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Still in love with wine

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It was on this day, Dec. 26, exactly 31 years ago that I fell in love with wine.

It happened in the Safeway store in the little town of Benicia, some 30 miles northeast of San Francisco. I’d just made one of the biggest, riskiest moves in my life–coming to California from the East Coast, to go to graduate school. (That’s a whole different story I might tell one of these days.) My cousin, Maxine, and her husband, Keith, had invited me to live with them until I got settled. I’d flown west out of Logan Airport in a blizzard, only to arrive in sunny San Francisco where the mild temperature, leafy trees and flower-choked gardens blew my mind. I mean, roses and magnolias in late December? I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto!

We drove to Benicia. I was shown my new room. Then someone suggested barbecue for dinner. Maxine went out into the garden to pick lettuce (another mindblow) for a salad, and then we drove up Main Street, past the little park with the gazebo, to the Safeway. Threw a couple steaks and potatoes into the shopping cart. Then we headed over to the wine aisle. This is where “the incident” occurred.

Maxine’s steering the cart slowly down the aisle. I’m trailing after her. I don’t remember Keith in the picture; maybe he’d stayed at home, starting the fire. Maxine picks up a bottle of wine, examines the front label, turns it around, examines the back label. Puts it back on the shelf. Picks up a second bottle and goes through the same ritual. Then a third bottle. And a fourth.

Me: “What are you doing? Just grab a bottle and let’s go.” [I was sooo New York in those days.]

Her: [arching an eyebrow of disapproval] “You don’t just grab a bottle of wine. You think about it.”

What? I can remember my reaction as if it were yesterday. What is she talking about? I know my cousin has her “ways,” but she is, for the most part, a sensible, rational human being, not subject to whims or emotional fancy. I simply could not understand why buying a bottle of wine was any different from buying a can of peas. They were all the same, weren’t they?

Things happened very quickly after that. I needed to understand. Not wanted; needed, as if understanding were as important as breathing. I bought a couple wine guides: Bob Thompson’s “Pocket Encyclopedia of California Wines” and Olken, Singer & Roby’s “Connoisseurs’ Handbook of California Wines.” I started haunting wine shops.  For sure, I didn’t have much money to spend, but I remember the pride I felt when I bought my first varietal wine: Wente’s Grey Riesling (or was it spelled Gray?). Shortly afterward, I moved out on my own, to Concord, where I shared a house with a young Diablo Valley College kid, Tim. I shared with him my passion for wine, which he quickly adopted. Together we would go to wine shops, looking for suitable bargains to drink with the dinners we cooked. That’s when I began my career as a wine educator, teaching Timmy: as long as I knew a little more than he did, I was mentor, he mentee.

I’ve thought often of Maxine examining those wine bottles. I observe the same behavior today, when I loiter in the wine departments at Cost Plus or BevMo, watching people. They’re so confused, most of the time, so apprehensive, so clueless. I don’t say that judgmentally, just objectively. Lord only knows what’s going on in their heads. I am reading now the 1950 article, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” by the great computer pioneer, Alan Turing, who came up with the concept of the “Turing test,” in which a human observor (you or me) has a “conversation” with an unseen interlocutor [in, say, another room], through a teletype screen or similar digital device. The idea is for the observor to determine whether the unseen interlocutor is another human, or a machine [computer]. The theory is that, if the computer were programmed sufficiently well, this determination would be impossible. It was Turing’s conjecture that someday computers could be programmed so that there would be no way of telling the difference. All theories of artificial intelligence begin, and end, with Alan Turing.

Watching those wine shoppers, I try to imagine what’s happening in their brains. I can’t, in that particular situation, because I know too much about wine to be confused in a wine aisle. But I get confused in many other situations: for example, anything that involves mechanics defeats me. So I can recall my confusion when dealing with automobiles and imagine it inside the head of the Cost Plus wine shopper, and I feel empathy. Could a machine ever feel empathy? Is that what makes humans different from machines? I don’t think that’s the case, because I can imagine a computer behaving in such a way as to simulate empathy; and since I can’t crawl into the computer’s brain, any more than I can crawl into yours, I would just have to assume, based on its behavior, that the computer actually was empathic.

I would have loved to ask Turing, who died in 1954, if a Turing test could ever determine if a computer liked wine. Actually, he anticipated such a question in his article. Can a computer “enjoy strawberries and cream?…Possibly a machine might be made to enjoy this delicious dish, but any attempt to make one do so would be idiotic.” That’s how Turing dismissed the idea of programming a computer to have esthetic or hedonistic preferences: that it would be “idiotic” to do so, presumably because the effort involved would be vast, whereas the payoff would be meaningless. Why not use the same effort to program a computer to find a cure for cancer?

