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Remembering Sensei



Sensei Ajari was the most infuriating man I ever met.

He was a complete narcissist. My friend Bob, no mean karate warrior himself, used to joke about “the legend of Ajari—in his own mind.” But Ajari had reason to think highly of himself. He was an eighth dan Wadokai Wadoryu karateka, the highest-ranked in North America. He had studied under Wadoryu’s founder, Hironori Otsuka, who himself was a senior student of Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of modern karate. So that was really something, and Ajari never let us forget it.

He demanded much of his students, although no more, and probably less, than was demanded of him, when he was coming up, in pre-war Tokyo. One Christmas, we, the senior members of the dojo, gave him a fax machine for a present. Big mistake. Every night, around 11 p.m. and into the wee hours, the noisy WHHHRRRRRR would awaken me. A drunken Sensei was faxing more of his “philosophical observations” for me to edit and word-process. His chicken scrawl was virtually indecipherable. Yet I knew he would expect the pages, neatly printed out and lovely to read, at our next class. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent working on those essays. He even made me work every Saturday at the YMCA kids’ class.

If you were looking for compliments, though, Sensei was not the guy. I won a kata competition in my very first karate tournament. So proud and excited! The event was in a high school gym, and Sensei, who was judging something else, had not been watching. I ran over to him and said, “Sensei! I won!”

I don’t know what I was expecting, but Sensei just gave me that look—cold, imperious—and replied, in his Japlish, “I guess judges make mistake.” Then he turned his back and walked away, leaving me standing there, feeling baffled and foolish. But he had taught me something. Never expect praise!

The opposite—“never expect blame”—was not true. Sensei could be harsh, extremely so. Rude, insulting, intemperate. My sempai—my seniors, the black belts who came before me—told me that Sensei had trained upwards of 1,000 black belts over a 40-year career, and almost every one of them had quit his dojo, in anger and sadness, because of Sensei’s meanness. Much later, I came to do the same thing.

Yet he could be the most endearing of men; “Ajari stories” were fixtures of generations of his pupils; everybody had one. I once was thrown, during a practice, and dislocated my index finger. It looked horrible. I went to Sensei to show it to him. Without preamble, he grabbed my hand, gave the finger a yank, and straightened it out. “Finger fix,” he announced. Mister Miyagi.

When I got my shodan black belt, Sensei proclaimed “old Japanese custom. Now black belt take Sensei out.” That meant: Sensei consumes massive quantities of nigiri and sake, and black belt pays! We used to go to a local sushi joint in my Oakland neighborhood. Once, he pointed to one of the itamae and told me, in a whisper, “That guy yakuza.”

“Really, Sensei? Japanese mafia?” Only I said it out loud. Sensei immediately panicked. “Shh! No say loud.” But I never saw him worry about anything. If anything, he became obstinate and combative when challenged.

Those sushi dinners were really something. He would consume a magnum of sake over the course of a meal. Since he lived in El Cerrito, we would never let him drive home; he could barely walk, much less negotiate a car at night. So one of us would drive him, or take him to BART and hope he could find his way.

The breaking point for me was on the night Ken was going for his black belt. I was Ken’s sempai. He was my kohai—junior. He was my responsibility. They explain the sempai-kohai relationship to you very early when you start karate. It is simple, based on militaristic principles. The kohai must obey the sempai without question. And yet the sempai must show lovingkindness to the kohai and always keep his welfare in mind.

In the days and weeks leading up to Ken’s dan, I repeatedly asked him if he desired my help. Part of the test involves the black belt candidate teaming up with another student to explain the meaning of the moves in a particular kata. This is called “bunkai,” or analysis. A move might involve rotating the right arm, bent at the elbow at 90 degrees, hand in a fist, and sweeping it clockwise across the chest and face, followed immediately by a 90-degree rotation of the body to the left and a similar sweeping movement of the left arm. The candidate knows the theoretical meaning of these moves; in the dan, he must demonstrate how they function against an actual opponent.

