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The Stately Mansions of Piedmont and the Wealth Gap

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The small city of Piedmont is one of the richest in the Bay Area. The median household income is $212,000 a year. More than half the adult population earns over $200,000 annually. Piedmont sold the first $1 million home in the East Bay years ago, although today, a million bucks won’t buy you much. Zillow reports that current home listings in the 1.7 square mile city range from $1.4 million to $6.2 million. Seven of the ten most expensive Alameda County home sales in 2016 were in Piedmont.

I can walk to Piedmont from my home, in the Adams Point section of Oakland, in ten minutes, and I frequently do, for my daily stroll. I enjoy wandering its quiet, hilly streets, with their big trees, huge homes with immaculate grounds and gardens that bloom all year. Piedmont is a world apart from Oakland, even though the city of 10,809 is entirely surrounded by Oakland. Piedmont was recognized by California as a city in 1907, because even then its residents wanted to dissociate themselves from the bigger, dirtier, poorer city around it. They still do.

It’s funny: Piedmont, as I said, is a ten-minute walk from my home, but if I walk ten minutes in any other direction, I come across squalid neighborhoods of run-down homes, brownfields of homeless encampments and trash-lined gutters. There is no trash in Piedmont. It’s as manicured as any rich suburb in the country. When I walk its avenues, I admire the stately mansions, which have been built in all styles, from Georgian and Spanish Colonial to Arts & Crafts to ultra-modern.

Piedmont is Pacific Heights in the suburbs, and with better weather. Porsches and Lamborghinis line the driveways and curbs; the hoi polloi drive BMWs and Mercedes. The population is, as Tom Wolfe wrote of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, radical chic: Lots of pictures of Breonna Taylor, “Say their names” signs, BLM posters, and of course Biden front yard placards, although I do wonder how many of the Piedmontese would be embarrassed to put out a Trump sign. I have to assume the BLM signs at least are sincere. When I walk through downtown Oakland and they’re in every store window, I get the suspicion some are for insurance, to keep thugs from smashing their windows during the next riot, which is never far off. But the Piedmontese needn’t worry about riots in their bucolic streets. The local polizia, with the mutual aid of the Alameda County Sheriffs Department, simply wouldn’t allow it.

I myself could never afford to live in Piedmont, and I suppose there’s some envy on my part, gazing at those stately mansions. It’s clean and refreshing to get out of the inner city when I stroll there, but I always know that I’m going to have to return to Adams Point, where a growing homeless camp is a block away. If there are any encampments in Piedmont, I’ve never seen them, and I rather doubt that there are. In my head, as I walk though Piedmont, I can’t help but think about the wealth gap in America. We read about how foreign cities like Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg and Nairobi are infamous for having privileged neighborhoods jeek-by-jowl with some of the poorest slums on earth, but we seldom think of U.S. cities in that context. We should.

I’m not a reflexive “raise taxes” person. I believe Americans who work hard and achieve success should be able to hold onto their gains. We’re all created morally equal, but not physically or intellectually equal. I recognize that most rich people got what they have through their own efforts, and that the inverse of that is true: many poor people failed to work hard and take advantage of the American Dream, which is why they’re poor. I recognize that there are structural inequities in America, and we have to identify them and rectify them. We’re doing that as a nation, although I also recognize that some people think we’re not doing it fast enough. What is “fast enough” anyway?

So I don’t resent the good burghers of Piedmont. Still, this begs the question of what is the right, fair way to bridge the wealth gap. I’m no Communist; I don’t believe in seizing rich peoples’ wealth and redistributing it to everyone else. At the same time, I’m no royalist. Rich people have an obligation to share the wealth, especially when the wealth gap in America is so big. What is the just, ethical proportion of their wealth that should be shared?

The California State Legislature—which is to say, Democrats in our heavily Blue state—in July passed a measure that would raise taxes on the state’s richest people from the current 13.3% rate to 54% for the uber-rich, raising an estimated $6 billion a year that could go to schools and other services for the poor and struggling middle classes.

