In no other space in America is the schizophrenia at the heart of the Republican Party on more garish display than in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal. In that jarring asylum, columnists have been utterly flummoxed by the Trump phenomenon. It quickly became clear that Rupert Murdoch was not a Trump man, and so, one by one, the writers—Rove, Noonan, Henninger, Strassel, McGurn—fell into line. These were second-rate hangers-on who had made their reputations trashing Democrats and drooling lasciviously around the ankles of Murdoch pets like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. But when Trump threw Murdoch off his game, his writers also lost their balance. You could feel it throughout the past year, especially in Rove’s column, the most nakedly manipulative of them all. He loathes Trump, no doubt because the Orange-Haired One has no use at all for the political organization Rove runs. In fact, Trump took that organization and pummeled it to shreds. Ole Karl is pissed.
Still, Rupert and his team now have their Republican Party nominee. It’s a thing of beauty to watch them “gyre and gimble in the wabe.” Like a snake caught in a snake stick, their contortions to escape confinement are pitiful. Twist though they might they can’t quite find themselves able to thoroughly dump Trump or to thoroughly embrace him. The tone of the WSJ editorial pages in fact is an exact reflection of whatever is happening in the news, and especially the polls. When Trump looks headed to certain defeat, the team turns sullen and smug. “We warned you this would happen” is the subtext. Then a poll comes out showing Trump making up lost ground in North Carolina or Arizona, or with blacks, or having gone 48 hours without a howler, and suddenly Rupert’s monkeys can be seen scrambling back to their position of “Maybe he’s not so bad after all” and “Anyone but Hillary!”
However, not every day offers so clear perspective on what’s happening, and newspapers, after all, do have to publish every day. What’s a columnist to do when the horizon is murky? Bash the Clintons! That’s the route Rove took yesterday, with his demand to “Shut Down the Clinton Foundation Already.” Karl Rove knows as well as anyone that the Clinton Foundation has been a tremendous force for good. From climate change to Haiti relief, from tackling HIV/AIDS to combating deforestation in Asia, the Foundation is the singularly most effective social- and environmental-activist group in the world, a fact even Donald Trump—who has repeatedly called for a special investigation into the Foundation–himself recognized when he donated heavily—as much as $250,000—to it when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State (a fact that prompted one tweeter to wonder if Trump is not “calling for an investigation of himself”).
But then, the slur of Hillary Clinton’s “trustworthiness” has largely propagated in Karl Rove’s wheelhouse. It’s from P.R. chop shops like Kellyanne Conway’s that focus group-driven issues like that are edited; they then are adopted by propagandists like Rove to do the actual scribing (Goebbels operated much the same way), and then it’s a forward lateral to publishers like Murdoch, who supply them with page (or screen) space. Thus the modern version of Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex: the rightwing alliance of a Ministry of Truth and a gigantic media chain, joined together in unholy matrimony for unholy purposes.
But it wouldn’t be enough simply to hurl smears at Hillary Clinton. These must be conjoined with pocket book issues, because after all, it’s the economy, stupid. So, also in yesterday’s WSJ is yet another accusation that “the fastest way to kill [economic] growth” will be to elect Hillary Clinton. Never mind that under her husband the U.S. enjoyed its longest surge of job (and stock market) growth ever, or that Barack Obama, against unbelievable odds (including an obstructionist Senate and a super-hostile House), not only successfully overcame the Bush-caused Great Recession, but has himself now presided over a long period of growth. By contrast, the last two Republican presidents, Bush pere and fils, both had failed or flat economies. Where these Republicans get the cojones to claim that Democrats are bad for business is a head-scratcher. But then, for the final exercise in pointless stupidity in yesterday’s WSJ, you need only glance at the lead editorial, which unwittingly again displays the GOP’s schizophrenia. On the one hand it fundamentally blames Hillary Clinton for the high price of EPiPen (the anti-allergic reaction drug whose price hike has caused national revulsion). On the other hand it castigates her for having the nerve to propose “price controls” on Big Pharma. Go figure.
