People often ask me how I got my job. They want to know how I started as a writer and, in turn, how I began to write about wine.
The answer is my job found me. I doubt I would have written a word about wine had I not moved to Napa in 1978. Then, along came a twice-monthly tabloid called The Wine Spectator. Soon I became a stringer, industry jargon for a regular contributing freelance writer.
When I moved to Napa, I worked as the Napa County bureau chief for the Vallejo-Times Herald, a daily newspaper that mostly covered neighboring Solano County. But the paper had a small niche of readers in Napa County and was a seven-day a week morning paper that hoped to gain circulation as the surrounding area grew. The anticipated growth came in a small, unincorporated area on the Napa-Solano County line between Vallejo and Napa called American Canyon. It's now a city.
Being a general assignment writer and editor, I covered the news of the day. On my first day at work in June 1978, I met Scott Snowden and Andy Beckstoffer. They were both members of the Napa County Planning Commission and I reported on Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his followers, the Moonies, and their plans for an educational retreat in rural Pope Valley.
Snowden went on to become a highly respected superior court judge and later a vintner, as an owner of Snowden Vineyards. His family bought land in St. Helena in the 1950s. Beckstoffer was a vineyard manager working for the likes of Beaulieu Vineyard, farming Cabernet much as he still does today; he owns a big chunk of the famous To Kalon Vineyard in Oakville.
I covered politics, homicides, school board meetings, city hall, the courts, the Zodiac killer, the slaying of a beloved police dog by a deranged drug dealer and interviewed a skydiver who survived a 10,000-foot plunge when this parachute didn't open, also in Pope Valley. Being a general assignment writer often provided a daily dose of something new and exciting. Those 11 p.m. deadlines for a morning newspaper were often filled with an adrenaline rush to break a news story.
However, wine kept appearing. Interest in California wine began to take shape in the 1970s, with the Paris Tasting in 1976 and a big feature in National Geographic that as I recall featured photos of hot-air balloons floating above the valley. Maybe even a cover shot.
In 1978, the much-heralded 1974 vintage of Cabernet was coming to market and a guy by the name of Robert Mondavi had become the spokesperson for Napa Valley and American wine. As a writer I had access to vintners like him and people wanted to read what he and others had to say about wine, a subject that was fast becoming popular across the country. Writers dominated then; and it seemed as if every publication wanted stories on wine and the people who made it. There were perhaps 30 wineries in Napa then, and about the same in Sonoma.
In the late 1970s, Napa Valley vintners began to organize to form an appellation and I covered those hearings, which led to many introductions and an education about terroir and politics as vintners struggled to draw the appellation's boundaries.
One day, after I had been increasingly writing about the wine business, my editor, Sheila Caudle, jokingly said, "Well, if you think you know so much about wine, why don't you start writing about it." So I did. I wrote about wine on a weekly basis. One day I spent with a picking crew as it harvested grapes at Rene di Rosa's Winery Lake Vineyard. I wrote about dirt (and Al Brounstein's fascination with different soil types at Diamond Creek), battles with birds (who liked to eat ripe grapes at about the same time winemakers wanted to pick them), the battle over the name Stags/Stag's/Stags' Leap, and much more.
Professionally, the two days that changed Napa Valley changed my life as well. I covered the first Napa Valley Wine Auction in 1981, where a wine no one outside the winery had tasted, set a world record. The first case of Opus One—then dubbed Napamedoc—sold for $24,000, or $2,000 a bottle. I filed the story for both the Times-Herald and as a freelance correspondent for the Associated Press (AP). That story would merit a sentence in every newspaper in the world, or so Marty Thompson, the AP San Francisco Bureau chief, told me later, and he was more or less right.
The next day an arsonist set fire to Napa Valley, burning 25,000 acres and hundreds of homes. It was my day off, but I covered the story and filed it again. It was one of those running stories that lasted a week before the fire was extinguished.
I was all of 26 at the time, but the AP chief was impressed. Keep it up, kid, he said. We can use the copy.
Jason Thompson — Foster City, CA — June 1, 2010 7:01pm ET
Michael Bonanno — CT — June 2, 2010 6:23am ET
Michael Myette — Sacramento, CA USA — June 2, 2010 4:31pm ET
Costa, Renato Martins — Sao Paulo/Brazil — June 3, 2010 4:45pm ET
Jordan Horoschak — Houston, TX — June 3, 2010 4:48pm ET
James Laube — Napa, CA — June 3, 2010 4:54pm ET
Stephanie Miskew — Delray Beach, FL USA — June 3, 2010 5:53pm ET
Harvey Posert — napa valley — June 4, 2010 7:53pm ET
Jonathan Davis — Birmingham — June 6, 2010 8:55pm ET
Don Rauba — Schaumburg, IL — June 8, 2010 12:50am ET
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