Archive » November 25, 2010
A TASTE FOR TALKING
By Jeremy Foster, Staff Writer
Local radio host in tune with Valley interests
Local radio host in tune with Valley interests
Many people think of wine enthusiasts as snobs, bores or even boors.
None of these appellations describe radio personality Tom Leykis, who for the past six years has hosted a wine connoisseur show designed to inform and enlighten listeners through stories told by winemakers themselves.
Leykis is best known for his recently cancelled nationally syndicated general talk show, where from the bully pulpit he aired eyebrow-raising opinions on dating, religion, politics and other topics. That show ended last year when the station switched its format to Top 40 music.
Although Leykis’s former audience consisted of highly educated people, many fans were surprised to learn that the shock-jock spent his off-hours drinking and waxing effusive on Bordeaux and California Cabernet, and listening to Dexter Gordon and Lyle Lovett at his home in Northern Santa Barbara County.
“People couldn’t fathom it,” he said, sitting in an easy chair, his legs tucked under him. “It was like imagining David Letterman doing a travel show.”
Leykis suggested the idea of a show about wine to CBS radio executives when he was hosting their all-talk station’s marquee program, "The Tom Leykis Show." No one was interested until he offered to host and produce the show himself.
On The Tasting Room with Tom Leykis, the 54-year-old’s colorful personality takes a back seat to those of his guests.
“These are compelling personalities, and they come at the wine industry from different angles – some of them are the children of rich people, or their parents thought this was something that could keep them busy, or they just discovered it as a passion in later life,” Leykis explains. “They’re not all the same. That’s what’s great about the show.”
“I recently interviewed Dr. Chris Fotinos, who was the team dentist for (Major League Baseball’s) Anaheim Angels and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim,” he continues. “I asked if there was anything about dentistry that affects the way he makes wine, because to me the only connection was numbing people up. He said he considered both art forms.”
In "The Tasting Room," libations don’t flow too liberally, and Leykis stresses that his show “is not about telling people how to get a stiff belt. We encourage people to drink the best quality of wine they can in right quantities.”
In fact, instant gratification is the antithesis of the wine-tasking experience, he insists.
“Everything, from growing vines, which takes years to produce, to growing the grapes, waiting through the sometimes mercurial weather, and the picking process – all of it is about delaying gratification,” he says. “Even when you open up a bottle, air it out and pour it into a glass, you never know what you’re going to get.”
“It’s just like life. It can be disappointing, surprising or absolutely amazing,” he adds, then chuckling after noticing the similarity of what he just said to the memorable “Life is like a box of chocolates” movie line in Forrest Gump.
In contrast to his former show, The Tasting Room, which airs weekends mainly in West Coast markets (and soon in the Valley, although the station hasn’t been announced) and on podcasts, caters to a lucrative niche audience. But wine neophytes hoping to expand their horizons beyond rotgut need not fear, Leykis says.
“The show isn’t just for wine connoisseurs who want to know the brix levels of wine or about the oak of barrels from Hungary or France,” he explains. “If a guest brings ups brix, I ask, ‘What is that? Why do we care about that? Are there other ways to tell if the grapes are ready?’ Now I know what the answer is. I just don’t let anyone say anything remotely lingo without explaining what it means.”
Award-winning sommelier Adam “the Wine Guy” Leemon, a regular guest on the show, says Leykis is fun to work with and a true professional.
“He always knows the right question to ask. He provides a platform for winemakers to talk about their wines and consumers to be able to hear from the horse’s mouth what’s really going in the wine world and providing a huge audience to wine makers," Leemon says. "And he does it in a fun-friendly, accessible way for the everyday guy and the wine expert."
The show began in part as an outlet for Leykis to talk in depth about one of his passions, but ultimately it’s designed to demystify the wine-drinking experience and make it an interesting and enjoyable topic of conversation.
During his show, discussions of wine are punctuated by pouring, swishing, swirling, glass clinking and lip smacking. The guests include winemakers, fine wine collectors, wine merchants and fellow wine aficionados. Most recently, Leykis interviewed author Rex Pickett, who made the Santa Ynez Valley famous with his novel Sideways, which was adapted into a film in 2004.
“He’ll tell you that he is Miles Straume and Miles is him,” says Leykis, referring to a character from the film (played by Paul Giamatti), who is distraught about his lack of success as a novelist. “Rex is a funny and passionate guy who doesn’t have an edit button, and contrary to popular belief, he has nothing against Merlot.”
