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A look back

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In 1989, I lost my job. I’d gone to grad school (S.F. State) to get my M.A. in Educational Technology, a weird hybrid of a major that the school designed because they understood that computers were going to be important, but they didn’t know which department should investigate their uses. So they stuck it in education. It was a silly major, and I never used a single thing I learned (BASIC?); but I did work on campus in the Career Center, so I learned a thing or two about college career counseling, and when it came time to get my first post-graduate job, it was as the director of the career planning and placement center at California College of Arts & Crafts (now California College of the Arts), here in Oakland.

As jobs go, it was a disaster. I struggled for the better part of three years to make it work, but ran into academic politics of the worst kind. I was hopeless at the backstabbing and maneuvering it takes to survive campus in-struggles, with the result that the school’s personnel director called me into her office one day and told me it was all over. Everything I’d gone to school for, and worked so hard to achieve, went down the toilet.

I was in shock. Fired from my first job! I thought I’d never recover from the blow. Went home, slept, drank, lost myself in a whirlwind of indulgence. I had no money, a mortgage and car payments to pay, the whole dreary mess. Needed a new job asap. But what? That’s when I told myself, “Self, you can’t go through another debacle. It’s pretty obvious you’re not cut out to be a suit-and-tie wearing, briefcase-toting bureaucrat. You’re a creative, fanciful, non-conforming independent sort, and you need to do something that allows you to express that part of yourself.”

As a career counselor, I’d often told my students, “When it comes to choosing a job, don’t just pick something you think will earn you money. You’re going to be working for the next 30, 40 years, and studies tell us that 70% of Americans hate their jobs. Do you really want to be doing something you hate until you’re 65? So find your passion, and get a job doing something you love.”

I asked myself, What do I love? Two things: writing and wine. I practically came out of my mother’s womb wanting to write. I can distinctly remember being 3 years old and doodling on pieces of paper, pretending I was writing in script. I couldn’t wait to write. I was an early, avid reader and an early, avid writer. I was writing poems and short stories by ten. So I knew I wanted to do something involving writing.

And I loved wine. Fell head over heels in love with it in the late Seventies. Went off the edge, around the bend, out of my mind in the pursuit of wine knowledge, way beyond what any normal person should do. So in that awful aftermath of getting fired, I decided to put the two things I loved together. Writing + wine = wine writer.

Fine, but how to make it happen? I did a lot of visualising (a method of thought projection and imagination that was popular in those days). I established a resumé by writing for our local free newsweekly, the East Bay Express, and for the Oakland Tribune as a stringer. I quickly developed writing skills: how to construct a story, come up with a strong lead, check facts, meet deadlines and word counts, work with editors. And then it was time to find an actual wine writing job. I think I’ve previously described here on my blog how I pestered Jim Gordon, at Wine Spectator, so mercilessly that he finally broke down and gave me an assignment. And the rest, as they say, is history.

If there are lessons to be learned by my experience — and I think there are — it’s that younger writers who want to make it in wine writing should do these things:

1. educate yourself as thoroughly as possible in wine.
2. work constantly on your writing skills.
3. believe in your dream.

Of course, things are a lot different now than they were when I started. Back in 1989, few people wanted to be wine writers, so the field was wide open. Today, everybody seems to want to be a wine writer. Another thing that’s different is the advent of the Internet. In 1989, you could only be a wine writer if somebody hired you to be one, because only publishers controlled the press. Today, anybody can blog. Self-publishing is an advantage, but it’s also a liability, because the very ease of digital publishing means that young wannabe wine writers might not discipline themselves with the severity needed to mold an unformed passion into honed talent. It’s always taken talent to make it as a wine writer. Still does.


An extract from my memoir

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Readers: I’m writing a memoir. The below is a section. I’d like to know if you’re interested in this sort of thing. If not, I won’t put any more sections up here on my blog:

California seems like a big state, but the wine industry is actually a little village. And if there are town criers who know what’s happening all the time and tell everyone else about it, it’s the cadre of public relations experts, whose jobs it is to keep track of every sparrow. Wine critics are very big sparrows, and I was one of the biggest of all. So it wasn’t long before the word went out: “Steve doesn’t travel anymore.”

