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Wine Critics : Influence of Writers Can Be Heady

Second of two articles

August 24, 1987|DAVID SHAW | Times Staff Writer

Although the influence of both men has vastly diminished over the years, both were undeniably pioneers in the field--so much so that a number of California wine makers received their first serious exposure to wine from Balzer and/or Chroman, either through their Times columns or in the wine appreciation classes that both men have long taught.

Balzer, whose wine column now appears in the Los Angeles Times' Sunday magazine, began writing a weekly wine column for a small, local paper in 1937. He's been writing for The Times since 1964 and has written nine books on wine, the first in 1948.

Balzer is widely thought of as the dean of California wine writers, a man who has "done almost as much for the California wine industry, in his own way, as Robert Mondavi and Ernest and Julio Gallo," in the words of Michael Weis, wine maker at Vichon Winery in the Napa Valley.

Harvey Posert, director of public relations at Mondavi, calls Balzer, affectionately, "a marvelous propagandist for wine."

Balzer is often criticized for being too friendly with many wine makers, and he readily concedes that, having "grown up with the industry . . . it's almost familial."

Balzer is also criticized for writing invariably favorable reviews of wines.

"There are far more good wines that I want to write about (than I have space for)," he says. "Why should I bother to write about something I don't like?"

Views Shared

Many wine writers share Balzer's view.

"I'd rather get people enthused than turned off," says Bob Thompson, who writes a wine column for the San Francisco Examiner and is the respected author of several books on California Wines.

But many other wine writers--especially those who are professional journalists--say they have an obligation to warn readers away from poor wines, particularly when those wines are produced by well-known vineyards that usually produce good wines. Moreover, they say, because of the symbiotic relationship between the wine industry and most wine writers, writing exclusively favorable reviews may make even the most honest wine writer vulnerable to speculation about his integrity.

Balzer insists that his record of "independence . . . personal integrity and . . . taste" speaks for itself, though, and his approach to his column is characteristic of his basic personality--"lovely, sweet, enthusiastic, knowledgeable," in Posert's words.

Most people in the wine industry seem genuinely fond of and grateful to Balzer; when he turned 75 last month, the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food honored him with a black-tie dinner.

Even some journalists and wine makers who are critical of the behavior of other wine writers (including Chroman) seem willing to forgive almost anything Balzer has done that seems contrary to today's journalistic ethics--taking junkets paid for by wine industry interests, writing a book (in 1966) subsidized by wine maker Paul Masson, writing a column this year about a wine futures venture in which his closest friend of 27 years is involved.

Balzer should be exempt from ethical considerations, many say--"grandfathered in," as it were, both because of his long years of service to the wine industry and because he started writing about wine at a time when ethical standards in journalism were far looser than they are today.

Written Code of Ethics

The Times did not even have a written code of ethics, for example, until 1982--long after both Balzer and Chroman began writing for the paper.

Some critics insist that contemporary ethical standards should be applied equally to all writers on a newspaper, regardless of their longevity. But most critics blame the newspapers, rather than the individual writers, for the questionable situations in which free-lance wine writers sometimes find themselves. Wine writers and people in the wine industry alike insist that as long as papers use free-lance writers, pay them small fees and little or no expense money and make little or no attempt to control their outside activities, the flood of free wine, free meals, free trips abroad and possible conflicts of interest over books, consultancies and other activities will continue unabated.

A few papers are particularly sensitive to such conflicts. The New York Times took its weekly wine column away from staff member Terry Robards in 1983, for example, after it was disclosed that he had written a book for Bantam that was sold as a promotional item for an importer of French wines. But the Los Angeles Times took no action against Chroman when his 1973 book "The Treasury of American Wines," published by Crown Publishing Co., was reissued in 1976 and offered as part of a promotional gift package by Inglenook Vineyards.

The second edition of Chroman's book was changed in several ways that made it more favorable to Inglenook than the original had been--including a near-doubling of the length of the text on Inglenook, the only winery so treated in the second edition.

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