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Wine world loses another good one



It was in the lobby of the Ritz Carlton Kapalua that I learned, from a winemaker, that Steve Pessagno has just died.

Ed and I had just been talking about him at the hotel bar  two nights earlier, in the most favorable way. Steve was the owner/winemaker of Pessagno Vineyard, a Monterey-based winery, where he made some fine wines. I’d known Steve since his days at the old Jekel Vineyards, where he used to be winemaker. I remember him hosting me at Jekel’s little facility, right off the 101 Freeway in the heart of the Salinas Valley. It was Steve who told me about the infamous winds that sweep down the valley. Some years later, after he’d finally been able to start his own winery (which made him so happy) I visited him at his tasting room, on River Road. Steve had a bad back, but he was a big, strong guy and refused to let it interfere with his work.

Steve, to me, was the quintessential winemaker. Nobody handed him anything on a silver platter. He wasn’t born to wealth. After working as an engineer, he decided he wanted to be a winemaker, and he came up the hard, old fashioned way. He never achieved great fame or wealth, but he crafted well-made wines of terroir, at affordable prices, and he put his heart and soul into his work. He also was a true pioneer of premium wines in Monterey.

Steve was the kind of guy who makes the world of wine go around. I doubt that he would have been comfortable in the spotlight, if things had gone differently and the media had discovered and promoted him. I can’t say I knew him well, but I knew him enough to understand his essential humility. He desired to be successful enough to support himself and his family and avoid debt, but he wasn’t the kind of guy to go out there and shmooze and entertain an audience at a fancy wine and food event. He was what winemakers have always been: an upright, honest guy, friendly and industrious.

Steve was only 55 years old, way too young. I’m sending my condolences to the family, and I hope Steve’s son, Anthony, will keep the winery charging ahead.

Even if you didn’t know Steve, please give him a moment of respectful silence. He was one of the good ones.


Wine and the Feminine Esthetic


I didn’t know Shirley Sarvis, even though she was a legendary resident of San Francisco, and despite the fact that I own some of her books, including “American Wines and Wine Cooking,” which she co-wrote (with the great Bob Thompson) in 1973. She died last week, at the age of 77.

Shirley was from the Old School of culinary writing, one that included M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child. In her day and age, women wrote about cooking for other women, usually in the pages of women’s magazines. Shirley’s roster included Better Homes and Gardens, Sunset Magazine and Woman’s Day.

These were periodicals that appealed to suburban housewives who by and large stayed home all day while the Man of the House dutifully commuted to his job, there to work hard to bring home the bacon, so that the wife could decorate the house in the manner prescribed by the magazines (white wicker patio chairs, lovely floral arrangements, bright colors in the California style, with a pretty garden). The Missus also mastered the arts of preparing beef bourguignon and fondue, but never barbecue: that was the Man’s task.

Wine? It barely showed up at all. The Man might like an occasional martini, a la Mad Men, or a beer. The Missus didn’t drink, or, if she did, it was discretely. Although California was riddled with winemaking, from L.A. up through the North Coast and in the Central Valley, the suburbs hardly embraced it in the 1950s. Scan the pages of the women’s magazines and you’ll see scant mention of the grape or wine.

Shirley, however, made an important transition in 1973 with the publication of “American Wines and Wine Cooking.” She was the “cooking” part to Bob Thompson’s “wine” part, meaning she still remained true to her traditional gender role. But the fact that a woman’s name appeared as co-author of a book at least partly about American wine represented an important cultural shift. It meant that wine was no longer the exclusive province of the Man, as it always had been, but that women could bring their own esthetic to it.

What was that esthetic? It’s always been less fussy than the Man’s. The Man invented precise wine-and-food pairings, the classification systems as supposedly precise as entries in an accounting ledger, the rules of aging and cellaring, the puffery, the snobbery, the show-offiness and, yes, the 100-point system. Women just wanted something good to drink with food that was lovingly prepared and delicious.

Julia Child embodied this same esthetic. She could hold her own with wine snobs, especially with French wine, but she chose to emphasize a different approach, one that was more egalitarian, that could laugh at pretentiousness. It’s easy to poke fun at people with wine knowledge if you’re a total ignoramus who knows nothing about wine, its history, production and culture. What’s more interesting is when people who know a great deal about wine relax and refuse to take it that seriously. They know that there are more important things in life, that wine is there to help us slow down and get in touch with our souls. I think of this as the feminine esthetic toward wine, and we see it around us today, in the careers of women as varied as Leslie Sbrocco, Jancis Robinson and Jo Diaz.