Bunkai is not easy and requires practice. If both partners know what they’re doing, bunkai is beautiful to see, like a graceful dance, a pas de deux of attacks and blocks and counter-attacks. If the partners don’t know what they’re doing, it’s ugly. I had explained to Ken that he had to practice his bunkai with another student, and he had promised that he would do just that.

Well, the big night came. Ken’s did all his required performances—the kihon, the kata, the theoretical, the jiyukumite–as the three judges, led by Sensei, watched, and then it was time for his bunkai. Ken turned to me, bowed, and asked me to be his bunkai partner. I had not known he would do that! I had expected him to have chosen someone else—Mikhail, probably, who was just below me in the pecking order. Now, suddenly, I had to take the floor and go through 45 kata moves with Ken, completely unrehearsed.

It was a fiasco. Afterward, the judges retired for their deliberations. I said to Ken, “You told me you’d been rehearsing!”

“Sorry, sempai,” he replied. I wanted to strangle him.

Ken was not promoted that night. As the class sat in seiza, the Japanese kneeling position, Sensei called my name.

I rose, bowed deeply, and waited.

“Yeah, Steve Heimoff, you Ken sempai, you disgrace, you let him down.”

No amount of explanation sufficed. In fact, there could be no legitimate explanation in Sensei’s code, which was an ancient one: you either did your duty or you didn’t. I had let Ken down, Sensei down, Otsuka down, Funakoshi down, karate down, a thousand years of samurais down.

I was furious. After ten years of loyal, dogged service to Sensei—ten years of being his slave, his secretary, his punching bag—this was what I got: insults and public ridicule, for something that was not my fault. The next day I informed the dojo I was quitting. My fellow students, who liked me, protested. They brought me out for sushi and tried to get me to change my mind. I said I would return, but only if Sensei apologized. They went to him and came back and said, “He will never apologize. It’s not in him. Yet he knows he was wrong, and he is sorry. If you return to class, he will let you know, in his own way and in his own time.”

I suppose I was looking for a way out. I was already in my mid-fifties. My body was no longer what it had been. Moreover, my job was getting more demanding. It was simply no longer possible for me to practice karate three or four nights a week. Part of me had been wanting to retire for a couple of years, but retiring from karate, and from the karate lifestyle, with its camaraderie, is not easy. Nor was it easy to part with Sensei. For all that he infuriated me, he had become central to my life. He was the father-figure I could never please, whose love I was never good enough to earn.

In the end, there was no apology. The Japanese emperor Hirohito apologized to America when he surrendered after World War II, but Yoshiaki Ajari could not apologize to me.

I saw Sensei only one time after that, a few years later, when we were both on the 19th Street BART platform. Eye contact. Little semi-bows; no words. And then, last week, a friend told me Sensei had died. He would have been at least 85 years old, so his demise wasn’t shocking, but what stunned me was that I hadn’t heard anything through the grapevine. I would have thought someone would have organized some kind of memorial service. But there was nothing. Just, I suppose, a lot of people, like me, with a lot of memories of a stubborn, curious old man whom, for better or worse, we will never forget.

Reflecting on the Golden Age of Wine Critics




Michael Mondavi, whom I’ve known for a long time, invited me to lunch the other day. Over a leisurely meal of sushi at Ozumo in Oakland, our chat naturally ranged all over the board, wine-wise, but it certainly included a good deal of reminiscing.

Hey, that’s what you do when you reach a certain age!

Michael, who’s a few years older than I, told me many charming anecdotes about his Dad I’d never before heard. Surely Robert Mondavi’s legend will only continue to grow as his place in wine history—iconic and inimitable—becomes ever more heroic. Tinged throughout our conversation was a certain wistfulness that bordered on nostalgia. The “good old days” seemed just fine to us, although one does always have to keep in mind Proust’s epigram: “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”

Be that as it may, Michael prompted me to reflect on my time as a wine writer and critic, and it immediately became clear to me that I had lived through, and thoroughly enjoyed, being a part of the Golden Age of Wine Critics. One must be careful, too, of promiscuously applying the term “golden age” to things. There was a golden age of Greece, for sure, but the phrase contains a pejorative in its implication that the high point is over; never again will Greece be as spectacular as she was in 500-300 B.C.

