Dorothy J. Gaiter
Dorothy J. Gaiter wrote the Wall Street Journal’s wine column, “Tastings,” from 1998 to 2010 with her husband, John Brecher. Dorothy grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Tallahassee, Florida, ultimately earning her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in 1973. Her distinguished 30-year career includes stints as a reporter, editor, columnist and editorial writer at the Miami Herald and the New York Times, as well as at the Journal. Both Dorothy and John now write for GrapeCollective.com. Their creation—Open That Bottle Night—is now an annual event that has given pleasure and extraordinary meaning to hundreds of thousands of wine lovers worldwide.
We interviewed Dorothy Gaiter for WineSpeed in February 2020.
Karen MacNeil: In your 2002 book Love by the Glass, you and John credited a woman with a wine shop in Coconut Grove, Florida, whose name you never knew, with kick starting your wine appreciation and education. How did she do that?
Dorothy Gaiter: She embraced our excitement and curiosity about wine and trusted us when we told her we had open minds and eager palates. We learned so much from her selections, which always came within our case budget of $72, and we think she had a good time doing this. We’d take her selections to our apartment and look them up in Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine or Leon Adams’s The Wines of America and begin to form an appreciation of the geography and history of wine regions and winemakers. Which then made us want to travel to them to see for ourselves and taste at the source. As our knowledge expanded, we went to other stores as well and discovered the great Chip Cassidy, who died last October. We followed him to every store he worked at and watched him ascend to the position of chief wine buyer for the Crown Wine and Spirits chain. He created the wine program at Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and taught there for 35 years.
KM: In 1976 you and John found Château Lafite Rothschild for $8 a bottle and purchased 3 bottles. It was from 1968, widely thought to be a disastrous vintage. You LOVED it and found it to be a “revelation.” What lesson did you learn from that experience?
DG: One of the many lessons we learned from that experience, and which we passed along to readers, is that – for value — in a troubled vintage, look for wines from stellar producers and, in great years, look for wines from little-known producers. We also learned to decide a wine’s quality for ourselves, and not be tethered to the conventional wisdom. It was our first experience with a First Growth Bordeaux, and the complexity of it was stunning, unlike anything we’d ever had.
KM: When you and John started the Tastings column, you had to demonstrate some expertise in wine before anyone would let you write about it. Today, blogging has changed that. Lots of people write about wine, even people who admit not knowing much about it. Does that dismay you, or is that good?
DG: My time is valuable, so I don’t believe in wasting it by reading anything that’s written by someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about. Whatever the subject.
KM: What was your process for harmoniously co-authoring the column with John? Do you have to agree on a wine before you write about it?
DG: Harmonious? Ha! When we disagreed, and we did from time to time, we said so. We still do. In a column about First Growths (which we wrote about every year to answer the question “Is this or that one or all of them good values”), we disagreed so much that we published two different indexes! In a column about Zinfandel, we disagreed about the merits of some and said so. We felt it was important for readers to know that it was ok not to agree with what others think, even us, and that there’s no right or wrong when it comes to what they like. After blind-tasting the 50-60 wines that formed the basis of each column, because I’m the reporter, I would then call the winemaker of our best-of-tasting and sometimes also our best-value wine and ask how it was made. If it was something obscure, I would ask why it was made. I’d also sometimes call a restaurant or store to ask how something got on its list or shelves. John, often interviewed industry researchers about stats—acreage planted, consumption, etc., and it was more often John who corresponded with readers who wrote to us. He ordered wines from all over the country and did the record-keeping and label removing, unless it was particularly tough and he’d call me for help. John is a brilliant editor and writer. We’d rewrite each other until we were both happy. There was always a reason why we were writing a particular column. A reader might have asked how to start a wine club (we tracked down maybe a half dozen across the country to get tips on putting together clubs of like-minded wine lovers). Others asked how to throw a wine-tasting party, or what to do if you want to take wine to a friend’s house for dinner (don’t re-gift was one tip). Sometimes it was seasonal, such as holiday gifts (the reason we first interviewed you, Karen), a special meal for Thanksgiving or Passover. Other times it was practical: how to get the most out of a visit to a winery or how to navigate a wine list. Our advice has become conventional wisdom. Working together, it has always helped that my office had a door.
“We felt it was important for readers to know that it was ok not to agree with what others think, even us, and that there’s no right or wrong when it comes to what they like.”