Here’s to the women of wine!

Frank J. Prial: a tribute


Frank J. Prial’s death on Tuesday has been widely reported, including in The New York Times, where he worked as wine critic almost continuously for 32 years. (The obituary was written, fittingly, by his successor, Eric Asimov.)

For the Times to have hired Prial to write a regular wine column back in the Dark Ages of 1972 is astonishing. He was, I believe, the first wine columnist of any American newspaper (correct me if I’m wrong, please), and there was no assurance than anyone would even read him. As Thomas Pinney notes in “A History of Wine in America,” Prial himself wondered “Would there be any reader interest?” He doubted, too, that “there was enough going on to sustain a weekly column.”

Imagine that! Prial worried that so little was happening in the world of wine, he wouldn’t be able to patch together enough information once a week. Now, here we are in the wine blogosphere, where plenty of us write everyday and manage to come up with items of interest, although not always of newsworthiness.

Of course, Prial soon found out there was lots to write about. As he wrote in his memoir, Decantations (2001), “California…soon provided a steady stream of good stories.” He hanged out with August Sebastiani and “Bob” Mondavi in cafes where “the people frequenting them grew grapes or made wine,” and he watched, with evident disdain, as the scene changed to “bistros and the people in them have titles–director of this or coordinator of that–but no juice stains on their shirts or dirt under their fingernails.”

This mounting disillusionment with the California wine scene found its way into print. By the early 1980s, Prial’s infatuation with California had worn thin. In a column he wrote in 1981, he called California Chardonnay an “overbred dog…too aggressive, too alcoholic…showoff wines made by vintners who seem to be saying, ‘I can outchardonnay any kid on this block.’” Later, he turned apoplectic in his critique, not only of the state’s wines, but of the emerging class of mavens who lavished such praise on them: they “ape the jargon of the trade and feel special when we exchange arcane trivia about grape crushers…American wine,” he lamented, “is on the brink of becoming inbred precocious.” And he issued this warning: “One day the rest of the country, bemused and probably irritated by all this, might just shrug and walk away.” A year after this fulminate, Prial wrote one of his most famous and controversial columns, “A dissenter’s view of California wines,” which begins with a dirge for California red wines: “They…seemed to have lost some of their charm…”.

You can call Prial prescient for being among the first to criticize California wine for their size/power/mass/flash/richness. Certainly his point of view now is widely shared, not just in New York but in Europe. Yet isn’t it odd that it was this very California-ness that inspired such change throughout European wine country–a move toward richer, riper, fruitier wines?

Frank Prial, who retired from his column in 2004, would have made a good blogger, by the way. He wrote passionately and fearlessly, and you could always sense the real person behind the words. He invented a style of wine writing that was intensely personal, yet immensely educational, and that was always fun to read. He wore his passions, including anger, on his sleeve. Here’s to Frank J. Prial, wherever he may be.

Wine writer ethics, an obituary, and a segue to Tom Jones


When I was still a beginning wine writer, one of the giants of our trade was Nate Chroman, who died last Friday at the age of 83.

I am looking now at his 1973 book, The Treasury of American Wines, which I have owned for many years. It’s a fine read, although for me its usefulness is limited by the fact that it has no index.

Nate was the wine critic for the Los Angeles Times in the 1970s and 1980s, but lost his job after another Times reporter, the paper’s media critic, David Shaw, wrote a series of articles on wine writing in which he questioned Chroman’s ethics. (I wonder if they ran into each other at the water cooler.) Nate, it seems, had accepted meals and travel from wineries, whose wines he then reviewed in the paper. This was the first instance, so far as I am aware, of a wine writer’s ethics being questioned in the media. My oh my, how far we’ve come. As we all know, gotcha! articles about wine writer ethics have become a staple these days, especially in the blogosphere (paging Jay Miller). Nate Chroman had the dubious distinction of being the Alan Shepard of that agonizing trip.

I met David Shaw, who passed away in 2005, in the 1990s, at his home in the Silver Lake district of L.A., where he had a modest wine collection he wanted to show me. Yes, David was a wine lover, and a knowledgeable one. Although he’d come under fire for what some perceived as an unnecessary persecution of Nate Chroman, who evidently was well-liked (I never met him), David never apologized or reneged. He had a sense of justice, not to mention a nose for a good story (he won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting about a preschool child abuse scandal) and felt strongly that wine writers should accept nothing for free from the wineries they cover.

