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My favorite wine books, and why they’re so great

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U.C. Davis asked me to list the wine books that had the most influence on me, and explain why. I had a lot of fun yesterday writing this, and I’m pleased to share it with others who love to read.

The Romance of Wine, H. Warner Allen (1932)

They don’t write like this anymore. In fact, nobody’s written like this for close to a century. Herbert Warner Allen (1881-1968) was, like so many others on this list, a Brit and Oxford man, with a solid education in the classics, and a penchant for journalism. A friend of George Saintsbury’s, Allen was a novelist first, but his love of wine led him to write “Romance.” The Times of London said of Allen that his readers will but learn that wine is a glorious thing for man and prohibition an evil thing. Mr. Allen writes like a poet. He dresses his bottles with flowery garlands.” Flowery garlands indeed! Of 1869 Latour, Allen writes: “Beautiful to the eye, this great wine breathed forth a perfume worthy of the gods…compounded of a multitude of subtle fragrances, the freshness of the sun-ripened grape, etherealized by the patient work of Nature into a quintessence of harmonious scents. The palate recognized a heroic wine, such a drink as might refresh the warring archangels, and the perfection of its beauty called up the noble phrase ‘terrible as an army with banners.’” Perhaps it’s a good thing such extravagant writing is gone, but reading Allen taught me that I could have fun with my words, swim in them, wander in them as in a flower garden, write dense, compound sentences with literary allusions, and yet remain clear and humane. Churchill wrote in a similar style (albeit not about wine), and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Notes on a Cellar-Book, George Saintsbury (1933)

Some argue this is the greatest wine book ever written. I wouldn’t go that far, but it deserves a place in every wine-loving bibliophile’s library. Saintsbury (1845-1933) was another of those Oxford polymaths whose interests spanned everything from French literature to British recipes of the 17th century to, of course, wine. Reading “Cellar-book” brings the reader into the clubby, rarified drawing rooms of late 19th-century gourmets, with their eight-course meals (washed down with old Champagne, Yquem, Margaux and Port), and described in the flowery, Victorian writing style that, for better or worse, has all but disappeared from the English language.

The Complete Wine Book, Frank Schoonmaker and Tom Marvel (1934)

Following the Repeal of Prohibition, in 1933, there came a spate of wine education books for an American public almost wholly devoid of any knowledge of wine and its culture. This was one of the earliest, and best. Schoonmaker (1905-1976), a wine merchant, writer, and importer of European wines (into New York), was one of the first Americans to call for honesty in California wine labeling, using grape varietal names instead of purloined silliness like “Burgundy” or “Chablis.” (I think co-author Marvel was what we might call a ghost writer.) “The Complete Wine Book” is factual, comprehensive and knowledgeable; if a little dull in style, it nonetheless gave post-Prohibition Americans what they needed: a solid foundation.

ABC of America’s Wines, Mary Frost Mabon (1942)

Mabon was food and wine editor for Harper’s Bazaar, which for decades defined elegance and style to Americans, mostly women. She came from a good family, niece of an American minister to Ireland, wife of the president of the New York Stock Exchange. I’ve always enjoyed compendiums of California wineries from long ago, and Mabon’s Chapter IV, “California Wineries,” is a wonderful romp through how-it-was: the names of Bisceglia Brothers, Solano Winery, Alta Winery and Mont La Salle Vineyards have not been uttered for a long time, but reading of their Haut Sauternes, California Burgundies and Sherry Sacks transports you back to a time when FDR was President, the Depression was raging, and Americans were just starting to enjoy drinking without fear of getting arrested. Her book, too, contains helpful hints on storage, refrigeration, label reading and food pairing that must have been greatly welcomed by housewives of the time.

