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Five Decades of Wine: The Arc of My Career

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Part Two: The 1980s and early 1990s

Finally, after about three months of my lobbying efforts to land a job at Wine Spectator, Jim Gordon called me up with my first assignment. “It’s very simple,” he explained. “Just give Tom Eddy a call. He left his job at Christian Brothers to start his own winery. Interview him over the phone, then give me 50 words. Think you can handle it?

Duh. Do bears defecate in the woods?

I should explain here what the atmosphere surrounding wine writing was like in 1989. There were very, very few opportunities, because there were very few magazines or newspapers that covered wine seriously. But it wasn’t like everyone was clamoring to be a paid wine writer, the way they are now. Young people wanted to be MBAs. That was the unhealthy part of Ronald Reagan’s legacy, an emphasis on getting rich fast. I certainly didn’t want to be an MBA. I was living in Noe Valley, and every morning took the MUNI Metro out to S.F. State, on 19th Avenue. Standing on the nearly deserted outbound platform, I’d look across the tracks to the inbound side, jammed with hundreds of commuters who all looked the same: Men and women, dressed in Financial District drag, carrying their little briefcases and looking like—well, like those legions of robot IBM salesmen in that famous Apple commercial that aired once on the 1984 Super Bowl and was never shown again. I must admit I felt a little superior to them, and vowed never, ever to be part of the lemming herd.

I guess I did okay on that Tom Eddy article, because afterwards, Jim started giving me regular assignments. They were little ones, just phone interviews. One day he invited me to lunch, just him and Kim Marcus. We went (as I recall) to a little Chinese joint not far from their offices. I had the feeling they wanted to meet me in person, eyeball me up close and see if I was Wine Spectator material. I suppose I was, for at that lunch, they mentioned that there was this section in the Spectator called The Collecting Page. It was on the last page of every issue, a regular feature. Problem was, nobody wanted to write it. Was I interested?

Reprise Duh. Do bears defecate in the woods?

That Collecting Page was quite an adventure. It got me in touch with just about every serious wine collector in the country. These were rich white guys who all wanted to be quoted in the august pages of the nation’s premier wine magazine. It was one way they could out-testosterone their fellow collectors. Anyone with enough money can buy Petrus—but not everyone can land on The Collecting Page!

Segue. This brings up the memory of the L.A. lawyer for various rock and roll clients. He lived up in the Hollywood Hills, on Mulholland, and Jim gave me the assignment of doing a big story on him. I drove down to L.A. and found his house. Just as I was arriving, a UPS truck was unloading case after case of the then-cult favorites: Petrus, Dunn Howell Mountain, Opus One, Latour.

I tried to make small talk. “Looks like you’re into the good stuff,” I said, as I mentally tried to add up what it had all cost him.

“That?” he sniffed, nodding towards his newly acquired treasures. “Nah, I don’t even like that stuff.”

“I don’t understand…”

“Look,” he said. “I have a tasting group with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. They invite me over and serve ’67 Petrus, so I have to piss further and invite them here for ’64 Petrus.” He was buying wines he didn’t like, just to show off to his friends.

“So what do you like?” I asked.

“Ahh!” he said. “Let me show you.” And he led me to his back yard, where he’d dug a wine cave out in the hill. It was just a bunch of rickety wooden compartments, but the temperature was cool, so it was good storage. Rummaging through his bottles, he yanked one out and showed it to me. It was a Petite Sirah, from (I think) San Benito County, the product of a then-defunct winery I’d never heard of.

“What do you like about this?” I asked him.

“I like it,” the lawyer replied, “because Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner can’t get it!”

That episode, plus numerous others involving these bigtime collectors, taught me some valuable lessons about that side of the wine community. I realize then the arrogance and hubris that can characterize it—an arrogance that creates the lust for “cult wines” whose prices bear no relation whatsoever to their quality. This realization on my part stayed with me later, when I turned into an actual, fulltime wine writer and critic. It informed my sensibilities and gave me a certain prejudice against the high-end part of the business, a sensibility I carry with me to this day. It also gave me sympathy for inexpensive wines and for the people who drink them. This, too, is a sensibility I carry to this day, and it put me in good stead when, in 1993, I went to work for Wine Enthusiast. But once again, we’re getting ahead of the story.

  1. Charlie Partridge says:

    Great story Steve. You were at the right place at the right time for that one.

  2. Okay, this is as nice as it gets. Charming and real, above all, heartening.
    A golden provenance.
    You will continue to write of the dust of California that brings the magic, yes?
    Best to you Steve.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    I think your arc needs a period soundtrack. Let me proffer this:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NKOq7-mNeaE

    Bob

  4. Bob Henry says:

    And speaking of bears in the woods . . .

    https://m1.behance.net/rendition/modules/3989816/disp/4008cd762ad7e92bfe8277ec9108ae6b.jpg

    (Did you also hang out at Pacific Wine Company?)

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