I think David was a little harsh. Reporters can err too much on the side of being judgmental, especially if it makes for lurid reading. The worst thing I heard about Nate (I can’t locate a copy of David’s series, so I don’t know if it was in there) was that Nate used to demand that winemakers who invited him to lunch or dinner bring super-expensive bottles of wine, like Lafite, which he then wouldn’t even drink, but take home! I don’t know whether or not that was true, but it made the rounds, in those pre-Internet days when you heard things from an actual person’s lips.

I personally don’t think it’s a big deal to occasionally accept a meal from a winemaker. I do it on rare occasions, almost always lunch at my local Whole Foods, not exactly the Everest of haute cuisine, but convenient for me. Obviously I would never ask a winemaker to bring an expensive bottle, especially one he didn’t himself make. That’s over the line.

This next is a little irrelevant to the topic, but mentioning Jay Miller made me think of Robert Parker, so I went to his website where he’s described as “the million dollar nose.”

That made me remember the actress Betty Grable, who was described as having “million dollar legs.”

Through the magic of The Google Machine I learned the following:

The TV star, Holly Madison, has a million dollar insurance policy on her boobs.

The porn star, Keiran Lee, has a million dollar policy on his penis.

Head & Shoulders shampoo took out a $1 million insurance policy on the hair of the NFL star, Troy Polamalu.

Gene Simmons, of KISS, insured his tongue for $1 million.

And according to the same website, Tom Jones “allegedly” insured his chest hair for $7 million.

When I was in my 20s I was in a rock band [on keyboards]. We were good enough for Mr. Tom Jones to audition us as the opening act for his upcoming tour. My band had 8 or 10 female backup singers (the number varied over the years). They were all beautiful, sexy women. It turns out that Mr. Jones didn’t hire us, but he did put the moves on the ladies, whose reactions can be summed up in the word “Eeeew.” And finally, for your listening pleasure, here’s Tom singing “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” on YouTube.

Old wine writers never die…


It was back in the late Eighties I first met Steve Pitcher at some wine event. He was this rather rotund guy, with a chubby pink face, wire-framed eyeglasses and thinning hair. He seemed always to be in his fifties, even though he must have been only in his early forties at the time. Holding himself with a certain reserve and distance, he seemed formidable, but I soon found that behind the rather dour mien (Steve had been trained as a lawyer, although he never practiced) lay an acute intelligence that was not without a wry sense of humor. He was very smart. He used sometimes to pretend to be German (I think he was of German extraction) and would revert to a German accent with a ja wohl accompanied by a formal little bow. But the eyes sparkled behind the glasses, and the little smirk on his rather small mouth told you he was having fun and giving you permission to have fun, too.

Steve was a good wine writer. He was of the old school, preferring long, scholarly essays to the short, snappy little poofs that are popular today. I don’t believe he ever Facebooked or blogged, much less tweeted; I suspect he would have scoffed, and he was an awfully good scoffer. I remember a piece he once wrote for The Wine News, which employed him longer, I think, than any other periodical he worked for. It was on California Sauvignon Blanc, and ran to 5,000 words. (!!!) That was verbose even for long-form wine articles.

I never saw Steve socially. He was a very private person, seldom referring to anything in his outside life beyond wine. I thought he might be gay, but as close as we were professionally, I never would have dared to ask him anything so personal. However, we did run into each other frequently. The San Francisco Bay Area’s wine writing circle was, in past days, a small one, rather like a fraternity. Wine writers associate with all kinds of people from the wine industry: winemakers, growers, cellar rats, P.R. folks, marketing and sales managers, wealthy owners, field workers, tasting room personnel. But it is within our own group, with our own kind, that we can most easily relax and let down our hair and share war stories. Steve was great at that. I knew that he always understood where I was coming from, and vice versa, so there was a certain telepathy between us. I also respected Steve’s palate. He loved German wine, and probably knew more about it than all the rest of us combined.

I liked him well enough so that, whenever I went to an event in San Francisco, or up in Napa Valley, I hoped and expected he’d be there. He usually was, chatting with someone, glass in hand, either listening intently with his eyes focused on the speaker, or saying something himself, in his soft-spoken monotone. I liked to sneak up behind him and tap his shoulder, whereupon he would turn around, recognize me, and make that formal little bow, accompanied by a Welcommen Herr Heimoff!

