Dan Berger, Writer, pt 1

Ξ March 27th, 2009 | → 6 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Technology, Wine History, Winemakers, Wineries |

Dan Berger is a man of reasoned, forceful ideas. He has great real-world experience, is well-traveled, he knows the joys of fatherhood. In other words, he is an adult. It may seem a strange thing to say but in a world of heated self-promotion, shifting commercial ambitions and the preoccupation with novelty, an adult voice is a rarity. His writing is possessed of a firm self-understanding. He builds trust with the reader through the rigor, the thoroughness of his research. Indeed, when he publishes an article you can be sure it contains fresh material with well-supported ideas. He has written widely of the subject of wine, most recently with the excellent Appellation America, often taking up a topic before anybody else has grasped its relevance and importance. He takes the long view with style and humor.
One of my favorite wine writers, I was delighted he agreed without hesitation to an interview. His mind is agile, polished by years of first-rate professional work. Yet he remains modest, as you will read over the course of this two-part interview. Enjoy.
Admin Thank you for agreeing to an interview. Could you tell us a little of your educational history and how it is you came to writing about wine?
Dan Berger You may be bored with the educational history (laughs) but… I was a mathematics major at UCLA briefly, switched to journalism and got my degree at Cal State, Los Angeles in journalism in 1967 and joined, about three weeks later, the Associated Press (AP) as a general assignment reporter. Then in 1968 I began specializing in covering Track and Field. And I was a Sports reporter and Track and Field writer, as well as a feature writer for the AP for 10 years.
In 1976 I went to UC Davis and got a short-course degree in Enology. And that was because of my over-weening interest in wine. In 1976 I covered the Olympic Track and Field trials for the US Team in Eugene, Oregon. During that period there was 10 days of Track and Field competition spanning 11 days. There was a day off in between. And so I took the extra day and drove into the Oregon wine country. In 1976 I did the very first wine article I ever wrote. It was about the emerging Oregon wine country and how important Pinot Noir would be in that State.
Did you encounter David Lett?
DB I interviewed David Lett, I interviewed Dick Erath at Erath’s Vineyards and tasted through some of the wines there. There were no more than ten wineries in the State at that time. What was curious about it was that I was covering the Olympic Track and Field trials. We [the AP] had a dedicated, closed circuit teletype to our New York office from the Stadium and so every time an event would take place I would write a little story, and it would go across the circuit to New York. New York would then transmit it to the teletype machines around the world. During my day after the break I had some time during the competition to write my wine story and I transmitted that across the closed circuit to New York. Weeks later, as we were assessing the quality and the quantity of AP’s coverage of that Olympic’s trials competition, the one thing that we noted was that there was more usage of the wine story than any of the Track stuff.
So wine is obviously of interest to people around the world. In fact, the story was translated into a number of languages. I saw copies of the story in Swedish, in Dutch and others. So once I got the idea that I could actually write about wine and have it read and reproduced that was really the beginning of my wine writing. I began writing about wine on a regular basis. It was shortly after that that I took the UC Davis short-course in Enology. And things developed from there.
Was the pay scale different? Could you realize a greater benefit from writing about wine?
DB You could say that for my first wine column I got paid $10. It was written for the Palos Verdes Post in 1976. It was a feature story on Silver Oaks Cellars. It was the first story announcing Silver Oaks’ existence. I had interviewed Justin Meyer at Franciscan simply to do a story on the Franciscan brand. He revealed to me that they were going to up a thing called Silver Oak which was going to be dedicated only to Cabernet Sauvignon. To answer your question, there was never any money in wine writing. It was a matter of my love for it. Period! (laughs)
So you were a wine drinker…
DB I’ve been drinking wine since, oh my gosh, since probably the early sixties. But for a long time it was essentially jugs with screw caps. I was big Hearty Burgundy drinker, the Gallo Hearty Burgundy. I never really got into the Lancer’s Rosé and things like that. That was more for people who like pop wines. The only concern I ever had about getting into wine at the very beginning was the fact that it was such a daunting subject. When you’re drinking Gallo Hearty Burgundy….
Well, when I was just beginning my wine writing career I was invited to a tasting of Burgundies, of actual French Burgundies, at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles. I was waaay out of my league. There were professionals there, sommeliers, wineshop owners, I mean it was quite a crowd. But one thing that really became evident was that I could taste. I was tasting a Beaune, I’ll never forget it, this would have been 1977, probably early ‘77, so we were tasting the ‘75 red Burgundies and I was standing there smelling this one wine. I had consumed Burgundy in the past and, obviously, I’d known quite a bit about Burgundies since the late ’60s but never professionally. I really felt I was out of my league until I was standing in a group of three gentlemen. And one of them said, “Well, this stuff is just wretched!” And I said, “No, there’s something really interesting about it; there’s a subtle aromatic here that I really like”. And the guy to my right said, “You’re absolutely right! It’s not a wine for every one but it really has some interesting flavors.” And then he departed. The guy who was left with me said, “Well, he’s the sommelier from the Beverly Hills Hotel”.
