MoCool: The Early Years

Written by Joel Goldberg, 2000. Revised, 2010. Pre-2002 logo art by Cindy Baldwin

MoCool -- the Motown Co-Operative Off-Line -- began in 1992 as a scruffy get-together of first-generation wired wine lovers from the Detroit area who connected on the Prodigy online service wine forum, hosted by Robert Parker.

Back then, eary adopters hung out in various online "services", such as CompuServe, Genie, and the one that became the progenitor of MoCool, Prodigy -- a joint venture between Sears and IBM. You could only communicate with folks in your own service, and debates raged as to the relative merits of each. (CompuServe had great databases and archiving abilities but you paid by the minute and had to be a "techie" to use its arcane command structure; Prodigy featured a user-friendly interface and, when it started, unlimited access for a flat monthly fee, but you had to endure monster-sized fonts on your monochrome monitor and advertisements that occupied the bottom third of each screen.)

MoCool 1996: The Mo'lympicsEach service had its own wine "discussion group" or "forum". While Robin Garr might demur (he was a Sysop on CompuServe), for one brief, shining moment through the early 90s, the jewel in the crown was Prodigy.

The reason was simple. Prodigy's business model included contracting with publicly-known "experts" to participate in each of its forums, answering questions and engaging in discussion with the group's participants.

Prodigy's online wine expert -- and active daily participant in the debates, discoveries, flame wars and tasting notes -- was Robert Parker. So like moths to a flame (the image some might prefer is "lemmings to a cliff"), wine lovers from all corners of the country gathered round their keyboards to engage in Talmudic discussion of vinous arcana with him and among ourselves.

Today it's difficult to recreate the passions that raged in those early online wine discussions. After years of sharing our ardor only with long-suffering spouses, tolerant friends, and local groups of similarly-closeted wine aficionados, we suddenly outed ourselves to the welcoming embrace of a nationwide community that shared our wine-geekdom and were willing to spend endless -- and I mean ENDLESS -- online hours debating the relative merits of Marietta Old Vine Red Lot 12 versus Lot 11.

In hindsight, the next step was inevitable. Here we were, daily discussing hundreds of wines we had tasted individually. Why not meet face-to-face and taste them together?

The origin of the first cyberwine off-line is lost to antiquity, and probably subject to multiple sets of competing claims. It doubtless occurred in Southern California -- home to the largest critical mass of discussion groupies -- and the odds are it was around 1990.

MoCool's roots are less murky. From the earliest days, the Detroit / Ann Arbor area harbored a significant Prodigy wine contingent. And in the spring of 1991, West Michigan participant Chuck Richardson made an irresistible proposition: he had a group of indifferently-stored early-70's Bordeaux, acquired while he was in France. He hadn't opened a bottle in years, and had no idea whether they were any good.

But he would soon be visiting the Detroit area on business. Would any of us like to join him to find out?

Indeed we would! On a Friday in May, 1991, about ten of us gathered in a conference room at a Howard Johnson's motel near Detroit Metro airport. Highlighting the event was a fly-in by the redoutable Ron Kramer from Boston, one of Prodigy's most visible presences.

The unfortunate Chuck Richardson was not among us, though. The day before, he had been felled by a minor heart attack. But in an unprecedented display of vinous selflessness, he had dispatched his wife, Billie, from his West Michigan bedside to drive to Detroit with the case of Bordeaux so the rest of us might enjoy it in his absence. And, as one might imagine, many a glass was raised to Chuck's recovery as the day turned into evening.MoCool 1998: Anything But California

From that gathering, Jay Baldwin and I, together with our wine-loving spouses, Cindy and Sally, got together several times for dinners and tastings. We shared an on-line reputations as serious cheapskates -- especially Jay -- so these evenings often turned into one-upping each other on QPR treasures.

Inevitably, we'd discuss another off-line. But the call to arms arose from California -- or rather, from an irritating bunch of Prodigy left-coasters who were planning the first-ever "named" off-line that they called "So'Cool" -- ostensibly some deformed contraction of "Southern California Off-Line", but an obvious reference to their warped self-image for coming up with the idea.

For some reason, this especially rankled "the nefarious Jay Baldwin", as he sometimes went by on-line. So, in the bowels of his mind, the name "Mo'Cool" was hatched. Mo' as in "Motown." And emphatically Mo'Cool as in "We're mo' cool than you Left Coasters." Of course, as the event subsequently became respectable, we rechristened the whole shebang MoCool – or the "MOtown COoperative Off-Line".

Since we hadn't a clue how many people -- or of what sorts -- might show up, we felt it prudent to stage it at a restaurant, rather than at one of our homes. This, of course, presented problems in the state of Michigan, whose laws and restaurateurs were (and remained until 2013) unfriendly to such off-line necessities as BYO.

Since we were inventing the genre, at least in our area, each decision became major. Do we open to all comers by inviting people publicly in discussion groups, at the risk of having some real obnoxious flamers show up? Or do we try to control attendance by sending email invitations? Do we have it on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday? Daytime or evening? How do we organize the finances? How do we decide how many and what types of wines to ask people to bring? (The idea of a "theme" for the wines never occurred to us this first time.)

But finally all the decisions were made. Reflecting our personal predilections and setting the tone for MoCools to come, we opened the event to all comers and tried to keep it as affordable as possible. That also dictated an "open" approach to the BYO wines -- bring a bottle you'd like to share with some of your Prodigy wine buddies.

