Fred Tasker, Miami Herald and WLRN’s ‘Wine Guy,’ dies at 79. ‘He took readers around the world’

There could only be one Fred Tasker and, for more than 40 years, Miami Herald readers were exposed to the mad genius of his brilliant mind.

Tasker could explain everything you need to know about wine in his Herald column to the latest breakthrough in brain surgery. He charted Miami’s growth, covered the area’s burgeoning arts scene, chronicled chefs in the kitchen, wine makers in their vineyards and even weighed in on the eternal battle over the toilet seat — should it be left up or down?

These things were important to readers so they became important to Tasker.

For eons, women’s first criterion for judging a man has been how he leaves the lavatory lid. It’s like a red flag. If it’s up, he’s a cad; if it’s down, it was probably a mistake but he might be semi-OK assuming he’s also good to the kids and helps with the dishes, Tasker wrote in a 1994 column.

Fredric Cloise Tasker, died on Monday at 79 from complications of Parkinson’s Disease, his wife Katharine Westie said from their northern Michigan home. The couple had moved from Miami to be near family in Michigan when he retired from the Herald in 2012.

But even in retirement from his daily newspaper assignments, Tasker kept enchanting listeners. Yes, he did radio, too.

‘The Wine Guy’

Fred Tasker, a former Miami Herald reporter, was a professional wine judge for national and international wine competitions and served on the tasting panel of Wine News magazine. 
Fred Tasker, a former Miami Herald reporter, was a professional wine judge for national and international wine competitions and served on the tasting panel of Wine News magazine.

For 17 years, from 1999 to 2016, Tasker was known as “the wine guy” on “Food News and Views,” a weekly radio show hosted by Linda Gassenheimer on WLRN, the South Florida NPR affiliate and a Herald news partner. He continued to do the hour-long show after his Herald retirement remotely from Michigan until 2016, when Parkinson’s Disease took away his radio voice.

On the program, WLRN’s retired producer and “Topical Currents” host Joe Cooper recalls the joie de vivre Tasker infused in their broadcasts.

“I could not believe how versatile Fred was in his reporting. Any topic you could think of he’d be an expert on soon. I remember the coverage on the Arsht Center and he covered that extensively. He was just a joy to work with. I never heard him say a discouraging word. He was so easy to get along with,” Cooper said.

Born in Michigan

Tasker was born in Lake Odessa, Michigan. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University — Honors College and his master’s from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, which included a year of study in Bologna, Italy, on a Fulbright grant. He also earned a master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Tasker served for three years as an officer in the U.S. Army that included a tour of duty in Vietnam.

His Herald career

Fred Tasker in a September 1985 file photo.
Fred Tasker in a September 1985 file photo.

After his tour of duty, Tasker joined the Miami Herald in 1969. He’d stay for 43 years.

The paper tried him out as an editor, once, but Tasker cringed. He wanted to be out in the field and tell the stories, as a reporter or as a columnist.

“He loved what he did and he said he ‘had the best job in the world and I get to learn something new every day,’” his wife said.

A relief effort for victims of a gas explosion in Bhopal, India, in 1985 got its start in Hialeah after Tasker wrote about the tragedy in one of his Miami Herald Living section columns.

When dolls and stuffed animals used in therapy were stolen from the Pediatric Orthopedic Rehabilitation Unit at Jackson Memorial Medical Center in 1987, doctors and therapists were incensed. Tasker wrote about the toys’ theft in a 1987 story. Readers responded.

“Suffice it to say, every child on the unit got the coveted Cabbage Patch doll that year,” his wife said.

Westie and Tasker would have celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary on June 30.

Wine adventures

Fred Tasker with an oversize Polaroid that featured his image made by artist William Wegman.
Fred Tasker with an oversize Polaroid that featured his image made by artist William Wegman.

For two decades Tasker wrote a wine column for the Herald that was picked up by papers around the country. He was a wine judge for national and international wine competitions, from the Sonoma Harvest Fair to the Banco d’Assagio in Italy. He served on the tasting panel of Wine News magazine.

“When asked to name his favorite wine, he would say, ‘The next new wine I try,’” his wife said.

She offers a theory as to why Tasker thrived for so long as a communicator.

“He was someone who was curious about everything and good at a lot of things. ... He could build an addition on our house; he could fix anything. He was a gourmet cook and he just did a lot of things well,” Westie said.

In one of his wine features for the Herald in 2001, Tasker found himself in Tokaj, Hungary, 60 feet underground in a dark tunnel so narrow only one can pass at a time, so low we have to stoop, he wrote. It’s 51 degrees and 85 percent humidity; icy water drips down our necks from the two-inch-thick slime of mold that lines the cave.

“Fred, with his insatiable curiosity and his love of learning, took readers around the world, whether to teach them about a prized Hungarian wine to covering the International AIDS Conferences in Bangkok and Barcelona. Fred’s prose took you there,’‘ said Joan Chrissos, a Herald editor who worked with Tasker.

Fred Tasker assumes the classic position of the “Thinker” for an illustration to go with a Jan. 1, 1994, story he wrote for the Miami Herald about toilet thinkers. The toilet was courtesy of the Bath Collection in Miami.
Fred Tasker assumes the classic position of the “Thinker” for an illustration to go with a Jan. 1, 1994, story he wrote for the Miami Herald about toilet thinkers. The toilet was courtesy of the Bath Collection in Miami.

Survivors, service

In addition to his wife, Tasker’s survivors include his daughter, two grandchildren and a sister.

An outdoor family service will be deferred until Michigan weather warms up and because of the COVID pandemic, his wife said.

Westie said the family “would very much welcome any memories or ‘Fred stories’ that friends, colleagues or readers would like to send, to be read at the service.” These may be sent to kswestie@gmail.com.

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