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An extract from my memoir


Readers: I’m writing a memoir. The below is a section. I’d like to know if you’re interested in this sort of thing. If not, I won’t put any more sections up here on my blog:

California seems like a big state, but the wine industry is actually a little village. And if there are town criers who know what’s happening all the time and tell everyone else about it, it’s the cadre of public relations experts, whose jobs it is to keep track of every sparrow. Wine critics are very big sparrows, and I was one of the biggest of all. So it wasn’t long before the word went out: “Steve doesn’t travel anymore.”

It was true; I didn’t. But I was aware of the negative side to this. It was that I ran the risk of being perceived as a Diva. It was turning into a case of “If you want to see Steve, you must travel to Oakland, because Steve doesn’t have the time to drive to your place.” Or “If you want Steve to attend an event, you’re going to have to send a car and driver to Oakland and then bring him back again, because Steve no longer drinks and drives.”

You’d think I would have stumbled across the concept of “Don’t drink and drive, ever. Period. End of story.” before 2001, but I didn’t. I’d been drinking and driving all my adult life. When I lived in San Francisco, and especially during my Noe Valley days of the early 1980s, weekend after weekend I’d wake up on a Saturday or Sunday morning and have no idea where I’d parked my car the night before. There were times I’d have to walk the neighborhood for 30 minutes before I found it. I’d have no memory of driving home, or indeed even of what I’d done or where I’d been. I might recall leaving home at 10 p.m. and heading down to my favorite bar, the Headquarters, which was South of Market. I might have a memory of the bartender giving me free drinks. But after that, nothing. Nada. It was even scarier when I’d wake up with a stranger in my bed. Who is this person? Where did we meet? What did we do?

But what really persuaded me not to drink and drive anymore was an incident that scared the hell out of me.

It was Beaulieu’s 100th birthday. They’d arranged for a super-tasting at the winery, which is in Rutherford. I was covering it for Wine Enthusiast, and staying the night at the Embassy Suites hotel, in Napa city, about 20 miles south of Beaulieu.

The tasting was stunning: every vintage ever made of the winery’s Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, plus the three Pinot Noirs that André Tchelistcheff had said were the only ones he’d ever made that succeeded: 1946, 1947 and 1968. Needless to say, everybody at that tasting, which also included plenty of champagne and white wines with appetizers, was basically blitzed when it was over.

It was past midnight, in the dead of winter. Cold, windy. As soon as I got to the parking lot, the sky opened up, and a deluge of Biblical proportions poured down, from a gale that had descended upon Northern California from the Gulf of Alaska.

Now, anyone familiar with the stretch of Highway 29 that runs from Rutherford down to Napa (and up past Calistoga) knows there are no street lights. Much of the road is two lanes only. As I drove, the rain became so heavy that I couldn’t see a thing out my windshield. The wipers did nothing at all, even though I turned them on full speed. In fact, they made things worse. I had no idea where the center lane was, where the shoulders were. I was driving completely blind, and I was drunk. I figured my blood alcohol must have been well north of the legal limit.

Yet what could I do, but to plow on and try to get to the Embassy Suites safe and sound? So I made a little prayer: Please get me to the hotel without an accident or getting stopped by the cops. If you do, I will never again drink and drive.

He did. And I did. Or didn’t, rather — didn’t drink and drive again, ever, for any reason. It wasn’t just the fear of getting a DUI conviction, although that would have been bad enough. It was the thought of what the San Francisco Chronicle would do with it.

Steve Heimoff taken to jail, booked, out on bail

There was no way I was going to let that happen!

But the price I paid was the Diva thing. Once I started blogging, and became fair game for the criticism of half the wine bloggers in the world, the charges of “limousine Steve” and his “all expenses paid lifestyle” mounted. They were serious enough that I had to spend considerable time and energy refuting them. But tell me, dear reader, how should I have dealt with the matter of drinking and driving? If you’re invited to a wine event, chances are likely that there’s wine to be consumed. I mean, that’s what a wine event is all about! If I want to go to an event, but I won’t permit myself to drink and drive, then my only option is to tell the people who want me to come to the event that they have to provide transportation. I am single, and thus don’t have the luxury of bringing a designated driver-spouse with me. So it’s not because I’m a Diva that I insist on these arrangements.

Yet, to this day, I get phone calls from people, both P.R. types and winemakers, who say, “I know you don’t have a car, but we were wondering if you’d visit us, if we send a car.” I have a car! I drive almost every day! I just don’t drink and drive. So I patiently explain my situation, and then hope that people don’t think I’m a Diva. But I guess sometimes they do.

