Thursday, July 29, 2010

My Mentor Vin Dispenses Wine Wisdom

No matter what your line of work, almost everyone has had a mentor, a person who freely and generously gave you advice and guidance on your career path, perhaps even in your every day life. I thought I would introduce you to the man who has guided me on my wine journey, a man who has taught me as much about life as he has about wine. Perhaps in reading about him you too will benefit from his wisdom for he has much to teach everyone who loves wine. His name is

I met Vin at one of the first wine tastings I ever attended as a member of the trade. If memory serves, it was a tasting of wines made by apes. It was Vin who directed me to the table where a gibbon had made a particularly lovely Brachiation d'Acqui, and we struck up a conversation. It turned out that Vin wasn't really in the wine business, but he was so passionate about wine he frequently crashed industry tastings, and was very adept at it. He had a series of fake business cards that seemed to be successful at gaining him entrance to even the most exclusive tastings. One card, I remember, proclaimed he was the wine columnist for the "Wall Street Journal," which, given the fact that in real life his face was actually pixelated (stemming from a childhood accident with acne cream), was entirely credible. And it was even more credible when you talked to him and realized he was simply bluffing all of his wine knowledge, a tradition at WSJ that lives on today. But it was something that Vin said to me that very first meeting that has stayed with me, and that also made me realize I had a lot to learn from him.

"You don't have to know anything about wine to be a wine expert,"
Vin said, "because everyone is stupid." It's advice that has served me well my entire wine career, and has become even more meaningful in this wonderful age of wine blogs.

(I should also add that at that wine tasting I was also impressed by a very delicate orang muscat from Borneo, a Lodi chimpanZin, and the wines of Helen Turley.)

After that, I would always look for Vin at wine tastings. I was new to wine, but passionate about it, and Vin could sense that in me. Perhaps he identified with my thirst for wine knowledge and my drive to be a great sommelier. At another wine tasting early in our friendship, I think it was a tasting of wines made by albinos, Vin remarked in his characteristic aphoristic style, "What makes a great sommelier isn't letters after his name, or that doohickey that hangs around his neck. What makes a great sommelier is a shitty goddam attitude." To this day I remember his words when I meet a newly minted M.S., and am struck by its wisdom whenever I'm around a member of that brotherhood of imaginary experts. It helps to remember they're just doing their job when they're talking down to you.

Oh, I have a million bits of wisdom from the great Vin, more than I can share in one post. Eventually, I invited Vin to wine tastings at my apartment where we would taste wines from all over the world and he would teach me about them, about how to understand them, how to rate them, how to analyze their components and make sense of them. But Vin doesn't like to taste wines blind. "Never believe anyone who says they taste wines blind," he told me, "that's like believin' your Boy Scout troop leader is required to give you a prostate exam. They're both just giving you the finger for fun." Together, Vin and I tasted through hundreds of wines, and much of what I know today about the great wines of the world I learned from Vin. I don't think anything he told me turned out to be wrong, even if, at the time, I didn't understand what he was saying. Which may have been because he always spoke through a kazoo.

Here are just a few examples of Vin's wine wisdom:

"Any moron can make great Cabernet, and most of them do, but it takes a genius to make you believe it's worth more than thirty bucks. Unless you're a butthole."

"Chardonnay is the McDonald's french fries of wine--it's better with ketchup."

"You couldn't puke and make it smell as bad as Retsina."

"Terroir is French for 'April Fool!'"

I don't get to speak to Vin as often as I'd like lately. I've moved to Sonoma, and Vin is busy pursuing his lifelong dream of eating every issue of Robert Parker's Wine Advocate just to pass him through his lower intestine. But he and I have talked at length about wine blogging, about its impact on wineries and the wine business in general. Vin has some amazing insight and wisdom regarding the proliferation of wine blogs. "The combined wisdom in all of them wouldn't fill Jancis Robinson's left nut." It's funnier through a kazoo. We talked about wine reviews on wine blogs and Vin's take was, "They're as worthless as shelf talkers for sex toys." Our most recent conversation was about the Wine Blog Awards, and after I complained about the nominees and the winners, Vin remarked, "Giving awards to wine bloggers is like handing out condoms to castratos."

Eventually, I'll understand what he means.


John M. Kelly said...

OK Ron you have crossed a line. For years I have been working on producing a porno space opera based on my wine industry experiences under the screen name "Van D. Spenser" - awfully close to the character of your mentor. Who is not me BTW. I don't think a seize and de-cyst is in order, but maybe I can get you "on board" (so to speak) to do the screenplay and write dialog for the actresses?

abc said...

This can be said for many careers:
What makes a great sommelier is a shitty goddam attitude

And, hey, don't you have some questions to write?

Samantha Dugan said...

Well this might explain how you can choke down Zinfandel, you were "raised" by a crazy person.

Ron Washam said...


Vin didn't want me to use his last name in the piece, though I'm not sure he has a last name. Or that anyone cares. As to space opera porn, so "Star Wars" with graphic sex? Hmmm. Well, I'd ask to help with the casting couch but I'm underqualified.


Yeah, that Vin is full of, well, wisdom.

