Joshua Greene has been the editor of Wine & Spirits Magazine since the mid-eighties. We were curious about how he got his start in wine and how the wine scene has changed since then. We chatted with him about how the Wine & Spirits team goes about rating wines, plus new wineries he's excited about, and where he goes to drink wine in NYC. Here's what he had to say.
How did you get into the wine-writing world? When did you really get into wine, and how did you end up at Wine & Spirits?
I came out of college with a plan to write fiction, and supported myself by waiting tables and serving wine as a 'sommelier.' That was my title at Wheatleigh, in Lenox, when the Simons had just bought the property and I was the only server who knew how to use a waiter's knife.
Later, I moved back to Princeton where my partner was working for a company that financed magazines and I eventually went to work with her, selling the financial and management services for the firm. We worked with just about any kind of special interest magazine you could imagine, from a water ski title to a magazine for defense contractors and another for glass-making crafts. Wine & Spirits was the last magazine we brought in before we left the company to start our own management firm. The publisher came to us six months later and we wrote a contract to manage the magazine for him. Back then, it was called Winestate's Wine & Spirits Buying Guide. The first thing I did was shorten the name and trademark it. That was October 1984. I spent the next several years building a presence for the magazine in the New York market, running tastings and developing the editorial, while my partner, Marcy Crimmins, managed the books. In 1986, the publisher headed back to Australia, where he still publishes an Australian magazine called Winestate, and I took over running the US magazine for him, eventually purchasing it in 1989.
I didn't write extensively for the magazine at first, but in those first five years, I spent a lot of hours running tasting panels and began to develop a perspective from blind tasting. A lot of people think blind tasting is tricky, or that it isn't as relevant as the context of where the wine grows or how it is made. But I think if you train yourself as a taster, your initial reaction to a wine, blind, is tremendously valuable, especially if you consider the patterns of those reactions. Which vineyards consistently turn you on? Which brands consistently show well? I've spent a lot of time trying to describe those reactions and those patterns; that's what I focus a lot of my writing time on.
Can you tell us a little bit about how wines get tasted at Wine & Spirits?
It's no fun to drink wine alone. So we don't like to taste alone. When it comes to tasting and recommending wines, we prefer collaborations. Reporting is a different challenge—we like to provide a single perspective on the wines from a particular region; that way readers can get to know where we're coming from and the recommendations make more sense. That's why we set up a two-step process for our tastings. We organize panels of sommeliers and retailers with a particular interest in the category we're tasting—usually a selection of 30 to 40 wines from a specific region.
We present the wines in numbered glasses with a key that gives information on appellation, vintage and variety, but nothing more. We taste in short flights, then ask for a simple yes or no on each wine: We ask our tasters if they would recommend the wine based on the information they have. Is this a 2010 Meursault you would tell someone to buy? If a majority of the panel says yes, we talk about it and consider the panelists' different perspectives. Then, armed with those often conflicting perspectives, our critic for that region tastes the wine, sometimes several times over the course of several days, always blind, assessing it, scoring it based on his or her own taste, giving consideration to how it develops, and writing a review.
Last year, we tasted 12,500 wines this way, in our two offices (New York for all imported wines and San Francisco for all US wines). Our critics travel and taste in the regions they cover, but the only ratings and reviews we print in the magazine are straight out of our blind tastings.
What are you drinking these days when you're not at work? Do you have a personal cellar?
A friend and I went through two bottles of Loire whites last week at En Brasserie in New York, a Muscadet Vieilles Vignes from Luneau-Papin and a Cour-Cheverny from François Cazin. Both benefitted from decanting, something that surprised our server there.
The week before, when our editorial team was in San Francisco, we brought some bottles to Old Mandarin, a northern Chinese restaurant near the ocean; the star of the evening with their Mandarin lamb was a 1963 Sandeman Porto, a bottle George Sandeman had given me on a recent visit from Portugal.
