I was back in Vermont last week visiting my sister and my new nephew, and spent the night in my old room in the house I grew up in. I was browsing through old papers late one night when I uncovered a 1988 issue of the Wine Spectator in which there was a wonderful six-page article by Mort Hochstein on my dad's career as an importer. I hadn't read this article in years, and the Spectator's online archives don't go back that far. The article was titled "Have Palate, Will Travel" and traces my dad's career in wine from its beginnings at his father's shop (M. Lehmann, in Manhattan) through his early travels to France in the 1950s, his eventual decision to found an importing business, and his move to Vermont in the early 1970s.
I've written about his career before, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, so I'm not going to enumerate his many impacts on how Americans drink, buy, and think about wine, but there were a few things that struck me about the article.
First was the affection with which his fellow importers and suppliers talk about him in the article. One story I particularly liked was told by his friend, writer Alexis Bespaloff. He recalled the end of a long day of prospecting in the Rhone:
"It was November 1963 and we'd been tasting in the Rhône. We came back to our hotel after 10 one night. The restaurant was closed and we were lucky to find a café where we could get a bowl of soup. We returned to the hotel and went upstairs and Haas sat on his bed in a bare, cold, unheated room with just a single exposed light bulb overhead, dropped one shoe and said, 'You know, Alex, my friends in New York think I have a glamorous life.'"
Second was the degree to which he was already an institution in the 1980's. The writer of the article, Mort Hochstein, pointed out
"Though widely known and respected in the trade in Europe and the United States, few American wine lovers have had any contact with him other than the perception that the phrase "Robert Haas Selection" on a bottle represents quality."
Now, 22 years later, my dad has added to his achievements as an importer and a distributor the foundation of Tablas Creek and the importation and distribution of high quality Rhone grapevine clones around the United States. He has also played an important role in the advancement of organic viticulture and the elevation of the Paso Robles region to the forefront of California wine. It is not a surprise that he was the first American elected president of the largely French Académie Internationale du Vin in 2000.
The last thing that struck me from reading the magazine was how young and unformed the California wine industry was at that time. There is an article by Norm Roby promoting Kistler as the next "heavy hitter" in Chardonnay. It's bizarre for me to think of Kistler as the new kid on the block. Other wineries meriting mention whose building permits had newly been approved included Screaming Eagle and Sinskey. Terry Robards penned an opinion piece called "The Case for Red Zinfandel". That the Wine Spectator needed to sound the alarm that "the majority of Zinfandel consumers do not even know there is such a thing as red Zinfandel" strikes me as being from another age. And perhaps the greatest indication of the youth of the industry was the faces featured in the announcement for the 1988 California Wine Experience, which included a collection of American wine writing talent unlikely to be found in the same building today: Dan Berger, Anthony Dias Blue, Michael Broadbent, James Laube, Harvey Steiman, and, yes, Robert Parker.
For those interested, I scanned a PDF of the article which can be accessed here.