That’s not a huge amount of money in a state with a $202 billion dollar budget, and it’s hard to argue that the extra money isn’t needed. But already the anti-tax forces are fighting back. Their main argument is that “top earners could more easily leave the state and work in places with no income tax, like Nevada and Texas.” And I suppose there will be some rich people who emigrate if the tax proposal actually happens. I don’t want to see that, and I don’t want corporations to leave California for Nevada and Texas, which is already happening. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that taxing the rich (and the richest corporations) is the right thing to do. The proof, for me, is in those leafy Piedmont streets. Does the owner of that three-story Palladian mansion really need a new Porsche Taycan 4S? Could he part with another $35,000 a year if he knew the money was going to inner-city preschools, or forest firefighting, or pediatric healthcare for poor kids? If he says he doesn’t want to pay higher taxes, and would rather move to another state than to share the wealth, what does it say about him and about his moral or religious beliefs? Not much, if you ask me.


I like shelter-in place, or: The virtues of a small life

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I led a very public life for a long time and, like most public figures, I was known by far more people than I personally knew, people who would watch me at public events and try to figure me out. I understood the rules of the game. When I was the F.W.C.—the famous wine critic—if I went to, say, a big tasting, I knew that people saw as I entered, watched which wines I tasted and whom I interacted with. I knew that some people were vaguely afraid of me, not because I’m physically intimidating—that’s hardly the case—and not because I’m unfriendly, because I’m not, but because they saw my rank and reputation—my power, let’s call it–and it tended to separate us.

Later, when I went to work at Jackson Family Wines, there was another kind of separation. I knew exactly why they had hired me: bragging rights. “We got Heimoff, the F.W.C.!!!” But internally, within the company, many mid-level executives were skeptical. I recall a very early meeting of a few hundred JFW employees at a retreat in Maui. Someone mentioned my name, and someone else in the crowded auditorium—I don’t know who—said, “Why did we hire him? He was more useful to us at Wine Enthusiast.” You can imagine how that made me feel. I never did “fit in” at JFW, just as I never fit into the public role I was expected to play at Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast.

You see, I am fundamentally a shy, reserved man. I don’t particularly like being in crowds and I don’t like being the center of attention. It makes me uncomfortable. As I got on with my career and realized that I was going to have to be a lot more public than I wanted, I grew to notice and admire others who were glad-handers, who could glide easily into a crowd and laugh and shmooze and seem so relaxed and funny. How do they do it, I wondered? I, myself, when in crowds always felt self-conscious, to the point of paralysis. If it was a big tasting event, I’d search the tables for winemakers whom I knew and with whom I was comfortable. I always enjoyed meeting my peers, the other wine critics, because we obviously had a shared experience that helped us understand each other. But still, it reached the point where, at these large events, I’d spend more and more time in my hotel room, watching T.V. or walking Gus, if I’d been able to bring him with me. I felt guilty about this—after all, I was on the company dime, and I realized I should be out there as an ambassador for my employer. But I’d tell myself, there had to be a line. Everybody is entitled to some privacy, to get away from it all into solitude and being by oneself.

That’s why I say I rather like the shelter-in-place. I haven’t done very much for the last six months. My days and nights have settled into a routine that looks very dull, on the surface. I awake, play with Gus for a while, arise, make breakfast, walk Gus, come back, and sit down at the computer to check emails and write this daily blog. I’ll turn the T.V. on, veering between local news and MSNBC and, if the weather is crazy as it has been this summer, The Weather Channel (which, sadly, does a horrible job of covering the West Coast). I’ll take a nap at 10 a.m. or so, then take Gus out for another walk, then return for a little reading and, probably, another nap. At one or two it’s time for my daily two-hour walk, then another nap until, finally, 5 p.m. rolls around—Happy Hour! Usually that means Lagunitas IPA and the evening news. And so the night wears on, me flipping the remote, looking for something decent on one of the many pay-T.V. channels: Prime, HBO, Netflix. Come 9 p.m., it’s off to more reading (currently, David McCullough’s superb biography of John Adams), and then to sleep. Wake up the next morning, and repeat.

