Jon Bonné has spoken for the palates who favor balance and subtlety for almost two decades. Currently the Senior Contributing Editor for Punch, he spent over ten years as the wine editor for the San Francisco Chronicle. A two-time James Beard Award winner, he also has written for Decanter and Saveur. Outside of journalism, he is the wine consultant for Jet Blue Airways. Already an established author of two books, The New California Wine and The New Wine Rules, Bonné is working on his third, The New French Wine.
I discovered Jon on Twitter early in my wine-buyer days. I posted a picture of the Meyer-Nakel Rosé, and he commented with something as passing, like “Wow!”. As tiny a thing as that was, it validated my affinity towards the lesser-known and small producers. Though Jon and I were only Twitter acquaintances before this interview, I have a separate relationship with his wife, Valerie Masten Bonné. She is the Vice President for National Sales for Skurnik Wines & Spirits, which distributes the Terry Thiese wines; wines which I sold—a lot of. So, Valerie would call on me whenever visiting San Diego. She is bright, funny, deeply knowledgeable and professional. We hit it off immediately. It wasn’t until much later that I learned they are a couple. I wanted to know how she has influenced Jon’s professional development.
Being such a prolific writer as Jon Bonné is, there are plenty of opportunities and entry points to explore his work. My intent for this piece is to open a window into his motivation and process and to get a better understanding of the mind behind the connoisseur and the critic. In the interview that follows, we talk about social media, his start, forging your own path and, yeah, wine.
PART II: Social Media and Success
Jon shares his thoughts on how we consume wine in the 21stcentury: digitally. This portion of the conversation with Jon navigates social media, the gender gap, how much selling sommeliers really need to do, and your favorite wine region (San Diego, of course).
The New Wave of Sommeliers
How do you feel the current trends in hospitality are influencing wine?
The more there are knowledgeable, interested people interacting with consumers—especially in a restaurant setting, helping to serve as a helpful voice on the shoulder—that is all the better. Honestly, I hear now and then, cranky old men [saying], “Somms today, all they want to do is just recommend what they want and push people into their choices”. Fair enough. I get it. But, come on. I think the momentum today among young wine professionals is, on balance, so much greater than it used to be and I think, again, it’s all for the good.
I always think that the “weird” is less the question of the wine itself but providing your customers a context to explore without fear. We all forget that the scariest moment for a restaurant customer is that, if you’re going to drink wine, you have to somehow [choose] what to drink. Maybe the sommelier is standing there and they are freaking out [about] being judged in front of their spouse or their friend. It could be a business dinner and they feel like the pressure is on. A really good sommelier has figured out how to take that pressure off. Another thing is never making feel people like they are judged and never making people feel like “the expert has shown up”.
Some people literally want to drink their glass of Pinot Grigio and for you to shut up and go away, and there is a finite amount of what you can do. Very rare[ly] will someone be so against the idea of being turned on to something new that if you found something that got you excited, they’re not [going to] appreciate that. It’s never this question of “Is this sommelier pushing something on to their customers?” as “Are they doing an effective job of evangelism?”.
If there is anything that worries me a little bit, [it] is that a lot of folks feel that there is a very formal way to go about moving up through this profession. There is no one way to succeed, no one way to find the right answers. Sometimes people are fearful of breaking out of the expected career path in order to indulge their curiosity and go seek out what really interests them. Every time I have seen that happen, it has been rewarded, assuming someone is talented and smart. A lot of people who are extraordinarily talented in wine are there, not because they followed every rule, but because they chewed on everything they could find. They were endlessly hungry to learn more and to find new things. If you’re finding cool things, that’s awesome. For the most part, I want to see it, I want to try it, I want to know about it. I don’t need to sit on my very theoretical pile of Burgundy and scowl at everything that comes along.
What are your thoughts on social media’s role in the wine industry? Is it influencing things for the better?
