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Five Decades of Wine: The Arc of My Career

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Part One: The 1970 and 1980s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A New Year’s Day reflection

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Happy new year, each and everyone!

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

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

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

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

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


The flu!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On a rainy day, a trip down Memory Lane

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

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

Diary

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

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

 

Morgan

 

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

 

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

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

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

Have a great weekend!


My early career as an amateur wine buff

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I remember it as if it all happened yesterday instead of 35 years ago. I was newly arrived in San Francisco, had no money and needed a place to live. So I answered an ad on the S.F.S.U. housing board for a house sitter. It was for a dilapidated old four-room cottage in the southwestern neighborhood known as Top of the Hill Daly City, although in this case, it was at the bottom of the hill. The owner for some reason had the electricity shut off throughout the place, except for my bedroom. There was no heat. Because it was such a hardship case, the owner charged me only $15 a month–although he should have paid me for tolerating such a crummy place. It was wintertime, which can be very cold in San Francisco, and that, added to the location near the ocean, made it really damp and uncomfortable. My only source of heat—and cooking—was a hotplate. But I didn’t care. I was young, strong and adventurous, and, hey, I was living in San Francisco and having the time of my life!

I’d started getting into wine, mainly by buying those little handbooks that were so popular back then: Olken, Singer & Roby’s “The Connoisseurs’ Handbook of California Wines” and Bob Thompson’s “The Pocket Encyclopedia of California Wines.”

handbooks

Since I couldn’t afford to buy much I also depended on local critics’ reviews in the various newspapers. Here’s a photo from my little notebook of that time where I kept track of their reviews:

winebook

 

W. is Wilfred Wong, RH is Richard Paul Hinkle, H.S. is Harvey Steiman, J.M. is Jerry Mead, W.B. was something called the Wine Buying Guide, B.G. is the Bay Guardian, ADB is Anthony Dias Blue and the Best Buys were from the San Francisco Chronicle.

After a couple years I could finally afford to start buying some nice bottles, so I began to keep my Tasting Diaries. Here’s a page for a 1978 Lytton Springs Zin I reviewed in late 1984.

mynotes

By now, I had developed a tasting template: date, occasion (“Thanksgiving at Maxine’s”), and the standard color-nose-taste three-pronged approach. As you can see, I was already beginning to appreciate that some wines need age (“Disappointing; too young”) and also had come up with a rudimentary rating system of stars (to be replaced by the 100-point system when I started doing that).

This Montelena 1979 Chard, which I tasted in 1983, is interesting for three reasons: I was blown away by the price ($12, so expensive at the time. Today it’s $50), I included a food pairing, and,, via the “NOTE” section, I began to introduce more subjective commentary into my reviews. I was much fascinated back then by the French word goût (as in goût de terroir); it shows up a lot in those early reviews.

montelena

 

I wish I still had the first note I ever wrote. It was in 1979 in that awful, cold, barren house at Top of the Hill Daly City. It was for an Almaden Cabernet Sauvignon with a Monterey County appellation. I recall with crystal clarity sitting in the freezing cold at the little table off the kitchen and making my notes. I cannot remember a word of what I wrote, but I know that I concentrated on it very carefully. I think I liked it; at that time I was not aware of the issue of “Monterey veggies.”

It’s hard to know with any precision why a person gets hooked onto something virtually overnight (I don’t mean drugs, I mean hobbies). In 1979 I knew no one at all who cared a thing about wine. My family and friends were oblivious to it, although they were increasingly having to put up with my blather about the latest bottle I’d enjoyed. Looking back, it blows my mind that I was so feverishly making all these notes (my Tasting Diaries eventually filled five hard-cover volumes, amounting to thousands of wines). Why was I doing all that work? For whom? For nobody; for myself. There was no payoff. I never expected anyone to care about what I thought about wine.


My final wine review: epitaph to a professional critic’s career

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It is altogether fitting and proper (as Abraham Lincoln said in another context, in the Gettysburg Address) that the last wine review I shall ever write for Wine Enthusiast should have been for a Williams Selyem wine.

