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Five Decades of Wine: The Arc of My Career

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Part Three: The 1990s

You know that story about the Broadway understudy who gets his big break when the star falls ill and he has to stand in? That’s what happened to me one day, when Jim Gordon called and told me Harvey Steiman, who was supposed to write about an event in Napa Valley, was sick. Could I cover for him?

“When?”

“Tomorrow.”

The event was a three-day symposium at Meadowood on Rhone varieties. It was to be attended by all the “Rhone Rangers” of California and their French counterparts. Wine Spectator had planned on giving it major coverage. Could I make it, Jim asked.

Reprise Duh #3. Do bears defecate in the wood?

I worked hard on that event. I knew I had to knock the article out of the park—and I did. I attended every technical session, interviewed everybody, and even hid myself in a stall in the men’s room so I could overhear a conversation that Randall Grahm and Marcel Guigal (I think it was) were having at the urinals. When I turned that story in, four days later, Jim told me everybody at the magazine thought it was great. That story cemented my reputation at the magazine. That summer, I had three major stories in the magazine. Somebody called it the Heimoff issue.

I enoyed my time at Spectator very much. I was never a regular employee, just a freelancer, but it was pretty much a fulltime job. I traveled a lot, setting the pattern for roaming the wine regions of California, everywhere from Santa Barbara through Napa and Sonoma, on over to the Sierra Foothills. They even sent me up to Washington State. I got to know most of the winemakers and owners, not to mention the other denizens of the industry: P.R. folks, business analysts, and, as I’ve already pointed out, collectors. It was major saturation in the inner workings of wine industry, and I quickly learned what parts of it I liked and what parts I didn’t. I early on gravitated towards an interest in the communications side: writing, marketing, P.R. I found I had a natural ability to understand the sales part. As for the technical stuff, like rootstocks, trellising, crushers and fermenters, that never did much interest me. I learned as much as I had to, in order to write intelligently. But after a while, I started feeling like, “If you’ve seen one bottling line, you’ve seen them all.” I still feel that way.

But tasting wine remained my firmament. I not only enjoyed it immensely, I had a talent for it. I developed and refined my tasting practices at home, but at Wine Spectator, I still wasn’t formally permitted to review wine. I remember I sneaked in a review, with a rating, in an article I wrote (the wine had not yet been reviewed by anyone at Spectator), and I was fully ready for Jim Gordon to delete it. But lo and behold, when I got my copy of that issue, there it was: my review and score! I suspect it somehow escaped Jim’s notice, but I don’t really know.

My articles got bigger and bigger. Back in the early 1990s, Wine Spectator was doing a lot of profiles of individual wineries (they do far fewer these days, to the chagrin of P.R. types). Some of my first assignments were feature stories on Flora Springs, Calera, Wild Horse and Chateau Potelle. It was great getting to know these people: The Garveys and Komes, Josh Jensen, Ken Volk, and the inimitable Du Sartels, Marketta and Jean-Noel, whom they called Johnny Christmas. I was learning like a sponge, building up my knowledge base of California wine and terroir, even as my exposure to non-California wines slipped, an inevitable by-product of regional concentration. But I went to every tasting of France, Italy, Spain and Germany I could in San Francisco—and there were a lot of them.

I also made friends with the other Bay Area wine writers and critics, some of whom are no longer with us. We were a friendly, comradely group. The thing to keep in mind about the wine writing community is that it is insanely passionate about what it does, and also, that nobody gets rich from wine writing. For a while, I tried to form a professional organization I called the Northern California Wine Critics Circle, the NCWCC. I pitched it to all my writer friends, but it never did get off the ground. I envisioned us getting together at fine venues, like a restaurant private room, and roasting each other (I wanted to start with Dan Berger). I still think it would be a good idea.

With my increasing visibility at Wine Spectator came a certain amount of fame. I hadn’t been looking for it, and was surprised when it came. I never took it personally. I knew from day one that the only reason people invited me to things, and were deferential towards me, was because of my job. This became even more pronounced when, later, I went to Wine Enthusiast, and was actually able to review and score wines. I always knew that the second I left those jobs the phone would stop ringing. This gave me, I think, a healthy attitude about my work. Some wine critics who become famous get reputations for bloated egoism and pomposity. I always liked to think my reputation was more along the lines of “Hey, he’s a nice guy, he’s fair, and he’s not filled with himself.”

