St. John

(Photography by Drew Reynolds)

In vino veritas

Wine writer and restaurant critic Bill St. John, AM’77, AM’80, PhD’83, talks fear of wine and the scourge of ratings.

If you look closely at the numbers, you will see that Bill St. John, AM’77, AM’80, PhD’83, earned three advanced degrees in just six years—the first and third from the Divinity School, the second in public policy. In 1983, while teaching philosophy, religion, ethics, and economics at his alma mater, Denver’s Regis College (now Regis University), he won a contest to become a wine writer for the Rocky Mountain News.

By 1996 St. John had given up his academic career to become a full-time journalist. He was the restaurant critic, food editor, and wine writer for the Denver Post, wrote the Fearless Omnivore column for Wine & Spirits, and did cooking demonstrations and restaurant reviews for Denver’s KCNC-TV. During his 12 years as a restaurant critic, “I gained 50 pounds,” says St. John. “I’m Catholic, and you always clean your plate. It was not a great job for me to have.”

Now living in Chicago, St. John writes a weekly wine and food column for the Chicago Tribune. He teaches classes on food, drink, religion, and philosophy at the Graham School and tasting classes at local wine stores. In an interview with the Magazine, adapted below, he talked about his academic background and career.

Cru Bourgeois: My mother was from Belgium. I was the oldest of nine children. Her heritage caused her to pay a lot of attention to the quality of the food she prepared for us. She started getting my father interested in wine, which is something that was important to her father, and we learned about wine from them. I’m lucky. That doesn’t happen to an American child, generally.

Communion wine: When I was at Regis College in the ’60s, there were some priests there [who were interested in] wine as part of Christian heritage. I started learning about wine with this one priest, a professor, and we started teaching classes about wine to our fellow students and professors. This priest knew a lot about music. So we would do a class on American wines and Aaron Copland, or German wines and J. S. Bach. If you’re going to teach something, you have to teach yourself first. I learned a lot by picking up books, reading, tasting wines ahead of time, so I could talk about it.

I graduated first in my class, summa cum laude, with a degree in religion and philosophy. And I had no job. So I opened a small wine shop in Denver with my former professors.

Christian or philosopher: I was in Washington, DC, at a conference with some of my fellow students in 1982. There was an air accident out of National Airport. This plane took off, clipped its wing on a bridge, and crashed into the Potomac River. There was this man floating in the Potomac with a lot of other survivors, waiting to be rescued, and this helicopter kept coming by and lowering a life ring into the water. And this man kept handing the life ring to other people in the water. And he died. He sacrificed his life for other people. I was fascinated by that. Why did this guy do that? So I started studying what’s called in philosophical circles supererogation: those acts of goodness that are beyond the call of duty. In Christian ethics, you have to do those things; you’re supposed to turn the other cheek, to do good works, to lay down your life for your friends. Philosophers would say, bullshit. That’s supererogatory. That is not necessary. So I wrote a dissertation on supererogation.

Residual sugar: I was interested in the history of ethics, the nonreligious history as well—the Greeks, modern philosophers. So I started taking courses in philosophy. I think the first 70 days, I read a book a day. It was the University of Chicago. One of the things I was lacking when I was studying medical ethics was a background in practical things like finance, allocation of resources. It’s all well and good to say we ought to save as many lives as possible, but when that costs a lot of money, from society’s point of view that’s another question. So I applied for a master’s degree in public policy. I was given a free ride as a Searle Fellow—the drug company that made Aspartame. They had a lot of money in 1978.

Wine as condiment: For other cultures, wine is like ketchup on the table. For us, it’s not. We think of wine as a special thing, not as an everyday beverage. I think we were not a wine-drinking culture from the beginning. So we’ve had to establish a wine culture.

Country wine: Because we are the United States, we have available to us a range of wines that no other culture has. Even smaller stores have wines from probably 12 or 15 different countries. A French person doesn’t have wine from 15 countries. Maybe at a special store in Paris. We have at our disposal a huge number and range of wines that we’ve had to teach ourselves about, and that we are also afraid of.

Noble rot: I’m not comfortable around people bragging about their wine collections, or that they got something that was rated 95 by Robert Parker. I just get so angry because it’s so American. It’s like talking about your car, the school your kids go to, the country club you’re a member of—it’s just not good. And in my view, that’s not what wine is about.

Alcohol by volume: I don’t drink. Alcohol and I are not friends. Wine and I are really close intimates, but that’s a necessary distinction. I put wine in my mouth, and taste it, and smell it, and roll it around, and then I spit it out, maybe 50 times a week, at a minimum. Wine isn’t alcohol to me. Wine is full of flavors and textures and aromas, enormous geography, craft, history. It’s an enormous thing in this teeny glass. And alcohol is just there. In a way it’s really immaterial.

Best buy: The wines of Portugal in general. I don’t know why we devalue Portugal so much. I guess we consider it a runt of Spain, or a failed country because it used to be so powerful and now it is no longer a great world power. Or maybe because they don’t brag about themselves—they’re not flashy like the Italians, French, or Spanish are.

Last drink: I adore and am so fascinated with red Burgundy made with the Pinot Noir grape. There’s enormous amounts of history involved in the development of the Burgundy and its vineyards that goes back to the time before Charlemagne. And the Pinot Noir expresses itself in all these different little vineyards in individual ways. Wines that are from right next to each other and made by the same winemaker can really be quite different. I just love that there’s a terrestrial tie. If I had to have one wine—which I would drink, because I wouldn’t be worried about being sharp enough to teach or write a column at that point—I would enjoy red Pinot Noir.