I want my interview series to be as expansive as possible. I have interviewed people that I both know and those that I don’t as well. In the many wine events and travels that I do there may be little time to converse beyond the subject of the event or the trip. So this is a great way to ask questions that I have not always had time to ask when I see someone in person. Interviews can give focus and framing and filled with great depth as well.
I do and have always learned something new by doing this and I hope you feel the same way when you take a read. Years ago I was so captivated by Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire that I thought I would make this one part Proustian and the other part getting another persons viewpoint on wine, food and travel and anything else.
One thing was clear was that I very much wanted to feature Deborah Parker Wong in my interview series. I have known her for nearly a decade, if not a full one. Since we are based in the same city I often see her in person at the many wine events in San Francisco. She has been a welcomed constancy in my consistent quest of wine knowledge. I appreciate Deborah’s fountain of wine knowledge not just in terms of taste but also the viti- and vinicultural technicals of wine. Deborah is a Global Wine Editor of The Tasting Panel and The SOMM Journal, she also is an adjunct professor in the wine studies programs at Santa Rosa Junior College, Napa Valley College and Cabrillo College. She is an approved program provider for Wine & Spirits Education Trust Level 2 and 3 certifications. And she conducts many seminars and master’s throughout the year.
I have been fortunate to have been in three master classes that she has taught and her capability of being approachable is evident and I look forward to attending many more in the future. And lastly I appreciate her kindness, talents, realness—and she is easily one of the most down-to-earth people that I know. I hope for those that know her this interview highlights something new and if you haven’t met her Deborah is certainly someone that should be on your “to meet” list.
I hope you enjoy this written interview with Deborah Parker Wong!
Thank you Deborah for taking the time out to take this written interview for my readers to learn more about you.
JTWG Q1: How did you come to the wine world? I know you were doing PR work prior to your wine education and teaching role; was your specialization in food and wine PR?
DPW: I found my way to wine through food! Here’s the backstory in brief. As a kid I loved to watch Julia Child’s cooking shows on public television and read “Gourmet” magazine. I put myself through college working as a private chef in what was a ‘Julia and Julia’ scenario. I worked as chef in residence from 1979 to 1987 and cooked my way through most of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” volumes one and two, had a steer butchered to order every year and grew a lovely organic kitchen garden complete with an asparagus trench and blond raspberries; it was farm to table before we even called it that. I was also responsible for maintaining a 5,000-bottle wine cellar chock full of stupendous German wine and my appreciation for fine wine began there.
After I decided to move to San Francisco to finish school at SF State, I landed a job with a PR firm that had restaurant accounts and worked with celebrity chefs. It was then that I met Tim Gaiser MS and Evan Goldstein MS and started training with the Court. After my daughter was born I shifted gears and co-directed a high tech PR firm for several years but kept my hand in with wine classes. There came a point around 2004 when I had some tough decisions to make regarding my children and work/life balance so I decided to work part time and began writing for “Patterson’s Beverage Journal.” I used that flex time to study for the WSET Diploma which I achieved in 2009 and I have never looked back. Time flies when you love your work.
JTWG Q2 I have been delighted to attend three of your master classes – I appreciate the deep foundational knowledge that you present. What do you like most about presenting master classes?
DPW: Thank you for saying so, James. I’ll harken back to my motto “To learn, read. To know, write. To master, teach.” That says it all. Every time I teach, I learn. The motivation behind preparing for a rigorous class is being able to share that learning with others who have similar interests and also being able to do work that I enjoy. It’s still hard work and it can be nerve wracking but I’m the one doing the pushing to make it happen. I like to think that I might be helping someone work towards their own mastery and that I’m providing insights beyond just the facts.
JTWG Q3 We’ve talked about Sherry and how it is a region that has teetered between being appreciated and still being produced – has Sherry turned a corner and will it be a tradition not just now but ongoing?
DPW: I’ve enjoyed teaching students about Sherry through WSET classes and although I’ve been in different wine regions of Spain, I have yet to see a sherry bodega with my own eyes. I honestly believe that bartenders have given all styles of sherry a new lease on life. As an ingredient in a cocktail they add instant complexity. Adults who would otherwise never look at those wine styles have been exposed to Fino, Amontillado, Oloroso etc. via their cocktails. While I haven’t looked at any statistics for the Sherry industry lately – sounds like there’s some homework to do there – I do have concerns that this beautiful fortified wine style may be in jeopardy unless it finds a broader audience of new enthusiasts.
JTWG Q4 Global warming is no doubt upon us via daily discussions and data points – there are so many inferences being made about all wine countries today – the sense is that most regions won’t be able to produce wines in the mid-term if not sooner. What are your thoughts?
DPW: I think extreme pressures will shift the southern-most limit for winegrowing north in the northern hemisphere but I don’t see winegrowers in marginal areas rushing to abandon superb terroir. I see them being forced to adapt by grafting, planting to new varieties and even experimenting with new wine styles. There are so many heat-tolerant grape varieties out there just waiting to be explored and I was glad to see winegrowers in Napa take the initiative and sacrifice a few acres to test some. With upper Napa Valley now at Winkler IV, denial is no longer an option and the industry has finally begun talking about it. With all of the talent out there I’m confident that the wine industry will find short-term solutions. However, I’m far less confident that without major policy changes, we as individuals regardless of our sacrifices will have very little impact on reversing climate change.
JTWG Q5 What wines regions do you think are the most under appreciated in the US beyond California?
