“Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers” is a Q&A series profiling Wine Writers. We hope you’ll discover more about the wine writers you know, and learn about many others. The objective of this project is to understand and develop working relationships with journalists. They are, after all, those that help tell our stories, review our wines and potentially provide media coverage. You can do this by learning their wine and writing backgrounds, story and personal interests, palate preferences, writing challenges, and pet peeves. This is part of an ongoing series that will be featured monthly by Wine Industry Advisor.
I learned of Ken Friedenreich’s death in the November issue of Oregon Wine Press, and I was ridden with guilt. I initially met Ken when I started my PR agency in 2009; we both seemed to appear at all the same wine events. We got to be friendly and worked on client projects together—Ken as the Hack and me as the Flack. As you read this interview, you will learn how profound and esoteric Ken was.
He was quite an operator—and funny all the time, even when he called me from the hospital treatment center. I used to joke that I would finally publish his Turning the Tables interview posthumously, which is how things worked out, thus the guilt. But joy in sharing his story.
About Ken Friedenreich
During his lifetime, Ken Friedenreich—at some point or another—resided in each of the four corners of the continental US, including a four-year stint near bottom-of-nowhere, San Antonio, Texas. There he launched a ten-year university career, became an “underground gourmet” for a city magazine, and a producer on Austin-based PBS for a restaurant segment he called “Going into the Kitchen with Gun and Camera.”
A New York native who published studies of English Renaissance drama and verse, he supplemented his meager stipend by working in the wine and spirits industry; thus began a more than forty-year run as a freelance editor and writer. He also worked in television news for most of the 1990s, building the television network for a twenty-four-hour cable news channel. He conceived and co-produced a run of restaurant advertorials, helping to further blur the line between facts and impressions.
He worked in many other industries as corporate communications factotum in addition to his editorial and writing duties. He enjoyed writing music and sailing boats in good weather. He was wine editor for California Homes Magazine. His motto was always “la vida breve (life is short)—drink the good wine today.”
And when occasionally asked sotto voce what it’s like to live in this world half-blind, he’d answer: “To know that, you have to walk in my shoes. But I can’t find them.”
How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?
As a New York native, one soon learns that there are four beverages: Mogen David, Chianti, Nedicks Orange, and the beer that sponsors baseball. To this early instruction, I grew up in the middle of the American paramountcy, when the cocktail hour was supplanted or enhanced by wine at dinner. To these advantages, we owned sailboats. Since one must wait for wind, we pass the time swearing, drinking gin and tonics as well as light Italian white wines. To this, one adds my experience as a national importer of spirits and wine, plus various restaurant startups over the years.
I am a slow learner, but also adventurous.
From this background, I used my personal connections to work in various media, and from early on I wrote about food and wine as both reviewer and travel writer. My main ports of call have been with San Antonio Magazine, Orange County, California Homes Magazine—for which I have written for over 30 years—as well as hospitality trades and also a lucrative spell penning for in-flight magazines. I took much of this skill into my work in television news, most of the time as producer. I remain the wine dude for California Homes—a neat turn as I now live in Portland, OR.
What are your primary story interests?
Wine to drink, people who make it, and how commercial success can be hazardous to the winery’s ecology. That is to say, succession and changes of ownership. I am most interested in the history of place in its relationships to wine traditions.
What are your primary palate preferences?
I am a savory kind of fellow who fits that bill being left-handed, a Scorpio, and legally blind. One may add that blind tastings do not float my sail boat.
Are you a staff columnist or freelance? What are the advantages of both?
I have had more titles as a contributing editor than dollars for the time. I never worked but as a hired gun in any media until I built a cable news television network in the ’90s. And I had help and a billion-dollar company funding the exercise.
What are the primary challenges you face as a wine writer?
Well, losing one’s vision over time is a big clue that God has it in for writers. The beverage market has changed considerably, and chasing after developments that come so rapidly does tire me. It is not the pace of change; it is shabby and cliché-ridden communications that bury interest under a turd waffle of words and attitudes.
One must remember the public and its taste are part of a passing parade, and not a standing army. I am endangered, a relic of a time past before its time. I like to say I am a somewhat older white guy, a straight no-hyphens person, who drinks wine and writes about it. I have no pretensions or will for saving the planet. It has done fine for 5 billion years without my memos or suggestions. I am outside the doors of the church of climate change. I collect a litany of screaming pronouncements published almost daily in certain trades. There is, surely, an inevitable osmosis that makes anyone interested in wine a conservative with a small C: one cannot walk a row of vines or inhale the must after the press of fruit without seeking a median of ecology, commercial and environmental.
Do you consider yourself an Influencer?
I would rather be known as a wine writer. I get plenty of comment for my work. I am not an influencer, which derives from the Italian influenza, as in the effect of the stars on our lives, and later, the killer infection called “the flu.” From the medieval times, the stars have provided a living for scoundrels and mountebanks. The idea of creating a following on a social page in order to hype oneself and someone’s wine to the great unwashed is like Jim Jones’ Kool-Aid, screwing the idlers and the timid. It is just a ruse like wine-tasting scores. They are suspect. The value in influence for the people paying the freight is the following, not the message. The premium is in the reach.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I would be remiss not to mention my Oregon Wine Country Stories: Decoding the Grape, published in 2018 by Arcadia/History Press.
Add to this is my musical compositions, about 100, some of it good, including string quartets, sonatas, and concertos—some played in concert when Mozart wasn’t there.
Then there is name dropping stuff, not the media-access opportunities many share from time-to-time. I mean Clio, the muse of history. Did you ever have lunch with Richard Nixon? Did you tour his Bordeaux stash behind a rigged wall in the cellar kitchen of 21 in Manhattan? Did the kid who sat next to you in homeroom for four years happen to be the son of the court psychologist at the Nuremberg Trials? I did.
Speaking of music, did your baby grand come your way from the Disney artists who produced the opening of the original Fantasia, created Bambi, and designed the Small World Pavilion that originally debuted in 64 at the World’s Fair? Well, I got that piano. We’ve even sailed together.
Just people, embodying a good story I was close to.
What is one thing you’d like readers to learn from your writing about wine?
Do as I do, not as I say. Trust your palate and develop your taste memory. Keep it simple and drink the good wine today. After you die, the relatives will pop the corks and make Sangria with your precious Burgundies.
What’s the best story you have written? Please provide a link.
Oregon Wine Press – “Meet Nimrod Persiflage” and more recently, “California Punchline: A Glass of Wine is not an Experience.”
If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing?
Drinking. Also, a TV crew went to Calcutta to interview Mother Theresa and they asked her the same thing. “I’d like to direct” she confessed. I think that is a good call. I would produce a cooking show for the visually impaired.
Remember a sharp knife.
Which wine personalities would you most like to meet and taste with (living or dead)?
I’d have a wonderful dinner with Pierre Franey with gobs of caviar, two dinners with Julia Child and two more with Bob Mondavi, plus all the wonderful folks in my Oregon book.
Other interesting dinner companions might include Pope John 22nd who planted what became Chateauneuf de Pape in 1322 or so—and also gave huge parties.
Ausonius, the poet and senator of Rome in the time the empire hit the fan, retired to Bordeaux. He settled a property that grew fine grapes. He might be fun to talk with about brie and brigands.
Ben Franklin, when he was ambassador to the French scaring up dough for our revolution, owned a wine cellar with not less than one thousand bottles. He must have had some fine wines in that stash. I think he would set a simple table. And the conversation would be more interesting than cable news.
What is your most memorable wine and food tasting experience?
I believe wine, mentioned 228 times in the bible, is a special gift and forms a nexus for hospitality, conviviality, and reflection. Too much of a good thing can make you say or do dumb things, but unlike weed, it doesn’t leave you dumb. The bible does caution us about leaders who imbibe too much. This may in part explain why it took the Israelites 40 years wandering in the desert coming out of Egypt.
This reminded me of a 1984 lunch at The Four Seasons at the Seagrams Building on Park Avenue, down a few blocks from my old offices. I spent $134 for a filet of sole, boned table-side, with a Meunière sauce and roasted potatoes. The side was fresh, sweet green beans tickled by parsley butter.
The wine? Chassagne-Montrachet, ’78 vintage—and that is not hazy recall. It drank well enough, with plenty of freshness, fine minerality, and bright fruit to become a superb bottle of wine.
I love that wine beguiles us with its simplicity. Like wine and writing about wine, be beguiled.
CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s celebrating his 12th year of winery consulting. Carl has been involved in business marketing and public relations for over 25 years; originally in technology, digital marketing and project management, and now as a winery media relations consultant. Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, Walla Walla, Columbia Valley, and the Columbia Gorge. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.