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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Interview with Wine Spectator Executive Editor Thomas Matthews: Part 1!

Wine Spectator's New York Office
My pulse quickened as I emerged from the subway station a few blocks from the Manhattan home office of Wine Spectator Magazine. I was about to enter the inner sanctum of M. Shanken Communications, home to one of the wine world's most influential publications. A few weeks prior I had arranged an interview with the magazine's Executive Editor, Thomas Matthews. I was looking forward to hearing about his personal journey in the world of wine including his twenty-three years with the iconic magazine. As I fumbled with my iPhone, making sure to "check in" before silencing it, the elevator doors opened and I stepped out and approached the glass double doors. 

Tom Matthews & Me
Wine Spectator was founded in 1976 by Bill Morrisey as a San Diego-based tabloid newspaper at a time when the California wine industry was undergoing a period of exciting growth. The publication was purchased three years later by Marvin Shanken, the magazine's current publisher and editor, and has undergone many changes since that time. One man who has experienced many of those changes firsthand is Thomas Matthews, who joined the magazine in 1988 and has been with Wine Spectator and Shanken ever since. 

Matthews greeted me in the reception area and gave me a tour of the fabulous French vintage posters adorning the office walls. The posters represent part of an extensive collection of late-19th-century Belle Epoque lithographs Shanken has collected over the past thirty years. Following the enjoyable tour (the Art History Major in me was delighted), we settled into Matthews' office and he was kind enough to share his story: 

"Champagne De Rochegre" by Leonetto Cappiello
How did you first become interested in wine? 

I was your typical liberal arts major in the 70’s with no idea how he would turn his interest in literature and philosophy and writing into work. I went to graduate school for Political Science which didn’t suit me so I decided to move to Spain and write the "Great American Novel” and after about a year and a half in Granada…I had finished the manuscript but I had also run out of money. It was September and a friend suggested we go pick grapes in Bordeaux. When I asked him why we should consider doing that he explained, “First of all the food is great, secondly they give you all the wine you can drink and finally the work is easy.” So I said, “Sign me up!” We found work as pickers in a little vineyard in Entre-Deux-Mers and he was right about two things: the food was great and there was plenty of wine but the work was definitely not easy! Nonetheless there was something about the whole environment that really captivated me. This was a small family vineyard not pretentious in any way and they really lived in their culture: the buildings, the landscape, the day to day routines, the way that food and wine really all kind of seemed to fit made a lot of sense to me, so I decided to see if I could make wine a part of my writing life. 

How did you end up finding your way into the wine industry from there? 

Ultimately, I moved back to New York and started trying to freelance and got a job as a bartender and when the wine guy quit I said, “I can do that!” so they let me take over the wine list. I spent four years as a wine buyer in New York City restaurants which was a great education...and at the same time I was slowly building a freelance career writing about wine, but about a lot of other things too. After a while my back started to hurt from lifting all the cases and my girlfriend at the time, now wife…felt sort of stifled so we decided to go back to Europe. We moved back to France in 1986 to write a book about life in the kind of wine village where I had picked grapes years before and it was great. We found a small town that was just right, they were welcoming, they were real and most of the town lived on growing grapes and making wine. Sarah’s a photographer and she started a photography career illustrating my articles. I was writing for Progressive Architecture…and I was writing for food and wine books but really Wine Spectator was my main market and they were looking for someone to work in their London office at the time. So Marvin [Shanken] interviewed me and offered me the job and I thought I’ve pretty much finished the research on the book, I’ve never lived in London, I might like it, and you know what, if it doesn’t work out I can always quit…well, that was 1988.

How did you feel about writing exclusively about wine at that point?

I think if you’d asked me if I wanted to be a wine writer I would have said wine was a pretty small subject, but in fact it embraces the whole world. You’ve got architecture, you’ve got agriculture, you’ve got science, you’ve got history, you’ve got people-incredible amazing people and you’ve got generosity and hospitality and good living and so, there you are.

How did you first meet Marvin and what was your initial impression?

I started working with his editors and then I interviewed with him for this position. He happened to be in Paris and he called me up. Marvin is a very visionary, passionate, driven person and you get the sense that he’s going to get where he wants to go and if you have an idea that you might want to go there it kind of makes sense to tag along.

You certainly moved around a bit! How did you finally make the move from London back to New York?

After a year and a half in London, Marvin wanted someone in New York because he’s always been in New York. The main offices of Wine Spectator at that time were in San Francisco and I would have liked to live in San Francisco but nobody on the staff wanted to come to New York and I can’t really blame them. So I thought if you’re going to work for the Sun King you might as well move to Versailles and I’d already lived in New York and loved it so I said I’d come. Then after a few years he shut down the operations in California and moved all of the editing and production here to New York, so they joined me after all.

What is a typical day like for you here at Wine Spectator?

The good thing about being the Editor is that you have so many different fields that you’re overseeing and trying to guide forward so I have about thirty-five people on our staff between the editorial people, the tasting people, the art people, the web people and on any given day I’m interacting with all of those different departments. I’m editing copy, looking at layouts, going over web ideas, I’m tasting or I’m looking at tasting results so my goal is really to help motivate and direct the talent of the people who work for me and on any day I’m talking with all thirty of them plus you or anyone else that calls or comes in, so the diversity of tasks is one of the things I like best about the job.

As Executive Editor, do you travel a lot or are you mostly based in New York?

In the old days when I was really more of a writer and a taster I would travel for good chunks of time to the wine regions I was covering. So I might spend a week in Rioja just in the cellars and vineyards tramping around and tasting and talking with people, or in the Rhone, and unfortunately I don’t do that as much, which I miss a lot. But we have events, our Grand Tour Tastings and our Wine Experience. We support events like the South Beach Wine & Food Festival or Vinexpo or Vinitaly and that keeps me traveling quite a bit so it’s not as much the boots in the vineyard stuff as it is schmoozing and talking and tasting, but it's still pretty fascinating to meet the wide range of people and get to explore the different places.

What is your current favorite wine region?

I’ve always been more of a radio listener than an album buyer. I like to be open to what’s happening out in the world and try new things. I’m not really a collector myself, I’m more of an explorer. Really what I want is to experience a wide variety of wines and understand those wines as much as possible. That said, that time in Bordeaux really helped form my palate so my idea of a great red wine is still kind of based around what a mature Bordeaux tastes like: balance, elegance, complexity, length and so that’s what I’m looking for when I’m tasting wines whether they’re from Spain, California or Australia.

Stay tuned for the second installment of my three-part interview with Thomas Matthews where he discusses some of the magazine's most memorable milestones, explains how they taste and document all those wines and gives valuable advice to aspiring wine writers.


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