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18. Madoff and me

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We know, now, what happened: Bernie Madoff was running a Ponzi scheme. He got away with it for decades, but when the Great Recession hit, too many of his wealthy clients demanded their money, and it caused a run on the bank; Madoff couldn’t cover the nut. When his sons turned him in, Bernie Madoff overnight became one of the most infamous financial fraudsters in U.S. history.

I wrote earlier that I’d never heard the name Bernie Madoff until early December, 2008. It was then that I’d read the newspaper reports of his arrest. The billionaire investor, a former head of the Nasdaq, had been arrested by the FBI. Hmm, I thought, interesting…

The Background

The main reason I’d become a freelance wine writer in 1989 was because years previously, I’d been invited, by an uncle, to invest in a family fund we informally called “The Arbitrage.” Most of my relatives on my father’s side were in it. The interest rate was very high—averaging 14%-15% a year—and remarkably consistent. With that assured income for my retirement savings, I didn’t really need to make a lot of money from my job. I could afford to do something I loved.

None of my relatives knew quite how The Arbitrage worked, and my uncle was none too forthcoming in explaining it. All we knew was that it was run by “Mister Big,” supposedly a financial genius who’d developed an algorithm for beating the markets. If we pressed uncle for details, he got angry. Once, he said to me, “Look, if you’re not satisfied with the returns, you’re free to withdraw your money and invest it someplace else.”

I was satisfied with the returns.

After all, my family wasn’t depending on the trustworthiness of some third-party financial manager whom we barely knew. We were trusting our uncle; this was a man I’d known and liked all my life. He’d bounced Baby Stevie on his knee; his kids were my friends. We visited him and his family in their sprawling Santa Barbara estate many times. So when uncle told us not to worry, we didn’t.

We should have.

A few days after Madoff’s arrest, I came home from a San Francisco event late on the night of Dec. 10, 2008, to find an email from a cousin, who, like me, had invested her money in our family fund. BAD NEWS ABOUT THE ARBITRAGE, the subject line read. All our money was gone. It turned out that The  Arbitrage had actually been an elaborate ruse, run by an uber-rich L.A. Jewish philanthropist, who collected money from hundreds or thousands of California Jews, through middle men like my uncle, and then funneled it all to Bernie Madoff. That’s why we’d never heard Madoff’s name before.

Did my uncle know? He died years ago. So did his wife. His kids say he didn’t. We’ll never know.

What do you do when you find out, at the age of 62, that your life savings have been wiped out? I’d grown up with a major fear: being old and poor in America. I had no children to support me in my old age. I had no pension. I’d never been a big earner. The only thing I’d had was The Arbitrage.

Terrifying thoughts washed over me. I’d lose my home, have to live on the streets. I was in psychotherapy at the time. At my next session after the bad news hit, my therapist said he might have to call for my involuntary commitment because he feared I was suicidal. And I was. Maybe the only thing that talked me off the cliff was a long conversation with cousin Ellen (who’d also lost a bundle). She was a nurse. “Suicide,” she told me, “is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

A big part of my problem was that the Federal government has an insurance scheme, the Securities Investor Protection Corporation, or SIPC, that protected investors who had been defrauded in so-called “theft-loss” cases. SIPC would reimburse investors, up to a point, based on their “net equity”: If you invested more money than you withdrew from a fraudulent account, SIPC would pay you the difference. Similarly, if you’d withdrawn more money than you invested, SIPC would “claw back” the difference, using that money to pay “net losers.” Under this scheme, many thousands of Madoff investors did get money back.

But SIPC covered only “direct investors”—those who had sent their money directly to Bernie Madoff. We—my family and I and many other Californians—hadn’t invested directly with Madoff. We’d given our money to “Mister Big,” who forwarded it to Madoff, in a so-called “feeder fund.” We thus were “indirect investors” and not eligible for SIPC.

There was only one way my family could recoup some of our losses: The good old American pastime of a lawsuit. But sue whom? Madoff? Our uncle? We took a vote, my cousins and I, and decided to go after Mister Big. (I’m not identifying him, although his involvement is in the public record. I just feel like I don’t want to.)

Our lawsuit attracted a great deal of attention in legal circles. Many firms wanted to represent us, because there were billions of dollars at stake, and with their 30% contingency fee, they stood to make a fortune. We ultimately selected a high-powered Manhattan law firm. They asked me to be the lead plaintiff. They never explicitly told me why, but I think I know: I would be the most sympathetic to a jury, if it came to that: Old, broke, living in a tiny condo in working-class downtown Oakland—as opposed to, say, my Malibu cousin Ellen, much less Steven Spielberg.

The case dragged on for ten years. Mister Big’s estate fought it bitterly. There were endless piles of legal documents, depositions, phone conferences. We obtained copies of canceled checks from Madoff to Mister Big, to his children and to their various DBAs. I added them up: they totaled billions. In 2018 we finally won the suit. We got a little money. Not much, but it helped.

* * *

How do I personally feel about Madoff? Shortly after the debacle, CNBC interviewed me for their live morning business show. The reporter tried his best to get me to express peasants-with-pitchforks fury. Don’t you want to see him suffer? I’m afraid I frustrated him. No, I replied; I’m content to let the U.S. justice system deal with this. More recently, in March of 2020, Madoff asked the court for early release, and the authorities reached out to his victims asking for our opinion. Don’t release him, I replied. Let him spend the rest of his life in jail. I see no contradiction between my two positions.

Was I an idiot? Probably, but like I said, you have to see this from my point of view. Even if I’d withdrawn a great deal of money before the shit hit the fan, it’s probable that SIPC would have clawed it back from me, which easily could have forced me out of my home. So my mistake—our mistake—occurred at the very beginning, with our very first action: the initial deposit. That was the first cause in the karmic chain that led to the financial ruination of so many people around the world. In my case, after Dec. 10, 2008, I immediately stopped spending money on movies, restaurants, vacations, new clothes, fancy food and booze, the works. My overwhelming priority became making more money.


