Monday, November 11, 2013

Dr. Oldman on how he saved Wine Spectator

Last month's guest post from Harry Oldman was such a success I've invited him back to share some more thoughts. He thought that with this week's countdown of the Wine Spectator's Top 100 wines of 2013 it would be appropriate to share with us the story of how he saved the publication.

It has been an exhilarating journey to watch the growth of wine criticism in the USofA. I have written about wine for various publications since the mid-1970s; you'll often find my tasting reports and "bully pulpit" editorial comments about wine on the online forums. But back in the day when I wrote on real paper, I was friends with Bob Morrisey (yup, I followed Wine Spectator from the very start). Bob was trying to figure out how make Americans care about wine and how to get them to pay him for caring. He found a young writer with the nose of a cherub and a deft palate. He was in negotiations with this gentleman to start a nationwide retail outlet to be called on  Laube's Hobby Shop. The store was based on the idea of selling wine paraphernalia with strong values, and honoring Bacchus in a manner consistent with capitalistic principles.

Stores were going to be open from 9 am to 8 pm Monday through Saturday. All locations were to be closed on Sunday to honor the founder's weekly hangover following tasting obscene amounts of wine while blindfolded. He didn't want to actually sell wine, because that would be too difficult. I sat down with Bob to explain that selling wine gadgets in stores would be seen as selling out. The only thing worse he could do was to create an accessories catalog. At least people could return their Riedel decanters after Thanksgiving at a brick and mortar store.

But Bob didn't want to hear it. He wanted to videotape his eager prospect gushing about the items he was selling and air the recordings at 2 am on public access television. He was going to call it Wine Laube TV. I again had to tell him that no one would ever watch someone talk about wine and wine accessories. Americans were smart enough to see through the insincere attempts to just sell them junk.

I had to do something drastic, as Bob was going to wreck the very creation he started just a few years prior as an April Fools Day joke. I had to convince him that the only thing that was worth anything to wine drinkers was opinion. He had to sell opinion and opinion on something as subjective as wine. He could make up as much as he wanted and people would have to believe him as long as he called his employees experts. We all know that experts can never be wrong. But Bob was insistent that Americans wanted all sorts of wine charms and colorful corkscrews. Ah, so I thought long and hard about what to do.

I knew of another friend that could have an Impact. I introduced Bob to my friend Marv. Marv knew the damage Bob could do to the wine world with his its straightforward, unpretentious approach, so he made Bob an offer he couldn't refuse. Marv purchased the publication, along with exclusive rights to negotiate with the prospect with a nose of a bloodhound. With plenty of free time on his hands, Bob actually took vocal lessons and started a band a few years later, cleverly adding an "s" to his surname, and dropping his given name, so know one knew his true identity. A few years later after the band fell apart, Bob wrote a hyperbolic song about his regrets of never opening Laube's Hobby Shop titled "Everyday is Like Sunday."

Marv still hired this Laube character just to keep him quite about Bob's plan, but that's how I saved the Wine Spectator (and changed Rock history along the way).

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