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Wine writer? Historian? Blogger? All the above–and more

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When Merry Edwards asked me to introduce her at her induction Feb. 18 for the Vintners Hall of Fame, my first question was “Why me?” I was obviously honored, but really had no idea why Merry selected yours truly.

Her reply: “Because you’re an historian.”

Well, my reaction was, “I’m a wine critic.” I didn’t say that, but the thought instantly rose in my head. Somehow, Merry calling me “an historian” seemed to cast my role as a wine critic into a secondary light. And I take being a wine critic very seriously: rating and reviewing wine is the essence of what I do for a living.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how silly that thought was. After all, Merry knows me, not just as someone who reviews her wines, but as the author of A Wine Journey along the Russian River and New Classic Winemakers of California, in which she has her own chapter. So to Merry, I’m as much an historian as I am a critic.

And then it occurred to me: Why do we pigeonhole ourselves into categories anyway? Critic–historian–writer–journalist–blogger–these are all part and parcel of what I do. They’re just words for the totality of my love for, and interest in, wine and writing.

Actually, in terms of which came first, Merry’s right: I was an historian of wine well before I was a wine critic. I mean, in the sense that I’d made reading about the history of wine a consuming interest in my life by the late 1970s, ten years before I was ever paid to write about wine. I’m glad that, by the time I took wine writing on as a career, I’d built up a very extensive knowledge of wine history through the reading of books. That gave me a basis later on for making qualitative judgments about wine. I was able to understand that wine is (among other things) a hierarchy. There is nothing fundamentally democratic about wine, other than the fact that anyone can drink it. (Thank goodness.) Wine always has been about elitism: if you were wealthy you could afford to drink better wine than a poor man, because it costs money to produce a quality wine. It did when the Caesars had their favorites (which presumably few others could buy), and it still does. In fact, the history of Western civilization can largely be told through the spread of wine from its ancestral homeland somewhere in the Caucasus up the river valleys of Europe and, thence, to the New World.

It frightens me to think that there probably are wine “critics” out there right now–blogging away–who don’t possess a single good book on wine. Worse yet: it frightens me that there are wine writers whose chief resource is Google. I can’t imagine anything more contrary to the spirit of wine to have someone send you a sample of, say, a Muscadet, and then Google it in order to know what you’re drinking. This isn’t because there’s anything fundamentally wrong with a quick Internet search. I use Google all the time. But I use my library more. Why is a real library “better” (in every sense I can think of) than Google? Because I have inhaled my wine books until their information informs my DNA like genetic code. The patient acquisition of detailed knowledge, lovingly and painstakingly assembled over many years, can’t possibly be compared to a quick Google search. That is an insult to all great wine writers, living or dead.

And so I gratefully acceded to Merry’s request. To put her contributions in wine into historical perspective (and let us hope Merry’s career extends as far forward into the future as it does into the past), one must know the history, not only of California wine, but of world wine in general. One must understand, also, how Merry sees her own place in history (which is the purpose of the pre-interview). The history of wine involves elements from almost every aspect of human study, from anthropology to chemistry to religion to gender studies. It’s so much more than “Here’s what I think.”

  1. Steve,

    I started “the pursuit” as one of my friends calls it, well over twenty years ago. As you rightfully point out, there is much more to it than scores.

    And if I may get very personal about it, one of the most fulfulling aspects or reading and researching was discovering that my mothers birthplace, Lesvos (Greece) a small, beautiful island in the blue Aegean (aka Homer’s “wine-dark-sea”)was one of the earliest appellations of quality Greek wine.

    The source/provenance of wines in those days was indicated by engravings and markings on the amphorae that was shipped throughout the mediterranean. What a thrill it was for me to discover this trivial detail while enjoying some armchair reading!

  2. Steve,

    It makes sense that Merry’s comment should stick for you. Wine criticism is your work, but historical perspective is the “you” that your bring to your work. I respect your writing because of your immersion (no matter from books or in-person industry engagement) that creates historical context first, and your critical wine notes only second. I always tell people in my organizations that to power their ability to excel interpersonally in their professional environments is through understanding that the people around them bring themselves to work…the person that shows up everyday is not a “work” version of who they really are nor someone shaped by job title or role. Your immersion in California wine culture, your reading, and your candid poignancy and historical perspectives defines who you are, and plays out in how you go about working for a living in wine.

    In a recent piece of similar and resonant feedback, a eally smart media thinker told me I am not an enthusiast wine blogger, but instead an “essayist”, shaped by almost 30 years of perspectives formed through fine wine immersion. I thought I blogged, but instead it seems I am really just sharing “me” in the context of a wine backdrop. KInd of turns things inside out a bit.

    Keep being the historian, I check out Steve Heimoff every day because I want to know how the world looks through your historical filters, not just your taste buds.

  3. I’ve always considered you a wine writer, or wine journalist. the fact that you are also a wine critic seems incidentel

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