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Me and God

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I’ve had an on-and-off relationship with God all my life. I cannot remember when I first heard of him. We humans aren’t born with an innate awareness of deity but must be taught whom to worship and how and, for the curious among us, as I was, why. Hebrew School, which I attended after regular school for six years, from the age of seven until my bar mitzvah, gave me my first formal introduction to God: the God of the Old Testament, of the Jews. Those seeds fell on fertile ground; by the time I was ten or eleven I had a profound relationship with God.

Sadly, that relationship was based on desire: on what I wanted God to give me. This isn’t how worship is supposed to work: you’re supposed to love God for the sheer delight of loving the deity, and not as part of some quid pro quo. But try to explain that to an eleven-year old. What I wanted, back then, was to grow in height. All my friends were shooting up like beanstalks. Not little Stevie. The sadness that engendered, I can still feel today; possibly it’s the seed corn of the sadness I’ve felt all my life, although there often were perfectly sound reasons for the other sadnesses. Suffice it to say that being short made me profoundly sad.

And so I prayed. And Prayed. And Prayed, with Gethsemanean intensity, every night before drifting off to sleep. “Please, God, let me grow an inch by morning.” Alas, the penciled height jots on the post of my bedroom door never exceeded 5’5”; God either did not hear my prayers or, in a spiteful mood, chose not to answer them (although, as Capote reminds us, answered prayers may be their own curse).

As a result, I suppose, of that rebuff I stopped believing in God. No, that’s not quite right: I was angry with God, and so I stopped talking to him, but I still believed in him. Over the years, there were flickerings, here and there, when the old God—my Hebrew School God, the patron of the Jews—crossed the threshold of my mind, at least enough for me to talk to him again. But I cannot recall any prolonged period of belief, although, intellectually, I always found the act of faith interesting food for thought. Such a uniquely human thing; so ubiquitous throughout history. Suddenly, in 2005, along came my first book, “A Wine Journey along the Russian River,” and what was that on page three? “Dedicated to God.”

How do I explain that?

By then I’d met, and fallen rather head over heels in love with, a young—all right, a very young man I’ll call Ezra, because he is today a rabbi in a Chasidic Jewish order, married, with who knows how many dozens of children, as befits these fruitful multipliers, and I would not want him (or his wife) to read this. No, nothing ever happened between us. I have always had too much taste to cause unseemly scenes, especially with men I like and admire for qualities other than their beauty. But when Ezra and I sat together, studying Kabbalah, he would write down the various letters of the Hebrew alphabet and explain their mystical meanings, while I heard nothing, thought nothing, saw nothing, save his hands and the exquisitely delicate, long white fingers that guided his pen, like Michaelangelo’s hands modeling David’s face. I see those hands now, resting lightly on the table of the café where we used to meet; and I am tempted to say that they brought me back to God because, after all, who else but God could have created that infinite loveliness?

But that would be a stretch. It was not Ezra’s fingers that re-introduced me to God, although he did ease me into a two-year period of the study of Chasidism. Something else by then had occurred. Perhaps it was just the pendulum sweeping through its inevitable arc. I do go through epochs. Perhaps it was turning fifty and hearing—tick, tick, tick—Time’s winged chariot creeping up behind my left shoulder, the sinister one; or it could have been the Millennium, which always causes god-craziness among people. I’m not sure what it was, which is surprising, since you’d think that re-believing in God would have been prompted by something remarkable, hence unforgettable. But there it is: I don’t know exactly what brought me back to Adonai Elohainu, which is the way it ought to be. A mystery.

However, it was only a brief reconciliation, for by 2009, I’d ceased once again to have much use for the God who had ruined my life by thrusting me off to Bernie Madoff Hell. When I thought about God—which I did, in a philosophically contemplative way—I, the most rational of Geminis, found intellectually absurd the idea of a personal creator who took interest in my affairs. Also, as I’ve written elsewhere, by then I’d realized that my enemy was the evangelical wing of the Christians, and their constant blathering about God was…well, the friend of my enemy is my enemy: something like that. I suppose I could have, through some kind of mental jiu-jitsu, believed in a different God than the Christian God, but that seemed hypocritical, and still does.