So I thought to myself well, hell, if I could do that I must have something in my nose! (laughs)
It was fun to be able to learn wine in the 70’s sort of on the fly. I was learning alot about wine in the early 70’s, well before everybody was writing about wine, but alot of it was just simply taking classes at UCLA Extension, taking classes at Lawry’s California Center in downtown Los Angeles, and then visiting wine country. A friend of mine and I visited wine country three times in ‘76. I was living in Los Angeles at the time. I eventually moved to San Diego but was still visiting wine country alot.
Have you ever made your own wine?
DB Yeah. I made Cabernet Sauvignon with a friend in the Napa Valley between 1986 and 1993. Essentially the project was for our children. His kids and my kids were all of appropriate ages and we wanted to get them involved in ‘hands-on’ winemaking project. So we arranged for some fruit to be harvested. We went out to the vineyard, we got there really early in the morning, we had a nice hearty breakfast, got out there by 8 a.m. and started harvesting. We picked into bins, we borrowed a truck to take the grapes to a central point where we used a home-sized crusher and then stomped them.
We had bought a 30 gallon barrel, a new French oak barrel. We actually had more than 30 gallons of wine that we filled carboys with. We aged the wine for 2 years in the barrel using the wine in the carboys to top off. Then we had a bottling day. All the kids showed up. Somebody would do labels, somebody else would sparge the bottles with Nitrogen…. And that project lasted for a number of years. We still have some of the wine. The ‘86 and the ‘90 are incredible! The ‘88 and ‘89 are pretty good. My favorite stories about this relate to how the kids reacted.
The project was a lot of fun but it was finally abandoned because the kids got older and decided they weren’t interested in harvesting, they didn’t want to be free labor anymore! (laughs)
For a couple of years the wine was submitted to the Home Winemaking Competition at the California State Fair and received Gold Medals both times. It was pretty good wine. It was very high quality fruit, that was a help. I would do it again if I could involve people in it who showed an interest in the process. I’ve done it before. I’ve toyed with the idea of making wine commercially, and I know that I can make a wine that would suit me; whether I would be excited about trying to sell it is another story.
And the alcohol level?
DB 12.5% to 12.9% in every case. We picked early; most of our harvest dates were between September 10th and September 15th. One year, it might have been ‘92, we picked September 20th. But basically we shot for an earlier date. We were looking for pH levels in the 3.4 range because if you get pHs a little too high then the wine isn’t protected against bacteriological spoilage.
But you also get a softer style that is very popular these days.
DB It depends. Popularity is one thing, success another. Some people define success by how much money you make or how fast something sells. I define success to be a function of how the wine reflects its terroir. To me, if a wine doesn’t reflect its terroir it is a failure.
There are plenty of wines out there that are selling like hotcakes at very high prices. I would consider them a failure. I do. They are failures. But if they’re selling then the people who are buying them are fools.
The question of terroir is a difficult one, though I am in agreement with you. There is a great deal of commercial resistance and public skepticism.
DB Look, a famous wine writer once said, ‘Terroir is an excuse for making bad wine’. And that is ridiculous! Terroir is not any excuse. Terroir is a concept, it is a character, it is a function of the soil and the climate, and it has nothing whatever to do with excessive late harvesting. The later you harvest the less terroir becomes evident in the wine. If that’s what you want, go for it. Be my guest. Make a wine that has no terroir character whatsoever. I don’t believe in a wine that has 15.5 to 16.5 percent alcohol is necessarily going to show very much in the way of terroir. I believe you get terroir at moderate alcohols.
I think the greatest wines in the world are balanced wines. When you get wines that have balance, then you have the possibility of sensing a terroir characteristic. Just imagine what it would be like if all New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc were picked at 28 Brix? You would end up with an absolute mess, assuming you could ever get that kind of sugar in New Zealand. Just imagine what would happen if you put Sancerre into French oak barrels for two years… you see my point.
Terroir is something that a winemaker either respects or tries to avoid. And I’ll give you one good example: If you put a vineyard designate on your wine and you’ve got 16% alcohol, you owe the consumer an explanation. To me 16% alcohol is not table wine; it is dessert wine.
Very true. And 16% is not at all uncommon. I saw a Syrah from Paso Robles the other day for sale at a big box store that had 17.5%!
DB It’s a machismo exercise, isn’t it?
Every bottle had been individually signed….
DB Well, maybe I should individually sign my columns. (laughs)
And I believe they got a very high Parker score. So there you go.
DB As I always say to people who get high Parker scores, Good luck! (laughs)
I think you could make a very strong argument that the structure of a wine is a overlooked concept. Structure is not something Mr. Parker ever really worried about. He worries about what is hedonistic. He likes to taste what he thinks is juicy and tasty, you’ve heard the phrase ‘fruit bomb’. And that’s fine. If that’s what he likes, that’s what he likes. I don’t. I think there’s room in the world for differences of opinion.
End of Part One