  1. Steve:

    You’re not a diva. You’re responsible. Plus, I’d rather be called a diva than a drunk driver (or worse if you ever harmed someone).

    I, for one, appreciate your candidness in discussing this part of your past. It certainly isn’t enviable, but I’m just glad that you put a stop to it. I fear that others that read this might not be so forgiving, and I’m not sure that I would blame them.

    When I attend tastings (or any drinking event for that matter), I have a simple rule: I spit, or I get a ride (or take a cab, if possible). It sucks to spit, cabs can be expensive, and it’s inconvenient as hell to get someone to pick me up, but that’s the way it has to be.

    As for including these excerpts on your blog, I say fire away. You’ll know the right balance of this type of posts vs. your normal. Plus, If people don’t like them, they can skip them. Your readership is loyal enough that we’re not going anywhere.

  2. No comments? I absolutely love this post! I think you should put them up here more often! You have a great writing style here! Very captivating. Thank you for sharing and for your honesty, humor, and courage! I am just sad the post came to an end! I want more! =) Looking forward to the full memoir!

  3. Cory, thanks very much for the feedback.

  4. Steve, I loved this piece and I have to be very candid in telling you that I have only heard that you require a car and driver to attend a tasting and never heard anything about the real back story. I’m a big fan of your work and I welcome more posts like this. Keep going on the memoir!

  5. Good, Steve, good.
    It’s tough to walk the line between interesting narrative and sappy confessional. I think what you have here manages that pretty well. You don’t want sympathy but, at the same time, you have to get the readers invested. At the end of it, I’m intrigued enough to read more. For instance, I want to know more about how the little incantation said that night affected other aspects of your life or if the deal was strictly one category only?

  6. I for one would like to put a stop to this here and now. Sharing of personal and at times embarrassing stories?! Dude, that’s kind of my gig and junk. Sheesh, you professional writers are always trying to hold us bloggers down. Humpf. That being said I thought it was honest and quite compelling…dammit.

  7. Steve, want to borrow my boa? you’re not being a Diva, you’re being aware and smart. It’s a good reminder to all of us in the wine biz. I had almost the exact same scenario (dealing with God) 6 years ago and have not driven tipsy since. A glass or two with dinner – fine. I’m driving. A few sips at the end of the day at the winery? Yes, I’m driving home. But, some of the events we attend don’t allow for that low level of consumption and, despite what some people think (in the business, no less!), there are some events where spitting is either not a good option or where there’s so much wine involved and you are drinking almost continuously (big vertical tastings), no amount of spitting will really keep you under the legal limit. It’s a crime the limo business in Nor Cal is so shamefully expensive and that “industry deals” to winery peeps = about 10%. Taxis are no better, and north of Napa nearly impossible to either initially hire or rely on a return trip. I was stood up once at Redd by a taxi return to St Helena, for which I’d already paid (duh), and you can imagine how difficult it was to get another one at 10 pm. It ruined the evening for everyone. There’s got to be a good business plan in there somewhere….?
    Don’t worry about name-calling. As Thomas Paine said, “Character is much easier kept than recovered.”

  8. Julie St John says:

    Thank you for your honesty. I think it opens up a subject that isn’t spoken about at all-that of over-consumption among those of us (me included) who work in this fine industry. We usually are focused on our visitors in the tasting room–which are of great concern since they are basically drinking and driving. Ah, the stories we all could tell and I look forward to reading more of your work.

  9. Steve, your vignette reminds me of a similar situation, different profession, different circumstances, but same “coming to Jesus moment”. I made it thru it, but only because of divine intervention, and like you, a steel will to, in your case, get home. You’re a gifted writer, and as long as the bio stuff isn’t maudlin, or fru-fru, it makes captivating, as well as instructional reading. As for the “Diva” thing, hey, if that’s the way some folks feel, well so be it. “you can please some of the folks some of the time, but you can’t please everybody all of the time”. I believe that was A. Lincoln, and it holds as true today as it did several centuries back. I say good for you, and it brings up an interesting question: what do all these other wine scribes, attending other tastings, do? Hopefully, they don’t drink and drive, but who knows? Actually I have had 3 of these moments, all vastly different and unrelated(one, long ago, was drinking related), and as one poster above alluded to, it does make one sit back and do a self assessment as to self, existence of a greater power, and perhaps, luck. Whatever, you survived it, maybe by the grace of God, maybe not, but it certainly served to get your mind straight about how you would act or behave in the future.

