Friday, February 19, 2021

My Life in Wine Episode 11

"The traveled mind is the catholic mind educated from exclusiveness and egotism." Amos Alcott, American teacher and philosopher


In Episode 10, my Copy Editor and I had returned from a wine-trip to Europe and found a job offer waiting for me with the Wine Spectator under its new ownership.   Here was an opportunity to build on my experience in wine journalism and be a part of America's newest wine publication.  So, I packed my bags and headed for Southern California.

Driving from Aurora, Colorado to La Jolla, California in a '72 VW Beetle packed to the headliner with suitcases and boxes of wine is an experience I'm happy I only had to have once. VW Beetles are short-haul cars and not meant for long runs through near-desert conditions in southern Utah.

                             Image result for free photos of 1972 vw beetle

In his on-the-road journal, "Blue Highways," William Least Heat-Moon, described his journey across the country, traveling only on those secondary roads shown on maps in blue. Hoping to break the boredom of the Interstate, I got off onto a blue highway now and then and found it relaxing and scenic.

After a long second day on the road, the descent from the high desert of southern Nevada into cool foggy La Jolla and the welcoming Morrissey town home, was a welcome relief.  Bob and Mary Jane had dinner, a couple of glasses of wine and a quest bedroom waiting for me. 

The following morning was the first of many eventful days I would spend over the next three-and-one-half years, as Managing Editor and later Editor of the Wine Spectator. 

Throughout his years as a Marine journalist, Bob Morrissey had cultivated a taste for wine and once retired from the Corps, he and Mary Jane settled in La Jolla and Bob began the search for his next career.  

At the time there was only a handful of wine magazines, like "Wine World," "Decanter" and "Vintage," but none of them addressed wine news and current events. So, Bob had the idea for a biweekly tabloid wine newspaper, a format he knew from working on military newspapers.   

After my hiring, the Wine Spectator staff grew to three: Bob, me and Mary Jane handling administration.  My newspaper experience had mainly been as a writer, and my last editorial duties was with an Air Force base newspaper in South Carolina, years ago. 

Image result for free photos of military tabloid newspapers
Stars and Stripes: The tabloid for all U.S. military services

For the first few months, the learning curve at the Wine Spectator was quite steep for me.  I had to become familiar with the "Bob Morrissey version of tabloid journalism," which included, counting headlines so that each one told the story of the associated article, while fitting perfectly into the allotted space on the page.  Often we would write, count, then rewrite and count again until the headline fit. 

Today, of course, you write the headline, type it in and the computer fits the headline to the space. 

Meanwhile, I slowly began learning the particulars of the sale agreement between Bob and Marvin that would affect my future with the Wine Spectator.  The agreement stipulated that once the sale was final, Bob would stay on for a while, then turn the editorship over to me.  It was also a surprise to learn that Marvin's aim was to move the newspaper from San Diego.   

For a former New York investment banker, San Diego was not the best location for a wine publication.  Marvin was a firm believer in location, location, location, even having the "correct" zip code. There was some talk about consolidating the offices in New York and San Diego, to a central spot like Chicago.

In some ways, those were odd times for me, and by extension, the expanding  business.  When Marvin was in New York, managing the growing list of wine and spirits publications in M. Shanken Communications, Inc., the day-to-day of preparing the Wine Spectator for the next issue, writing articles and dealing with contributing writers was mostly uneventful. 

On those occasions when Marvin came to San Diego to see first hand how the newspaper was growing, the atmosphere in the office was often a little tense, especially for me as I was in the middle between Bob and Marvin without really understanding where the newspaper was going in the future. 

It was difficult for Bob.  He was an old-school guy and selling the newspaper, while economically necessary, was still painful.  It was hard for him to let go and that meant not coming to the office at times. 

One of the main changes was hiring more editorial members.  First to come on board were James Suckling and Greg Walter.  Both stayed with the Wine Spectator after I left, but eventually, they too also departed.  Walter started a newsletter focusing on Pinot Noir and Suckling became an international wine critic.  James Laube was hired later, after the Wine Spectator moved to San Francisco.  He remains with the magazine.

Image result for free photos of San Francisco
View from Marin Headlands through the Golden Gate

After about six months, Bob stepped aside and we were forced to move the newspaper offices to another location in San Diego.  Marvin had always believed that the Wine Spectator's editorial offices belonged in the Napa Valley.  At the time, there was no property in the valley that he could afford or that would house the growing staff, so he worked a deal with the Pacific Union real estate company for office space in the newly opened Opera Plaza, in the heart of the arts district in San Francisco. 

In Episode 12, the Wine Spectator enters a new era and the beginning of editorial disagreements between Marvin and me.  The period also saw the introduction of the first "Wine Experience," held in New York at Windows on the World.


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