The Bronx Wine and Food Festival! Who woulda thunk?
I am a proud Bronxite. I lived at 760 Grand Concourse for seventeen years, in the same 4-room apartment with my parents and older sister. It wasn’t until I went away to college, in Massachusetts, that I left The Bronx—and even then, I returned often to my parents’ apartment, on holidays. So I know the Bronx inside out—and believe me, The Bronx is the last place on earth I ever expected to have a wine and food festival! (Well, maybe Kabul is more unlikely…but not by much.)
When I lived there, The Bronx was home to the greatest number of Jews in the world, outside Israel. But it was a very ghettoized borough. Across the tracks, in the East Bronx, were the Puerto Rican neighborhoods. Scattered here and there through central and North Bronx were Italian and Irish enclaves, marked by the presence of 19th century Catholic churches constructed invariably of red brick. There were African-Americans, but not many: in those years, black people tended to live in Harlem.
In other words, these were not populations that drank wine! But they did celebrate their food traditions. Jewish “culinary” tradition consisted of the foods our Eastern European and Russian ancestors ate in the shtetl—what we today would call “deli”: lox, smoked whitefish, brisket, egg noodles, bagels and lox, boiled meats like corned beef and pastrami.
Over the decades after I left, The Bronx, particularly the southern end where I grew up, went through another demographic shift. The Jews left; Puerto Ricans and other Caribbean nationalities (Haitian, Dominican) moved in. Once, when I visited my old homestead in the late 1990s, most signs of the Jewish past had disappeared: there were bodegas instead of delis, but what was eerie was that the infrastructure of my childhood—the six-story apartment buildings, the old wrought-iron lampposts, Joyce Kilmer and Franz Siegel parks, the imposing statuary of The Bronx County Court House—remained. It was a very emotional visit.
Since then, I’ve followed media reports on how The Bronx has become “the new Brooklyn,” with invasions of yuppies taking advantage of cheap rents and easy subway access to midtown and downtown Manhattan. (They also call Oakland “the new Brooklyn.”) It is, I suppose, this upscale-ization of The Bronx that prompted the organizers to launch this Bronx Wine and Food Festival, which occurs in conjunction with—hold your breath—Bronx Fashion Week.
Well, The Bronx as cultural hatchery is nothing new. My borough was the home of Hip Hop; also of Anne Bancroft, Carl Reiner, Penny Marshall, Gen. Colin Powell, Calvin Klein, Dominic Chianese, Tony Curtis, Ralph Lauren, John F. Kennedy (yes, he was born in the Riverdale section). E.L. Doctorow, Danny Aiello, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Incidentally, why do I capitalize “The” on “The Bronx”? Because we were taught as schoolkids that the borough was named after an early Dutch settler, Jonas Bronck. He had a farm up there when it was all countryside. If people from Manhattan visited Jonas, they’d say they were going up to “The Bronck’s place.” “Bronck’s” became “Bronx,” while the use of “the” was akin to the way in San Francisco they say “The Mission” (for the Mission District) or The Sunset (for the Sunset District).
I’d love to go to The Bronx Wine and Food Festival. I won’t make it this year: maybe in 2016!
I don’t know what made me remember the old Chateau Woltner wines. The memory just popped into my head—who knows how these things work, or why. The winery had been started by an heir to the Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion dynasty. I don’t recall the details—here’s the Wikipedia entry that says after La Mission was sold, the owning family went their separate ways. Thus it was that Francis and Françoise DeWavrin took their share of the proceeds and moved onto something else. In this case, Napa Valley. They bought some land in 1980 on the lower slopes of Howell Mountain, above the Silverado Trail, and planted—not Cabernet, as you’d expect, but Chardonnay!
Even then, in the mid-1990s, this was a shocking thing to do. Napa Valley Chardonnay hadn’t yet acquired the reputation (unjust, in many cases) for being dull, but even so, Napa hadn’t been perceived as prime Chardonnay terroir for many years; and in any case, Howell Mountain was known to be superior Cabernet county. (Randy Dunn had seen to that!) So it was that, with pleasure and some curiosity, I accepted an invitation by the DeWavrins to visit their property.