So that was my most recent, and probably last, foray into the religion of my forebears. I certainly have no use for the rituals of Judaism, such as the Seder, although I understand their role in highlighting the value Judaism places on the family. But having no family, this is of no great meaning to me. And I’m bound to point out that it was my people, the ancient Hebrews, who invented homophobia: the concept that same sexuality is an abomination punishable by death, the only ancient peoples of the Middle East to do so, as far as I know. Judaism thus can take credit for making it impossible–until only very recently–for gay people to have families, unless, that is, they—we—are willing to live lives of lies.

A confession: I’ve always had a secret fascination, or a morbid fear—they’re similar–of becoming Christian. I notice crosses everywhere—a telephone pole, the way a pillar is intersected by a beam, contrails in the form of an “X”. So frequently does this happen that I sometimes wonder what’s up. And there are other things…

For instance, yesterday I was out for a walk and one of the songs on my iPod (of which there are thousands) started playing. Walker Hayes’ Craig is an overtly Christian song, about a beer-drinking non-believer who gradually grows to believe through the intercessional love of a preacher, Craig, who wins his heart. It’s the only such song on my playlist (unless you include Dylan’s strange, beautiful album, Slow Train Coming). I loved Craig when I first heard it and was aware of the irony—and danger—of downloading it. Don’t get sucked in. But what are the odds of Craig playing just as I was passing the Roman Catholic Cathedral here in Oakland? The structure itself is ugly (to my untrained eye) but whenever I pass it—which is often—something happens inside me I can’t explain. There have been many, many unexplainable synchronicities like this in recent years; were I more suggestible, or less cynical, I might think that somebody was trying to get a message through to me.

But I’m stubborn. I think of Hannah and Her Sisters, specifically the scene where the Woody Allen character, Mickey, after considering converting to Hare Krishna during a life crisis, finally reasons with himself. “Who am I kidding?” he wonders. As do I, although, strictly speaking, the question is Whom am I kidding?

After all, one has a certain pride. One does not run to the nearest religion just because one is lonely. Jews are a stiff-necked people, it’s said, and New York City Jews are probably the stiffest-necked of all, at least outside of Israel, where they have to be stiff-necked because a billion Muslims would like to drive them into the Mediterranean. So, no, Stevie is not about to become a born-again Christian. Besides, just a week ago I sent a rather nasty email to an old friend—well, we’ve known each other 30 years. Charles is 62, a Black evangelical Christian, an Elder in his storefront church here in Oakland, and a helluva nice man. He’s been working on me (I mean, to convert me) all these years. We ran into each other while we were both on separate walks to get out of shelter-in-place perdition, and our conversation picked up right where it always does, with Charles quoting scripture and me, politely, refuting him in Socratic manner. I like Charles a greal deal, but when I came home I emailed him and said I could never associate with an organization that causes so much pain and suffering to gay people.

Were born-again Christians less mean and more accepting, I might—might—explore the possibilities. But really, Christianity has shot itself in the foot with its viciousness, and even the more reasonable strains—Unitarians, Episcopalians, Methodists—are tainted by association with their evil (I use the word deliberately) brethren. So I see the crosses and experience the synchronicities and wonder what the heck is going on. I expect I’ll live out what’s left of my life—three years? Four? Heimoff men don’t make it out of our seventies–in that twilight zone between non-belief and wonderment, until wondering ceases and either knowledge or nothing replaces it.


21. Tattoos

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I thought yesterday that this memoir was over, but then a few of you have asked about my tattoos. You wanted to know if there was a “back story.” There is.

The Back Story

I already told you about Madoff, and how freaked out I was. Well, one day when I was picking up my wines from the UPS Store to review in Wine Enthusiast—this must have been around 2010–I noticed an unusual young man. He was cleaning out the shop next to the UPS Store, which had been a real estate office until the Great Recession wiped out real estate and just about every real estate place closed.

He attracted my attention, this young man, because of his exotic, artistic appearance. His arms and face were heavily tattooed, and he was wearing those big wooden earrings that are the size of silver dollars, so that his lobes hung down almost to his shoulders. I don’t normally introduce myself to perfect strangers, but in this case, I was compelled to. His name was Philip Milic, and he was opening a tattoo shop he called Old Crow.

Over the next few months we got to be pretty good friends. Philip suggested I get a tattoo, but I figured, why bother? I’ve gotten this far in life without one. But the Madoff thing continued to haunt me. One day, when I was particularly depressed, I told Philip how sad I was. He replied that a lot of people get their first tattoo in order to commemorate a significant event. It can be something sad, even tragic, but it signifies recovery.