KM: You created “Open that Bottle Night” to encourage people to finally uncork that one bottle of wine that is always too special to open, and celebrate the memories that come with it. Yet, in your book, Love by the Glass, you mention several bottles that you have “never opened and never will.” How can that be?
DG: Good question! I guess we should never say never, but so far, we’ve not gotten close to running out of special bottles. In January, for instance, we opened a 1984 Il Favot Nebbiolo from Aldo Conterno in Piedmont, signed by Conterno, who died in 2012. We visited the winery on our first trip to Italy and, unannounced, dropped in and asked him if we could taste some wines.
KM: What is the most memorable letter you’ve ever received from a Tastings column reader?
DG: A woman wrote to us that a very sophisticated, wine-savvy couple had taken her under their wing when she was younger and taught her everything imaginable about wine—except how to enjoy it, which she wrote that we had taught her. We heard that sentiment from so many people at the CIA Copia last week. Not only did they say that we had shared with them how we enjoy wine, but also that we told them that it should be enjoyed. So many wonderful letters. We will never forget the letter from John Watson, who wrote that had we invented OTBN a year earlier, his wife Alma of more than 50 years might have celebrated with him in person and not just in spirit. We kept corresponding with John Watson, who later met another soul-mate, Mary, while cruising the Dordogne. We kept readers appraised of their relationship and marriage and then John Watson’s death in 2017 at 91. His obituary notes our connection with him and relates what he told us about meeting Mary: “We realized that with more of our lives behind us than ahead of us, it was time to create some new memories… Life is wonderful, and miraculous, too…So here’s to ‘the gift of the grape.” I mention it, Karen, to underline what we deeply believe and that is that having wine in our life can be enriching in ways you might never imagine.
KM: What was your favorite wine trip?
DG: A few hours after our wedding in 1979 in Tallahassee, Fla., we hopped on a train (in Jacksonville) that began our journey to Napa and Sonoma. The honeymoon trip took two weeks, getting there in Amtrak’s deluxe sleeper cars, and included a week visiting winemakers, before taking trains home to Miami. We rarely got out of our bed on the train and used stops along the way to replenish the stash of Champagne in our luggage. Because it was a deluxe sleeper car, we could have all of our meals served in our bedroom and so we did, tipping the cabin attendant to bring meals, and ice for our ice bucket. This was not our first trip to Napa and Sonoma, but it was still a time when we could meet winemakers pouring their art, so it’s especially cherished.
KM: What do you believe is the most underappreciated wine in the world today?
DG: Riesling, unfortunately.
KM: What beverage is your second favorite to drink besides wine?
DG: We’ve become interested in craft beers. Our older daughter and her husband gave us a class on beer for Christmas and it was fun. I like sours. John says it takes a sweet woman to like sour beers!
KM: You have two daughters. How did you teach them about wine when they were growing up? Do they have the same passion for it as you two, now that they are adults?
DG: By seeing it on the dinner table every night, they grew up appreciating it as a normal beverage to have in the home or in restaurants. When a wine was a great example of its type, we’d let them smell it and talk about what they smelled and what we smelled. What kid doesn’t snicker at the suggestion that some Sauvignon Blanc smells like cat’s pee? They heard us discuss wine ad nauseam, so they appreciated that it was something to be respected and which held interest for us.
KM: Given all of your TV appearances and your very personal, very public writing, your life would seem to be an open book. Tell us something about yourself that, after all these years, would surprise people to learn.
DG: In 1981 Gael Greene and James Beard founded Citymeals on Wheels after reading an article I wrote in The New York Times about thousands of elderly New Yorkers who were going without food on weekends and holidays, because the program that fed them didn’t cover those days. At that time, The New York Times would let a reporter have one byline a day. The piece that I wrote on hunger ran the same day as a Page One story I wrote, so the story that so moved Gael and James ran without my name on it. Years later, someone at the Times went into the archives and gave me a byline. Chef Daniel Boulud is co-president of the board and for more than 20 years he, and chefs he admires from all over the world, have gone into the kitchen at his restaurant, Daniel, and cooked an awesome meal that raises money for Citymeals. I’ve thanked Gael many times for taking something that I wrote and creating such an important, life-sustaining organization. As a journalist, I’m sure you know that many times we write things and not much happens. Several years ago at her annual Power Lunch for women, Gael introduced me and presented me with a framed copy of that article. At the end of 2019, Citymeals delivered its 60 millionth meal.