The Eating Our Words 100

The Eating Our Words 100: Dale Robertson, a Populist Among Wine Writers

Eating...Our Words has embarked on a project to profile 100 Houston culinarians of all fields, practices, careers and backgrounds. This isn't a Best of Houston® list, it's not a 100 Favorites list and it's not in any particular order. Instead, the Eating...Our Words 100 is a way to introduce our readers to some of the most notable people behind Houston's exciting and deep-rooted culinary culture. Twice a week, we'll explore a new culinarian's work, his or her inspiration and what makes Houston a perfect home.

What he does:

Unless you live under a rock, you already know that Dale Robertson is one of the best sports writers in the U.S. today, with four decades under his belt covering high-profile teams in one of America's most sport-crazed cities. The Tour de France, Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the Olympics -- you name it; he's covered it.

His career started at the University of Houston's Daily Cougar. By the time he was a junior, he had already landed a job at the Houston Post sports desk. And he's been writing about sports for the Houston Chronicle since 1980.

Robertson also happens to cover another beat: the Houston wine scene. With his weekly column in the Chronicle, he is our city's leading wine writer, and he's considered by many -- me included -- to be one of our state's top chroniclers of all things vinous.

Why he likes it:

It was thanks to the 1982 NFL strike that Robertson found himself with extra time on his hands. He was already interested in wine, he told me the other night when we sat down at the Backstreet Cafè over a bottle of Priorat Grenache. But "that was when I really threw myself into the books," he said.

His "day" gig's mandatory travel took him outside of Houston, and the paper's expense account opened doors to a world otherwise closed to a struggling young writer.

"I married early in life, when I was 21," Dale explained, "and so while other sports writers were using their expense accounts to visit bars, I went to fine restaurants." (Dale's wife, Deborah Robertson, is the W. Bryan Trammell Jr. Chair in English at prestigious private school St. John's.) A stay in Québec City covering hockey delivered his first experiences with fine French wines, and then "a bottle of Aldo Conterno Barolo [from Italy] led to an epiphany" that wine writing was something he wanted to pursue.

Nearly 20 years after he began studying wine, Robertson finally landed his first food and wine byline: In 2002, while covering the Tour de France, he published a series of gastronomic dispatches, reporting daily on what he ate and drank in every village along the Tour's route.

In 2008, the editors of the Chronicle asked him to take over the wine writing duties and launched his column, which includes his profiles of top Houston wine professionals, tasting notes from his monthly tasting group, and feature articles on wines that you can find in the Houston market.

"It's extremely important to me," he said, "that consumers can actually find the wines that I write about. I taste every sample that arrives at my office with my monthly tasting group. But if it's not available here, I won't write about it."

What inspires him:

"Everybody's palate counts," Robertson told me emphatically. "I do what I do to help create community, to tell great stories and to let my readers know about the many great wine professionals we have here in Houston."

"I want to keep it fun and easy," he said with a contagious grin. "Community is what it's all about. I find that people are adventurists if you'll lead them. I try to keep my column focused on the Houston wine scene and to involve the Houston wine community."

Each month, Robertson gathers a group of roughly 10-20 Houston wine professionals from every corner of the trade for his blind tastings. Provided that the wines are available in the Houston market, sales people are encouraged to bring wines that they represent, and Robertson makes up the balance of the tasting flights with the many wines that find their way to his desk. The wines are scored, the scores are tallied and Robertson publishes the results in his column for the Chronicle.

"My goal is to find a consensus on great wines and great values that are available here in Houston," he said.

What's next:

Robertson's demotic tasting panels are emblematic of his approach to tasting and wine writing. And in many ways, he has ushered the Houston wine community into the era of peer-based recommendations.

"I'm no Robert Parker. I'm a populist," he explained, referring to the creator of the 100-point scoring system, founder of the Wine Advocate and "emperor of wine" who tends to prefer wines that most of us cannot find or afford.

Whether on one of his many trips to France for the Tour or a winter sojourn in Turin, Italy, for the Olympics, Robertson leads a life that many would consider enviable. When he and I met for this piece, he was about to leave for Sonoma, where his itinerary was to include only marquee-name properties.

The Houston wine community is blessed to have him and fortunate to be able to live vicariously through the tales of an adventurist and populist who just happens to know his Barolo from his Bordeaux.

The Eating...Our Words 100:

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Jeremy Parzen writes about wine and modern civilization for the Houston Press. A wine trade marketing consultant by day, he is also an adjunct professor at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont, Italy. He spends his free time writing and recording music with his daughters and wife in Houston.
Contact: Jeremy Parzen