    Who cares if you are a Diva anyway? We all know you to be a hard working, well intentioned, and talented wine taster, who is both a fun and informational wine scribe. Anything else is, frankly, just unimportant. Write on!

  10. Larry, I don’t know what the other writers do. I’ve often wondered. I don’t ask, because it’s really none of my business. I’ve certainly seen some writers and critics over the years who were drunk, and then drove home. My hunch is that the pros behave responsibly and take the same precautions I do. At least, I hope so.

  11. Tastebud, that’s a drag about your experience at Redd. I hope you eventually got your money back from the taxi company.

  12. Steve,

    As evident by the comments so far, your candor and great writing hit one out of the park. We can all relate, and those of us who have been around the business for a while have some pretty similar stories, whether about ourselves or others. When the issue comes up, I often find myself arguing that all of us in the industry are not doing ourselves any favor by ignoring it. More than once I was given the look that says: “don’t be a prude” when suggesting to someone they should stop or slow down on their drinking during a wine event. In our tasting room we stop serving anyone who exhibits signs they have had enough. You would not believe how badly folk react to such an act (of course… they are drunk!). We even got a scalding review on a popular website, saying a server was rude, from someone who we gently suggested to that they should stop tasting. Maybe just like good wines need time to mature, so do good people. It sure is a sign of maturity (and NOT “Divaness”) that get’s someone to to draw the line and say ‘No Mas’.

  13. Oded, your tasting room person did the right thing. However, the “scalding review” does show the danger of how misinformed people can say whatever they want online.

  14. Steve –

    To answer your question, Yes. Post more of it. I found it gripping, well told, and wonderfully compelling. Your raw honesty is laudable.

    I’m not sure you should have decided not to travel at all. After all, commiting to spit every taste is a sacrifice many writers make. But on the whole, I understand your sentiment and I appreciate it. There is far too much drinking and driving in the wine world, and this is a strong reminder. Thanks.

  15. Steve,

    Compelling and thoughtfully written. Your vantage point as a wine writer provides you the perspective to paint us the “scene behind the seen”. If the rest of your memior continues to connect these dots, both to you personally and the wine business at large, I’ll be the first in line to purchase the completed work.

    Thanks for sharing!

  16. Evan, I didn’t decide not to travel at all. The excerpt I posted suggests that, but it’s not true. I travel quite a bit for my job. I’m going to Santa Barbara next week for 4 days. So let me make it clear: the only thing I don’t do is drink and drive. If I’m not drinking, I drive a lot (although probably less than most commuters, since I work at home!).

  17. Steve –

    Ah, very good. Let me also add: I recall you once commented that it’s a shame there is very little long-term research and writing anymore. You were remarking about writing New Classic Winemakers. I couldn’t agree more. I deeply enjoyed that read, and I appreciate the effort you undertook to produce it. I’m sure you’re investing similar energy and thought this time around, and you should know it’s appreciated as well. Cheers.

  18. Evan, thanks very much. Comments like yours mean a lot to me.

  19. I just blogged about someone who wanted me to drive one way for two hours, do a huge tasting,then turn myself around and drive home – another two hours.

    I have to admit that you inspired me a long time ago to realize the dangers to you, and not wanting to put myself into the same harm’s way.

    Good read… Keep going.

  20. Jo, I bet we all get those invites all the time. “Come on up to Napa (or down to L.A. or whatever) — get drunk — the party’s over at midnight.”

  21. Steve: Having worked there, I don’t think The Chronicle would give you a headline for a DUI. Sorry. But don’t test the theory.

  22. Blake, so what would I have to do to get a headline in the chron?

  23. They call you “limousine Steve”, do they?

    I, for another, am very interested in this sort of thing. I think it had most of the elements I like in literature.

  24. What did Richard Pryor say? “”I had to stop drinking because I got tired of waking up in my car driving 90.”

  25. Sergio Traverso says:

    Steve, it is obvious from the above positive feedback that your readers appreciate the candor you have displayed in telling about that scary experience on Hwy 29. You are also giving a friendly reminder to all of us that we have to keep our guard up at all times so we should never find ourselves in such a predicament. Just for doing that your article is a very valuable piece.

    However, in answering the question you posed at the very beginning “I’d like to know if you’re interested in this sort of thing”, which I infer is about sharing your memoirs, why I wonder, you feel compelled to ask the question? I realize that I am answering a question with another question, but that’s because the answers should be so obvious: your blog is about you, first and foremost. What I mean is that I can see that you portray the subject of wine as it evolves from your own experience, and as that knowledge matures in your mind you bring your thoughts into your blog for your readers to know how Steve Heimhoff feels about this or that subject. So, in essence the blog is about you, and that’s why is successful. It offers perspectives and insights that are unique and genuine. And on top of that they are valuable.