This huge and growing chasm within the ranks of the Republican Party prompted me to bring down from my bookself “The Republican Party: 1854-1964,” an old book about the GOP’s founding and subsequent evolution. The Party itself came into being in 1854-1855 during a period of unprecedented political chaos in America, when numerous parties—Democrats, Free-Soilers, Abolitionists, Know-Nothings, Whigs and countless smaller local groupings—were grappling to fill the void in governance created as issues concerning slavery and immigration were coming to the fore. Except for the Democrats, the other parties all were swept away into the dustbin of history, as the new Republican Party arose. Is the same thing happening today? The Democratic Party, for all its own stresses, remains strong; the Republican Party as we have known it—the party of Reagan, Bob Dole, Mitt Romney, McCain, the Bushes—seems to be in a slo-mo process of disintegration. I myself wouldn’t mind seeing it disappear forever, but the forces of darkness with which it has long dabbled, and into which it now has descended, remain; promising (or threatening) an extended period of chaos much as America saw in 1855, when both sides were lining up for a fight. And we all know what happened five years later.
Something, in short, has to give. It will be either America itself, or the Republican Party. My prediction is that it will be the GOP that eventually comes to its senses and expels the extremists, both evangelicals and a nativist, increasingly violent alt-right. Both sides have done, and are doing, so much damage, not only to the Republican Party, but to America. Let these two cults go their merry way, perhaps forming a pansexual folie a deux on the right, or more likely retreating to their respective fringes, where they can fulminate all they want without disturbing domestic tranquility. What happens when the Republican Party expectorates its extremes? It becomes a normal party again. That is what I hope for. You should, too.
This “anger” issue said to be driving the election fascinates me. People are said to be so angry that they’ll vote for the one person who seems angrier than they are: Trump.
I grant that Americans are angry. But over what? For sure, a lot of middle class voters lost their jobs and thus their fragile clutch at a decent lifestyle over the past eight or ten years. Why? The main reason usually given is “bad trade agreements” that have sent U.S. jobs overseas. Trump is making a big deal about this, with promises to get us out of these agreements and bring the jobs back to the rust belt.
Let’s get one thing straight. Obama is right when he points out that the world economy is now inter-connected. Stuff is made wherever labor is cheapest, and no U.S. President can alter that fact. Trump can promise anything he wants, but he’d have to lower wages on the manufacture of cars, clothing, appliances and everything else to historic levels in order to convince employers to bring the jobs back, and he’s not going to do that.
That, of course, doesn’t stop him from appealing to U.S. workers who feel stiffed by their government. “I’ll save you!” he tells them, and these disgruntled white men cheer and applaud. Somewhere, in the back of their minds, they must know he’s lying to them. They must recognize that he’s a con man, willing to tell them anything. If you sat down with them and reasoned with them, I guess they’d admit that, no, they don’t expect autos, or washing machines, or sneakers or shirts or air conditioners to be made in America anymore, given the realities of the international marketplace. But this is the problem: no one is sitting with them, reasoning. They exist in the echo chamber of the angry, white, resentful Fox News listener, their anxieties continually provoked into carefully-orchestrated hatred of Hillary Clinton.
What really has cost the middle class its jobs? Well, those jobs have been disappearing for thirty years, under Republican and Democratic Presidents and Congresses, so it’s fair to say it really is an inevitability. America has one chance for economic leadership in the future, and that’s an educated class that can create jobs in high tech and service industries that are superior to anything any other country can do. Silicon Valley is the supreme example of what we do best. So, ask yourself why Silicon Valley is overwhelmingly in favor of Hillary Clinton. It’s because they understand which side will make America great, and it’s not a reactionary, anti-science, bigoted and xenophobic Republican Party.
But what really crushed the middle class was the Great Recession that began in 2007-2008 and whose effects are still being felt. It cost this country millions of jobs. People were being fired or laid off by the hundreds of thousands each month at its height. Trillions of dollars were lost, in home values and in retirement savings. And what caused the Great Recession?