We were long told that television’s golden age was in the 1950s: I Love Lucy, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Alfred Hitchcock, Gunsmoke, The Twilight Zone, and some of the greatest live drama ever on such series as Kraft Television Theatre and Playhouse 90. But some critics also celebrate the television of our current era as the golden age, with Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, The Sopranos and others too numerous to mention. So when was T.V.’s golden age–in the past, or is it all around us right now? One might paraphrase Zhou Enlai, the former Chinese foreign minister (under Chairman Mao), who, in reply to a query concerning his opinion of the French Revolution, said, “It’s too early to say.”

Still, I don’t think it’s too early to say that the years (roughly) from 1978 to 2008 were the Golden Age of Wine Critics. I date the start at 1978 because that is the year some of the major guidebooks to California wine first appeared; also the year Wine Spectator began gaining traction, and was in fact the year Robert Parker launched The Wine Advocate.

As for my end date, 2008, that was the year the Great Recession struck in all its force, with still unquantifiable repercussions in the wine industry; but more importantly 2008 marked the emergence of social media onto the American and world stage, as cultural pattern-shifters of major import. The important critics remained vital, but you could feel their importance fading among a younger generation that preferred the crowd-sharing intimacy of twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs to the sage counsel of older white Baby Boomer males pronouncing verdicts from lofty ivory towers.

Thus we had a span of thirty years, which is just about right for a cultural era, before it expends its energies and is replaced by some other paradigm. And it was my privilege to have been a successful part of that brief, shimmering illusion.

What a time it was! To have been at or near the center of vitality in the industry, especially here in California, which in many ways established itself as the center of the wine world. Not only in production, but in media, in the emergence of “celebrity winemakers,” in a wine-and-food culture especially along the coast, in wine getting interwoven into popular movies (Disclosure, Sideways), in wine becoming a huge public interest, when consumers needed all the help they could get figuring out what to buy, and we wine critics were more than happy to help them.

Never again, I suspect, will wine critics be treated with the reverence by producers as we were during those thirty years. We were courted and flirted with, wined and dined, as proprietors both wealthy and famous, and not-so-rich and obscure, sought the imprimatur of our good scores. We were interviewed by radio, television and magazine journalists seeking insight into our glamorous and esoteric lifestyles. We were asked to write books by major publishers, and trotted out as celebrities on the tasting and dining circuits. We were aware of that fact that a good review could deplete a particular wine overnight, while a bad one could jeopardize the owner’s ability to make payroll. We even, some of us, ended up in the movies.* We were part of an exclusive elite, and we knew it, although we tried to keep our fame in perspective. I did, anyhow: fame is fleeting, too soon gone, and containing nothing of value in itself, so that humility has much to recommend it.

I wonder how historical writers of the future will record this era of wine critics. Will they say the country went temporarily insane, giving so much power to such a motley crew? Will they view it as a necessary transition—sort of a set of training wheels–during which Baby Boomers went from near-total ignorance of wine to a near-obsession with it? Will there be a new golden age of wine critics that will be even more splendid than the old one? One thing’s for sure: no single wine critic will ever again enjoy the power that a handful of us did.

It was fun. Yet when I quit my job, on Sept. 2, 2016, I put the wine industry behind me forever. I think I left at exactly the right time: the torch was being passed, the times had changed, the practice of wine criticism was getting (for me) a little too baroque and stylized. And the playing field had definitely become mobbed. I personally like some elbow room. I have plenty of it, now. Goodbye, golden age of wine critics! It was a blast.




* My brief appearance in Blood Into Wine


was the high point of my film career!

Lessons learned from old tasting notes



Why I did 25,000 tasting notes before I ever even had a job reviewing wine remains a mystery to me to this day.

