Rick Rockwell has had successful careers as a TV news director and academic, but the St. Louis native practically sounded like a little kid when he attended our DrinkLocalWine conference in St. Louis last year.
Said Rockwell: “Joe Pollack will be there? The Joe Pollack? And I’ll get to meet him?”
Joe had that kind of affect on people, whether it was someone like Rockwell, who read Pollack’s newspaper work in the 1970s, or someone like me, who knew Joe as a wine writer and as one of the first writers to appreciate U.S. regional wine. He made an impression on everyone with his generosity, passion and enthusiasm, be it for restaurant reviewing, wine writing, politics, or the newspaper business (and especially the foibles and faux pas of the bosses who ran it).
Joe, 81, died a couple of days ago — unexpectedly, as it happened. He had been in good health; he and Ann Lemons Pollack, his wife, were going to attend the DLW conference in Denver next month, and he had just sent me a wonderfully Pollack-ian email asking for some conference details.
There are a million stories about Joe, and they don’t even include the ones about Harry Caray, A.J. Liebling, or Jack Ruby. There was the time he had to remind a Chilean winemaker that Ann was married to him and not the winemaker (a story he would tell, but didn’t like to because it embarrassed him). Or his disdain for cell phones. Or his days working for the St. Louis football Cardinals and the bosses there (stories for which the statute of limitations probably haven’t expired yet).
Joe’s career included stints at two St. Louis newspapers, where he was a sportswriter and critic. And yes, Joe agreed, the reason that so many wine writers started out as sportswriters was because sports writers were the best writers on the paper, and needed something more challenging than sports. He also did books, countless magazine articles, and a blog called St. Louis Eats and Drinks with Ann.
Joe was writing about Missouri wine almost before there was a modern Missouri industry, and he was the best kind of regional wine writer — honest, critical and fair. Too often, regional wine writers are either boosters, who find it easy to overlook flaws, or so snarky that it doesn’t matter what the wine is like, because all they care about is being clever. Joe was a professional, who understood that truth is regional’s wine best friend — even if regional wine doesn’t always want to hear the truth. Joe isn’t the only reason Missouri wine is so well made and so well respected, but he is one of them.
And, lest anyone think he was an old school crank, know this: When UrbanSpoon named St. Louis Eats and Drinks as the best wine and food site in St. Louis, Joe was proud and impressed. He may have started with carbon paper and typewriter, but that didn’t limit his approach to work and how he did it. Would that all of us were able to do that.
From the Publisher: Joe was one of the original writers in Palate Press: The online wine magazine. We would never have launched without knowing we had great writers with the depth of experience and journalistic professionalism he and Ann brought to the table. Here are a few of my favorite Joe Pollack stories:
And one from Ann, taking me back to my undergraduate days at Washington University in St. Louis, when I first discovered the writing of Joe Pollack and the joy’s of real Italian food on St. Louis’ “Hill.” Ann, you and your family are in our hearts and in our thoughts. Knowing Joe loved the theater (for his great reviews be sure to visit St. Louis Eats and Drinks), we honored his memory at The Repertory Theater of St. Louis, and encourage others to do the same.