated the award to my wife, Pat. No one has had a more profound influence on my life. As I have already said, it was Pat who started me down the path of wine appreciation by forcing me (I would have preferred a Coca-Cola) to have a glass of dry table wine in Paris, in December, 1967. She encouraged my interest in wine during law school, and she supported my departure from the practice of law in 1984, realizing I was turning my back on a relatively secure, well-paying job for the uncertainties of wine-writing. In the early years of my wine advocacy, her flawless French was my only way of communicating with the producers of that country, as I did not become fluent in French until the late-eighties. Moreover, she has tolerated the long hours of work and seemingly endless travel more than I would if our roles were reversed. I have never doubted for a moment that she alone is responsible for my passion for wine, and so much of my success would have been impossible without her support. Lastly, little did I realize that in only a mere six years, another President of France would pin to my chest that country's highest honor, the Legion of Honor, and that I would become the first wine critic ever to garner both of France's highest decorations.
Triumphs and Sadness: 1996-2003
My principal reflection from the 1996 to the 1998 era was that this was the period when I became convinced that there was sufficient evidence of California's ability to produce world- class wines. California has always produced some great wines, but as the 1992s, 1994s, and 1995s were bottled, it was clear that at least five or six dozen California wineries were pushing the envelope, making the enormous financial and human commitments necessary to play on the world stage at the highest quality level. It was exciting, even for a self-professed Francophile, to see more natural wines that represented the essence of their vineyard sites.
California was not the only region in the world where increasing quantities of exciting wines of world-class quality were being produced. Italy was also enjoying a wine renaissance as was South America, primarily Argentina. In Argentina, the key qualitative players were the Catena family, and the French, who invested in high altitude vineyards, led by the famous Libourne oenologist, Michel Rolland, and one of his friends, Jean-Michel Arcaute, whose life was tragically cut short a few years ago in a drowning accident. However, it was clear that a long-forgotten and failed French varietal, Malbec, was capable of hitting unprecedented peaks of quality in Argentina. In addition to the coming of age of California and the exciting developments in Argentina, the giant down under, Australia, began to finally export to the USA many of its finest wines, which had never before appeared on our shores. Thanks to the cutting edge work of some innovative importers/brokers, particularly Dan Philips of the Grateful Palate, John Larchet of the Australian Premium Wine Collection, Rob McDonald of Old Bridge Cellars, Ted Schrauth of Old Vines Australia, and more recently, Benjamin Hammerschlag of Epicurean Wines as well as Ken Onish and John Gorman of Southern Starz, Australia became akin to a runaway locomotive, offering industrial quantities of tasty reds as well as limited gems made from old vine Grenache and Shiraz, especially from South Australia. Regions largely unheard of became household names among wine connoisseurs. The Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale's wines of massive richness and intensity gave consumers something they could not find anywhere else in the world. Not everyone thought this was a positive sign as these were the antithesis of European-styled delicacy and nuance. Yet they offered an important option, impressive but differently styled wines of enormous power and intensity. Additionally, some of the cooler climate areas in Victoria and Western Australia, particularly the Margaret River region, proved that surprisingly elegant wines could also be made.
The excitement of California's coming of age, the explosive revolution in Argentina, and the revelations emerging from Australia balanced out a somewhat unexciting period for western Europe as the 1994s, 1995s, 1996s, and 1997s hit the marketplace. Some very fine wines were produced, but none of these vintages could be considered great, with the exception of the 1996 northern Médocs and the 1998s from Pomerol, St.-Emilion, Graves, the southern Rhône Valley, and 1996 as well as 1997 in Piedmont, Italy.
The twentieth year of The Wine Advocate, 1998, was a year I would prefer to forget. My father, an extraordinarily strong, athletic man for his entire life, but lamentably a chain smoker, developed lung cancer, and passed away at a youthful 74. For the first fifty-one years of my life I had escaped tragedy and that emptiness born of enormous sorrow. His death was a hard lesson on the road of life.
Most of us realize that life can often be a roller coaster ride of highs and lows. The personal sorrow of 1998 was followed by 1999, a year that would turn out to be the most remarkable year of my professional life. Before my father died in May, 1998, he knew that I had been proposed for France's highest honor. In fact, in one of the last lucid conversations I had with him, he posed the question, "When is that French guy going to give you that medal?" I made it clear to my father that I was thrilled about the possibility, but when the French embassy had contacted me to tell me I had been proposed for the Legion of Honor in winter, 1998, I also knew that there was a strong likelihood my nomination would encounter resistance given the controversy that surrounded my career.
