In 1972, The New York Times debuted Frank J. Prial’s weekly wine column, making it the first regular feature for a major East Coast paper (the Los Angeles Times already had a wine column). Since then, many writers – including R.W. Apple Jr., Harold McGee and Eric Asimov (the current wine critic for the paper) – have written about this captivating beverage from a variety of perspectives for the Times.
Howard G. Goldberg, who spent 23 years as an editor on the Times’ Op-Ed page, also contributed to the paper's wine coverage. He has edited “The New York Times Book of Wine,” a collection of wine writing from the Times that traces the arc of wine in America over the past 30 years. I caught up with Goldberg via email and asked him a few questions.
Given that you have covered New York state wines since the mid-1980's, how do they fit into the global wine marketplace today?
Though seldom brilliant, they broadly range from good through excellent. They fall below Oregon's in recognition and certainly deserve more than they are receiving. The signal that they’re acquiring high status will be appearances at auction. The Niagara of publicity about the Long Island merlot [Bedell Cellars] and Finger Lakes riesling [Tierce] served at President Obama’s second inaugural lunch may be an inestimable boon.
Which are your favorite articles in the book and why?
The greatest wine article I’ve ever read in The New York Times was the street-smart Frank J. Prial’s “A Twilight Nightcap With Alistair Cooke” (2004). It synthesized his professional standards and skills and his personal values, all at a peak. I kept my own contributions to the book to a bare minimum, but confess a sentimental attachment to one of my earliest, “The Big Grape: Nouveau York City” (1984) – a fantasy about Manhattan as a vineyard region.
Did you grow up with wine in your family?
No. Like all working-class Newark Jewish families, we knew only Manischewitz [a kosher wine]. Dad preferred Mogen David. My maternal grandma made raisin wine – my boyhood Yquem. I grew up on milk and on root beer, birch beer and sarsaparilla sodas. My Rutgers [university] years were devoted to getting sick from beer.
What was a transformational wine for you – one that flicked a switch and sent you down a path of wine appreciation?
In the late 1960's, my wife, Beatrice, and I drank mostly Siglo, a rough Spanish red. A bottle of 1961 Château Margaux on the coat-closet floor got in the way for years. Friends who were into wine came to dinner. I broke out the Margaux. It tasted like no wine I had encountered. Bingo!
But it wasn’t exactly that bottle alone that led to wine writing. Beatrice bought me Alexis Lichine’s “Wines of France” when I had the flu in 1984. I discovered what I had been missing – and could do. I took one drink, then another and another. Soon after my first Times article appeared, Alexis gave me lunch in his palatial apartment opposite the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I departed smitten.
How has the wine world changed for the better in your lifetime? And for the worse?
For the better: Since wine dawned on me, its cornucopia has filled beyond Pommard, Chablis, generic Bordeaux, Chianti in straw-covered flasks and Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy, to say the least. Let albariño, assyrtiko, godello, rkatsiteli and zweigelt symbolize the tour d’horizon of new opportunities. Think, too, of emerged wine countries (Canada, Chile, Israel) and regions (Long Island, which I cover for The Times, Central Otago, Willamette Valley).
For the worse: Media coronation of “celebrity” winemakers; the adjective cheapens every noun it modifies. Also, the proliferation of counterfeits, which snake into secondary markets.
And how has wine writing changed for better or worse?
There’s more “better” and more “worse.” When I came to wine, my main American mentors via magazines and newspapers were Gerald Asher, Dan Berger, Alexis Bespaloff, Richard Nalley, Prial and occasionally Alan Richman. Britain’s thoroughbreds aside, our writers population has multiplied on the internet and in print. The sophisticated Jon Bonné, provocative Matt Kramer, thorough Peter Liem, down-to-earth Kermit Lynch, narratively gifted Bruce Schoenfeld, thoughtful Michael Steinberger and many contributors to the urbane Joshua Greene’s under-appreciated Wine & Spirits are necessary reading.
The downside is the sewer of mediocrity, ignorance, snarkiness, narcissism and vulgarity poisoning the wine web.
Every other week, the Times runs a column with 10 wine recommendations selected from a panel tasting. Yet none of those articles made the book. Why not?
They hinge primarily on findable bottles and prices. Before long, the wines vanish, devaluing the articles’ utility. In editing the book, I chose articles that, while representing their times and thus inescapably dated, conveyed aggregately a spacious spectrum of issues and writing styles. I did virtually no line editing. Preservation of valuable substantive content in Eric Asimov’s panel reports would for me have involved unacceptably invasive editing.
You used your long-running but brief feature, "Wine Under $20," to convey your impressions of a wine. What makes a good wine-tasting note?
My tasting note values have been evolving. Today, I prefer simplicity, minimal fancy prose and avoidance of elusive, intimidating descriptors. I favor terms that arguably can be generally detected: citric, crisp, delicate, earthy, fat, fruity, funky, harsh, herbal, honey, jammy, lead pencil, melon-like, smoky, tobacco. I rarely say minerality but hope that, though scientifically unproved, it may one day cease being a sibling of the Tooth Fairy.
Riesling: over-rated or under-rated?
Under-rated, but thanks to the current boom, not much longer. Its unparalleled aperitif and mealtime versatility, its translation of terroir, endow it with kaleidoscopic surprises and pleasures.
Who are the key opinion shapers in the American wine industry today?
The emerging vanguard of influentials consists of dedicated restaurant wine directors – impresarios, if you will – like Aldo Sohm, Michael Madrigale, Carla Rzeszewski, Rajat Parr, Aviram Turgeman and Laura Maniec, who deal one-on-one with customers. Also, serious diploma-earners who graduate from schools like Mary Ewing-Mulligan’s International Wine Center and then infiltrate importers’ and distributors’ front offices and become wine shop proprietors and sales personnel. As for journalism, obviously Asimov, Robert M. Parker Jr. and Marvin R. Shanken.
If you could interview anyone in the wine world, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Thomas Jefferson. My book shows I did “interview” him. I dug up and quoted interesting things Tom said about wine and preceded the quotations with questions that could have fathered the answers.
You are a Yankees fan. Do you think there will be a day when most fans reach for a wine instead of a beer at the stadium?
I hope not. It would be un-American. I can’t imagine a vendor hollering, “Hey, getcher cold beerenauslese!” I wouldn’t expect Bleacher Creatures to scribble tasting notes in the bottom of the ninth. Who’d race to a concession stand’s wine list to search out a Franconian trocken that would poetically marry with a frank (honey mustard, heavy kraut)?
If you could have just one wine, regardless of price or availability, which would it be?
Helmut Dönnhoff’s rieslings, from Nahe, are the only Platonic whites that make me cry. Their crystalline, nuanced beauty can defy description. I’d ask Helmut for the finest one in his cellar. If he had a lone bottle left, I wouldn’t be a pig: I’d request that bottle – but with a straw.
* "The New York Times Book of Wine: More Than 30 Years of Vintage Writing," compiled by Howard G. Goldberg, is published by Sterling Epicure at $24.95.