17. Tasting

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Gertrude’s death, however impactful, could be only a pause for me. My work and life went on.

The first decade of the new century ushered in the high point of my wine writing career. Wine Enthusiast was gaining traction in the competition with Wine Spectator. In the 1990s, the magazine had been viewed—if it was viewed at all–rather dismissively by the industry. For several years, in a colossal mistake, the Enthusiast had even hired an outside firm to review wines, instead of relying on its own writers. That was a real blow to its credibility; moreover, some people, including me, saw that outside firm as hopelessly conflicted. For example, they charged wineries money to review their wines—a huge no-no for a legitimate publication. The other writers and I eventually were successful in convincing management to let us do the critical reviews.

When they did, the wine arrived in Niagaresque quantities. At some point, I couldn’t handle all the work by myself—receiving boxes, opening them, inventorying wines into the magazine’s database, recycling cardboard and Styrofoam (an infernal substance that should be illegal), and so on, not to mention the hours of actual reviewing. So I hired an intern, Chuck, for the basic stuff. He remained with me, at very modest pay, for many years, until I retired. I am indebted to Chuck, if he happens to read this—but he already knows that.

Every wine reviewer develops his or her tasting rules, and I had mine. The late, great French enologist, Emile Peynaud, has written about this with greater insight than anyone else (his “The Taste of Wine” [1987] is indispensable to any serious taster’s library). Peynaud makes several points that are worth repeating. Here are a few, in italics, followed by my brief comments:

“Winetasting is to taste a wine with care in order to appreciate its quality…to submit it to examination by our senses. Too technical a vocabulary and circumlocutions are often primary obstacles to communication.”

Over the course of my reviewing career, I followed Thoreau’s advice: Simplify, simplify, simplify! My written reviews eventually reached haiku-like compression. Part of my objection to the new spate of wine blogs was the very circumlocution of which Peynaud wrote, the bloatedly purple prose that was so easy to ridicule.

“Winetasting is the rationalization of an epicurean activity. To be appreciated, wine demands attention and contemplation; and the appeal of tasting is enhanced if one can analyze it.”

This is why tasting is necessarily done in quiet surroundings, alone if possible; if not, then at least with like-minded individuals, in a contemplative environment. The worst place to taste formally is those gigantic consumer tastings; they can be fun and useful, but not for contemplative analysis.

“Tasting is said to be at once an art and a science; it can be learned, it can be taught.” And: ”To taste effectively one must love wine…Practically anyone can learn to taste well if he or she is prepared to make the effort.”

This is why I always maintained that you don’t have to be born with some kind of super-palate in order to be a professional wine taster. I certainly wasn’t! You just have to be dedicated.

“Suggestion is the insinuated thought, the idea planted in someone’s mind. When a winetaster has a tasting problem…he is wide open to suggestion [and] easily influenced and easily led astray.”

This is why Wine Enthusiast, and indeed all reputable publications, tastes “blind,” that is, with the bottles bagged, so that the taster cannot be influenced by knowledge of what the wine is. It’s also why tasting at the winery, with the winemaker, is a bad idea. Winemakers will tell you how the wine tastes while you’re tasting it, in an effort to influence you.

Peynaud insists on regularity of routine. “A taster’s working environment will have the greatest influence on his tasting efficiency. He gets used to a particular tasting room and his best results are obtained in his everyday surroundings.”

Ninety-five percent of my reviews over the years were conducted in my home. I typed them into my computer, using the same desk and chair I use today. You want to be comfortable and relaxed, and to eliminate, as much as possible, unexpected interruptions.

Peynaud is not dogmatic concerning the time of day tasting should be done. The conventional wisdom in the industry is that morning is best—that’s when many winemakers prefer to taste–because the palate allegedly is “rested.” I found that I preferred mid- or late-afternoon. I am particularly sensitive to the physical effects of alcohol, and if I tasted fifteen wines at, say, 9 a.m., I felt the impact for the rest of the day. That would have led to negative consequences for my daily physical workout at the gym—and Peynaud strongly urges professional tasters to stay in top physical shape.

Probably nothing in all of wine criticism has been more controversial, more hotly debated than the 100-point system, which is the one Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator and Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate all employ. Since I worked for Wine Enthusiast, I was required to use it; had I been in a different situation, I might have used something else. But I defended the 100-point system against its many detractors this way: People inherently understand the 100-point system of rating things, since most of us were graded throughout school on that basis. Besides, Wine Enthusiast published an interpretive guide explaining, in plain English, what the scores meant (for example, 98-100 points meant “classic,” whereas 80-82 meant “acceptable).

The most common critique of the 100-point system was expressed this way: “How can you assign a number to the wine? What’s the difference between, say, 87 points and 88 points?” To this, I could reply only that the taster who is conversant with the 100-point system “feels” the score in his bones. (It’s also possible to break the system down into categories; for instance, aroma might be worth so many points, finish or aftertaste so many points, and so on.) In the end, I always acknowledged a certain built-in irrationality to the 100-point system, but I felt that any system had its irrational ingredients. Ultimately, vox populi; consumers could take or leave the 100-point system, and the fact that so many didn’t seem to mind it—indeed, liked it—was a powerful factor in its favor. (And by the way, more than one blogger who at first hated the 100-point system eventually adopted it.)

