Ron Washam is one of the few satirists writing about the wine industry. His much loved and much feared blog TheHoseMasterofWine was published from 2008 until 2019. After graduating with a degree in English and Comparative Literature from Occidental College in 1974, Washam worked as a comedy writer for NBC. In 1987, Washam was hired as a sommelier at The Pacific Dining Car in Los Angeles where he worked for 19 years and was twice named Sommelier of the Year by the California Restaurant Writers Association. He has written for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and now writes a monthly column for British wine journalist Tim Atkin’s site timatkin.com. Washam also serves as a professional wine judge in many competitions.
Karen MacNeil: You’ve worked in wine sales for more than 20 years: in restaurants, tasting rooms, and wine shops. Did you ever think about becoming a winemaker?
Ron Washam: I wonder if winemakers dream about becoming sommeliers. Now that I think about it, there aren’t very many becoming sommeliers, they’re quite unbecoming as a rule, so dreaming about them seems creepy. I never had any perverse desire to make wine. Should encyclopedia salesmen write the Britannica? I’ve always believed it should be illegal for sommeliers to make wine in the same way policemen shouldn’t be allowed to rob banks. They may know how to do it, but people might get hurt.
KM: What style of wine do you absolutely hate?
RW: What’s interesting about being a sommelier, if anything, is that one has to learn to appreciate any version of wine that a customer might find to their taste and want to order, even if it’s not to your personal taste. Truthfully, I’m rather intrigued by a wine that I hate, especially if it’s a wine that others like. I always think it’s my own personal failure that I can’t find a way to like it, which is rather revelatory about my personality. So, in a strange way, I like wines I hate. And I’m not sure what “style of wine” even means. It’s like saying “style of beef.” Are there specific wines I hate? Yes. Every one that shows up on the Instagram page of a Master Sommelier.
KM: Do you think wine is good for a society?
RW: Oh, man, that’s one of those questions that belong in an Eric Asimov column, or an essay in “The World of Fine Wine,” which I think of as the “MacBeth” of wine publications—always “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I love wine as much as anyone I’ve ever met, but the constant insistence that wine is somehow spiritually superior to other things we ingest always strikes me as drunken solipsizing. It makes wine lovers look stupid to those who don’t care about wine, which turns out to be a vast majority of the planet. Turns out food is actually really good for a society! I think equal rights are good for a society; I think strong families are good for a society; I think common cause is good for a society; but I drink wine so that I can forget I have to be part of a society.
“[Do I think wine is good for a society?] I think equal rights are good for a society; I think strong families are good for a society; I think common cause is good for a society; but I drink wine so that I can forget I have to be part of a society.”
KM: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
RW: When we were children, my mother used to tell my siblings and me, “Never put anything on fire in your mouth!”
KM: What keeps you up at night?
RW: Oh, the usual. Death. Climate Change. Frozé. They all seem related to me somehow. I try to worry about everything. I think it’s our duty as humans to worry about it all, not just about a few things that might be bothering us when we head to bed. I like to be inclusive and worry about everything I can think of. There are so many ridiculously huge things to worry about now, with plenty of people rightfully concerned about them, that I try to worry about more of the trivial stuff. Fair is fair, right? I worry about people who really love petite sirah, and what sort of unspeakable childhood trauma could account for that love. I worry about why there’s a Fruit Day on the Biodynamic calendar, but nothing for the Nuts. Seems like every day is a Nut Day to me. I worry that the 100 Point Scale for wine is too nice and too friendly to complain about its horrible abuse at the hands of amateurs. I worry that I’ll die before Donald Trump.
KM: What food and wine combinations do you absolutely love?
RW: A long time ago a famous chef said to me about food and wine pairing, “If you have really great food and really great wine, no one cares about the rest.” He was being facetious, but, also, he meant it. It’s so easy to fall into a rut when pairing food and wine. Like always having pinot noir with salmon, or always having sauvignon blanc with goat cheese. The joy of having a bunch of wine in your cellar is to try new things with food and wine pairing. Play around, see what works and what doesn’t. Go by how the food smells while it’s cooking, pick the wine by that. Try something that books and websites tell you won’t work, but you think might. So my answer is that the food and wine combinations I absolutely love turn out to be the ones I stumble on by accident or by wild guessing, and they often happen only once. It’s the joy of having many bottles of wine open at home at the same time, a bunch of partial bottles (and I don’t own a Coravin, I sort of hate them—it’s like trepanning your best wines), and tasting a little of each with the meal. It teaches you the chemistry of food and wine pairing, and that’s where the laughter and the fun resides. And the surprises. OK, fried chicken and Champagne. Popcorn and Champagne. Cotton underwear and Champagne. Perfect.
KM: Are you a good cook?
RW: No. It would be insulting to great cooks everywhere for me to claim I’m a good cook. I spent my life working in restaurants. I ate at work. I rarely cooked at home. I appreciate fine food and great cooking, but I never had the chance to really practice the art. We associate cooking with love from the time we’re children, and our parents and grandparents fed us. Great cooks, it seems to me, are normally people who are kind and loving humans, and who love to comfort others. Great chefs?—about a 50/50 chance that’s true.
KM: Given the choice, would you rather have a luxurious dinner with 6 people at The French Laundry or pizza and a glass of zinfandel with one person?
RW: I’m assuming you mean going to the French Laundry when there isn’t a pandemic. I find it sweetly ironic that everyone at the French Laundry will finally have to wear masks now while they’re robbing people. I’m not a fan of restaurants of the French Laundry ilk. That is, I dislike going to dinner where the meal is about the restaurant and not about me. I think that the food is no more than 50% of the reason one goes to a restaurant. It’s just as much about how you’re treated, the ambiance, and the fascinating display of other people’s table manners and oddball behavior. Plus, I don’t know six people I’d spend four and a half hours with for dinner without wanting to drink myself into a three-thousand-dollar French Laundry wine list pricing stupor. I love zinfandel with pizza.
KM: Who’s your favorite person to drink with (besides your wife) and why?
RW: My favorite person with whom to drink is simply my favorite person. Which changes fairly often. I love drinking with you, Karen. Somehow, it feels classier when I spill on my shirt. There’s something about opening a bottle of wine with another person present that changes everything in the moment. It means you’re going to spend some significant amount of time together, and that you both want to. That’s less common than we like to believe. It’s said that wine is a social lubricant, which is why I buy all mine at Pep Boys. There’s something about the way wine and its complex aromatics not only stimulates your olfactory bulb, but your memory, which lies adjacent in your brain, that makes conversation with someone you love more powerful and more intimate. A favorite wine, a favorite person, there’s little better at the end of the day. But if I had to choose one favorite person with whom to drink, it would have to be Charlize Theron, and who needs the goddam wine? Oh. I guess she would.
KM: Besides drinking wine and writing (and work), what do you do with your time?
RW: I don’t really write much anymore. You’re welcome. I’ve always been a reader. I’ve never been a wine snob, but I’m a horrible book snob. I love baseball, and were there a season, I’d be watching baseball regularly. I’ve had three great passions in my life—baseball, comedy, and wine. Like most people with their great passions, I suck at all three. I’m something of a recluse. From the time I was very young, I have spent a lot of time alone just thinking. I live in my head, and if that spot ever comes up for rent, I’d avoid it if I were you. It’s haunted, and it leaks. When it comes right down to it, I’m the dullest person I know.
KM: Tell us something about you that would surprise most people to learn.
RW: I’m actually 6’ 7” tall and made of hollow chocolate