The history of wine in 442 podcasts

The I'll Drink To That! podcasts are mostly recorded in Levi Dalton’s unprepossessing studio apartment on the Upper East Side, Manhattan. PHOTOS: COLE WILSON FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK (NEW YORK TIMES) - One of wine's great treasures is available, free, with the touch of a smartphone or the click of a mouse.

It is the I'll Drink To That! podcast which, since 2012, has come to be an indispensable resource for anybody who loves wine and is curious about the personalities and histories of wine producers, sommeliers and others in the trade.

By wine producers, I do not mean fly-by-nights seizing marketing opportunities to promote mediocre bottles. I am referring to the custodians of some of the greatest vineyards and cellars in the world, people like Mr Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti in Burgundy, France, or Ms Maria Teresa Mascarello of Bartolo Mascarello, whose voices are rarely heard except by the most privileged of visitors.

Through the podcast's 442 episodes (and counting), Levi Dalton, the host and a former sommelier in New York, has talked to people of consequence in almost every corner and level of the business.

Some are well known, like writer Hugh Johnson and restaurateur Danny Meyer. Others are unrecognised outside the business, but their stories are so interesting that you want to learn a lot more about them.

I mean people such as Ms Elena Pantaleoni, who makes wonderful wines at La Stoppa in Emilia-Romagna, Italy; Ms Becky Wasserman, an American who has lived in Burgundy for decades and has played a crucial role in identifying some of the most soulful wine producers in France; and Ms Carole Meredith, a former grape genetics professor who discovered that zinfandel was identical to a Croatian variety, tribidrag, and now has a winery, Lagier Meredith, in California's Napa Valley.

Levi Dalton hosts the podcast I'll Drink To That!

Wine is enjoyable enough if you know no more about what you are drinking than what is in the glass. But the more context you add, the more fascinating it becomes. I'll Drink To That! provides the sort of background that helps transform the notion of wine from a simple beverage to a complex culture.

The podcasts are bare-bones, largely free of sound effects, except for the occasional segments produced by Erin Scala, another former New York sommelier who now owns In Vino Veritas, a wine shop in Keswick, Virginia. They may include thoughtful essays on issues that wine geeks, at least, debate frequently, such as whether to include the grape stems in the fermentation process.

Otherwise, the podcasts are mostly recorded in Dalton's unprepossessing studio apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where he lives with his wife Ayako, a private chef, and their young son Louie.

Over time, Dalton has noticed patterns among winemakers.

"In the United States, some guy decides he wants to make wine and does it," he said. "In Europe, it's often a family generational story. Both of these really resonate with me."

I'll Drink To That! is not the only podcast focused on wine. GrapeRadio, a pioneer of the genre, has been in business for more than a decade. Much of the material in its archive is interesting and relaxed, though rarely does it go deeply beneath the surface.

Inside Winemaking, with its focus on the process of winemaking, is educational. Like GrapeRadio, it emphasises West Coast producers. Another podcast, Wine For Normal People, produced by a wife-and-husband team in Atlanta, tries, as the title suggests, to eliminate anything that sounds like wine snobbery.

I'll Drink To That! is different. It does not pretend to be a wine primer and it makes few concessions to newcomers who are not already familiar with the intricacies of wine or its places and people.

"I don't want to talk about, 'If you don't know what rose is, here's an explanation,'" Dalton said. "My strength is talking to people who are already committed to wine and I want to take them further." Even so, one does not need to be a Barolo expert to be inspired by writer Ian d'Agata's almost vineyard-by-vineyard deconstruction of Barolo terroir as he walks the audience through the various differences among them and how they affect the wines. I wanted to listen to it a second time, with a glass of Barolo in hand.

You could say that Dalton, 41, was born to the restaurant business. His mother worked as a waitress in Los Angeles and later at the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood in Oregon, before moving to Montclair, New Jersey. His father was a cook. They divorced when Dalton was young and he often found himself in the company of restaurant workers.

Levi Dalton worked as a sommelier at Cafe Boulud, Masa, Convivio and Alto, among other restaurants, before launching his podcast.

"It was a little like a surrogate family," he said. "I didn't have siblings, so I hung out with career waiters, people with life experience." By the late 1990s, he was supporting himself at Boston University by working as a busboy. Hoping to earn more as a waiter, he applied for a job at the Federalist, a restaurant that was renowned for its wine list.

He got the job and, sensing he could increase his income if he sold more wine, he set about teaching himself, reading everything he could and working in the restaurant's wine cellar. As an added bonus at the Federalist, he was able to taste many classic wines from Bordeaux, the Rhone and Germany. Eventually, he became a sommelier.

"It was a different era," he said. "Wine was less expensive. Regular people could have great bottles of wine for special events. Now they can't." That all changed after 9/11.

Customers stopped spending money, Dalton said, and eventually, he lost his job. But one of the cooks at the Federalist opened a neighbourhood Italian place and hired him to manage the wine. There, he grounded himself in Italian wines.

On a wine-tasting trip to New York, he sat at the bar at the restaurant Daniel and was wowed by the breadth of the wine list. A determination to work there sent him first to Florida, where his mother had relocated and where he landed a job at Cafe Boulud, which had opened a branch in Palm Beach. He parlayed that into a job in 2005 at Daniel, the mothership of the chef Daniel Boulud.

From there came gigs at Masa, Convivio and Alto, which are now closed, and then Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud. Along the way, he got the idea of interviewing other sommeliers, who he felt had great stories to tell but were rarely heard. He met Matt Duckor, who was working at Bon Appetit magazine and is now executive producer there and at Epicurious.

Together, they hatched the idea of a podcast. Duckor would handle the technical production and Dalton the interviews.

At first, Dalton's technique was rocky. He interrupted guests and seemed eager to demonstrate his own knowledge. "That's a sensitive thing for me, learning how to be wrong," he said.

But over time, his work improved exponentially. He learnt how to listen, to use silence to encourage further thoughts and, because he does know so much, became adept at asking excellent questions. Duckor left, but Scala arrived, and the podcasts improved technically as well.

"Erin has been huge," Dalton said. "She said, 'Levi, what you're doing is really important,' and she had recording and editing experience." Crucial to sustaining the podcast was sponsorship, which came in the form of SevenFifty.com, an online tool for the beverage trade.

One of the nicest moments, Dalton said, was when Mr de Villaine of Romanee-Conti arrived at his little apartment. Looking at it, he said, "I can see that a lot of nice memories have been had in this place." A lot of history, too.

When the thirst for podcasts strikes

Beyond I'll Drink To That!, numerous other podcasts focus on wine. Here are four. Most are available through their websites or iTunes.

  • GrapeRadio: In business for more than a decade, GrapeRadio is like a talk show where the subject is wine.
  • Inside Winemaking: Focuses on all aspects of making wine, with a largely West Coast point of view.
  • The Vincast: Direct from Melbourne, Australia, with an emphasis on that country, but not exclusively so. Entertaining and informative.
  • Wine For Normal People: Wide-ranging but easygoing discussion of wine issues for non-experts.

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