Wines, Julian Street, 1948

Street, a New York City reporter who ventured into Broadway playwriting, might today be called a metrosexual. Debonair, looking a bit like the actor Leslie Howard, he was “long interested in the twin arts of wining and dining,” as the book’s dust jacket explains. True to his journalistic roots, he interviewed men and women from all over the world for “Wines,” to tell the story of wine, and to explain the intricacies of the wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône, the Loire and Alsace, Germany, Italy, Sherry, Port, Marsala and Madeira, not to mention Palestine, Persia and Greece. The question with which he leads off his chapter on California wines is one that no one would ask these days: “Why can’t we make better?” You come across gems like Street’s reaction to a Martin Ray 1936 Pinot Noir, from the Santa Cruz Mountains: “It was a remarkable wine, the first American red wine I ever drank with entire pleasure.” For a wine-loving history buff, that’s as good as it gets.

The Harry Waugh Wine Diaries (1960s-1980s)

Waugh, who died in 2001 at the age of 97, was a British wine merchant who rose to the top of his profession. He was a prolific writer and speaker, and served on the Board of Chateau Latour. One little-known aspect of his career was his early championing of the budding California wine scene of the early 1960s, and the way he acted as a transmitter of California wines and ideas to his Old World colleagues in London; his Zinfandel Club, which he founded in that city, introduced the British wine world to the boutique California wines of the era. He wrote a series of Wine Diaries between the 1960s and 1980s. I discovered them one by one in used bookstores and have treasured each. I had the privilege of accompanying Harry on a wine tour of Washington State, when he was already close to 90 and the Washington Wine Commission asked me to look after him. The impact of his Diaries on me was in their writing style: Harry wrote very simply, with no elaborate flourishes and none at all of those florid, over-the-top preciosities that have infected modern wine writing. In his humbleness and aw-shucks manner, he has provided a model of scholarly propriety for generations who admired him.

The Wines of Bordeaux, Edmund Penning-Rowsell (1969)

Another of those highly-educated Londoners of the mid-20th century, Penning-Rowsell (1913-2002) was friends with everyone who mattered in the British wine trade. His masterly account of Bordeaux isn’t for everyone. The history is detailed and lovingly told, with accounts of how many French francs individual chateaux sold for in real estate transactions, how many francs the resulting wines went for (going back centuries), rainfall totals in the Gironde, the rise of the once all-important negociant houses, and, of course, the vintages, starting in 1795 and ending in 1978.

The Fine Wines of California, Hurst Hannum and Robert Blumberg (1971)

Just as the 1930s brought a spurt of wine books for Americans desperate for wine knowledge after the 13-year long disaster of Prohibition, so the 1970s witnessed a new phase of that education, this time for the burgeoning Baby Boom generation. Blumberg and Hannum were both young law students at the University of California when they were bitten by the wine bug; together, like many students before and after, they toured Europe. They began their book by asking the pertinent question, “Why another wine book?”, and answered it this way: “While there have been many excellent treatises in recent years on viticulture and enology, there has been nothing dedicated to a consumer-oriented description and analysis of California wines.” What they produced was somewhat anodyne, but their descriptions of wineries are another valuable source of historical research. They divided that into two parts: larger, better-known wineries (Christian Brothers, Louis M. Martini, Souverain) and “A sampling of smaller wineries.” This is, for me, where the meat is: at the dawn of the boutique era, wineries like Davis Bynum, Freemark Abbey and David Bruce were up and running.

The Wines of America, Leon Adams (1973)

No history of American wines, especially one written in 1973, could remain current for very long. Adams’ book was outdated, it’s fair to say, the moment it was released; California wine history was on overdrive, and nobody could have kept up. Still, for the modern historian, it’s an important resource. How many times over the decades did I turn to the Index to discover, say, the origins of Fountain Grove Vineyard, or some detail of the old La Questa, or who was using new French oak in the 1940s?

Gorman on California Premium Wines, Robert Gorman (1975)

The book came and went with hardly any notice from anyone. Gorman was not a wine professional, nor did he have any connection to the industry. As he himself wrote, “My book…is the record of a personal voyage of discovery into the premium wines of California.” I’ve always liked personal books: my first one for the University of California, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, was a deeply personal book. Gorman wrote about California Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and other varieties at a time—1975—of great ferment in the industry (no pun intended). The boutique movement had started, yet this was still a period when Napa growers planted every variety cheek-by-jowl with every other variety, and Americans were still drinking so-called “Chablis” and “Burgundy” from jugs. It’s a fascinating take on the time, and Gorman’s vertical tasting notes make for interesting reading even today.

