One of wine’s great treasures is available, free, with the touch of a smartphone or the click of a mouse.
It’s the “I’ll Drink to That” podcast, which since 2012 has come to be an indispensable resource for anybody who loves wine and is curious about the personalities and histories of wine producers, sommeliers and others in the trade.
By wine producers, I don’t mean fly-by-nights seizing marketing opportunities to promote mediocre bottles. I am referring to the custodians of some of the greatest vineyards and cellars in the world, people like Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy or Maria Teresa Mascarello of Bartolo Mascarello, whose voices are rarely heard except by the most privileged of visitors.
Through the podcast’s 442 episodes (and counting), Levi Dalton, the host and a former sommelier in New York, has talked to people of consequence in almost every corner and level of the business.
Some are well known, like the writer Hugh Johnson and the restaurateur Danny Meyer. Others are unrecognized outside the business, but their stories are so interesting that you want to learn a lot more about them.
I mean people like Elena Pantaleoni, who makes wonderful wines at La Stoppa in Emilia-Romagna, Italy; Becky Wasserman, an American who has lived in Burgundy for decades and has played a crucial role in identifying some of the most soulful wine producers in France; and Carole Meredith, a former grape genetics professor who discovered that zinfandel was identical to a Croatian variety, tribidrag, and now has a winery, Lagier Meredith, in Napa Valley.
Wine is enjoyable enough if you know no more about what you are drinking than what’s in the glass. But the more context you add, the more fascinating it becomes. “I’ll Drink to That” provides the sort of background that helps to transform the notion of wine from a simple beverage to a complex culture.
The podcasts are bare-bones, largely free of sound effects, except for the occasional segments produced by Erin Scala, another former New York sommelier who now owns In Vino Veritas, a wine shop in Keswick, Va. They may include thoughtful essays on issues that wine geeks, at least, debate frequently, like whether to include the grape stems in the fermentation process.
Otherwise, the podcasts are mostly recorded in Mr. Dalton’s unprepossessing studio apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where he lives with his wife, Ayako, a private chef, and their young son, Louie.
Guests, like Christian Moueix, proprietor of Château Trotanoy in Pomerol and Dominus Estate in Napa Valley, among others, may be offered a cup of tea before sitting across a dining table from Mr. Dalton. While he also records podcasts on location while visiting wine regions, the interviews are always conducted face to face.
You could make an entire playlist of great Burgundy producers, like Guillaume d’Angerville and Michel Lafarge, the alpha and omega of Volnay; as well as Jeremy Seysses of Domaine Dujac, Jean-Marie Fourrier of Domaine Fourrier, or Frédéric Mugnier of Domaine Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier.
Bordeaux is not neglected, nor is California, Champagne or Italy. Mr. Dalton has conducted fascinating interviews with Thomas Duroux of Château Palmer, Ehren Jordan of Failla, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon of the great Champagne producer Louis Roederer, and Frank Cornelissen, a natural wine producer on Mount Etna in Sicily. And if you have a taste for good assyrtiko from the island of Santorini, listen to Mr. Dalton interview Yiannis Paraskevopoulos of Gai’a Wines. Afterward, you might consider aging a few bottles of assyrtiko.
Over time, Mr. Dalton has noticed patterns among winemakers.
“In the U.S., some guy decides he wants to make wine, and does it,” he said. “In Europe, it’s often a family generational story. Both of these really resonate with me.”
For those who have enjoyed a bottle of excellent traditional Rioja from R. López de Heredia, the voice of María José López de Heredia — describing how her family came to be ardent guardians of methods long ago abandoned by other Rioja producers — can add depth and dimension to the wine.
If you love New York restaurants, you may savor hearing Ned Benedict, now an importer at Grand Cru Selections, talk about his time at Bouley and elsewhere in the 1990s. If you know Paul Grieco only as the proprietor of Terroir (a wine bar in TriBeCa), his childhood in a restaurant family in Toronto lends added flavor to his proselytizing for the glories of riesling.
“I’ll Drink to That” is not the only podcast focused on wine. “GrapeRadio,” a pioneer of the genre, has been in business for more than a decade. Much of the material in its archive is interesting and relaxed, though rarely does it go deeply beneath the surface.
“Inside Winemaking” with its focus on the process of winemaking, is educational. Like “GrapeRadio” it emphasizes West Coast producers. Another podcast, “Wine for Normal People,” produced by a wife-and-husband team in Atlanta, tries, as the title suggests, to eliminate anything that sounds like wine snobbery.