Republican insistence on getting rid of any form of oversight of banks. This “party of Lincoln” became, in the twentieth century, the party of plutocrats. They bought and paid for a Congress (and a President and a Supreme Court when they could get one) that would eliminate any restrictions on anything they wanted to do to get even richer, at the expense of the 99% of us who are getting by. This deregulation of banking allowed the banks to be criminally profligate in lending money to anyone to buy a house, and led also to making it impossible for such federal agencies as the Securities and Exchange Commission to truly oversee the banks they are charged by law to ensure are healthy. Republicans got exactly what they wanted: a regulation-free zone in banking, and Americans got exactly what they deserved for electing Republicans: bankruptcies, upside-down mortgages, a drastic devaluation in their 401(K)s, and an economy that almost fell off the cliff, and thank goodness Obama did a splendid job in shepherding the country back from the Bush catastrophe he inherited–including a disastrous and unneeded war in Iraq.
It is so obvious that this call for “less government regulation” has been scripted by corporate shills at the behest of the greedy billionaires who now are lining up behind Donald Trump. Even something as fair as the estate tax is on Trump’s hit list. His children—those miserable sons who posed grinning with the exotic wild animals they slaughtered—evidently do not wish to share a penny of their inheritance with anybody else. “My father made his money,” they say “and he should be able to dispose of it as he wishes.”
Well, no. As Hillary once reminded us, it takes a village. Trump may (or may not) have made a lot of money: we won’t know until he released his tax returns, which will probably be never. But whether or not he’s as rich as he claims, fairness and common sense dictate that he, and all other rich people like him, have their taxes raised considerably, to benefit the nation that allowed them to amass fortunes. Fairness and common sense also dictate that we need a lot more—not less—regulation in this country. Unfettered capitalism, the laissez-faire of John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford and the Koch Brothers, is a disaster. Now, if we can only get those blue collar workers to understand that simple fact. Unfortunately, anger is an emotion that puts the blinders on reality. Those poor white guys would rather vote their hatred and fear for a guy who didn’t lift a finger for them in the first 70 years of their lives, but ripped them off (Trump University, get-rich-quick real estate scams) and didn’t even pay his bills to the small-businesses he exploited to redecorate Mar-a-Lago. Do they seriously expect Trump to fight for them now, if he’s elected? P.T. Barnum understood it. There’s a sucker born every minute. So why do I tell white male Trump voters (and, I might add, straight ones) they’re wrong? Because when you do something that’s stupidly against your own, and you’re family’s, self-interest, despite knowing better, then there’s something wrong with the way you’re thinking.
Although I was raised in a Democratic household, I always considered myself a middle-of-the-roader. I hardly paid any attention to Presidential elections until 1984, when I voted for Jesse Jackson in the California primary, and for Mondale in the general election. But in 1988, I voted for the Republican, George H.W. Bush. Dukakis seemed hapless, and I admired Bush’s strong resume and character.
I was also an early Bill Clinton supporter. I still have a letter from him to me dated 1988, years before most Americans had even heard of him. I’d seen him interviewed by Brian Lamb on C-SPAN and was so impressed, I wrote the then-Arkansas governor—my first and only fan letter—to tell him I admired his articulate intelligence. He responded politely. Four years later, of course, Clinton went on to win the first of his two terms as President. I liked him (still do), and also Hillary, whose gumption and values commanded my respect (and still do).
So it was that, when the Republican Party went after the Clintons with ill-concealed hostility, I began to see the GOP, not as an authentic political party—the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and, yes, George H.W. Bush—but as a damaging degradation of political discourse, and thus of this country’s values. It gradually became clear to me that Republicans had allowed themselves to fall into two horrible traps. First, they appealed to the worst, most prejudiced instincts of white American voters, a cynical move actually begun under Nixon with his “Southern strategy” that was clearly an attempt to drive a wedge between the races; and secondly, Republicans made strange bedfellows with what was, and is, a group I fear more than any other domestic cabal: evangelical Christians. That unholy marriage was orchestrated by Reagan and his consiglieres, including Lee Atwater, Karl Rove’s malign mentor; I doubt that Reagan himself (much less Nancy) was comfortable with Bible-thumpers, although he had to pretend to be. (I might say the same about Trump, whose cozying up to religious extremists—witness his embarrassing performance at Liberty University and his declarations that the Bible is his favorite book—prove that he will say anything, no matter how absurd, in order to win over credulous voters.)
