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Robert Lawrence Balzer was 24 years old when his father put him in charge of buying wine for their small grocery store in Los Angeles. He stocked the shelves of Balzer’s on Larchmont, a gourmet market in the heart of the old grocery district not far from Hollywood and Beverly Hills, with the finest wines he could find.
The store would be Balzer’s introduction to wine and to Hollywood, but that was only the beginning. He went on to become America’s first wine journalist, writing an influential column for the Los Angeles Timesmagazine. He was an unabashed cheerleader for California wine as the industry matured. He also became one of the country’s preeminent wine educators, teaching a generation about the nuances of food and wine. Balzer died Dec. 2 at the age of 99 at his home in Orange, Calif.
In his heyday, Balzer knew everyone in wine and everyone in wine knew him, his friends recalled. He was active in food and wine circles and maintained a sharp wit until the end.
“He was clearly California’s first truly great wine writer and a pioneer,” said Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Wine Spectator. Along with being an early contributor to Wine Spectator, Balzer was also one of the founders of the California Wine Experience. “He was the first real wine educator for California wine. He brought tremendous color to the California wine industry. I owe a lot of my knowledge about California wine to him. He deserves tremendous credit for what he did.”
Through the decades, Balzer rubbed shoulders with all the big names in wine, including André Tchelistcheff, Ernest and Julio Gallo, August Sebastiani, Robert Mondavi and Alexis Lichine. He also knew many of Hollywood’s most famous stars, including Marlon Brando, Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson and Ronald Reagan, who asked Balzer to plan food and wine for an inauguration event.
“In my opinion, one of the finest wine writers of all time,” said Sam Sebastiani, whose family owned Sebastiani Vineyards in Sonoma for nearly a century before selling it two years ago. “He was a pioneer in the evaluation of wine during the beginning years of critical wine writing. He had a creativity with words that is seldom matched and sensitivity for evaluation of wine without demeaning the winemaker.”
Born June 12, 1912, in Des Moines, Iowa, Balzer went to work for his father after graduating from Stanford University. Over the years, he was a retailer, artist, actor, restaurateur and even a flight instructor during World War II. He studied to be a Buddhist monk in Cambodia.
He began writing about wine for a Beverly Hills newspaper in 1937 and published the first of his 11 books—California’s Best Wines—in 1948. It wasn’t long before he began branching out to other publications, most notably Travel Holiday magazine, which published his articles for more than two decades. Balzer’s period of greatest influence began in 1964, when he started 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.
In the late 1960s, a new era in California wine was beginning, with names like Heitz and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars creating a buzz, and Balzer was helping to usher it in. Balzer conducted blind tastings for the Timesand a great review meant exposure to a large audience. Robert Mondavi was just getting started with his own winery when his 1969 Cabernet Sauvignon won a prominent Balzer tasting.
“I championed many wines,” Balzer told Wine Spectator associate editor Tim Fish in a 2002 interview. “Wente, Martini, Beaulieu, Inglenook—I championed them all very strongly.” Bright, quick-witted and articulate, he was a keen student of wine and appreciated it at many levels. While he was an early advocate of collectibles such as Silver Oak, Balzer could also be passionate about wines like Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy.
Harvey Posert, Robert Mondavi’s right-hand man and the winery’s public relations director, said Balzer played a crucial role in the l960s development of Southern California as the nation’s top table-wine market. “His classes and presentations made many people wine enthusiasts,” said Posert, who lives in St. Helena. “And his friendships from the Hollywood community to the Napa Valley were extremely helpful. He brought Vincent Price to my work for Wine Institute—did we enjoy those tastings.”
Of the many roles he took on over the years, teaching may have been Balzer’s greatest passion. “There’s a give and take,” Balzer told Wine Spectator in 2002. “In a sense, it’s theater.” He continued teaching classes, taking students to Napa and Europe, into his 90s.
Story by James Laube
Courtesy of Wine Spectator