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When drinking is your job

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I can relate to Richard Betts, the 44-year old “alcohol entrepreneur” whose drinking is “endemic to his work.” Profiled in the Wall Street Journal last Thursday, Mr. Betts described how he avoids the “belly” and other unpleasant consequences of the near-constant drinking he does as part of his job; the Master Somm is on the road 300 days a year, working for restaurants and running his mescal company.

When I first became a paid wine writer, I quickly grokked that there’s a lot of drinking and eating that goes with this job. That can expand the waistline quickly, and also lead to other, potentially serious problems. So I made the determination not to let it happen to me.

I was fortunate in that, when I was 14 years old, my uncle, who was our family physician, made me go to the YMCA three times a week, after school. He was a union doctor; among his patients at the “Y” were some old Golden Glovers, a little punch drunk but sweet, whom he had teach me the fundamentals of weightlifting. Other kids might have protested against this forced diversion. I didn’t—in fact, I loved it, and going to the gym became a lifelong habit I practice regularly to this day.

A little later, in my twenties, I took up road and trail running and, eventually, when I moved to San Francisco, became a serious competitive runner. Being short, with a low center of gravity and strong thighs and glutes, the City’s hills were a natural for me. I did well in my races; my best performance ever was fourth place in my age group in Bridge to Bridge, one of the City’s biggest races. I don’t run much these days (knees) but compensate for it with 60- to 70-minute aerobic workouts at 24 Hour Fitness, where I do a combination of recumbent bike, stairmaster, treadmill and ellipticals.

The result is that after decades of drinking and eating I’m still close to fighting trim. And when I’m on the road and don’t have the time or opportunity to work out, as soon as I get home I can’t wait to get back to the gym, where I’ll spend hours happily lifting weights and burning calories.

It’s important to work out no matter what your job is, but in our realm of food and wine it’s even more important. I try to eat well when I’m home, because it’s difficult to be selective on the road, where large meals and convenience foods often are the order of the day. I’m also lucky that, when I was in my twenties, I had a group of lady friends who were definitely into being healthy. I vividly remember the day they stopped me when I was eating a Twinkie and gave me a stern lecture on the evils of white sugar and processed flour. They freaked me out; to this day, I barely touch sweet things. You’ll never find cookies or cakes or anything like that in my house, and at dinners with friends, I’m the one who declines dessert (although I will take a bite of yours if you insist!).

(By the way, dental hygiene is also very important for people who drink a lot, particularly when it’s red wine. I’ve seen more blackened teeth in this business than I care to remember.)

So, point being that I feel entitled to give a little advice to up-and-comers. Eat well! Drink well! It’s a great perk of the job. But watch those calories. It’s a lot easier to avoid putting on weight than it is to lose it once it’s there. It breaks my heart to see young bloggers, PR folks, winery personnel and others swell up, men and women alike, after a few years, because they didn’t know that a fun lifestyle can also be a destructive one.


How does our taste in alcohol change over time?

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When I was a young man I didn’t care at all for wine, except for its obvious ability to make a college freshman (me) drunk. Years later, I learned to appreciate and eventually love wine. At first I sought out Cabernet Sauvignon because that was the wine all the critics at that time (the 1980s) said was the most important grape and wine, at least here in California.

At about that time I got my first wine writing job, at Wine Spectator, where they assigned me The Collecting Page, which appeared in every issue. My job was to write articles of interest to wine collectors. I got to know most of the top collectors in America (they all wanted to have their pictures and names in the magazine, so they returned my phone calls and in some cases they sought me out). One thing I learned about these wealthy, white, middle-aged men was that, almost to a person, they had started out with a preference for Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux, then graduated to Pinot Noir/Burgundy. That was my first intuition that our tastes in booze change over time.

Of course it’s well known that many people begin liking sweet wines and only gradually move onto dry table wines, so that’s another calibration in the booze evolutionary scale. With me, a love of Pinot Noir took some time, because there wasn’t very much decent Pinot in California, and I certainly couldn’t afford to buy good Burgundy. But by the mid-1990s there was enough good Pinot, from the likes of Williams Selyem, Rochioli and so on, that I learned to love it. However, I never loved it more than Cabernet. To me, they were separate, but equal.

However now my tastes are definitely changing. I’ve acquired, or I should say re-acquired, a taste for beer—good beer, craft beer, not the watery stuff produced by America’s gigantic brewers. I’m not sure why this has finally happened to me. Beer has an umami quality that I simply crave, especially for my first drink of the late afternoon. Maybe it’s the fizz.

I’ve also acquired a new-found appreciation for liquor, particularly vodka. Again, I can’t say why this is. My favorite is a gimlet: good vodka and freshly-squeezed limes. None of that sweet Rose’s, please, and if you happen to have a basil leaf, feel free to muddle it in, but not too much; the basil should be a subtle background taste.

This isn’t to say I don’t still appreciate wine. I certainly do. I continue to love a good, dry white wine, no matter where it’s from: California, Sancerre, Chablis. It’s in the matter of red wines that I find my bodily tastes changing the most. I can still appreciate a red wine, but it really has to be a very good wine. For me, red wines show their flaws more readily than any other wine; and the chief flaw is a certain heavy blandness that can come with an over-emphasis of fruit. Many, many California red wines suffer from this flaw; a little fruitiness goes a long way, and if the wine is out-of-balance in acids and tannins, the flaw is even more obvious. Another way of putting this is that I can appreciate a good beer, white wine or cocktail by itself, but most red wines are more difficult for me to enjoy unless they’re coupled with the proper food.

It’s funny, though, because I still find myself mentally rating wines, even though it’s going on two years (!!!) since I was a working wine critic. Old habits die hard. Take California Cabernet Sauvignon. There are lots of them I’ll score at 92, 93 points, even though they’re not particularly wines I care to drink, except, as I said, with the right foods. But there’s a twist: most of these big red wines call for beef, and I’m not much of a beef eater. (I think of lamb as a Pinot Noir food. Pigs and Pinot, as we say.) So even though my formal training is in rating and reviewing big red wines, and I’m pretty good at it, those same wines play less and less of a role in my private life.

I’ve also evolved to another more interesting point, at least for me. I’ve cellared wine since, like, forever! But I’m finally at the point where I’m starting to drink my older bottles. I figure, I’m not going to be here forever, and those special occasions I always fancied would justify popping the cork on a 15-year old wine seem to come a lot less frequently than they used to. So why wait? What’s the old saying, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

El Nino is starting to hit us here in California. One storm after another, with a biggie scheduled to roll in on Thursday. But the week beyond that is dry, and our state water officials are warning us, with some urgency, not to stop conserving just because the “monster” El Nino is coming. So we’ll just have to wait and see what January, February, March and April bring.


A wine and food festival in The Bronx

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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!


Remembering a defunct winery, and a lesson in regional correctness

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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!


On the inaugural Sonoma Barrel Auction–a great success–and meeting old friends

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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.

Berglund

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.

GRose

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.

GregLaF

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.

 

LisaMattson

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.

JGordon

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.

TMcD

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.

Anakota

This man surely needs no introduction. He is Adam Strum, my former boss at Wine Enthusiast,

Strum

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.

Seghesio

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.

Boisset&Cabral

And here’s a new friend, Mike Osborn, who founded wine.com.

MOsborne

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!


I’m baaak! A report on my New England wine trip

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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.

Berks

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

Menu

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.

 

XmasGus


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