Together, the Republican Party and these two groups—evangelicals and resentful, white working-class voters—decided to go after the Clintons, not on policy (Clinton was a centrist, hardly the socialist they painted him and Hillary out to be), but simply because he was a Democrat. By the 1990s Republicans had entirely given up on any idea of compromise. Instead, they resorted to what was essentially an attempted coup de main, using lies, smears, dog whistles and innuendo, in order to stir up the latent resentments and anger that their pollsters (who now include Kellyanne Conway, doing the same thing for Trump) told them would resonate. The litany of falsehoods Republicans hurled at the Clintons was endless, and every one of them lies: Whitewater, Vince Foster’s “murder”, Travelgate, trashing the Oval Office. The Republican penultimate attack on the Clintons extended to the political violence of Impeachment, driven by religiously conservative hounders (including Ken Starr, who last week had to resign his university post due to personal scandal) and a House of Representatives that had been taken over by radical Christian elements. The attempt at Impeachment was roundly rejected by the American people, and was stopped by a more sensible and politically responsible Senate. Clinton was not convicted. But the Republican Party had let it be known that, if they could not win power legitimately, they would subvert it illegitimately through propaganda (via Fox “News,” which arose at this time. Fox’s wunderkind, Roger Ailes—himself just fired due to a sexual scandal–was a student of Rove’s).
With the coming of Barack Obama, Republicans have doubled down on their radical obstructionism, becoming truly a cult of uncompromising lunacy, hatred, violence, stubbornness and intellectual dishonesty. How strange and ironic to see so-called “moderate” Republicans now turning against Trump, when in reality, he is simply a distillation of everything these Republicans have been preaching for decades. Trump spouts stupidity and bigotry, but those emotional ideas were forged by conservatives, tea party supporters and evangelicals long before his political rise. The blatant falseness of the attacks on Obama—he is a secret Muslim, he is a Kenyan not an American, he pals around with terrorists, he is the worst President ever, he created ISIS, he wants to take your guns away, he hates white people, he is a liar, he hates America, he hates Israel–a litany of horrors dredged from the foulest sewers of the Drudge report, Breitbart and Hannity—this is the test of blood purity the Republican Party now demands of its members. If these moderates, the Susan Collinses, Kelly Ayottes, Barbara Bushes, Mitt Romneys, Colin Powells and those 50 national security experts, really mean it when they say Trump is entirely unfit to be President, they should quit the Republican Party, at least until it returns to its senses. Trump represents its nasty, ugly, congealed essence—an essence they abetted all of their political careers, even as their party increasingly went off the rails. Trump is their nominee, the Republican nominee, whether they like it or not. If they had any honor, any moral fiber or personal dignity–if they were, to use a Yiddish phrase of my childhood, mensches–they would quit the party and condemn it for the horror show it has become.
As a gay man, I have additional reasons to loathe Republicans, and you should, too, if you love American freedom and liberty. This Republican Party has tried for decades to besmirch gay Americans, to deny us our rights, to dehumanize us, to stigmatize us, to stir up hatred against us, to convince their followers that we are dangerous. (Another Hitler comparison: he said the same things about Jews.) Republicans fought every step of the way against gay marriage and opening the military to LGBT people, even against letting gay people adopt children, despite the obvious fairness of those ends. Even now that the Supreme Court has approved gay marriage, they continue their homophobia in a hopeless revanchist action to try and upend the Supreme Court, a revolt led by bigoted Governors and religiously fanatical local judges. Let there be no mistake: this smearing of millions of gay Americans has been spearheaded by evangelicals, Mormons and Catholics (and don’t get me started on the irony of churches run by pedophiles who bash gay people). Even those Republicans who might be repelled by homophobia choose to keep their mouths shut, rather than risk censure by radical mullahs who they know are out of their minds, but whose support, or at least abstention from criticism, is politically necessary.