There are, in fact, days when I speak with no one, except possibly a neighbor I run into. And I like it! If I’m tempted to worry that my life has sunk into a morass of lassitude and stupor, I remind myself how desperately, during the last years of my working life, whenever I was out on the road, working a room, being—again—watched and evaluated by strangers, I longed to be home, with Gus, doing nothing, safe from awkward human interaction, protected from awful corporate politics and human eccentricity and meanness.

There’s another reason I enjoy what I’m calling “the small life.” That’s because I respect the fact that I have what they used to call a very small carbon footprint. I feel like I’m doing my duty, as a citizen of the world, to reduce my negative impact on the environment. I no longer drive a car—good for me! My world is pretty much circumscribed by the distance my old legs can carry me. BART, the subway, is hardly an option anymore, what with the pandemic, and besides, where is there to BART to? Everything’s closed. So my life has become, literally, “small” in the sense of its geographic extent. And I’m finding that, far from being bored, I’m discovering pleasure in small things: discovering wonderful old homes on my walks, finding dozens of urban stairwells in my hilly part of Oakland, window shopping along Piedmont Avenue, figuring out where to take my afternoon snack—the Thai BBQ place on Broadway, Ming’s Tasty Dumplings in Chinatown, a spicy tuna roll at the sushi joint on Grand Ave.? Decisions, decisions.

The best thing about the small life is that I get to travel inside my head with no restrictions. I love being in my head. It’s such an interesting place! Somebody once observed—I’m paraphrasing—that the interior life is the best of all because you can go anywhere instantly, and it’s infinite. When I walk, I work stuff out: it’s amazing how ideas come when I’m in no position to write them down, which makes my iPhone’s Voice Memo app so handy.

Sure, I miss some stuff: going to the gym, eating in restaurants, going to bars with friends. My family missed our Passover seder this year for the first time ever, and I don’t know if I’ll ever take another airplane flight for the rest of my life. Still, for all the restrictions, this “small life” of mine is very much to my liking. It seems a fitting finale to what has been an eventful life.


Thoughts inspired by a visit to the beach

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We drove down the coast road yesterday to San Gregorio Beach, south of Half Moon Bay, almost to Santa Cruz. It was a beautiful day, even way out there on the coast, where usually, this time of year, it’s foggy and chilly. But the Bay Area—you may have heard, and you know for a fact if you live here—is going into an intense heat wave, one of the biggest in a long time. So even there, by the white-sand beaches, below the Redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the temperature was around 80, with preternaturally blue skies and a gentle breeze.

And what did we see? Masses of humanity, clogging Highway 1 for miles, bumper-to-bumper cars parked by the side of the road: mainly surfers and young families with little kids—with no social distancing, and almost no masks.

I mean, come on! Can we get real? Why would anyone in their right mind refuse to wear a mask at this point, even if they’re under thirty? We were told, for a period of time last Spring when coronavirus wasn’t well understood, that young people didn’t have to worry about getting infected. But now, “Young adults are driving outbreaks,” reports the Centers for Disease Control, demolishing the myth that only old people get sick and die. Maybe it’s true that younger people don’t get as sick. But they can spread the disease to their parents and grandparents, and to immuno-compromised neighbors, and even if they’re totally asymptomatic, they’re vectors of the virus.

I suppose it’s in the nature of young people to be suspicious of authority—I came of age in an era when the slogan was “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” But that tendency is immeasurably strengthened now by the fact that we have an ignorant, manipulative and violently uncaring president who for five months has downplayed the danger of COVID-19 and, as recently as yesterday, called Biden “shameful” for calling for a national policy of masks. Even if they’re not consumers of the news, young people pick up on this bullshit, and it gives them permission to ignore the medical warnings, and to think that coronavirus is a whole lot of nothing.

It’s been pointed out, over and over and over to the point of tedium, that the United States is the worst-performing country in the world by far in controlling—or not controlling—the spread of COVID-19. The coronavirus hit Taiwan at the same time as it hit America, and yet the death rate here is 1,200 times higher than in Taiwan.

That fact alone indicts Trump, and is enough for House Democrats to re-impeach him. It should also be enough to put Trump at the bottom of the “worst presidents ever” list, and should fuel citizen outrage from coast to coast. And yet we still have 35%, or 40%, or whatever the number is, standing by their man no matter how many times he lies, no matter how much he undermines our country, no matter how hard he tries to steal the upcoming election, no matter how many Americans he kills through his disinformation campaign.

