The curious case of sports writers who switch to wine

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The San Diego Union of the 1980s dispatched a team of journalists including Dan Berger, Robert Whitley, Bruce Schoenfeld, and Linda Murphy to bring readers the plays and personalities of sports.

Today, the four former sports-desk colleagues are among the most respected wine writers in the world, their works appearing in prestigious wine-centric magazines Decanter and Wine Spectator as well as The New York Times Magazine and books such as American Wine.

They are not alone: A bevy of esteemed wine wordsmiths launched their careers as sports scribes–enough to wonder whether there’s something in the water coolers (perhaps wine coolers?) at newspaper sports departments. CJR found and interviewed 10 writers who made the transition from games to grapes to find out why.

The general consensus: It’s the storytelling, stupid. Both the style and the substance. Each topic begs for savvy but conversational prose. “Sportswriting is one of the freest forms of writing in journalism,” Whitley says. “Editors will give you a little more license to be descriptive, and to ascribe a point of view to a story. You’re trying to create a narrative, and that ties in beautifully with wine writing.”

Then there is the fervor factor–the ardor and appreciation for a taste of the good life. “Sportswriters have a little more fun,” says Harvey Steiman of Wine Spectator. “And so do wine writers. You’re in a milieu that’s very positive.”

In both worlds, Alan Goldfarb says, there’s a variation of the old “those who can’t do, teach” aphorism. “I’m a hedonist and an observer and not a participant. I’m not an athlete, and I’m not going be a winemaker, so writing about it is natural.”

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For Goldfarb and the others, both acts in this migration are passion plays. Whitley was a wine enthusiast long before he became a wine writer. Back in the early 1970s, when sportswriters often had lavish expenses accounts, he got hooked on French wines while dining out with athletes and coaches. Wine writing wasn’t much of a vocation at the time, and he stuck with sports until 1991 (he now writes a weekly wine column for Creators Syndicate), along the way sharing his ardor–and his vino–with colleagues.

You don’t root for the team. You root for the game. You root for the story. It’s similar in wine.”

 

Schoenfeld, Travel & Leisure’s wine and spirits editor and a prolific freelancer, points out that “sportswriters are very unlike the [slovenly] stereotype. Of all journalists, they travel the most, they see the world, their orientation is international. They also have a lot of down time for meals. So you have to be remarkably uncurious to not explore [food and wine].”

Whether or not they’re delving into the world of fermented grape juice, sports journalists are honing important skills and mindsets. Foremost among them: infusing their writing with zeal for the topic, plus perspective and personality. Being subjective is not a sin (or, uh, zin) in either field.

Guess where else those attributes are important?

Berger, longtime wine columnist for the Los Angeles Times, says that since “neither topic is life-and-death, they tend to be rather fluid writing styles, with an informal relationship to readers. A lot of it is quite personal.” His friend Murphy agrees: “In sports you can add some flair to your writing, and you have to do that with wine writing or you’ll bore people to tears.”

It’s about more than just having a nose for news and for wine. Sportswriters also must assess the whys and wherefores of the games they cover, an evaluative process that Steiman calls “separating quality.”

“You have to be able to say how this team or this player did well; not just what happened but why it happened,” says Steiman, editor at large for Wine Spectator. “It’s one thing to say ‘this is a good wine,’ but you need to tell the reader why it is, how did it get there.”

Other fruitful lessons these journalists glean along the way, according to Whitley, include “to not be a cheerleader or in awe of the people you’re covering” and “to never be afraid to ask the dumb question because sometimes that gives you the best answer.”

Beauty and truth

There’s also the sensuous aspect, and no, we’re not talking about sex but rather something more platonic, what W. Blake Gray calls “an aesthetic similarity. Good sportswriters find well-played games beautiful,” he adds. “They’re enthusiastic, and they share it. Same with wine writers.”

Goldfarb, who pulls off the delicate balancing act of being a wine journalist and publicist, learned that aesthetic early on. “You don’t root for the team,” he says. “You root for the game. You root for the story. It’s similar in wine, like this particular winemaker gives good quote.”

The people part is essential, Gray says. Finding the best angle for a story often means finding the right subjects.

“Sportswriters who have a column have to make a quick decision on what makes an interesting story, and those are usually people stories,” says Gray, who counts being Wine-Searcher.com’s California editor among his many freelance gigs. “You don’t bury readers in numbers: you find the personalities who make the games interesting.”

 

Not that numbers don’t matter. Most wine writers actually are not fond of the pervasive 100-point rating system, but many are as fascinated with wine data as they had been with batting averages or completion percentages.

Murphy, editor of Sonoma Magazine and co-author of the encyclopedic book American Wine, cites alcohol percentages and acidity levels as stats that can be worked into articles, perhaps not cited but implied: “We’re good with numbers, and we know how to translate that to readers.”