But with that increasing fame came other opportunities to write for publications besides Wine Spectator. By 1992, lots of publishers were asking me to write for them. The wine media was expanding, with the good national economy and the Baby Boomers maturing and finally having enough money to buy fine wine. But I felt honor bound to pass along these requests for other writing jobs to Jim Gordon, who would let Marvin Shanken know what was going on. This led to the first big brouhaha of my professional wine writing career. Marvin, it turned out, was a jealous god—he did not want his “discovery” to write about wine for anyone else. In the world. This led to a little chat I had with Marvin, who had flown out for the Napa auction. I explained to him that I wasn’t exactly getting rich from writing for him, and that, as a freelancer, I would appreciate the opportunity to write for others. He wasn’t buying it. A few days later, after the Spectator crew returned to New York (they’d previously left their San Francisco headquarters for Manhattan), I got a letter from Jim Gordon. It said, “We all feel you’re a great wine writer, with a great future ahead of you. Only it’s not at Wine Spectator.” It turned out, I’d pushed Marvin a little too hard. He felt (Jim explained) that since he’d discovered me and created my fame, he owned me—and he didn’t want me working for anyone in a position to compete with Wine Spectator.

That was a disappointment, but at the same time, I felt like a slave on a plantation, and I didn’t like the feeling. As soon as I got that letter from Jim, I telephoned Mr. Adam Strum, who’d started up Wine Enthusiast magazine to compete with the Spectator. Adam jumped at the chance to bring me onboard. That was in 1993, I think, and in the next chapter of this memoir, I’ll review my Wine Enthusiast days.


Five Decades of Wine: The Arc of My Career

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Part Two: The 1980s and early 1990s

Finally, after about three months of my lobbying efforts to land a job at Wine Spectator, Jim Gordon called me up with my first assignment. “It’s very simple,” he explained. “Just give Tom Eddy a call. He left his job at Christian Brothers to start his own winery. Interview him over the phone, then give me 50 words. Think you can handle it?

Duh. Do bears defecate in the woods?

I should explain here what the atmosphere surrounding wine writing was like in 1989. There were very, very few opportunities, because there were very few magazines or newspapers that covered wine seriously. But it wasn’t like everyone was clamoring to be a paid wine writer, the way they are now. Young people wanted to be MBAs. That was the unhealthy part of Ronald Reagan’s legacy, an emphasis on getting rich fast. I certainly didn’t want to be an MBA. I was living in Noe Valley, and every morning took the MUNI Metro out to S.F. State, on 19th Avenue. Standing on the nearly deserted outbound platform, I’d look across the tracks to the inbound side, jammed with hundreds of commuters who all looked the same: Men and women, dressed in Financial District drag, carrying their little briefcases and looking like—well, like those legions of robot IBM salesmen in that famous Apple commercial that aired once on the 1984 Super Bowl and was never shown again. I must admit I felt a little superior to them, and vowed never, ever to be part of the lemming herd.

I guess I did okay on that Tom Eddy article, because afterwards, Jim started giving me regular assignments. They were little ones, just phone interviews. One day he invited me to lunch, just him and Kim Marcus. We went (as I recall) to a little Chinese joint not far from their offices. I had the feeling they wanted to meet me in person, eyeball me up close and see if I was Wine Spectator material. I suppose I was, for at that lunch, they mentioned that there was this section in the Spectator called The Collecting Page. It was on the last page of every issue, a regular feature. Problem was, nobody wanted to write it. Was I interested?

Reprise Duh. Do bears defecate in the woods?

That Collecting Page was quite an adventure. It got me in touch with just about every serious wine collector in the country. These were rich white guys who all wanted to be quoted in the august pages of the nation’s premier wine magazine. It was one way they could out-testosterone their fellow collectors. Anyone with enough money can buy Petrus—but not everyone can land on The Collecting Page!

Segue. This brings up the memory of the L.A. lawyer for various rock and roll clients. He lived up in the Hollywood Hills, on Mulholland, and Jim gave me the assignment of doing a big story on him. I drove down to L.A. and found his house. Just as I was arriving, a UPS truck was unloading case after case of the then-cult favorites: Petrus, Dunn Howell Mountain, Opus One, Latour.

I tried to make small talk. “Looks like you’re into the good stuff,” I said, as I mentally tried to add up what it had all cost him.

“That?” he sniffed, nodding towards his newly acquired treasures. “Nah, I don’t even like that stuff.”

“I don’t understand…”

“Look,” he said. “I have a tasting group with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. They invite me over and serve ’67 Petrus, so I have to piss further and invite them here for ’64 Petrus.” He was buying wines he didn’t like, just to show off to his friends.