What saints are to the Catholic Church, what the Hall of Fame is to baseball players, so too is a perfect score of 100 points the pinnacle of perfection for wine. I gave only a handful of perfect scores during my years of reviewing, for a simple reason. If you think about it, it’s impossible to evaluate a wine all by itself; evaluation is a comparative exercise. It means that in any “flight,” or series of wines, one is better than the rest, one is the least of the litter, and so on, with all the others falling somewhere in between. Most of my perfect and highest scores occurred in large tastings (more than 50 wines), in which a single wine clearly stood out from its neighbors consistently over the hours-long duration of the tasting.

But I found myself loathe to be promiscuous about awarding 100 points. Perfection in anything is, or ought to be, rare; if it’s common, it defiles the notion of perfection. So it is with wine. At the same time, I was equally reluctant to trash a wine. Very few wines, at least in California, are undrinkable (and remember, I didn’t taste the state’s cheapest wines, the Central Valley jugs and boxes on the bottom shelf of the supermarket; they simply weren’t in my portfolio). I could always find something positive to say about most wines. It’s just like your parents taught you: if you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all. Wine Enthusiast—properly, in my opinion–didn’t publish scores below 80 points. To do so would have been kicking a guy when he was already down on the ground and groaning. (And that meant, basically, that we were scoring on a twenty-point range, not 100 points. And twenty points is a lot easier to justify.)

I have this final remark to say about tasting: the minute I retired—which is to say, when I stopped being paid to review wines—I stopped reviewing the wines I drank. (I occasionally publish reviews on this blog, but only in the increasingly infrequent instances when wineries send me wines and ask me to write about them.) As Peynaud points out, there’s a world of difference between “tasting” wine and “drinking” it. I’m not a professional wine taster anymore, I’m a wine drinker; so there’s little point in getting all fussy and judgmental at the table. I’m happy just to drink a good red, white, rosé or bubbly. I lift my glass to the old maxim, “A day without wine is a day without sunshine,” although, to be honest, I’d add beer to the equation.


16. Gertrude Dies

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My mother died on July 31, 2005, a foggy Sunday morning, at 6 a.m. She was 90 years old.

I’d thrown a big party for her on her birthday the previous March 15: many relatives flew in. Piles of lox and bagels, a cake, wine, toasts, reminiscences, memory album, the works. About two months later, my mother asked me to drive her to the doctor. She had stomach cramps.

The doctor sent her straight to the hospital. The cancer had started in her colon and metastasized; it was incurable.

A few months earlier, there’d been a national news story about a young woman, Terri Schiavo, who was on a respirator and was brain-dead. Her family was split on whether or not to “pull the plug.” It was a hot topic in Gertrude’s retirement community. In her apartment, with the heat on high, she asked me a question:

“If I ever got like that, would you…”? Her voice trailed off.

“What?”

“You know.”

“No, actually, I don’t.”

She looked at me with pleading eyes. “You know, use a pillow…”

I suppose I was aghast. “Are you crazy? That’s murder.”

Gertrude thought that the law allowed a son to smother his sick mother with a pillow. I had to explain to her that, no, things don’t work that way. But I did create, the next day, a formal Advanced Healthcare Directive for her, which stipulated that, in the event of her impending demise, and at her request (or mine, as her designated agent), all treatment except for pain management be withheld.

Gertrude spent a long month dying. The hospital had the legal right to discharge her, since she would never get better and they needed the bed for treatable patients. But her doctor, to whom she was devoted, called in some favors and arranged for her to remain in her private room. I visited as frequently as I could; the hospital was in Burlingame, near SFO. Driving down was hell, given Bay Area traffic. More often, I took BART, the subway, which was a lot easier, but still, a one-way trip took an hour. I made it to the hospital three or four times a week. (And kudos here to cousin Maxine, who visited every day; she lived in nearby San Mateo.)

The last week was pure anguish. She was wasting away, but fighting. The pain got worse; they upped her morphine. She was more or less in a permanent coma, although once, as I held her hand, I could have sworn she gave mine a squeeze. One day I noticed a drip into her arm I hadn’t seen before. I asked the nurse what it was. Saline solution. What’s that for? To keep her hydrated. Wait a minute, I said, isn’t hydration a form of feeding? She has an advanced directive, a legal document, that says no food, no water, just morphine. Please stop the saline. Well, the nurse replied in a huff, I didn’t become a nurse to kill people.

Standoff. I raised a ruckus. The hospital’s chief physician intervened. The result: they stopped the saline solution. It was now day by day. “Gosh, but your mother is fighting this,” a station nurse told me.

I knew exactly why she was.

You see, her only grandchild, my sister’s daughter, was pregnant. Her first birth had been difficult; so might this one be. Her doctors wouldn’t even let her fly to San Francisco to visit her dying grandmother. At about 10 p.m. that night of July 30, as I lay sleeping, I got a call from the nurse. “Your mother just went into the death rattle. You better get down here.” I rushed across the Bay Bridge. As I stepped out of the elevator, the nurse said, “Congratulations, Mr. Heimoff.”

I stopped. “For what?”

“The birth.”

“What birth?” It seems my niece’s husband had called the hospital a few hours earlier to ask if they would please inform Mrs. Heimoff that her granddaughter had just given birth to a healthy baby girl. The nurse whispered it into Gertrude’s unconscious—but comprehending?–ear. The baby girl had been named Jackie, after her great-grandfather.

That’s why Gertrude fought so hard. She refused to go until she knew her granddaughter and great-grandchild were safe. Once she did, she stopped fighting.

She was in a deep coma, breathing stertorously–a tiny thing, her face grimaced with agony. I brushed her hair, kissed her forehead, sat beside her for hours in the darkened room. It grew very cold. Around 3 a.m.—it was now July 31–I curled up in her bed and covered myself with a blanket. As I drifted off to sleep, I massaged her feet.