It was the 2012 Papera Zinfandel, which I reviewed on Monday. I did not deliberately hold it for the very last. But I did have a thought somewhere in the back of my mind that the culmination of more than twenty years of reviewing should be a special wine.

Had I had an unreviewed sparkling wine of quality, I certainly might have considered it; but I didn’t. Nor was there a proper Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. That left the Wiliams Selyem Zin, and what a wine it was. Bob Cabral has had a particularly successful series of vintages with that Russian River Valley bottling; the 2012 was one of his best.

But it wasn’t merely the quality of that Zin that made it a fitting toast to a celebrated departure. It was my admiration for Williams Selyem itself, and for Bob. I don’t have the longest experience of him among wine writers: others knew him, and enjoyed tasting the wines of Williams Selyem, long before I. We met around 2001, if I recall correctly, when I was writing A Wine Journey along the Russian River, in which he looms large. I remember with particular fondness sitting with him, in his cluttered little office at the old winery, on Westside Road, as he assembled the first-ever vintage of Neighbors, the blend of vineyards the winery sources from the Middle Reach of the Russian River. I felt privileged then to be asked for my opinion. I doubt that Bob seriously took anything I said into account for the actual blend, but it was terribly kind, and flattering for him to go through the motions.

A few of us tried the other day to estimate how many wines I’ve reviewed over the years. I honestly don’t know. Probably in excess of 60,000, possibly far greater than that. I don’t think Wine Enthusiast’s database, in its current incarnation, goes back that far. Of course, if you throw in all the wines I’ve tasted unofficially, the number has got to be around 100,000. And yet here I am, still standing, in good health, not alcoholic. Perhaps all that reseveratrol will yet come in handy.

People ask me how I feel, leaving the magazine for my new gig. The thoughts and emotions, as you might expect, are complex, but two stand out: one, that after 25 years as a wine writer (and always a freelancer; I was never a real employee), it was time for a change. And two, that my new job, at Jackson Family Wines, is a big one that requires a lot from me, and I take it all with a sober sense of responsibility. Aren’t you excited? people want to know. I tell them that excitement isn’t the word I’d use. I’m excited when I get to go to a Giants game, with great seats and Lincecum pitching. I’m excited when, after some time on the road, I come home to see Gus again. (And Gus is always excited to see me!) But “excited” doesn’t seem to have the proper gravitas for this occasion.

What will I remember most about being a wine critic? For sure, the kindness, respect and friendliness people in all walks of the industry have shown me over the years. I always felt the need to keep a kind of reserve; while I’m by nature affectionate, I thought that my position mandated a certain distance. I did not want to get too close to people whose wines I might have to give bad scores to. This business of how close to get to winemakers whose wines you’re reviewing must be on the mind of every critic. But it is no longer something I need worry about.

I think also of the wonderful opportunities I’ve had to explore every nook and cranny of our beautiful state of California and its wine regions. I’ve written before that I never saw a wine region I didn’t fall in love with, from the austere Santa Maria Valley to the bucolic glories of West Dry Creek Road, from the sheer drama of Highway 29, with its parade of famous wineries, to the curvaceous hills of Happy Canyon and the insanely wild mountains of Fort Ross-Seaview. To have experienced all this, often under the tutelage of local winemakers who taught me about the terroir (occasionally from a helicoper), has been undiluted joy.

And then there were the wines themselves. Not too many 100 pointers. Wine Enthusiast took a position, with which I largely agreed, not to be too profligate in handing out the ultimate accolade. Certainly, we can debate whether or not a 98 point wine might “really” have been worth 100 points (or vice versa), but that would be a waste of time, the point being that I’ve had more great wines than anyone can reasonably expect to have in a lifetime. Yet, somehow, that never spoiled me. Before I was a wine critic I drank Bob Red and White, or Gallo Sauvignon Blanc in 1.5s, or inexpensive Chianti, Médoc, Côtes du Rhône or anything else I could afford: and I was a happy man. The splendor of wine, it seems to me, lies in the beverage itself, its profoundly tongue-loosening and restorative qualities and affinities for food, and not in the web of fantasy we weave around it, in our imaginations.

Anyhow, I called this posting an “epitaph.” It is that, for my wine reviewing career, but it’s also a birth, for my new one. L’chaim!


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