  26. Sergio, thanks for your thoughtful response. Yes, my blog is about me. But I want my readers to enjoy reading it. That’s why I asked. Until about a year ago, I was occasionally posting political thoughts on my blog, and my readers asked me not to. So I stopped. (I keep my politics on my Facebook page now.) I have a tremendous amount of respect and affection for my readers, and I wouldn’t want to take a step that they opposed.

  27. Steve, thanks for a thoughtful post on an important subject. It’s one of the key differences I noted in moving from NYC to Napa. For writers living in NYC, there are ample ways to get home safely from a big tasting or late night winemaker dinner – hardly anybody drives anyway (I bought my first car ever when I moved here). But even in NY, I’d send writers coming in from farther afield home via car service, or put them up in a hotel for the night. No one should be thought a Diva for wanting to practice safe sipping! As for your memoirs, you’ve had an intriguing life (I want to know more about the commune pix on Facebook, that’s some hairdo) and it’s great having you share some of it.

  28. Thanks Mia.

  29. If it’s of any consolation to you, Steve, I’ve had to walk around looking for my car in the morning, often when I’ve had nothing more than steaming cup of coffee or tea at dinner.

  30. Bravo Steve. Great write-up and with a message too! Please share more, from all the comments, I think we all like it. I stopped drinking and driving 28 years ago when I was in college and was on a “task force” on drunk driving (i.e., trying to stop it, not encouraging it!) and, as part of the job, had to go with the various police departments on “ride alongs” to accidents caused by drunk drivers. Let me tell you, it was a sobering (no pun intended) experience – I won’t give you the sordid details, but there were, more often than not, fatalities – in about 70% of the cases, it was not the drunk driver.

    I also echo Oded’s comments as well – as someone who pours my wine at the various wine tastings in Northern Californig, I have had to refuse to serve people who are obviously drunk – and they get very angry – and like Oded’s tasting room experience, I refused to serve a blogger who was extremely drunk – he became very angry and walked around the event trashing my wines – it was actually helpful to me because he was so obviously drunk – many people came up to thank me and try the wine and buy some. He never blogged about it, I’m thinking because he forgot!

    But it is a very serious issue, which I’m glad you take seriously – and you are not a Diva at all, or if you are, we should all follow your example. Thanks again.

  31. Lynn Alley, you’re so funny, and great to see your name and thoughts pop up here!

  32. Truth be known, Jo, I love Steve’s blog! Read it often. Just quietly.

  33. Steve,
    Yes, keep writing and sharing the story as you saw it. You have had a chance to go behind the scenes and we want to go there with you. Breathe life again into the amazing personalities who have poured their lives into what is today’s California wine business. The risk takers, the driven, the smoozers, the slippery ones… the characters that moved out of their comfort zone to add to what today’s wine drinkers think is a wonderful relaxing way of life! It’s going to be compelling and hurorous, I’m sure. So lock the door, light the light: pour your self a glass of wine and get writing – looks as if people can’t wait to read Steve’s Story!
    ** So glad to hear you found a way to handle tastings. About drinking & driving – there are more & more good tour/limo companies that make visitng wine country a pleasure and keep our roads safe. Everyone needs to encourage visitors to use them. So glad to hear you found a responsible way to handle tastings… don’t hide it – share your wisdom.
    Write with the class you’ve always stood for.

  34. Susan, thanks a lot. I’ll be putting up more stuff from the Memoir from time to time.

  35. Please keep up the memoir entries, Steve. I’d wager that many of us who follow the blog do so not just because we like your style and we appreciate your opinions, but we simply like you, and reading more about Steve makes us feel a bit closer.

  36. Steve,

    Alcoholism and drunk driving seem to be the two elephants in the room for the wine industry. As a relative newbie to the industry, I am appalled at how virtually no one will address these issues. The more light we shed on this the better. Thanks for being brave enough to personally and publicly speak out. Keep it up.

  37. Yes, you’re a Diva – with a capital D. Don’t want to risk getting a DUI? Fine – hire your own driver. Ride with a friend. Or don’t drink and be a professional – spit. If I asked my friends to provide me with a driver every time I was invited to their parties, well, I wouldn’t be invited to many parties. Man up, Dude!

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