The First Great California Wine Writer

Robert Lawrence Balzer lead many lives, along the way helping to create the modern California wine business

One afternoon a couple of years ago, I was going through some boxes of my late parents' papers and came upon a small handwritten menu for a birthday dinner given for my mother in 1949 at Falcon's Lair, a famous mansion in the Hollywood Hills. The house had been the home of Rudolph Valentino briefly in the mid-1920s, and later became the abode of the eccentric tobacco heiress Doris Duke, who bought the place in 1953 and kept it until her death 40 years later. One of its owners in the interim, the man who sold it to Duke, was the host — and cook — for my mother's dinner: a one-time aspiring actor, Air Force pilot, specialty grocer, Buddhist monk, and budding wine writer named Robert Lawrence Balzer.

I had first met Balzer myself when I was a kid — "I used to bounce you on my knee," he liked to say, with his unmistakable theatrical drawl, in later years, to my chagrin — and on a whim, upon finding that menu, I tracked down his phone number and, though I hadn't spoken to him in probably 20 years, gave him a call. When he answered, I said, without identifying myself, "Do you know where you were on August 13, 1949?" Without a second's hesitation, he replied, "Well, Colman, I suppose I must have been cooking dinner for your mother at Falcon's Lair." He was 96 years old at the time.

Balzer led a kind of fairy-tale life, or rather a whole series of lives. He was born in Des Moines, Iowa, but migrated to Southern California with his family when he was a boy, later going off to Stanford University as an English major. After graduation, he tried his hand at acting, studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, where he met and married a Scarsdale-born actress named Emily Abel. The marriage lasted about a decade, and after its demise, he never remarried — though he had many close women friends, among them glamorous movie stars like Greta Garbo, Rosalind Russell, Olivia de Havilland, and Gloria Swanson (it was she who had first brought Doris Duke to Falcoln's Lair), and was much in demand as an escort at society bashes around Los Angeles. (He was, among other things, an excellent dancer.)

Balzer's father owned a specialty grocery store, catering to an illustrious Hollywood crowd (Alfred Hitchcock, Marlon Brando, and Ingrid Bergman were among the regular customers) and to the Hancock Park elite, and Balzer went to work there, running the wine department. Prohibition had ended only a few years earlier, and both the domestic wine business and the import trade were reinventing themselves at the time. Balzer didn't know much about the subject when he started, he was always quick to admit, but he was a quick study. Soon he knew enough to start writing a weekly wine column, one of the first in the country, for the Beverly Hills Citizen.

After serving in World War II as a pilot and flight instructor for what was then the U.S. Army Air Force, Balzer returned to the wine business. He realized long before many of his contemporaries that California was producing wines that could stand up to much of what was being imported from France, Italy, and Germany at the time, and in 1948 he published what was to be the first of about a dozen books, California's Best Wines.