100 Days, Drinks, Dishes and Destinations is a wonderous journey around the country, and the world. Host Leslie Sbrocco guides us through spontaneous magical moments, like when passing by a home in Tequila, Mexico, where Parajete was being prepared with warm milk squeezed right out of the cow. Whether trying fresh-made cheese, or learning a fun fact about a Hungarian digestive once used by Emperor Franz Joseph for medicinal purposes, she looks like she’s having so much fun that the viewer wishes they could join-in with her. Leslie talks to KLCS about her circuitous route to TV from wine expert and host of KQED’s “Check, Please!,” being the famous finger that poked the Pillsbury Doughboy, what Julia Child said when they met in Napa, her favorite episode visiting her sister in Normandy, the time she faux-ate on the “Today Show,” and when viewers will get a season three of “100 Days,…”
Leslie, how did “100 Days, Drinks, Dishes & Destinations” come about?
It came about because I’ve been in the wine business for 25 years and have been hosting a show on local PBS called Check Please! Bay Area, which just started filming our 18th season. It is an iconic show here in the Bay Area. And being a wine writer, I’m the wine expert for the Today Show, I would be hosting things and talking to people as a speaker, so many people would come up to me and say, “Can’t you just take me with you? When you’re going to visit these places, can’t I see what it’s like, or taste the wine?” So that was the impetus for the show; it was just to take people along with me. It’s a small budget, small crew, sort of “on the road with Leslie.”
We did a lot of pre-production, but we would get on the road for…usually for the time we’d go shoot would be about four days and we would shoot long days and it was really trying to bring people along with me. The nice thing about it was, yes, we did of course have to do pre-production and plan things, and conceive of the show, but we allowed time for magic to happen with each and every show. So, what you get in every episode are those pieces of magic where things just happened, and we filmed it. And that’s what I was aiming for when we originally came up with the idea and my co-producer and director, Tina Salter, who I worked with for many years on “Check, Please!” and who also has worked with Jacques Pepin for many years, and Joanne Weir. We just really wanted it to be fun, entertaining and it felt like you were joining me on the road.
What’s the theme or aim with your show?
The theme of the show is to go to a location and explore the culture through its food and its drink and there are a lot of programs out there that aim to do the same thing. And our goal is to do it with a twist – to do it with humor, to have fun doing it, and to really look at it through the culinary lens to put a destination in perspective.
What was your path to being on TV?
How much time do we have? (laughs) I grew up in Chicago and my father was an airline pilot for United Airlines and I grew up in a family of five and at a time when people weren’t traveling to Europe, it wasn’t commonplace, they would load five kids on the plane and go to Europe. We would load up on a plane to go to Hawaii, we would load up on the plane and go to see a football game in Colorado because we could, because we were children of a pilot. So, for me, I grew up looking at the world through the lens of travel and seeing how wide the world can be when you look at it that way. And when I went to college, I really thought I was going to be a lawyer (laughs); that was my goal. Then, eventually, get into politics. Well, I’m very, very, very happy that I chose the path I did, or the path chose me through a very long and winding, circuitous yellow brick road. I graduated from college and moved out to California with the aim of going to law school and just sort of got sidetracked and had this thought, even at a young age in my early 20’s, “Do I really want to be a lawyer, is that really what I want to do?” Let me just take a few years and explore some other options. And I’d always been involved in theater and speech club. I had no desire to be an actress, but I knew that I wanted to communicate, do something with my ability to be in front of a crowd. I took some courses at American Conservatory Theater and got an agent and did some commercial work in San Francisco. Believe it or not, I was hand model for a number of years, (laughs) with no intention of being a hand model. I shook an agent’s hand and she looked at me, she said, “I’m just starting out with hand modeling, and you have gorgeous hands, have you ever thought of that?” I thought, “No, I didn’t go to college for that.” So, I ended up with the “Presto Tater Twister and Salad Shooter” in Sharper Image catalogs. My real claim to fame was I was the hand that poked the Pillsbury Boy for a number of years. (laughs) I have very famous fingers. That was before they had all this fancy animation. I said, “I want to be more of a producer of these training videos and things that I was appearing on camera with.” [I] started doing that and at that same time was this burgeoning love of wine. Living in the Bay Area, you got to go to wine country all the time, and I just started having this consumer-focused love of wine. I had the fortune of experiencing it when I was growing up in Chicago, it was because we traveled and my parents would let