“So what do you like?” I asked.

“Ahh!” he said. “Let me show you.” And he led me to his back yard, where he’d dug a wine cave out in the hill. It was just a bunch of rickety wooden compartments, but the temperature was cool, so it was good storage. Rummaging through his bottles, he yanked one out and showed it to me. It was a Petite Sirah, from (I think) San Benito County, the product of a then-defunct winery I’d never heard of.

“What do you like about this?” I asked him.

“I like it,” the lawyer replied, “because Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner can’t get it!”

That episode, plus numerous others involving these bigtime collectors, taught me some valuable lessons about that side of the wine community. I realize then the arrogance and hubris that can characterize it—an arrogance that creates the lust for “cult wines” whose prices bear no relation whatsoever to their quality. This realization on my part stayed with me later, when I turned into an actual, fulltime wine writer and critic. It informed my sensibilities and gave me a certain prejudice against the high-end part of the business, a sensibility I carry with me to this day. It also gave me sympathy for inexpensive wines and for the people who drink them. This, too, is a sensibility I carry to this day, and it put me in good stead when, in 1993, I went to work for Wine Enthusiast. But once again, we’re getting ahead of the story.


Five Decades of Wine: The Arc of My Career

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Part One: The 1970 and 1980s

I boarded a plane during a blizzard at Boston Logan in December, 1978, and, six hours later, stepped into the bright, T-shirt warmth of SFO sunshine, where my cousins were waiting for me.

I was to live with them in Benicia, as I readied myself to go to graduate school. My goal was to be a psychotherapist. That, I thought, would combine my interests in philosophy and human nature, and also allow me to be self-employed, as it were: I seldom do my best work as a team member. That’s why my athletic pursuits have always been solitary ones: competitive running and karate.

The psychotherapy part, alas, didn’t work out. I visited the campus one day before the semester began (John F. Kennedy University, in Orinda), for a meeting with my new Dean. When I couldn’t find his office, I asked a student, who promptly inspected my palm and told me I had a good lifeline. When I found the dean’s trailer, he invited me in. He had an Indian name, Hatha S.___, but somehow didn’t seem Indian. When I asked him where he was from and he said, “The Bronx,” I laughed. “I am, too! What neighborhood?”

But Dean Hatha would have none of it. He explained that he’d left his past far behind when he’d changed his Jewish name, and preferred not to relive it.

Well, those two experiences were enough for me. I’d borrowed $30,000 to get a degree from JFKU, which now seemed to me to be living a loony tunes existence. That, plus the fact that every waiter and carpenter I’d met in San Francisco had a degree in psychotherapy, made me realize that I didn’t want to be the ten thousandth unemployed, heavily indebted therapist in the Bay Area. So I informed JFKU that I would not be attending after all, and set out to discover what else I could do, now that I was a bona fide Californian.

But that’s getting ahead of the story. Meanwhile, my cousin Maxine, with whom I’d more or less grown up in New York, set out on that first day to the local Benicia Safeway, where she and her partner, Keith, picked up some steaks to barbecue in the back yard. (Toto, I don’t think we’re in Boston anymore, I reflected: barbecue in late December!) After she’d loaded the shopping cart up with steaks, potatoes and sourdough baguettes, she wheeled it into the wine aisle. I trod dutifully alongside.

Picking up one bottle of red wine after another, she studied the front and back labels, reading them with a scrutiny I didn’t understand. Finally, after the sixth bottle, I asked Maxine, “What are you doing? Just grab one. They’re all the same.”

Big mistake. Maxine gave me one of her infamous looks I call Schoolmarm’s Raised Eyebrow. It’s a combination of scold and amazement. She said, “You don’t just grab a bottle of wine. You think about it.”

Well, that made about as much sense as if she’d said, “You don’t just grab a bottle of ketchup.” Why not? What’s different about wine? Isn’t it just like any other food you consume?

As it turned out, the answer is No. But in that moment, in the wine aisle of the Benicia Safeway, something happened to me that I later called “Getting bitten by the wine bug.” Years later, when I was at Wine Spectator, I wrote an article about it, interviewing numerous psychoanalysts and therapists I’d met through the magazine, all of whom were wine collectors. What is this “wine bug” thing?, I wanted to know.