Look: I understand these kids with their surfboards going out to the beach. I mean, hell, I was out there, for much the same reason: to get out of the city, to someplace pristine and clean. They’re bored, they’re not even allowed to go to school, and they’ve been cooped up for months with their parents, away from their friends. Suddenly, there’s a gorgeous day, and all they can think of is fun, fun, fun on the sand. If this were happening just a little bit, on nice days, it would be one thing: but it’s happening again, and again, and again, across the country, every day of the week. It’s happening here in Oakland, where young people flock to Lake Merritt (our local version of the ocean, albeit with no surfing), with no social distancing and no masks. It’s clearly happening in Florida and other states where coronovirus is out of control. And it will keep on happening, until this country gets real and takes decisive steps to crush coronavirus, as most other countries in the world have already done.

But most other countries don’t have this bumbling, dangerous poltroon as their head. I’d give my right one to be able to read a history book in, say, thirty years: “America came dangerously close to becoming a dictatorship under the Trump administration, but fortunately the good nature and common sense of the American people came to the rescue. Trump was defeated for re-election by a landslide, and eventually was found guilty of numerous crimes. Sentenced to a long prison sentence, he died behind bars. Nobody missed him.”


My so-called Shelter-in-Place life

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Gus is afraid of Zoom.

It’s surprising, because no other sounds bother my chill dog in the least. In the ten years we’ve been together, fireworks, garbage trucks, backup beepers, other dogs barking and howling—he sleeps through it all. He might glance at me if there’s some particularly loud and concussive noise, but it’s only to see how I’m reacting. When I tell him there’s nothing to worry about, he contentedly drops his head back on his paws, and pretty soon he’s snoring.

But Zoom! My improv troupe has been on it since March, for both regular classes and Friday night performances. Gus doesn’t like it. I’ll be at my desk, in front of the computer, sitting in my swivel chair, and as soon as we start Zooming Gus is on the floor, wedging his head in between my legs, the signal of his distress. I scoop him up—he only weighs 13 pounds—and place him on my lap, the place he’s comfortable and secure. I don’t know what it is about Zoom that disturbs him. Technology, I suppose, is as disruptive to our animal friends as it is to us members of the human tribe. The surprise is that, in four months, he hasn’t grown used to it.

But in those same months, my shelter-in-place life has achieved a certain regularity. With the gym closed, I need some way to burn calories and stretch my muscles, so I take a long walk every day—well, almost every day; it’s important to rest the body too. I live in the center of Oakland, and there being four directions to strike out in, I’ve explored most of them, out to about 3 miles (making for a nice 6-mile round trip). I walked once to the West, towards the Bay. Surprisingly, in my 33 years here, I’d never been out that way, along West Grand Avenue. I wasn’t missing much: block after block of now-emptied industrial buildings, until you finally reach the Freeway, beyond which is the old Army Base and San Francisco Bay. There, along the Frontage Road, for miles is nothing but a vast, ugly tent compound. The streets are heaped with garbage piled two feet high. It’s dreadful that Oakland has let things get that bad. I won’t walk west again.

Southbound my walk takes me through downtown Oakland—now largely plywooded up from the riots—thence to Chinatown and, ultimately, Jack London Square. This is a good, long walk. The days are warm now, but the Square, on the estuary, is reliably cooled with breezes, and I like to stop by my new favorite dumpling shop in Chinatown, Ming. Their chiu chan (pork and shrimp with peanuts), or the pork and shrimp dumplings (larger, doughier) and Shanghai dumplings are irresistable. These days, everything is “to go,” so I carry my little bag to Jack London Square, where, in the restaurant district (Bel Campo and Farmhouse are the best), they have outdoor tables that are pretty much unused these days. I’ll find one in the shade (if it’s hot) or in the sun (if it’s cool), unpack my dumplings, pour a little soy sauce on them, and chopstick through, enjoying being near the water (always refreshing to me) and glad for the (relative) quietness.