6 Responses to ' Dan Berger, Writer, pt 1 '

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  1. Mike Pollard said,

    on March 27th, 2009 at 10:47 am

    For me there are two quotes that sum up Dan Berger’s view of wine.
    “I really felt I was out of my league until I was standing in a group of three gentlemen. And one of them said, “Well, this stuff is just wretched!” And I said, “No, there’s something really interesting about it; there’s a subtle aromatic here that I really like”. And the guy to my right said, “You’re absolutely right! It’s not a wine for every one but it really has some interesting flavors.””
    “There are plenty of wines out there that are selling like hotcakes at very high prices. I would consider them a failure. I do. They are failures. But if they’re selling then the people who are buying them are fools.”

    You simply can’t have it both ways, but that never seems to stop Dan Berger.

  2. Administrator said,

    on March 27th, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    Mr.Pollard, thank you for the comment. I suggest a closer read of Dan Berger’s two remarks: His first was from the late 70’s and was about a novice wine writer tasting French Burgundies alongside experts. He realized he might have the olfactory talents to properly assess wines. (And it doesn’t hurt that Burgundy is perhaps the richest area in France for terroir wines!)
    His second remark, made over 30 years of experience later, speaks to a very different wine world where a high price has no necessary relation to either terroir or structure. I don’t believe Mr.Parker himself would disagree with that observation.

  3. Mike Pollard said,

    on March 27th, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    Hmm, my interpretation is very different. In the first quote Dan Berger is justifying his palate based on the comments of one individual who states “You’re absolutely right! It’s not a wine for every one but it really has some interesting flavors.” (i.e positive assessment of this wine, like all wine, is based on individual taste). Whereas in the second quote Berger ridicules all those buying a particular wine, which does not suit his palate, as fools. It may well be appropriate to add that with these events being separated by 30 years that Berger does not seem to have learned all that much!

  4. Administrator said,

    on March 27th, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    Mike, though I cannot speak for Mr. Berger, it seems clear he is not ridiculing all those buying a ‘particular wine’. He is, rather, ridiculing the naive association of a high price with quality for wines in general. It is the role of the critic to comment on terroir, structure, balance, value etc., after all.
    I would encourage you to check back here early next week for part 2 of the interview. He talks about a wide variety of subjects, adds detail and greatly expands on some of the topics touched on here.
    Thanks, again, for writing.

  5. on March 31st, 2009 at 6:43 am

    Dan Berger is a great wine writer and has been for a long time. He’s one of the pillars of the wine community in California. Thanks for an in-depth interview!

  6. mark bunter said,

    on April 6th, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    What Steve said. In bold, italics, underlined. Yes, Dan ventures his opinions. No, everyone will not agree. His opinions are always reasoned and the product of years of thoughtful and extensive experience. He’s one of the few extant greats of winewriting. Mike Pollard, sorry Dan got under your skin. I don’t think you’re stupid for liking high alcohol wine, if you do, and I’ll bet neither does Dan. He was making a general point, not a personal attack. I see your point, it’s about the logical contradiction between Dan’s two statements. Yes, but we all contradict ourselves, don’t we? Yes, we could all be more diplomatic. Even you. Peace, have a glass of wine and relax.

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