Where did you grow up?
Chicago, where beer was plentiful and wine a novelty.
What drew you into wine?
I was originally going to go to college to become an attorney, and then I was going to go into politics. I was going to be a senator: it was a serious plan. But now I’ve done far too many bad things in my life, so that’s out of the question.
After university, I moved to California to go to Hastings law school, and then panicked: I didn’t want to be an attorney. I’d done some theater in the past, so I started doing work on commercials and then became a hand model. I did the Pillsbury Dough Boy ads. I poked the dough boy!
When did wine come into the picture?
Moving to San Francisco after college was the first impetus to discovering wine. I spent a lot of time in Napa and Sonoma, Santa Cruz and Livermore, just exploring. That's when I fell in love with it and knew I wanted to make it my living. I worked for Microsoft, where I’d done the wine column for something called Sidewalk [a local events site], and from that I went to the New York Times to start Winetoday.com in 1998. I had that unique, weird, set of qualifications: I knew the internet and I knew wine.
How big was Winetoday.com?
We spent a significant amount of money – I wouldn’t doubt there was any change from a million dollars. This was a time when people were throwing money at the internet, and it was very exciting. But nobody asked the question: how do we make money? In 2000, we had cameras in the cellars of Haut-Brion and Silverado Vineyards for Harvest Watch 2000. We were shooting people like Piero Antinori, Angelo Gaia, Corinne Mentzelopoulos – but nobody could see it because it took so long to download. We were way ahead of our time: that sort of thing is only just happening now.
What was the most ambitious thing you did?
Harvest Watch 2000 was outlandish. Everybody thought I was crazy, which apparently I was at that point. It wouldn’t be crazy now, of course.
Then it collapsed…
The internet implosion happened in 2001, and the Times felt there was no future in it. The closure of Winetoday.com was the low point of my career. I’d worked so hard to put this great team together. We had Oz Clarke, Bob Campbell, Burton Anderson...
Do you miss those early days on the web?
Yes. Everything was so new. We would come up with ideas that nobody had done. We had Winesleuth, where we set up a database of 200 style attributes – you could match up styles, ‘if you like this, try this,’ long before Amazon or anyone was doing it. It was built from scratch by our developers for nothing; people did that sort of thing then.
After you left the Times you wrote your first book, 'Wine for Women.' How did that come about?
When I was doing events, I found women and men would ask very different things about wine. Men would ask much more technical questions: about Parker points, how much oak and so on. But women would say, ‘I really like this wine, I’m thinking about serving chicken tonight,’ or whatever.
It’s a generalization, certainly, but I could count on my hands the number of times women came up and asked what the Wine Spectator score was. So I came up with this concept of wine for women.
Was there a danger you’d be seen as talking down to women?
It’s not that women and men drink different things – it’s just that they come at it from a different angle. I have never ever been a fan of wines in pink packaging – like that terrible light wine called White Lie, which was so patronizing. If you want a light wine, drink German riesling.
How many copies have you sold?
I don’t know – maybe 100,000. I’m going to work on a new edition, because it's more than ten years old.
Tell me about the other strands of your work.
I’m now in the eighth season of 'Check, Please!' [PBS], for which we won a Beard award and three Emmy awards. And I’m on national TV, the 'Today' show, then I’m working and writing for national women’s magazines. What’s so interesting is that a decade ago women’s magazines wouldn’t talk about wine, because it’s alcohol. I’ve been pounding on doors and breaking down barriers for a long time.
There’s also the website, Thirstygirl.com.
Thirsty Girl was started a couple of years ago, originally as a book concept, "The Adventures of a Thirsty Girl." Then I found women would say to me, ‘That’s me – I’m the thirsty girl. I love food, I love wine, I love life.’ So my business partner, Gail Spangler, and I decided we had to be part of this community.
How much traffic are you getting on the site?
At the moment, [we are] just working out what our next move is. The original USP was to do events, so we had two years of tours. Then people wanted to start their own chapters of Thirsty Girl. So now we’re at the stage of having to decide if we’re going to continue with events, or go down the chapter route.
It sounds like you’ve found a demographic, and you have a community, but you don’t quite know what to do with it?
Yes. We have to figure it out. At this point I think I have to bring in somebody smarter than myself.
You’ve had a very varied career. Do you regret anything? What about the bad behavior that’s precluded a career in politics?
I don’t regret anything. I’ve made a ton of mistakes, but I can’t remember what they are.
What do you see when you look in the mirror?
[laughs]. I love that question. It depends what I’ve had to drink the night before. Usually I see a very happy person. I’m passionate. I get to do what I love. What do I see physically? That big smile. Not bad, you know?