Maybe it’s idiotic for us humans to fall in love with anything–strawberries and cream, wine, each other. Yet Mother Nature gave us that capacity. It happened to me on that long ago winter day, and you know what? I’m still in love with wine.


Looking back, abroad and forward

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This being the last day of the year, I’m in a look-back mode. The first wine I ever tasted was a sip of Manischevitz from my Uncle Teddy’s glass. I must have been six or seven, and the event was probably a Passover seder. Uncle Teddy was one of those friendly, boisterous guys whom everyone likes and who’s always at the center of attention. I think he offered me a sip of his wine at the table because everybody was watching, and Teddy knew that no matter what I did, it would be funny. I guess it was, because all the adults laughed when I made a face and spat the wine out because it tasted so evil. That may account for the particular loathing I have to this day of table wines, red or white, that should be dry but have residual sugar.

Wine didn’t re-enter my life until my freshman year at college when, away from home for the first time in my life, I went on a rampage. Freed from the constraints of parental oversight, I did anything and everything I could to celebrate my new-found freedom, including drinking. Lots of drinking. I remember well the favorite libation of me and my similarly reckless young friends: Bali Jai. I think it was made by Italian Swiss Colony. Anyhow, it too was sweet, but as I was drinking, not for flavor, but to get inebriated, I didn’t care (and Bali Jai was the cheapest rotgut you could find). A step above Bali Jai were Mateus and Lancer’s. Already I was establishing a hierarchy of wine in my head: I knew they were better wines, but they also cost $5 more per bottle, which put them out of my price range, and besides, I had no need of better wines.

By my sophomore year, I had enough sense to realize that drinking Bali Jai, starting some weekend mornings at 10 a.m., was not a very smart thing to do. So I stopped. Disciplining myself with regard to my alcoholic intake is something I’m still good at (fortunately, given my profession), having developed the habit long ago, and being in possession of a pretty acute radar that warns me when I’m coming too close to doing anything in excess. So wine effectively passed out of my life for more than a decade until I moved to California and re-discovered it, a process I have previously written about.

When I think about my own wine journey, and then look at what’s happening in China with wine, I think of that old saying, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”, which, if I may so describe it, means that the human embryo goes through successive stages of development, each of which resembles an earlier phase of human evolution. Thus, as the embryo grows in the womb, it looks, first, rather tadpole- or fish-like, then like some kind of small mammal, then finally assume a more anthropoid state until, on the day of birth, out pops a tiny little new human person. I think that in our (human’s) wine-drinking habits, we similarly go through stages, regardless of whether we’re Chinese or New Yorkers. You start off (in most cases) with hideous junk, like Bali Jai, then you realize that wine is inexorably connected with things we value, such as status, fun and the need for love and affection; and as this realization increases, so does your appetite for better wine. This explains why the Chinese, with their nouveau wealth, mix Coca Cola with Lafite–and it also explains why that bizarre phase probably will not last much longer, for the Chinese are fast learners.

At what point, though, does this upward spiral of our desire for better wine result in a tipping point that can blossom into snobbery and elitism? This is a question that deeply interests me, and has at least since my days writing The Collecting Page for Wine Spectator. There, I saw the Dark Side of a love for wine: the self-absorption, the insularity of the Old Boy’s Club and their membership of fatuously bragging egotists, constantly trying to one-up each other, piling up such massive collections that neither they nor their children or grandchildren could ever possibly consume it all. And to what point? I saw men who equated meaning in life with the possession of 19th century pre-Phylloxera Bordeaux or verticals of every vintage ever made of Mouton; but who then called their winetasting dinners with their friends “pissing matches,” a vulgarity but illustrative of their motive for gathering: Who could bring the oldest, costliest bottle, thereby winning the contest and humiliating the losers?

Why wine makes fools of some people, I’ll never know, but it does seem to accompany excessive income, especially when it has been accumulated quickly. Think of all those high-priced athletes and rock stars whose tastes, once they are newly riche, span the gamut from indulgent to merely offensive to downright vulgar. I’m sure they love their Cristal and Lafite, as much as my Uncle Teddy loved his Manischevitz. Yet somehow Uncle Teddy’s love of his wine seems in kind different. He loved his wine for the way it brought people he loved together, and made them laugh and be happy; not, as I have seen in some collectors, to satisfy some inner lack of joy.

Happy New Year! I’ll be back here on Monday morning!


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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