Unlike winemakers, who can go to school to study enology and viticulture with a formal university curriculum, most wine writers are self-taught. Call it on-the-job training.
When I moved to Napa in 1978, I had been drinking wine for five or six years, but my only formal education, if you could call it that, had been by visiting winery tasting rooms and reading.
Living in wine country afforded me countless opportunities to taste wines under many different circumstances. When I began writing about wine, one of the first stories I wrote was about touring and on the first day out I met Jerry Luper (then at Chateau Montelena), Charlie and Chuck Wagner and Randy Dunn (all at Caymus) and Nils Venge (then at Villa Mount Eden).
Wineries were hungry for publicity and open to share whatever wines they had. It wasn't long before I made a point of visiting a winery or two each week. Remember, at that time there were some 30 wineries in Napa, about the same number in Sonoma, and a few were sprouting up elsewhere (and touring wineries was fun, not work). I visited Zaca Mesa in Santa Barbara in the early 1980s and Oregon about the same time.
Tasting with winemakers, and hearing them describe their wines, was a huge benefit. I attended just about any kind of seminar I could and continued to read about wine and buy wines that piqued my interest.Tasting with chefs was just as important, as wine became more integrated into the food world.
Wine was different in the 1970s and 1980s. California usually had good weather. But areas such as Bordeaux, or Burgundy or Germany typically only had a great vintage or two per decade, nothing like today, where most years are good to great and viticultural practices have made it easier to make better wines more often. Moreover, there were fewer wine regions, too. Italy, for instance, hardly mattered; (ditto for Australia, which had an excellent wine industry, but little of the wine made it to the U.S). The renaissance in Italy had just begun. But the game-changing wines came later in the 1980s.
It was a comparatively simple and small wine world by today's measure. Collectors were eager to share their wines with me and I was able to taste many of the classics.
By the time I began writing for Wine Spectator in 1980, I had tasted wine from just about every winery in California. And my mentors included Robert Mondavi, André Tchelistcheff and many other winemakers and writers who graciously shared their wines and knowledge, chief among them Harvey Steiman.
Over the years I ended up tasting with the likes of Michael Broadbent, Hugh Johnson and Len Evans, Lalou Bize-Leroy, the Guigals, Angelo Gaja, Piero Antinori and Julio Gallo, among many others. I also tasted with many writers, including Frank Prial (New York Times), Barbara Ensrud (New York Post) Robert Lawrence Balzer (Los Angeles Times) and Matt Kramer. We traveled throughout Italy one year, visiting dozens of wineries.
When Wine Spectator began reviewing wines in the early 1980s, all of the wines were tasted blind in our San Francisco office. That allowed me to sample just about everything in the U.S. market. It was a wine-tasting education second to none. We sampled wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chablis, the Rhône, Champagne, Sauternes, Alsace and the Loire Valley in France. From Germany, and from Piedmont, Tuscany and Friuli in Italy. Spain and Portugal. Chile, Australia, Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Long Island; and, of course, from California.
By the end of the 1980s, the wine world was growing at a rapid pace, and in order to keep up with it, we broke out assignments that look more or less like our coverage today. At one point, though, I covered and wrote about California, the Rhône, Italy and Washington and Oregon. I've reviewed Bordeaux and Sauternes futures with James Suckling and traveled with him through the Rhône. I consider my colleagues at Wine Spectator to be first-rate tasters and analysts. We have our own individual preferences, likes and dislikes. But I've learned much from the interaction with my fellow editors. When we sit around and drink wine, our experience adds up to hundreds of years.
Since the 1980s I've tasted about 5,000 wines a year. It seems like a lot, and is. When you break it down to 100 wines a week it's more manageable.
How does someone know they have a good palate, or they're good enough to review wines? At some point you gain the confidence to determine what you like and what you don't. Then your editors, or colleagues, decide you're ready.
The best vehicle for learning about wine is blind tasting. That forces you to decide about the quality of a wine without knowing who made it or what it cost. You can learn about wine many ways. But tasting blind forces you to concentrate on what's in front of you. You judge the wine, not the wine's reputation.
Jonathan Davis — Birmingham — June 8, 2010 10:13pm ET
Sandy Fitzgerald — Centennial, CO — June 8, 2010 10:57pm ET
Hugh L Sutherland Jr-m — miramar beach, fl — June 9, 2010 11:37am ET
James Laube — Napa, CA — June 9, 2010 12:34pm ET
Will Malone — Douglas, MA — June 9, 2010 9:03pm ET
John Albritton — Irvine, CA — June 9, 2010 9:49pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — June 10, 2010 2:36am ET
James Laube — Napa, CA — June 10, 2010 4:42pm ET
Jason Thompson — Foster City, CA — June 10, 2010 5:04pm ET
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions