This interview is syndicated from the bi-monthly column for Oregon Wine Press, and “turns the tables” on Oregon wine industry writers by asking them about their own profession. The Q&As are modeled on the Wine Industry Network Advisor series, which features national and regional writers and journalists. You can also read it on the Oregon Wine Press Website.
Neal D. Hulkower, Ph.D., is an applied mathematician and freelance writer living in McMinnville. His wine writing can be found in academic and popular publications, including the Journal of Wine Research, Journal of Wine Economics, American Wine Society Wine Journal, Oregon Wine Press, Practical Winery & Vineyard, Wine Press Northwest, The World of Fine Wine, as well as Wine-searcher.com. Hulkower was a field coordinator for Slow Wine 2020 and 2021 guides. He is a member of the Circle of Wine Writers.
How did you come to wine and writing about it?
NH: Wine was served as part of religious rituals in my house and synagogue. Except for a rare excursion into the dry version, Manischewitz Concord Grape was the choice. I had to wait until I left home for college to have my first taste of fine wine, which was a classified growth Claret.
In the early 1970s, my very first wine pieces were published in Vintage, a long-defunct popular wine magazine. They were compilations of notes from wine tastings or dinners held by a gourmet group I cofounded as a student. I regularly enjoyed fine wine and attended tastings while I was engaged full-time in my career, but I didn’t publish anything wine-related again until 2009.
I have an interest in decision analysis, especially methods of aggregating preferences. When I watched “Bottle Shock,” I wondered how the final rankings were determined. So, I did the research and saw that the method used had problems. I documented my findings in “The Judgment of Paris According to Borda,” which was published in the Journal of Wine Research in 2009. Two years later, my first article in the Oregon Wine Press, a Golden Book version of the paper, appeared as “Borda Is Better.” I continue to write about wine for academic, trade and popular publications.
What are your primary story interests?
NH: I focus on applications of mathematics to the world of wine, Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and reviews of wine-related books. I also enjoy covering wine events and personalities. Lately, I’ve been writing a lot about AHIVOY, an organization that provides educational opportunities for vineyard workers. The late cofounder, Jesús Guillén, was a dear friend of mine and had asked me to write the original piece in 2018. Since then, as both an homage to him and in admiration of the remarkable progress the organization has made, I am following the story.
What are your primary palate preferences?
NH: I’ve lived all over the country and have generally gravitated to the local product. When I chose where I was going to end up, I picked Oregon, the land of fabulous Pinot Noir and Riesling.
Are you a staff columnist or freelance? What are the advantages of both?
NH: I am freelance. I no longer need nor want a full-time commitment but am very happy to take writing gigs. Not having been a staff writer, I can guess that a steady instead of sporadic revenue stream and greater assurance that one’s work will be published are very strong advantages. Freelancing lets me pitch to whomever whatever strikes my fancy whenever I have an idea and not be constrained by a publication’s point of view.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
NH: I was a rocket scientist and have a main belt asteroid named in my honor for work I did at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1980s.
How did you come to live and write in Oregon?
NH: Including Oregon, I’ve lived in a total of 11 states, in search of interesting and more lucrative career opportunities. None comes anywhere near the appeal of the two in the Northwest. When I lived in Washington state, we’d come down occasionally for a weekend to enjoy the fabulous food and wine scene in Portland and the Valley. I knew that I wanted to carve a place in the wine industry here, so after moving to Virginia to take my last full-time grownup job, we continued to visit two or three times a year deciding where we wanted to roost. We bought our place in McMinnville in 2009. After my full-time commitment ended in 2011, I was freed up to do whatever I wanted. Writing was always high on my list.
What is one thing you’d like readers to learn from your writing?
NH: More than any other substance, one’s interaction with wine and the culture in which it is embedded is deeply personal and should be valued. All of my pieces share my perspective and interests but never intend to replace those of the reader. I only put out tasting notes if a gig requires them because I really don’t like them for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is that they distract a taster from one’s own experience.
What’s the best story you have written?
NH: “The Cost of Drinking Wine History” on Wine-searcher.com. It’s got it all: numbers, wine economics, some humor, and a deep dive into my early history with wine. Besides, Charlie said it was his favorite of my pieces up to that time. www.wine-searcher.com/m/2020/06/the-cost-of-drinking-wine-history
Describe your approach to wine writing.
NH: At various points in the development of the piece, it involves showers. I get ideas, clever phrases, structural adjustments, and ways around mental blocks during those few relaxing moments. Very few pieces write themselves; usually those that describe an event, but most require effort and continuous rewriting until the piece decides it’s had enough and is about to escape. My wife is my first-line editor and must approve before it heads to the editor.
What are you working on now (your own site or other outlets/publications)?
NH: I have some wine books I’m reviewing for the Journal of Wine Economics, at this writing. I also have a few articles into different outlets. If they are not accepted, I’ll keep searching for others. I’m keeping an eye on AHIVOY for any news. And then there is my memoir.
Any suggestions to wineries when dealing with writers?
NH: I’ve been fortunate in that almost all of my interactions with wineries, owners and winemakers have been most cordial. From what I hear, this is generally the case among my colleagues in the state. The only problem that arose once was when my numerous efforts to contact a winery for inclusion in a guide were ignored. Had the owner offered a swift and simple courtesy “no,” I would have stopped trying.
Which wine personality (living or dead) would you like to meet and taste with?
NH: I have a soft spot for the British writers like Andrew Jeffords, Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson and Jane Anson. It would have been fun to sit with Michael Broadbent, Steven Spurrier and Frank Prial.
How do you like to spend your days off?
NH: At this stage in my life, most days seem like days off. I work part time in two tasting rooms — sources of great ideas and readership for articles — and write mostly on days I don’t. Our grandchildren are scattered about, so we travel lot. Most nights we enjoy movies in our home theater. Pervasive music, usually classical or jazz, recorded, broadcast or live, is essential.
Most memorable wine or wine experience?
NH: I keep coming back to the tasting I hosted in my tiny apartment on May 22, 1977, to celebrate finishing graduate school. There were four well-aged, classified growth Clarets: 1962 Château La Mission Haut Brion, 1959 Château Mouton-Rothschild, 1959 Château Talbot and 1959 Château Beychevelle, a 1971 Steinberger Spätlese, and the one that I could imagine still tasting decades later, the 1959 Steinberger Trockenbeerenauslese.
What’s your favorite wine region in the world?
NH: I live in it.
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.