He also discusses news in the wine industry, including relatively controversial topics, such as the three-tiered system mandating that alcohol move from producer to wholesaler to retailer – something vintners are wary to opine about for fear of alienating distributors – to innocuous topics, such as the debate over corks versus screw tops.
The shows are recorded out of Leykis’s two estates – he also has a home in the Hollywood Hills – which house modest studios equipped with some microphones, mixers, equalizers and computers. The show’s producer splices all segments (which are usually 12 minutes long) recorded during the week into 2-hour shows, overlaying sultry jazz interludes, commercials and voice tracks introducing the show. The smaller sets are a far cry from what Leykis was used to when he hosted his FM radio show in a high-end studio in Los Angeles.
“Nothing compares to stepping into the cockpit at a big city radio station, flipping open the microphone, and knowing 100,000 people at any given time are hearing your voice,” says Leykis, when asked if he misses the old studio. “But I embrace technology. If you’re telling me I can put my radio show on someone’s telephone, I say bring it on. I don’t have to convince a radio station to put my content out so people can hear it. I can create my content today and have it out here tomorrow morning.”
Leykis’s traces his interest in wine to an early fascination with champagne. He grew up in the South Bronx and lived in a one-bedroom apartment, sharing a room with three siblings while his parents slept on a convertible sofa in the other room. His father was a “functional alcoholic” who never supported his son’s later endeavor into radio.
For Leykis, sparkling wine represented an entryway to a better life, far from the rough-edged poverty of his youth. A prodigy as a kid, he showed a raw talent for radio at 14, winning a contest for an hour-long stint on a station in New York and was asked to host the show two more times. From there, he says, he never looked back.
Leykis, whose wine cellar includes more than 1,000 bottles, is a self-educated consumer. His interest in the best wines have taken him to far-flung locales, including Italy, France for Burgundy and Bordeaux, Germany, Argentina for its Catena Cabernet Sauvignon – one of his favorite varietals. He’s traveled all over California, which he says is a wonderful state for all things vinous, noting that some of the local wines trace back to Spanish farmers of the 16th century.
Even a trip to Trader Joes or Costco has yielded wonderful wines at bargain prices, Leykis points out, as if to head off any accusation that he’s a wine snob. “I’m a wine freak,” he declares. “I want to get the best wine I can get for the best possible price. In fact, Leykis admits that he’s among those who scour the wine aisles of supermarkets for steals.
“There was a time when that was considered slumming,” he says. “Many people assume that because a bottle is $15, it must be lousy. But while certainly there’s a difference when you talk about extremes – with 2-buck Chuck on one side and Canato Marco on the other – I think price has little to do with the quality of wine.” Leykis touts Malbec at Costco, noting that people are flabbergasted when they learn that he bargain hunts at the warehouse chain. “Everyone loves a deal, including me,” he says, shrugging.
Although he offers tips and shares tidbits like these, Leykis is quick to point out that his opinions on wine – particularly on what vintage is good and what stinks – are just that. Opinions.
“Sometimes a guest will bring on a varietal that isn’t very good, but we don’t belabor the fact that it’s not up to my standards,” he says. “I happen to believe that for every bottle of wine that I hate, there’s a customer out there that will enjoy it. I don’t try to put myself in a position to be a Robert Parker and start proclaiming that I am an authority on this.”
Leykis says his job is to elicit stories about wine; and though he admires the vintner’s sense of adventure and daring, he doesn’t see himself ever getting in the business of growing grapes. “People have this very romantic notion about planting a vineyard,” he says, “but it’s a hard and fast reality, an agricultural business that is subject to all of the labor costs, weather risks, market risks and other risks attendant to the labor of love.”
Looking forward, Leykis hopes to draw more celebrity guests to touch on their own adventures in wine making, including comedian and musician Tommy Smothers, former major league baseball pitcher Tom Seaver, guitarist Carlos Santana, and actor and director Emilio Estevez.
“When Estevez told me he was going to plant a Pinot Noir vineyard around his Malibu home, I laughed at him,” recalls Leykis, grinning broadly. “Now he has his own vintage, and the number of vineyards in the region has increased. I want to talk about that. Wine has a personal story attached to it, and that’s what fascinates me.”
The Tasting Room with Tom Leykis can be heard at tastingwithtom.com.