By Joel M. Fisher
If asked who The Wine Spectator anointed Dean of Wine Writers, who would be your guess? Robert Parker, perhaps? The answer is a name not heard enough these days: Robert Lawrence Balzer.
The onetime actor, aviator, media personage and Buddhist monk cut quite a figure in his day. Born in 1912, Balzer got his start in wine at his family’s famous gourmet grocery store in the Larchmont neighborhood of Los Angeles. At the age of 24 he was put charge of the store’s wine department. Balzer took this responsibility seriously, knew he had a lot to learn, and plunged into wine studies. He quickly realized two things: he loved sharing what he learned about wine with others, and he believed California wines to be world-class – back in the days when these were fighting words.
Over the years, Balzer steadily expanded his soapbox from the family store wine department to the media. He wrote for the Los Angeles Times and Holiday Magazine, and appeared on radio shows on such stations as KFI and K-Mozart. To help promote California wines, he supported or directed a slew of competitions including the Jerry Mead New World International Wine Competition, the Long Beach Grand Cru Wine Competition, and the New York Wine Tasting of 1973, which was the precursor for the famous Tasting of Paris. Impressively, he judged the Los Angeles County Fair Wine Competition (now the L.A. International Wine and Spirits Competition) for an astounding 61 years.
Ever prolific, Balzer has authored 11 books that stand the test of time. He organized the food and wine pairings at two presidential inaugurations – Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Last but not least, he taught appreciation classes at UC Irvine, UCLA, countless cruises, and the Queen Mary.
The man is tireless – and still going at age 98. I witnessed a radio appearance of his last year. Over the last decade Balzer has racked up career accolades that celebrate his legacy of sharing his wine passion and knowledge. Wines and Vines Magazine named him Wine Writer of the Year in 1996. The Academy of Wine Communications gave him its annual Wine Communications Award in 1997. The Wine Appreciation Guild honored him with its Wine Literary Award in 2004. And as you now know, The Wine Spectator honored him with the appellation of “Dean of American Wine Writers” in 2002.
Perhaps the greatest honor, however, is just how many wine tasting groups Balzer inspired. Alums of his classes have been particularly prolific in establishing their own groups. Balzer helped bring wine education and wine appreciation to an accessible level. Countless wine enthusiasts have benefited from and appreciated his message. As a self-taught wine man, Balzer can receive no greater honor.
Co-authored by Sara Fisher Chapin