Portland resident Layne Witherell has spent 30 years in the wine business, and has lots of stories to tell.
Witherell, who says he is “67 years old going on 25,” spent the last five years writing a book about his adventures buying, selling and drinking wine all over the country.
“Wine Maniacs: Life in the Wine Biz” ($14.95) is self-published, but Witherell will be giving readings and signing books at several locations around Maine during the next few months, including the Portland Public Library. The book is available at Longfellow Books in Portland and Nonesuch Books in South Portland.
Witherell begins with life in California in the 1970s and walks the reader through his time in Oregon, Montana and Virginia. Over the years, he has held numerous positions in the wine industry, including sales manager at Oak Knoll Winery in Oregon. In the 1980s, he owned his own company and went to France as an exporter. He’s also been a marketing director, a CEO and a wine competition judge.
When he lived in Virginia, Witherell wrote a wine column for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and taught a wine education program at the University of Virginia.
Witherell and his wife, Judy, enjoy the food scene in Portland, and he says the city reminds him of Portland, Ore., before it really took off. “We’re all over the restaurant scene here,” he said. “I love it. I was in the other Portland in the early ’80s. This is deja vu.”
Witherell stays away from local wine tastings, however, because he likes to research wines himself.
“I’ve owned 1,000 wine books in my life, and I’ve read pretty much most of them,” he said. “I don’t have a wine cellar. I guess I move too much to have a wine cellar. But I like to do my own homework when it comes to wine. As you’ll see from my book, I don’t like bloggers, and I don’t like stuff from the Internet. It’s uninformed.”
“Wine Maniacs” is part storytelling, part food-and-wine discussion, part wine education. Witherell sat down recently for a chat about the book and gave some helpful tips for people who long to be oenophiles.
Q: I thought one of the best paragraphs in your book was the last one, where you hand out advice to people who want to learn about wine. Can you share a few of those suggestions?
A: Just write down everything that you taste or take a picture of that label, so that way you have a memory of what you had. I ran a store for years and years, and (customers) walk in and go, “This was the best wine I ever had.”
“Well, what was it?”
“‘Well, I don’t know.”
“If it’s the best wine you’ve ever had, how come you don’t know what it is?” (Laughs.)
Always record what you had, and with the phones today, that is a godsend. You can walk into any store and say, “This is what I had.” And then you’ll be able to lead yourself to other venues and find other wines.
I like not to try the same wine twice. We have wine with every meal, and if you get stuck in that “Oh, I love this wine,” then you’re going to be in a rut. That’s why you need to go to various places, try various wines, record them, write them down. Be an adventurer.
Q: There are a lot of wine dinners in the Portland area, and some of them are rather pricey. I think a lot of people expect that the wines are going to be good at a wine dinner, but that’s not always the case. What are some things people can do to keep from overpaying for mediocre wines?
A: We’ve got a thing that we do. My wife pulls them all up on (the computer). I research what the wines are — what the price is, is it with gratuity, is it with tax? What is it going to cost me? Is the aesthetic experience going to be worth this? Is this going to be something I’m not going to see again? Is this better than going out to a restaurant on a Tuesday night?
Q: Do you think it’s better when the actual vintner is there?
A: Sometimes. Sometimes they get preachy. Having been a reporter and gotten to interview these people — Robert Mondavi, (Angelo) Gaja — you know how that works. that’s the top. That’s as good as it gets. You’re going to get a little speech from the vintner. You’re going to kind of get to touch the hem of the great person. There was a great wine maker in town not long ago, and I read an interview with this person, and I got more out of the interview than if I had been at the dinner.
Q: You say in the book that the trend in restaurants is away from quirky, fascinating wine lists and toward a more corporate list. Portland has a lot of chef-owned restaurants. How do you find the wine lists here? Interesting?
A: I think some of (the wine lists) are interesting. I think they’re overpriced. I’d love to see a BYOB once a month where we can go in — and I’ll leave a good tip, I’ll make it worth your while — but I’ll bring in something interesting. There’s huge consolidation in the wine business now. The numbers are really staggering.
Twenty percent of the wineries in the U.S. control 80 percent of the business. Whether you want it or not, as an independently chef-owned restaurant, you’re going to see more corporate wine lists.
When I did my second edition of this (book), I interviewed one of the real bright people in this business, and that person said if we can only get each of these restaurants to bring in one additional vendor and write one additional check. Bring in a little guy. Bring in someone you’ve never seen or heard of before and say, “Look, why don’t you put five wines on my list, or why don’t you do a table tent?”
That’s how we built wine in Oregon. Those restaurants weren’t going to put an Oregon wine on their list. We did it a table tent at a time. I think convincing the restaurateur to write an additional check to one more vendor is going to show you a path to greatness for your wine list.
Q: Any favorite wine lists in Portland restaurants?
A: We were at Petite Jacqueline the other night, and I liked the prices, I liked the way the wines paired with the foods. We had a wine with each course and wines with dessert, and it was quintessential. It just was seamless. I like that seamless pairing. We wound up having just a splendid dinner, and a lot of it had to do with the prices that were reasonable on the wines. Great wines, reasonable prices, and they paired with the food. I was thrilled. We went out with friends of ours who are into wine, and they were dazzled. So I think that’s a good example.
For Valentine’s, we’re going to our French “Cheers.” It’s our favorite little place: The Merry Table.
Q: How’s their wine list?
A: He needs work. (Laughs.) It’s getting better, but it needs work.
Q: You clearly have a disdain for wine bloggers. Are there any that you really like and would recommend to someone who wants to learn about wine?
A: I like Dr. Vino. I like the guy (at) winetelevision.com. He’s the guy who has the New York Giants helmet to use as a spit bucket. It’s a little TV thing. It’s outrageous. But basically, when I get a wine, I’ll not look at any of the bloggers. There are more great wines out there right now than there are or ever will be blogger information about wine. These are people who are pretending they’re wine experts.
I look up what the winery says about the wine. That’s what I like to do for my research. I blow off the bloggers and say, what do you guys tell me? What are you doing? What’s your grape? Why do you do what you do? Are you authentic? So I go directly to the source to look up my information.
Q: There’s a tired old question that goes, “What would you want as your last meal?” If you only had a day to live, what would you want your last glass of wine to be?
A: Oh, I know. It’s real easy. Sushi and probably a glass of the best Champagne on the planet. I think that’s the quintessential meal. We go to a pile of sushi places, and we go to them on a frequent basis. That’s my passion. I love sushi. I love the way it all works. It’s a little glorious meal in one little thing that’s this big — it’s the salt, it’s the sugar, it’s all of that — and then the Champagne just washes through it. It’s an ethereal experience. The acidity of the Champagne cuts through all the soy sauce and the wasabi, so it’s the entire meal done in one bite and one sip. That would be my last meal.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: