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My early career as an amateur wine buff

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I remember it as if it all happened yesterday instead of 35 years ago. I was newly arrived in San Francisco, had no money and needed a place to live. So I answered an ad on the S.F.S.U. housing board for a house sitter. It was for a dilapidated old four-room cottage in the southwestern neighborhood known as Top of the Hill Daly City, although in this case, it was at the bottom of the hill. The owner for some reason had the electricity shut off throughout the place, except for my bedroom. There was no heat. Because it was such a hardship case, the owner charged me only $15 a month–although he should have paid me for tolerating such a crummy place. It was wintertime, which can be very cold in San Francisco, and that, added to the location near the ocean, made it really damp and uncomfortable. My only source of heat—and cooking—was a hotplate. But I didn’t care. I was young, strong and adventurous, and, hey, I was living in San Francisco and having the time of my life!

I’d started getting into wine, mainly by buying those little handbooks that were so popular back then: Olken, Singer & Roby’s “The Connoisseurs’ Handbook of California Wines” and Bob Thompson’s “The Pocket Encyclopedia of California Wines.”

handbooks

Since I couldn’t afford to buy much I also depended on local critics’ reviews in the various newspapers. Here’s a photo from my little notebook of that time where I kept track of their reviews:

winebook

 

W. is Wilfred Wong, RH is Richard Paul Hinkle, H.S. is Harvey Steiman, J.M. is Jerry Mead, W.B. was something called the Wine Buying Guide, B.G. is the Bay Guardian, ADB is Anthony Dias Blue and the Best Buys were from the San Francisco Chronicle.

After a couple years I could finally afford to start buying some nice bottles, so I began to keep my Tasting Diaries. Here’s a page for a 1978 Lytton Springs Zin I reviewed in late 1984.

mynotes

By now, I had developed a tasting template: date, occasion (“Thanksgiving at Maxine’s”), and the standard color-nose-taste three-pronged approach. As you can see, I was already beginning to appreciate that some wines need age (“Disappointing; too young”) and also had come up with a rudimentary rating system of stars (to be replaced by the 100-point system when I started doing that).

This Montelena 1979 Chard, which I tasted in 1983, is interesting for three reasons: I was blown away by the price ($12, so expensive at the time. Today it’s $50), I included a food pairing, and,, via the “NOTE” section, I began to introduce more subjective commentary into my reviews. I was much fascinated back then by the French word goût (as in goût de terroir); it shows up a lot in those early reviews.

montelena

 

I wish I still had the first note I ever wrote. It was in 1979 in that awful, cold, barren house at Top of the Hill Daly City. It was for an Almaden Cabernet Sauvignon with a Monterey County appellation. I recall with crystal clarity sitting in the freezing cold at the little table off the kitchen and making my notes. I cannot remember a word of what I wrote, but I know that I concentrated on it very carefully. I think I liked it; at that time I was not aware of the issue of “Monterey veggies.”

It’s hard to know with any precision why a person gets hooked onto something virtually overnight (I don’t mean drugs, I mean hobbies). In 1979 I knew no one at all who cared a thing about wine. My family and friends were oblivious to it, although they were increasingly having to put up with my blather about the latest bottle I’d enjoyed. Looking back, it blows my mind that I was so feverishly making all these notes (my Tasting Diaries eventually filled five hard-cover volumes, amounting to thousands of wines). Why was I doing all that work? For whom? For nobody; for myself. There was no payoff. I never expected anyone to care about what I thought about wine.

  1. It’s really quite wonderful that you kept all those and are able to share them, and though some are gone now, even more wonderful to know that Bob and Charlie and Andy and Wilfred et al are still popping the corks and sharing their insights. It puts into perspective, I think, the value of longevity and lessons learned, and why there will always be a place and an appreciation for those who have put in the work and have something to share based on the long road traveled.

  2. Jim–
    It also speaks to the relatively easier time one had in breaking into wine appreciation and writing/sales at the time. CA wine history after Prohibition was not a particularly booming time for table wines. Up to 1968, dessert wine sales, meaning fortified and sweet for the most part, exceeded table wine sales for every year after Repeal.

    While your list looks a bit like pioneers now, because we were among the first in on the CA wine revolution, it puts me in mind of those who were the pioneers when I started writing four decades ago. Folks like Hank Rubin (SF Chron and Bon Appetit), Robert Lawrence Balzer, Nate Chroman (L A Times and L A County Fair–then the single most prestigious of those events anywhere), Leon Adams.

    They were all ready to leave the field to a new generation, and we stepped in not knowing that CA wine would become many times more important than it was back then.

    There were something like 600 wineries when Earl Singer, Norm Roby and I wrote our first book. Today there are more like 6000, including negotiant labels.

    Today, the new energy belongs to a new group of writers, but the playing field has changed again with the loss of so much newspaper space and the emergence of the Internet. Wine books like ours used to sell in the tens of thousands per year and last for decades with annual updates. Today, those types of books are all but gone.

    Thanks for noticing us as we grey and get ready to pass the baton. We have perspective, and that is valuable. The next generation, will, as we did, happily succeed us soon enough with their own update perspectives.

    Charlie

  3. Jim and Charlie – thank you.

  4. Keasling says:

    “The Tasting Diaries” by Steve Heimoff, UC Press, 2015.

  5. Thanks, but I don’t think so!

  6. Just want to say how much I appreciate your commitment to the blog. I hope you understand that there is a community of wine enthusiasts who treasure your effort.

    Mostly I can’t afford the exemplary wines sometimes mentioned, but my continuing love of wine is fed by your efforts.

    Amazing that after your modest start in TOP OF THE HILL DALY CITY you have become a grey eminence in the wine world. (Wasn’t there a hi-fi or TV store that used TOP OF THE HILL DALY CITY as a catch phrase in their radio ads? Somehow I remember “buy a tv, get a bike, come to top of the City in Daly City.” Was it Armstrong Electronics?

    A digression.
    Thank you for continuing. It means a lot.

  7. It wasn’t Armstrong, it was “MATTHEWS, TOP OF THE HILL DALY CITY”.

    Check this out: http://blog.sfgate.com/thebigevent/2012/05/02/get-a-bike-matthews-top-of-the-hill-daly-city-video/

    Branching far afield from a wine blog, here is a classic example of marketing prior to the internet. Really worth a look for nostalgia sake.

  8. That’s a pretty cool trip down memory lane. When I look back on my short time in this space, I find myself wishing I could make my entire first year or two of reviews disappear! :-)

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