I guess it was that overused word, “passion.” It’s not that I couldn’t help myself, as can happen with other less desirable addictions. I didn’t want to stop; I loved taking wine notes. I felt I was performing a useful act (if only to myself), and I’ve always derived intense pleasure in learning and mastering new talents. In the end, though, it really is a mystery, this “getting bit by the wine bug.”

I kept all eight of my hard-cover volumes as well the thick files of my written notes, and I’m glad I did.


I don’t think I’m going to publish a “Great Vintage Wine Book,” but re-reading them makes so much fun. Here’s one from the summer of 1991 or 1992;


Gavin Newsom, today our Lieutenant-Governor (and the odds-on favorite to be California’s next Governor) was about to open his first Plump Jack wine store, down in Cow Hollow, and he invited me to be part of a small tasting group that met weekly to taste wines that salesmen had dropped off. The wines were written by Gavin himself, the notes are mine. We marked them simply “Yes” or “No”; a group consensus determined if the wines would be sold in the store on Day One.

Here’s another, from a Bon Appetit tasting panel shortly before Christmas, 1990 (and a big, belated Thank you! to Andy Blue for inviting me to those wonderful tastings for so many years).



I don’t know if you can read it, but my notes concerning the 1979 Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon—then 11 years old–are interesting. Here they are:

Me: “Inky black, orange at rim. Dead? Raisined nose—some licorice, tar. Massive tannins either hiding it all, or this wine’s gone.” Andy himself was there and so was Jim Laube, so I asked them both, separately, what they thought. I wrote:

“Laube says 91 [points], hold 5-6 years. Dias Blue agrees with me [i.e. that the wine is dead].”

That was a teaching moment for me. Andy and Jim were just about the most famous critics in California in 1990. As an aspiring critic myself, I looked up to them as mentors. And yet, here they were, coming down on diametrically opposite sides about a wine. I remember thinking, “Maybe there is no objective truth about these sorts of things. People will differ. The best course is to state your opinion honestly and confidently. Others can agree or disagree.” And that is the philosophy that guided me for the next 25 years after I really did become a professional wine critic. (And by the way, I still think that ageability predictions are crap shoots.)

One other thing I noticed going over my old tasting notes, and that’s how relatively low my scores were. From the same page as the Dunn: 84 points for Keenan ’87 Cab. A measly 86 points for La Jota ’86 Cab Franc. On other pages, I found lots and lots of scores in the mid-80s for wines that, today, I probably would score above 90. Why is that? Only two possible explanations: Score inflation, or a definite improvement in quality. I think it’s the latter. Vintners are picking riper these days than they did in the 1980s (which is a good thing, if they don’t let the grape sugars run away). They’ve learned how to tame those tannins, and they’re also far more educated about how to oak their wines; many from the old days were simply too oaky. That makes for better wines. On the inflation part, I’m willing to admit that there may have been psychological factors involved in my higher scores over the years. I don’t fully understand that part. I didn’t particularly feel pressured, from either external or internal sources, to score higher. I wasn’t aware of any shifting in my thinking or motives; Wine Enthusiast certainly never hinted to me they’d like more high scores. But I think my notes from the 1980s and early 1990s prove that my scores did tend to get higher, especially after the year 2000. I’ll leave it to others to ascribe the reasons why.

* * *

I’m on my way to Oregon’s beautiful Willamette Valley today. The weather will be absolutely gorgeous, warm and blue skies, so unlike my last trip when it was cold and wet, and the Siskyou Pass was treacherous driving. More tomorrow.

Unicorn wines, and maybe unicorns in Napa



When did all this talk about unicorns get so crazy? Suddenly, it’s unicorn this, unicorn that. Fifty-five million results on a Google search, of which this one, published earlier this year in Fortune, is most explanatory: “a unicorn is a private company, valued at $1 billion or more, and they’re seemingly everywhere, backed by a bull market and a new generation of disruptive technology.”

