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Their passion and their muse

Is it a catalog, or is it a travelogue? Wine merchants put pen to paper to cajole, explain, philosophize.

October 06, 2004|David Shaw | Times Staff Writer

It sometimes seems as if a newsletter or sales circular from a different wine store arrives in my mailbox almost every day. They come from shops all over Los Angeles and Orange counties, from Northern California and from as far away as Springfield, Mo., and Washington, D.C.

Some I toss immediately into the trash, most I at least skim, a few I order from -- and one is so engagingly idiosyncratic and consistently well written that I (and one prominent publisher) think it qualifies as literature.

The mailers range in size from a single sheet of paper to 40-page newsprint tabloids, but all have the same obvious objective: to induce recipients to buy the wines advertised therein. Most consist of little more than prices, sales pitches and scores from Robert Parker and Wine Spectator. But I receive three that have more ambitious goals. They want to entertain and inform and influence customers, to teach them about wine, to lobby for certain kinds of winemaking, to persuade them that the enjoyment of wine is essential to a happy, well-balanced life.

One of these mailers comes from the Wine Country in Signal Hill. Randy Kemner, the 55-year-old proprietor of the 9-year-old store, writes most of the 40-to-44-page monthly, Time magazine-size newsletter himself, and much of it is a clearly heartfelt paean to small, family-run wineries and "winemakers who respect their terroir and don't manipulate their wines."

Kemner writes often of his travels to the vineyards of Europe -- he's now in the midst of a three-part series on his recent trip to Italy -- and he sees these musings as essential to his sales, 60% of which involve European wines.

"Part of my job in the newsletter is to convey to people who were basically raised on California wine that European wines -- and the European approach to wine -- are very different," he says.

Kemner has written about the dinner table as "civilization's ground zero," and when we spoke, he expanded on that theme.

"In Europe, wine is all about the family at the dinner table," he said. "Here, too often, wine is an icon, an accessory to wealth and privilege, so it has to be big rather than balanced, a stand-alone rather than an accompaniment to food."

Kemner is so casually earnest and down-to-earth in his writing that when I read his newsletter -- usually with a glass of wine in hand, when I get home in the evening -- it almost feels as if he's sitting in my living room with me, talking, not writing.

A man of fervent certitude

Roberto ROGNESS of Wine Expo in Santa Monica has a similar philosophy about wine and life, but there's nothing casual about his writing. He tends to wax alternately rhapsodic and agitated in the one-page newsletters he e-mails and faxes to customers every week (and in the eight-page newsletters he mails out quarterly).

Visually, the Wine Expo mailer is among the least attractive of those I receive -- the fax version is a jumble of black and blacker type on a single sheet of paper. But Rogness' fervent certitude about almost everything more than compensates. I eagerly await his weekly communiques to see what new pronouncement, discovery or outrage he wants to share.

Rogness, the only wine merchant I know who calls himself "general manager and creative director," has been in love with music ever since he was taken to a Harry Belafonte concert at age 5, and his newsletters are filled with musical references, some having nothing whatever to do with wine. Last Fourth of July, he urged readers to write their congressmen and ask that "Born to Be Wild" replace "The Star-Spangled Banner" as our national anthem.

Rogness is almost as likely to recommend a CD or a rock concert as he is a wine -- and he's just as likely to recommend a CD-wine pairing as a food-wine pairing. Not long ago, for example, under the heading "Rethinking the Classics," he recommended listening to Sister Bossa's "Cool Jazzy Cuts With a Brazilian Flavour" while drinking one of three Italian wines he was then selling.

"The idea was that the musicians and the winemakers were ... putting a slightly modern spin on [old classics]," he says, and he regarded them as complementary pleasures because the wines were "big, fairly strong, meditative wines and that CD is a tranced-out version of Bossa Nova. I thought that the wine and the music ... would be a wonderful fusion of sensations."

Rogness often compares artists and songs to specific wines and winemaking styles. A frequent critic of Robert Parker and the big "hedonistic fruit bombs" that Parker often favors, Rogness has likened Parker's favorite Zinfandels to "a drag queen in the middle of a great production of Carmen." And he's written, "Thelonius Monk has more to do with the way (and the type) of wines we select than Robert Parker does."

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