Today, I remember nothing of what they said, except for one—a famous collector from Marin—who mumbled something about being anally retentive. So I can’t really explain what happened that day in Benicia. Whatever it was, it seized me by the collar and never let go. Within weeks I became a wine fanatic. I bought all those little pocket guides (Bob Thompson’s and Charlie Olken’s were my favorites), and began visiting wine shops. A year later (1979) I moved to San Francisco, to a hideous, unheated little apartment just below Top of the Hill Daly City, and there, the patterns of the rest of my life were established. Among them was the wine craze. I was working fulltime, going to grad school (at S.F. State) fulltime, trying to get to the gym every day, volunteering for the first AIDS assistance group, Shanti Project, and attempting to maintain a social life and a live-in relationship. But somehow, I managed to squeeze in plenty of wine stuff. I joined the old Les Amis du Vin and was asked to lead the San Francisco chapter (which I declined). And every weekend, while my friends were flying kites on Marina Green or sunbathing at Dolores Park, I was hitting up every major wine shop in town. I’d start in the east, at Draper & Esquin on Montgomery Street, then head out to the Avenues. Inbetween were the Jug Shop, down on Polk, Hennessey’s, in Upper Market, Ashbury Market, and the old Liquor Barn, on Bayshore in the south. I can’t even remember the others. In each store, I’d pick the brains of whoever I could find: Why does this Cabernet Sauvignon cost $4 while this one is $14? How are they different?

And I read, read, read. I began assembling my wine library, which today numbers hundreds of books. My favorite at the time was Alexis Lichine’s Encyclopedia. I devoured it. I crammed in trips to Napa Valley and the Russian River Valley when I could. Meanwhile, I got my M.A. from S.F. State, got my first “real” job running the Career Center at the California College of Arts and Crafts, in Oakland, moved to that great, crazy city to avoid the commute across the Bay Bridge, ended a relationship, and began a new life, while the wine bug continued to bite me deeper and deeper. I’d subscribed to Wine Spectator since the early 1980s, when it was a tabloid published out of its San Francisco offices, at Opera Plaza on Van Ness. One day in 1989, I sent them my resume. I was still running the Career Center at the College, but it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. What I wanted to do was be a wine writer. I pestered the Spectator’s editor, Jim Gordon, so much that I eventually told him, “One of two things is going to happen. Either you’ll hire me, or you’ll have me arrested for harassment.” In the event, it was the former that turned out to be true. But that’s the subject of tomorrow’s post.


A New Year’s Day reflection

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Happy new year, each and everyone!

We’ve been through a lot over the years, you and I—from my rather clumsy but sincere and hopeful introductory post (dated May 15, 2008, and reproduced here) through the awful years of the Great Recession that impacted so many of us, right through to my transition in 2014 from wine critic to Jackson Family Wines. You’ve stayed with me every step of the way, through 1,679 posts, and for that, I salute you. I would never continue this if so many of you didn’t let me know, nearly every day, that you enjoy reading it. And I’m proud to say that, while I was tempted for a while, I’ve still never taken an advertisement nor tried to sell stuff.

In that first Welcome to my blog post, I wrote words I wouldn’t change today, including these: I’d be thrilled if this forum became a place for people to air opinions and debate issues.” And indeed, that’s exactly what it has become. Some people prefer reading the comments to my posts, which delights me. My readers know that this is one of the few wine blogs that doesn’t require approval to post your comment. Here, once I’ve approved your first one, my computer automatically recognizes your computer (I don’t think I phrased that technically correctly, but you get the idea), so your comment goes up right away. I love the immediacy  and transparency of that. I love real conversations. I love edge.

It was a little difficult finding my footing after I went to Jackson. The biggest challenge was that I don’t taste a zillion wines anymore. Instead, that has forced me to write more conceptually, and I must say, agreeably—about issues and such. But then, there’s a ton of wine blogs out there that review wines. I never did like running with the pack.

Among my first commenters that day were Jo Diaz, who continues to run Diaz Communications with her dear husband, Jose; Monica Larner, who went on to become The Wine Advocate’s Italian reviewer, and whom I still love dearly, and Tom Wark, the Godfather of wine blogs, an inspiration to me and many others. I’ve since made many friendships among my commenters, some of them “only” digitally, but friendships nonetheless.

So here’s to a happy, healthy, wealthy and wise 2015 for all of us! Back Monday.


The flu!

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From the Stygian depths of the flu I write. I caught it, I think, from my cousins, who caught it from East Coast visitors. Thus we are all linked in a sort of viral community.

