If you ever find yourself talking to John Hailman at a party, don’t walk away. A retired federal prosecutor, international wine judge and author of four books, John will entertain you with the most amazing and unbelievable stories from his career and travel (and point you towards the good wine).
When he was a student at Millsaps, an insulting comment by a girl at a dance changed the trajectory of not only his college experience, but, ultimately, his life. She told John that he was “too countrified” for her, a description his mother took real offense to. And so she sent her son to Paris to study at the Sorbonne for two years in order to smooth out his rough edges.
After two years in Paris, he found himself back at Millsaps to finish up his degree where he had the pleasure of taking a creative writing class taught by Eudora Welty. John says he struggled in the class because he preferred to write nonfiction: “She would have us write stories, and I found I didn’t have stories to tell.”
In the years since John has certainly overcome his lack of stories to tell as his own life has provided plenty of fodder. Retired from a 33-year career as a federal prosecutor in the Northern District of Mississippi, John has written two books full of anecdotes from his work with federal agents, lawyers, judges, and criminals. His first book From Midnight To Guntown recounts true crime stories and amazing trials. The sequel, Return to Guntown, is filled with even more of the colorful characters he’s encountered.
John with his daughters, Allison and Lydia.
Whereas most people might consider being a wine columnist and wine judge a full-time separate career, it was merely a side project for John. And one that, as he puts it, “fell into his lap.” After he finished law school, he accepted a fellowship at Georgetown University and for extra money took a job unloading trucks at a wine shop. One day a woman came to the store speaking French and the shop owner was unable to help her. Remembering enough French from his college years, John came from the back and was able to interpret and translate labels for her. The woman, it turns out, was from the French Embassy and with John’s assistance left the store that day with around $5000 worth of wine. His manager told him, “Change your shirt, you’re our new wine consultant.”
At this time he was also a regular reader of the Washington Post wine column and was disappointed when it suddenly stopped appearing in the paper. After a phone call to inquire what happened, he convinced the editor to let him write the column. At first, John recalls, the editor was against having a lawyer write the column because, “law school ruins people’s writing style.” But, John’s rebuttal was rock solid. In order to get a tryout he simply said, “My writing teacher was Eudora Welty,” (who happened to be a favorite of the editor). After penning a sample piece he was hired, with no qualifications to speak of, as the weekly Washington Post wine columnist—a job he did for three years.
And when he moved back to Mississippi to begin his career as a federal prosecutor, he continued to write a weekly wine column for the Clarion Ledger. His column ran every Sunday from 1982 – 1995 and was syndicated in Gannett newspapers around the country. A few years ago he collected the best of these columns for his book The Search for Good Wine.
John (right) with Monticello winemaker Gabriele Rausse
It was during this time that he became interested not only in wine but also how famous people like wine. “I began to look into which wines they drank, why, and what it said about them. I really started studying it then.” And it was this interest that lead him to his write Thomas Jefferson on Wine which explores the third president’s lifelong fascination with wine.
Many people might find the combination of a federal prosecutor and oenophile to be a strange one. But it works for John as he explains, “It was perfect really. Being a prosecutor is serious and grim and wine is light and happy. It became my only hobby because I never watch TV and I don’t play golf. After spending time with my family, all my free time went to wine.”
John is now at work on a new book – the third installment in his Guntown trilogy. This book will focus on the last 10 years of his career which included his international travel to places such as Moscow, Morocco, Paris and the Persian Gulf and will recount his experience, adventures and mishaps with several wildly different legal systems., and perhaps, with wine.