Wine writer Alexis Bespaloff dies at 71

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Wine writer Alexis Bespaloff dies at 71

Postby Robin Garr » Mon Apr 24, 2006 3:22 pm

Probably best-known as the posthumous editor of a revision and update of Frank Schoonmaker's New Encyclopedia of Wine, Bespaloff also edited a nice compendium of wine quotes and boasted other wine-writing credits, as noted in this press-release/obit circulated by his publicist. I'm surprised to learn that he was only 71.

April 22, 2006 — Alexis Jacques Bespaloff, the noted wine critic and writer, died today in Las Cruces, New Mexico after a long battle with cancer. He was seventy-one years old. Mr. Bespaloff was born on November 15, 1934, in Bucharest, Romania and emigrated as a child with his parents to Belgium and then Brazil, before moving to New York. He attended the Horace Mann School, Amherst College and Harvard University.

Upon graduation, he worked briefly at Simon and Schuster and then in the wine business in Bordeaux and New York. He began writing about wine and became one of the foremost experts of his generation, publishing six books, among them: The Signet Book of Wine, a seminal work in U.S. wine literature, first published by New American Library in 1971 and subsequently revised and expanded in 1980 and 1985, selling well over a million copies. Alexis Bespaloff’s Guide to Inexpensive Wines, of which James Beard said, “Fascinating…fills a long-felt need for a guide that is informative and accurate” was published in 1973 by Simon and Schuster. In 1977, his literary anthology, The Fireside Book of Wine, was published by William Morrow and Company, and in 1988 Morrow also published his revised and updated The Frank Schoonmaker Encyclopedia of Wine, called “the finest quick reference book in the literature of wine” by The New York Times. Alexis Bespaloff’s Complete Guide to Wine, Signet, followed in 1994.

Mr. Bespaloff was also wine critic of New York Magazine for over two decades, and wrote for publications as diverse as Food & Wine, Wine Enthusiast, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, House & Garden, Travel and Leisure, Connoisseur, and Penthouse. In addition, Mr. Bespaloff appeared on television and lectured widely. The mentoring and help he extended to those starting out in the wine field has been acknowledged in a number of books and articles.

A deeply cultured man, Mr. Bespaloff had passionate interests in art, ballet, theatre, music and photography. He was also a noted conversationalist with a dry wit that led him to laugh at his own foibles as well as those of others. He is remembered to this day for his 1970 telephone-answering machine message, “I am unable to take your call at this time. If this is an emergency, remember, white wine with fish, red with beef.” Mr. Bespaloff is survived by his wife, photographer Cecilia Lewis. He will be missed by many.
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Re: Wine writer Alexis Bespaloff dies at 71

Postby Thomas » Mon Apr 24, 2006 4:53 pm

I, too, am surprised at how young Alexis was.

When I was just learning about wine he had been doing radio spots on WNEW in NYCity. I could feel that he not only knew what he was talking about, but that he loved talking about it and he made the subject so accessible. Of course, I had to read his book/s.

I have brief mention of him in my forthcoming book as one of the early influential wine writers--but now I feel I probably should have written more.

Sad news.

I take issue with one thing in that obituary: there is mention that he was a wine writer and critic. I don't believe critic is the right term to apply to his wine writing.
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Re: Wine writer Alexis Bespaloff dies at 71

Postby Robin Garr » Mon Apr 24, 2006 6:38 pm

Thomas wrote:I take issue with one thing in that obituary: there is mention that he was a wine writer and critic. I don't believe critic is the right term to apply to his wine writing.


Maybe even "wine educator," given that at least the two of his books that I'm most familiar with were compilations that he put together as editor. I wish I had heard his radio spots, but I wasn't in the right place at the right time.

(Minor nit, not meant to speak ill of the dearly departed: I did think that his revision of Schoonmaker made it more lightweight, but I suspect the fault there was his publisher's, not Bespaloff's. As I recall - and I did a fairly detailed analysis of the changes in an article at the time - larger print and fewer pages resulted in a less useful and detailed book, and some good material about France and Italy was dropped to make way for more international coverage.)
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Re: Wine writer Alexis Bespaloff dies at 71

Postby Bob Ross » Mon Apr 24, 2006 7:29 pm

Bespaloff wrote two important books in my wine life, my first and in my judgment still, my best.

Here's a review by Frank Prial of my first wine book -- purchased for $.10 at a garage sale -- I got the price knocked down from a quarter because it was so ratty, much to Janet's delight:

Alexis Bespaloff's ''New Signet Book of Wine,'' a Plume book from New American Library, (352 pages, $9.95). Mr. Bespaloff's book was first published in 1971, at the dawn, so to speak, of the great American wine boom. It was revised in 1980. The third edition, published this year, includes chapters on California and Italy that have been rewritten and expanded by 50 percent, with, among other things, some 800 new entries in the index. I'm taking Mr. Bespaloff's word for this; I didn't count.

What cannot be contested is the value of the ''New Signet Book of Wine''; it is as good an introduction to the subject as any book available today. Most of the good new general books on wine are reference works. Mr. Bespaloff's book is certainly a good reference work; but it is a good book to read, too.

His 62-page section on California is as complete and as illuminating as many longer books devoted exclusively to the subject. But I think he is a little too easy on the California contingent when he says that the way in which a particular California wine ''may change arbitrarily,'' a phenomenon I find so frustrating, ''provides the interested consumer with an ongoing sense of discovery.'' Sure, so would finding that East 79th Street had become Kissena Boulevard.

Mr. Bespaloff calls his book ''a complete introduction.'' In living up to that description he discusses the fundamentals of wine drinking, thereby providing some of his best comments. I particularly enjoyed the following: ''Never buy the cheapest wine in any category, as its taste may discourage you from going on. The glass, corks, cartons and labor are about the same for any wine, as are the ocean freight and taxes for imported wines. Consequently, if you spend a little more, you are likely to get a better wine, because the other costs remain fixed. Cheap wine will always be too expensive.''

Good advice from a good book.came, if only for a while, a part of the region.
*****

And the best?

Alexis Bespaloff in ''The Fireside Book of Wine,'' Simon and Schuster, 1984. A book of quotations, short stories, delights to mind and the imagination -- I've read it a dozen times at least. Here are two delights to tempt you.

H. Warner Allen: ''Some four-hundred years before Christ, Hermippus, a poet of the Old Comedy, put into the mouth of Dionysus a description of just such a wine as that Chateau Margaux 1871: 'But there is,' says Dionysus, 'a wine which they call the mellow, and from the mouth of its jar as it is opened, there comes a fragrance of violets, a fragrance of roses, a fragrance of hyacinth. A divine perfume pervades the high-roofed house, ambrosia and nectar in one.''

Mr. Allen penned these lines after a particularly memorable tasting. The Margaux '71 followed an 1869 Chateau Latour: ''After the thunderous heroism of the epic Latour, [ the Margaux ] comes with the dainty sweetness of lyric poetry. Its magic bouquet envelops the senses in a cloud of airy fragrance, raspberry-scented like the breezes from the Islands of the Blest, a dream of grace and delicacy, the twinkling feet of dancing nymphs, suddenly set free in our tedious world.''

Did anyone bother to ask about points?

I'll miss Bespaloff, but read his books again and again.

Regards, Bob
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Re: Wine writer Alexis Bespaloff dies at 71

Postby Bob Ross » Tue Apr 25, 2006 10:44 am

Jancis Robinson wrote a very nice memorial to Bespaloff here.

http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/winenews060424

Regards, Bob
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