“I’ll Drink to That” is different. It does not pretend to be a wine primer, and it makes few concessions to newcomers who are not already familiar with the intricacies of wine or its places and people.
“I don’t want to talk about, ‘If you don’t know what rosé is, here’s an explanation,’” Mr. Dalton said. “My strength is talking to people who are already committed to wine, and I want to take them further.”
Even so, one does not need to be a Barolo expert to be inspired by the writer Ian d’Agata’s almost vineyard-by-vineyard deconstruction of Barolo terroir as he walks the audience through the various differences among them and how they affect the wines. I wanted to listen to it a second time, with a glass of Barolo in hand.
You could say that Mr. Dalton, 41, was born to the restaurant business. His mother worked as a waitress in Los Angeles and later at the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood in Oregon, before moving to Montclair, N.J. His father was a cook. They divorced when Levi (pronounced LEH-vee) was young, and he often found himself in the company of restaurant workers.
“It was a little like a surrogate family,” he said. “I didn’t have siblings, so I hung out with career waiters, people with life experience.”
By the late 1990s, he was supporting himself at Boston University by working as a busboy. Hoping to earn more as a waiter, he applied for a job at the Federalist, a restaurant that was renowned for its wine list.
He got the job and, sensing he could increase his income if he sold more wine, he set about teaching himself, reading everything he could and working in the restaurant’s wine cellar. As an added bonus at the Federalist, he was able to taste many classic wines from Bordeaux, the Rhône and Germany. Eventually he became a sommelier.
“It was a different era,” he said. “Wine was less expensive. Regular people could have great bottles of wine for special events. Now they can’t.”
That all changed after 9/11. Customers stopped spending money, Mr. Dalton said, and eventually he lost his job. But one of the cooks at the Federalist opened a neighborhood Italian place and hired Mr. Dalton to manage the wine. There, he grounded himself in Italian wines.
On a wine-tasting trip to New York, he sat at the bar at and was wowed by the breadth of the wine list. A determination to work there sent him first to Florida, where his mother had relocated and where he landed a job at Café Boulud, which had opened a branch in Palm Beach. He parleyed that into a job in 2005 at Daniel, the mother ship of the chef Daniel Boulud.
From there came gigs at Masa; Convivio and Alto, which are now closed, and then Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud. Along the way he got the idea of interviewing other sommeliers, who he felt had great stories to tell but were rarely heard. He met Matt Duckor, who was working at Bon Appétit magazine, and is now executive producer there and at Epicurious.
Together, they hatched the idea of a podcast. Mr. Duckor would handle the technical production, and Mr. Dalton the interviews.
At first, Mr. Dalton’s technique was rocky. He interrupted guests and seemed eager to demonstrate his own knowledge. “That’s a sensitive thing for me, learning how to be wrong,” he said.
But over time, his work improved exponentially. He learned how to listen, to use silence to encourage further thoughts and, because he does know so much, became adept at asking excellent questions. Mr. Duckor left, but Ms. Scala arrived, and the podcasts improved technically as well.
“Erin has been huge,” Mr. Dalton said. “She said, ‘Levi, what you’re doing is really important, and she had recording and editing experience.”
Crucial to sustaining the podcast was sponsorship, which came in the form of SevenFifty.com, an online tool for the beverage trade.
Along the way, Mr. Dalton has produced a remarkable archive — great to listen to now, but of historic value as well. Some of his subjects have died, like Serge Hochar, the iconoclastic proprietor of Château Musar in Lebanon, and Margrit Mondavi, the widow of Robert Mondavi. But their words are available, almost instantly.
While Mr. Dalton has spoken with some of wine’s greatest personalities, a few, like the wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. and the storied importers Kermit Lynch and Neal Rosenthal, have resisted or not responded to invitations.
One of the nicest moments, Mr. Dalton said, was when Mr. de Villaine of Romanée-Conti arrived at Mr. Dalton’s little apartment. Looking at it, he said, “I can see that a lot of nice memories have been had in this place.” A lot of history, too.
When the Thirst for Podcasts Strikes
Beyond “I’ll Drink to That,” numerous other podcasts focus on wine. Here are four. Most are available through their websites or iTunes.
“GRAPERADIO” In business for more than a decade, “GrapeRadio” is like a talk show where the subject is wine.
“INSIDE WINEMAKING” Focuses on all aspects of making wine, with a largely West Coast point of view.
“THE VINCAST” Direct from Melbourne, Australia, with an emphasis on that country but not exclusively so. Entertaining and informative.
“WINE FOR NORMAL PEOPLE” Wide-ranging but easygoing discussion of wine issues for nonexperts.