At the Cusp

Robert Whitley
  • Robert Whitley

By the time Dan Berger joined the San Diego Union in 1979, he was already doing double-duty as a sportswriter and wine columnist. (Today, after a couple of wine books and a career that has seen his name in Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, and a host of other publications, he publishes Dan Berger’s Vintage Experience, a subscription-based newsletter he produces with his wife, Juliann Savage.) Sports and wine may sound like a slightly oddball combination, but it’s far from an isolated case. Heck, it’s not even an isolated case at the San Diego Union.

Consider Linda Murphy, who worked as a sportswriter and editor at the Union for years before heading up to wine country. There, she found odd jobs in the wine industry, and when she decided she wanted to get back into writing, she turned her pen to her new passion. Freelancing for the wine section at the San Francisco Chronicle led to editing said section, and after a solid run at the paper, she left to become West Coast editor for both Decanter and

Or consider Bruce Schoenfeld, a Harvard-educated sportswriter hired out of Memphis to work at the Union. Eventually, he moved to Cincinnati to cover the Reds and then decamped to Spain to write a book about the rather more ancient sport of bullfighting. Recalls Robert Whitley, who worked as Schoenfeld’s editor, “This was when Spanish wine was at the cusp of its renaissance. And you can’t hardly go to Spain and not drink wine.” Today, he’s the wine and spirits editor at Travel + Leisure.

And of course, there’s Whitley himself, whose wine column — syndicated nationally by Copley News Service — runs in the Union-Tribune and who spent nine years as a sports editor at the Union before the merger in ’91. For him, the connection between sports and wine is no coincidence; covering the one pretty much required knowing the other. “I was 20 years old, covering the New York Knicks for New York Newsday in the early ’70s. We had Bill Bradley on that team, and Dave Dubocher, Willis Reed, Walt Frazier — and Phil Jackson. It was pretty amazing. Newsday was the type of newspaper that expected you to cultivate sources. We had a very generous expense account, and we took sources out to lunch, out to dinner. When you’re the guy inviting somebody out to dinner for a meeting and you’re picking up the tab, you’re the person who gets handed the wine list. I knew squat about wine, so I started going to wine shops and asking questions. Back then, a lot of the shops would have bottles open — you could taste things and ask about them.” Job-related research gave way to affinity, and affinity gave way to a full-blown collection.

So when Dan Berger left the Union in the early ’80s, “Maureen Clancy, who was the food editor, asked me if I was interested in writing the wine column. I declined, because I was grounded in European wines, and I thought if you were going to write about wine for a California newspaper, you should really be grounded in California wines. It was only after the merger years later” — when Whitley was working for Copley in Los Angeles — “that I went back and said, ‘If you’re still interested, I feel confident now.’ My palate is not as extremely tilted toward European-style, earthy, mineral-driven wines as it once was. The desire for that type of wine is still there, but I try to be ecumenical. A wine may not be my favorite style, but if it’s a legitimate style and it’s well made in that style, then I try to give it its due.”

After leaving the Union, Whitley began to focus more and more on wine — since ’97, he has written about nothing else. In 1994, he founded the Monterey Wine Competition. Five years ago, he took over the San Diego International Wine Competition. And four years ago, he had the bright idea of a wine competition in which all the judges were professionals in the wine world. People like Mary Ewing-Mulligan, MW. Like Paul Lukacs, Elin McCoy, Leslie Sbrocco. “I had enough good friends with whom I had tasted over the years — people in whom I had a high level of confidence as far as their ability to reason through a wine. I knew that, even if they didn’t all agree, they would all have sound logic behind their opinions.” So was born the Critic’s Challenge.

And it was at the Critic’s Challenge that Whitley hit upon the idea for “I was looking around the room at all of these great wine journalists” — people who wrote for the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Forbes, Wine & Spirits, Decanter, etc. — “and I thought to myself, ‘What if I could have all of these people in one place, on a website?’ You wouldn’t want to do a publication — who has the money to do a four-color slick and compete with Wine Spectator? If people sink all their resources into the product — the paper, the color, that sort of thing — then they have less they can use to go head-to-head with the Spectator in terms of hiring top talent. But, I thought, with a website, you could actually do this.”

He found a dozen or so colleagues who were game and found a couple of partners in wine-writers Michael Franz and Michael Apstein. The site just turned two and a half. “Over the last year, we averaged 78,000 visitors a month, and we did 85,000 in November. In December, I expect we’ll break 100,000. You always get a flood of new people who find you around the holidays, and they stay with you.” They come, in part, because of the name. “If you Google ‘wine review’ or ‘wine reviews,’ we’re the number-one result. We get a tremendous amount of traffic from that. Same with Yahoo. People are looking for ideas around the holidays, and they do a search.” They stay for the stars. “We have name recognition. These are people who are established. They’re well known for writing books, writing for major publications.” And there’s a reason they’re well known — as I write this, Patrick Comiskey has a clear-eyed and engaging story posted on the site about Jess Jackson, a man who has “transformed the industry at least twice and in the last ten years has emerged as one of California’s most envied property owners, one of its most dedicated stewards, and by far one of its richest men.”

Besides the articles and columns, the site offers regular features: “Wine With…,” “In the Kitchen,” “On My Table,” “Today’s Featured Wine”…and reviews. “I’m guessing we have about 5000 in the database, and you can search them. It’s pretty cool.” And because it’s all digital, the database has a certain…mobility. Says Whitley, “We just partnered up with a company called Decidero that has created a proprietary technology to deliver wine reviews by text message to mobile phones and PDAs. It’s nice if you’re in a shop, or even in a restaurant.” Type in your wine, and bam — rating, reviewer, price, and critique. “It’s just a regular text-message fee. I think it’s pretty cool. It gives us more exposure, gets us out there.”

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