The house and grounds had seen grander days. The DeWavrins themselves could not have been nicer. The Chardonnays? Well, to call them “minerally” would be an understatement. They were clean and elegant, yet hard in briny wet stone and metallic minerals. In other words, not the lush, fruity Chards California was known for.
Eventually the DeWavrins gave up their quest; I suppose the wines simply didn’t sell well. Today, I doubt there’s much Chardonnay remaining on Howell Mountain. The action has moved closer to the coast. Howell now is a hotbed of Cabernet and other Bordeaux varieties.
The lesson I glean from this is how hard it is to march against the popular drumbeat and try to grow varieties in places where tastemakers think they don’t belong. Critics seemed to resent those Woltner Chardonnays even before they tried them. Too expensive! Why is he growing them on Howell Mountain instead of someplace else? I suppose Francis DeWavrin had a bit of the contrarian in him—he certainly had some well-pronounced marketing genes and believed that he could develop a niche product. And then there was the Frenchman in him. When it came to world Chardonnay, his eye turned, not to Carneros or the Russian River Valley, but to Chablis.
If he were still making that wine today, I bet there would be sommeliers celebrating it as “Chablisian” and far more terroir-influenced than most other California Chardonnays, which so many somms say are overripe and flabby. This is a perfectly legitimate attitude, but it does tend to reinforce the tendency of California growing regions to become monocultures. Napa Valley once had, not just a lot of Chardonnay but a lot of Pinot Noir too, and it wasn’t bad stuff. But the critics of the 1970s and 1980s didn’t like it and badmouthed it, which meant proprietors couldn’t sell it, so they budded their vines over to the Cabernets, Sauvignon and Franc, or Merlot, or Petit Verdot, and that was that. A similar fate awaited Napa Valley Sangiovese, Semillon and other varieties that made honest, straightforward wines that consumers wouldn’t buy, because, after all, if it says Napa Valley on the label, it should be Cabernet Sauvignon, right? In fact, by 1990, it had become politically incorrect (from a varietal point of view) to grow much else in Napa Valley besides Bordeaux grapes.
Have a great weekend!
Hearty congrats to the first ever Sonoma County Barrel Auction, which raised a respectable $461,000 last Friday, under the big tent at the Vintner’s Inn, on Fulton Road in the gorgeous Russian River Valley.
I was there representing Stonestreet. That was fun, but even better was running into so many old friends, folks who’ve been there for and beside me for so long. Here are some photos of a few of them, with some memories.
Rod Berglund is the winemaker and co-owner of Joseph Swan Vineyards.
We probably met in the 1990s, but I got to know him better when I wrote A Wine Journey along the Russian River, in 2003-2004. Rod helped me with some history, including tales of the late, great Joe Swan himself, and, of course, Rod’s wines at Swan are nonpareil. They define the terroir of the southern, Laguna part of the Russian River Valley.
Everybody in wine country knows and loves George Rose.
He’s a great picture-taker of rock stars and sunsets and vineyards, and, as I sometimes tease him, he seems to pop up everywhere these days, the Zelig of photographers. George also is one of the best-liked personalities in our industry. Whenever we run into each other, he makes me feel better.
The immortal Greg LaFollette seems to have been central to Sonoma’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay scene forever.
I’ve enjoyed, and given high scores to, his wines for twenty years, and also come to develop a great affection for this shy, smiling gentleman, who surely will go down in history as a pioneer.
I met Lisa Mattson in the early 2000s, I think.
Since then, she’s gone on to great success as Jordan’s effective communications ambassador, and particularly for her innovative videos. Lovely and charming, Lisa is a woman of great integrity and character.
In the case of Jim Gordon, I do remember precisely our first meeting.
