Wednesday, December 30, 2020

I am so proud of my worst 2020 stories about wine

I am immensely proud of the weakest stories I wrote in 2020. I was off my game for about half the year, and nobody told me they noticed.

People have noticed that I haven't been blogging, though, so here's why.

2020 was a difficult year for many people so I'm not special. I did not get Covid-19, fortunately, but I did have an abscess in my intestine that required two 8-day hospital stays and a very scary and painful (but fortunately successful) surgery. Before that I spent 3 months with an open wound in my side and a rubber hose coming out of that hole that I was constantly afraid of catching on a doorknob, necessitating another emergency-room visit. I couldn't shower, bend forward, lift anything, twist in any direction, or sleep more than a few hours at a time. I couldn't fully dress myself. Because of the infection risk I didn't leave the house except to go to the hospital. What I could do, fortunately, was talk on the phone or Zoom and write. And nobody noticed!

 I did, though. I was supposed to avoid stress so I spent the summer looking for softball stories that wouldn't upset anybody, especially me. (This worked until wine country caught fire, again.) I also did some work while on opioids -- if you find a typo, I blame the drugs -- and almost all of my work on short sleep.

Add it all together and this should have been my worst year professionally. But it wasn't, thanks to great support from Wine Searcher, where I am US editor. (Also a shout out to Wine Business Monthly, where I am a contributor: if you are a winemaker and want to know more about barrels click here.)

I look at the stories I did in my worst periods this year, and I know what I went through to do them. Again, I'm not special: everyone had challenges in 2020. One good point about journalism is that you can work despite physical challenges. I am fortunate that my own was temporary.

I'm not going to link to those stories, though. Instead, I'd like to share what I think are the best stories I did this year for Wine Searcher. A lot of my readers know me only through this blog, so these may be new for you. Many of them came before the morning my doctor called me and said, "Go to the emergency room right now," and some came after I was finally off the no-vegetables, no-fruit diet (the only perk of intestinal surgery is the 5-year-old boy's dream diet afterward. Burgers: fine. Chocolate mocha cake: great. Spinach and broccoli: NOT OK.).

My Best Wine Searcher Stories of 2020

The Editor and the Wine Competition: As long as I'm admitting I wasn't up to snuff at journalism for a  chunk of the year, I might as well admit I also failed at managing a wine competition panel. This is nostalgic for me because the meal I describe in Paris was the last meal I had in a restaurant, and ordering the Grand Marnier soufflĂ© did turn out to be the best decision I made in 2020.

Napa's Nights of Fire on the Mountain: I really can't take credit for this. Stu Smith's first-person account of fighting fires surrounding his winery is harrowing but like my own tale, has a happy ending.

Get Well Soon, Napa Valley: This was the first story I did post-surgery, which means it was the first story I did post-hose. (I call 2020 My Summer of Hose.) It's hard for me to have perspective on it because just getting in the car and going to Napa Valley after being confined to a bed or reclining chair for months was such a powerful emotional experience. But other people seemed to like it.

Crop Insurance Fears for Smoke-hit Vineyards: I was pretty sick when I wrote this and the writing isn't good. But this may be the most important story I wrote in 2020. There was a loophole that might have prevented grapegrowers from getting payment from their crop insurance. I pursued it, wrote about it, and then the federal Risk Management Agency closed that loophole. I got into journalism to do good but usually I bloviate about Grenache instead. This was satisfying.

Time for the U.S. to Follow the E.U.: U.S. wineries are hurting themselves with millennials by refusing to list ingredients. I've ranted about this before, but this time I found a good way to frame it.

The Wine Intelligentsia: Almost Always Wrong: This was the last rant I wrote in 2020 (don't worry, I plan to rant again in 2021). Readers often complain about clickbait but the fact is rants always get more clicks than news articles, and not just from me: the New York Times says its opinion columns are more popular than its news sections.

"Nobody Knows Anything About What Sells Wine"
: Another one I can't really take credit for. If you want a good story, just interview somebody who is a better writer than yourself. Randall Grahm is not only that, he's also refreshingly candid, even in what was a personally depressing time for him.

Gallo's Golden Quest to Conquer Cognac
: This just ran a few days ago. I think I'm the first person to report on Gallo's quest. After years of treating me with suspicion, Gallo opened up to me this year, and not just for this story: check out Four Gallo Employees Talk About Racism and Progress in the Wine Industry. I still hope to get a one-on-one interview with Gina Gallo some day. It's good to have goals.

Silver Oak Toppled at Premiere Napa Auction: In February I thought I was a badass journalist because I flew back home from Italy and drove right up to St. Helena to do this story. The hardship! What it doesn't say is that Napa Valley Vintners intentionally made it more difficult this year to report on this auction, taking down the board they used to have that posted all of the prices. You won't see these numbers in any other story on the event; NVV won't confirm or deny anything but the total take. I'm the only journalist who calculates the average bottle price. Yes, I'm proud of it. Premiere Napa is wine news and should be covered as such.

Finding Love Among the Grapevines: I'm a sucker for a love story. Who isn't?

California's Other Cabernet Strikes a Claim
: Same here. This started as a feature on Napa Valley Cabernet Franc specialist Lang & Reed but it turns out that there's a love story behind both varietals they make.

Napa's Own Game of Thrones Story: I'll be honest, I wrote this whole story for you, the reader, except the last line, which I wrote for the story's subject. And I feel great about that.

Landfill Woes Napa's Latest Concern: Leaving romance for the dump, this is a story where I piggybacked off of the Napa Register's reporting, but it's significant for me because it was the first post-surgery story where I started feeling a little feisty. And it is a helluva story. Radioactive waste in Napa Valley? Yikes.

Head for the Mountains: Busch Now Making Wine: "It turns out the Busches are the perfect combination: A guy who loves farming and a strong-willed woman who wants balanced wine, profits be damned." Plus I got to feed carrots to Clydesdales.

Sangiovese's Daddy Makes a Comeback: I love doing stories of indigenous grapes making a comeback, and this one inspired me to look up the fathers of famous Italians. Did you know what Christopher Columbus' father did? Now you will.

Paris Judgment Vineyard Steps into the Light
: I wrote this just before surgery and if this had been the last story I ever had published, I would be OK with it. This one includes the metastory of reporting it (I'm still grateful to Violet and Mike Grgich for getting back to me so quickly, as my surgery was looming) plus an anecdote about Leslie Rudd that I had been saving for years. It felt pretty final to finally use it. Also, the Bacigalupi Chardonnay that the story is about is the last wine I had before having to go off alcohol pre-surgery, and if it had been the last wine I ever had in my life, I would have been OK with that too.

Luckily, though, I had a great outcome, and I look forward to bringing you more stories in 2021. I also look forward to drinking every great wine I can get my hands on.

Two things a health scare will do for you: make you appreciate what you have. And make you realize that your time is finite.

We're in a pandemic. Wear a mask, wash your hands, keep your distance. And drink your best wines now, because, to quote the musical Rent, there is No Day But Today.

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