We struck restaurant gold in the form of the "Lord Fox", just outside of Ann Arbor. The Fox's wine-collecting owner, Betty Stremich, maintained a wonderful private cellar room downstairs where we could taste, a private loft dining room where we could dine afterward, served decent, moderately-priced food and -- most important -- was fine with BYO.

MoCool 2000:    Below the BeltSo, on a Saturday late afternoon and evening during the summer of 1992, the first Mo'Cool took place at the Lord Fox. About fifteen of us -- all Prodigy folks from Michigan and northern Ohio -- attended. The long distance award went to Dave "Doc" Wallin and Connie Casperson, who showed up all the way from Columbus -- on their honeymoon! Among us we probably opened twice that many wines -- a lot of them cheap, a lot of them Zinfandel (yes, good Zinfandel used to be cheap.) Mostly, we spent five hours putting faces to on-line names and talking non-stop.

There was never any question about MoCool 2 the following summer. But Jay and I felt that democracy demanded turning it over to others to plan -- after all, we were now a "co-operative" off-line. So MoCool veterans Terry Fowler and Beth Lipin volunteered to take over the event, at least for that year. MoCool 2 happened on a Saturday afternoon at Beth's lakefront cottage in Detroit's far exurbs. Again, it was a no-themer. But this time we did our own food on the grill -- and another MoCool tradition began. About 20 folks showed up for MoCool 2, including more out-of-area attendees -- such as Lew and Nancy Rodrick from State College, PA, in their first MoCool appearance.

In 1994, MoCool went to a three-day format. Terry and Beth ceded the planning back to the Baldwins and Goldbergs, and we adopted several new goals.

First, we wanted to encourage more of our on-line wine buddies to make the trip to Michigan, from longer distances. But it was hard to ask folks to come a long distance for just one afternoon/evening event.

Second, following several excellent vintages, we wanted to taste lots of the superb Zinfandel that flooded the country in the early 90s. And Zinfandel remained a relatively inexpensive, easily procured wine that fit with our goal of keeping MoCool an affordable, non-snobby event for wine lovers of all wallet sizes and tasting experience.

Last but not least, we hankered to put variety into the weekend by appealing to every aspect of the wine experience. Wine is formal tasting and informal slurping. It's food and wine pairing. It's lots of learning. Equally important to us, it's socializing with our fellow wine geeks.

With a couple of years' experience under our belts, we wanted to shoehorn all this wretched excess into MoCool. Not only would it distinguish MoCool from every other off-line that now happened around the country -- but we'd have an absolute ball in the process!

So was born "Zinful Weekend". The idea was simple: more out-of-towners would join us for a weekend of wine-filled excess. And we'd cross-pollinate the Prodigy group by inviting local wine friends to join the parts of the bash they were interested in, and let them find out about the excitement that was cyberwine.

Zinful Weekend 1994 began on an August Friday night at Detroit's Rattlesnake Club, hosted by Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon and chef/owner Jimmy Schmidt, who served up a five course dinner pairing food with Zins and their "close cousins". Not wanting to tamper with the fabulous Saturday BYO picnic from MoCool 2; we merely added a Zin-only theme, semi-rigorously enforced, and retained the services of a local farmer ("Nick the lamb guy") to show up and smoke a whole lamb for us.MoCool 1999:  Hail that Cab!

And in the first iteration of a now-annual sellout, we added a themed Sunday brunch tasting at Gandy Dancer restaurant in Ann Arbor. This one was Ridge-only: about 30 of us met at noon to open a like number of Ridge Zins, dating back to the '70s.

As hoped, Zinful Weekend drew the largest MoCool crowd to date, with more wine buddies coming longer distances -- including, from San Diego, legendary cyberwine combatant Bob Foster, who took a surprisingly amiable star turn when he showed up on Friday night, just as the dinner dishes were being cleared.

By 1995, the year after Zinful Weekend, the money-losing Prodigy service had adopted by-the-minute pricing and many cyberwinos migrated to other online services -- mostly CompuServe, where we first met Robin Garr. We invited folks from these other services to join MoCool 95, "Que Syrah, Shiraz" -- and the weekend began to develop a more variegated on-line character.

As wine prices rose through the '90's, we had to modify our initial commitment to keep MoCool cheap -- after all, how could we ask people to come cross-country to drink cheap wine? Now, we simply try to make it as affordable as possible, consistent with having a weekend worth doing.

We also expanded our range of themes from varietal to geographical ("Mediterranean Madness" in 1997 and 2000's "Below the Belt") and topical (the 1996 Mo'Lympics).

Several years back, the event grew sufficiently large that the organizers began to suffer burnout; originally Gary and Georgine Kahle, then John Wolf and Dave Guimond became full partners with the Baldwins and Goldbergs in making MoCool happen.

Finally, some memorable MoCool moments:

* The "2x4 Relay" competition for most oak in a wine at the "96 Mo'Lympics"

* An unnamed MoCool newbie spilling Grange over Eleanor Heald at the '95 Sunday Grange vertical.

* Madeline Triffon's "WOW!" pairing of sweet muscat with sauteed shrimp at the Friday dinner of "Mediterranean Madness"

* The first appearance of a VERY partied-out Gang of Pour at the 1998 Saturday picnic.

* Nick "the Lamb Guy"

* Larry Mawby, MoCool's first "Winemaker in Residence", 1998

* 1970 BV "Burgundy"

*"The Boys in the Bandol" which, as Dave Guimond notably quipped, concluded with the Bandol in the boys -- and girls.

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