I have nothing against Christianity, which is one of the world’s great religions. But I am angered by the intrusion of Christian radicals into our nation’s governance and lawmaking. The Republican Party has become little more than an extension of a politicized Christian party in America (and a militant rightwing Christian party at that), something that should concern every one of us who cherishes the Constitution. This rightwing Christian movement has ties—murky, but repeatedly proven: think David Duke—to a white supremacist movement that even the FBI considers a clear and present danger. Many of the leaders of this Christian movement are delusional, perhaps even psychotic, by any definition of those terms: Pat Robertson believing he prayed away a hurricane, or Jerry Falwell claiming that God sent the Loma Prieta earthquake to San Francisco to punish it for its gayness (as if the same God were not punishing Bible Belt Christians every time a church is destroyed by a tornado; perhaps Louisiana’s floods prove that God hates that red state). Many of these Christians, especially uneducated evangelicals, believe the world is less than 6,000 years old, that Noah’s flood created the Grand Canyon, and that Adam, Eve and babies Cain and Abel frolicked with dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden. These are not religious beliefs we should respect, much less debate; they are the rantings of lunatics—moreover, of people who revel in their ignorance. This is your Trump base. And yet this fever-swamp theocracy is a majority owner of the modern Republican Party, whose leaders must pay it obeisance even while they privately ridicule it.
The war against women—many Republicans want to deny them even birth control, much less abortion rights, and they also wish to criminally prosecute doctors who perform abortions—the xenophobia of Trump and his ridiculous wall, which will never be built, and whose justifications are odious—the ongoing homophobia—the ramping up of Islamophobia, whipped to a frenzy by Trump amongst disgruntled white men who find hating “the other” easier than critical thinking and believe that Syrians are stealing their jobs—the Republican insistence on tax cuts, at any price, including for the wealthiest Americans, which has allowed the current income gap, the worst in our country’s history, to become a threat to national security, and which, moreover, has caused the nation’s infrastructure to crumble—the animosity towards evidence of man-made climate change, and towards science in general—the constant hammering of “government” as “the problem” (except when disaster strikes a red state and Republican Governors are the first to demand free money from Washington)—the sexist, racist personal attacks against Michelle Obama, as noble a First Lady as any in our country’s history—the mendacious insinuations against Hillary (she killed innocent people in Benghazi, her health is poor [Trump’s hitman on that one is the repellent Giuliani, and what is he lusting for—Homeland Security?], she is an enabler of Bill’s philandering, she murdered Vince Foster, she is a compulsive liar and a secret Lesbian, as if there would be anything wrong with that)—any of these would be sufficient to loathe the Republican Party for sheer coarseness and baseness. Every time I hear a Republican go on and on about “family values” I wince. Hello former Sen. Larry “Wide Stance” Craig, former House Speaker Denny “Coach” Hastert and untold Republican pols and preachers caught in dirty bookstores, men’s rooms, and adulterous scandals, committers of pedophilia and victims of coverup blackmail.
As I said, I voted for George H.W. Bush in 1988. I am not a bleeding-heart liberal. I agree with traditional Republican beliefs, which actually are not Republican at all, but American: I uphold law and societal order. I value our cops and soldiers and dislike the unjust criticism sometimes leveled against them from the far left. I firmly believe people should work to support themselves and their families rather than relying on a welfare state. If you make a baby, take care of it! I disagree with Occupy types who smash and loot; they’re not the freedom fighters they purport to be, but mindless vandals and looters.
