'I used to teach cooking to junior high kids," says food-and-wine writer Lynn Alley. "I had a blast doing it, but I also knew I was going to burn out. It demands an enormous amount of energy. I recognized early on that I would need to segue into something else. So I started writing about food while I was teaching."
It started with herbs. "From my college days, I had been interested in herbs -- medicinal and culinary. I went to England to study herbal medicine." She published in Herb Companion, Fine Cooking, "and Cook's Illustrated. They took some pieces on making vinegar from wine and making mustard from scratch. The kind of things I really enjoy doing."
Those kinds of things eventually gave rise to her first cookbook, Lost Arts: A Celebration of Culinary Traditions. "I have a burning passion for traditional cultures, for methods that are becoming lost arts. I'm fascinated by anything, food- or wine-related, that's made with the hands and has a tradition behind it."
But her break into the wine-writing business came about more through geography than tradition. Lynn Alley lives in Southern California, and Southern California is where the glassy-winged sharpshooter debuted as the late-'90s Big New Threat to California wine. (The glassy-winged sharpshooter, you will recall, made an excellent vector for the vine-killing malady known as Pierce's disease.) "I actually broke the story in the state, both in the San Francisco Chronicle and the L.A. Times in the same week," recalls Alley. "Pretty nice for your first time out.
"I have a couple of friends who are winery owners or growers out in Temecula, and I heard about the sharpshooters' arrival from the PR director at Callaway. She called me and said, 'Look what's happening out here.' I said, 'Holy Mom, that's scary!' Being in the middle of it, I could recognize that it really had the potential to devastate the wine industry in the state. But because Temecula was sort of a stepchild in terms of California wine production, nobody gave a damn -- except the growers in Temecula and the researchers at UC Riverside. I got to sit in on some of the earliest meetings between the growers and the UC scientists." She managed to sell the story to the two dailies, and she also gave a call to Dana Nigro, who was then the website editor for Wine Spectator magazine. "I said, 'Hello? Wolf! Wolf!' She said, 'Okay, give us a little something on it. '" Alley has been writing for the Spectator ever since, covering viticultural science, environmental and legal issues, wine history and culture, and even the odd regional profile.
Emphasis on "odd." "I always get the regions that nobody else is interested in," says Alley, who has written news items on wine ventures in North Carolina and Minnesota, as well as a profile of the growing wine industry in Baja California. "I did a feature article for the magazine on the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, because everybody else is busy with their nose in Napa or some other well-known region. I brought Greece to the attention of the magazine, writing about their indigenous grape varieties and the Greek people. Lucky me -- I get to go to these regions, get to talk to people who are dying to get into Wine Spectator. I have a lot of fun."
(Most of the time, anyway. Not everyone is dying to see his name in her magazine. "People who hate Wine Spectator usually hate it because they've gotten bad ratings or because they're afraid of getting bad ratings. I don't blame winemakers for being skittish. That kind of power is difficult. It has the power to seriously damage your business, and it has the power to put you over the top. I'll go places and people will start yelling at me, even though I have nothing to do with the wine ratings.")
She found out about the Okanagan Valley while traveling on the Olympic Peninsula. "Somebody said, 'Well, they're making wine up there in Canada.' I checked it out, and it turned out to be an incredible microclimate." Generating the idea for the Greece profile took even less effort. "I think my passion for traditional foods and cultures was sparked maybe 20 years ago by a Greek cookbook. I've always had one foot in that culture. To go and explore their indigenous grape varieties and to see people applying cutting-edge French winemaking techniques to these varieties was very exciting to me. How many true frontiers are there in the wine world?" And how many places are there where a winemaker has to make a pilgrimage into the mountains, drink "sickly-sweet coffee," eat "the customary preserved fruits," and negotiate an elaborate exchange of complaints before closing a deal with the head of a grape-growers' co-op?
"Greece has an ancient and honorable winemaking tradition, but it hasn't had the economic and political stability to support a blossoming modern-day wine industry. Now, it does. One of my favorite winemakers has said, 'Look at what the Italians have done with their indigenous varieties. The world has accepted them. Why shouldn't we have the same kind of success?' Today, you can't easily sell Greek wine." But 15 years ago, "You couldn't sell Italian wine."
The years spent writing for Wine Spectator have given access to all manner of wine-world scuttlebutt -- I have got to start getting myself invited to better parties -- and even helped provide her with inspiration for her successful second cookbook, The Gourmet Slow Cooker: Simple and Sophisticated Meals from Around the World. "I was in Davis, working on a biography of the oldest living viticulturist probably on the face of the planet. I moved into a trailer on his farm for three months so that I could get really close, and the only thing in the kitchen of this trailer was this old 1970s Crock-Pot. I started messing around with it, and I thought, 'Just about every culture has some traditional one-pot, cook-over-a-fire-for-hours kind of recipes. Why don't I just take those and adapt them to this modern technology?' It was fun doing it."
The biography has been less of a lark -- the wine world will have to wait a bit longer to read the story of its oldest viticulturist. "I need to put my nose to the grindstone. I love this man -- he's now 96, and what he's done in his 96 years is five men's lifetimes' worth of work. He's been enormously productive, enormously imaginative, and enormously secretive -- way ahead of his time. I'm procrastinating, trying to get my arms around it, because it's so overwhelming."