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Uncorking the story behind a wine adventure

Wine columnist Edward Deitch discusses winning the prestigious James Beard Foundation Journalism Award, his "Sideways" vineyard travels and what he keeps stocked in his cellar.
/ Source: TODAY.com

Can you imagine traveling and tasting the flavors of California’s beautiful wine region — and being honored for it?

MSNBC.com and TODAYshow.com wine columnist Edward Deitch has done just that — winning the prestigious 2007 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award in the category of Multimedia Writing on Food, Beverage, Restaurant or Nutrition — basically the Pulitzer of the food-writing world — for his article “On the trail of great California syrah and more.”

The winning article began with Deitch taking a roadtrip in a California tourist staple — a white Mustang rental — throughout gorgeous Santa Barbara county, visiting various wineries and hotspots, including the renowned Hitching Post, famous for permitting “Sideways’” avid-Merlot protestor Paul Giamatti to drink himself into a wobbly stupor.

Deitch didn’t experience the hangovers and violent lady troubles of the film’s notorious characters; instead, packed with a camera and thirst for the perfect Syrah, Deitch took a close look at the area’s impressive vineyards and prized grapes.

In honor of his prize, we asked the wine aficionado and NBC Nightly News senior producer to elaborate on his award-winning article and video, his adventures in wine country and what readers can expect to find in his very own cellar. Read our Q&A:

What’s your personal philosophy and approach to wine and food writing? What do you think it is about your column, “On the that drew the attention of the James Beard Foundation?

Well first, I don’t attempt to review everything. I’m looking for an outstanding wine (or two) each week that I can build a story around, both in my column and in my videos. I emphasize story and narrative — why I think a wine stands out. I’ll leave it to others to put scores on wines.  For me, wine is much more than a number. When I find a terrific wine, whether it’s $10 or $50, I want to know what went into making it great. I’ll dig and report and find out as much information as I can, talking to winemakers, importers and others who can provide insights. I make a point of spending a lot of time with the wine, sometimes over a couple of days, tasting it repeatedly, observing as much as I can about it and seeing how it evolves. 

I also like to write about how I discovered it, what foods I paired it with and how I enjoyed it with friends and family. I think this combined approach of storytelling and criticism must have left an impression on the James Beard judges.

You visited both Bien Nacido Vineyard and Stolpman Vineyards in Santa Barbara County. What was the most enjoyable part of tasting (and spitting) your way through some of California’s famous wineries?

As I said in the column, I really enjoyed sitting down to a great homemade Thai lunch on a Friday afternoon with the whole crew at the Bien Nacido Vineyard and tasting 20 or more wines — from pinot gris and chardonnay to pinot noir and syrah, often several vintages of each. Most of the wines went surprisingly well with the spicy food.

I also liked experiencing where these top wines came from, picking up pieces of limestone on Stolpman’s steep hillside vineyards, feeling the cooling ocean breezes blowing through the valley at Bien Nacido, just getting my hands dirty for a change out in the vineyards. The Santa Ynez and Santa Maria Valleys are absolutely gorgeous country, by the way.

How did your producing skills come in handy for your story?  Was it challenging to juggle a camera and video equipment with glasses of syrah?

I don’t recommend trying to taste wine and shoot video at the same time. Aren’t there laws against that? But because I’ve been a television news producer longer than a wine critic, I have a sense of how to shoot interviews and scenery, both in video and stills. When I got the tape back to our office I noticed a lot of wind noise from the vineyards, so I had to work hard to make the video piece work.

How was your trip similar to the popular movie “Sideways?” Did you by any chance get punched by Sandra Oh?

I got pretty close to Sandra Oh at the bar of the Hitching Post restaurant, though in truth it was really just her picture on the wall. I hadn’t really planned on visiting the Hitching Post but when I arrived in the area after a three-hour drive from Los Angeles it was late and the restaurant was one of the few still open. I didn’t quite know what to expect when I saw four or five bikers in leather leaving the place, but it’s really a family-style restaurant with very good food and, of course, a good sampling of Santa Barbara wines. There was a local crowd — farmer types who, just about anywhere else, might be drinking bottles of Bud, but here they were tasting from $40 bottles of pinot noir.

To quote Paul Giamatti’s character, Miles, pinot is thin-skinned, temperamental, and needs constant attention to reach its brilliant and subtle character, whereas cabernet is a survivor that can just grow anywhere. Which do you consider yourself?

At times I am all of these things, and I like both pinot noir and cabernet, by the way, depending on the occasion. Does that sound non-committal? Maybe you should ask my wife this question.

Now that you’ve conquered California’s wine country (and subsequently won a James Beard Foundation Journalism Award for it), which region would you like to tackle next?

I want to explore more of France and Italy and Spain, which have such great variety and which still offer some of the best wine values in the world.

When not on the road, are you a big wine drinker? What could one expect to find in your cellar?

I never have dinner without wine and on weekends I try to taste at lunch as well, “taste” being the operative word. If I’m not motivated by a wine, which, unfortunately, is the case more often than not, I don’t feel sorry for it. I’ll pour it down the drain or bring unopened bottles as “gifts” to friends, figuring that maybe they’ll see something that I didn’t. My cellar is a hodgepodge from all over the world, with hundreds of bottles waiting for a verdict. Since becoming a wine critic five years ago, I feel I’m always working, even at dinner parties where I sometimes find myself scribbling notes. But I’m not complaining. I can’t think of any job that would be more fun.

Do you have any tips or recommendations for readers planning their own California wine country trip this summer?

Don’t overdo it. Pick a region and then just a few wineries each day. Look for smaller wineries off the beaten path. A rundown barn may actually produce better wine than the glitzy new place with the tour buses parked outside. Find other things to do in wine country or you’ll become exhausted.  Drink lots of water. And if you don’t like a wine don’t hesitate to spit it out. That’s what that bucket’s for.

appears Wednesdays. He has been the wine columnist for MSNBC.com since 2002 and is the host of NBC Wine Tasting on NBC Mobile and MSNBC.com. He welcomes comments from readers. Write to him at