us have little sips or there was wine around the house; we knew about wine. So, I really started exploring wine as a novice, exploring wine because I loved going to wineries, helping out at harvest. I ultimately turned it into shooting a little video for the local PBS station on the Peninsula, and then shooting some industrial films for wineries. I was able to marry this burgeoning love of wine with what I was doing at the time. That’s when I said, “Ok, let’s get serious about this. How do I make money and get paid to drink?” So, I made that list of what do I want to do? Do I want to be a winemaker? Do I want to be on the production side? What do I want to do with this? And what I was good at was speaking to crowds and writing. I had a background in writing, a political science degree, and communicating. And what I wanted to do was something with wine and something either in front of the camera or behind the camera and in front of groups. So that’s how I married those two things. I just made up my jobs; there aren’t many people that get to do what I do. I took classes at University of California at Davis to learn more about viticulture, and volunteered at wineries. And then, made that leap; I got hired from a wine friend when Microsoft was starting something called “Sidewalk,” it was their first foray into City Guides. And he hired me to be the wine producer in the time when people were going, “The Internet? What’s that?” And I went to work with Microsoft and helped create Sidewalk and the wine section and building databases of wineries and where to visit. When it got sold, I got a call from another friend, the value of networking, because most of my work over the years has come from people I’ve known, people I’ve worked with who referred me to other people. This is what happened initially to give me this start, I had great mentors and they referred me to somebody else. So, through another contact I was brought on board to Santa Rosa Press Democrat, which is still a newspaper owned by the New York Times Company; they wanted to start an internet site about wine and I was this rare combination (laughs) at that time. We named it WineToday.com and they brought me in; I had this rare combination of wine experience, internet experience. So, I ended up working and building WineToday.com to quite a large website at the time, and working for the New York Times Co. from Santa Rosa, the heart of wine country in Sonoma. That was until 2001 when the Internet imploded and the Times closed WineToday.com, which was always one of the most heartbreaking experiences because it could’ve been this huge thing. And then, I just went off on my own and saying, “I want to write a book on wine.” I wanted to do more speaking, things that I was doing and writing about wine. So, in 2003, I was writing a book and I entitled it “Wine for Women” and people thought I was crazy for doing that, it was published by Harper Collins. I did it not to be exclusionary; at the time, I wrote it because I just was asked different questions from men and women. Women were asking about learning about wine from a lifestyle perspective, “I’m cooking this…” or “I’m enjoying wine with friends.” And men would come to me with questions about, “What did it score in a wine publication.” The technical questions like “Who won the game?” And I just thought it was interesting, so I wrote a book geared, I thought, to questions people were asking me. It was really the first of the genre of gearing things to the majority of wine buyers which are women. I wrote a second book, I stayed on writing for the Times for a while and then fell into a variety of things from doing the “CBS Wine Minute,” which I created for the local station up here. It was one jump to the next because I didn’t have a model to follow.
I think we all can feel we don’t have models to follow…
You’re right, and even in terms of educating about wine, now it’s very commonplace, “Oh, I want to be a sommelier so I can go and get this training.” It wasn’t that easy when I was starting out, it wasn’t’ that available. So, I was really making this up and learning by doing. I would go to a winery, I would go visit a wine region, I would just go there and talk to people and learn and write. My education came really from doing. I was able to tie-in speaking and writing and a couple books. At that point, I went and did a PBS TV show with a small production company, it was a cooking show, and they wanted a wine segment and so my name came up. We shot up in Vancouver and I did this wine minute for this cooking show, and somebody saw me at KQED, this was in 2006. They had been auditioning hosts for this new show called, “Check, Please!” which originated in Chicago, at the PBS station there. And they auditioned me, and I got the job and I’ve been doing that ever since. And that’s not my only job, but certainly one that’s brought me a lot of recognition and fans at least in the Bay Area. And I write and I consult for companies; I do a lot of speaking for corporate clients at events, a lot of travel. So really, my career has been pieced together like a puzzle that I’ve created. It isn’t the path (laughs) I can say anybody else has taken. It was something I knew what I wanted to do, I knew what my talents were, and I made it work.
You’re going to my other question, which is – what’s your average day now, since the show is filmed all at once?
