The 2004 Wine Literary Award Tasting — Speeches

  • Keynote address, Daniel J. Solomon
  • Robert Mondavi’s address
  • Oration Gene Ford

  • Toast Of The 2004 Wine Literary Award Tasting
  • The 2004 Wine Literary Award Press Tasting Winery Winners
  • Press Tasting Photo Gallery
  • General Information
  • Previous Wine Literary Award Winners
  • Previous Press Tasting Winery Winners
  • Frequently Asked Questions

  • Keynote address, Daniel J. Solomon, April 30 2004, The Wine Literary Award

    Charming, outrageous flamboyant, a man of exquisite taste, keen wit, great loyalty and shocking frankness is Robert Lawrence Balzer.

    A wine writer for 65 years, he has been a retailer, an artist, an actor, a restaurateur and even a flight instructor during World War II, he has known the rich and famous, whether in food and wine, politics or Hollywood. He is also Buddhist monk.

    Robert Lawrence was the first serious wine writer-journalist in America! He's been writing about wine long before most of us were born.

    His love affair with wine begins with Repeal about the time he graduated Stanford and joined Balzer's, the family's green grocer and gourmet market in Larchmont not far from Hollywood and Beverly Hills. " All the stars came there, just everybody," Balzer remembers. Customers included Cecil DeMille, Ingrid Bergman, Marlon Brando, you name it. Alfred Hitchcock was there all the time."

    In 1936, at the age of 24, his father put him in charge of the wine department. "I didn't know a thing about wine. So I went to Hollywood Boulevard to the secondhand bookstores and bought every book I could lay my hands on."

    California wines were just finding their way onto retail shelves after Prohibition's 13-year dry spell. Balzer stocked on his shelves—with Almaden, Inglenook, and Paul Masson — at the time among the best American fine-wine brands.

    Balzer championed their wines and wine in general in his customer newsletter. Will Rogers Jr., a classmate at Stanford, was intrigued by Balzer's writing and in 1937 asked him to do a regular wine column for his newspaper, the Beverly Hills Citizen. At the time there were only a handful of Americans, including Frank Schoonmaker, writing regularly about wine.

    The first of his 11 books—California's Best Wines—was published in 1948, and it wasn't long before he began branching out -- most notably to Travel Holiday magazine, which published his articles for more than two decades.

    In 1964, he began writing a weekly wine column for the Los Angeles Times Magazine. A few years later, he launched Robert Lawrence Balzer's Private Guide to Food and Wine, quite likely the first wine newsletter in America.

    The great and pioneering vintners and wine families all count Balzer as a personal friend and as a friend of wine! The Wentes, John Daniel Jr. of Inglenook, Louis M. Martini, Robert Mondavi, Ernest Gallo and Fernande de Latour of Beaulieu Vineyard legendary winemaker André Tchelistcheff. A new era in California wine was beginning, and Robert Lawrence Balzer helped usher it in. In the 1960s and '70s, Balzer was arguably the most powerful wine writer in America. Time Magazine Here.

    Robert Mondavi was just getting started when his 1969 Cabernet Sauvignon won a prominent Balzer tasting. While he was an early advocate of collectibles such as Silver Oak, Balzer could also be passionate about wines like Gallo's Hearty Burgundy. There was much wine excitement then and Balzer was cheerleader and coach all together.

    He also has a spiritual side. Since the early '50s, he has studied Buddhism at one time at a temple in Cambodia. As Balzer tells it " I was trying to find my way and was ordained a monk -- the first blue-eyed Buddhist monk in history. It made headlines. It was in Fox Movie-tone News, and it made the front page of the Los Angeles Times: 'Millionaire Los Angeles Grocer Becomes Buddhist Monk.' Right next to a photo of me winning a Charleston contest with Betty Hutton."

    He's working on his autobiography, I understand after a year of work and several hundred pages he's only up to his twelfth birthday? !!!! Grin! And he is still teaching wine classes, something he has done for three decades.

    Indeed, teaching may be his greatest passion. Over the years winemakers have made regular pilgrimages to speak to Balzer's classes, which have developed an almost cult like following with students. Many are regulars and have taken the course many times and have traveled to France and or Balzer is a gifted raconteur and comes by it naturally. From his youth, Hollywood was all around him. Balzer flirted briefly with a career in show business.

    Robert was an established part of Hollywood when sold the family store in the late 1950s. His friends included: Glenn Ford, Olivia de Havilland and Greta Garbo. He had small roles in two films: The Day of the Locust and one of Gloria Swanson's last films, "The Killer Bees."

    As part of the Hollywood establish Robert had met Ronald Reagan the actor. After Reagan was elected president, he remembered a Balzer story--that Balzer's grandfather had helped plan Lincoln's inauguration, So Reagan asked Balzer to oversee the food-and-wine at the 1981 inauguration in Washington, D.C. Balzer did it again in 1985, and for George Bush in 1989. Today Robert writes an occasional article.

    Robert Lawrence Balzer has helped the California wine industry and American restaurants come of age. He has helped bring fine wine and food to America.

    Ladies and gentleman it is a privilege to introduce my friend Robert Lawrence Balzer!

    (I want to thank and tip my hat to The Wine Spectator and an article by Tim Fish that helped provide some of the background facts used here.)

    Robert Mondavi’s address to Robert Lawrence Balzer: The Wine Literary Award, April 30, 2004

    I’ve known Bob Balzer for only a short time—I believe it’s about 50 years now. Bob knows wine and has always known wine. I remember even in the early days, he was so good that he was willing to do blind tastings. And he had the right answers—I suppose that is why he continued to do it!

    Bob has been a great promoter of Napa Valley and California wine since the very beginning. In my opinion, enough can’t be said about all the good he has done in building the image of California wine. In the early days, there was no awareness of California wines and their potential to stand alongside the world’s finest. Bob has spread the word during his long and successful carrier in writing and teaching, and tonight I would like to recognize him for that.

    I have nothing but great respect for Bob. He hasn’t been given enough credit for the important part he has played and continues to play in our industry. So tonight, Bob, congratulations and a big “THANK YOU” for all you have done for us.

    Oration Gene Ford, April 30, 2004, The Wine Literary Award

    Ladies and gentlemen:

    Biographers have a category known as “Epic Lives.” We honor this evening a gentleman who truly attains that elite category – Robert Lawrence Balzer.

    For perspective, the definition of the word epic is “An extended poem in elevated, dignified language.” A perfect fit for our honoree – Robert Lawrence Balzer.

    Extending the reference one more step, the definition of an “epicurean” is: “A person with refined tastes – especially in food and wine.” A quintessential elaboration to the life of Robert Lawrence Balzer and his many contributions to the world of food and wine.

    When Brother Timothy of the Christian Brothers hired me to manage their distribution in Washington and Montana, when those two states opened to retail distribution, I was delighted to enter a booming industry. Had I known that much later I would be able to sit at table with Robert Mondavi and Robert Lawrence Balzer, I might have paid Brother Tim for the privelege that tonight has provided.

    Seriously, late-comers to this magnificent trade like Dan Solomon and myself have literally soaked up a graduate course in wine appreciation from those two noble gentlemen. In many ways, many of us in this room tonight owe our careers to them.

    So I ask you with me, to raise your glass once more and toast a truly “epicurean” man in our midst, Robert Lawrence Balzer.

    Thank you.

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