- The Underground Wine Letter - http://www.undergroundwineletter.com -


Some 40 years ago, I started my pursuit of learning about wine.  It had never been a part of my life until after Laurie and I were married in 1967.  At that time, I said to her that there has to be something better than “Red Mountain,” a jug wine that sold for a few bucks a gallon.  It was most often used in my college days as a blend with stout malt liquor, which was purchased in six packs of half-quart cans.  The total cost of the blended concoction was about $5 for a couple of gallons.  Somehow, this just didn’t match up with food, but no one cared.  It served its purpose as a party beverage.  And yes, I tried the Red Mountain “straight up,” but couldn’t choke it down.

So from these humble, even debauched beginnings, Laurie and I set forth to visit the Wine Country in Northern California.  Along Route 101, we passed through San Jose (just south of San Francisco) and saw signs for Wine Tasting.  Eureka!  We pulled over, stepped up to the bar, and began to taste.  Alas, nothing seemed to move too far past Red Mountain.  That is until the very end when it was suggested that we try a dessert wine, Malvasia Bianca.  We did. It was very sweet and we looked at each other, smiled, and decided right then and there that we had found the holy grail.  As I was about to pay for our bottles to take home, I noticed that there was one other wine we didn’t taste – something called Cabernet Sauvignon.  I asked if we could taste it and was politely told that it was not available for tasting because it was too expensive — $4.  Yikes!  Four bucks!!  How could anything be worth that?  With some hesitation, I finally decided to buy a bottle and take it home to try.  And away we went.  We never made it to the Napa/Sonoma wine country on that trip.

Later at home, I opened the “expensive” Cabernet and poured us each a glass.  One sip was enough.  Neither of us could drink it.  It seemed to have no merit at all and, if anything, was worse than the Red Mountain.  So much for that.  Back to the Malvasia Bianca.  But, alas, we soon found that its appeal faded fast.  We tried it with food, but that didn’t work.  The wine was syrupy sweet and a few glasses were overpowering.  So back to beer!

But I just could not get over how many people liked wine.  We had to be missing something.  A friend suggested we join a national organization called “Les Amis du Vin.”  We did and began to go to “wine tastings,” a new phenomenon that was becoming all the rage.  With some  minimal food (typically bread and cheese) a group of wines were opened and tasted either one at a time or in small groups.  People took notes and at the end, everyone voted for a favorite.  This was fun for awhile and we began to like Chardonnays and some Cabernets, as well as Rieslings and a host of other wines, including some French wines.

But, after awhile, this too got tiring.  There were too many wines that we didn’t like.  And then there was the voting for the best wine.  Invariably, there would be wines that smelled skunky, reeking of sulphur, and others that were oxidized and brown.  In California, the renaissance of wine was just beginning and many who were making commercial wine were testing their training wheels.  But guess what?  More often than not, some of the people would vote the obviously flawed wines as the best.  The result was that a mediocre wine usually scored first, some terrible wines without good flavors ranked ahead of very sound, enjoyable wines.  Again, this just didn’t seem right.  But along the way we met a lot of really nice people.  Some bought vineyards, others started wineries and soon we started visiting wineries.

I was employed at the time as a securities analyst at Sutro & Company in Los Angeles.  Sutro was a San Francisco-based brokerage firm that was founded just after the Gold Rush in the 1850s.  It had a long and distinguished past.  In Los Angeles, a gentleman by the name of Felix Juda was the firm’s star producer.  He developed a wide list of clients among insurance companies, banks, investment management companies, etc.  These “Institutional” clients were just beginning to take over the stock and bond markets from the “Mom and Pop” individual investors.  Felix recognized this very early, and for some 30 years had built up a very substantial business dealing as a broker for these institutional clients all across the country.  One secret to his success (in addition to his unwavering work ethic) was a “long distance” phone call.  Up in the wee hours of the morning, Felix and his group of  sales people were making long distance calls to the Midwest and East Coast.  A long distance call was a rare and expensive thing and Felix received a very warm reception for spending the time and money to call.

