Christine Graham, a Contributing Editor to The Underground Wineletter, has just published a book on wine icon Robert Lawrence Balzer, Hollywood and Wine — A Star Studded Life, The Robert Lawrence Balzer Story. According to Christine, Balzer had been working on his autobiography for years but had only reached the decade of the 50s in 2010 when he was 98 so he finally agreed to have her complete the book for him. In order to accomplish that, since Balzer died in December 2011, she had to rely on his copious notes, articles, books and journals.
Photos left to right and top to bottom: Louis M. Martini, Balzer’s Grocery on Larchmont; Etienne Hugel and Balzer; Henri Krug; Joan Crawford awarding Balzer check for $10,000 for winning entree.
She describes in the book how Hollywood and Wine is just one intersection in Balzer’s life. I remember Balzer from the 70s and 80s when he had a regular wine column in the Los Angeles Times. At that time there were very few people writing about wine. Balzer wrote about all kinds of wines, but I particularly remember his many articles on Gallo wines (especially Hearty Burgundy) and other mass produced low priced wines sold largely in super markets. I also remember him personally for his penchant for capes and speedos as well as his exaggerated speech and mannerisms. A blue-eyed, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant from Iowa, Balzer relished his life as a Hollywood man about town in the society columns to ultimately creating a new American genre of wine journalism. His first article in 1939, five years after the ending of Prohibition, was the beginning of salvaging the wine industry decimated by its impact. For the next 60+ years, Balzer continued to legitimize the industry to the world and three years prior to the famous Judgment of Paris in 1976, his 1973 Chardonnay tasting in New York showed California wines besting French wines. He was a 20th Century Renaissance man: Hollywood celebrity, Buddhist monk, fancy grocer, wine educator, bon vivant, restaurateur, chef, actor, author, pilot, poet, painter, photographer, dancer, world traveler, philanthropist, radio personality, visionary.
Photos left to right and top to bottom: Robert Mondavi, John DeLuca, Balzer; Balzer, Andre Simon, Dr. Maynard Amerine; Jean-Michel Cazes, Balzer; Aubert de Villaine, Lalou Bize-Leroy, Balzer; Dick Smothers, Balzer, Tom Smothers.
Highlights From The Book
- Balzer was socially fluent across a range of worlds, interests and issues, counting among his closest friends, President Ronald Reagan, Olivia de Havilland, Gloria Swanson, Joan Fontaine, HRH Norodom Sihanouk, Robert Mondavi, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Burgess Meredith, Greta Garbo, Marlon Brando, Wolfgang Puck, Paul Bocuse, Claude Taittinger, and the Wente family.
- Balzer was a wine and food merchant to the stars at Balzer’s gourmet market on Larchmont Boulevard in Los Angeles, a war correspondent in Southeast Asia, a Buddhist monk in Cambodia, a chef for three Presidential Inaugurals, receiving two cooking awards (one for $10,000), teaching wine classes for over 36 years and leading wine tours that crisscrossed America and Europe.
- He wrote 12 books including the seminal 1948 book on California wines, a weekly wine column for The Los Angeles Times for 32 years, was the sole arbiter for the Travel/Holiday Restaurant Awards for 18 years and founded the California Wine Experience in 1981.
- His restaurant in Idyllwild, California, attracted Presidents, Hollywood celebrities, authors, a murder confession and more, including Eisenhower, Reagan, Brando, Olivia de Havilland, Gloria Swanson, Glenn Ford, Alan Watts, Neil Morgan, Jack Smith, Barbara Marx Sinatra among others. Actor Tom Neal of the film noir Detour fame, came to The Tirol and confessed to Robert that he had just murdered his wife.
- He bought Rudolph Valentino’s home Falcon Lair and sold it to Doris Duke. He built a home overlooking the Hollywood Hills adjacent to the future home of Jack Nicholson, which was coveted by Howard Hughes and later sold to Marlon Brando.
- He met George Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward in London. He acted in plays, at home and with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and appeared in two movies.
- He was on the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary in 1936 and still teaching, traveling and writing in 2008. He was a hostage on a freighter in Bombay, was mentored by the Dalai Lama and Aldous Huxley among others.
- Balzer had a loving 10-year marriage to the talented actress Emily Lawrence, 20 years of intimate rapport with Gloria Swanson, a 30-year domestic partnership with James Willett and a life-long friendship with Olivia de Havilland.
- While managing the wines and spirits for the store, Balzer met and became friends with many of the great pioneers of California’s wine industry, learning about wine from the Wentes, Mirassous, Robert Mondavi, Joe Concannon, Louis M. Martini, Ernest Gallo, Georges de Latour, Andre Tchelistcheff, John Daniel, Brother Timothy, Andre Simon, Dr. Maynard Amerine and others. Regular patrons of the store included Cecil B. DeMille, Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock, Irene Dunne, Hedda Hopper, MFK Fisher, Theda Bara, Donald Douglas, Vilma Banky and more.
- Louis M. Martini taught him that “Memory is a wine taster’s greatest asset.” He visited Ernest and Julio Gallo to taste their wines, stating that “Gallo Hearty Burgundy is the best value in red wine in the world” confirmed by Europe’s two leading wine commentators, Hugh Johnson and Harry Waugh.
- Balzer traveled to Europe to learn and write about the world’s wines, developing friendships with Piero Antinori, Aubert de Villaine, Lalou Bize Leroy, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Claude Taittinger, Baron and Baroness of Castello di Brolio, Alexander Lur Saluces, Henri Krug, Jean Michel Cazes, Trimbachs among others.
- Invited to attend the coronation of Cambodia’s King Sihanouk, Robert became close friends with HRH Norodom Sihanouk, Prime Minister of Cambodia, and became a Buddhist monk, entering a monastery in Phnom Penh for two weeks after the coronation ceremonies.
- This book is a treasure trove of photos and stories that should appeal to anyone drawn to the worlds of wine, food and Hollywood. Among the many photographs are some from the early days of Hollywood and the early days of the California wine industry.
Photos left to right and top to bottom: Balzer, Ernest Gallo, Hugh Johnson; Balzer, Gloria Swanson; Balzer; Bernard Trimbach, Balzer, Hubert Trimbach; Claude Taittinger, Balzer; Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, Robert Mondavi; Andre Tchelistcheff, Balzer.
Photos left to right and top to bottom: Ronald Reagan, Balzer; Robert Mondavi, Baron Philippe de Rothschild; Balzer, Zelma Long; Mike Grgich, Balzer; Balzer teaching at Lawry’s; Balzer, Alexandre lur Saluces.
Photos left to right and top to bottom: Balzer and Fred Brander tread grapes in lagares in Portugal; Christian Moueix; Eric Wente with his horse Flash; Piero Antinori, Balzer; Balzer, Barbara Lazaroff, Ursula Hermacinski.
Christine’s book is available on Amazon as an ebook which can be downloaded and read on a Kindle, computer, iphone, android, etc. (click here ).
Painting of Balzer by famed neo-impressionist painter, James-Paul Brown
In Vino Veritas,