subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

Five Decades of Wine: The Arc of My Career

3 comments

 

Part Four: The Wine Enthusiast Years

My career really took off when I joined Wine Enthusiast. No longer just second (or third) fiddle, as I’d been at Wine Spectator, but the California guy. To tell you the truth, though, it was several years before I was allowed to review wine. Back in those days, Adam had a third-party organization, the Beverage Tasting Institute (BTI), which I believe was in Chicago. They tasted the samples and wrote the reviews that appeared in the Buying Guide.

I never knew very much about BTI, which seemed like a secretive organization. I didn’t understand how they worked. I knew (or thought) that they charged money for each review. I didn’t know who the tasters were, or if they had any qualifications. I know that, by 1995 or 1996, I felt ready to do my own reviews of California wines, rather than farm them out. I don’t recall the exact timetable, but I remember trying to convince Adam to let me (and Enthusiast’s other freelancers) do the magazine’s reviews. Finally, he assented. This would have been around 1997.

One of my earliest and most passionate goals, when I got to Wine Enthusiast, was to upgrade the magazine’s reputation in California, which wasn’t very good, to be honest. Compared to Wine Spectator—well, actually, no one compared it to Spectator, which stood alone at the apex of wine journalism. People didn’t understand the BTI thing (it must have seemed ridiculous to California winemakers), and the magazine itself was very much a work in progress, artistically and editorially. Hence, Wine Enthusiast didn’t have much clout.

I set out to change that. Believing that the magazine’s credibility was inextricably linked to my own, in my travels up and down the state I worked very hard to come across as professional, hoping and assuming that aura of competence would spill over to the magazine, in a sort of halo effect. And that’s exactly what happened. By the turn of the new century, Wine Enthusiast was firmly established as a force to be reckoned with, especially in California. I take pride in having helped to achieve that.

I took my wine tasting extremely seriously. And I also worked very hard on the other parts of my job: the articles and columns. My library of wine books helped me enormously in this regard. I’ve always loved good writing, and I developed a style, partly influenced by other writers, that I felt was lucid, elegant and informed. Over the years I never stopped paring down the fluff. At a certain point, I abandoned the use of exotic flavor descriptions (loganberries, for example), because I, like most other people, wouldn’t know a loganberry if it walked up to me and slapped me across the face. “Simplify, simplify,” urged Thoreau. I took his advice.

The wine-sample spigot opened up with tsunami force, but it never got to the point where I was overwhelmed. My attitude towards samples was, “If you send it to me, I will review it.” I was, as far as I know, the only prominent critic who reviewed every single bottle I was sent. (In recent years, this issue has exploded in controversy, with some critics taking a rather blasé attitude concerning reviewing. I always felt that wineries weren’t sending me their samples just for the hell of it. It was to get the wines reviewed, and I was honor-bound to do it.)

Sometimes there were periods of incredible quantities of incoming, so much that I could barely keep up; the storage closet I rented in the local UPS store was on occasion filled to the ceiling with dozens of cases of wine waiting to be reviewed. But then, incoming would grind to a halt (often during the summer months and around the holidays), and I could catch up. Over the years, I averaged 15 wines a day—not a great deal, when you consider the volumes some other critics claim to review.

Tasting all that wine did impact my work in an important way: I had less time to hit the road. I liked traveling, but if you do the math, you can see that a week away from home would result in 7 x 15 wines (105) unreviewed for that week—with more wine coming in every day. So I was forced to do more and more of my work using the telephone and, as computers became more ubiquitous, using online methods. This gave me more time to taste wine (which I think was the primary part of my job), but I didn’t like the loss of travel time. I didn’t see any solution to that quandary—never did fully manage to resolve it.

Since Wine Enthusiast was in New York (Westchester County), I only got there once or twice a year. But we had a tight-knit staff, and it kind of felt like family. That implies the good and the bad! I never saw a family (including mine) where people didn’t occasionally get into scuffles. We certainly did—and my relationship with Adam himself could be testy, both of us being more or less cut from the same cloth. But he put up with me for a long time, and I put up with him, and we also had many good moments. I always wished Adam would relax a little more and just be himself, instead of fancying that he had to be this great corporate leader who used intimidation to remind people who was Boss. But I loved Adam nonetheless in my own way and I think he loved me.

By the mid-2000s my career was at its peak. In 2002, Blake Edgar, the great acquisitions editor for University of California Press, had invited me to write a book for him. The topic: Anything I wanted. It was pretty unbelievable, because I’d previously tried, and failed, to get a publishing contrast with any major publisher. And now, here’s Blake, giving me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted on the topic of wine. Was I interested, he asked?

Reprise Duh #4. Do bears defecate in the wood?

That first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, was published in 2005. I loved that book and still do. I always called it “the terroir of Steve.” I even did my own black-and-white photographs, because U.C. Press couldn’t afford to hire a real photographer! I had told Blake I wanted to write a wine book that would be read 100 years from now, not one of those books that has about 15 seconds of fame before it disappears into the remainders bin. And that’s what I think I did—I’ll let others be the judge.

Three years later, in 2008, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff, was published by U.C. Press. I think it’s a good book, and will stand the test of time because of its historical record, but it’s not in the same league as “A Wine Journey.”

After “Conversations” I met with Blake to discuss a third book, but something intervened to kill that idea. I began blogging in May, 2008. I published a 600-word post five times a week, and as things turned out, that was the word-count equivalent of ten full-length books over the years. So my blog made me sacrifice more book writing, but I didn’t care. Blogging was one of the joys of my life. I’ll write about that next time.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    “Sometimes there were periods of incredible quantities of incoming, so much that I could barely keep up; the storage closet I rented in the local UPS store was on occasion filled to the ceiling with dozens of cases of wine waiting to be reviewed.

    “. . . Over the years, I averaged 15 wines a day . . .

    “Tasting all that wine did impact my work in an important way: I had less time to hit the road. I liked traveling, but if you do the math, you can see that a week away from home would result in 7 x 15 wines (105) unreviewed for that week—with more wine coming in every day.”

    Would you pull out bottles from storage and taste them within “like” categories (e.g., Cabs, Chards, Pinots) single-blind side-by-side?

    Or would you assemble a “fruit bowl” of wines and taste across varietals?

    Who would be responsible for (say) brown-bagging the wines to present them single-blind?

    (Over at Wine Spectator, they employ a tasting coordinator to handle such logistics.)

    ~~ Bob

  2. James Rego says:

    Heya! We miss you at the Wine Enthusiast. I am reminded of an old saying that applies to wine reviews; “Keep it simple stupid!”

  3. One of the joys of mine, too… By that I mean you blogging.

Leave a Reply

*

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Categories

Archives