Next thing I knew, something brushed my right cheek. It felt like a feather; it woke me up. I glanced at the wall clock: 6:03 in the morning. I looked at my mother. Her face no longer was grimaced; it was white like porcelain, smooth and serene. I hopped to my feet, felt her forehead: still warm. But that face—so beautiful. Not a line. “That’s the girl my father fell in love with,” I thought.

I told the nurse my mother was dead. “She can’t be,” he replied. “I was just in there, making my 6 o’clock rounds. She was breathing; you were asleep.”

“Well, she might have been breathing three minutes ago, but she isn’t now.” I left her room as they put her in a body bag. I took with me some of her personal items: A sweater. The hairbrush. Her purse. Then I went to a diner and had some breakfast. A death. A birth. The circle…

A month after she died, I got a bill from the hospital for $950,000. Her health insurance, from her pension as a schoolteacher in New York forty years previously, covered every penny. I don’t think people have insurance like that anymore.

What woke me up at 6:03? What was the feather that brushed my cheek?


15. Changes

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Writing for Wine Spectator was lots of fun, but it hardly paid my bills. The publisher, Marvin Shanken, understandably paid me no more than he had to, and I was hardly in a position to demand more. As a freelancer, I had no benefits or pension, although I did learn about the marvelous world of tax deductions for independent contractors.

With my increasing visibility came offers to write for other periodicals beside Wine Spectator, which would have greatly increased my income. I told this to Jim Gordon. He said he’d run it past the publisher, Marvin Shanken. Marvin replied (Jim called and described it this way): “Tell Steve he’s a great writer and we’re happy to have him. But he can’t write about wine for anyone besides us.” That hardly seemed fair: Wine Spectator had several freelancers whose work appeared in other magazines. Jim took my objection to Marvin, and then phoned back. “Marvin says that’s different. In those other cases, the writers already had reputations when he hired them. But you didn’t. Marvin created you from nothing, and he feels he owns you.”

Wow. What was I, a slave on a plantation? Nobody owns me. So I called Adam Strum, publisher of the up-and-coming Wine Enthusiast, and told him my story. It took Adam about three seconds to hire me; he said he would make me one of the most famous wine writers in America. And he did.

Of course, I remained a freelancer, with no benefits. The money was never great. Had I had a family with kids, I don’t think I could have afforded to write under those circumstances. But I was single and childless; I’d never had much money, and didn’t need a lot. There was something else that gave me some degree of financial reassurance: since the late 1980s I’d been involved in a family investment opportunity that paid very, very high interest. You had to be invited into it; I was, along with my cousins. The uncle who invited us insisted it was 100% safe. Of course, you trust your family; this same uncle had bounced me on his knee when I was a baby. If he said it was safe, it was.

I’ll have more to say about this; for now, let me just say that, years later, in 2008, I heard the name “Bernie Madoff” for the first time. But for the decade of the 1990s, I was just fine, thank you. Working for Wine Enthusiast was great. And those quarterly statements from the investment always made me smile.

* * *

But I have to revert back to 1983, when I decided it was finally time to come out to my parents.

Gertrude and Jack had settled into comfortable retirement in their condo, in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Margate. Aunt Ruth lived in the same development, as did Esther’s sister, Pinkie, and one of my mother’s Oklahoma cousins, Betty. Uncle Lennie and Aunt Esther lived nearby, in a fancy home on a cul-de-sac in the tony town of Tamarac. Jack took up golf, which he played with his brother Lennie. Even in old age, all of these relatives remained the best of friends.

My relationship with my parents had always been tense. As a little boy I went through an Oedipal period of intense love for Gertrude. At two or three years of age I’d lay in bed thinking of my mother and be filled with the tenderest feelings. But by the time I was seven or eight, I’d developed a strong antipathy towards my father.

There were good reasons for this. He was seldom home; he’d taken a job at a defense plant on Long Island, a long drive from The Bronx, and would leave home before I even woke up, and return in the evening. Friendly and jokey with others, at home he was a silent, grim man who did not talk to me or my mother very much. But a greater reason for my aversion to Jack was his violence. I’ve referred to his embarrassment about having a lousy job, about not being able to buy a home the way the rest of his family did. This shame, which he could never admit to himself, boiled over into rage at home. He was physically very abusive, beating me and my sister with his belt, and sometimes his fists. Angered by something I did or said, his face would turn blood-red, the veins popping in his forehead, and wham! Once—I couldn’t have been more than six—when I’d said a dirty word, he drove me to a deserted, dangerous part of The Bronx and threw me out of the car. “You’re on your own now,” he snarled, and drove off. Although he merely went around the block before retrieving me, I don’t think I ever got over the fear of being abandoned. I have nightmares about it to this day.

There was a period of a year, when I was about eleven, when we didn’t speak to each other. Nor was his relationship with his wife much better. They were strangers to each other. I’d see him pat her on her ass; she would flinch. They never held hands, the way my friends’ parents did. At night, Gertrude would retreat to her refuge, a green easy chair in the living room, and curl up with a romance novel. To make matters worse, my sister, six years older than I, had psychological problems; she was deeply unhappy. Our cramped little apartment was a psychodrama of Albeean horror.

When I came out of the closet to everyone else, I decided not to reveal the secret to my parents until I could tell them in person. The holiday season of 1983 was coming up. I arranged to visit Gertrude and Jack for ten days; that’s when we’d sit down and have “the talk.” Three days before my flight was scheduled to leave, Uncle Lennie phoned late at night. Eugene was with me as I heard the news. “Your dad died this evening,” Lennie said. He’d had a massive heart attack. He was only 67 years old.

