“See this man,” said Olivier Krug, who represents the sixth generation of his family to run the formidable Krug Champagne house, at a recent party launching the brand’s newest vintage. “He knows more about wine than anybody else in the world.”
Krug could have been referring to numerous guests milling around the fine drawing room of a Greenwich Village townhouse that evening: deep-pocketed collectors eyeing bottles, wine journalists from glossy publications, prestigious retailers in the region. His praise, however, was for John Gilman, author of View from the Cellar, a bimonthly newsletter about wine that he writes out of his beloved Croton-on-Hudson home. (Gilman lives in a 110-year-old country inn that was converted into seven apartments. Even though he has lived there for more than 15 years, he still says things like, “Oh God, it is so beautiful, so luxurious!” And, “I never want to live anywhere else!”)
Krug is certainly not alone in his estimations of Gilman, a jolly, gray-haired man whose smile extends all the way to his eyes. His newsletter—it reads more like a book with long but entertaining passages on subjects such as “a few more utterly superb classical and neo-classical American wines”—has 2,200 subscribers who pay $120 a year to receive the PDF in their inbox, but is estimated to reach 10,000 readers. The New York Times’ dining section described Gilman as one of the “critical voices being heard in the Internet age.” And wine houses, from big to small, court Gilman to write about their newest vintages. After Gilman wrote a feature on a little-known estate in Germany, its sales jumped enough to allow it to renovate its tasting room and cellar. “You made this all possible just by writing such nice things about our wine,” the estate told the author.
Gilman, it seems, was born with a passion, even a need, to taste fine wine. When he was seven years old, he pressed his parents, who were married in France but raised their family in Western Massachusetts, to let him have wine at dinner. “It was so stringent,” he recalls. “The tannins would bite you, and you would try to be like, ‘Oh, I’m having wine—this is so cool.’”
As an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, he held fancy wine-tasting dinners complete with note-taking and food-pairing for his friends and crushes. In retrospect, he’s not sure if the strategy worked: “We had a lot of company, but no longstanding relationships,” he says.
Now, in Westchester, where he works out of a studio attached to his three-bedroom apartment, he has a 2,400-bottle cellar that he stocks with wine from Grapes in White Plains or Zachys in Scarsdale. For a night on the town, his go-to is Crabtree’s Kittle House in Chappaqua. Its wine list is “like an Encyclopedia Britannica,” he says. “They have a passion for wine going back 30, 40 years.” He even jokes about growing grapes in his building’s communal garden.
Gilman also holds regular tastings with local wine lovers, including Cathleen Burke Visscher, a fine-wine marketing guru and wine broker. Visscher says Gilman adds tremendously to the group with his uncanny ability to distinguish between wines. “Every tasting is double-blind, so you really have no idea about anything except whether the wine is red or white,” she says. “And he has extraordinary ability to nail the vintage and vineyard.”
Gilman’s skills come from decades of diverse work in the wine industry. Out of college, he was a wine merchant, first at Town and Country, once the largest retailer in New England, and then at retailers like Crossroads Wine & Spirits in New York City. Then he became head sommelier at high-end Manhattan restaurants Gotham Bar & Grill and Picholine. Finally, he was tapped by a Geneva-based rare-wine brokerage named Internet Wine Consulting, to sell wine that it bought from old, posh cellars across Europe, to collectors and restaurants along America’s East Coast.
One of Gilman’s favorite activities as a rare-wine broker was writing a blog for clients about the wines they discovered and tried. “I would get emails from clients saying, ‘This is really, really good wine writing. If it were a newsletter, I’d buy it,’” he says. Those words never left him, and, at the age of 45, when he was ready for a change, he decided to take the plunge.
The first two years, 2006 to 2008, were extremely rocky. He sold cherished bottles from his own cellar to keep his earnings up and sometimes found the lack of money coming in “a little alarming.” (He also had a wife and two children to think about; his son is now 25 and working and his daughter is off to Michigan State University this semester.) By the third year, however, his newsletter started gaining traction. More subscribers signed up—Gilman charged an annual fee for the product—and asked him to host live wine-tastings and trips to Europe.
It’s hard to imagine how Gilman, now in his 50s, can keep up with his schedule. He travels three months of the year—always to Burgundy for the new vintage, and then to other regions close by. Even when he’s home, he’s running from place to place. On the day we were scheduled to meet, he was having lunch with his old pals at Gotham Bar & Grill, then conducting a Bollinger tasting at The Peacock in Manhattan, and then going to the 50th Anniversary Dinner for the “Maestro of Montepulciano, Emidio Pepe.”
Gilman can’t see himself stopping any time soon. “This is a job I could do my whole life,” he says. “You can write about wine until you lose interest in it, and I don’t think that will ever happen.”
Then, almost as an afterthought, he tells me about his 83-year-old father who still drinks half a bottle of wine for dinner when he is alone (and more when his wine-expert son visits). And then it dawns on Gilman: “So I guess I inherited some of it from him.”