I couldn’t tell you my average day. I have no average day, I have my own office, I create my own schedule, every day is incredibly different. When we shoot “Check, Please!” we shoot in chunks, we shoot four to six shows at a time. When I conceived of “100 Days,” we first got the idea in 2017 and really started penciling it in and coming up with ideas in 2018 trying to get out and raise money, get the funding. KQED was a sponsoring station but didn’t come in for any of the funding. We filmed the whole show in 2019, 13 episodes, on the road, it was nuts. In 2020 – January and February we were editing like crazy to get it out and launched in March of 2020. And we did and lo and behold! (laughs) What happened? Let’s just launch a travel and food and wine show! I think people loved it because it was shot pre-pandemic, so during the pandemic they were watching what things looked like before we were all wearing masks. Although we did shoot “Check, Please!” during the pandemic.
It’s such a hard question because I really don’t have an average day. Some days I’m writing, some days I’m traveling, some days I’m speaking. I can say that on average I’m doing many multiple things over the course of a day.
Do you have a favorite moment, or place, or food on this show? My favorite episode is the one where you visit your sister in Normandy, I can rewatch that over and over, and I have. I love how joyful you are in trying the camembert cheese and it was fun seeing the Calvados maker live in an old castle and to see the inside of that and how much fun you look like you were having ordering and eating seafood, it makes me feel you would be fun to be on a trip with.
Can I tell you? You just warmed my heart right there and that was exactly back to your first question – what was the theme, what was the goal? The goal was to have people email me, which they have, “I want to go on a trip with you, you seem so fun!” And that’s what we wanted to encapsulate because there’s lots of travel shows out there, this is a hybrid show of travel and food and culture and drinks. The goal was to get my personality to shine through and my sense of joy and wonder. I’m learning along with people. These are all places I had been before and wanted them on the show. If I had to pick a favorite…Normandy, I would agree. That sister of mine that was on that show just left visiting me, she was here. And that was a show that was in my mind, probably the very first show I had an idea for because we would go visit my sister and it was just this Disneyland for adults of cider and this amazing food and where my sister lives, she’s got this crazy, wild humongous old house in the middle of nowhere. This whole idea of trying to bring that to life, so, I’m thrilled that you enjoyed that show because I loved putting together that show. There’s so much to unpack in that show and that’s what we tried to do – is to give a whole lot of variety for people within one show, whether it’s a cheese maker, a cider producer, or visiting gardens. I loved our Asheville, North Caroline show, that was just such a magnificent place to visit. I’ve been there once before, but we really explored it. We went to the Biltmore, and explored the history of the region, we got to hike at Chimney Rock at the national park there, we did the beer tour, it was just so much fun. I loved that show. I loved my tequila show. Going down to Guadalajara and Tequila, I’ve actually taken groups down there. People go, “I’ll just drink tequila.” But they don’t understand the beauty of Tequila, that it’s an actual place that’s named after a volcano, that there’s such an incredible culture there. The reason I bring up that show, not only because it’s a great show that peaks behind the bottle and gives you a glimpse in the culture and history of a great drink and a great place,
is that when I said we always left room for magic whenever we were shooting, we would just go, and nothing was really scripted. I always made up the intro and the end on the spot. We were driving to Tequila because we were staying downtown in Guadalajara and we were on our way to Tequila, we had a local guide and just four of us in a little small van. We were about 20 minutes outside the town of Tequila and we saw this little road side stand, there were cows and our driver explained to us that in the mornings as people get ready to go work in the agave to fields, they would stop at l little roadside stands like this and get a Pajarete. We immediately, as soon as he told us, made him screech the brakes on, turn around, go talk to the guy and let us film it. This was a little family, in front of their house and you would get an earthen mug and they would put a scoop of coffee grounds in the bottom, they would put a big shot of tequila, they would light it on fire inside the mug (laughs) and they would walk over to the cow and then they would milk the cow into the mug. Oh my God! It was magic, we grabbed it, we were light and nimble enough as a crew and me saying, “of course we’re going back to shoot this!” So that was a magic moment. It’s magnificent. Then we found another place along the way that did the same thing. And that’s why I can’t wait to get back to shooting more, because I allow that magic to happen, and we just go for it. Like, we were shooting in Tokaj in Hungary, this world-famous ancient wine region of Tokaj, so beautiful, and we were driving from one spot to another. We had a local guide and we noticed that at the top of these very tall telephone poles were nests. We stopped and took a look, and the guide was explaining, “This is a nesting place for storks.” We went, “Storks?” Our camera guy Peter, “Oh my God, I can’t wait.” He pulled out the drone, and he flew it over the stork nests. And again, one of those moments where you’re going, “We couldn’t have planned that.”And that’s the beauty of filming the way that we film. Its, “Come along with me,” and I’m pulling everybody’s hands as the viewer, “Please come along with me because it’s real.” This is real life. So, I think we’ve really succeeded in that first and second season of saying, “You are joining me, you are coming with me,” because we’re taping what we get. (laughs)
What’s the favorite part of your job for the show?