But believe me, this modern Republican Party has nothing in common with its great conservative traditions. Keep in mind that Barack Obama sincerely sought bipartisanship when he took office. It was Republicans, and particularly Mitch McConnell, who declared their intention to make Obama “a one-term President” and then proceeded to stall, obstruct, filibuster and block nearly every proposal the President made, even as Fox “News” and the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Trump, the leading Birther, spread the most outrageous lies about him. Look: the Republican Party has become an insane asylum of irrationality; a cabal of greedy plutocrats like the Koch Brothers and the Trumps; a melting pot of every petty resentment, fact-free and without solutions to America’s problems; a tool of the uber-rich and, ironically, of economically suffering, uneducated white men who apparently don’t understand that cutting the estate tax on billionaires will benefit them not a whit; an anti-science ideology of medieval superstition; a theocracy, an American Taliban, a crypto-fascist-preacher mafia that shamelessly bilks its credulous adherents with Orwellian disinformation, the same way Trump’s “University” and his late-night “get rich quick” T.V. infomercials bilked imbeciles. Should these Republican gangsters ever achieve real power, I have no doubt America would descend into domestic intranquillity.
But I do not believe Americans will elevate these Republicans to power. This country has at most 30% of diehard Republicans who would vote for anyone who happened to become their party’s nominee. That, thankfully, is not enough to elect a President. More sensible, patriotic, intelligent, thoughtful, caring and educated voters will prevail. I myself will happily and proudly vote for a woman I’ve admired for twenty-five years, Hillary Clinton, a decent person and a good Democrat. The Democratic Party of my parents—of Wilson and FDR, Harry Truman, JFK, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—is a political movement that upholds the highest ideals and aspirations of humankind: justice, equality, opportunity, fairness, reason, compassion and progress. I am a Democrat because I share those ideals. And because Republicans suck.
Last Friday, I told Rick Tigner, the CEO of Jackson Family Wines and a man for whom I have the utmost admiration, that I was quitting the job I’d held since March, 2014.
Why? Because I turned 70 years old in June, and I’m feeling my age.
I always had believed I would be retired by seventy, provided my finances were in order. I inherited no money from my parents, and I never had a proper pension, because I’d worked for nearly 30 years as a freelancer for Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, neither of whom paid very well. What I did have in the way of a nest egg, though, was a very nice private investment through my family that gave me every expectation of a comfortable old age.
Alas, that private investment turned out to be run by Bernie Madoff. On Dec. 10, 2008, I—along with thousands of others—got the bad news: My life savings were gone. Along with the money went hopes of an early retirement.
However, there was some good news: In 2005, the feeder fund I was invested in unexpectedly stopped accepting new deposits. Thus, for the next four years—until the date of the Madoff arrest, and for the eight years since–I was, through force majeure, able to invest my money elsewhere. And when, in 2014, Jackson Family Wines offered me the new job—at considerably more money than I’d ever made at Wine Enthusiast—I was able to tuck away much of that, too, with the result that, by last week, my banker and I determined that I did have enough money to comfortably retire. Granted, I will never have a high-spending lifestyle. But then, I never had one before, and you can’t miss what you never had!
Turning seventy, in case you haven’t had the experience, is psychologically impactful. When I turned 40, 50, 60, it didn’t change how I felt about myself. My health was wonderful: I’ve always been in the top one percent of my age cohort when it comes to fitness. But seventy? You can’t make believe any more that you’re not old. Seventy may be “the new forty,” but it’s still threescore and ten, which Psalms tells us are “the days of our years.” The aches and pains accumulate; one fatigues more easily. More to the point, one becomes happy with (or at least reconciled to) what one is, and stress, which is inevitable in any job, is no longer welcome. The result was that, after an enormous amount of reflection, and plenty of back-and-forth in my own mind (Should I do it? Shouldn’t I?), I decided to “do it.”
This decision obviously has major consequences for me. For one, it means I’m on a fixed income. For another, it means that my career in wine is over. Period. Done, finis, #ByeBye. I no longer have any reason to be interested in wine, aside from drinking it, although it’s likely to be years before I fully disengage from thinking and reading about it; old habits die hard. But I have already begun that process in full deliberation. The symbolic act of interment, which I have yet to take, will be to eliminate all the Google alerts for “wine,” “wine industry,” “wine critic” and so forth that have filled my in-box for so many years. I haven’t done that yet…but I shortly shall.