As fate or mere coincidence would have it, the letter from the French Ambassador announcing I was to be made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor was dated April 13, 1999, a date that would have been my father's 75th birthday. It is no exaggeration when I say that never, in my wildest dreams, did I think France would give me their highest honor. First of all, I had enemies in France, many of them significant, wealthy wine families with considerable influence. Somehow, that all was put aside, much to the credit of the French, in recognizing my achievements and what the totality of my work had meant for French wine. The icing on the cake was that the award would be given to me not by the ambassador or an under-minister, but by President Jacques Chirac at the Elysées Palace in June, 1999.
There are many things that stand out about receiving the Legion of Honor and having President Chirac not only pinning it on my chest, but telling a national radio and TV audience why an American wine critic and country boy from Monkton, Maryland was about to receive France's most prestigious award. Perhaps the most amazing thing was that all I needed to get into the Elysées Palace with my wife and daughter was the invitation from the President's office. We didn't even have to go through metal detectors or even exhibit identity passports, which still seems rather amazing. Certainly the emotion of the moment was extraordinary. Standing in a beautiful, heavily embroidered/decorated salon in the Elysées Palace, waiting with nine other recipients of either the Legion of Honor or the National Order of Merit, for the president to call my name and bestow this honor upon me was an unbelievable experience. I could write at length about all the thoughts that passed through my mind, and how the road I had chosen led to that day, but I don't have the space or inclination, but let me say it was a dream-like moment beyond anything I could ever have imagined. I had been at the epicenter of a revolution in wine information and wine quality that extended not only through the hallowed vineyards of France, but throughout the entire old world and, even more shockingly, the new world. In the two decades that I had been a wine critic, I had witnessed a complete reorganization of the wine universe. Democracy had come to elitist wine cliques and even spread to the vineyards. There had been a media revolution as writers and critics gained power over the wine industry, and wine drinkers in turn had became more sophisticated, better educated, and far more demanding. When I began writing about wine in 1978, my guess was that less than twenty percent of the world's great terroirs/vineyards were making wines proportional to their potential. Twenty plus years later, it was closer to 75-90%. When President Chirac finally fixed his eyes and words upon me, beads of perspiration formed on my forehead, and I realized that in spite of two decades of controversy, criticism, and occasional failures, I had been both a witness and player in the most dramatic quarter of a century the wine world have ever known. All I had ever wanted to do was taste every wine ever made, at which I had, regrettably, failed. However, the pure simplicity of trying to share my uncensored, independent thoughts about wine quality with other wine lovers had been recognized.
After the official medal ceremony, there was a reception. The amount of attention President Chirac gave my wife and daughter was, and remains a vivid as well as immensely gratifying memory. After an enjoyable celebratory lunch at the nearby Ledoyen, one thought couldn't be dismissed ... what would happen next?
The last three years, 2000-2003, have been dominated not so much by wine events, but by the terrorism of September 11th, and the death of my mother as well as one of my best friends in the spring of 2002. I wrote in December, 2001 that it took the incomparable Julia Child to get me out of the deep funk I experienced after September 11th, when it seemed that wine writing/critiquing was so unimportant and insignificant in the scheme of life. Julia's extraordinary charm and joie de vivre at a function in Baltimore where we were both being honored brought me out of the longest depression I had ever experienced, but not for long. The cancers that took my mother's life and that of the beautiful 50-year old wife of a dear, dear friend made 2002 the worst year of my life. But in an odd way, those tragedies reinforced my love of living, and my intention to exploit life for all of its joys and challenges.
The Wine Advocate continues to change, if ever so slightly. Seven years ago I brought in Pierre-Antoine Rovani so specific viticultural areas could be covered in a more comprehensive and timely manner. This year, Daniel Thomases was hired to cover Italian wines. I do not have any plans (in fact I can't even conjure up the idea) of going into retirement, but I have hired two of the finest tasters, as well as honest, independent thinking critics to assist in making The Wine Advocate a better publication. Not everyone endorses such changes, but it has allowed me to concentrate and devote more time to my areas of responsibility, and at the same time increase the publication's attention to viticultural regions that I had known were inadequately covered. When I look back at the first issue of The Wine Advocate, it is remarkable how the publication has evolved. I believe it is a far superior product today than it has ever been, and I'm thankful (and lucky) to still have limitless enthusiasm and passion for work, tasting, and remaining a student in a profession where there is always something to learn with each new vintage. The unwritten bond/covenant that has existed between wine consumers and this critic remains the most gratifying aspect of what I do. I thank all of you for keeping me inspired and energized. Moreover, every wine producer who has attempted to make the best wine possible from whatever parcel of land he or she farms has provided an undeniable source of energy and inspiration over the last twenty-five years.