Most of what I buy for drinking at home or with friends is Finger Lakes riesling, particularly from Wiemer and Ravines, or Champagne—I love Pierre Péters and Larmandier Bernier, and Roederer when it comes to rosé. Otherwise, my cellar overlaps with the magazine's. We just raided that cellar for a range of older Barolos to taste with Piemontese cheeses at Acquerello in San Francisco. The Poderi Colla 1996 Bussia Dardi Le Rose was the most memorable—fresh and beautiful.
How do you think the wine scene has changed in the last decade or so?
Every generation puts their own stamp on the wine business, and those stamps have been quite different over the past several generations, especially given how much of a developing market the US remains for wine.
The current twentysomethings drink a lot more wine than their predecessors, having grown up with their Boomer parents who may have introduced them to wine at a younger age than when those Baby Boomers were growing up in the sixties and seventies. Young people are getting into the wine business, both on the production side and on the sommelier side, earlier than ever before, with some great new talents making wine in their early twenties (like Gavin Chanin in Santa Maria) and bright 21-year-olds landing plum jobs as sommeliers (like Chad Zeigler, now at RN74).
Meanwhile, in addition to splurging on legendary names now and then, whether by the glass or by investing in a bottle, young people have pushed the industry to make sweeter red wines, and have driven the moscato boom.
What regions around the world do you feel are offering particularly great value in wine these days?
Wherever growers aren't paying exorbitant amounts of money for land. Or where they've owned their land long enough so it's just part of the family. Or where classic wines are out of fashion. Or where there's simply so much wine around that it remains inexpensive for the delicious drinking it offers. Like southern Italy or Greece, where there is a huge amount of great wine waiting to be discovered, whether from Santorini or Naoussa in Greece, or Basilicata, Sicily and Campania in Italy. In Spain, you can still find absurdly inexpensive wines, even at the high end. Consider a 1998 white wine from R. López de Heredia at $50. How can you manage to inventory a wine for 15 years, in barrel and then in bottle, and sell it for $50?
Then there are all sorts of Atlantic whites, like Muscadet and amazing chenins from Anjou and Touraine; or Vinho Verde in Portugal, where you can find refreshing whites for $9 a bottle. For my taste, the Old World offers better values in general than the New, where you often have to pay a fair price to get a top wine. But that doesn't mean you can't find great values in Finger Lakes riesling, or Columbia Valley cabernet.
What new American producers are on your radar? New producers elsewhere?
I'm watching several projects in Oregon, including Mark Tarlov's new wine with Louis-Michel Liger Belair, Chapter 24; recently, Jadot, Larry Stone and Jackson Family Farms have all invested in land in the Willamette Valley. It will be interesting to see what they do with it.
Overseas, Quinta da Manoella in the Douro Valley, where Jorge Serodio Borges and Sandra Tavares are rebuilding a vineyard that's been in the family for generations. Their Vinhas Velhas red wine, from vines planted 120 years ago, is worth checking out. Talinay is a new vineyard in Chile at the edge of the Atacama desert, in the arid shadow of a coastal rain forest. The soil is a solid block of pure white chalk. Felipe Muller is growing pretty astonishing sauvignon blanc there, which bodes well for the chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah his firm, Tabalí, has planted there.
What are a few of your favorite wine lists / restaurants to drink wine in NYC?
I can always find something I want to drink on Thomas Pastuszak's list at The NoMad, with some real deals in the midst of some very expensive bottles. He shares my love of the Finger Lakes and has one of the best selections in the city.
Down the street from NoMad, Sean Josephs has put together a remarkable list of wines in the midst of a crazy list of Bourbons and American whiskies at Maysville. It's a place you can drink very well for $50 or less.
I always enjoy Paul Grieco's take on wine at Hearth, not only for the riesling and Sherry he's championed, but for a lot of the other wines he gets behind.
You can spend a lot of money on wine in New York, but there are some places where you can also choose not to and still drink well, like Jean-Georges, or Del Posto, two places run by wine passion first and foremost. Though the lists are written and maintained by top-flight sommeliers, it's the men behind the scenes, Bernie Sun in the case of Jean-Georges and Joe Bastianich in the case of Del Posto, who set the bar high for the lists.