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Remembering Loma Prieta

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Today is the 32nd anniversary of the Loma Prieta Earthquake. I was at home in Oakland when it struck, in the same place I still live. I’d recently decided to become a writer, and was lucky enough to get a freelance gig at the Oakland Tribune, where every day I’d walk over to the newsroom and get an assignment from my editor for an article that would appear the next morning. On that particular day, she’d assigned me to interview, by phone, a Walnut Creek father whose young daughter had won a kite-flying contest. (Yes, it was a lightweight story, but it taught me how to write, work with an editor, interview, and meet deadlines—all important skills that later served me well.)

I was talking to the father when I felt the first rumbling, at 5:04 p.m.

“We just had a little earthquake,” I told him.

“Not feeling anything here.” Walnut Creek is 17 miles northeast of Oakland, meaning that it’s that much further from the earthquake’s epicenter, in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

In my livingroom the shaking increased. “It’s not so little,” I said.

“Now we’re getting it.”

Suddenly there was a tremendous noise and shaking, and I heard things in my apartment falling to the floor.

“Gotta go!” I told my interlocutor. Hanging up the phone, I ducked underneath my kitchen table.

A few moments later, when the shaking stopped, I ran out into the hallway and banged on my neighbor, Robert’s, door. When Robert opened it, a cloud of marijuana smoke drifted out. Robert was a writer.

“Was that The Big One?” I asked him.

All the power was out, but Robert had a tiny, battery-powered T.V. He found one of the San Francisco news stations—I think it was KRON—that was still broadcasting by its generator. From that little T.V. we quickly learned that (a) the Bay Bridge had collapsed (which turned out not to be true) and (b) a sizable stretch of the double-decked I-980 Freeway, known as the Cypress Structure, had pancaked. As it was the height of rush hour, the news reporter said it must be expected the death toll on that 1-1/2 mile long freeway would be massive. (This, too, turned out to be an exaggeration. Although 42 people died under the rubble, the number would have been far higher had not the San Francisco Giants been playing the Oakland A’s at Candlestick Park in the World Series. Tens of thousands of commuters had left work early in order to watch the game and were thus not driving.)

The Loma Prieta Earthquake measured 6.9 on the old Richter Scale. It killed 63 people, injured thousands, and caused $12 billion in damage. And yet, it was not The Big One. That mythic, inevitable temblor is most likely to occur, not on the San Andreas Fault as Loma Prieta was, but on the Hayward Fault, which runs directly beneath Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland and the densely-populated bedroom communities of the East Bay.

As horrible as Loma Prieta was, far worse, in my opinion, was the disaster which hit Oakland just two years and two days later: the Oakland Hills Firestorm. I’ll write about that soon.


Exposing a dangerous Republican lie

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I routinely get blast emails from rightwing sources, and I like to read them, not only because they’re funny, but because it’s important to know what the enemy is up to.

For instance, there’s this thing called Congressional Insider, which sounds like a bona fide media site, but is fake news. They sent out a blast email on Friday. There’s no trace of the Congressional Insider on the Internet, and the only contact information on the email is a Huntsville Texas address, which is the same as on other rightwing emails I get from other organizations pretending to be real. But if you read the email carefully, you’ll see where this stuff is coming from: Newsmax.

Now, you’ve probably heard of Newsmax and recognize that it’s an extreme rightwing, proto-fascist media site that peddles hate and conspiracy theories. In 2020, they contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to political candidates and conservative causes, through so-called “affiliates” of Newsmax. Here are the biggest recipients of their funding: the Republican National Committee, the 1820 PAC (a super-secretive conservative group, based in Washington), Security is Strength (another extreme rightwing group that strongly endorsed Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court), and Donald Trump himself.

The email they blasted out is a hodgepodge of rightwing talking points, but its main target is Critical Race Theory. Here’s their headline:

[Critical Race Theory’s] real target is Christianity and the Bible.
The far left wants it in our schools. 
The war on Christians is in full gear, says a most famous Jewish thinker.

