Old wine writers never die…
It was back in the late Eighties I first met Steve Pitcher at some wine event. He was this rather rotund guy, with a chubby pink face, wire-framed eyeglasses and thinning hair. He seemed always to be in his fifties, even though he must have been only in his early forties at the time. Holding himself with a certain reserve and distance, he seemed formidable, but I soon found that behind the rather dour mien (Steve had been trained as a lawyer, although he never practiced) lay an acute intelligence that was not without a wry sense of humor. He was very smart. He used sometimes to pretend to be German (I think he was of German extraction) and would revert to a German accent with a ja wohl accompanied by a formal little bow. But the eyes sparkled behind the glasses, and the little smirk on his rather small mouth told you he was having fun and giving you permission to have fun, too.
Steve was a good wine writer. He was of the old school, preferring long, scholarly essays to the short, snappy little poofs that are popular today. I don’t believe he ever Facebooked or blogged, much less tweeted; I suspect he would have scoffed, and he was an awfully good scoffer. I remember a piece he once wrote for The Wine News, which employed him longer, I think, than any other periodical he worked for. It was on California Sauvignon Blanc, and ran to 5,000 words. (!!!) That was verbose even for long-form wine articles.
I never saw Steve socially. He was a very private person, seldom referring to anything in his outside life beyond wine. I thought he might be gay, but as close as we were professionally, I never would have dared to ask him anything so personal. However, we did run into each other frequently. The San Francisco Bay Area’s wine writing circle was, in past days, a small one, rather like a fraternity. Wine writers associate with all kinds of people from the wine industry: winemakers, growers, cellar rats, P.R. folks, marketing and sales managers, wealthy owners, field workers, tasting room personnel. But it is within our own group, with our own kind, that we can most easily relax and let down our hair and share war stories. Steve was great at that. I knew that he always understood where I was coming from, and vice versa, so there was a certain telepathy between us. I also respected Steve’s palate. He loved German wine, and probably knew more about it than all the rest of us combined.
I liked him well enough so that, whenever I went to an event in San Francisco, or up in Napa Valley, I hoped and expected he’d be there. He usually was, chatting with someone, glass in hand, either listening intently with his eyes focused on the speaker, or saying something himself, in his soft-spoken monotone. I liked to sneak up behind him and tap his shoulder, whereupon he would turn around, recognize me, and make that formal little bow, accompanied by a Welcommen Herr Heimoff!
I miss and mourn Steve. I didn’t know he was sick, even though he’d apparently been suffering from the cancer that killed him for years. He certainly was around less and less over the last year or two, and on those occasions when I did see him, he was noticeably older and slower. But he never gave a hint that he was ill, much less dying, and his eyes never lost that glimmer that made him so special. I posted his death on my Facebook page Friday, and the tributes immediately began pouring in. Steve was well-liked by everyone in this industry. That’s as fine an obituary as a wine writer can hope to get. Ruhe in Frieden, mein alter Freund!