It made the feedback loop immediate, and it’s a lot easier to find cool things. For me, the problem [is that] it has taken away the value of negativity. Which is to say, a really good wine writer or critic has the ability to say, “these things are great, these things are not so great and there’s things that could be better”. Unless you’re just flaming somebody, the ambient presumption is that you are posting things that are good and positive. I think that, in a weird way, it has made people’s skins even thinner. There are a fair number of people who are relatively new in the industry who don’t remember what it was like when Robert Parker or Spectator theoretically ruled everything. They were brutal. There were a lot of talented people, who, their style wasn’t the style in favor. They were out in the wilderness. There was no Instagram to give them hope and to feel right and supported and [to] kind of work against the machine. The theoretical democratization it gave us is really good, but the flip side is that I don’t know that we are having as honest a conversation about the quality of wine that we used to.
I can be a little crazier on Twitter maybe, but on Instagram where most wine dialogue happens, I’m posting a wine because I loved it and either I want you to know that I found it, or I want you to know that I am cool enough to drink it. Especially since that has supplanted so much of about what wine writing used to be, I don’t know that [it] helps us get to a more informed, more enlightened place.
Progress in the gender gap
As a respected, successful male in this industry (who’s married to a respected, successful woman in the industry), do you feel women are being given the opportunities they deserve?
One thing that is extraordinary is the sheer number of women that have become wine professionals. Recently, [I’ve been] going around the country and seeing [that] some of the best lists in the country are being put together by women because, more often than not, they decided to not just jump through the standard industry hoops. Speaking of the winemaking side, I see more in France that they just don’t worry about gender issues. I haven’t entirely figured out why. There is a tradition of family lineage. There is something culturally where there aren’t barriers.
Sometimes there is a fear of being intellectually tough—but you have to be. If you look at what I would argue are those succeeding, emerging women winemakers in California, they are all based on making the wines they want to make and doing things that are often untraditional and [are] really taking risks. That is affirmation that success comes from following an intellectually honest path.
What advice do you have for publications like CampestreMag?
There are a lot of forces in the wine industry that push towards conformity. With women, especially, I think there’s a logical discussion of ambient success without looking at the specifics of success—whether someone really achieved what she wanted in terms of her own likes and intellect, or whether it was a matter of taking a path which was most likely to succeed. There is a lot of mainstream success that feels, culturally, very safe, which is not necessarily working with the wines they want to or promoting the wines of the regions or winemakers they want to. For me, the easiest way to avoid that is to be brutally honest and go for it with what you’re thinking because there are a lot of forces that are conservative in the wine industry. The best way to work against that is to be intellectually strong-minded. They may not agree with what you think, but they can’t argue with you if you arrived at your conclusions in a reasoned way.
If you are writing a profile of a winemaker, there is nothing wrong with being really honest and recogniz[ing] that there are shades of grey. The most successful wine journalism is able to attach that. It’s one of those things that I struggle with [in] what I read today. I value those who are very firm about what they want. Especially now with natural wine, it’s an issue that people fall in love with wine and therefore only want to see it in positive terms. I think that the wine and winemaker and the reader are a circle. Making wine is a complicated thing. There is struggle.
You were one of the first people to really give the San Diego wine region the exposure it deserves. How did you “discover” San Diego for yourself?
I found Los Pilares online and I started doing some research and found Vesper. There were signs of life in San Diego, and if you were in San Francisco, you were interested to know that those wineries exist. So, I tasted a few of the wines and I really liked them. I had to write a piece for our California winery section, and I thought, “You know what? I’m going to write about San Diego, because I’m pretty sure you’ve never, ever had them.” I came down and tasted with everyone there and had an amazing day and found this community that had this vision and was getting no support whatsoever. But [they] have this extraordinary terroir that is really rare in California. To find granite, you have to go up into the Sierras to find the equivalent. When I was there it was still finding its legs but making cool stuff.
PART III: Personally… coming next month!