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Robert Lawrence Balzer dies at 99: L.A. Times wine writer

Educator and journalist Robert Lawrence Balzer, who died Dec. 1 at 99, wrote an influential column in the Los Angeles Times for three decades and championed the California wine industry.

December 09, 2011|By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times
  • Vintner Robert Mondavi, left, with wine writer and educator Robert Lawrence Balzer in 2004 when Balzer received the 2004 Wine Literary Award from the Wine Appreciation Guild of San Francisco. Balzer died Dec. 1 at 99.
Vintner Robert Mondavi, left, with wine writer and educator Robert Lawrence… (Bryan Imelli )

Robert Lawrence Balzer, a wine critic and educator who wrote an influential column in The Times for three decades during a career that stretched from the post-Prohibition era through the explosion of the California wine industry he championed, has died. He was 99.

Balzer, who had also been a wine merchant, an actor, a Buddhist monk and a restaurateur, died of natural causes Dec. 1 in Orange, said his nephew, Rex Shannon.

Known for his erudition and flamboyant personality, Balzer wrote a wine column for the newspaper from 1964 to 1995. He was also the author of a dozen books, including "Balzer's Book of Wines and Spirits" (1973) and "Wines of California" (1978).

For 14 years beginning in 1970, he produced one of the first subscription-based wine guides, Robert Lawrence Balzer's Private Guide to Food & Wine. It was well established years before Robert M. Parker Jr., now the world's best-known wine critic, launched his popular newsletter and 100-point rating system.

"His words were poetic," Mary Ellen Cole, coordinator of the venerable Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition, said of Balzer, who helped judge the contest for more than 50 years. "He was delightful and taught others to love wine in a day when many wine connoisseurs were viewed as 'wine snobs.'"

Long after he stopped writing, Balzer maintained a dedicated following by leading wine tours through Northern California and Europe and teaching wine-appreciation classes. Until he was 96, he taught two eight-week sessions a year at the Queen Mary in Long Beach.

In between blind tastings and presentations by well-known winemakers, he regaled students with stories, such as the time his trunks came off while swimming in the Russian River with a number of wine industry leaders, or how he talked "Sunset Boulevard" leading lady and longtime friend Gloria Swanson out of retirement to play the strangely powerful matriarch of a vineyard with a colony of deadly bees in the 1972 TV movie "Killer Bees."

He also made a point of telling classes that he enjoyed being back on the Queen Mary — a reference to the fact that he sailed on its maiden voyage in 1936.

"He was off the charts," said Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Wine Spectator magazine, who called Balzer "California's first truly great wine writer."

Shanken began reading Balzer's newsletter the year it started and found its accounts of winemaking history so engaging that he shifted from real estate and investment banking to food and wine publishing. He is among many prominent wine world figures who credit Balzer with inspiring their careers.

"If not for him, I wouldn't be in the wine business," said Steve Wallace, owner of the Westwood wine emporium Wally's Wine and Spirits, which he founded in 1968 after taking one of Balzer's classes through UCLA Extension.

"He had all the great winemakers — Louis Martini, Karl Wente, André Tchelistcheff — driving down from Northern California to speak at his classes," Wallace recalled. "In the California wine industry, he is really underestimated. He did more for it as a journalist than anyone I know."

Born in Des Moines on June 25, 1912, Balzer earned a bachelor's degree in English from Stanford University in 1935. The following year, while studying acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, he married fellow student Emily Abel. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1946. Balzer never remarried and had no children.

In 1936 he began working in the wine department of his father's gourmet market in Los Angeles' Larchmont district, where the customers included Hollywood heavyweights such as Cecil B. DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock. In 1937, four years after Prohibition ended, he wrote his first wine column for the Beverly Hills Citizen, published by his Stanford classmate, Will Rogers Jr., son of the famous humorist.

After serving as a flight instructor in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, Balzer wrote his first book about wine, in 1948. During the 1950s he went to Southeast Asia as a United Press photographer and was ordained as a Buddhist monk in Cambodia. He wrote a book about Buddhism called "Beyond Conflict" (1963).

He was running Tirol, a restaurant in Idyllwild, when he began writing about wine for The Times' Sunday magazine. "There are California wines as fine as the best of Europe," he wrote in his first piece in 1964. It took about a decade for a broad public to reach the same conclusion.

He was sometimes criticized for being too friendly with winemakers and writing mostly favorable reviews. In a 1987 examination of leading wine critics, Times media critic David Shaw wrote that Balzer was guilty of some ethical lapses, including writing a book subsidized by winemaker Paul Masson.

But Shaw also noted that those who disapproved of the behavior of many wine writers "seem willing to forgive almost anything Balzer has done" because of his pioneering role in wine journalism and lengthy service to the wine industry.

Balzer was an Orange County resident for nearly 50 years. A celebration of his life is being planned for January.

For the past 10 years, Balzer's favorite afternoon libation was not a fine Cabernet or Sauvignon Blanc, but two ounces of his favorite Scotch on the rocks. "I said, 'Bob, Johnny Walker Red Label is not the best Scotch they make,'" his nephew recalled telling him. "He said, 'I know, but it tastes best to me.' His cardiologist said, 'Don't worry about it; it's probably keeping his blood thin.'"

elaine.woo@latimes.com

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