I miss and mourn Steve. I didn’t know he was sick, even though he’d apparently been suffering from the cancer that killed him for years. He certainly was around less and less over the last year or two, and on those occasions when I did see him, he was noticeably older and slower. But he never gave a hint that he was ill, much less dying, and his eyes never lost that glimmer that made him so special. I posted his death on my Facebook page Friday, and the tributes immediately began pouring in. Steve was well-liked by everyone in this industry. That’s as fine an obituary as a wine writer can hope to get. Ruhe in Frieden, mein alter Freund!

A little bit of this, a little of that


Twitter as washing dishes

This little snippet from Reuters will probably pass unnoticed, but it’s really terribly interesting and relevant.

“Old media executives too busy, private for Twitter,” the headline says. Go ahead, take 2 minutes and read it.

Any one of the Twitter-phobic quotes could apply to me. My critique of Twitter runs along these lines:

– I’m busy enough with everything else, so I don’t have the actual or mental time to follow a constantly changing Twitter feed.
– Twitter is a very limited form of communication. I’m a writer. I like crafting phrases, sentences, paragraphs. Twitter doesn’t let me do that. This blog does. So does Facebook, to a lesser degree. Not Twitter.
– Most of what I see on Twitter is so superficial as to be ridiculous. I don’t wish to join the chattering classes who apparently have too much time on their hands.

I will gladly concede Twitter’s importance. When students are rioting in Tahrir Square, Twitter gets the news up first. It’s the most awesome media ever invented for instantaneous sharing of breaking events, complete with video. That is truly historic. But I don’t have to tweet in order to “get” Twitter. As one advertising guy said, in a delicious quote, “I understand how to wash dishes. I don’t do it regularly.”

I also understand why celebrities like Twitter. If you’re Lady Gaga, it’s a great way to reach out to your fans and keep them bonded to you (although Aston Kucher apparently grew bored with it). But I’m not a celebrity and I don’t think anyone cares about my every move.

I’ve been predicting a Twitter meltdown for years now. I just don’t think it has legs–at least, to continue its explosive growth. I don’t think it’s just “old media executives” who can’t embrace Twitter. More and more people are discovering that actually living in the real world is better than constantly tweeting to a bunch of “followers” you don’t even know. It’s called “get a life,” and if you’re living on Twitter, you don’t have one.

Robert Lawrence Balzar has died

I’m sure that a younger generation never heard of him, and that’s fine. But he went where no American had gone before, and helped launch the modern era of wine criticism, especially in California. It’s important for today’s new crop of wine writers and bloggers to understand that this stuff didn’t just happen sui generis, like Athena springing full-blown from the brow of Zeus. There are roots. Roots are important. Balzar was roots.

That Jay Miller thing

I’ve refrained from writing about the Jay Miller “payola” allegations in Spain, not through any kindness of heart on my part, but because I don’t know the facts, don’t have the time to dig, and refuse to speculate on matters of which I’m fundamentally ignorant.

But I did read this report yesterday, which contained an interesting paraphrase and quote from Parker himself:

…with Parker referencing the tediousness of tasting mediocre wines that can “burn out the best of us…”

That caught my eye, and I want to explore some thoughts of my own, which aren’t entirely clear even to me. I do taste a great deal of mediocre wine. Vast quantities, you might say, a tsunami of boring wine that comes in every day. It is tedious, and I have wondered what effect this has on my palate. Parker suggests tasting tedious wines can “burn out” the taster. This is a scary thought, because the worst thing that can happen to any professional is to be burned out.

I’ve often fantasized of tasting only the great wines of California, but, of course, that’s impossible. A popular, consumer wine magazine needs to review as widely as possible, and that necessarily involves tasting mediocre wines as well as great ones. Still, I’m of two minds here. I like the fact that I can review inexpensive wines, because that’s what most people can afford, and I feel a great sense of duty toward the average consumer, who’s just looking for a decent everyday bottle. I don’t think Parker has that same motive. He’s more geared to the high-end collector/consumer.

At the same time, I do think that tasting mediocre wines can have a dulling effect on the palate, even for “the best of us.” How do I counter-balance this nefarious effect? I have a method, but as you’ll see, it’s not perfect. I try to arrange daily flights so that (let’s say) inexpensive California reds are tasted only against each other, while another flight might feature only Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons, most of which are necessarily expensive.

Every so often, I’ll throw a ringer into a flight: a cheap wine with a bunch of $100 Cabs, or a $100 Cab with a bunch of cheapos. I acknowledge that my system has flaws, but so does every other system in the world. I also maintain excellent health, eat right, work out religiously, keep my weight under control and get plenty of sleep. Those things help to keep me sharp and prevent palate burnout. But palate burnout always must be something the professional taster guards against.

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