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The Way We Were

Thoughts on my departing colleague, James Suckling
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jul 16, 2010 5:33pm ET

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.

Brad Kanipe
GA —  July 16, 2010 6:26pm ET
Great story James, your memories paint a picture I can almost see. Thanks for sharing.
Jason Carey
willow, ny usa —  July 16, 2010 6:33pm ET
Every reader of this magazine wants to know why he "retired" really.
Thomas Matthews
New York City —  July 16, 2010 9:00pm ET
That's for James to answer, since it was his decision. But you imply there's some hidden and possibly unpleasant reason. Why? James gave 30 years of his life to Wine Spectator. Perhaps he's just looking for new mountains to climb.
Jerry Rosenblatt
Montreal, Canada —  July 17, 2010 12:19am ET
Jim, thanks for the really nice note about James. It's been a bit rough for those of us who were his "followers", as it seemed to be very sudden, but we'll all move on. If Thomas is still reading, I really hope that you do have some tribute for James. You may not appreciate it, but all of you guys have significant impact on wine lovers worldwide. And when one of the visonaries disappears, suddenly, it really is a bit unsettling.
Justin G Mccarthy
Philadelphia —  July 17, 2010 12:22pm ET

Thanks to you and to James Suckling. A nice piece of nostalgia, yours, on the rise the Spectator. His writings, and yours, have made our lives more interesting and enjoyable, and helped us all to apprecite what wines there are, what wines to buy, and how better to live la dolce vita - the good life. As a lover of Bordeaux and Italian wines I will miss his writings. Retiring to Tuscany is pretty sweet, a great place to live and I wish him all the best. Bon voyage, James Suckling.
Johnny Espinoza Esquivel
Wine World —  July 17, 2010 1:40pm ET

Another nice piece from you (BTW I have immensely enjoyed your articles on Manfred Krankl and Helen Turley. Thank You).

I guess the feeling we all online members and readers have about James suddenly departing is the one you experience when a best friend strike us out nothing with his/her departure. It seems it was just yesterday when we were all reading about his coverage about Bdx 2009 vintage. We just weren't expecting him to go. I guess we all are on our own right to take and make decision without even consider let the world know about them. It seems there is still the "pain of goodbye" out there in the web community. And it's completely understandable.

Some say memories are forever and I bet as long as you guys -as well as us- keep the good memories with us, James Suckling will be there.

I wish him success and blessings. The Show Must Go On. . .
Andrew S Bernardo
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada —  July 19, 2010 9:35am ET
There will be large shoes to fill in Italy, Bordeaux, and Vintage Port, but there are a lot of gifted writers and tasters on staff at WS, it will be interesting to see who fills in in Europe. As for Mr. Suckling, I can hardly be upset with his departure given all the great years he gave the Magazine. Mr. Matthews is right, no one should be slamming him for his departure. We should all be giving him a standing O, and look forward to the years to come for the Spectator.

Pauline Decloedt
canada —  July 19, 2010 11:37am ET
Goodbye, James Suckling- Wine Spectator will never be the same for me. You are the reason I logged on every day - and was excited everytime you posted a new blog. Pauline
Gary Parker
San Diego, California —  July 19, 2010 4:02pm ET
Great story Jim. Jim Suckling did a great job, and he will be missed. We also know The Wine Spectator will keep up their quality by introducing yet another outstanding journalist or feature to the magazine.
Best wishes to Jim Suckling.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  July 19, 2010 4:37pm ET
It's great to see this 30-year tapestry of Suckling's tenure being brought to life throug these first-hand retrospectives. For too many of us we imagine that WS has been around forever and that there was never a time of doubt with respect to the magazine's existence. The picture you paint is one of uncertainty, hope and faith. It is one I'm particularly fond of because I face a similar crossroads even now. It appears that you have few/no regrets with respect to your journey, and neither does Mr. Suckling. We are not writing an epitaph here. "Bon Voyage" is the most appropriate sentiment I have seen. Good form Mr. Laube! This is not an end. It is a beginning. And to those of you who remain at WS, I wish you nothing but the best as you embark on courses both familiar and new. I remain ever devoted, ever loyal.

Troy Peterson, Burbank, CA
Tim Mc Donald
Napa,CA —  July 19, 2010 7:18pm ET
Jim, what a nice post about one of the amazing wine guys of our time. Collectively you all made the WS The WS. I am certain that he will be missed as he is not easy to replace however just like great sports team players get traded or injured or retire, great teams remain great - I would think that words like sudden really do not accurately assess why Suckling moved on. Hell, after 30 years one would think that most people think about their future quite often and I would think he is no different. I am excited for him and excited for The WS too.
Matt Scott
Honolulu HI —  July 20, 2010 6:44pm ET
Thanks James.

I just got back from a trip and am speechless. You and Suckling have had a sizable impact on my wine journey. I hope that Suckling's journey continues to be what he wants.
Bert Pinheiro
Baltimore Maryland —  July 24, 2010 2:03pm ET
James that was one of your best. It is always fascinating to me to hear about the beginngs of successful, well done operations , which is Wine Spectator.

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