Which Wine? Peter Sichel and Judy Ley Allen (1975)

Not the greatest wine book ever, but it served its purpose for budding amateurs like me. A solid overview of the grapes and wines of the world, with vintage charts and recommendations. We need a good compendium like this every few years.

The Signet Encyclopedia of Wine, E. Frank Henriques (1975)

Henriques was, oddly enough, an Episcopal priest, who lived and pastored in the Sierra Foothills. He said he wrote his little encyclopedia out of “a fond regard” for his subject. He also claimed to have “the most extensive notes on current wines…of anybody in the world,” which may have been a slight exaggeration; did he know what Michael Broadbent was up to? The New American Library, an imprint of Signet, published this in soft cover for a mass market; it was not the most promising format. But it’s a good and at times fascinating volume. Where the Reverend Henriques got the wherewithal to taste Lafite from 1806 on, or Petrus back to 1946, or seemingly every wine Robert Mondavi ever produced, is unknown; perhaps he “borrowed” his reviews from others, although that’s a terrible thing to imply about a man of God. Nonetheless, no detail was too small for Henriques’s scholarly eye. Especially noteworthy are the retail prices Henriques cites for every wine: you might want to invent a time machine when you learn that Heitz 1968 Martha’s Vineyard sold for $11.

World Atlas of Wine, Hugh Johnson (orig. 1971, second edition, 1977)

The Wine Atlas of California and the Pacific Northwest, Bob Thompson (1993) [inscribed]

I bracket these two Atlases together, although Johnson’s preceded Thompson’s by nearly two decades. What they have in common, besides their Mitchell Beazley connection, are elegant structure and, especially, the maps, a Beazley specialty. Anyone who loves wine will have studied with the greatest interest and delight the detailed, color-coded maps of towns, vineyards and geographic and geological features, which make “wine country” come alive. Both books were instrumental in my education, particularly in understanding appellations and the lay of the land.

Great Winemakers of California, Robert Benson (1977)

I loved this book from the moment I bought it. Benson offered what was, for the time, the most penetrating glimpse into 27 men (and one woman!) who dominated the California wine scene in the mid-1970s. At a time when other writers were focusing on grape varieties, vineyards and wineries, Benson was interested in the person. He roamed the state with a tape recorder, did his interviews, published the transcripts, and voila. I used the same technique for my 2008 book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff. It was my homage to Benson; both books, I think, remain of interest to historians and amateur wine buffs.

The Father of California Wine: Agoston Haraszthy, Edited by Theodore Schoenman (1979)

Every student of wine eventually learns about the Hungarian “Count,” who more or less birthed the California wine industry in the middle of the 19th century, after he was sent by the State Legislature to Europe and brought back with him more than 100,000 vine cuttings of at least 350 grape varieties, many of which he planted on its 118-acre Sonoma Valley estate. The book is in two parts: a useful, rather workhorse biography of Haraszthy (1812-1869), and his 1862 report to the California Legislature on “Grape Culture, Wines, and Wine-making.” Haraszthy dedicated his tome to “the agricultural public…hoping that… it may prove a valuable and an enduring source of wealth to the American horticulturalist and farmer.” It does that indeed, and is delightful to read, especially when you consider that English was Haraszthy’s second language.

The Great Vintage Wine Book, Michael Broadbent (1980)

In all likelihood, no one in history (except for Rev. Henriques?) has ever tasted the world’s great wines as thoroughly as Broadbent, nor is anyone ever likely to in the future. And he kept every note, assembling them into this hard-covered classic. 1799 Lafite? 1947 Cheval Blanc? 1959 Romanée-Conti?  1653 Rüdesheimer, from the Rhinegau? 1851 Stibbert’s Port (“the most magnificent old Port I have ever drunk”)? Mr. Broadbent has notes on them all, plus thousands of others. You and I will never have these opportunities, but fortunately, because of Broadbent’s diligence, we can at least have some idea what these wines tasted like.