I was stunned. Eugene said he thought a long drive would do me good. We drove down to the Peninsula and through Hillsborough up to Skyline Drive, as I shared stories about my father. As part of my coming-out to my parents, I’d planned to bring along a photo of Eugene to show them; I was very proud how handsome he was. But now, there wouldn’t be a “talk.” Instead, I’d be going to Florida for shiva—the Jewish ritual of mourning—and a funeral.

“Sitting shiva,” as it’s called, is an ancient rite. The bereaved is supposed to sit on a box or stool (so as to not be too comfortable) for seven days. Mourners who visit bring food, typically sweets. There’s no gnashing of teeth or hysteria, nor is there any “Irish wake” celebration, merely a dignified period of quietude. Jack and Gertrude had lots of friends; scores of people came to offer condolences. Soon, the kitchen was piled high with cookies, cakes and pastries.

I chose not to come out to Gertrude under those trying circumstances. But I did have “the talk” with Uncle Lennie. I showed him Eugene’s photo, told him all about my situation. Lennie, the old V.D. doctor, said, “Well, I always knew.” He didn’t judge. But neither was he particularly empathic; he received the news with a certain stolid acceptance. When I finally came out to Gertrude, by letter, a few months later, she replied back with her own letter. I still have it; it makes for painful reading. She said, in essence, it was too bad I’d turned out “that way,” but what could she do? She had to accept it. For her part, she hoped she hadn’t been part of “the problem.” She would “pray for” me. Implicit in her reaction was bitterness that I would never give her grandchildren.

It wasn’t the huggy-touchy response I’d wanted. But she just couldn’t. Years later, when she was very old and I’d persuaded her to move to California to live in a retirement community (where Esther also lived), I invited her for lunch at a Jewish deli. I wanted to try again to have “the talk,” but to do it in a public place so she wouldn’t have a fit. She’d now known I was gay for more than twenty years. She’d met, and liked, Eugene. But we never, ever talked about it. I couldn’t tell her anything about that aspect of my life: going to the Pride Parade, seeing drag shows at gay bars, playing the celebrity guessing game (Who is? Who isn’t?), not even about Shanti Project. She let me know, in her own potent way, not to go there.

But at this point in her long life, I felt, she didn’t have a lot of time. We were either going to talk now, or never. I really wanted to close the gap, to cross that last bridge, before she died. Over hot pastrami sandwiches, I began by telling her I wanted to talk about my childhood, about our unhappy household, about my father’s violence, about the emotional coldness between my parents—topics that had been verboten all my life. I said I wanted to better understand Jack, dead 24 years. I wanted to figure out why I was gay.

Gertrude began to cry. “I don’t know how you can say those things,” she sobbed. “We had a very happy house. You were a happy kid, until—” Until you became a homosexual, was the unstated lacuna.

I realized then that my mother was incapable of having the conversation I wanted. She’d completely erased the past and replaced it with a T.V. sitcom, something out of Ozzie & Harriet: happy mom, happy dad, happy children, happy home, happy times. Sitting there in the deli, watching my mother’s tears, seeing that she really couldn’t or wouldn’t deal with reality—it was too much. She’s close to 90 years old, I told myself. Let her be. And so I let the thing drop. In the time she had left, we never again spoke of me being gay, or about anything connected to my childhood. It was what Gertrude wanted.


14. I Become a Blogger!

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Some of the best times of my wine writing career were the simplest: just hanging out with winemakers. I like winemakers. They’re earthy, basic, smart, funny people, comfortable in muddy vineyards and cold cellars, dragging hoses or pruning vines, and they usually have really interesting hobbies. Their passions are often unseen by outsiders: the passion to create memorable wine. And winemakers are usually—not always—humble. No matter how talented they are, they realize how dependent they are on Mother Nature.

I never fancied myself a super-knowledgeable guy about the ins and outs of grape growing or winemaking. I surely knew more than most people, but my knowledge paled beside that of many sommeliers and, particularly, compared to those Lords of the Wine World, the Masters of Wine (MWs). People like that have to be able to explain the difference between a Geneva Double Curtain and a Scott Henry (two different kinds of vine trellising systems), or write an essay on Croatian wine varieties, or recite the precipitation statistics in Pauillac over a 20-year period.

To tell the truth, there were many technical aspects of wine that bored the hell out of me. I mean, how many bottling lines can you see before you never want to see another one? Winemakers often are justifiably proud of their bottling lines, though, or their fermenting tanks, or their grape sorters, so even though touring the winery wasn’t my favorite thing, I had to show interest. Ditto for the vineyards. “And in 2002, we budded this over to Clone 4.” What I really liked to do with winemakers was have the kinds of free-wheeling conversations I recited in my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff. Those chats included technical stuff, naturally, but I also loved talking with winemakers about the industry, and how they got started, or how they felt about scores and critics, or their hopes and dreams, or their pricing strategies, or did they like being on the road. That’s the juicy stuff.

I also liked tasting with winemakers, but that presented a different set of problems. I was never comfortable letting them know how I felt about their wines, especially if I didn’t care for one. That’s pretty awkward. What are you supposed to say? You’re a guest in their home (or winery). It’s like saying, “Your baby is ugly.”

But the truth is, there was only one reaction from me that the winemakers really cared about, and that was [drumroll…] THE SCORE. (This was after I went to Wine Enthusiast.) Sometimes, I’d have to give a bad score—that was my job, to tell it like it is. And it was always hard for me emotionally when a winemaker called up to complain. “Parker loved that wine!” they’d say. “Jim Laube gave it 96. It won Double Gold in Indianapolis.” I’d have to kindly explain that I’m not Parker, I’m not Laube, I’m not Indianapolis, I’m me. If the winemaker asked me to explain exactly what the problem was with the wine, obviously I couldn’t do that technically, because I didn’t have a laboratory to rip the wine apart, and I’m not a trained enologist. I could only do so in terms of the way it smelled and tasted and felt to me. And since these impressions are so fundamentally personal and subjective, I’m sure a great many winemakers didn’t know what I was talking about.