Being there and being in the moment.
You always look so happy eating or trying food…
And it’s because for me, no matter how long I’ve done it or how much I try it, or the same is true for wine and spirits. and non-alcoholic beverages, I love anything like that. I love learning and trying to new things and I’m in wonder as much as the viewer is when I try these things. Now, I have a much broader background and I’m an expert in certain things and I’m able to impart bits of knowledge, but my job really is to showcase what we’re doing there. Like, we were shooting in Hungary at this amazing place called Unicum and it was because I had tasted it and it’s a classical digestive, dating back to the late 1700’s and Americans don’t know about it but Europeans do. And I knew I wanted to shoot because it’s so unique, it’s like this unctuous black liqueur that’s spiced. It was used by Emperor Franz Joseph as a medicinal; you’ll see a health cross on it because it was used as a medicinal digestive. It’s almost like a tar consistency, so the owner was showing me the outside of these ancient old barrels, and it was dripping down and I just reached over and I just licked it. I just I can’t plan that. So, it’s just a sense of finding the wonder, finding the fun, and showing things that people wouldn’t necessarily know about or see.
You describe what you are drinking or tasting very well, it’s hard to do that for the viewer.
Thank you for that, I think the key when people say, “How do you taste all that wine?” Or “How do you taste all that food?” It really is about being able to connect my words to the taste of it. A lot of people can taste, but what do you compare it to? What comes to mind? What’s your vocabulary for the smell of it? I do a lot of education on that, I do a lot of virtual wine tastings, a lot of tastings, and I would say there is no wrong way to describe anything, it’s just you have to find your way. When you pick up the glass, does it smell like green peppers or does it smell like your mother’s cherry pie, everybody has a different sense memory. So, I think if I’m good at anything, is I’ve got a good memory, I’ve got a strong sense of smell and I’m able to connect the two. I try to make it relatable, I’m like a translator. I have to understand the technical part of wine, I have to understand the history of something and then I translate it in order to make it relatable for people.
It airs in repeats on Create, but I wish it were year-round, like fresh episodes, or maybe you traveling around parts of France; I loved that episode.
We’re trying, obviously we were racing to get the shows out, took a breather, and then of course Covid hit.
Do you know when you might go back and do this third season?
We’re hoping by this summer to be back in production. It might be more domestic shows, more California, West Coast, as we gear back up. But we’re really hoping to bring, again, that sense of wonder and that sense of fun and that sense of “Come along with me!”
You can tell you really enjoy your job showing people where you’re visiting and eating. What keeps you going?
Again, I go back to, I love learning, I love trying new things. There’s so much to discover and it never ends. With wines there’s always new vintages, always new places. It’s the wonder of it all and I think that stems back to being a kid, and just the excitement of getting on a plane back in those days when it was a big thing. I still, to this day, do not dress down, I won’t wear sweats and slouchy things on a plane; I look nice but I’m comfortable. So, I think it stems from just this idea that when you look at the world through travel, your lens I wide open. And to me there’s just so much to discover and that’s the joy of it.
So far everyone’s had a Julia Child story, or that she was an influence, do you have one?
I do have a Julia Child story, actually. I’m not a chef, but I certainly knew of Julia Child growing up and, in my career, and being kind of at the forefront of the women and wine movement, I remember, it was the year that the CIA opened something called the CIA Copia in Napa; it had to be in 2002. My son was about six months old. I just remember going to the opening, I’d never gotten a chance to meet Julia Child before that, and going to the opening because there was a restaurant she opened at Copia, Julia’s Kitchen. She was quite old at that point. I told them I couldn’t leave my son at home, they said, “You can bring him.” So, I brought him, and I just remember Julia standing up, she was kind of stooped at that point, I’m tall but she was still quite tall, and she looked at me and I introduced myself and said, “I’m thrilled to be in here.” She just looked at me and she looked down and said (talking like Julia), Can I hold the baby?” (laughs) I have a picture of her holding my son and it was just such a special moment of Julia Child. That’s all she was concerned about; could she hold the baby.
