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A toast to the dean of Washington wine writers

One of the first people I met when I moved to the Tri-Cities in June of 1976 was Bob Woehler, who already was one of the Herald's veteran reporters.

I had just been hired as the Herald's city editor to direct its reporting staff, assign some of their stories and edit their copy.

I was 28. Bob was 43 and pretty much the dean of the reporting staff, which had several veterans who were 15 years or so older than I.

And more than one of them viewed me as a "young whippersnapper" who had darn little to teach them. Within a few years, all the veterans but Bob were gone.

He stayed on as a reporter for 18 years before retiring. And he kept writing the Herald's wine column, which started in 1978, until this week.

Over the years, he developed many fans, me among them. He had an eye for a good photo and took hundreds of them while he was a reporter. His shot of a crop duster threading the needle by flying under a power line and over a fence to deliver a precision drop of pesticide still sticks out in my memory after about 30 years.

That and his the photo the newsroom dubbed "mug shot of a cow," which he took during his days on the farm beat.

Bob also had one of the best noses for news of the scores of reporters I've worked with in 40 years in newspapering. He could see stories many reporters missed because they just weren't curious enough.

I still use one of them as an example of how a knack for noticing little details often makes what I call a "good read" that will have readers talking.

He came back from the Richland city beat one day, sat down and wrote a piece about Ford F-150 becoming a favored target for car thieves. The late 1970s and early 1980s models, he had learned, were in demand for parts and had an ignition system that was easy to subvert.

How did he come by that item? By telling the cops he'd noticed several Ford pickup thefts in recent months and by asking them why.

But more than anything, Herald readers will remember Bob as the 32-year author of the Herald's wine column. Bob wasn't an elegant writer, a refined grammarian or a stellar speller. I know that well from editing hundreds of thousands of his words since 1976.

But as a wine columnist he had a nose for sniffing out good wines, especially at bargain prices, and for writing columns that appealed to every level of interest in wine, from novice to expert.

And over the years, Bob became an expert himself. I also had the good fortune of learning right along with him by editing his columns for all 32 years he's written them and by tasting hundreds of wines with him at wineries, at formal tastings and at social events we both attended.

So Bob's second retirement from the Herald, announced officially in his wine column Wednesday, is a bittersweet moment for me. He will continue as a writer and tasting panel member for the Herald-owned Wine Press Northwest magazine.

And he can rightly be credited with putting Wine Press Editor Andy Perdue and Managing Editor Eric Degerman on the right path as well, for Bob was writing about wine when both of them weren't yet old enough to sip a semillon or anything else alcoholic.

Andy and Eric learned their craft well. They'll be writing a wine column that debuts in the Herald and several other Northwest newspapers on May 5.

And Bob, the really good guy that he is, will be among the first to wish them a long, successful run.

Ken Robertson: 582-1520;

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