He and Kim Marcus invited me to lunch in San Francisco when I was pestering them to hire me at Wine Spectator. Jim did, thus giving me my first big break as a wine writer. Since then he’s gone on to edit Wines & Vines, and, in an ironical twist, now covers part of my old territory as a reviewer for Wine Enthusiast. Thanks, Jim, for taking a gamble on me!
Tim McDonald is in that same league as George Rose, one of wine country’s inimitable presences.
Wry and witty, urbane and uber-smart, and a great success as a P.R. guy, Tim has been a happy presence in my career almost from the beginning.
By the way, the Anakota 2014 they poured at the barrel auction was spectacular. It really blew me away, a potentially perfect wine.
This man surely needs no introduction. He is Adam Strum, my former boss at Wine Enthusiast,
who hired me way back when, after I parted company with Wine Spectator. We’ve been through a lot together. Adam, thank you. We really have got to “do” lunch one of these days!
Ted Seghesio is the winemaker at Seghesio Family Vineyards.
I met him when I was writing A Wine Journey. But even before that, I adored his wines, which for me define Sonoma County Zinfandel and old vine field blends. His “Venom” Sangiovese, from the Rattlesnake Hill Vineyard, is just about the best in California.
Now, here are two very special people. Jean-Charles Boisset (on my right) is a quiet, unassuming man, not the sort to draw attention to himself. But seriously, folks, nobody in wine country brings more joy and laughter than JCB, and he’s done remarkable things with De Loach, Buena Vista and Raymond. I love you, man, but do be careful next time you pretend-punch me in the solar plexus. You might lose your hand! As for Bob Cabral (on my left), what can I say that hasn’t been said more eloquently about his talents. He was so kind to me when I was writing A Wine Journey, and we’ve remained friends since. Sweet, gentle, and one of the premier winemakers of the world, Bob is a winemaker’s winemaker and a true icon. I wish Bob (and I know we all do) great good fortune in his new gig at Three Sticks.
And here’s a new friend, Mike Osborn, who founded wine.com.
We met a while back when we did a Zinfandel tasting at his S.F. headquarters. Not only is he a lovely man and a fabulous entrepreneur, he’s got the world’s best smile, and is a fellow Oaklander! Mike, let’s have that meal we’re always talking about. How about Boot & Shoe?
Well, I could have taken pictures of 50 other people who were at the auction. As I read over what I’ve written here, it sounds a bit over-the-top in encomiums, but I meant every word. I’m very grateful for the people in the wine biz who have enriched my life. Thanks to all of you!
Haven’t blogged in about a week partly because I wanted to see what the reaction would be when I said I might cease writing steveheimoff.com, and partly because I’ve been on a weeklong sales trip for Jackson Family Wines that has been exhaustive in every sense of the word.
For example, last Friday began with waking up slightly hung over after a very late night, following the previous two days of lunches, dinners, tastings and the inevitable late nights at bars with sales guys. Then it was off on a 250-mile round trip from Boston out to Lenox, near the New York State border, a lovely old town (f. 1767) in the Berkshires. That was for a lunch for local restaurateurs at a place I’d never heard of, The Wheatley. The mansion was built as a wedding gift for his daughter by a wealthy New Yorker in the 1870s. She had married an impoverished Spanish nobleman. (That story is straight out of Edith Wharton or Henry Adams, isn’t it?) The owners have turned it into a fabulous destination resort and restaurant. We saw a room that costs $1,800 a night—without breakfast! Anyhow, it’s a beautiful place and the Berkshire setting was very nostalgic for me.
I lived in those mountains for close to 16 years, enduring blizzards, sub-zero cold and the most wonderful springs, summers and falls imaginable, at a time of my life filled with the wonder, love, friendships and the discoveries of youth.
Then it was back (through rush hour traffic) to the Liberty Hotel, on Charles Street in Boston, where I had an appointment with a blogger, Terry Lozoff, who writes about wine, beer and spirits at Drink Insider.
