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Five Decades of Wine: The Arc of My Career, Part 7: I Go Over to “The Dark Side”



Years ago, I had a dear friend with a good job. He was the wine columnist for a periodical with considerable influence in Wine Country. One day, he found himself unemployed, because the newspaper he wrote for was downsizing. He took a job doing P.R. for a winery.

He was very upset about it. “I’ve gone over to the Dark Side,” he explained confessionally, as if he’d done something wrong. He meant that, in our little industry, there’s a strong, longstanding perception that a writer who writes for an independent publication, like a newspaper or magazine, is more honest and straightforward than one who spends his days writing for a wine company.

I remember telling my unhappy friend, “Look. There’s no such thing as ‘the Dark Side.’ Wherever you work, and whatever you do, you do it with integrity and honesty. And remember this: Everyone’s got a boss. Like Dylan sang, you gotta serve somebody.”

I meant those words. I’ve worked with public relations, communications and marketing people for decades, and liked and respected the vast majority of them. They don’t “spin” any worse than a winemaker describing his or her wine, and they follow their own ethical principles. We have this belief in the wine industry that independent critics are “honest brokers” who can cut through the hype. That’s true, as far as it goes—but it only goes so far. The wine writer, no matter who he is, always walks a delicate balance, having to take many things into account. There are very few “fearless crusaders” among wine writers, who learn early on how to preserve their relationships, reputations and jobs by understanding where the red lines are, and respecting them.

So it was that, when I took my job at Jackson Family Wines and people made the “dark side” remark, I patiently explained to them that, no, I don’t see things that way. The way I see it is, I’m using the same muscles to do a different sport. In the world of martial arts, there’s much mixing up of different types of fighting: jujitsu, karate, muay Thai. I studied all of them; each is unique, and yet they all require the same skills (strength, speed, awareness). In the case of my career, I utilized my talents in research, writing, wine tasting and public speaking when I worked at wine magazines, and I use exactly the same skills in the things I do at JFW.

So what’s it been like for me? I took the job on March 10, 2014. It’s been a little more than a year now. I work with the company’s Marketing and Communications (MarComm) team, a bunch of smart, young pros whose skills run the gamut from social media to video, event planning and P.R. The kinds of things I do vary widely, and I work mainly from home, in Oakland. As I write these words, I’m in a plane somewhere over the Midwest, on my way to Boston, where tomorrow night (tonight as you read this) I’ll be hosting an Earth Day dinner focusing around issues of sustainability. Next week I’ll be pouring at the Sonoma Barrel Auction, and staging a wine tasting for some people, and reviewing wine for the company newsletter. So the stuff I do is all over the map.

I’ve enjoyed my year at JFW but things are going to be changing. Starting this summer, I’m beginning a new consulting phase. JFW will be my first client; I’m interested in others, provided the work is absorbing. I see this as the cresting of the arc of my career. I’m looking at turning seventy years old next year. While my health is fantastic, I’m thinking of a life beyond wine writing—taking things easier, slowing down a bit to smell the roses (or is it the coffee?). I’ve worked very hard for a great many years, and while I’ve enjoyed 95% of it, there’s also been a lot of stress—as there is in everyone’s life. But I’m just about the only member of my generation in my family who hasn’t retired, and the ones who have tell me the same thing. It’s fantastic, the best thing they’ve ever done. In fact, they’re all in agreement that they’re happier and busier than ever.

Well, I’m not retiring. Call it pre-retirement: I want to do interesting things that call on my talents. (I always liked JFK’s quote about the ancient Greek definition of happiness: “The full use of your powers along lines of excellence.”) But I also want more time for myself, to go to the gym, volunteer at the SPCA, take Gus on long walks, maybe even expand a social life that’s been on hold for too long because of the demands of the job. And I have a bucket list: learn how to bake bread. Study salsa dancing. Maybe even return to the painting I used to love.