And this blog?
Well, I still have a lot of readers. Whenever I traveled the country for Jackson Family Wines, people—complete strangers—came up to me and told me they read me every day. That is enormously gratifying; the only people who probably can relate to it are my fellow bloggers. It hasn’t always been easy to come up with topics five days a week, but then I think of all those folks across America (and in other countries) who begin their day with a little Steve, and I don’t want to disappoint them…to disappoint you.
So I will continue this blog. But there will be changes. Big ones. Going forward, I’ll write about anything that interests me. It won’t necessarily be about wine. I will frequently write about politics, which is an intense interest of mine, and I will certainly do my best to demolish the Republican Party, which deserves it. I’m sure I’ll lose readers, maybe a lot of them. But I may also gain some new ones. Be that as it may.
So, to those of you who are going to bid me a fond “farewell” because you want a strictly wine-oriented blog, I say, Adieu to you, too. Thank you for reading steveheimoff.com all these years. But you might check me out from time to time. The writing will be better than ever.
One final remark: I can’t begin to express how grateful I am to the Jackson family “kids” (as I call them) for the friendship, support and, yes, love they have given me. Julia…Chris…Ari…Hailey…Max…Katie…Shaun. You are wonderful, kind, special people with extraordinary hearts. I’m so very glad I had the privilege to get to know you; our tastings (and we still have one more left!) have been a highlight of my career. Your parents raised you right.
In San Francisco the hot topic of the day is gentrification. The city, it is said by some critics, is turning into (or has deliberately been turned into) a haven for wealthy techies from the likes of Salesforce.com, Twitter, Zynga and scores of others, forcing out the artists, musicians, Boehemians and others who can’t afford the median apartment rental of nearly $3,400 a month.
The political ramifications are visible on a daily basis. Recently a group of anti-development protesters surrounded a Google bus, in the symbolic heart of the Mission District. Such private buses have become commonplace in the city, with tech companies transporting their commuting workers, thus sparing them from the ordeal of having to use the Municipal Transportation Agency’s (MUNI) beleaguered buses and streetcars (and in the process preventing their dollars from fattening the MUNI’s perennially cash-strapped bottom line).
The anti-development protesters also killed a planned luxury condominium project on the Embarcadero, known as 8 Washington, that had been backed by all the city’s elite, including Mayor Ed Lee and California Lieutenant-Governor Gavin Newsom. It was a stunning defeat, and a warning shot fired across the city’s bow: The people are fed up with multi-million dollar apartments that 99% of the population can’t afford.
I’ve been watching all this with mixed feelings. I’ve lived in San Francisco and Oakland for 35 years, and while there’s nothing particularly new about gentrification and people who both support and oppose it, what’s happening now is stronger than it’s been in the past. There’s a genuine feeling that San Francisco must remain true to its roots, as a haven for the oppressed and eccentric, the creative poor and the wacky, the whole rainbow spectrum that has made the City by the Bay what it is since the days of the Barbary Coast.
My sympathies, then, are with the protestors. At the same time, there is much about the new techie population to admire. They’ve brought an energy to the city it hasn’t seen in years. Even through the Great Recession, San Francisco saw an explosion of clubs, tasting bars, restaurants, popups, food trucks and saloons, in nearly every neighborhood. The Mission has been transformed from a grimy, dangerous ‘hood to one of the premier destinations in the city, home to exquisitely expensive restaurants (Saison) and bars (Locanda) that burst with excitement and buzz.
The liquid that fuels all this: alcohol. Never has the city had more or better wine shops. Never have restaurants had greater and more interesting wine lists. As soon as workers leave their Financial District offices at 5 p.m., they head to hundreds of bars, celebrating the end of the workday with fancy cocktails, shooters, beers and wines from all over the world. It’s a Golden Age for drinking in San Francisco, and it feels good.