DPW: I judge wines from other states during wine competitions and I’ve been making a point to taste around the US when I can for the past few years. I always find very tasty examples from regions that are considered emerging. The biggest challenges I see are not in the vineyard, they’re in the winery. My only advice to one nascent region was “hire some consulting winemakers, pronto.” When I’m out doing field research I’ll find picture-perfect vineyards and textbook Davis wineries but then the wines will underperform woefully. I think Finger Lakes is finally getting some well-deserved respect from the sommelier community.
JTWG Q6 What does the off premise wine sales look like in the US in terms of growth in the next couple of years?
DPW: Despite the strength of direct to consumer sales, it’s the lifestyle shift towards moderating consumption that I believe poses some challenges ahead. We’ve now got wine in cans and other types of alternative packaging being offered on premise and off premise and that could well be the way to democratize it once and for all. Alternative packaging is going to help off premise but I see the functional beverage category eating in to sales of lower alcohol beverages like wine and beer. As I said in a recent Wine Analytics Report, the beer and spirits industries are quickly developing products for the functional category but the wine industry seems missing in action there. The question is how much market share will be lost to that dynamic category.
JTWG Q7 Are there profound generational differences of wine? Don’t all generations count and are more similar than different as it relates to wine?
DPW: I recently wrote, “Functional beverages may be only thing that Millennials and Boomers have in common.” This is one category that truly seems to be cross-generational and that’s not a statement we can generally make about wine. Once the younger adult generational cohorts develop more earning power, I expect that their interest in fine wine will follow but to what degree is the question. The social and cultural context of wine has a lot of pull, it’s an aspirational beverage after all.
JTWG Q8 – What are you favourite dishes to cook and what wines do you like to pair with what you have prepared?
DPW: Cooking is both an everyday chore and an exercise in creativity. I shop daily when I can and I don’t own a freezer. I prepare lots of Cantonese dishes because that’s what my partner enjoys most but I never let my French classics get rusty. I love a fish soup, call it a riff on Bouillabaisse, Souffles, Gougeres, vegetable terrines, the occasional madeleine for tea etc. We’re omnivores so meat and vegetables are on the table and that requires planning. I rotate through chicken, fish, shellfish, pork, lamb, beef (Chateaubriand is a favorite along with cuts like tongue, oxtail and filet tails). Given the number of wine samples I need to taste and the three-taste rule that applies to any scoring I do, I’m usually tasting what’s in the queue. I do believe that with some exceptions, most wines go with most foods and I like to test for the exceptions all the time. If whatever is open doesn’t work, I’ll just move on and return to it the next day. Tasting is happening but when it comes to wine as food, I prefer to drink what I enjoy.
JTWG Q9 – What is your favourite wine memory?
DPW: I’m not going to dodge this question. I do have many favorite defining wine moments, most of them involve being in the moment in a vineyard or at table when it feels like you’ve been struck by lightning. My moments are not pretentious. The first time I tasted mono varietal Colombard while visiting an Armagnac producer in Gascony, I was struck by how truly delicious it was. It tasted nothing like what I knew was growing in California. This was very early, one of my first field research trips, and I knew then that there would be many more discoveries ahead.
JTWG Q10 – What books are you reading now?
DPW: I’m usually reading non-fiction related to wine and if you look at my Kindle library you’ll instantly feel sleepy. That said, this summer I enjoyed “Educated” by Tara Westover, the journey of a self-taught Mormon woman who earned a PhD. I like historical fiction and was a latecomer to the “Outlander” books by Barbara Gabaldon. Her depiction of the Scottish Highlands and the final days of the clans culminating in the battle of Culloden was compelling. It reminded me in many ways of the “Last Samurai” and the demise of the shoguns. She isn’t shy about a steamy love scene or two either. I’m now being encouraged to read “Dark Money” but I think it will be utterly demoralizing so I’m undecided.
JTWG Q11 Where have your wine travel taken you to this year and any highlights from your travel?
DPW: Defining moments were had in New Zealand, Utiel-Requena, Spain and Oregon. Highlights included actually seeing the Greywacke gravel of Gimblett Gravels in Hawkes Bay, dancing under the stars along the Awatere River, exploring the ruins of wineries built by the Phoenicians near Valencia, Spain and getting drenched while ski boating up the Rogue River in what was the best boat ride I’ve taken for ages. There was wine involved at every step of the way.
JTWG Q12 What makes a wine memorable?
DPW: In some cases I’ve had to intentionally go back and confirm the wine that marked a special occasion just so I could remember it as a sentimental favorite. But for me, those wines never taste quite the same afterwards and I drink them only for sentimental reasons. The wines I remember are wines that teach me something – about the grape, the place, the person who made it, myself…I know that sounds cerebral but it’s true. Otherwise, I just take great pleasure in what I’m drinking and if I’m on task I’ll be taking notes so I’m freed of the obligation to remember more than my impressions. I remember wines very vividly when I look at a wine list and see them staring back at me like old friends. It’s a singularly delicious feeling and it’s made reading wine lists a lot more enjoyable.
JTWG Q13 Any parting comments, thoughts or anything that is top of mind for you?
DPW: James, I’m simply in awe of the passion that you bring to your pursuit of wine and your very authentic connection to the wine community. There were times before I began teaching at the local colleges that I felt like an outsider looking in which isn’t a bad perspective for a journalist. But now that I’m teaching in the heart of Napa, Sonoma and Santa Cruz and seeing students make their way to Sonoma State, Davis and on to good industry jobs, I feel more like part of the wine industry and for that I’m truly grateful.
Thank you so much for participating in my interview series!
What a delight to learn more about Deborah and I hope you enjoyed as much as I did. Here is Deborah Parker Wong’s website to keep up with all that she is doing.
James the Wine Guy
Demystifying Wine…One Bottle at a Time from all wine regions around the world.
Photo courtesy of Deborah Parker Wong.
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