And this blog? Well, I don’t know. It will soon be seven years old and, since I’ve already quoted Dylan, I might as well quote George Harrison: “All things must pass.” I haven’t decided whether or not to continue it. I’d like to hear from my readers: Do you still value reading me? Do I still have something to say, now that I’m no longer a F.W.C. (famous wine critic)? When the late, great San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen retired after more than fifty years, due to a deadly illness, he announced it one morning in a column and never published anything ever again. There’s something to be said about unprolonged exits.



  1. I read your blog a few times a week and I enjoy it every time. Keep it up and it will keep you young. Only if you enjoy writing it of course.

  2. I hope you keep this blog going as long as possible. I can say I read it every day (sometimes playing catch up if traveling or other distractions have me missing it). Why? Because you bring up all the important issues that one should be thinking about it this business. And because of the comments posted by the readers, which add to its relevance. The other blogs I occasionally check don’t even come close. Of course, I don’t always agree with your points, but they make me think! Yet I too think about how long it makes sense to keep doing what you love–there’s the matter of staying on top of your game. I had to use all my fingers to figure out this is my 42nd season in Napa Valley wine production at one level or another, and 20th working with our own vineyard (and when grapes don’t just “come on trucks” it is pretty demanding physically).

  3. Thanks Bill. Very kind of you!

  4. Dusty Gillson says:

    As long as you can keep the politics at bay @, I will be here reading it. 😉

    I’ve come and gone with other blogs, but I have always stuck with yours.

  5. While I cannot claim to be a regular reader of any blog/column, I have enjoyed every column of yours I have ever read. You are consistently insightful and not afraid to stick your neck out. But dont worry about us! You should keep doing it as long as you love it, and it gives back to you what you put in. If it becomes a chore or a drain on your spirit/energy/time, be done. And be glad/proud/relieved to have done something so well.

  6. I thought this retelling of your life story was the “long goodbye”.

    Hope not, but I do get the sense that you sometimes struggle a little more to be in touch and thus reach out to other references for your inspiration.

    On the other hand, there is no wine blogger anywhere who has managed the schedule that you keep, and, frankly, I would rather see you publish two or three times a week and stay relevant and insightful than have you disappear altogether.

  7. Ditto what Charlie said…and thanks again for the great writing over the last (has it really been that long?!) seven years.

  8. Bob Kelly says:

    Actually just started reading your blog about a year ago, but now read it every day, first thing, before all the other stuff in the inbox. You write like a person I would like to share wine with–not pretentious but knows his stuff. You approach topics with respect, not like someone carrying a hammer as some wine critics do. You have to do what you want to do and what fits into the lifestyle you want to live, but if you keep writing, I will keep reading.

  9. Alex Berg says:

    I’ve been reading your blog for the last 4 years and have leaned an enormous amount of information about wine. Your blog is the first reading online i do in the morning. I really hope you will keep publishing your blog!
    And thank you for providing such a fun and informative way to learn and appreciate wine.

  10. Bob Henry says:

    Tom Wark intimated last year that he might quit wine blogging.

    Ron Washam threatens to quit all the time.

    Both were talked down from the ledge by their readers.

    (Willingly, I’m sure, as writing exercises one’s mind, and exorcises one’s demons.)

    Like Charlie counsels, reduce the frequency of personal posts on a weekly basis.

    And consider adopting “guest columnists” (as Tim Atkin, M.W. does running a HoseMaster column once a month) to supplement the output.

    Other “content” ideas: updated and first-time interviews augmenting your book titled “New Classic Winemakers of California.” Or introduce “Point – Counterpoint” debates such as those that punctuated the conclusion of CBS “60 Minutes” TV show years ago.

    Take on the role of “publisher and executive editor” in curating this blog’s reading experience.

    You have created a street corner soapbox for discussion and debate.

    Use this pivot point to enlarge that platform, with a bigger megaphone.

  11. Bob Henry says:

    “I had to use all my fingers to figure out this is my 42nd season in Napa Valley wine production at one level or another, and 20th working with our own vineyard (and when grapes don’t just “come on trucks” it is pretty demanding physically).”

    Bill: wine grape growing and winemaking is hazardous work. Do you still have all of your fingers?

