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Wine Critics : Influence of Writers Can Be Heady

Second of two articles

August 24, 1987|DAVID SHAW | Times Staff Writer

Wine makers, importers and distributors almost invariably initiate the courtship of wine writers, extending invitations to them for trips like these, as well as for free lunches and dinners; Chroman says he's never demanded free meals, free trips or any other favors from anyone in the wine industry. Nor has The Times provided him with expense money for meals, entertainment, travel or--with rare exception--wines for tasting. Indeed, Chroman says he has entertained wine makers at his own expense, just as he has sometimes paid his and his wife's expenses for travel in Europe.

Critics generally agree that those in the wine industry--like those who run newspapers--are more to blame than the writers for any abuses. But while free trips, free meals and a symbiotic relationship with the industry they cover is an accepted part of the system for most newspaper wine writers, it's not accepted for wine writers at most of the nation's most respected papers--the New York Times, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun and a few others. In that context, Chroman's case is perceived as extraordinary.

Several people in the wine industry say Chroman is the only wine writer for a major paper who abuses their hospitality when they take him to lunch. Wine makers traditionally take wine writers to lunch to enable them to sample new vintages of their wine, with the appropriate food, and while a few of the more respected papers insist on paying for such lunches, most wine writers let the wine makers and others in the wine industry pay.

Lunch at Scandia

But some wine makers object that Chroman usually wants to taste their wines over lunch at Scandia restaurant--where he is a paid wine consultant--and that he sometimes invites others to these lunches and orders expensive wines from the restaurant wine list, all of which the wine maker pays for. (". . .to my knowledge," Chroman says, "no expensive other bottles were ordered unless the vintners chose to do so on their own.")

John Scharffenberger, owner of Scharffenberger Cellars in Mendocino County, and William and Sandra MacIver, co-owners of Matanzas Creek Winery in Sonoma County, say they've paid for expensive meals with Chroman. Others in the wine industry say they have done so, too.

Tom Pirko, a management consultant, says that when he represented a wine importer a few years ago, he asked Chroman to taste some of the company's wines, and Chroman "gave me a virtual shopping list of the wines he wanted me to bring to lunch at Scandia."

Pirko says he took more than 30 bottles, about $1,000 worth of French Burgundies, and Chroman refused to taste any of them at the lunch.

Chroman "ordered an expensive lunch, nudged us to buy some expensive wines from the (Scandia) wine list and then took all our wines home," Pirko says. "He never wrote a word about the wines."

"I don't have an ax to grind with Nate," he says. "I like him, even though he can be difficult. But I do think he abuses his position. . . ."

Chroman insists that he never asks anyone in the wine business to bring any specific wines--or large numbers of wines--to lunch, and he says he only writes about wines he considers worthy.

"The fact that I did not write about them confirms, to me, that I cannot be bought by bottle or bottles. I call them as I see them, as best I can . . ." he says.

Why do people in the wine industry pay for these meals with Chroman?

"One cannot buy advertising, one cannot spend . . . (money) better than that," says Randall Graham, proprietor of Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz.

Even though Chroman does not always write about wines he tastes at lunches paid for by wine industry interests, people in the wine industry are willing to pay for his expensive meals, hoping he will write about their products.

"Wine producers and importers have huge budgets, and the wine press in the U.S. is so powerful that we spend lavishly on them," says David Courtenay-Clack, a British-based importer and exporter of wines.

Susanna Shuster and Tom Lutgen of The Times editorial library assisted with the research for this story.

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