Do you ever just pinch yourself you get to do this for a living and follow in the footsteps of educating people about food and traveling around the world on PBS?
I do, that’s what I love about PBS and that’s why I made my career at PBS, is because we share the same affinity for educating but entertaining. So, I do; on my resume I call myself an “educatainer,” and people come up to me after my wine tastings and say, “You’re so funny, your stories are so funny!” But they walk away learning something. That’s my goal with everything – let’s have a great time, let’s have fun, let’s laugh and yet, let’s learn something. So, that’s my mission with anything I do, and certainly with my partnership with PBS over the years, we share the same mission.
What’s the most frequent question you get? And what’s your answer to it?
Probably the most frequent question on the wine front is “What’s your favorite wine?” And usually I joke, “The one in my glass because I get to drink it,” but it is truly rose champagne; it is my favorite drink. So much that I actually have one tattoo on my body, and it is on my calf and it is a glass of rose champagne (laughs). I have gotten serious about my love of rose champagne. The other is the question you asked, “How did you get your job?” (laughs)
As a sommelier, do you ever not drink, for a day. Do you take a break?
Oh yeah, I don’t drink a lot. It’s funny, I call it “faux drinking.” I do a lot of faux drinking. People see me on TV, I do a lot of – a sip here and a sip there. We shoot two or three shows a day for “Check, Please!” and I take a faux sip. I do a lot of faux drinking on TV, so it looks like I drink a lot more than I do. I love non-alcoholic options. There are lots of days and weeks that I skip alcohol. I’ve done the “Today Show” for many years, coming in as their wine expert. I was just on in December, I was even on virtually during the whole pandemic, so I was on when Kathie Lee was just about ready to leave. I’ve been on with Kathie Lee and Hoda for a number of years and I love Kathie. I shot a show in Nashville and she’s on my Nashville show. But she’s just a hoot and my talent comes-in on camera when I can do six wines in three minutes (laughs). Let’s get some learning in in three minutes, I’m going race you through this! So, I’ve got the art down of really getting them moving. Hoda would take a sip and say something, but Kathie would go on these little tangents. My joke was always that we’d have food on there and I’d say, “Kath, take a bite, take a sip!” So, we were doing a segment on Valentine’s Day wines, and I am showing a Sicilian red wine just to say you can have red wine with fish, don’t worry about that old outdated rule. The kitchen had made some scallops to go with this red, wine; I don’t eat on air, I’m talking, I’m leading people through. I’m deathly allergic to shellfish, but no problem it’s just the scallops there, I’m talking through, I’m moving. And for some reason Kathie Lee cuts a little piece of this scallop and she literally lifts it up and puts in my mouth, “Oh, try this with the wine, it’s so good!” (laughs) Oh my God, I’m on national television, live, and I have a piece of shellfish in my mouth, and I’ve got two more wines to finish the segment. She didn’t know, it wasn’t her fault, she was just trying to be funny. So instantaneously in my mind, I’m thinking, “Ok, do I spit it out? That would be weird on national television. Do I swallow it? Ok, I’ve got to get on a plane and who knows if I end up in the hospital.” What I immediately did, and when you watch the segment, you can see just a little blip in my head, it went so fast. I literally stuffed it into the side of my cheek and I’m pretending to chew it a little bit and I kept talking about the wine and talking about the next wine and pretending to chew it. At the end of the segment, I grabbed a napkin and I spit it out. So, I was talking about faux drinking, but my funniest is my faux eating story! (laughs). It could’ve killed me.
When you’re in L.A., do you have any favorite places?
I just did an amazing event at Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes in December for a corporate client and the restaurant, Mar’sel, was fantastic. Really great. It’s a destination sort of place.
Watch 100 Days, Drinks, Dishes and Destinations on KLCS, Thursdays at 8:30 PM beginning April 27th (check out klcs.org/schedule to find the complete broadcast schedule). Read more about Leslie on her website: lesliesbrocco.com and you can keep up with her through her social media: Twitter (@lesliesbrocco); Facebook (@lesliesbrocco).