That made a great deal of sense to me: a symbolic new beginning. What have I got to lose? So we talked about what the tattoo should be. The very first question Philip asked was: Do you want it to show? I hadn’t expected that. He explained that many people get tattoos under their clothes because they’re not certain it’s appropriate in their workplace. My reaction was immediate. Hell yes, I want it to show. I’m not going to hide anything anymore. If I get a tattoo, I’m going to flaunt it! I didn’t think Wine Enthusiast or Adam would care, but if they did, that was their problem, not mine.

So I got a flower bracelet on my left wrist. Just a little thing—I wanted to see if I liked it or not. The work was pretty painful—anyone who says tattoos don’t hurt is lying. But it was a short session, and once it healed, I found, to my pleasure, that I loved it. This is hard to explain. Maybe I felt a little younger and cooler, a little sexier. Nothing wrong with that. Whenever I looked at it, I’d think, “Hello gorgeous, you are the symbol of moving beyond Madoff into a more hopeful future.”

Once I had the bracelet, Philip and the other artists in the shop began to tease me. “Now you’re ready for a sleeve!”, a sleeve being an entire arm of tattoos. Now, that was an intimidating concept. A cute little bracelet was one thing, but an entire sleeve?

I pondered it for a day or so, and then decided, Yeah, let’s do this. Philip asked what kind of design I wanted. Since the bracelet was roses, I said, let’s do more flowers. Philip had some coffee-table flower books. I chose some of the most beautiful ones—California poppies, lilies, violets, tulips—and Philip worked up a design.

Since it was a sleeve, including the elbow, the sessions took a couple of months. Tattooing the muscles and fleshy part of the arm didn’t hurt so much, but anytime the needle got to a bone or a nerve, Ouch! The elbow almost drove me out of my mind; the underarm was as bad. I tried various analgesics: Vicodin, tranquilizers, wine, pot. Nothing really worked. The only thing to do was relax and breathe. You don’t really want to talk to your tattoo artist while he’s tattooing you because he needs to concentrate. And you can’t laugh or move at all. But the other artists were great. If they weren’t working on their own clients, they’d sit with me to watch Philip, the master, work, and they’d chat amongst themselves. It took my mind off the pain. The other thing that really helped was that Philip has a little chihuahua, Chlulu. When I’d first met Chlulu, she bit me: I hated that bitch. But during the sessions, she would jump up in my lap and stay there, sleeping and snoring. It was fantastically soothing, and I grew to like Chlulu quite a bit. (That’s when I decided to get a dog, so Philip also is responsible for Gus.)

Well, you know where this is going. Once I had one sleeve, the guys in the shop said you’re lopsided: you have to get the other sleeve. All right. I decided to have something to balance out the flowers, which were feminine, brightly colored and intuitive—the right side of my brain. Someone had given me, as a Christmas present, a book on Polynesian tattoos, and I’d been tremendously infatuated with their boldness, simplicity and power, and the modernity they display despite being so ancient a tradition. Tattooing in Guam, Fiji and Samoa thousands of years ago, artists didn’t have colors like they do now, so Polynesian motifs make use of a dark bluish-blackish steel color, utilizing negative space in geometric patterns that often symbolize spears, shark’s teeth and arrowheads.

Philip said he was fine with designing something Polynesian. Now, I should explain that, in my Polynesian tattoo book, they would show a full-color picture of a tattoo and then, on the opposite page, have an interview with the person who got it. And most of these people were young. A common theme emerged: they were of Polynesian heritage, but their parents had “lost the old ways” and these younger men and women wanted to reconnect with their traditional culture. There was something touchingly spiritual about them.

That got me thinking. I’m not Polynesian; I’ve never been to Polynesia, except for a couple trips to Honolulu. I don’t know anything about Polynesian history or spiritual beliefs. I’m a Jewish guy from New York City. Who am I to expropriate these tattoo motifs? Good question! But where to get an answer?

Another lightbulb went off. I decided I needed to find someone to give me permission to put Polynesian images on my body. But who? I reverted back to my old I Ching days: through randomness the gods speak. Obviously the I Ching couldn’t help me in this case, so I went to good old Google. I’ll search for “Polynesian tattoos” and scroll through the results, I figured, and when I find the right one, somehow I’ll know.