My Gorgeous Samantha,

Not sure Vin is crazy, just a tetch foul-mouthed and full of stupid opinions. In other words, it's like I have a twin!

I love you!

Charlie Olken said...

Choke down Zinfandel?



Vin obviously taught you well. Who else could have come up with the 1,000,000 point system? Who else could have invented Owl In Meadows? Who else could have recognized Trebbiano as the wine grape that is best when it is not made into win.

As for sommeliers, it used to waiters in restaurants that had bad attitudes. Now they are all named Bruce and want to be your friend.

Andy Perdue said...

Ron, not sure if you've spent any time with my buddy Don Galleano in Cucamonga, but he dispenses similar wisdom, though with more liberal use of the f-word.

Ron Washam said...


Vin used to say, "Opinions are like shithead scoring systems--everybody's got them." My opinions are just informed by a profound ignorance of wine marketing.


Don't know Don Galleano, but hear he's a real Wallbanger. And maybe I should know him.

Thanks for all the nice Tweets you've sent my way. I appreciate it.

pgrant8258 said...

yo Ron, Wine tastings at your apartment back in the 80's??? Who would be wacked enough to take you up on an invite like that? Not me. Vin must have not known you very well yet.

Thanks for this post. It clears up something that I've wondered about for a couple of years.

I spent a while running the original Chart House in Aspen, CO. The most revered cellar in Aspen has to be the infamous Caribou Club...over 5000 bottles with lots in the 4 and 5 digit price range.

The longtime cellar guy there was a guy named Oliver Jaderko.

Although I never had any problems with Oliver personally, many would argue his surname would be much more suitable sans the "a and d".

He was known for always telling his servers..."Sell them something very, very expensive, but not necessarily very good".

My response whenever I heard this quote was basically....what a fupped duck attitude for the cellar guy at such an internationally prominent club to have!!! How the heck could he be so successful with that kind of approach to his cellar and his valued(?) guests?

I now understand...thanks to Vin's sageness...that it was a necessary element for Oliver's success.

Moreover, it supports the notion how stupid people can be when it comes to wine.

humming to myself...I can see clearly now, (even though) the brain is gone

Also, while still on the mentor tiff and counting blessings for people that have been positive life influences(bless your friend Karen, she sounds like an absolute angel)...please know how much I learned from lil ole you back then. Be it a bane or a blessing, a few are lessons and values that I still tote with me. Things not necessarily about wine, but more importantly, insights on how to live a good and proper life. Thanks.

Those who know HMW beyond just these pages will know exactly what I'm talking about.

peace always,

Thomas said...

Vinderful visdom!

I'll get the hang of that kazoo one day.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Peter,

When I was a sommelier I was tipped by the waiters per bottle of wine I sold in their station, same amount no matter the price of the bottle. If I sold a good, inexpensive bottle of wine at a table, the waiters would give me endless crap. When I sold a very pricey wine they felt it was their due. I ignored them. This is always the best way to treat waiters.

I doubt I taught you anything, Peter. Except maybe relentless skepticism and its charms. Karen was, in fact, a treasure, and showed me, with her work and life, the value of compassion mixed with intelligence and wisdom and laughter. A gift I needed.


Somehow everything seems more profound spoken through a kazoo.

John M. Kelly said...

Oh Ron, c'mon! You are FULLY qualified! Come to the set, write some lines (I said write), maybe get fluffed a little. Doesn't matter what you write, people are still going to buy the final product. And most of them are going to watch with the sound off anyway.

Kathy said...

My mentor, a rogue reporter, taught me how to read the notes I scribbled on cocktail napkins. That was after he taught me to never write a story without first going to a bar.
I might have run into Vin.

Ron Washam said...


Bars and journalism go together like wine and music. Hell if I know what that means. But it sounds like you had a great mentor too.

If Vin were here he'd tell me to get the hell out of wine blogging before it ruined whatever shitty credibility I once had. He'd be right.

Timing Daddy said...

Too late.

Ron Washam said...

Timing Daddy,

Too late to get out of wine blogging, or too late to save my credibility?

I know, I know, Both.

Thomas said...

Using the words "credibility" and "wine blogging" in the same sentence disqualifies you for either.

this comment was verified with the word "unogrea."

unogrea: simultaneous noun/verb; a singular experience with a toilet bowl...

Becky Banal said...

Just like your friend Vin, the sommelier at my husband’s club in Florida told him he had the right kind of mind to be a wine expert. I think that is what convinced him to build the wine cellar in the basement, buy all those wines, and buy the vineyard in Napa. The thing I don’t understand is that testervan thing the sommelier gave him. My husband’s always wearing it. Of course you wear it when you have dinners guests or when you take them on a tour of the cellar, but do sommeliers really wear it to bed? Sometimes it can be really distracting, if you know what I mean.

Becky Banal
Ch. Banal

Ron Washam said...

Becky Banal,

Well, historically, and I'm pretty sure this is on the exam for M.S., the tastevin is worn as a tribute to the late Sammy Davis, Jr. I don't know why. But wearing it to bed is always appropriate in case a blind tasting breaks out.