(The “famous Jewish thinker,” by the way, is none other than David Horowitz, who’s been a rightwing crank for decades.)

Now, as a Jewish thinker myself, let me weigh in on this supposed “war on Christianity and the Bible.” I am adamantly opposed to any Christian influence on government, federal, state or local. I don’t mind the milder forms of Christianity, but in modern America, Christianity has been hijacked by a lunatic fringe of ideological radicals, who aim at nothing less than the overthrow of our democracy (think of Jan. 6) and the establishment of a Taliban-style theocracy, run by evangelical mullahs who would nullify gay rights, make abortion illegal, and mandate a thousand other things that would end freedom and diversity in America.

If you want to call that a “war on Christianity,” go right ahead! I couldn’t care less. So, yes, the Congressional Insider, AKA Newsmax, AKA the Trump/evangelical party and its dark money, is correct when they say people like me want to undermine Christianity in America. I want Christians to go back into their churches. They can believe whatever they want; they can practice their religion to their heart’s content; they can have festivals and revival meetings and T.V. shows that bilk credulous poor people out of their money, the same way Trump does. What they can’t do, though, is to impose their homophobic, anti-science, misogynistic and anti-immigrant fanaticism on the rest of us. Their little war on Critical Race Theory amounts to nothing less than an assault on our democratic, Constitutional rights. Stoked by Donald Trump, they appeal to the most ignorant, frightened slice of the electorate, people whose knowledge of reality comes from their Bible-thumping preachers and from fraudulent sites like Newsmax.

By the way, if you’re a California voter, the best way you can resist the dangerous insanity of these rightwingers is to vote NO on the recall of Gov. Newsom!

Thank you.


Blast from the past: Why I changed my blog from wine to anti-Trump

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(I wrote this in January, 2018, when Trump had been in office for a year. It was published in the Huffington Post. I wouldn’t change a word of it today.)

I get a fair number of complaints from readers who say, “I used to love reading your wine blog. You were a great wine writer, but I don’t care about your political views. You’re not an expert. Go back to writing about what you know: wine.”

Usually I don’t reply to criticism of my blog because the vast majority of people who put me down are Trumpists, and I’ve given up trying to have a rational discussion with them. However, I want to get this on the record, and explain why I changed my blog’s focus, and how I feel about these criticisms.

Rock stars sometimes get lambasted because they dare to change styles, or they prefer to play their new songs in concert instead of their old hits. Dylan experienced this at the Newport Jazz Festival. Keith Richards wrote about it in his memoir. If you’re a Rolling Stone in concert, do you play “Sympathy for the Devil” for the ten-thousandth time, or do you play, say, “I Gotta Go” off their 2016 album, “Blue & Lonesome”?

You can play both, of course, but many bands have discovered that if they don’t play enough of the old hits, the audience is disappointed. Still, rock stars are artists, above all, and artists like to feel that they evolve and learn; they don’t want to get stuck in a rut when that rut no longer interests them.

That’s how I felt about wine back in the late summer of 2016. I’d been writing my wine blog for eight years. It was one of the top wine blogs in America, with one of the highest readerships. My blog was a must-read in the American wine industry, particularly in California. I was aware of its status. And yet, when I retired, I thought to myself that there was no longer any reason for me to continue writing about wine. I’d “been there, done that.” I wanted to move on to new creative ventures.

I could have kept on writing about wine. Nobody forced me to stop. My readership numbers were not declining. However, I’ve always felt that there’s no reason to do creative things if they don’t interest me and challenge my intellectual and writing abilities; and wine became considerably less interesting the moment I retired. So I asked myself, “If I’m not interested in wine anymore, what am I interested in?” And there was one clear, obvious, overriding answer:

Politics.