Buried way down in the Google hits was a woman’s webpage. Turned out she was an expert in Polynesian tattooing and actually taught it at the University of Hawaii. Moreover, she was herself a tattoo artist specializing in Polynesian designs. I just knew she was the one who could give me permission.

So I emailed her. “Hi, you don’t know me, but…” I explained my situation. Amazingly, within minutes she emailed back and told me to call. We had a little chat, and she said the answer was complicated. There were certain images that a Caucasian was not permitted to have. There were other images that could be placed only on certain parts of the body. Did I have a particular design in mind, she asked?

Well, yes, I replied. I have this book on Polynesian tattoos, and one of them speaks forcibly to me.

“What’s the name of the book?” she asked. I told her. She said, “I wrote that book.”

Now, you can imagine my reaction. Wow. Google really hit it out of the park. How do you explain these things? Referencing her copy of her book, she looked at the tattoo I liked and said that it was fine for me to use—but please, she urged, tell your artist not to copy it, but to use it only for inspiration. And that’s what we did: My right-hand sleeve is the complement to my left-hand sleeve: my masculine, warrior, rational side, controlled by the left brain. The two sides balance each other.

I love my tattoos and am very proud of them. Philip is one of the senior tattoo artists in the Bay Area. He’s won many awards. When summertime comes to California and I shed my outer layers of clothing, people stop me constantly—really—to remark on the beauty of my tattoos (Oakland is a very tattoo-conscious town), and I always tell them “Philip Milic, Old Crow Tattoo, Oakland.” Now, the guys at the tattoo shop tell me I should get my legs done, and my back and chest. But I don’t think so. Two sleeves are enough!


20. Silverfish

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One thing you can say about getting old: It beats the alternative.

It’s been shocking to me—the jock, the competitive runner, the karateka, the weightlifter with a six-pack—how rapidly the body deteriorates. Once I hit 70, Wham! “The ills the flesh is heir to…”I think of that movie, Cocoon, where those old people become young again and…

But no, you can’t dwell in the past, or retreat into fantasy. I know that. Still, it’s hard not to revisit the past: after all, 90% of my life exists there. And there’s not much else to do during this shelter-in-place. Hence this memoir.

I find myself recalling things from 40, 50, 60, 70 years ago—smells, sounds, sights, colors, feelings, people, a cliff in Franz Siegel Park, somebody’s eyeglasses, the smell of the schoolbus, the rumble of the D train. The resuscitation of a single memory triggers an avalanche of other memories. It’s scary to think that we’re lugging all that trivia around in our brains. But it doesn’t feel heavy. It’s more like a gift.

* * *

My immediate challenge, once I left Jackson Family Wines, was: What the hell am I going to do now? My life had been busy, crammed, complicated. I’d worked since the age of 13. Suddenly, waking up meant figuring out what to do for the rest of the day. There was always the gym, and my blog, which I immediately devoted to anti-Trump agitation. But what else?

First thing I did was to join the Oakland Senior Center. But the truth is I’ve never gone there in all these years. Maybe I’m not ready to take up tango lessons or crocheting. What I did do was to resume something I’d done back in the Eighties: performing live comedy.

It was around 1986 when I read that the comedienne Joan Rivers was going to be in San Francisco to promote her memoir, Enter Talking, at a Barnes & Noble. Joan was my father’s cousin. I’d met her at family events. She once invited me and Eugene to one of her shows, at a South Lake Tahoe casino. She was very nice, getting us a good table and bringing us backstage afterwards.

I went to the bookstore, bought her book and stood in line so she could autograph it. She inscribed it “To a cousin!”

Enter Talking inspired me. Joan tells of her fierce, burning ambition to be in show business, and of her parents’ unrelenting objection. Her father, a doctor, even threatened to have her committed to a mental institution; Joan went through some very tough times. But she triumphed. After reading the book, I thought, You know what? Joan Rivers and I have the same blood, the same warped, Jewish New York sense of humor. If she can do it, so can I!

