Adam Japko fell in love with wine 28 years ago growing up in New York City and has been collecting and promoting wine as a lifestyle component ever since. Since getting his journalism degree from NYU in 1979, he has made his career as a media executive and is currently Chairman and CEO of Esteem Media, Inc. He has been an industry leader paving the way for the media industry to reshape traditional models in a fast-changing world of free quality content and social media. He regularly writes about wine at his blog Adam Japko’s WineZag.
Brett Vankoski (BV): Adam, can you first tell us a little bit about you by sharing some of the things that excite you other than wine?
Adam Japko (AJ): I’ve attended more than 100 Grateful Dead shows since the early 1970s. I heard my first improvisational jam on the radio in 1969 when I was ten years old and fell hard for the band’s musical exploration. I started making friends with really smart people who fell into this community formed by mysterious music that created new levels of shared joy. We cherished the moments in concert halls, homes, and outdoor venues that provided connected moments through musical exploration and reality shifting. My car’s satellite radio is glued to the Grateful Dead channel to this day.
I grew up in Sheepshead Bay, a Brooklyn neighborhood on its ocean edge. I started fishing when I was six years old and never stopped. Walking through the city streets onto my boat and leaving the harbor to hunt the Atlantic is an inexplicable feeling. I made lots of friends who shared not only the cheap thrills of fighting big tuna, bluefish, or striped bass, but became hooked by the warm and mysterious sensations of exploration and hunting through instinct. We became dedicated fisherman because we were inflicted by these feelings, weather conditions, smell of bait, the salty air, and an ocean chess game that became easier to play with years of combined intellectual and sensual learning. Our community of fisherman knew it was more than a hobby or profession; for us it was a productive compulsion that fed our brains and gave us an edge. Fishing was something you get good at over long years by experiencing it, a knowledge base that is impossible to learn through books.
Wine, fishing, and the Grateful Dead are fixtures in my life, apparently for similar reasons.
BV: You have immersed yourself in wine for almost 30 years now. What keeps you going?
AJ: It did not take too long to recognize that an inexplicably-all-of-a-sudden fanatic compulsion with wine was rooted in its transcendent role in lubricating human connection. No doubt, the collecting, tasting, knowledge building, and palate training on this sustained journey of building some working knowledge about fine wine was constructive on many less mystical levels. But, the happy transformations of ordinary moments and meals with friends, family, clients…even strangers…into something deeper and more meaningful drew me in deeply.
Watching people around me react to the pleasures of the fine wines I shared with them was a turn on. I built some of my closest friendships because we connected around a passion to experience fine wine together. Business relationships and deals that never would have progressed, had wine not played some role, flourished. Connections were deeper than usual whether we became friends for life, a few years, or even just a few hours. Wine opened doors to a new reality and I wanted to immerse in the other side of this new portal that opened up to me.
BV: What do you like to drink?
AJ: Loaded question. When I started going to a monthly blind tasting with a bunch of wealthy doctors in New York back in the mid-eighties, it was all Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, Piedmont, and California wines. I cut my teeth on these wines.
Life was simpler back then. Bordeaux was affordable, California producers hadn’t yet started bottling over extracted high alcohol wines, and there weren’t as many wine producing countries to learn about, nor specialty importers who now bring great affordable wines across our border from small hidden producers that used to sell all their wines in their village in jugs.
You didn’t have to think too much, you just needed to learn a few hundred producers and 50 different vintage conditions to reliably construct the right cellar collection for yourself or to just pick out a wine for the evening at a wine shop or restaurant. So I went crazy buying first and second growth Bordeaux, for under $800 a case, single vineyard Cote Rotie and venerable Chateauneuf du Pape for pennies, and loaded up on the finest California Cabernet for $25 a bottle. See what I mean? Life was much easier then and these wines served as the foundation of my cellar.
BV: You are pretty lucky, not everyone can afford to drink these wines now.
AJ: Fair. I started buying early, built a great career in media and married a very successful doctor. We pretty much drink whatever I want, whenever I want. But the world of wine has changed. This week I went to a Uruguay wine tasting in Boston. Uruguay? Delicious Tannats at $15 a bottle. Spain’s Bierzo, Ribeira Sacra, and Valdeorras appellations has been discovered where delicious $15-$30 wines made from the Mencia grape will turn your head. The Jura, Savoie, Loire, Friuli, Sicily, Mendoza, and countless more regions have become accessible to the American market in the last ten years. Concurrently, China has become the largest market for venerable Bordeaux and the wines I bought for $50 back then are now $800 on release, partly due to this demand. So I don’t drink the wines I started with as much anymore. There is a full slate of new wine to learn and experience.
BV: That does sound overwhelming and something that may be difficult for even people who are into wine to grasp.
AJ: I never used to drink I wine before I knew something about it. Now, I have a more open mind. I remember having a really hard time buying 90+ Cellars wine. Not knowing the name of the producer rang empty to me. Every bottle of wine feeds my learning, and there was missing information here. You will remember that I challenged you to a tasting at the Boston Wine School a few years ago. You told me where a dozen of your wines came from and their vintage, and I went out a bought a dozen bottles that I selected from those regions that I would want to drink at my dinner table. I think there were about 25 tasters that night at the Wine School; 90+ and my pick side-by-side and blind. If I am right, 90+ wines won 8 of the 12 pairings. So much for my bias.
BV: I remember that tasting. So did it provide any broader learning for you?
AJ: First, I realized how crazy it was not to drink a wine whose identity I would never know. I would miss out on too much. I realized that as long as there is someone curating the selection, whether it is the winemaker dropping fruit in the vineyard or sorting at harvest, or 90+ tasting through hundreds of already made wines to find the best ones to wrap a label around, the real test is in the glass at the table surrounded by friends. That’s what matters. I have been taken with a number of 90+ wines since then that I would have otherwise missed.
Want to know which 90+ Cellars wines Adam likes the most and why? Click here to watch the video and learn more.
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