I grew up in an intensely political household. It was a Democratic household, where FDR, Adlai Stevenson and, later, John F. Kennedy were heroes. I was for Jimmy Carter before most Americans heard of him. I wrote Bill Clinton a letter in 1988, when he was still Governor of Arkansas, urging him to run for President. I supported Hillary Clinton as best I could and, when she lost the 2008 nomination, I was happy to be for Obama. The advent of Trump filled me with alarm, horror and disgust. That such an evil, incompetent and ignorant fool should be President seemed like a nail in America’s coffin. So, on the day in September, 2016 that I announced my retirement, I also announced that henceforth the focus of my blog would shift, from wine to politics, and specifically to anti-Trump and anti-Republican politics.

I have never regretted that decision for a second. I knew I would lose many readers, and said as much in my blog. I knew I’d come in for some criticism. But the important thing, in any creative venture, is to do what turns you on. Not your audience: they want you to stay with the old stuff. It’s what they’re comfortable with: it’s what attracted them to you in the first place. It’s why people want Paul McCartney to play “Can’t Buy Me Love.”

Well, in fairness, if I went to a McCartney concert, I’d want to hear “Can’t Buy Me Love” too. But a blog isn’t a rock concert: you can’t do a little of this, a little of that. You make your decision what your focus is, do your best, and hope that others will like what you do.

And if they don’t? Fine. Besides, there’s another reason I like the political slant of my blog. I never felt like my wine blog was important to America’s growth and survival. But I feel like it’s imperative for me to be as strong an anti-Trump voice as I can be. It may sound weird, but there’s something patriotic about what I do. I’m not a nationalist yahoo or anything like that, but I do love America, and I feel an obligation to do my part, however small, in protecting her from the onslaught of Trump and all the reactionary, theocratic baggage he brings with him.

So that’s my answer to the critics. If you don’t like my politics, then don’t read me! I really don’t care. I’m doing my part to be a good citizen, partaking in the most important conversation an American can have. Compared to toppling this awful Trump regime, writing about the 2014 Pinot Noir vintage in the Russian River Valley seems irrelevant.


New reviews: 7 wines from Nick Goldschmidt

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Nick Goldschmidt sent me some of his new wines to review, so here they are. As usual, a great job from this veteran master winemaker.

Goldschmidt Vineyards 2017 Game Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville); $90. This is one of Goldschmidt’s most ambitious wines, a 100% Cabernet from Oakville, Napa’s most prestigious region. It is, in a word, stunning. Oozes cabernet-ness in every conceivable aspect, from the intense black currants and tar in the nose through the rich, deep blackberry essence and espresso flavors to the long, spicy finish. And those tannins! Like buttah! You taste this wine and your mind just says, Wow. The vineyard is at the eastern end of the Oakville Cross Road, the warmer side of the valley, catching the afternoon sunshine that heats up the volcanic earth. The grapes grew intensely ripe in this good vintage, but there’s not a hint of the heavy portiness that can mar such wines; the alcohol, officially clocked at 14.7%, is pleasantly balanced, with warmth but no heat at all. A wine like this can handle a lot of oak; in this case, it’s 85% new, the wood bringing notes of vanilla, smoke and wood spice. The trick with a Cab like this is to find the sweet spot between massive power and elegance, and Nick Goldschmidt has accomplished precisely that. Its precision and complexity merit the very high score. Drink now and for at least the next ten years. Score: 98 points.

Goldschmidt Vineyards 2017 Yoeman Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley); $75.A huge wine, in terms of body and flavor. Another 100% Cabernet, in the Goldschmidt style, it’s inky black in color, impenetrable to the eye except at the extreme rim, where it turns a royal purple. This tells you it’s young and extracted, an impression amplified at the first sip. Masses of ripe blackberry jam, blueberries, espresso, chocolate and a sweet, bell pepper herbaceousness. This is the essence of Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, rich, dense and flashy, with firm tannins. So complex, you discover nuances all the way through a long, spicy finish. A Cab to linger over a great steak. Nick Goldschmidt says the “cellaring potential” is 20-25 years. I’m not sure I’m as confident. I’d drink this wine now and over the next ten years, and if you still have a few bottles after that, see what happens. Score: 94 points.