I’ll give you an example of how personal and subjective tasting is, even among professionals. When I started out, I went to a tasting in San Francisco of “mountain Cabernets” from Napa Valley. (This was around 1992.) One of the wines was the Cabernet Sauvignon from Dunn Vineyards, on Howell Mountain, which at that point was one of the most coveted and collectible wines in California. If I recall correctly, the vintage was 1979, so the wine was then 13 years old.

I simply didn’t know what to make of it. The wine was tough, tannic, dense. Puzzled, I sought the opinion of two people in the room whose expertise I valued: the afore-referenced Jim Laube, from Wine Spectator, and Anthony Dias Blue, “Andy,” who then (if I remember correctly) was wine columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, and has gone on to great success through his industry magazines. Both were famous—in my circles, anyhow. I no longer remember which was which, but the first guy said the Dunn wasn’t ready yet; its mountain tannins needed years more to resolve. The second guy said that the wine was too old—“over the hill,” in the parlance. I thought, wow. These two famous experts don’t even agree with each other on something as fundamental as “Is this wine ready to drink?” What the heck does that mean?

Learning experience! To me, it meant that I should trust my palate. Write your review the way you see it, and don’t apologize. You’re as “right” as the next guy; just be confident in your assessment. In the same context, I can’t tell you how often I tasted wine with MWs at events. I found the same phenomenon: even these highly-educated men and women often disagreed with each other over specific wines.

If you ask me which winemakers I liked best, take a look at the second book I wrote for University of California Press: New Classic Winemakers of California [2008]. Those 28 individuals are in there for a reason. It’s true I wanted heterogeneity in the book—to include younger and older men and, especially, women, and to have geographical diversity. But even using those criteria, California had multitudes to choose from. The plain and simple fact is that I liked Merry Edwards, and Billy Wathan, and Rick Longoria, and Heidi Peterson Barrett, and Adam and Dianna Lee, and Michael Terrien, and the Pisonis pere et les deux fils, and Kathy Joseph, and the rest. Oh, and by the way, they all were making great wine. I would not have included anyone, no matter how much I liked them, if they were making plonk!

Speaking of New Classic Winemakers, this is as good a place as any to record how I came to write it, and its predecessor book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River [2005]. Surely, having those two books published—and by so prestigious a publisher as University of California Press—was a high point of my career, one of which I’m proud.

In the 1990s, I’d tried to get a book published, together with my friend, Joel Butler, one of the first two MWs in the country. We put together a proposal and wrote a sample chapter (on Rhone grapes and wines), but we couldn’t get any interest from anyone. So I gave up the idea of writing a wine book.

One day, I think in 2002, I got a phone call from a chap named Blake Edgar. He said he was an acquisitions editor for University of California Press, in Berkeley. Might he take me to lunch? He might. He’d followed my career, liked my writing: would I write a wine book for him? About what? “Anything you want,” Blake replied. I was stunned. That’s not the way things are supposed to happen! Usually the only authors who are given carte blanche have proven track records, and even then, there are restrictions.

But that’s how it happened. Out of that came A Wine Journey along the Russian River (and don’t ask me why they didn’t capitalize “along,” but I’m not going to argue with University of California grammarians!). I told Blake I wanted to write a wine book that would read well in a hundred years, not some version of “My top-rated wines” or “The wines and vines of Sonoma County” that would be obsolete the moment it came out. The idea behind Journey was based on Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, which also was what Francis Ford Coppola based Apocalypse Now upon (and incidentally, after Journey was published, Coppola sold it in his tasting room). The central conceit was for me to travel the Russian River, north to south (or east to west, since it twists a lot), telling a story that would build to a climax at the end. Journey was equal parts history, geology (including plate tectonics), climate, wine regions, local personalities, individual wines and vineyards, and my overall take on things. Journey is, I have to say, a really good read; I hear from strangers to this day who email me to say how much they enjoyed it.

After Conversations came out, in 2008, people asked if I were going to write a third book. I’d tell them that my blog, which I’d started in May of that year and wrote five days a week, was my third book!

* * *

I’d heard of wine blogs since the early 2000s. At first, I thought they were stupid. The ones I saw were sadly lacking in wine knowledge and, worse (from my perspective) badly written. From time to time, people would tell me to start a wine blog. My reaction was always the same: I don’t think so!

But in May, 2008, I fired up the Steve Heimoff wine blog—the one you’re reading now, although it’s no longer just about wine. I just decided it was time. Maybe I sensed which way the wind was blowing, and wanted to be there. Maybe I felt creatively hampered at Wine Enthusiast, where I couldn’t really speak in my own voice; a wine blog, at least, would be all mine. Whatever my reason, I knew one thing: If I was going to write a wine blog, it was going to be the best goddamned wine blog in the English language.

And you know what? It was. Well, if not “the best” (and who’s to say?), certainly one of the most popular. I was astonished how fast it soared to the top. Partly that was because I started out with a huge advantage: name recognition. I was already famous. People were curious what Steve Heimoff, the esteemed and powerful wine critic, had to say on his blog. And it turned out I had plenty to say.

At first, I didn’t know what my format or style would or should be. I floundered along. Some of the early posts are really lame. Eventually it came to me: opinionating. But there was one post that really launched my blog into the stratosphere.

I began noticing, in the summer of 2008, references on other wine blogs to a wine from the Rodney Strong winery called Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon. I wondered what was up. Was it a coincidence that wine bloggers across America simultaneously decided to write about the same wine? What were the odds of that?

