A Life in Wine: A Discussion with John Gilman
John Gilman, whose articles appear regularly in The Viking Life, is one of our country’s most influential wine commentators, particularly among serious enthusiasts and collectors who subscribe to his bi-monthly periodical, “View from the Cellar.” However, despite his reputation as a connoisseur of the rarefied sphere of the world’s greatest wines, John’s interest lies equally with teaching the glories of more pedestrian wines to anyone seeking a deeper and richer culinary life. The story of John’s wine journey is instructive, especially to those with an inner passion for living well. With this in mind, I interviewed John, and part of the next few issues of The Viking Life will be devoted to John’s story of his ever-increasing fascination with wine.
Q: Was there anything particular in your background that led you into a career in wine?
A: My parents had been married in France, just outside Bordeaux, and brought back with them the practice of having wine with dinner every night. I began sharing in this ritual on special occasions when I was in my early teens. My father kept a modest wine cellar, mostly petits chateaux Bordeaux, and by the time I left for college, I had developed a love of wine, even though I didn’t know much about it. My favorite wine at that time was a Hungarian red wine, Egri Bikavar, which was softer on the palate than the tannic young Bordeaux. I really encourage parents to introduce wine to their teenagers, in prudent amounts, at dinner. Like most things, the capacity to develop your sensibilities and skills is much greater when young, when your memory is developed for tastes for example, and it stays with you throughout your life.
I graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1987 with a degree in Political Science and History. Off campus, I minored in wine and food with a group of like-minded friends whose parents’ cellars were pretty deep, so we would get together to host dinner parties, sometimes with the bottles of 1978 Figeac and 1970 Pichon Lalande that someone’s father had sent along for us to try. I usually manned the stoves for these affairs to compensate for my relatively meager wine contributions. This jump-started my quest for great wine. When you go from a good, enjoyable eight-year old cru Bourgeois to tasting a great 20-year old classified Bordeaux, it feels like a whole universe of wine is opening up for you, and it is. Also, my part-time jobs throughout college were at the local wine shops in the Amherst area, which afforded price discounts and wonderful tasting opportunities. This beat flipping burgers, but I tended to blow my weekly paycheck largely on trying new wines.
Q: So, had you decided in college to pursue a career in wine?
A: Oh no. By the time I graduated, I was fully bitten by the wine bug, but aspired to a political career in Washington. However, my party was out of office during the Reagan/Bush years, and so I wandered a bit aimlessly out to the West Coast and then back while I waited for a change in the political climate, all the while continuing to work in wine shops. Then, amazingly, I was offered the job as the wine buyer for the largest retailer in New England, Town and Country Wine and Liquors in West Springfield, Massachusetts. I jumped at it and spent three years there, tasting a vast array of wines, many of which were just beginning to be exported to the U.S.
But, the greatest stimulus to my knowledge and excitement about wine during this period was through a very sophisticated tasting group in Hartford, led by a doctor named Herb Werner. The wines were tasted double blind, meaning no one knew which wines were being served, and the challenge was to deduce the identity of each wine. There were no themes; the only requirement was that each bottle be a great wine. This was intellectually challenging, and very enlightening. Dr. Werner was a remarkable man and probably taught me more about wine, food and life than anyone other than my father. He helped me to refine my culinary skills, showed me how to taste, how to appreciate art, and really how to live life on an aesthetic basis, which I have striven to do ever since. He invited me into the group and hosted the first tasting. With wines that included ’69 Jean Gros Richebourg, ’70 Mouton Rothschild, ’70 Petrus and ’70 Freemark Abbey Cabernet Bosche`, I left that tasting simply blown away and thinking, “ This is what the rest of my life is going to be about.”
It was also at about this time that I first began going to France to taste wines with the winemakers. I began in ’89, meeting the wonderful importer Peter Weygand in Burgundy, and going from there to the Rhone, Alsace and Champagne. There were still so many great winemakers who had not yet been discovered by the general wine market and meeting and tasting with them was terribly exciting then, and remains so. I really began to understand the fascinating symbiosis between local cuisine and the local wines.
Q: Well, here you are in West Springfield, Massachusetts, and your life plan has solidified. What next?
A: My learning curve had really accelerated and I couldn’t wait to get to Manhattan, which was by far the most sophisticated wine market in America. I worked for about five years as general manager at two of New York’s top retailers and then was hankering for a new challenge and had the great fortune to become the sommelier at Alfred Portale’s three-star Gotham Bar and Grill. My timing was perfect, because Chef Portale had become really interested in wine and was very supportive of the changes I made to the wine program there.
One of the things I most loved about working with him was his conviction that the wine list should offer good bottles at lower price levels, and not just trophies for the high rollers. On off-days, we would have great dinners with some of his chef friends, such as Tom Collichio and Scott Bryan, who were just beginning to develop a serious interest in pairing wines with their cuisines. Alfred is very passionate about great Piemonte wines (Barolos and Barbarescos) and some of the wines from Giacosa and Conterno I tasted with Alfred and his friends were among the greatest I’ve ever had. By the time I left, Alfred had expanded his wine list to 750 wines. Those were very good days indeed.
View the next installment.