So I became “Harry Stevens,” Harry being my middle name. I began doing open mikes at the comedy clubs that were popular in San Francisco in the Eighties: Cobb’s, Holy City Zoo, the Other Café, and at a few places in the South and East bays. I hired a comedy coach and outfitted myself in my stage costume: seersucker jacket, orange tie, green shirt. My shtick was Woody Allen-esque: My parents were so poor, the only thing I inherited from my father was male pattern baldness. But people liked it. My first performance ever, at the Other, the audience went nuts. They gave me a standing ovation. I went back to my car and cried…I can do this.

I was getting good, building some reputation. But this also was during that super-busy period of my life, and staying up until 1 a.m. or later every night was exhausting. I had to make a decision—it was the commune vs. London all over again. Either I’d have to quit my day job and devote myself fulltime to comedy in order to take it to the next level, or I’d have to quit comedy.

I quit comedy. The old fear of being broke was just too much.

Fast forward nearly 30 years to retirement. In Oakland, near where I live, there was a little streetfront theater. It had a sign that said “Improv.” I must have walked past that theater hundreds of time and never given it a second thought. But now, looking for something to do, I checked it out. Hmm, I thought, this could work. I’ve always had that hammy part of me that likes being onstage and performing (and many aspects of my wine critic’s role were, in essence, performances: I played Steve Heimoff, Famous Wine Critic). Improvisational comedy would help stimulate my brain, prevent it from atrophying. And the theater was only six blocks from my home.

I began improv in early 2017, starting with introductory classes and then working myself up to joining a troupe. It’s been an interesting and wild ride. In improv (you probably know this, but it’s worth emphasizing), there’s no script. Unlike the standup comedy I’d done in the Eighties, which was entirely scripted, in improv (as the saying goes) you don’t know where you’re going, you only know where you’ve been. Everything is entirely made up on the spot.

The number one rule they teach in improv is called “Yes, and.” The “Yes” means you have to agree with the reality that your partner defines. For instance, if two of us are about to begin a scene, I might get the idea in my head that I’ll be a little boy who wants to go out and play. But let’s say my partner gets in the first line: “Grandpa, you forgot to take your medicine again.” So much for the little boy! I am now officially “Grandpa” because that’s the reality my partner defined.

So that’s “Yes.” The “and” part means that after you accept your partner’s premise, you then build on it—add another brick to the structure. So, listening carefully to what my partner said, I’m not only “Grandpa,” I’m on some kind of medication, and I seem to have a habit of forgetting to take it. I might respond with, “Those pills make me dizzy.” That would be a good “and.” I’m not forgetful, I’m deliberately not taking the pills. There’s lots of stuff in there for my partner to use in her response. From there, the scene develops, building on itself. But it’s not about the pills, it’s not about my symptoms, it’s about the relationship between the granddaughter and Grandpa. That’s what audiences care about: relationships. They don’t necessarily need to be made to laugh; they want authenticity. If it engenders laughter in the audience, great, but our instructors are always telling us they’re just as happy when the audience is “on the edge of their seats” because the developing relationship is so compelling.

I like performing a lot. It’s amazing how any aches and pains I have completely disappear while I’m onstage. I don’t get nervous (although our director’s feedback afterwards can be uncomfortable.) Currently, because of coronavirus, our shows are on hiatus and so are rehearsals, although we’ve managed to use Zoom to rehearse distantly. Some of the talented young people who have been in my troupe have moved on: their ambitions carry them to Los Angeles or Chicago or New York. Me, I’m no longer ambitious.

That’s the most distinctive thing about getting old: you come to understand that not much is going to happen anymore (except physical deterioration!). You have to accept a more limited horizon. My life has always been about wanting stuff: Sex. Money. Approval. Friends. A good body. A sense of accomplishment. Book sales, blog views, great reviews. The admiration of my neighbors. More, more, more! Gimme, gimme, gimme! I’m still tempted to want things—old habits die hard. But I know there are many things I will never have; I must accept the burgeoning reality of nothingness. After all, death is the cessation of possibility. And it can’t be far away.

Do I have regrets? Not really. What’s the point? When I was younger, jogging around Lake Merritt, I’d see dads playing ball with their little sons, and it gave my heart a pang. I’ll never have that.  I could have denied my gayness, I suppose–married a woman and had kids. On the other hand, I might have been as unfit a dad as Jack. And, as I’ve written, had I had a family, I doubt I would have been able to afford being a wine writer. So it’s been a tradeoff.