Berger says that a few years ago, he realized another way the two coverage areas coalesce. Turns out that major sports and its teams also have vintages.

“Every year is a cycle of situations,” he says. “Each vintage is different, and each sports team is a little different. And in that context each year has a tone, a style, a sense of purpose. In both, you’ve got a beginning, a middle and an end. And after the end [of a season or vintage], some incredibly important stuff is going on.”

Variations on a theme

Perhaps the biggest divergence between the two domains is that sports fans often already know the outcome of an event they’re reading about, whereas “in wine, you have to create the result,” Steiman says.

On top of that, sports readers tend to know a great deal about the teams and the leagues. In wine, not so much.

“Wine is the most intimidating of topics, in that people are insecure about their tasting skills,” says James Laube, Wine Spectator’s premier California correspondent and reviewer, adding that a wine writer’s task is “breaking down those fears, the intimidation factor, reducing the story to something people can understand.”

Schoenfeld, whose work for major wine, sports, and travel publications have the depth and breadth of a well-aged Bordeaux, sees another important disparity. “Wine is great, but there’s no inherent natural tension, so you have to create that,” he says. “But the tension in sports is inherent: For every winner, there’s a loser.

 

“But the good news is that [wine people] always want to see you, and they feed you well. Sports is the opposite. Athletes don’t want to talk to you.”

To be sure, Goldfarb says, “you’re not as close to the athlete as you are to the wine.” Also, he quips, “winemakers tend to be smarter than athletes.”

Exacerbating that are the massive influxes of money and TV coverage in sports. “But in wine journalism … the power dynamic is different,” Gray says. “You don’t have the adversarial relationship that sometimes develops with players or coaches because you’re not dependent on any one team. And the conversations themselves are often a joy. Winemakers are both scientists and craftsmen. They’re educated, curious people.”

I’ve been spit on and pushed around by athletes, but the wine industry is mostly about hospitality.”

 

That’s a lesson Murphy has learned firsthand, in her journey from pioneering sportswriter–she was the second woman to enter a pro sports locker room (in 1979 with the San Diego Padres)–to her current work as a book author and magazine editor.

Like many peers, she found a decidedly more welcoming world in her current vocation.

“The wine industry has nicer people,” Murphy says. “I’ve been spit on and pushed around by athletes, but the wine industry is mostly about hospitality. … I can’t remember a single time in the wine business where I felt any discrimination or awareness that I was a woman.”

Giving wine a sporting chance

These metamorphoses, by the way, are almost entirely a Left Coast deal. “I quickly learned when I came to San Francisco in 1973 that the No. 1 sport was wine and food, so I crossed over,”  Goldfarb says.

The progressions have not always been so abrupt. Steiman worked as a food writer and editor in between his sports and wine careers. Lewis Perdue, editor/publisher of Wine Industry Insight, spent time as a UCLA journalism professor. Berger was a business columnist. Gray lived in Japan for six years, writing about food and sake.

Murphy’s might have been the most natural, and perhaps lengthiest, evolution.

After 13 years as a sportswriter in San Diego, she had grown weary of missing Christmas and weddings and such. She also had discovered wine’s wonders while tasting with workmates Whitley and Berger (outside the newsroom). “I finally thought, ‘ya know, there’s something to this.’ I had been to Sonoma and it flashed like a big neon sign, so I moved to Healdsburg [Calif.] in 1990.”

“Each vintage is different, and each sports team is a little different. And in that context each year has a tone, a style, a sense of purpose.”

 

Berger already had relocated to Sonoma, and he started giving Murphy leftover wine samples. Then he took her to an auction, where she experienced an aha wine moment.

“I was enamored not so much with the wine but with the people,” she says. “There were all these people telling great stories with great food. So I said, ‘I need to get into this.’ ”

With her newfound penchant for pinot noir and the folks who produced it, Murphy spent a year working at a winery and went into wine-themed media relations before returning to journalism. “I joke that I upgraded my drinking habits,” she says, “but I really upgraded the people I hang around with. And the food is better; I remember those press-box hot dogs [laughs].”

Others, such as Schoenfeld and the Houston Chronicle’s Dale Robertson, still encounter those wieners, covering both sports and wine, as the likes of Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman and San Francisco columnist Art Spander did before them.

Schoenfeld relishes both realms, but he doesn’t miss his days as a full-time sports scribe.

“It’s not that you outgrow sports,” he says. “You outgrow thinking only about sports, and wine is a nice civilizing next step.”

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Bill Ward is a Minnesota-based wine, food and travel writer and blogger. He won a James Beard Award in 2004 for a series on Italian regional cuisine.