He grilled me for more than two hours, tape recording the entire session. Nice young guy, smart, and I hope he gets my quotes right! After that, I was ready for a nice martini and some pizza in the hotel restaurant, and then it was straight to bed. Saturday, it was a rental car drive up to Ogonquit, Maine, to a grand old resort on the Atlantic, The Cliff House, where I presided over a dinner for 90 people (more on that later).
In response to last week’s post, I did get a ton of comments on the blog, on Facebook and in my private emails from people urging me to continue blogging. They apparently like reading this blog over their morning coffee! I’m not sure why, but I have a few guesses. I think people crave good writing, and by that I mean not only technically accurate (no misspellings, run-on sentences, etc.) but also honest, colorful writing from someone who might actually have something interesting to say. Terry and I talked about this at some length. He asked me what effect blogging and social media have had on my writing and I told him how I’d discovered (or been introduced to) both transparency and immediate communication. Also that my writing continuously has become simpler and more pared down. But harder to define is how to pour your self, your spirit and soul, mind and heart into the written word. Terry asked me, if I stopped my blog, would I consider podcasts, and I said, no, because, for me, there simply is no replacement for writing.
So why would people like reading about the thoughts and adventures of an aging wine writer, who no longer wields clout as a critic? Search me. But they do. So I’ll keep on writing this blog until I don’t.
Meanwhile, my impression of the wine scene, in Boston, Maine and western Massachusetts, is that it’s very much alive and well, despite this talk about cocktails and craft beer eclipsing wine. I had many conversations with consumers about the popularity of California wine with respect to European, and apparently California is doing quite well. People, both younger and older, like it. So I think in this respect Boston is a little different from New York City. I’m glad that most of the consumers I’ve had contact with on this trip have been below 35 years of age. That’s an age group I feel close to (even though I’m old enough to be their grandfather). It’s exciting to talk with them, and when you really get deep into a conversation you learn that the stereotypes about them (they don’t read books, they live on their mobile devices, they’re clueless when it comes to news or politics or science) are ridiculous. It’s so easy to stereotype individuals and groups until you actually take the time to learn about them.
By the way, at Saturday’s dinner in Ogonquit, I put up a photo of the menu on my Facebook page
where they described me as “Celebrity Host Steve Heimoff.” That elicited the following comment: “You can get fat eating all of that. Mazel-Tov Mr Celebrity. Can I have your autograph please.” That little dig was from my first cousin, Alan. It is a poignant reminder that no matter how inflated your ego gets, your relatives who knew you when you were a snot-nosed, crying little brat will bring you down to earth.
Memory: the first wine I ever tasted was given me by Alan’s father, a legend in our family, the tallest of all the men of his generation, dark as a Spaniard (that was the Sephardic Jew in him), and with a Spaniard’s passions. (Memory-within-a-memory: Uncle Ted once disappeared for many weeks; nobody knew where he was, although we children heard rumors, whispered in hushed tones by the grownups, or in Yiddish which always meant that the subject was juicy, that he was involved in something Important and Secret. When Ted finally showed up one day—as if nothing had happened—there was a new, framed photograph in his livingroom, of him with President Kennedy.) At any rate, I would have been five or six; the occasion was either Chanukah or Passover, both of which meant large gatherings of our Diaspora-ed family, huge quantities of greasy food and raucous conversation. The wine connection? Uncle Ted gave me a glass, one of those thick, stout, etched crystal ones meant, I think, for a highball. It was filled with a red liquid. “Drink, Stevelah,” he said, while the other adults in the family—my parents and all my aunts and uncles and a few grandparents—watched and smiled. I trusted my Uncle Ted; I sipped, and spat the awful stuff out all over my plate. It was Manishewitz. The adults thought it was awfully funny. It is a wonder I ever drank wine again.
