The Way We Were

Thoughts on my departing colleague, James Suckling
Jul 16, 2010

In the beginning, we were part of a skeletal staff, moving into new digs in San Francisco. Our office in Opera Plaza was so new that it was still under construction. We sometimes wore hard hats in the halls as workers scrambled to complete the building.

Marvin Shanken, Wine Spectator’s new owner, inherited most of the staff, and that included two Jims: Jim Suckling and me. Suckling preceded me, having joined the publication while it was still based in a warehouse district in San Diego. I wrote as a freelancer from Napa before coming aboard full time.

There was a period when our bare-bones crew did it all, when Wine Spectator was just another struggling publication hoping to survive. Paydays were once a month, and by the 24th we were counting pennies and eating leftovers.

The new owner believed, somehow, some way, he could turn the twice-monthly tabloid into something special. But even he had his moments of doubt. We Jims and later Harvey Steiman hoped he was right, and even if he wasn’t, well, we had jobs writing about wine at a time when Americans were beginning to take notice. We had a chance to create something special, and we did.

It was a crazy period, a mix of youth and adventure, the equivalent of climbing a mountain no one thought we could scale. We developed and wrote stories and edited freelancers. We took our own photos, wrote headlines and laid out the book; Suckling developed the photos in a lab the size of a phone booth. We transitioned from IBM Selectric typewriters to our own computers, each a different brand. We shared a Brother 60-character-per-minute printer, which we rolled on its stand around the office from desk to desk.

Suckling had a “cutting-edge” Osborne, which had a screen the size of a swim mask. I thought he would go blind looking at it. Much of the time we were alone, on our own and frantically busy (the same way things still are); every other week Marvin flew out from New York to oversee production and plan the next issue.

The one issue he didn’t oversee should have cost us our jobs. Marvin was working in Tuscany that summer; our cover while he was gone: Mendocino’s Other Cash Crop … yep, a story about how pot was king in Anderson Valley.

For all of us, working for the Spectator was the opportunity of a lifetime. Suckling made the most of it and then some. He and those of us who were with Wine Spectator in its formative years grew up with the industry as it underwent a seismic transition. The industry rose from an often-arrogant Francophile-centered world to one where wines from just about anywhere are broadly appreciated and accepted.

Those of us who grew up with and worked with Suckling over the years came to admire and marvel at his energy, drive and determination. He brought a unique set of skills to writing about wine, things you can’t teach. He had a reporter’s eye for news and details and the curiosity and instincts to pursue them. That, coupled with his ability to taste, describe and analyze wine, set him apart from most wine scribes.

It wasn’t long before Suckling was off to Europe, and that opened other doors, with travel trips for me to visit and work with him in Bordeaux, Paris, the Rhône Valley and later Tuscany. In many regards, Suckling helped introduce many wine lovers to the joy of Italian wines and culture. We’ve stayed close over the years, both as editors and friends, which is why I’m both sorry to see him leave and happy he’s pursing a new direction in his life.

Writers write from the inside out, that is, you write from your gut and your heart, and for me—and for writers like Suckling—you only write about things that really matter to you.

Bon voyage, my friend.

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