So, like I said, mixed feelings. The money that the techies make lets them live the good life of food and booze. At the same time, rising rents are indeed exiling some of the city’s most creative types. (I see this all the time here in Oakland, where they come seeking more affordable rents. San Francisco’s loss is our gain.) I don’t know what the answer is.
In the 1950 movie, Sunset Boulevard, a slightly gaga Gloria Swanson, playing Norma Desmond, an aging Hollywood movie star past her sell-by date, sits in the gloom of her mansion’s movie room watching old silent films of herself with her employee, played by William Holden, who tries to pretend he’s not freaked out by his boss’s increasing dottiness. At one point, Norma’s dipsy stroll down memory lane bursts into an insane marathon.
“We didn’t need dialog, we had faces,” she muses, as Holden’s character squirms. “There just aren’t any faces like that anymore.” Then, she begins to shriek. “Have they forgotten what a star looks like?” [Here’s a clip of that great scene.]
“Where are the faces”? was the theme of a speech given last week by California’s Lieutenant Governor, Gavin Newsom. Speaking at the California Wine Summit, Gavin didn’t use that precise phrasing, but the absence of faces in promoting California wine was clearly what he meant by the lack of “high-profile personalities” to “project our image. I argue that there is now a vacuum of leadership and we as an industry need to reconcile that quickly.”
It is demonstrably true that the California wine industry no longer has giants of the stature of Robert Mondavi, Andre Tchelistcheff, Jess Jackson and Ernest and Julio Gallo. These men were famous beyond their considerable achievements; indeed, they were “high-profile personalities,” as well known to millions of Americans as movie stars or sports heroes. They were Faces. It’s impossible to imagine California wine being what it is today if they hadn’t been here to promote it.
Do we have faces today? Some years ago, I speculated that Bill Harlan was emerging as a replacement in Napa Valley for Robert Mondavi (not that anyone ever could replace him). Bill was building up his winery empire and increasingly emerging from his relative seclusion to make himself available to the public via the media. But, for whatever reason, Bill changed tack. Perhaps sticking his toe in the water determined for him that this was not something he really wanted to do.
I know the California wine industry pretty thoroughly. When I ask myself, “Who are the modern faces,” some names arise. Peter Mondavi, Sr., Joseph E. Gallo and Mike Grgich remain actively at their posts. There also are many men and, thankfully now, women in their 50s and 60s who are carrying the torch forward; I wouldn’t begin to list them because I’d have to leave some names out. But I think it’s fair to say that no one alive today carries the sheer weight that our late, great giants did. So, in that sense, I have to agree with Gavin.
Could Gavin himself be the man? He’s pretty actively involved in all aspects of his wine business (the PlumpJack Hospitality Group). But he’s also a professional politician holding a fulltime job, and he may well have ambitions that would carry him considerably further than California’s Lieutenant Governorship. To be a Face in the wine industry pretty much requires a 24/7 commitment to your work, which is something that Gavin is not capable of at this time.
Why do we no longer have faces? Another speaker at the Summit, Wine Institute president and CEO Bobby Koch, observed, “It’s only natural that when you lose the pioneers like Robert Mondavi, Ernest Gallo or Joe Heitz you lose something important to our industry, and the next generation are not the founders so it is a bit different.” We tend to lionize founders and discoverers, the Christropher Columbuses who found new worlds. Those who follow in their footsteps may be equally accomplished, but may find themselves overshadowed by the giants.
Koch added, on a hopeful note, “We will see more of the second, third or fourth generation stepping up.” I have no doubt that that is happening now; from Santa Barbara to the Sierra Foothills, the kids, grandkids and even great-grandkids of pioneers are keeping the wine industry moving forward.
But I do wonder if California will ever again boast superstars, famous the world over, whose very names are household words that imply everything California wine has to offer. So if I conclude by asking, “Where are the faces?”, it’s not an accusation, it’s a lamentation.