I learned that Rodney Strong had sent the wine to certain wine bloggers (but not to in-print critics like me) with a condition: they had to write about it. The Rodney Strong people didn’t tell them they had to like it, but the bloggers did have to promise to review it. As soon as I heard that, I recalled the wine scandals of yesteryear—the newspaper critic who was fired and other pay-to-play instances. The journalist in me thought that such behavior verged on unacceptable. You can’t strike deals with journalists. You can send them your wine if you want, and take your chances, but you can’t bargain with them beforehand. “If you do this, we’ll do this,” and so on. That’s not the way ethical journalism works.

So I wrote a post called “Did Rodney Strong Manipulate Wine Bloggers,” and the shit hit the fan. (Here’s a link to that post; it’s dated 2013, because I think that’s the last time I accessed it, but it’s the original 2008 piece. I promise that this is the only link you’ll find in these memoirs.)

My post got 79 comments, the most my blog ever got. It immediately propelled steveheimoff.com into the top ranks of wine blogs, a “must read,” and a controversial one. An ancillary result of this was the fierce, almost hostile criticism I encountered from some quarters; it was my introduction to the dark side of social media.

Nonetheless, I loved all the attention, loved the “juice,” the energy—what writer doesn’t crave being read? But my boss at Wine Enthusiast, Adam Strum, had different feelings.

In his view, which he did not hide from me, people—the general public and the wine industry—were confusing the Steve Heimoff who wrote the blog with the Steve Heimoff who worked for Wine Enthusiast. I thought that was silly. There was only one Steve Heimoff. He could walk and chew gum at the same time. I never reviewed wines on my blog—that would have been a conflict of interest. I self-edited myself all the time by asking, “Will this upset Adam?” Still, Adam found cause to complain.

Tension between us grew. Numerous times he asked me to drop the blog. I refused. Things reached a standoff: Adam was perfectly free to fire me but, on the other hand, I was his star writer, the California reviewer everyone liked and admired, whose credibility was unimpeachable. He might not have liked my blog, but he knew I was a great writer–he told me so–and that the industry read me every day—and that redounded to Wine Enthusiast’s benefit.

The situation peaked one night in San Francisco. Adam was hosting a large public wine and food tasting at the Opera House, one of the fanciest venues in town. The place was packed. The Wall Street Journal had arranged for a VIP lounge. Adam asked me to address them, which I was happy to do. I gave some general remarks—I don’t even remember what I said—when the Q&A period started. One of the first questions was about my blog. From there someone asked what I thought of the future of print journalism.

Now, I should explain that at this period (around 2010 or 2011), there was a great deal of speculation that print periodicals were dead, or at least mortally wounded by the Internet and the rise of social media. The 2008 Great Recession had happened; advertising, their major source of revenue, had fallen off the cliff at magazines and newspapers. The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle were said to be tottering on the edge; some newspapers and magazines folded. Bloggers were among the loudest voices proclaiming that “Print is dead, long live digital” although, of course, they were hardly unbiased.

My own view was that print was not dead; indeed, I thought it had a fine future. Yes, many print publications were bleeding money, but that was because of the Recession and loss of advertising, not because of blogs. When the Recession ended—and it would, they all do—advertising would return, and print would be better than ever.

That was the essence of my response to the Wall Street Journal. When my VIP talk was over, I went back down to the main floor of the Opera House, where many wineries were pouring samples, only to find Adam Strum coming at me with a look on his face I did not like.

“How dare you tell the Wall Street Journal that print journalism is dead?”

It was one of those WTF? moments. Excuse me, I didn’t say that. Seems that one of the Wall Street Journal employees in the VIP lounge, a P.R. person, had reported to Adam that, indeed, I had predicted the imminent demise of print journalism—which would have been a hugely un-diplomatic thing to say to people who made their living at one of the nation’s premier print newspapers!

Adam and I had a terrible row, right in front of all those guests (most of whom had no idea who either of us was) and winemakers and P.R. people (who did). Things got so bad that I asked Adam to step outside the Opera House if we were going to continue our conversation. On the steps of that ornate Beaux Arts building, Adam backed me against a wall—my thoughts drifted back to the commune, and Michael wedging me in the booth of the bar in West Springfield. I thought Adam was going to hit me.

It all turned out okay. He called a day or so later and we talked it out. I assured him I had not said print was dead, for a good reason: I didn’t believe it. I don’t know to this day how a supposedly professional P.R. person who worked for a credible publication like the Wall Street Journal could have mangled my real remarks so badly. But things were never the same between Adam and me. I loved him on some level, was deeply grateful to him for helping my career, and I respected his prowess as an entrepreneur. But personally, our relationship never recovered.

* * *

In the early Nineties, I took up the study of karate.

There are different styles of karate, or karatedo, as it’s properly known: Karate means empty hand, i.e., no weapons, while do means path, or way: The way of the empty hand. Our style was Wado, the way of peace: peace through strength, as it were. (Technically there are different schools within Wado, but to keep things simple, I’ll just call it that.) Traditional Japanese karatedo was introduced to Japan in 1922 by an Okinawan, the legendary Gichin Funakoshi. One of his top students was Hironori Ohtsuka, who founded the Wado style that blended in more fluid elements of Korean taekwando. Ohtsuka was the sensei of Yoshiaki Ajari, born in Tokyo in 1933. Ajari was my sensei.

Ajari was old school. He’d learned karate in Tokyo before World War II, before the Americans pablumized it with rainbow-colored belts and an “every kid succeeds” egalitarianism. Intensely aware of the honorable samurai tradition he had inherited, Ajari had been personally charged by Ohtsuka himself to introduce Wado to the North American continent when he, Ajari, came to California to study architecture. He was tough, but fair. And he was a real character; generations of black belts still tell tales of him.

