Grateful

Executive editor Thomas Matthews looks back on his 33-year journey with Wine Spectator, including the moments that defined his successful career

Grateful
Executive editor Thomas Matthews (David Yellen)
From the Dec 31, 2020, issue

You may know me as a journalist and a wine lover. I’m also a fan of the Grateful Dead; my first concert was in New Haven, Conn., on July 31, 1971. Their song “Truckin” talks about the “long, strange trip it’s been.”

My own journey has been surprising, serendipitous and satisfying, and I am grateful. Looking back, I see a path puncuated by dead ends and wrong turns—yet those detours were all instrumental in reaching my goals.

In 1977, I realized that a Ph.D. program in political science didn’t suit me. So I changed direction. I left Yale and moved to Spain to write a novel. But the novel didn’t satisfy me either, and I ran out of money. It felt like a dead end.

A friend told me picking grapes was great fun and light work. So we drove to Bordeaux for the 1979 vintage. I landed at a small, family-run property and discovered that my friend was half-right. But the experience was so engaging I decided to write about wine. To make ends meet, I worked as a bartender and wine buyer in New York, and in 1986 returned to France to research another book: a portrait of a wine village in Entre-Deux-Mers.

Wine Spectator agreed to try me as a freelancer, and in 1988 Marvin Shanken offered me a full-time position. I accepted. I wasn’t sure how long it would last but I figured that my book would lead to new opportunities. Wrong again. A Village in the Vineyards (published in 1993) garnered positive reviews but small sales.

But as one pathway closed, another was opening wide. I fell in love with Wine Spectator. Marvin was leading a small, talented team of journalists and critics; we were in the vanguard of an emerging wine culture. Wine sales grew. The magazine prospered. In 1999, Marvin gave me the opportunity to serve as executive editor. For him, it was a gamble. For me, it has been the roadmap leading to my true life.

The wine world is a fascinating and hospitable place. Wine regions are beautiful, rich in history and culture, and the food is delicious. Wine people are engaging, creative and generous—it’s a community that embraces artisans, aristocrats and entrepreneurs and that welcomed me whether I was a journalist, a wine-buyer or a grape-picker.

And the wines—well, who gets tired of wine? Constant instruction, endless delight. People often ask me what my favorite wine is. I really can’t answer. So much depends on the context: So many bottles have been perfect in their moment.

I believe that since the publication’s founding in 1976, Wine Spectator has been a major force in nurturing wine culture in America. Our strength has been to balance journalism and criticism. Our wine reviews help people choose with confidence; our articles connect the wines with the people and places that produce them.

It has been a team effort. The Wine Spectator staff is talented and experienced, many with 20-plus years at the publication. Our blind-tasting methodology for wine reviewing is the most professional in the business. We hold to high standards of journalism and follow a strict code of ethics. As a result, I believe, we have earned the trust and loyalty of our readers, the largest audience for any wine publication in the world.

There is no sustained success without strong leadership. Marvin is a street-smart entrepreneur, an old-school publisher and a committed philanthropist. He’s driven and demanding, always striving for improvement and growth; he’s also generous and loyal. He’s a practical visionary, and it has been a privilege to work with him.

I owe the deepest debt to our readers. I am impressed by your passion for wine and grateful for your loyalty to Wine Spectator. It has been a pleasure meeting so many of you at our events. I am sure I learned more from you than you have from me. I trust you will be as kind to incoming executive editor Jeffery Lindenmuth as he brings his own energy and ideas to Wine Spectator.

As the Grateful Dead sang, “Sometimes the light’s all shining on me.” I have been granted so many sun-filled vintages—33 with Wine Spectator, and 40 with Sara, the love and light of my life, who has provided support and inspiration crucial to my success.

This year has been more difficult than most. But I am an optimist, and I believe that every challenge is an opportunity. I thank all the friends, colleagues and readers who have traveled with me on this long, strange trip. I look forward to sharing new adventures to come.

Opinion

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