Thursday, March 27, 2014

Belated Happy Birthday to the New York Cork Report: 10 Years Old!


So, recently I had lunch with Lenn Thompson, who founded the New York Cork Report tens years ago in March 2004. Back then it was and the small blog covered the emerging Long Island wine region.

Those were heady days. He was married, but with no kids. He threw raves at bars and wineries, promoting local wines. He would send a shout out, and suddenly there was a large group filling up a tasting room. He profiled numerous winemakers. He helped put fine wine on the map in Long Island.

Back then, between Howard G Goldberg in the New York Times and Lenn Thompson with Lenndevours, Long Island had what seemed like an insurmountable lead in the world of New York wine.

I laughed as I followed him up and down Route 25A on Long Island, the back of his car tagged with Pittsburgh Steelers bumper stickers. He can be loud, boisterous, opinionated (I am sure he'll have some critique of this piece), funny, devilish, and just plain down to earth (as when he lost weight on Facebook last year, showing shots of the scale, his weight, and his feet - for which he took a lot of abuse). He loves his family...his children. He is a loyal friend. He is also a fan. He is a true believer. And that kind of fanaticism has served him well in sports and in wine.


So when we sat down to eat, I asked him what his first post was. He didn't remember, he laughed. When they migrated the site from Lenndevours to the new New York Cork Report, he lost the first post. He doesn't even remember what it was.

"It’s going to sound horribly cliche to say this, but when I started the New York Cork Report (then known as LENNDEVOURS), I never imagined that I’d be writing a post on it ten years later. It was a diversion. A creative outlet. A way for me to easily tell my friends and family about the wines I was drinking and discovering here on Long Island. But here we are," Lenn wrote on his blog.

It doesn't really matter if that first port was lost to time, does it? The fact of the matter was that the New York Cork Report was a massive sea change in his blogging days.

With the establishment of the New York Cork Report a new kind of wine blogging was being done...and being done well. Yes, there were other local bloggers - in fact it was Lenn who recused me from the witness protection program of the wine blogging world and thrust me in front of the other bloggers in 2006 when he outted me for my wine writing.

But when Thompson re-branded his site, he did more than change the name of his site - he changed the game. The NYCR in essence stopped being a blog and became an internet magazine. Lenn was suddenly Editor-in-Chief and he had a revolving cadre of wine, beer, and food writers spinning through a revolving editorial board.

He brought in Evan Dawson, a charismatic regional news anchor in Rochester, who was by day a professional reporter and journalist, and Dawson's input had an enormous change on the NYCR. They became even more professional in tone, and now their game was just not the wines of Long Island but the wines of New York. And they were interested in only fine wines. Thompson and Dawson were and remain a formidable team.

This was no longer blogging - this was reporting, journalism, essays. This wasn't some local hack writing about a tasting room experience. They asked tough questions and made it into the most powerful regional wine website in the country. This was no small feat. And since then, it helped launch the career of Evan Dawson as a writer, who with his SUMMER IN A GLASS, captured the prestigious Roederer Award for best wine book in the world, the highest award handed out for wine and spirits writing. Dawson ha to go to Europe to collect his hardware.

In the meantime Thompson and Dawson courted other wine writers throughout the business, and in their own way, spread the gospel of New York wine.

Complaints? There've been a few. Thompson, a sometime enfant terrible, can be somewhat difficult in his reviews, once stating that a wine tasted like "pool water." Winemakers can sometimes be skittish about sending him wines. He could tweak the nose of the powerful, and pick a fight with the best of them. He is a wine snob - and his hard on hybrids and chardonnay. He is happy to yell "Tripe!" when tripe is served. That doesn't make you a lot of friends. His website has offered a dialogue board for the industry, which in some cases, has afforded a public view of some very private disagreements. And there is still a small band of Long Islanders that feel abandoned because he fell in love with the Finger Lakes and Erie. Not true, but what was Long Island's loss was New York State's gain. While Thompson is still a fan of Long Island, he and his team were very effective in raising the profiles of dozens of wineries in the Finger Lakes, Lake Erie, Niagara, and the Hudson Valley. If you are making good wine in New York state, Thompson and his team wanted to taste it and promote it.

"It has been — and continues to be — an amazing experience. Because of the words on these virtual pages, I’ve met, tasted with, worked with and learned from too many talented, generous people to mention. I’ve worked harvest a handful of times. I’ve landed writing gigs for some of the publications I used to read and still read regularly. I’ve spoken to an audience of winery owners and winemakers about social media and bloggers. I’ve organized three-day wine country tours in wine regions from Virginia to Ontario and points in between. And most importantly, I hope we’ve been good for New York wine," he wrote.

He has immense passion for the industry, and does not suffer the egos and foolishness that interfere with its rise in anyway. He is not interested in regional petty rivalries. There is no doubt in my mind, that no history of New York state wine could be written without a chapter of it being devoted to Thompson and his New York wine virtual magazine.

"I like to think that we’ve helped get some much-deserved attention for the New York wine industry. There are so many distinctive, delicious wines being made in New York today that far too many people don’t know about. Sharing the joy and pleasure that we find in local wine, beer and spirits has always been our top priority. We don’t get paid to do this. We do it because we live to find the best local wines and to tell the stories behind them. I can’t imagine not having the NYCR at this point. It’s gone from hobby to obsession to just a part of everyday life. We’d probably do it even if no one were reading," he continued.

Since founding the website, he has gone on to join the board of Drink Local Wine and NYCR offers taste camps around the state and on the east coast.

The highest compliment I can offer is this - a winemaker from another state recently said to me, "I wish we had a New York Cork Report for our region." Enough said.

Lenn and I don't always agree - on wines, on what's good for New York state wine, or on sports - but the one thing I have to respect, among many, many things, is his passion for wine and for the region. Here's to another ten years and beyond!!