Chelsea Goldschmidt 2019 Salmon’s Leap Merlot (Dry Creek Valley): $22. I used to have a lady friend who wore a mink coat. I’d see her during the winter in New York City, and I’ll never forget the sensual delight of that fur when she came in from a 20-degree night. I’d bury my face in it and enjoy! This Merlot reminds me of that experience. The grapes are from Nick Goldschmidt’s home vineyard. The wine is 100% Merlot, and it needs no other additions because it’s so lovely to drink. It oozes licorice and black cherries, with a kirsch-like taste that turns spicy and long on the finish. (Nick himself finds plums and blueberries but I’ll stick with the cherries, although I too detect chocolate.) Whatever fruits you personally discover, it’s a rich, delicious, softly tannic wine, with just the right touch of smoky oak. And it has that undefinable quality that makes you sip over and over, because each one is more tantalizing than the last. Just marvelous, and a great value. Score: 94 points.

Forefathers 2020 Wax Eye Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough); $22. This quintessential Marlborough Sauv Blanc is everything I like about the variety and the region. It’s so clean and crisp, focused and flavorful, crisp and dry, with a tangy crushed-rock minerality, and all that fabulous fruit—lemon curd, mango, papaya, Key lime pie, vanilla (yes, vanilla is a fruit). It’s 100% varietal and 100% single vineyard. Like the 2020 Boulder Bank [below], it’s unoaked, but considerably more intense, the result, I suppose, of the terroir and winemaking technique. The wine is, simply, an instant darling if you like clean, cold, penetrating Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc without the pyrazines. An insane value at this price. Score: 93 points.

Chelsea Goldschmidt 2019 Guidestone Rise Merlot (Alexander Valley): $22. When I was a working wine critic, I knew that Alexander Valley made good Merlots, a bit softer and more herbaceous than Napa, but generous and balanced. Now here is an Alexander Valley Merlot of great interest. The “Guidestone Rise” is in the heart of the valley, east of Geyserville along Route 128, a true wine road that runs across the Mayacamas into Napa Valley and the Central Valley. The vineyard’s elevation is 300 feet, not exactly mountainous but high enough to call a “rise” in these flatlands. Bordeaux reds grown in this tenderloin of the valley are dependably soft, delicious and complex, and so it is with this 100% Merlot. The impression is of intensely ripe black cherry fruit, with milk chocolate notes and the smoke and vanilla of oak. Pretty and polished, it’s a fine red wine to drink now and over the next few years. By the way, the $22 retail price makes it a steal. Restaurants should scoop it up. Only 2,250 cases were produced. Score: 91 points.

Hillary Goldschmidt 2018 Charming Creek Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville): $50. Tight and harsh in tannins now, but that’s the way some of these young hillside 100% Cabs are. There’s an impressively deep core of blue and black fruits: black cherry, blackberry, plum and currant, liberally accented with new French oak. The acidity is just fine, and there’s a pleasing grip and tension. I suspect a lot of people will drink it at a steakhouse with a porterhouse or ribeye, and that’s fine, as the tannins play well against meaty fat, and the wine opens up as it breathes. But it will benefit from a little aging. Score: 90 points.

Boulder Bank 2020 Fitzroy Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough); $19. My readers know how much I like Boulder Bank. I have described it as pure as snowmelt, with a cold tang to the citrus, tropical fruit and grassy, gooseberry flavors, a clean, clear finish and the usual cool-climate brisk scour of acidity. No oak, of course, but there’s some creaminess from lees contact. This 2020 is riper than in past vintages; the year was considered excellent in Marlborough. It’s an easy wine to like, but I prefer the 2019, which was a tad sharper, more green and steely. I hope the warming climate doesn’t turn Marlborough into California. Score: 89 points.


Michelin 3-stars, with paper plates

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The day had finally arrived.

It had taken 6 months, but now it was here: My dinner at America’s top restaurant, La Lavanderie du Paris!

It all started in June, with a phone call. Or, I should say, a dozen phone calls — for, no matter how often I dialed the reservation number, there was no answer.

And why should there be? Why should the reservation clerk at La Lavanderie du Paris stoop to answer the telephone? Does the Pope personally answer calls to the Vatican?

