When Spencer Christian, the television broadcaster and personality, made his first major wine purchase, he knew nothing about wine. It was November 1976 and to celebrate his friend’s engagement, he and his wife took the couple to dinner at The Prime Rib restaurant in Baltimore. When Spencer was handed the wine list, he looked it over and did not know a single name. So he decided, since this was a special occasion, he would order by price. He chose the most expensive one. The waiter poured the wine. Spencer swirled it, “out of instinct,” he says, “not knowledge” and took a mouthful. “It was layered, complex, totally, absolutely seductive,” he says. The wine was Château Lafite-Rothschild 1966. It cost $70.
And that was the beginning of a love affair that is as glowing and passionate today as it was the moment it was born 38 years ago. After that first experience, he began to pore over wine books and go to wine tastings. And he bought wine. Within a year, he had amassed over 1,500 bottles. Within two years, his television work brought him to New York and in his home in nearby New Jersey, he built a wine cellar in the basement that kept its cool year round. “I began with Bordeaux. Within two years, I was also into Italian wines such as Barolo and by the early 1980′s, I added California Cabernet Sauvignon.” And he continued to learn, spending hours with Jack Lang, the wine buyer of 67 Wine & Spirits shop in Manhattan. “He was my mentor; I learned so much from him.”
Just as his wine knowledge and collection grew, so did his television career. Spencer, a native of Charles City, Virginia and a graduate of Hampton University with a degree in English and a minor in journalism, began as a news reporter in Richmond Virginia in 1971. He moved to Baltimore in 1975 where he was a television weathercaster and hosted the Spencer’s World talk show. From there, it was New York where, over 22 years, he worked on WABC-TV, ABC7 and Good Morning America. He did it all – weather forecasting, sports casting, human interest stories and occasionally hosting Good Morning America. For some years, he also had a wine show on HGTV called Spencer Christian’s Wine Cellar.
In 1999, he moved to San Francisco, to KGO, an ABC affiliate, where he gives the weather report three times a day and where for four years, he hosted The View From The Bay talk show – and where he is near California wine country.
“Before moving here, I had shot many television segments in California so I was acquainted with several winemakers. And for the first couple of years I was here, instead of taking my vacation all at one time, I arranged it so that I took off every Friday from August through October to spend the weekend in wine country. In 1999, I attended the 20th anniversary of Opus One, the wine of a joint venture between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe Rothschild. Her father had died by then but Philippine Rothschild was there to represent him. We tasted all 20 vintages.”
As well as Opus One, his favorite California wines include Joseph Phelps Insignia, Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, Groth Reserve and Robert Mondavi Reserve. And, he added, “I love big Italian reds, wines made of Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. I love Syrah and Malbec. And I love Champagne.”
Are there wines he doesn’t like? “I’m not a great lover of the Pinot Noir grape generally although I’ve tasted some great Burgundy. And I’m not a big fan of Zinfandel; I often find there’s an uneven character and quality.”
The day we spoke, it was cold and snowy and windy in New York, and I asked him, if he were here, in this weather, what wine would he like with his dinner. “It depends on where I ate. I love Italian food and my favorite Italian restaurant in New York is Campagnola on First Avenue in the ’70′s. If I were having dinner there this evening, I would order an Angelo Gaja Barbaresco. If I were going to a French restaurant, I would order Château Lafite although, if I had to choose a favorite that is not a First Growth, it would be Château Rauzan-Ségla, a Second Growth from Margaux. “But Lafite would be my first choice. It would take me back to my first experience, the one that started it all.”
After more than 42 years in TV news, I still wouldn’t trade jobs with anyone in the world. I’ve been a news reporter, sportscaster, talk show host, and weather forecaster. My assignments and travels have taken me to all 50 states and 5 continents. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing 5 presidents; the most prominent figures in sports, world affairs, and the arts; and, most memorably, ordinary people who have done extraordinary things. Of course, there have also been unsettling moments reporting from hurricanes, floods, blizzards, earthquakes, virtually every natural calamity known to mankind but I can’t imagine any career path that would have been more enriching or rewarding.
As a news junkie in my early childhood, I read the newspaper every day to get my politics fix and to satisfy my burning curiosity about the world. But I also liked a dash of humor in my news recipe, so I enjoyed watching legendary TV journalists like David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite, who often added a wink and a smile to an otherwise “hard news” broadcast.
In college during the late 1960′s, my love of language and literature led me to major in English, while choosing to minor in journalism. I also played varsity baseball and had a Major League tryout in my junior year. It was clear, though, that my journalistic skills exceeded my baseball talent; so I wisely followed my nose for news.
I began my career as a news reporter in 1971, at the NBC-TV affiliate in Richmond, VA, just 25 miles from my childhood home. Aside from general assignment reporting and lighthearted features, my regular “beat” included state and local politics, the federal courts, and education. I could not have forecast then that weather would be my ticket to the big time. But, following a two-week stint “filling in” on weather, I became the station’s main weatherperson; and by the mid-1970′s, after a brief stop at the NBC station in Baltimore, I was on my way to WABC-TV in New York. Skies were looking sunny!
I spent 9 years at WABC, serving first as weatherman, then morning show host, and finally main sportscaster. During all of those years, I made frequent appearances on ABC’s Good Morning America, filling in on weather and doing feature reports and interviews. In 1986, I joined GMA full-time as weather forecaster, feature reporter, and guest host. Over the next 13 years, I not only traveled the world, but I also served as spokesperson for ABC’s literacy campaign, wrote and published a series of children’s books, and had the opportunity to indulge my passion for wine as the host of “Spencer Christian’s Wine Cellar”, which aired on HGTV and later on the Food Network from 1995 to 2000.
After 22 years in New York, I heard the Bay Area and the wine country calling my name. ABC7 has been my home since 1999, and I now get to test my forecasting skills for the Bay Area’s micro-climates. In my time away from work, I enjoy visiting wineries, watching baseball (or just about any sport), working out at the gym, and doing community service. But my greatest joy is spending time with my son and daughter, Jason and Jessica. We enjoy sports events and wine tastings together; and, after all these years, they still laugh at my jokes.
Having been blessed with so many memorable career experiences, I find it difficult to name just a few, but here’s a short list:
- Interviewing then-Senator Barack Obama just before he announced his candidacy for President
- Emceeing former President Jimmy Carter’s 75th birthday celebration in Americus, GA, in 1999
- Surviving and reporting from the Loma Prieta earthquake while on World Series assignment for Good Morning America
- Suiting up and playing baseball with the NY Yankees and NY Mets in spring training
- Playing basketball against the Harlem Globetrotters at Madison Square Garden