For the past couple of weeks, I've been marveling over Courtney Cochran's blitz on the wine business -- sommelier, list consultant, author, hostess, teacher, blogger...building the brand everywhere she can. And the more I thought about it, the more her fledgling efforts put me in mind of Anthony Dias Blue, who is easily one of the best-known names in wine writing, thanks in no small part to a 30-year program of multiplatform self-marketing. "I was a speaker at the Wine Writer's Symposium in Napa earlier this year," says Blue. "They had one seminar called 'Can you make a living as a wine writer?' I got up and said, 'No. You can't. Which is why you have to do other things.'"
Blue has always done other things. But unlike, say, Gerald Asher, who began to write about wine out of his experience as a wine importer -- as an outgrowth of his particular expertise -- Blue's approach seems more a narrowing of focus. Of course, he has worked hard to hone his oenophilic skills through "paying attention and enlarging your sensory memory," but his devotion to and interest in the gustatory arts had always been far ranging, inclusive. Talking to him, it sounds almost as though wine is just what happened to work out.
Take, for example, his European wine epiphany. Such stories are common enough among wine aficionados -- though it's hard to imagine many that involve such an early ascent to the heights of sublimity. "I grew up on a farm in Washington State," recalls Blue, "but my father got into an international business, spent a lot of time in Europe, and fell in love with it -- particularly Burgundy. When I was 11, he and my mother took me to France; he wanted to go to the Chevalier de la Tastevin dinner in Beaune, so we stayed there for two or three weeks. I ended up going to taste wine in dingy cellars in Burgundy, and that got me started. I think that in any endeavor, you have to have the best and you have to have the worst if you want to get an idea of the scale. I've read restaurant reviews from places like Oklahoma City that say, 'This is the best restaurant I've ever been to,' and it's some beanery in Oklahoma City. It's because those people have never been out of Oklahoma City. Well, I got out."
The shift to talk of restaurants is telling -- Blue's 11-year-old awakening didn't end in the cellar. "At that time, there were nine Michelin three-star restaurants in France, and I think we went to five of them. The chefs were the guys who taught the guys who are the guys now. I remember the meal at the Hotel de la Côte d'Or. The chef's name was Dumaine; he was considered by most people to be the best chef in France. It was the first time I ever had quenelle, and it was an amazing experience. I remember it as if it were yesterday. I had the famous roasted chicken at L'Auberge du Père Bise on Lake Annecy. They still make it today." Later, a few years buying alcohol for an Amherst frat house -- "mostly bourbon," says Blue -- brought an interest in spirits.
Post-college, Blue tried his hand in both theater and advertising. Writing "was always in the back of my mind, but I had no idea I could ever make a living at it. There weren't many wine writers around -- about the only two I knew were Robert Lawrence Balzer and Frank Prial. But a friend of mine got to be the editor of a controlled-circulation magazine for doctors -- Diversion. It was an interesting juxtaposition -- pictures of great golf courses or restaurants interspersed with pictures of lesions. They made me wine and food editor." That led to restaurant reviews in New York and New Jersey, and that led to Blue's Lifestyle Minute, his daily radio spot on WCBS in New York City. "Except for two weeks after 9/11, I've been on every day since April of '78 -- five original shows a week." (And now that Blue is blogging, the spots often do double duty as blog fodder.)
Nineteen seventy-eight also saw Blue's return to the West Coast, there to take up the position of wine columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. And that's when Blue's entrepreneurial engines started firing in earnest. Then as now, San Francisco was "a very active wine market," and it wasn't long before Blue was hosting a weekly tasting panel for the trade. (He brought the panel to L.A. when he moved south nine years ago, but the S.F. version still operates.) While he was at it, he bought the San Francisco International Wine Competition from the state. "It was part of that weird concept that Willie Brown came up with when he was speaker -- that every county, no matter how urban, should have a county fair. The wine competition was the only part that survived in San Francisco, and it got to the point where the state didn't want to fund it anymore. I took it private, and I was able to get commercial sponsors. We've had growth every year -- last year, we had 4000 entries. And eight years ago, we started a Spirits Competition as an extension; we're up to 700 entries. It's fantastic."
One of those commercial sponsors was Blue's next employer, Bon Appetit. "I started in January of '81 as wine and spirits editor. But I was never on staff. I was always a freelancer, so I was able to write for other publications." The list of those publications is long indeed, but what stands out to me is American Airlines' American Way in-flight magazine. It's hard to imagine a more captive audience for your advice and expertise.
Along the way, Blue also managed to write a smattering of books that reflected his range, among them, Anthony Dias Blue's Pocket Guide to Wine, The Complete Book of Mixed Drinks, and two cookbooks with his wife Kathryn. "A couple are still selling pretty well," he says. "When my mother was around, she always bought a copy."
Oddly enough, while the wine market is as strong as it has ever been in America -- and probably stronger -- the world of wine writing has followed print in general and gone into shrink mode. "At one point, I was syndicated by the Chronicle," says Blue. "And the papers used to pay for it. Then all of a sudden, they were giving it away for free. I think it has definitely put a damper on the wine-journalism field." (Blue does grant that he's seen some good work being done on the wine blogs, however.) And with the death of editor Bill Garry at Bon Appetit, "Things changed -- there was a shift away from wine and spirits."
Eventually, Blue became convinced that it was time to strike out on his own and launch his own magazine. He had already been writing reviews for Patterson's Beverage Journal, a wine and spirits trade journal published in California, Nevada, and Arizona. About a year ago, he partnered with Meridith May, who was already at the magazine, and the two bought the title from the printer. Two artistic overhauls and a rechristening (as Patterson's The Tasting Panel) later, it's beginning to take off. "Our overall goal is to be a national trade publication with a large circulation -- we're at 40,000 now. The printer we bought it from also publishes Variety, and that's kind of my model -- an industry magazine that's of interest to the general public. We're in a glamour industry -- there's interest; people want to get the inside dirt, and we've got that. Plus, we're about people." Plus, Blue gets to write his own review section and a letter from the editor. A recent example made a nuanced case for the elimination (or at least lowering) of corkage fees in restaurants and noted that "the Houston's chain, one of the best run and most profitable of all restaurant groups, lets its customers bring wine and...doesn't add any corkage charge to the bill. This smart operator has discovered that the customer that brings wine usually makes up for it by ordering the most expensive and sophisticated dishes and more of them."