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Flip roles III

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Interviewing the interviewers: Neal D. Hulkower


OWP’s bimonthly column, edited by Carl Giavanti, “turns the tide” on writers in the wine industry by asking them about their own profession. The questions and answers are modeled on the Wine Industry Network Advisor series, also from Giavanti.

Neal D. Hulkower, Ph.D., is an applied mathematician and freelance writer living in McMinnville. His writings on wine can be found in academic and popular publications including Journal of Wine Research, Journal of Wine Economics, American Wine Society Wine Journal, Oregon Wine Press, Practical Winery & Vineyard, Wine Press Northwest , The World of Fine Wine, as well as Wine-searcher.com. Hulkower was the field coordinator for the Slow Wine 2020 and 2021 guides. He is a member of the Wine Writers’ Circle.

Professional experience

How did you come to wine and write about it?

NH: Wine was served as part of religious rituals in my home and synagogue. With the exception of a rare excursion in the dry version, Manischewitz Concord Grape was the choice. I had to wait until I left home to go to university to taste a good wine for the first time, which was a Cru Classé Claret.

In the early 1970s, my very first pieces about wine were published in Vintage, a popular wine magazine long gone. These were compilations of notes from wine tasting or dinners organized by a group of gourmets that I co-founded as a student. I regularly enjoyed fine wine and attended tastings while I was engaged full time in my career, but didn’t publish anything about wine until 2009.

I am interested in decision analysis, in particular preference aggregation methods. When I watched “Bottle Shock” I wondered how the final ranking was determined. So I did some research and saw that the method used had problems. I documented my findings in “The Judgment of Paris According to Borda,” which was published in the Journal of Wine Research in 2009. Two years later, my first article in the Oregon Wine Press, a Golden Book version of the ‘article, appeared under the title “Borda is better.” I continue to write about wine for academic, business, and popular publications.

What are your main areas of interest in history?

NH: I focus on the applications of mathematics to the world of wine, Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley, and wine-related book reviews. I also love to cover wine events and personalities. Lately, I’ve written a lot about AHIVOY, an organization that offers training opportunities to winegrowers. The late co-founder, Jesús Guillén, was a dear friend of mine and asked me to write the original play in 2018. Since then, both in tribute to him and in awe of the remarkable progress the organization has made, I am the story.

What are your main taste preferences?

NH: I have lived all over the country and am generally drawn to the local product. When I chose where I was going to end up, I chose Oregon, the land of fabulous Pinot Noir and Riesling.

Are you a personal or freelance columnist? What are the advantages of both?

NH: I am independent. I no longer need or want a full time commitment but I am very happy to take writing gigs. Not having been an editor, I can assume that a steady rather than sporadic flow of income and greater assurance that one’s work will be published are very significant benefits. Freelance work allows me to present whatever appeals to me whenever I have an idea and not be constrained by the point of view of a publication.

Personal history

What would people be surprised to know about you?

NH: I was a rocket scientist and have a main belt asteroid named in my honor for the work I did at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1980s.

How did you come to live and write in Oregon?

NH: Including Oregon, I have lived in 11 states in total, looking for interesting and more lucrative career opportunities. Neither comes close to the appeal of the two in the Northwest. When I lived in Washington state we would come to spend a weekend every once in a while enjoying the fabulous food and wine scene of Portland and the Valley. I knew I wanted to carve out a niche in the wine industry here, so after moving to Virginia to take on my last full-time adult job, we continued to visit each other two or three times a year to decide where we wanted to roost. We bought our place at McMinnville in 2009. After my full-time engagement ended in 2011, I was free to do whatever I wanted. Writing has always been at the top of my list.

What is one thing you would like readers to learn from your writing?

NH: More than any other substance, the interaction with wine and the culture in which it is anchored is deeply personal and must be valued. All of my pieces share my point of view and interests, but never intend to replace those of the reader. I only release tasting notes if a concert demands it because I really don’t like them for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is that they distract a taster from their own experience.

What’s the best story you’ve ever written?

NH: “The History of the Cost of Wine Consumption” on Wine-searcher.com. Everything is there: figures, economics of wine, a little humor and a deep dive into my beginnings with wine. Plus, Charlie said it was his favorite song so far. www.wine-searcher.com/m/2020/06/the-cost-of-drinking-wine-history

Writing process

Describe your approach to writing about wine.

NH: At various points in the development of the room, these are showers. I get ideas, clever phrases, structural adjustments, and ways to work around mental blocks during those relaxed moments. Very few pieces write on their own; usually the ones that describe an event, but most require effort and continuous rewriting until the room decides it has had enough and is about to escape. My wife is my frontline editor and has to approve before she heads to the editor.

What are you currently working on (your own site or other outlets / publications)?

NH: I have a few wine books that I am editing for the Journal of Wine Economics as of this writing. I also have a few items in different outlets. If they are not accepted, I will continue to look for others. I keep an eye on AHIVOY for any news. And then there are my memories.

Professional relationships

Any suggestions for wineries when dealing with writers?

NH: I have been fortunate that almost all of my interactions with the wineries, owners and winemakers have been most cordial. From what I hear, this is generally the case with my colleagues in the state. The only problem that arose once was when my many efforts to contact a winery to include in a guidebook were ignored. If the owner had given me a quick and easy courtesy “no”, I would have stopped trying.

Which wine personality (living or deceased) would you like to meet and taste?

NH: I have a soft spot for British writers like Andrew Jeffords, Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson and Jane Anson. It would have been fun to sit down with Michael Broadbent, Steven Spurrier, and Frank Prial.

Free time

How do you like to spend your days off?

NH: At this point in my life, most days seem like days off. I work part-time in two tasting rooms – sources of great ideas and readers for the articles – and mostly write on the days I don’t. Our grandchildren are scattered around, so we travel a lot. Most nights we enjoy movies in our home theater. Ubiquitous music, usually classical or jazz, recorded, broadcast or live, is essential.

Most memorable wine or wine experience?

NH: I always come back to the tasting that I organized in my little apartment on May 22, 1977, to celebrate the end of higher education. There were four great Claret wines classified: 1962 Château La Mission Haut Brion, 1959 Château Mouton-Rothschild, 1959 Château Talbot and 1959 Château Beychevelle, a 1971 Steinberger Spätlese, and one that I could still imagine tasting decades later, the 1959 Steinberger Trockenbeerenauslese.

What is your favorite wine region in the world?

NH: I live there.


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