The S.B. Questionnaire: Michael Cervin

Trying Something New with the Author, Travel Writer, Culinary Journalist, and Water Judge

Michael Cervin at his home in Santa Barbara. | Credit: Paul Wellman

“My goal with everything I do is to get people to try something new,” says author, travel writer, and culinary journalist Michael Cervin. “People miss out when they become less adventurous. The whole world opens up to you when you’re willing to try new things.”  

Michael has written nine books so far, five of which are travel books about Santa Barbara, including the cheeky yet informative Santa Barbara Know It All. “I love people making discoveries like the Frog Wall,” he says about his insider perspective of Santa Barbara. 

But his appreciation is much more broad. “It’s hard to find what’s wrong with this place,” he says. “There’s a great sense of livability here, and we have views of the beach every where you go. It’s great to live in a place where people are envious of where we live. I go all over the world and everybody knows Santa Barbara.”

Michael is the former restaurant critic and travel writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press. He was hired during its famous implosion around 2006. “A lot of people were pissed off at me,” he admits. “I came into the News-Press at the worst time.”     

By now, he has contributed to nearly every publication in Santa Barbara, including this newspaper, and continues to write for Forbes Travel Guides, The Hollywood Reporter, and Robb Report, among others. He is also a professional wine, spirits, and water writer and judge, and covers international water issues.

As we sit down to eat, it’s obvious Cervin enjoys the conviviality and ritualistic aspect of a meal. He orders the biggest breakfast while telling me excitedly about his latest book, Santa Barbara Eats. “I thought I’d never do a cookbook,” he confesses. “There are a lot of cookbooks out there, but these are practical, simple recipes.” Celebrity Chef Cat Cora has written a foreword, and he’s assembled recipes and support from 60 restaurants.  

“When I was a boy, I’d spend Saturday morning with my mom getting a meal ready, and we’d go to a German butcher shop,” he reflects. “She had a great influence on me. We grew up with a great food culture.”

Michael was born in Pasadena, where his dad worked for JPL and mom worked at Descanso Gardens in La Cañada. “As a boy, it was a great place to play,” recalls Michael, who attended La Cañada High School. 

“All my life I’ve been a storyteller,” he explains. “I got paid for a poem when I was 14. I got a $15 check from the Literary Messenger in Berkeley.” He also was a big list-maker of the things he wanted to do. “I wrote, in 1976, that I wanted to move to Santa Barbara,” he shares.       

Michael decided not to go to college and instead pursue a career in acting. He gave that a go for 10 years, appearing in TV shows like 3rd Rock from the Sun. He also wrote four plays that were produced. “I’d been doing writing, but I didn’t take it seriously,” he explains. “It took me 10 years to write my first book.”

In 2000, he moved to Santa Barbara, for his ex-wife had landed a job here. He worked for the Yellow Pages in Paso Robles, then as an architectural research manager for renowned architect Barry Berkus. 

Michael also got a job in The Gainey Vineyard’s tasting room, which launched him into the world of wine. “I loved it so much,” he explains. “I became fascinated with wine.” 

In 2004, he wrote his first article about wine for Wine Country This Week. “They paid me $25,” he declares. “It was a terrible article, but soon after I wrote a second for Santa Barbara Magazine and a third for Wine & Spirits. There was a fast arc from a crappy publication to a national publication.”  

In 2005, after the death of this newspaper’s wine columnist Bob Senn, Michael got an offer from editor Michelle Drown to write for The Independent. Among other articles, he wrote a series called At Lunch, interviewing luminaries like Michael Towbes and Jonathan Winters over a meal.   

In 2008, he was invited on a media trip to Germany, and started writing travel stories. “This launched the idea that I could do travel pieces, and I wrote the first of five travel books,” he explains. 

That same year, News-Press co-publisher Arthur Von Wiesenberger introduced him to the world of water tasting and judging. This led to him being a judge for the Berkeley Springs International Water Contest. “I judge the Global Water Bottle Awards,” he divulges. “It’s not as fun as judging wine or whiskey. It’s a lot harder. It’s nuanced. Water is not just water. There are subtleties. There are different flavor profiles.”

Michael also turned his skills to commerce. “A few years ago, I used to be the wine buyer for Pierre Lafond,” he explains. “Now I do the buying for the Santa Barbara Airport. It’s been so much fun — talking about wine, getting people to try new things.”

Michael Cervin answers the Proust Questionnaire.

What is the quality you most like in people? 
Authenticity. My philosophy is that I don’t care if you’re wealthy or poor, smart or slow, thin or fat, gay or bi, or black or white. Just don’t be a jerk. Also, to banter well.

What is your greatest extravagance?
I don’t know that I have many extravagances, however if I do it, would be having grilled Australian lobster tail for dinner. 

What is your greatest fear?
That’s actually a tough question because as we go through life, there are so many fears that weigh on us. But I think the overarching thing that dogs my mind is never really reaching my full potential.

What do you like most about your job?
Telling stories in such a way that it makes other people want to try a new restaurant, taste a new wine, travel to a new location, or do something they thought unattainable.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
To love and be loved and to be in harmony with the natural world around us. And a great bottle of cabernet.

Who do you most admire?
It’s tough to pinpoint a single person. What I truly admire in anyone is the ability to gracefully face life’s challenges — maybe you’re a caregiver for an elderly parent, perhaps you raise a child with severe disabilities, etc. — with strength and humility.

What is your current state of mind?
Foggy. This has been a rough year emotionally with several family crises. It’s been a challenge to focus on work this year with so many emotional roadblocks around me.

What is the quality you most dislike in people? 
Pretentiousness. That and people being rude to other people.

What do you most value in friends?
I value honesty. Also loyalty, but that should never equate to blind loyalty.

What is your most marked characteristic?
I think trustworthiness and dependability. If I say I will do something then I will do it.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
C’est la vie.

Which talent would you most like to have?
I wish I had learned to play the piano when I was younger — I took up the trumpet. (Yawn.) I also wish I was more graceful and could learn to dance, especially flamenco.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
It may seem surprising, since I’ve written nine books, but I would like to be more motivated and more focused in my work.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
That’s a tough question because I don’t think in those terms. But I think maybe my first book, which was a book of poetry published in 2009. Being that it was the first book I ever had done after years of wanting to do a book I felt like I had accomplished something amazing, very personal, and something that will live on after I am gone. At least to the 12 people who read poetry.

Where would you most like to live?
Exactly where I live now, Santa Barbara. Second to that would be Lausanne, Switzerland.

What is your most treasured possession?
Like many of us, I have been evacuated from the fires. Therefore “treasured possessions” seem more and more irrelevant. There are certainly physical things that I value, mainly from my childhood, that I would not care to part with. If we change the question to, what do I value most?, that would easily be my beloved cat, Toby. And yes there’s a planned book on that subject too!

Who makes you laugh the most?
I’d have to say Jonathan Winters who I interviewed for The Independent back in 2007. His comedy was classic, liberating, creative, and brought so much joy.

What is your motto? 
“It is not the strongest of the species that survive but those most adaptable to change.”

Which historical figure do you most identify with?
I would say Mark Twain because we’re both writers. However, he’s more talented than me, and he’s funnier. However, he also liked cats, so that’s cool.

On what occasion do you lie?
I never lie. Oh wait, that was a lie. Apparently I do. Often times in dealing with winemakers/distillers face-to-face, I am rather generous with my thoughts about their wines/spirits so I do not offend them. Not everyone wants to hear my opinion.


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