The walk north takes me through Oakland’s up-and-coming Temescal District towards the Berkeley or Emeryville border. I wouldn’t mind living there: an exciting neighborhood of restaurants and cafes, bars, coffee shops and little shops. I might stop at a little Vietnamese place on Telegraph Avenue to get fish cakes to go. Then, I loop over to Broadway for the southbound route, cutting along Piedmont Avenue on my way home. So sad to see all these places shuttered, or just doing curbside activity. I wonder how many of these bookstores, boutiques, bars, cafés and coffee shops will go out of business.

The one direction I haven’t walked so far is to the east, so I might do that today. It’s hilly, and mainly residential: not much to do or see, but then, there are far fewer people around, so the risk of infection is less. My main walk, the one I do most often, is a simple, 3.2-mile loop around Lake Merritt, which is “the crown jewel of Oakland,” a beautiful park with the namesake lake at its heart. But so crowded has the park been the last few months that I find myself having to dodge people who aren’t wearing their masks.

This topic, or controversy, over masks has reached a fever pitch here, and nowhere is it more apparent than on the nextdoor.com social media site. Oh, you wouldn’t believe the arguments! People get really upset over everything these days. You could post “Isn’t it a beautiful day today?” and before you know it, there’d be 50 comments, half of them assaulting you, with the commenters feuding with other commenters: more heat than light. It’s dreadful, and is the main reason why I’m avoiding getting into things on nextdoor, Facebook, Twitter.

Happy Fourth of July!


PinotFest 2019: Reviews and an Appreciation

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You can take the boy out of the wine critic business, but you can’t take wine criticism out of the boy…or something like that. All of which is to say that, although I’ve been happily retired for years, I still love wine tasting. It’s given me pleasure since the 1970s; why stop now?

PinotFest is a big event in San Francisco, especially since In Pursuit of Balance went out of business. It’s the annual Pinot Noir tasting, held at Farallon Restaurant, to benefit The Watershed Project, which seeks to protect the vulnerable, fragile watersheds of the Bay Area. So you not only get to taste some terrific Pinot Noirs, you also help the environment! (And thanks to Peter Palmer for always inviting me.)

One thing that’s so much fun about tasting wine is to experience how different two wines can be even when they’re grown in close physical proximity. For example, the Byron 2014 Julia’s Vineyard (94 points) and the Foxen 2016 Bien Nacido Vineyard Block 8 (92 points) were grown within about 400 yards of each other; both vineyards are on the Santa Maria Bench. And yet the wines are utterly different: the Foxen big, dark, ripe and juicy, loaded with fruit, while the Julia’s is pale in color, delicate and pure, with a tea slant to the fruit. Granted, the Byron is two years older, and the clones and vine age are different. But Bien Nacido Pinots always show this power, while Julia’s tends towards elegance. Incidentally, Foxen’s co-owner, Dick Doré, was doing the pouring honors. Great to see him looking so good.

At the same time, the Foxen 2016 Julia’s (93 points) was very close in style to the Byron ’14: pale-colored and delicate, with tea, spice and raspberry flavors. It gave me great pleasure to see these two Julias drinking so well, as that was a vineyard I was fond of even before I went to work for Jackson Family Wines. During my tenure there, I spent a lot of time in the vineyard, and watched the Jackson team work very hard to refurbish the Julia’s Pinot Noirs (which had been selling for very inexpensive prices) and boost the quality. It was crazy to name an under-$20 Pinot Noir for Jess Jackson’s and Barbara Banke’s daughter, Julia; surely that wine deserved more attention and a higher price, both of which it now has. Julia—a lovely person, who recently lost her home in the Kincade Fire—must be proud to see her namesake wines doing so well.

It also was lovely to have Byron’s winemaker, Jonathan Nagy, pour for me. I got to know Jonathan well while I worked for the Jacksons, and you couldn’t ask for a nicer man, as well as a more accomplished winemaker. He poured me the Byron 2012 Monument Pinot Noir (93 points), from the Nielsen Vineyard, on the Santa Maria Bench hard-by Julia’s. At the age of seven years, it was really beautiful: perfectly aged, a supple, lively mouthful of Pinot Noir goodness.