The funny thing about this coronavirus shelter-in-place (well, it’s not funny-ha ha but funny-ironic) is that my life isn’t all that much different than it was before. Since I retired, I’ve spent a great deal of time alone. That’s fine with me. I’m not only freed from traffic, but from life’s other petty annoyances. I like napping, and reading (I usually have several books at once, history, biography, art and science; I’m not big on fiction), watching T.V. (especially MSNBC and streaming) and YouTube, and talking, talking, talking on the phone. My neighbors in the condo are very nice; I’ve been here 33 years now, and hundreds have come and gone, but the current crop is wonderful—younger people, a few with children, who work in tech, or in the arts. It’s like being back at 760 Grand Concourse: you’re constantly running into your neighbors in the hallways and having chit-chats. I host parties for my favorite neighbors (I serve my famous vodka gimlets); my current plan is to have a big post-coronavirus fête, and then another one when Joe Biden is elected in November.

But by far the best thing in my life is Gus. My Little Baby. The Peepee Puppy. (Why do we revert to baby talk with our pets?)

His name at the Oakland SPCA was Michael. I thought, “Michael’s a great name for a kid, but a horrible name for a dog.” So I renamed him Gus—the nickname Gertrude had when she was a little girl.

I adopted him ten years ago, although I like to tell the story of a time I was walking him. A black guy stopped and said, “Really cute dog.” “Thanks,” I replied. “I adopted him three days ago.” The guy is quiet for a moment, then: “Did you adopt him, or…did he adopt you?”

Thank you, stranger! Yes, Gus adopted me as much as I adopted him. When we first met, he jumped into my lap and licked my face; that sealed the deal. On the drive home, he threw up in my car.

* * *

When I was five or six, back at 760 Grand Concourse, we had silverfish in our bathroom. 760 was an old building; there were cracks where the baseboard met the floor. I used to take a piece of toilet paper and let the silverfish climb up onto it, then bring it to one of the cracks and shoo the insects out, so they could escape. I felt sorry for them; I wanted them to live.

We now have a silverfish problem in my condo building. Sometimes at night, when I get up to pee, I’ll put on my flipflops, switch on the bathroom light, and there it is, a dark, slithery thing, easy to spot on the tile floor. Down comes my foot. Squash!

What happened to the little boy who felt sorry for silverfish? How did he turn into the old man who kills them?

I don’t know. There are many things I don’t try to figure out anymore. We’re just silverfish, after all, every one of us, crawling around in the dark, searching for crumbs, until a giant foot comes out of nowhere and squashes us.


19. I Go to “The Dark Side”

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After the Madoff fiasco, I needed money. So I quit Wine Enthusiast in 2012—with few regrets, to be honest–and went to work for Jackson Family Wines (JFW). A big part of my decision was financial. JFW offered me a lot more money that I was used to and—after all those Wine Enthusiast freelancing years–benefits, including a matching 401(K). Woo hoo!

I’d had good relationships with the JFW people for years, including their director of communications, Caroline Shaw, and Jess Jackson’s wife, Barbara Banke. But my connection with Jess, the founder, was particularly strong. I’ll say it upfront: I thought the world of Jess Jackson, and I know for a fact he liked me. When he was dying, of cancer, in 2011, he invited me to his home, in the beautiful hills above the Alexander Valley. His magnificent mane of silver hair now shorn by chemo, he shuffled towards me in a housecoat and slippers. Then, with that dazzling smile, he opened his arms. Ensconced in his bosom, I felt the warmth and vitality of this giant of a man. Despite his wasting body, his spirit was as magnificent as a lion’s.

That final visit with Jess means so much to me. He didn’t have to do it. I was just a wine writer, one of dozens, maybe hundreds Jess knew around the world. I was not the most important. But for some reason, Jess brought me in. I’m not saying we were friends or anything like that, but it was inspiring that Jess—this billionaire, a tremendous success, who hobnobbed with the world’s most powerful people—saw something in me. I know it was authentic; remembering it gives me goosebumps.

So when I say working for his company was “financial,” I don’t in any way mean to demean JFW or Jess. The salary and benefits the company offered me were attractive (especially compared to Wine Enthusiast), but had a lesser wine company offered me the same package, I probably would have declined. Some things, such as my honor, are not for sale. For the fact is that I respected the hell out of JFW. Some people think of them only in terms of Kendall-Jackson, but JFW has insanely great wineries all over the world, and it was a privilege and a thrill to be associated with them.