Felix and his sales people also traveled extensively all over the world and composed “travel letters” which were distributed to several thousand individuals and institutional clients all over the U.S. and even overseas in Europe and the Far East.  One day Felix came to me and inquired about our visits to the Napa/Sonoma Wine Country.  We chatted and he asked if I would compose a “wine letter” to go to clients.  I agreed and began writing these wine letters.  About the same time I became acquainted with a man named Dave Chapman, who was a financial advisor in Orange County.  He was importing French wines and nearly every Saturday a group of us would gather at his office to taste mostly Bordeaux and Burgundy from the 20s, 30s,  40s, 50s and 60s.  Dave was fanatical.  He had started a small letter which he called “The Underground Wineletter.”  It contained brief tasting notes, stories, restaurant reviews, recipes, jokes, and other stuff.  And, like Felix, one day he came calling.  He had tired of doing it and asked if I would take it over.  I agreed and began to think about what to do with it.

I immediately talked with my group of friends, including Ed Lazarus, the late Greg Doerschlag and Geoffrey Troy and a few other people.  All agreed that I should do a “serious” publication devoted only to the finest wines and that they would participate in tastings, travel, and some writing.  So off we went!

That was 1979.  By mid-year, I had lined up some mailing lists.  The primary list was supplied by Ken Kwit, the CEO of Sonoma VineyardsSonoma Vineyards had the Windsor label brand which focused on wines with personalized labels sold via mail.  So with this list merged into several other lists, we had our nucleus of potential subscribers.  I developed the format, wrote the articles, printed the labels, found a printer and out came the first issue “First Vintage, First Crush” in August-September 1979.  With our 2-year-old son, Jeff, crawling around on our living room floor, Laurie and I, along with help from some neighborhood kids (who were happy to work for a few bucks), stuffed and sealed envelopes, affixed labels and stamps on 10,000 issues and carted them down to our little post office in Seal Beach.  They were overwhelmed!  This was more mail that they had ever imagined.

At that time, the English magazine Decanter was available, but not widely distributed in the U.S.  The English wine writers Harry Waugh and Michael Broadbent were the authorities on Bordeaux.  Information on Burgundy was less available.  The Los Angeles Times published information that covered mostly California wines and some foreign wines.  Nathan Chroman wrote a weekly column and Robert Lawrence Balzer did articles and reports on food and wine in the Sunday magazine.  There were independent publications including Robert Finigan’s Private Guide to Wines, Connoisseurs Guide to California Wines, The California Grapevine and a newspaper from San Diego by Bob Morrisey, called The Wine Spectator.

My friends and I found all of these publications lacking the depth and scope of what we wanted.  So our publication was launched.  Interestingly, in another part of the world, there was another publication that had begun in Maryland, founded by Robert Parker, called Wine Advocate, but we had no knowledge of this until our wine publication came out.  Our first edition focused on why we felt there was need for The Underground Wineletter.  People agreed.  After the 10,000 issues made their way out of the little Seal Beach post office, checks (at a rate of $20/year) started coming in and soon we had 1,000 subscribers.  We were off!

And, what a joy it was.  I continued to work at Sutro & Co., and later E. F. Hutton.  This period covered 1979-1983 and during this time, we coordinated dozens of tastings, and many trips to the wine country (passing through San Jose this time) to taste wines (particularly from barrel where very little information was available).  Also, we first visited Bordeaux and Burgundy in 1981.  It was then that we arranged to do the first ever tasting of all the current vintage wines of one commune in Bordeaux.  This was at Ducru-Beaucaillou in Saint Julien when the late Eugene Borie arranged the tasting of all the current vintage classified growths of Saint Julien (also including Gloria, a non-classified growth that was highly respected) with all of the owners of each chateau in attendance, including the late Michel Delon of Leoville-Las-Cases who was one of the more reclusive owners.