I owe a considerable debt of gratitude and appreciation to many others besides my wife. For nearly two decades, The Wine Advocate "team" has remained largely unchanged. Many subscribers who have called the office have no doubt experienced first-hand the exceptional competence and enormous administrative talents of Joan Passman, who, for nearly two decades, has run the small office/wine-tasting annex attached to my home. Virtually every word or wine description that goes into The Wine Advocate or in my books has been put there by Joan. To this day, I find it ironic that she rarely goes ga-ga over wine, yet she knows as much about it as most professionals. I will never fully comprehend how she is able to accomplish so much, but Joan Passman has been one of those dream employees who never needs direction and always comes up with the solution to a problem before anybody else. If only I could persuade her that a bottle of great Bordeaux has some merit!
My other secretary was my most relentless critic - my Mother. Remarkably proficient, but always super-critical of her boss, I could never fire her because I loved her too much. The following story illustrated my Mother's "attitude." Subscribers who have received renewal notices have surely noticed the lines provided on the back of this form for constructive criticism. My Mother had the responsibility of going through the renewal forms. For years, she relished presenting me the renewal forms that contained the most scathing criticisms from subscribers. One day, when I was not in the best of moods, she handed me three renewals, all of which raised questions about my talent for judging wine. Aggravated and exasperated by these comments, I said, "Doesn't anyone ever write something nice on these renewal forms?" Without a blink of an eye my Mother responded, "All the time, but I never show them to you." With an employee like Mom, my head never got too big. I think of her every day, and miss her more than words can ever express.
My three part-time secretaries also deserve a big thanks. Terry Faughey, who has been with me for over a dozen years, Annette Piatek, who does a beautiful job with my books as well as typesetting The Wine Advocate, and the newest member of the team, Betsy Sobolewski, all contribute to the smooth running of the office. And of course, there is the incomparable Pierre-Antoine Rovani, who, within weeks of starting to work for me in 1996, was sent to Burgundy for his first tasting expedition. Talk about a baptism by fire! His passion, unimpeachable integrity, and exceptional palate have added immensely to the overall strength of The Wine Advocate. He covers a lot of ground, but in less than a decade, his work in Burgundy has been both courageous and superlative. It is not easy going against the Burgundian spin machine and actually criticizing producers or mediocre vintages, but Pierre has more than accepted that challenge. His initial, and ultimately accurate view of the 1998 vintage (highly praised by other writers, but clearly a flawed year) is his yardstick and legacy.
Dr. Jay Miller (whose degree is in child psychology) had long been an integral part of The Wine Advocate team until he became a member of the opposition, a wine retailer. He has been a life-long friend, as well as a trusted taster who joined me every Friday in my office to assist me in working through 100+ wines. He also accompanied me on most of my trips to Burgundy and the Rhône Valley. He went to the Rhône because he loved those wines. I insisted that he accompany me to Burgundy - to serve as my bodyguard. Jay also assisted me on the now defunct Prodigy Electronic network during my numerous absences.
Several other people should be acknowledged, if only because I have intentionally borrowed words and phrases from their work, rarely giving them credit. Many readers have recognized that the titles and sub-titles in The Wine Advocate frequently have a musical origin. Several artists in particular have repeatedly had song titles or lyrics borrowed. Since his early days as a struggling musician/songwriter in Canada, and subsequently as a member of the group Buffalo Springfield, I have been a voracious fan of Neil Young. His lyrics, emotional, high-pitched singing style, and guitar riffs are hors classe for me. Like Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Bob Seger have also had their lyrics utilized more than once. I find it a useful way for me to make a statement, musically-inspired, but with wine implications. I have no way of knowing, but I hope these gifted artists enjoy wine. Certainly their music and its message has enhanced my life.
"Seems like that guy singing this song been doing it for a long time...is there anything he knows that he ain't said?" —Neil Young
Twenty-five years is a long time, but it has passed all too quickly. Moreover, I couldn't have accomplished what I have without your support. I would like to thank all of you. Many of you hold me to an even higher standard than my Mother did, and I appreciate it. You may think of me as a wine critic, but that's not totally true - I am first and foremost a wine consumer! Moreover, I have never lost sight of the fact that much of my income is derived from subscriber support. I will always place the interests of the wine consumer before those of the trade. No qualitative issues have ever been ducked, and I believe all of you know that I will never stop searching for the vinous Holy Grail — those wines with the greatest personality, expression, and individuality, in all price ranges. The overwhelming remembrance of these twenty-five years continues to be the faith readers have placed in my writings. And that explains why I feel such a profound degree of accountability and responsibility to you. It is a ghastly thought, but without the extraordinary support I have enjoyed from wine consumers, I would still be a lawyer. A million thanks!
All the best in food and life,
P.S. I do have much more to say, and learn ... so stay tuned!
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