It was true; I didn’t. But I was aware of the negative side to this. It was that I ran the risk of being perceived as a Diva. It was turning into a case of “If you want to see Steve, you must travel to Oakland, because Steve doesn’t have the time to drive to your place.” Or “If you want Steve to attend an event, you’re going to have to send a car and driver to Oakland and then bring him back again, because Steve no longer drinks and drives.”

You’d think I would have stumbled across the concept of “Don’t drink and drive, ever. Period. End of story.” before 2001, but I didn’t. I’d been drinking and driving all my adult life. When I lived in San Francisco, and especially during my Noe Valley days of the early 1980s, weekend after weekend I’d wake up on a Saturday or Sunday morning and have no idea where I’d parked my car the night before. There were times I’d have to walk the neighborhood for 30 minutes before I found it. I’d have no memory of driving home, or indeed even of what I’d done or where I’d been. I might recall leaving home at 10 p.m. and heading down to my favorite bar, the Headquarters, which was South of Market. I might have a memory of the bartender giving me free drinks. But after that, nothing. Nada. It was even scarier when I’d wake up with a stranger in my bed. Who is this person? Where did we meet? What did we do?

But what really persuaded me not to drink and drive anymore was an incident that scared the hell out of me.

It was Beaulieu’s 100th birthday. They’d arranged for a super-tasting at the winery, which is in Rutherford. I was covering it for Wine Enthusiast, and staying the night at the Embassy Suites hotel, in Napa city, about 20 miles south of Beaulieu.

The tasting was stunning: every vintage ever made of the winery’s Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, plus the three Pinot Noirs that André Tchelistcheff had said were the only ones he’d ever made that succeeded: 1946, 1947 and 1968. Needless to say, everybody at that tasting, which also included plenty of champagne and white wines with appetizers, was basically blitzed when it was over.

It was past midnight, in the dead of winter. Cold, windy. As soon as I got to the parking lot, the sky opened up, and a deluge of Biblical proportions poured down, from a gale that had descended upon Northern California from the Gulf of Alaska.

Now, anyone familiar with the stretch of Highway 29 that runs from Rutherford down to Napa (and up past Calistoga) knows there are no street lights. Much of the road is two lanes only. As I drove, the rain became so heavy that I couldn’t see a thing out my windshield. The wipers did nothing at all, even though I turned them on full speed. In fact, they made things worse. I had no idea where the center lane was, where the shoulders were. I was driving completely blind, and I was drunk. I figured my blood alcohol must have been well north of the legal limit.

Yet what could I do, but to plow on and try to get to the Embassy Suites safe and sound? So I made a little prayer: Please get me to the hotel without an accident or getting stopped by the cops. If you do, I will never again drink and drive.

He did. And I did. Or didn’t, rather — didn’t drink and drive again, ever, for any reason. It wasn’t just the fear of getting a DUI conviction, although that would have been bad enough. It was the thought of what the San Francisco Chronicle would do with it.

NOTED BAY AREA WINE CRITIC ARRESTED FOR DRUNK DRIVING
Steve Heimoff taken to jail, booked, out on bail

There was no way I was going to let that happen!

But the price I paid was the Diva thing. Once I started blogging, and became fair game for the criticism of half the wine bloggers in the world, the charges of “limousine Steve” and his “all expenses paid lifestyle” mounted. They were serious enough that I had to spend considerable time and energy refuting them. But tell me, dear reader, how should I have dealt with the matter of drinking and driving? If you’re invited to a wine event, chances are likely that there’s wine to be consumed. I mean, that’s what a wine event is all about! If I want to go to an event, but I won’t permit myself to drink and drive, then my only option is to tell the people who want me to come to the event that they have to provide transportation. I am single, and thus don’t have the luxury of bringing a designated driver-spouse with me. So it’s not because I’m a Diva that I insist on these arrangements.

Yet, to this day, I get phone calls from people, both P.R. types and winemakers, who say, “I know you don’t have a car, but we were wondering if you’d visit us, if we send a car.” I have a car! I drive almost every day! I just don’t drink and drive. So I patiently explain my situation, and then hope that people don’t think I’m a Diva. But I guess sometimes they do.


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