Back to the present: The Cliff House dinner was a smash if I do say so myself. Public speakers will understand it when I say that I found myself “in the zone.” I’m reading Lillian Hellman’s memoir “Pentimento” in which she describes how she could always tell, in live theater, whether the audience was enjoying themselves, or if she was losing them. Last night my audience really had a good time. I don’t drink when I’m working like that but nonetheless I get a contact high from the people who do. It then becomes a feedback loop where my excitement excites them and vice versa. The ultimate compliment is when lots of people come up to you afterwards and tell you how great you were, and how much they liked the wines, which really did show well, partly because they’re good anyway and partly because Chef did such a good job creating foods for them. I was invited to the bar by two couples and enjoyed my usual vodka gimlets while chatting with a guy who seemed to have some sort of U.S. security clearance to get into all sorts of classified places, but who also was wild about wine—and his wife was a confirmed Kendall Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay fan, so I told her she was in good company, as that wine has been America’s top-selling Chardonnay for 24 years and counting.
Well, this morning (Sunday) I’m still high from last night, although I shouldn’t be, because I just went through the hassle of driving down from Ogonquit back to Boston. Thank God for GPS and that eerily disembodied satellite lady who tells you exactly how to get where you want to go. At Logan, security wasn’t too bad, although United had yet another problem with their plane, which delayed our departure. By the time you read this on Monday, I will have been reunited with Gus and the thought of that makes me very, very happy.
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.
Why did I finally quit Wine Enthusiast? Many people have asked me that question. After all, I had one of the top jobs in wine journalism and criticism. I had a good name in the industry, was liked and respected, and continued to enjoy my work. But there were things going on that few knew about, except my family and close friends.
For one, I’d been doing the same thing for 25 years, at Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. And the truth is, when you do the same job for that long—even a job you like—you find yourself thinking about alternatives. I wasn’t getting any younger. The twilight of my career was getting closer every day. I wasn’t quite ready to retire, but I did feel—as I’d been telling my friends for several years—that I was sure Life had one final adventure in store for me, before I hung up my wine writing gi.
(A gi is a martial arts uniform. I’d earlier retired from karatedo, after years of serious practice. When I did, I put away my gi, with its embroidered black belt I had made for me in Japan. So I had a feeling for retirement.)
But what that final adventure was, I had no idea. I just felt in my bones that it was out there. And I’m a person who’s crammed several lifetimes into one, in terms of all the times I’ve reinvented myself.
I thought a little about making some extra money through my blog. After all, it was quite popular. Lots of people seemed to like it: why not try to leverage that popularity? But to make a long story short, it proved not to be possible. Lots of wine bloggers were thinking along the same lines. Advertising? Subscriptions? Some other form of revenue? Alas, nothing was realistic. (One popular wine blogger told me his financial ambition was to sell his blog to Rupert Murdoch for $1 million. It hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t think it ever will.) The truth is, monetizing a blog has been next to impossible for anyone except the likes of Jancis Robinson, who has a worldwide audience.
And the Wine Enthusiast job was getting, well, let’s call it déja-vu. It’s November? Time for another “What wine to drink at Thanksgiving?” column. Summer? Time for another “Fresh, crisp whites to drink by the pool.” Winter? “Zinfandel: the perfect wine for hearty stews,” for the umpteenth time. There was the ever-constant demand from New York to discover fresh faces, celebrity winemakers, offbeat destinations, hot new mixologists, top new somms. In coastal California—my beat—I found myself writing more or less the same articles, on a four- or five-year cycle. (Of course, I still got off, enormously, on reviewing wines. The pleasure of doing that hadn’t run out after 25 years—and still hasn’t.
So I didn’t particularly feel “burned out”, and I think that would not be a fair characterization. It’s just that the template of wine magazine writing had, after so many years, run into its own self-imposed limits. And I can tell you, without mentioning names, that I’ve had this conversation with other well-known wine writers of my age cohort, and they experience the same Groundhog Day sense of déja-vu.
So I was ready for a change. Once again, I didn’t know what it was, or how it would present itself, or when. I just knew, in an intuitive way, that something was out there, lurking just beyond the horizon, and that it would be an exciting new step in my career. And, as things turned out, that’s exactly what happened in the late winter of 2014. I’ll write about it next time.