THE QUESTION most frequently asked of me, currently in my 53rd year of wine reportage, is always blunt and to the point: "How did you get into this field?"
My reply is always the same--I was born into it. My great-grandfather catered wine and food at Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration. Very shrewd, indeed, was he. My copy of that memorable "Bill of Fare" (the original is in the National Archives) shows that Mr. Lincoln didn't get billing. It's captioned only "Presidential Inauguration Ball." And at the bottom, it reads: "Provided by G. A. BALZER, Confectioner, Cor. 9th & D Sts., Washington, D.C."
G. A.'s son, my grandfather, went into the importation of coffee, tea and spices in the East and Midwest. And my father, Albert Taylor Balzer, as many Angelenos know, was the city's leading grocer to the carriage trade. Balzer's was on Larchmont Boulevard in Hancock Park. When I joined my father in the business in 1936 after I graduated from Stanford with a degree in English, he simply told me: "You will buy the wines."
Beyond a couple jugs of Angelica from a campus bootlegger and sparkling burgundy at speak-easies in Los Altos and San Francisco (Prohibition was in effect when I was in college), my Bacchic background was only slightly above zero. It quickly became cram-study time for me.
A wine salesman arranged for me to visit the Wente Brothers vineyard and winery in Livermore during the harvest of 1937. Herman and Ernest Wente became my first tutors and remained so for the rest of their wonderful lives. Wine makers Louis M. Martini and Andre Tchelistcheff also became my teachers.
When I was the youngest member of the Los Angeles Wine & Food Society at the age of 27, I frequently brought along my Stanford classmate, Bill Rogers Jr., who had inherited the Beverly Hills Citizen from his father, Will Rogers. Bill decided after one sumptuous wine-tasting dinner that I should write a weekly column for his paper. "Concerning Wines & Foods" became the first regular wine column west of New York City. And that is how this idyll began.
But there is another thread in this autobiographical tapestry, one that holds the fabric together: the writings of wine authority Andre L. Simon. I discovered them the day after my father told me that I would be a wine buyer. While I was browsing through a secondhand bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard, I found Simon's "The Art of Good Living," published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1930. It is subtitled: "A Contribution to the Better Understanding of Food and Drink Together with a Gastronomic Vocabulary and a Wine Dictionary."
This 201-page book became my bible. Simon, founder of the international Wine & Food Society and a most generous correspondent, became a lifelong friend. He helped me obtain copies of all his books, and I was honored to have him write the preface to my own second book, "The Pleasures of Wine," published in 1964, by Bobbs-Merrill.
One of the customers at Balzer's shared my enthusiasm for Simon's writings, and he invited me to see his own wine library. There were calfskin-bound volumes from the 17th and 18th centuries. Such an impressive sight sent me back to the secondhand bookstores. I was thrilled when I found Soyer's "Pantropheon . . . History of Food," published in 1853 in London. Another discovery was "The Physiology of Taste" by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. Author M. F. K. Fisher, then writing screenplays for Paramount, was one of our customers, and she autographed her "How to Cook a Wolf" for me--a banner day.
Everyone who's seriously sought information about a hobby knows how quickly the numbers of books grow. Even building a new room to house the overflow is sometimes not enough. Stacks spill over from shelves to the floor, turning aisles into obstacle courses.
If this column sparks a desire in you to start a wine library or add to one, here are some titles--old and new. The late Alexis Lichine wrote two basic reference books: "The Wines of France" (Knopf) and the fifth edition of "Alexis Lichine's New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits" (Knopf, $45).
For Cabernet Sauvignon lovers, James Laube's new book, "California's Great Cabernets" (Wine Spectator Press, $29.95) is stimulating, controversial with its arbitrary classification of California's "growths" and invaluable in its tasting notes on vintages dating back to 1933.
The bible for Italian wine lovers is Burton Anderson's "Vino: The Wine & Winemakers of Italy" (Atlantic, Little Brown, $29.45).
Scholars and wine buffs alike will revel in the richness of "Vintage: The Story of Wine," by England's wine laureate, Hugh Johnson (Simon & Schuster, $39.95)
Who knows--once you've set out upon this wine trail, you may be inspired to write your own wine book. That's how I happened to write my first book, "California's Best Wines" in 1948. I think it's still worth a read, in case you find it out there. Coming this fall, from Harry N. Abrams, Inc., will be a new edition of "The Joys of Wine" with the California update by yours truly in vino veritas .