  12. Bob: Yep, still have all of them–some with scars. But maybe it’s the toes that are most at risk: all those hours in the cellar in rubber boots: quite fungal. Moving around heavy barrels: easy to break them.

  13. KCPhillips says:

    Ditto what others have said. This is the blog I get the most from – so for that reason, I’d like you to keep at the blog. But, on the other hand, as someone who retired 6 years ago from Cal State Sacramento, I left and haven’t looked back (only one return trip to the campus and I live 2 miles away). If I wanted to continue teaching as an avocation (which I enjoyed up to the end), I wouldn’t have retired.

    Your blog no doubt takes a lot of psychic energy to produce, not to mention time needed to maintain your industry proficiency. It seems if you really want to pursue new interests, you may need to clear the deck, so to speak, in order to reinvent yourself. That’s what I did and, as a result, I have no aggravations in life except those I create for myself.

    So – while I personally would like you to back away from the ledge (to continue informing my own study of wine), I know that to be truly free to go to the next stage of one’s life, sometimes you need to leap.

    Good luck whichever direction you take.

  14. keep on blogging. I have been reading your blog for at least five years. I always enjoy your viewpoint whether or not I wholly agree. Please keep the blog.

  15. But but but!
    Undoubtedly Mr. Heimoff has done god’s work, and then there are so many articles from writers writing about other writers writing about other writers. Where does this end?
    Perhaps this isn’t indulgent – but what about the wine-makers, and the fucking wine?

  16. Dear Andy, I guess I like to write about all kinds of stuff, not just winemakers and wine. But thanks for reading me.

  17. Keep blogging Steve! Maybe look at alternative options such as reducing the number of posts per week rather than total elimination. I grappled with the same thought when I left Robert Mondavi for the Finger Lakes. Do I keep it going? Would people be interested in wine life outside of Napa/Sonoma which I’ve been writing about for the 5 years mine has been in existence (Thanks to you I might add with your “Winemakers should blog” post way back then).

    Please keep going. I’m sure I speak for many of your readers when I say I would miss reading your posts!

  18. Donna Shaw says:

    Actually, Steve, it is more important than ever that you continue to blog (assuming you still enjoy it), as you enter this new phase in your life. You will bring all your greatness from your wine days into new experiences and seeing that you are such an engaging writer, you may even expand your readership beyond wine lovers. I say go for it, man! Looking forward to finally meeting you in the flesh this evening.

  19. Steve,

    I stumbled across your blog while looking for a blog that would have reviews and recommendations and such things. It turned out that what you were writing was much more interesting and useful than what I thought I was looking for.

    It seems to me that the fact that you’ve moved on from being a “big name wine critic” just means that you now have additional experiences in the industry from which to draw.

    Of course, if your heart isn’t in it any more, then you should move on. But from a reader’s perspective, I would say the only reason I’d want you to stop is if you felt that your new job as a consultant was making it too hard for you to write fairly and honestly on too many topics.

  20. Steve,

    I have been reading your blog for over 3 years now. I must say I have enjoyed over 75% of the articles. I have appreciated your willingness to discuss tough issues and blend personal and work items.

    Over the years I never found you to be biased to writing to be too much like a critic following guidelines but rather how you really felt.

    All good things like everything must pass, so make the choice that makes you stress free. If you do write I will read.. If not I will fondly recollect what I have read on your blog.

    Good luck!

  21. As Stan Lee once said “I’ll keep writing them, if you keep reading them” — or something like that. I’ve always enjoyed the blog over the years and the banter here in teh comments.

    When you say you are changing to a consulting phase, are you no longer going to be a JFW employee, instead a consultant to the company?

  22. John Roberts says:

    Regular reader, love the blog and would like to continue reading it! Please keep it up Steve, there’s always something new to write. If not about the nature of this or that, your opinions, but also narratives of your varied travels. These are always good posts.

  23. Love the blog, but if you went to once or twice a week I wouldn’t be disappointed.

    Also please stay away from posts where you justify that Jackson Family
    Wines is on ‘the side of the angels.’ Even if true (big if), it comes across as self serving and you are a better wine person than that.

    If this is the end, thanks for all the enjoyable hours of reading.

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