Here’s what Ajari said to me when I won my first tournament. He’d been in another part of the arena and hadn’t seen. I rushed over to him to brag. Yes, I was proud of myself. “Sensei, I won!” He looked at me with something approaching deep contempt and said, in his halting Japlish, “I guess judge make mistake.” Then he turned and walked away. I had expected praise. Ajari never praised. Excellence was expected, was its own reward. But woe to you if you screwed up.

Karatedo was difficult for me physically. As a short man, I was fighting men six, eight inches taller, with correspondingly longer reaches—of arms for fist-punching and legs for kicking. They were not only taller than I, they were far younger. I didn’t begin the study of this martial art until I was 49. Almost all my sparring opponents were in their twenties or thirties.

I sought the advice of a friend of mine, a small Chinese-American man named Bien, who had attained his sixth degree black belt, the rokudan. “How do I fight against someone bigger, younger and faster, sensei?” “You must become a badger,” Bien advised: savage, vicious–a small animal that even larger creatures fear.

Sensei Ajari awarded me my shodan—first degree black belt—after four years. I continued my studies for an additional three and was on the verge of competing for my nidan—second degree—when joint pain struck, the result not so much of karatedo but of the arthritis of age. This also was when my wine career was burgeoning. Karate and wine writing both required prodigious amounts of time and energy. I had to make a choice—as I had to between working and standup comedy, as I had had to when I joined the commune. At the age of 58, I hung up my gi and retired.

I loved the practice of karatedo. It was a great privilege to study under someone so connected to so ancient a tradition, whose standards were so impeccable. Karatedo kept my body hard and lean, improved my self-confidence, made me feel better about myself, and, in the streets of Oakland that sometimes could be dangerous, gave me at least some measure of protection (although I never had to use it). I gave myself credit for sticking with it, even through the hard times when Ajari’s criticisms left me close to tears, and I’d wonder why I was doing this. But I knew sensei loved me, in his own weird, old-fashioned way—a way he could demonstrate only by toughness; had he not cared, he would have ignored me. And I knew that karatedo was good, not because it was easy, but because it was hard.

* * *

Meanwhile, gay life in San Francisco was getting crazier. The disease crested and took its violent toll, eventually causing thousands of deaths. I did not refrain from having sex, but I did stop the particular behaviors I thought were riskiest.

When I got the job at California College of Arts & Crafts, I commuted across the Bay Bridge every day to Oakland. It was a reverse commute, but still awful, and I came to dread it. One day in mid-1987, Eugene and I had a little talk. We’d been together five years. The relationship was getting threadbare. He worked from 3 p.m. to midnight, including weekends; I worked daytimes from Monday to Friday, and was in bed by 10 p.m. We barely saw each other anymore, and decided to put things on hiatus. I looked for a place in Oakland. This time, I wanted to buy, not rent. My mother gave me $20,000 (Jack had died in 1983), which was enough for a down payment on a little condo in the Adams Point neighborhood, a block up the hill from Lake Merritt and Lakeside Park. I still reside there, 33 years later. The neighborhood has gotten very trendy; people tell me how fortunate I am to have bought my place for one-seventh of what it would cost today. But in 1987, from an affordability point-of-view, the cost was pretty much the same. Without Gertrude’s help, I never could have afforded my little one-bedroom, 620-square foot condo for $59,000. And even if I sold it now, where could I live in the Bay Area?

The 1980s also was when my political consciousness awoke, or re-awoke. I’d always been kind of political. My parents, as I wrote earlier, were Democrats, Gertrude fiercely, Jack less so. Back at 760 Grand Concourse, when I was a little boy, the Heimoff family worshipped two human gods: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was chief deity, with Adlai Stevenson only a notch below.

My political awareness went into hibernation during the drug and commune period and for my first years in San Francisco, when school, work and sex eclipsed it. But it never fully went away. When Reagan was elected, shortly after I’d moved to San Francisco (and despite the assurances of my local friends that it would never happen because he was a madman), I hadn’t been particularly alarmed. But Reagan and his political advisors, such as Lee Atwater, eventually did something that did alarm me. They made a devil’s deal with the Christian right; Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority suddenly had great power. Their homophobia was reckless, insulting and insane. The clincher for me was one day when I was driving back to San Francisco from Cousin Ellen’s house in Malibu.

It was a Sunday morning. I was coming up the 101 Freeway through the Salinas Valley, flipping through the radio dial, looking for something to listen to besides mariachi. I came across a Christian church meeting; a fiery preacher was speaking to what sounded like a huge crowd, to judge from their thunderous roars. Here is what the preacher said; I’ve never forgotten it:

“We’ll reach out to the non-believers with love. We’ll pray for them and teach them the Word of God. We hope that they join us. But some of them won’t. They’re stiff-necked; they’ll resist the truth of Jesus. And do you know what we’ll do then?”

“NO!” screamed the crowd.

“We’ll surround them. And then we’ll drag them kicking and screaming into the tent.” More roars, clapping, amens, praise the lords. I had to pull over to absorb what I’d just heard. The preacher had referred to “them.” That obviously included me, a non-Christian, a gay Jew. They were going to try to convert me, but if I resisted—which I would–they would “surround” me and “drag me kicking and screaming” into some “tent.” I envisioned a frenzied mob of Christian thugs seizing me by the arms and legs. I’d find myself—where? What was this “tent”? Some kind of concentration camp? We’ve seen that before.

It was frightening. But it was a signature moment in my political-intellectual development. As a gay American—hell, as an American–I had no intention of seeing radical Christians seize control of my country and force people like me into some kind of religious gulag. I made a vow that moment to resist these people. I have lived true to that vow ever since. And when Donald Trump became president, I doubled down on my resistance.


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