A few tables down from Byron’s was Calera. Now, one of the first stories I ever was assigned when I wrote for Wine Spectator was on Calera. I remember the long drive down and up into the isolated hills above Hollister, where the owner/winemaker, Josh Jensen, did me the honors of touring and tasting. Josh and I both are older now; the first thing he told me was, “I’ve retired.” Good for you, Josh: join the club! He poured me his 2016 Jensen Vineyard (94 points), from Mount Harlan, a wonderful wine. I wrote “Shows the spice and fruit and balance of this famous vineyard, but very young. Needs time.” While I was with him, Josh had me taste his 2016 Central Coast (90 points), which retails for $29. It reminded me of the old Central Coast bottling of Ken Volk’s Wild Horse Pinot Noir (a tremendously successful restaurant wine in its day), rich, fruity and racy, with some real complexity, and a good value.

Reverting back to my Santa Barbara County theme, I wandered over to Au Bon Climat’s table, hoping to catch Jim Clendenen. Sadly, he wasn’t there, but I tasted his 2016 Bien Nacido “Historic Vineyard Collection” (95 points). I last tasted that wine in the 2010 vintage, when I gave it 96 points.

I’ve always admired ABC’s wines, and this one didn’t let me down. It somehow combined that fruity power of Bien Nacido with Jim’s ability to wring elegance and translucence out of his wines. A superb Pinot Noir that will improve with time.

Etude was there, admittedly not a Santa Barbara County winery but a famous Carneros one. I used to admire their Heirloom Pinots, even as I recognized they can be bruisers when young: thick and a little heavy, loaded with fruit. So I tried the 2016 Heirloom (90 points). Yes, it was still like that. “A bit rude,” I wrote. I’d love to try some of these Heirlooms when they’ve acquired, say, 15 years of age, but I never have and probably never will.

When I saw Kathy Joseph presiding over the Fiddlehead table, I beelined over. I have fond memories of Kathy: once, when I visited her vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills, she made me a lunch of homemade tacos (I think beef, but they could have been chicken) and served one of her Pinot Noirs. It was fabulous: a perfect pairing, simple and delicious, and of course the fact that I was sitting with the winemaker, in the middle of the vineyard where the wine was made, added to the charm. Her Fiddlehead 2013 Lollopalloza, Fiddlestix Vineyard (94 points), was drinking very well, turning the age corner a little bit, but dry, crisp, subtle and complex. “Superb!” I wrote. Kathy’s 2014 Seven Twenty Eight bottling (89 points) is a sort of poor man’s Lollapalooza, a perfectly drinkable, fruity wine for drinking now.

There was a winery there I’d never heard of, Lando. They started up in 2012, the year I retired from formal reviewing and went over to Jackson Family Wines. The Lando 2017 Russian River Valley (92 points) was classic, with masses of red berries and fruits, root beer and spices, with good acidity and lots of class. The 2017 Sonoma Coast (93 points), which I believe is Petaluma Gap, appealed to me slightly more, with bright acidity and bright fruit. “Super yummy!” I wrote (that’s winespeak for delicious).

Finally, I just had to stop by Siduri’s table to pay my respects to the great Adam Lee, more white-haired than last I saw him but, hey, at least he has hair! I’d known Adam before I went to work for Jackson Family Wines, which bought Siduri in early 2015. In fact, I’d profiled Adam (and his wife, Dianna) in my 2008 book, New Classic Winemakers of California, so when Adam joined the Jackson team, I was delighted. He was pouring his 2018 Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir (89 points), a blend of Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills. A nice, fruity wine with some class, and easy to drink. Far better was Siduri’s 2016 John Sebastiani Vineyard Pinot Noir (92 points), from the Santa Rita Hills. “A huge wine,” I wrote, “tons of fruit. Could be more delicate, but fresh and savory.” (As I write these words, I ask myself if it’s fair to expect a “huge” wine to be “delicate,” as these terms seem oxymoronic. Maybe that’s the essence of a great wine: it combines contradictory qualities.)

Here’s to California Pinot Noir and the wonderful women and men who produce it! Salud!


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