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19. I Go to “The Dark Side”

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After the Madoff fiasco, I needed money. So I quit Wine Enthusiast in 2012—with few regrets, to be honest–and went to work for Jackson Family Wines (JFW). A big part of my decision was financial. JFW offered me a lot more money that I was used to and—after all those Wine Enthusiast freelancing years–benefits, including a matching 401(K). Woo hoo!

I’d had good relationships with the JFW people for years, including their director of communications, Caroline Shaw, and Jess Jackson’s wife, Barbara Banke. But my connection with Jess, the founder, was particularly strong. I’ll say it upfront: I thought the world of Jess Jackson, and I know for a fact he liked me. When he was dying, of cancer, in 2011, he invited me to his home, in the beautiful hills above the Alexander Valley. His magnificent mane of silver hair now shorn by chemo, he shuffled towards me in a housecoat and slippers. Then, with that dazzling smile, he opened his arms. Ensconced in his bosom, I felt the warmth and vitality of this giant of a man. Despite his wasting body, his spirit was as magnificent as a lion’s.

That final visit with Jess means so much to me. He didn’t have to do it. I was just a wine writer, one of dozens, maybe hundreds Jess knew around the world. I was not the most important. But for some reason, Jess brought me in. I’m not saying we were friends or anything like that, but it was inspiring that Jess—this billionaire, a tremendous success, who hobnobbed with the world’s most powerful people—saw something in me. I know it was authentic; remembering it gives me goosebumps.

So when I say working for his company was “financial,” I don’t in any way mean to demean JFW or Jess. The salary and benefits the company offered me were attractive (especially compared to Wine Enthusiast), but had a lesser wine company offered me the same package, I probably would have declined. Some things, such as my honor, are not for sale. For the fact is that I respected the hell out of JFW. Some people think of them only in terms of Kendall-Jackson, but JFW has insanely great wineries all over the world, and it was a privilege and a thrill to be associated with them.

I’ve gotten to know, over the course of my long career, many of the greatest and richest men (and a lot fewer women) in the wine industry. Some I despised; just because you’re commercially successful doesn’t mean you’re not an asshole. There have been only a handful I truly admired, such as Bill Harlan (who wrote the Foreward for my second book). But Jess blew them all out of the water. JFW’s CEO, Rick Tigner, always said Jess had wanted to build “the best damned winery in the world,” and in many respects he did. And Barbara Banke has carried that on with her own unique leadership.

I entitled this chapter “going over to the dark side” because that’s what some people called it when a critic went to work for a winery. You were, theoretically, going from a position of independence to indebtedness to your new boss, which implied a certain amount of ass-kissing. That’s not how I saw it. About 15 years ago, I had a good friend who’d worked as the wine columnist for a small newspaper. He was fired and took a job with the public relations department of a Napa Valley winery. We chatted one day; he was miserable and ashamed. He’d gone over to “the dark side.” I told him: “I do not want you to come down on yourself. Just because you’re working for a winery doesn’t mean you have sold your birthright. Be yourself. Be truthful. Do your job with dignity.”

That’s what I told him, and it’s what I believed.

I stayed at JFW for three-plus years, until I reached 70, which had always been the age I promised myself I’d retire. I can’t say those JFW years were uniformly pleasant or always creatively engaging. The company had been eager to hire me—there were bragging rights in acquiring Steve Heimoff—but no one apparently had thought out exactly what I should be doing. I hadn’t applied for the job, I’d been sought. There wasn’t even a job description; I was left to myself to figure out how to fit in. JFW is a large, complex organization, and like most such companies, had its cliques, peculiarities of culture, intense competition and elements of paranoia. It was an entrepreneurial place of Darwinian survival; you needed a certain aggressiveness to make it. Wending my way through that jungle was hard. And working from home made it harder. In many respects, I remained a loner. As I’ve written, wine writing is a solitary profession. After 25 years, I was not used to teams or the gamesmanship required to play with them.

Yet there were aspects of my new job I loved. By far the best was what I called “tasting with the kids.” “The kids” were Jess’s and Barbara’s three children, Katie, Julia and Chris, as well as various cousins and partners: all, I think, in their 20s. It started with Julia. Word came down that she wanted to meet me. We had lunch at The Barlow, in Sebastopol; she told me how much she admired me, and asked if she could taste with me, “at the foot of the master,” as she put it. I was flattered; wouldn’t you be? To be honest, I fell head over heels in love with Julia—me, a gay man!

Julia and I had such good times tasting that, eventually, one by one, the other “kids” started coming. And what wines we tasted! Tigner had told me, in effect, that money was no object in buying the wines. My idea was to focus on a particular varietal each session—say, Pinot Noirs produced by various JFW wineries (e.g. Hartford, Copain, Siduri, Penner-Ash, Byron)—and blind taste them against Pinot Noirs from rival California or Oregon producers, or from New Zealand or Burgundy. Similarly, we might taste JFW Cabernet Sauvignons (such as Verite, Stonestreet, Cardinale, Mr. Brave, Lokoya) against major Napa and Sonoma producers, and from Bordeaux. I thought the kids ought to know how their wines actually tasted, and develop their own ideas about them, as opposed to the hype they were getting from the Sales and Marketing departments. These were exciting tastings, absolutely thrilling. We’d speak our minds, vote our favorites and—risky—try to identify the bagged wines. It was amazing how often Chris Jackson and I agreed; I think we nailed Verite every time.

I miss those tastings; I miss “the kids” and I wish them well. And believe it or not, I miss Rick Tigner. Jess Jackson set them all a high bar. But in September, 2016, it was time for me to leave. On my last day, the kids and I had our final tasting. One of my most treasured mementos of my time at JFW is a group photograph of us: the second generation of Jackson Family Wines honoring me. Afterwards, I made the long schlep from Santa Rosa back to Oakland and thought, “Goodbye 101 freeway, goodbye Petaluma Narrows, goodbye San Rafael 101-580 merge, goodbye wicked Richmond Bridge, goodbye Emeryville backup, goodbye gridlock.” I sold my car and can say with gratitude (and a much lower carbon footprint) that I haven’t been stuck in traffic since.

And thus my wine career ended.

  1. Jeff Lefevere says:

    Hi Steve, I am really enjoying these posts. Thank you so much for sharing. I am not sure if I missed it, or if it’s still to be discussed, but I would love to hear the backstory and impetus for your tattoos. It’s not every person that has a moment of catharsis and gets a lot of ink, and I think it would be a fascinating yarn as a part of the tapestry of your story.

  2. Dear Jeff, I hadn’t thought of that, and there is a pretty good backstory, but alas, now it’s too late. My little memoir is coming to an end this week! But thanks for the suggestion.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Steve:

    Taking your own advice — “do not . . . come down [too hard] on yourself” . . . by slavishly adhering to a particular classic structure in a memoir, the literary arts give you an “out” in the form of posting a coda.

    Take it. Tell us about your tats! (And don’t leave out any details?)

    ~~ Bob

  4. OK, between you and Lefevere I will tell the story of my tatts tomorrow. It will destroy the “classic structure” of this memoir, which I’d thought was finished with today’s post. More tomorrow…

  5. Bob Henry says:

    If this gives you any “comfort” . . .

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-IkWpm7TS0

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