It is truly an awful disease. On Friday and Saturday I thought I would escape only with a bad winter cold, but Sunday brought lethargy and fever, and on Monday it worsened. I got my flu shot 3 weeks ago at Kaiser and had read articles that this year’s vaccine would be particularly ineffective.

Why is this so? I know a lot of people who will not get flu shots because they don’t trust the doctors. This sort of thing will not encourage them.

And now, this morning, I read that the Centers for Disease Control has officially declared this outbreak an epidemic.

How quickly it has come to California! Two weeks ago we heard nothing of influenza. Now it is widespread.

During the height of my illness I could not abide alcohol in any form, not even my 5 p.m. cocktail IPA. The thought of wine made me cringe. It made me think how the appreciation of wine requires a certain balance of the physical, emotional and intellectual parts of humans. Each of those elements was thrown into chaotic disarray by my flu. Physically I felt at the edge of death. It was emotionally draining; one thinks, “Will this go on forever? What if I don’t recover?” with all the associated thoughts of dread. As for the intellect, well, it failed completely. It was as if that part of my brain had had a spoke thrust into it. When you’re that sick you can’t think straight.

Anyhow, it’s all I can do to grind out this pathetic excuse for a blog post but I do trust you will forgive me! Stay safe, and remember to wash your hands a lot.


On a rainy day, a trip down Memory Lane

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We’ve been shut in our homes for the last 24 hours due to this torrential rainstorm, so I’m feeling a bit stir crazy, which is making me nostalgic—not a bad way to feel when the weather is grey and depressing, and memories are brighter than reality.

I began keeping a Tasting Diary on February 16, 1983. I know the exact date, because I still have it, along with six others I kept until 1997. This is that first diary:

Diary

I always liked these hard-bound leather notebooks with the pretty covers. I’m not sure why I began keeping a diary. I mean, if there had been a conscious line of reasoning, I no longer recall it. I suppose it was because I like books, and writing, and collecting books; also, because I’d turned into the world’s biggest wine geek, and some part of me must have assumed that keeping tasting notes was the thing to do. I think I’d seen Michael Broadbent’s “Great Vintage Wine Book” by then, so maybe that fed into the decision. And I was subscribing to Wine Spectator by then, too, and that must have had something to do with it. Whatever the reasons, I’m glad I did write those diaries, and I’m glad I kept them.

The first wine I reviewed in it, on that long-ago Wednesday, was Georges Duboeuf 1981 Morgan. Here’s the page:

 

Morgan

 

In those days, I liked to steam the label off and paste it in, although later, when I was reviewing a ton of wines, I stopped with the labels and just went with text. Here, for example, is a page from a 1998 diary:

 

Notes

If I’d put in the labels, the diary would have been much thicker. Also, by that time, lots of wineries had starting affixing their labels to the bottles with glue that wouldn’t steam off, which was very frustrating for us label lovers. I vaguely remember knowing that the wineries started doing that, but I no longer remember why they did. Maybe my readers can enlighten us.

My reviewing style was pretty much what it remained over the years: brief. Although in 1983 I was still years away from professionally reviewing wine, that brevity came in handy at Wine Enthusiast, where I was limited to 30 or 50 words. I used five categories in my earliest diaries: date of tasting, color, taste, food I paired the wine with, and price. Since I had the label attached, I didn’t have to fill in all that producer-vintage-varietal stuff. But I didn’t use a numerical score back then.

As you can see, that Morgon cost me all of $6 in 1983. I Googled the same wine; today, you can get a Duboeuf Morgon for around $13, not a bad case of inflation given that more than thirty years have passed.

By 1998, my notes were lengthier, and I’d begun using the 100-point scoring system. If you can read the text in the 1998 diary, you’ll see I was kind of harsh in my review of the Atlas Peak 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon, which I gave a stingy 82 points. Nor did I care much for the two Hanzell Cabs I reviewed on that page: the 1986 (81 points) and the 1991 (84 points). I think I was not alone in thinking that Hanzell should stick to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; the winery stopped making Cab with the 1992 vintage.

I love going through my diaries, these ghosts of the past. When I think about how writing both expresses and preserves the past, I think of this quote, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

My wine memories may be airy nothings in the real world, but they do inhabit a locality in my mind, and its name is sweet. And the best thing is that my wine memories are still building up.

Anyhow, I don’t know when we’ll ever be able to get out of the house: the rain continues to come down in buckets. As I write this (early Thursday evening), there are increasing reports of flash floods along the creeks in the Bay Area but, mercifully, nothing serious…so far.

Have a great weekend!


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