Like many good Italian boys of his generation, Frank Mangio, wine writer for Copley's Today's Local News, started drinking wine somewhere around age four. "My granddad had a big cellar in Boston, perfect for keeping wines. He had barrels in the cellar, and he would buy the grapes somewhere and crush them right there in the house." His other relatives did the same and would bring their bottles to family gatherings, which gave people a chance to argue about whose wines were better.
Mangio didn't stay in Boston, however, and he didn't stay too close to the world of wine. He headed west to Alaska, then south to California and radio work. "I was national music director for KYNO, got to go backstage with all the bands. It's amazing I survived the whole damn thing." Chino led to a new station in Vista, which in turn gave way to DJ stints at KSON and KIFM.
After radio, Mangio found his niche in PR work. "I was a special-events guy for a long, long time, did a lot of shopping-center work. I did 55 shopping centers all over the West Coast -- community-sized things. My job was to get people into the shopping center parking lots through events or special sales. I know the end-user part of business."
A few of those shopping centers included wine shops, and Mangio helped them set up tastings to attract business, but what got him writing was a trip to Italy in 2002. He had become fascinated by the wine industry. "At the time, it was just beginning to rear its head," to serve notice "that it was a worldwide business. Italian wine was starting to recover its former prestige. Take Sicily. It was only fairly recently that they became aware that their wines could make it on the world commercial scene. It struck me that it was a living, breathing, dynamic thing, going in a lot of different directions. You can never really get enough information about it."
He hit upon the idea of joining the Sons of Italy, a local Italian organization, and presenting himself as their correspondent while overseas. "This was during the '02 harvest -- it was the worst year in memory there because of all the rain, so they weren't in a very good mood. But Italians love Americans, and vice versa. I stayed at the wineries, got to know some of the winemakers," in particular, Felsina's Giuseppe Mazzocolin. "He was a philosophy professor at the University of Florence who married into the wine business in the '70s. Now, his hands are dirty from the soil. I got my epiphany over in Italy. Everything revolves around wine and food. They like nothing more than to sit for hours and just wax poetic about love, life, food, wine, and their land. You can go to any piazza in the smallest town, and it's the same thing. I don't know what they do for a living."
Once he returned, the old PR instincts started to kick in. "I started to publicize the story of my visit there -- the wines, the hospitality, the ambience. I took some pictures and donated them to places like the YMCA -- they've fetched $500--$600 apiece at fundraisers. One was printed in the Union-Tribune as the Photo of the Week from around the world, with a nice caption. I call it 'added value.'" His story made it into L'Italo-Americano, "the largest Italian newspaper on the West Coast. I knew I had something the public was reacting to in a positive way. Editors started coming around."
Mangio kept adding "added value." "I found out about Wine Spectator, how they were helping subscribers to elevate themselves with their online program for becoming a certified wine connoisseur. I jumped all over that -- studied the texts, went through it all." After he completed the course, he could add "certified wine connoisseur" to his list of credentials. Serendipity struck when a friend, Wendy Evers, took over as president of San Diego State's extended studies program. "I got myself hooked up as a lecturer on Old World wines at her Business of Wine program. Now I could call myself a lecturer, a photographer, and a writer. This all happened within about six months."
His break came at the end of 2004. "Copley News Service was throwing a lot of money into North County; they wanted to set up a local sort of USA Today--type publication, a breezy, informative thing that kept the news light. They were willing to drop about 200,000 papers onto driveways, and that had a lot of appeal to me. I saw them as really getting serious about taking circulation away from the North County Times." He approached them, and his "A Taste of Wine" column was born. "I've done 53 columns so far, and no two are alike," though the format is pretty consistent: a main feature, a couple of shorter news bits, and the Local Sip, which highlights area wine tastings and wine dinners.
The column hits a lot of driveways, but Mangio doesn't let it rest there -- he's still a PR man at heart. "I haven't really come to the point where I'm a wine critic," he admits. "I don't feel I'm really qualified yet to do that. Now, I'm a wine advocate. If I'm going to say something, it's generally going to be positive." (This "highlight the good" approach was similarly favored by pioneer wine writer Robert Lawrence Balzer.) "We all ganged up on two-buck Chuck...but I really feel that you gained a lot more advocates for wine."
And when he does find something good about "wines or wineries or wine shops," he lets them know. "If there's anybody who may find the information useful, I send it out to them. I know how valuable a mention can be." On top of that, the column goes out via e-mail to some 350 "aficionados, people in the wine business, media people, people that really live and breathe the wine thing" -- including Felsina's Mazzocolin. "He comments a lot about it."