That meant driving to Yondertown to make the reservation. It was 300 miles away. I told Linda, my wife, about it.

“You’re driving where?  For what?”

“Yondertown. To get reservations at La Lavanderie du Paris.”

It had to be done. I wanted to bring Linda to La Lavanderie for our fifteenth anniversary, in December.

I left the next morning, at dawn, in a storm. It took six hours. I had no trouble finding La Lavanderie du Paris. There it was, the perfect Platonic bistro, with its white-bricked facade, black shutters and climbing ivy.

My heart pounded and my throat grew tight as I gripped the door knob. I turned; it resisted. I turned again, more forcefully. It was locked. I stepped back. There was a sign in the window:

Hours: 4 p.m. – midnight.

I looked at my wristwatch. Just past noon. The rain was pounding down. With nothing to do, I headed back to the car, and fell into a cold, cramped doze.

I awoke at 4 with a sore neck. This time, the door was more forgiving. I entered the sanctuary. It was warm and dim, all old wood, red leather and French countryside etchings. There were scents of grilling meat, broiling butter and Provencal herbs. A busboy crossed my path; he was cradling a bottle of ‘97 L’Attitude de Larchemont.

An electric thrill shot up my spine. I was truly here in the culinary holy of holies. I felt like a supplicant at Lourdes, on the receiving end of a divine cure.

On my right was a little podium with the “Reception” sign. Behind it was a man in a tuxedo, imperious, powerful. He saw me and looked away.

“Uh-hem,” I politely coughed.

He didn’t exactly wrinkle his nose. He just seemed to. “May I help you?”

“Yes, thanks. I’d like a reservation. For two.”

He solemnly cast his gaze down, apparently at a book below eye level.

“We have something available in March.”

I did a quick calculation. Today was the 6th — of June. He meant March of next year: Our anniversary was in December. March was out of the question.

“I’m afraid that’s a little too far off. I’d prefer something before Christmas.”

He smiled. No, “smile” isn’t the right word. His lips twisted into a grimace that was equal parts mirth, irony and loathing. It was meant to reduce me to nothingness.

“Impossible.” His adamant tone brooked no appeal.

But he had raised my dander. “Look here, I’ve just driven six hours in a storm. Do you know who I am?” I fumbled for my card; that ought to impress him, I thought, before realizing that, in my haste, I’d forgotten to bring any cards.

There was a scene. The manager came out, the sommelier, even the sous-chef. I dropped one or two names. I knew how to play the game. I got my reservation: December 5th. The clerk glared at me as if to say: I will have my hour. I drove home with the sweet taste of victory in my mouth.

The months passed; the big day came. I had booked a double room at the Yonderville Inn. Linda and I drove up. We parked. La Lavanderie du Paris’s frosted windows glittered with golden candlelight in the dark Yonderville night. We crossed the magic portal. I helped Linda out of her stole. We approached the podium. The face was familiar. It was him, still imperious, still evil. He recognized me, knew I was coming.

“Table for ___,” I said, politely, giving my name.

He glanced down at the unseen reservation book.

“I’m sorry, I have nothing for that name.” He looked up and smiled blandly, as if explaining the obvious to a simpleton. But his eyes glowed with the malicious light of victory deferred, but attained.

Another scene. The manager wrung his hands, explained there must have been some dreadful mistake, he was eternally sorry — but one had to face facts. There was simply not a table available all night.

Linda touched my elbow, our signal for “Don’t hit anyone.” My thoughts were racing out of control. I looked over at the clerk. He was back behind his podium, carefully avoiding my eye.

It ended on a compromise. We were permitted to order off the menu — for takeout. No charge; the manager insisted. There was a Piggly-Wiggly down the block where we could buy paper plates and plastic utensils. And I learned a valuable lesson. There are enemies worthy of one’s animosity, foes to engage in combat; but the reservation clerk at La Lavanderie du Paris is not one of them. In restaurants, as in life, one must choose one’s battles.


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