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My final wine review: epitaph to a professional critic’s career

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It is altogether fitting and proper (as Abraham Lincoln said in another context, in the Gettysburg Address) that the last wine review I shall ever write for Wine Enthusiast should have been for a Williams Selyem wine.

It was the 2012 Papera Zinfandel, which I reviewed on Monday. I did not deliberately hold it for the very last. But I did have a thought somewhere in the back of my mind that the culmination of more than twenty years of reviewing should be a special wine.

Had I had an unreviewed sparkling wine of quality, I certainly might have considered it; but I didn’t. Nor was there a proper Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. That left the Wiliams Selyem Zin, and what a wine it was. Bob Cabral has had a particularly successful series of vintages with that Russian River Valley bottling; the 2012 was one of his best.

But it wasn’t merely the quality of that Zin that made it a fitting toast to a celebrated departure. It was my admiration for Williams Selyem itself, and for Bob. I don’t have the longest experience of him among wine writers: others knew him, and enjoyed tasting the wines of Williams Selyem, long before I. We met around 2001, if I recall correctly, when I was writing A Wine Journey along the Russian River, in which he looms large. I remember with particular fondness sitting with him, in his cluttered little office at the old winery, on Westside Road, as he assembled the first-ever vintage of Neighbors, the blend of vineyards the winery sources from the Middle Reach of the Russian River. I felt privileged then to be asked for my opinion. I doubt that Bob seriously took anything I said into account for the actual blend, but it was terribly kind, and flattering for him to go through the motions.

A few of us tried the other day to estimate how many wines I’ve reviewed over the years. I honestly don’t know. Probably in excess of 60,000, possibly far greater than that. I don’t think Wine Enthusiast’s database, in its current incarnation, goes back that far. Of course, if you throw in all the wines I’ve tasted unofficially, the number has got to be around 100,000. And yet here I am, still standing, in good health, not alcoholic. Perhaps all that reseveratrol will yet come in handy.

People ask me how I feel, leaving the magazine for my new gig. The thoughts and emotions, as you might expect, are complex, but two stand out: one, that after 25 years as a wine writer (and always a freelancer; I was never a real employee), it was time for a change. And two, that my new job, at Jackson Family Wines, is a big one that requires a lot from me, and I take it all with a sober sense of responsibility. Aren’t you excited? people want to know. I tell them that excitement isn’t the word I’d use. I’m excited when I get to go to a Giants game, with great seats and Lincecum pitching. I’m excited when, after some time on the road, I come home to see Gus again. (And Gus is always excited to see me!) But “excited” doesn’t seem to have the proper gravitas for this occasion.

What will I remember most about being a wine critic? For sure, the kindness, respect and friendliness people in all walks of the industry have shown me over the years. I always felt the need to keep a kind of reserve; while I’m by nature affectionate, I thought that my position mandated a certain distance. I did not want to get too close to people whose wines I might have to give bad scores to. This business of how close to get to winemakers whose wines you’re reviewing must be on the mind of every critic. But it is no longer something I need worry about.

I think also of the wonderful opportunities I’ve had to explore every nook and cranny of our beautiful state of California and its wine regions. I’ve written before that I never saw a wine region I didn’t fall in love with, from the austere Santa Maria Valley to the bucolic glories of West Dry Creek Road, from the sheer drama of Highway 29, with its parade of famous wineries, to the curvaceous hills of Happy Canyon and the insanely wild mountains of Fort Ross-Seaview. To have experienced all this, often under the tutelage of local winemakers who taught me about the terroir (occasionally from a helicoper), has been undiluted joy.

And then there were the wines themselves. Not too many 100 pointers. Wine Enthusiast took a position, with which I largely agreed, not to be too profligate in handing out the ultimate accolade. Certainly, we can debate whether or not a 98 point wine might “really” have been worth 100 points (or vice versa), but that would be a waste of time, the point being that I’ve had more great wines than anyone can reasonably expect to have in a lifetime. Yet, somehow, that never spoiled me. Before I was a wine critic I drank Bob Red and White, or Gallo Sauvignon Blanc in 1.5s, or inexpensive Chianti, Médoc, Côtes du Rhône or anything else I could afford: and I was a happy man. The splendor of wine, it seems to me, lies in the beverage itself, its profoundly tongue-loosening and restorative qualities and affinities for food, and not in the web of fantasy we weave around it, in our imaginations.

Anyhow, I called this posting an “epitaph.” It is that, for my wine reviewing career, but it’s also a birth, for my new one. L’chaim!

  1. Mitch Cosentino says:

    I want to wish you great luck in your new endeavor. We will miss your wine reviews and commentary, always seemingly free of agendas and politics. When you brought politics into the discussion you have always been honest to your convictions and to yourself regardless of whether others agreed or took exceptions. I have always found you entertaining!

  2. Michael Woodcock says:

    You have expanded the universe of wine from the most sophisticated palate to the man on the street such as myself who appreciates your art of teaching without pretension or intimidation. You will be missed! Thank you.

  3. Steve… you will be missed as a critic. When I began reviewing wines, it was your reviews I looked to as a model, not only for their style but because of the similarity of our palates. It was a pleasure to speak with you at the wine wrtiers conference some years ago…. Best of luck at KJ….Will Gus get to come to work with you?

  4. And here I thought you might actually answer some if my questions that I asked on your March 13 post! Silly me! I know for a fact many other inquisitive people want a response, too. Do indulge us (rather than ignore), Steve…

  5. How fitting, indeed, that your last review should be of a Williams Selyem Russian River Valley wine. For me, Williams Selyem pinot noir (a Rochioli Riverblock of approximately 2000 or 2001) really turned my head and showed me how amazing wine could be, your book on the RRV has served as the basis for my education about and enjoyment of the area where I now live (I still refer to it frequently), and Bob Cabral embodies the character that makes working in the area so cool–he’s open and generous with his knowledge and experience. Cheers to you, and here’s to hoping your blog continues apace! I look forward to it every day.

  6. Thanks everyone who says such nice things. Regarding my Russian River book, I really love it and believe it will be read a century from now.

  7. Congratulations Steve on a splendid and storied career. You will be missed as a critic but I join others in wishing you another great run at KJ.

  8. bruce losee says:

    Steve

    I will miss your reviews and input and good luck in your new “: life”

  9. Robert Conard says:

    Welcome to the other side of the coin. Best of luck in your new endeavor!

  10. Gary Eberle says:

    Steve in the “Name of the Rose” what is happening out there? Where will this madness stop?

  11. Dear Gary, I don’t know! Cheers.

  12. Best of luck to you – if I’m not mistaken, I think you’ll be in contact with Michael Jordan (the wine one) @ Jackson. You two would make a great Siskel and Ebert of wine!

  13. Dear TIll, yes, I worked last year at Kapalua with the great Michael Jordan and I expect to again!

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