New, over-priced tech companies. Hmm. We’ve seen this before, haven’t we? Back in 2000 we called it the “dot-com bubble,” the catastrophic melt-down of a short era in which seemingly any company that ended with a dot-com enjoyed meteoric growth on the stock market. A good example was a startup called It was popular for a while after got too expensive for most people to afford. I should know; I bought a bunch of onsale, and got slaughtered when it collapsed, along with all the other phantom dot-coms.

Now, the word “unicorn” is being applied to wineries. Wine Spectator picked up the term from Twitter back in 2013, quoting Raj Parr’s tweeted definition: “A [unicorn] wine that is ‘rare,’ ‘not seen much’ ‘special bottlings.’ Not always the most expensive but just hard to find.” By 2015, unicorn wines were all the rage in somm circles: the Wall Street Journal said “they confer[red] status not by cost but by the skill—or luck—it takes to acquire one.” Eater jumped into the fray, describing unicorn wines as a new category of wine taking hold in Manhattan—the once in a lifetime bottles that every sommelier dreams of drinking, and bragging about, before they die.” Eater’s list was exclusive to Old Europe, mainly France. You would never find a California wine on a unicorn list, especially not in Manhattan.

Most recently, here’s Wine Spectator again, with Dr. Vinny asking the question, “What is a unicorn wine?” and pointing out that the opposite of unicorn wines are “first-growth Bordeauxs, or ‘cult’ California Cabernets.” Interesting. Not that long ago “cult California Cabernets” were the hottest wines in the world, coveted by everybody. Can it have been only eight years ago that the San Francisco Chronicle called Aubert, Ovid and Sloan “six cult wines to covet”? Today, you won’t find them on anyone’s unicorn list. They’re more like your great-grandfather’s wine than something the cool kids drink.

By the way, the hashtag #unicornwine still gets a lot of play on Twitter, although the category finally seems to be opening up to include California wine—as long, that is, as it fulfills the requirements of being rare and impossible to get. Someone tweeted a link to an Instagram post from “Mcvino82,” who posted this pic of an Inglenook 1978 Petite Sirah with the hashtags #unicornwine and (funnily) #whereisfreddame.

So a nearly 40-year old California Petite Sirah just might qualify as a unicorn. Story time: Years ago, I was on one of my first assignments for Wine Spectator, to interview a wealthy rock-and-roll lawyer who lived in the Hollywood Hills and was a bigtime wine collector. As I pulled into his driveway, a UPS truck was unloading case after case of Dominus, Dunn Howell Mountain, Opus One, Petrus, Tignanello—you get the idea. As we shook hands I tried to make small talk and said, “Man, I see you like the good stuff.”

He pointed with his chin to the stacks of cases on his driveway and said, “That? Nah, I hate it.”

Wow. “Then why do you buy it?” I asked, mentally doing a financial calculation of the cost.

“Look,” he explained, “those are what I call ‘pissing wines.’ You know how, when you’re kids, you have contests to see who can piss the furthest? Well, ___ and ___ [and here, he mentioned some real Hollywood heavyweights] invite me to their homes, and they serve Petrus ’66, so I have to invite them here and give them Petrus ’64.”

I took that in. Then I asked, “So, if you don’t like these wines, what do you like?”

“Ahh!” he grunted, grabbing me by the elbow. “Let me show you.” He led me to his backyard, where he’d dug a storage cellar into the hillside. Rummaging through the racks, he pulled out a bottle. It was a Petite Sirah from San Benito County whose producer, even on that day 25 years ago, was long defunct. “This is what I like!” he exulted.

“What do you like about it?” I asked.

“I like it,” he replied, “because no one else can get it!”

That was the rock-and-roll lawyer’s unicorn wine. So, you see, there’s nothing new about the concept, only the word. And while we’re on the topic of fantasy, it looks like Napa may be getting ready to allow marijuana dispensaries within the city limits. It’s far from a done deal, but I can see a time when upscale tasting rooms selling sips of unicorn wines will also offer unicorn weed to inhale, leading to the very real possibility that tourists emerging from these establishments, staggering down the street, may visualize actual unicorns.


Photo credit:

When drinking is your job



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.

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