I’ve gotten to know, over the course of my long career, many of the greatest and richest men (and a lot fewer women) in the wine industry. Some I despised; just because you’re commercially successful doesn’t mean you’re not an asshole. There have been only a handful I truly admired, such as Bill Harlan (who wrote the Foreward for my second book). But Jess blew them all out of the water. JFW’s CEO, Rick Tigner, always said Jess had wanted to build “the best damned winery in the world,” and in many respects he did. And Barbara Banke has carried that on with her own unique leadership.

I entitled this chapter “going over to the dark side” because that’s what some people called it when a critic went to work for a winery. You were, theoretically, going from a position of independence to indebtedness to your new boss, which implied a certain amount of ass-kissing. That’s not how I saw it. About 15 years ago, I had a good friend who’d worked as the wine columnist for a small newspaper. He was fired and took a job with the public relations department of a Napa Valley winery. We chatted one day; he was miserable and ashamed. He’d gone over to “the dark side.” I told him: “I do not want you to come down on yourself. Just because you’re working for a winery doesn’t mean you have sold your birthright. Be yourself. Be truthful. Do your job with dignity.”

That’s what I told him, and it’s what I believed.

I stayed at JFW for three-plus years, until I reached 70, which had always been the age I promised myself I’d retire. I can’t say those JFW years were uniformly pleasant or always creatively engaging. The company had been eager to hire me—there were bragging rights in acquiring Steve Heimoff—but no one apparently had thought out exactly what I should be doing. I hadn’t applied for the job, I’d been sought. There wasn’t even a job description; I was left to myself to figure out how to fit in. JFW is a large, complex organization, and like most such companies, had its cliques, peculiarities of culture, intense competition and elements of paranoia. It was an entrepreneurial place of Darwinian survival; you needed a certain aggressiveness to make it. Wending my way through that jungle was hard. And working from home made it harder. In many respects, I remained a loner. As I’ve written, wine writing is a solitary profession. After 25 years, I was not used to teams or the gamesmanship required to play with them.

Yet there were aspects of my new job I loved. By far the best was what I called “tasting with the kids.” “The kids” were Jess’s and Barbara’s three children, Katie, Julia and Chris, as well as various cousins and partners: all, I think, in their 20s. It started with Julia. Word came down that she wanted to meet me. We had lunch at The Barlow, in Sebastopol; she told me how much she admired me, and asked if she could taste with me, “at the foot of the master,” as she put it. I was flattered; wouldn’t you be? To be honest, I fell head over heels in love with Julia—me, a gay man!

Julia and I had such good times tasting that, eventually, one by one, the other “kids” started coming. And what wines we tasted! Tigner had told me, in effect, that money was no object in buying the wines. My idea was to focus on a particular varietal each session—say, Pinot Noirs produced by various JFW wineries (e.g. Hartford, Copain, Siduri, Penner-Ash, Byron)—and blind taste them against Pinot Noirs from rival California or Oregon producers, or from New Zealand or Burgundy. Similarly, we might taste JFW Cabernet Sauvignons (such as Verite, Stonestreet, Cardinale, Mr. Brave, Lokoya) against major Napa and Sonoma producers, and from Bordeaux. I thought the kids ought to know how their wines actually tasted, and develop their own ideas about them, as opposed to the hype they were getting from the Sales and Marketing departments. These were exciting tastings, absolutely thrilling. We’d speak our minds, vote our favorites and—risky—try to identify the bagged wines. It was amazing how often Chris Jackson and I agreed; I think we nailed Verite every time.

I miss those tastings; I miss “the kids” and I wish them well. And believe it or not, I miss Rick Tigner. Jess Jackson set them all a high bar. But in September, 2016, it was time for me to leave. On my last day, the kids and I had our final tasting. One of my most treasured mementos of my time at JFW is a group photograph of us: the second generation of Jackson Family Wines honoring me. Afterwards, I made the long schlep from Santa Rosa back to Oakland and thought, “Goodbye 101 freeway, goodbye Petaluma Narrows, goodbye San Rafael 101-580 merge, goodbye wicked Richmond Bridge, goodbye Emeryville backup, goodbye gridlock.” I sold my car and can say with gratitude (and a much lower carbon footprint) that I haven’t been stuck in traffic since.

And thus my wine career ended.


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.


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