In California, our barrel tastings led us to discover the 1978 Lake Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Diamond Creek.  We convinced the late Al Brounstein to bottle the wine separately.  The solitary barrel of this wine today ranks as one of California’s greatest Cabernets.  And, there are many more stories.  Ed Lazarus, Geoffrey Troy and I were among the first to visit wineries and taste the wines from Washington, Oregon and California’s Central Coast, especially the Santa Ynez Valley. (Beginning with Volume I, Number 1 from August-September 1979, we will be posting each issue of the old Underground.  All our findings are being reviewed and updated in my Underground Retrospectives where I am reviewing each issue in order of publication. I think you will enjoy reading these up-dates where I go over that we did right and what we did wrong. They also give an insight as to what things were like then and offer many visions of the future. I find it very interesting to review these articles with the benefit of now having it all in the rear view window where  hindsight is always 20/20! Please look for them as they are published. I think you will really enjoy them.)

In those earlier days, I was very busy, but somehow found time to be with my family, carry on with my investment career, and taste, travel, write and publish The Underground Wineletter.  The newsletter prospered and we went from publishing six times a year to publishing 12 times a year in Volume V, Number 1,  August 1983.  But, in 1983, I had an opportunity to do what I had aspired to do from the beginning of my investment career in 1967, and that was to manage money.  I joined a what was then a small investment firm in Pasadena founded by Roger Engemann and was offered the opportunity along with my partner, Jim Mair to manage investment portfolios.  It was a real joy, doing research and portfolio management and traveling extensively across the U.S., and later overseas, visiting companies.

In 1987, because of the expanded scope of the publication, the name was changed to The Wine Journal.  Shortly thereafter, an outcry from our subscribers to “bring back the Underground” resulted in yet another name change to The Underground Wine Journal.

By 1988, as our investment business was expanding dramatically, I found that I could no longer continue the same pace and elected to turn over the publishing of The Underground Wine Journal.  The late Gregg Lee, along with assistance from Christine Graham, assumed the publisher’s role.  I continued to taste and write about wine and do some traveling in wine areas in California, France, Italy and Germany, but others took over more of these tasks.

In 1995 another publisher came along and introduced color photos for the first time.  It looked nice but also cost a lot more and so by 1998 the publication went to yet another group of publishers who decided to make it into a magazine that was devoted not only to wine but to food, travel and other such things.  They asked my advice and I told them they were making a mistake, that it was too far removed from the historical focus of the publication and that I had no interest in being actively involved.  But, they forged ahead.  I allowed them to use my name, with the promise that I would be responsible for nothing and would ultimately have my name removed should the publication not meet my standards.  Sadly, that finally happened, and in early 2002 it ceased to exist.  And, after publication ceased, we all continued to taste and drink wines and travel to do wine tastings, including tastings from barrel. In 2005, I retired from the investment business and resuming my love of wine and wine writing, the Underground was launched in its present form on the internet in December, 2009.

So that was then.  Fast forward over 30 years, here we are again.  During this period a lot has changed.  But, despite the changes, a lot is still the same.  For, despite a proliferation of wine publications, there is a void.  The void is finding understandable information written in a simple, straightforward manner. Sadly, today most wine writing is too complicated and filled with an excess of superlatives and hype.  Our hope is to bring things back to a more understandable level.  We will focus on the same things we featured in the past.  That is, new wines, old wines, expensive wines and affordable wines from all over the world.  Our bias towards the drinkability factor will provide a vivid contrast to some of the current wine fads and descriptions.

No question, there is a lot to be said and done, so please join us on this new version of our old mission.  In simple and straightforward language, we will candidly review the past, try to demystify the current wine situation, review young wines and old wines,  take a look at the future, offer commentary on current wine trends, and have a little fun writing about some the bizarre things that are going on today in the world of wine. And, most of all, we will have fun.  Life is not only too short to drink bad wine, but also too short to take ourselves too seriously.  Relax. Take it easy. And, enjoy the new Underground. Let the games begin!

In Vino Veritas,

John Tilson