Brutally Honest with Jon Bonné – I

PART I: The Work

BEAUJOLAIS, FRANCE, SEPTEMBER 2017. The New French Wine author Jon Bonne pictured in Beaujolais, France, September 2017. Photo credit: Susannah Ireland

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 I: The Work 

The Beginning

How did you initially get into writing?

I started before college. I wanted to be a novelist. I wrote a novel, which mercifully was never published. Early in college, I ran a small public radio station[’s] news department in New York for a couple of years. Then, I did online journalism for a long time, and I just kept moving myself back to writing. I covered everything imaginable. I worked for Court TV and ran their website. I worked for NBC News. I covered national policy, the environment, the airline industry, science and, eventually—getting into wine as all wine writers must do—suckered my editor into letting me write a wine column. And, that was 16 years ago. The pleasure of writing a wine column when your editor has no idea what you should even be writing about [is] you get to be omnivorous and just wander all over the place.

The New French Wine Book

Your newest project is a book chronicling French wine—specifically what French wine and its makers look like in 2019. What made you want to tackle this?

I had a sense there was a lot of revolutionary stuff going on in France, but it wasn’t going to be like California where it was a unified trend of progress. In France, it was going to be different in every single region.  There have been a few surprises. I knew there was cool stuff going on in Muscadet and around there. But I had no idea how much progress and how much energy there was. In Champagne, I didn’t expect to see this big explosion of new producers and kids taking over. The universe of known, good grower Champagnes went from maybe 50 or 70 to hundreds, just in the course of writing this book.  I thought the Auvergne would be this untapped paradise, but it turns out, when I went there, it’s not very welcoming to outsiders and newcomers and, quite frankly, to winegrowing. 

The New Wine Rules

Aside from your journalism, The New Wine Rules is probably your best-known work. How does it feel to have written a book that demystifies what most non-industry people perceive as an intimidating world of wine?

The feedback to The New Wine Rules has been amazing—mainly from non-wine people, who it was geared to, and that is great. But I keep hearing over and over again from a lot of folks that are front-of-house that they bought it to train their servers about wine because they didn’t have a tool that wasn’t super wine-y to give someone a good, working knowledge. So, it’s become, interestingly, a really good tool for that. We have three more international editions coming—if I counted correctly—and we already have UK and Germany, so it keeps building.

You’ve also written about California and infamously coined the phrase “Big Flavor”. How does it feel to be the villain against those ubiquitous, big, California wines and the people who love drinking them?

I got backlash before I ever invented the term [“Big Flavor”]. But it’s not like they liked me before then. For better or for worse, I entered California in an adversarial position. I was more polite, professionally, until I didn’t have to be. I have no doubt that relatively unpleasant things were said about me in certain hallways in Napa Valley. I wouldn’t have expected it any other way. But, my own view of California not withstanding, the market spoke pretty clearly about the value of the new wines coming from California. Something that I like to point out is that in one particular market in the Midwest, [the feedback was that] these wines are all cool but there was no way they were ever going to get there, and it was all theoretical and I just wasted my time writing a book about wines they would never be able to buy. Within six months, a good percentage of those wines were in the market.

It was certainly a time where I was discovering people and other people were discovering them and I think that whatever the catalyst, there is no question the winemakers saw results [from the book]. Look at Steve and Jill Matthiasson, who were struggling to figure out how to market their wines. But the work was there, and people recognized it. Not just the American market, but globally the market wanted wines like that. I was very lucky to have written and published that book when I did, but it was a movement that was growing for years. Before I wrote the first overall New California piece in 2010, there was a desire for change. There is probably more diversity and energy in the market since the early ‘80s.

How do you stay inspired while being so immersed in wine?

That to me is never hard because there is always something. What I find more challenging is how to put that into a context that fits the formats that we have out there, which is to say [in terms of the], discussion of social media, everything is pushed through to digital journalism. Just because you find something cool doesn’t mean you find the audience to justify writing that type of story. It’s hard to draw people to the more subtle stories.

If I get worn out, it’s because I’m worn out, not because there aren’t super cool things out there. I think [with] anyone who is intuitively in love with wine (as you need to be) you have to be able to look and find something new, really, at every turn because there is always something out there. If you’re not finding it, I think sometimes there’s just nothing going on. 

PART II: Social Media and Success coming next month!