New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits, Alexis Lichine (1981)

I absolutely devoured this book when it came out. It may in fact have been the single most influential wine book for me early on, its arrival coinciding with my nascent interest in wine. Lichine, who owned Chateau Prieuré-Lichine in Margaux, was a Bordeaux man, but his interests in wine were global. His knowledge of areas beyond France and Germany was perhaps a little second-hand. But for Bordeaux, Burgundy and German wines, the New Encyclopedia was the alpha and omega of the times.

The Wines of California, Roy Andries de Groot (1982)

Something of an oddity. DeGroot (1910-1983) was a British, Oxford-educated gourmet and wine critic, who became a U.S. citizen in 1945. He called his book “the first classification of the best vineyards and wineries” of California, the Pacific Northwest and New York State. It was an idea no one was particularly asking for, and his classification (and those of others) went nowhere. Still, it provides an interesting, eccentric take on the wine scene at the birth of the boutiques.

The Official Guide to Wine Snobbery, Leonard S. Bernstein (1982)

Bernstein (not that one) was a freelance, suburban New York City writer with a passion for wine, who wrote about it in a satiric way that did not mask his thorough understanding of the issues. From chapters on “letting the wine breathe” and “etiquette” to “which wine-which food?” and “understanding oak,” Bernstein skewers the pretensions of wine snobs, while educating readers to the most acute subtleties. I recently reread the book and it remains as fresh and funny as it was 40 years ago.

The University of California-Sotheby Book of California Wine (1984)

This was the It book of the year, the Bible. I well remember the buildup to its release, and how I rushed to buy it (for $55, a lot of money at the time!). Everything you ever wanted to know about the Golden State’s wines, written by some of the most authoritative personalities of the era (Gerald Asher, Bob Thompson, Paul Draper, Maynard Amerine, Alice Waters, Timothy Mondavi and many others). Sumptuously packaged, it was the reference point for a generation of wine aficionados.

On Wine, Gerald Asher (1986)

These are reprints of Asher’s famous essays for Gourmet magazine, written in the 1970s and 1980s. The British-born Asher, whom I knew when he lived in San Francisco, was one of those internationalists, as comfortable writing about the wines of Piedmont and Chablis as those of his adopted state, California. His chapter on California Cabernet Sauvignon laid down the marker for acute, lively and creative wine writing and analysis.

The Taste of Wine, Emile Peynaud (introduction by Michael Broadbent. English translation, 1987)

Professor Peynaud (1912-2004) was a leading light of Bordeaux enology. Trained as a scientist, he brought an academic approach to the making and appreciation of fine wine. “The Taste of Wine” is a deep dive into viticulture, enology, wine chemistry and vocabulary, as well as professional tasting techniques. It could have been tedious, but Peynaud keeps it accessible and interesting. His concept of “cru,” as opposed to “terroir,” is marvelous, and informed my own understanding of the influence of place, practice and person on wine.

Vintage: The Story of Wine, Hugh Johnson (1989). Another must-have, another Beazley book, and another Johnson masterpiece. No one has ever told the story of wine, from its mythic beginnings in the Transcaucasus to the Paris Tasting, as compellingly, or with more beautiful graphics.

California’s Great Cabernets, James Laube (1989)

Nineteen-eighty-nine was the year Wine Spectator first let me write for them. I got to know Jim Laube, their California reviewer, fairly well, and treasured this book for a while. It was, for its time, the most complete and authoritative volume on Cabernet, with Napa Valley, of course, dominating. Jim, like De Groot seven years previously, attempted to classify the wines, in this case into 5 Growths, an effort doomed to fail, as was De Groot’s. But his descriptions of the wines, historical details on the wineries and vertical tasting notes were greatly welcome back in the day.

Secrets of the Sommeliers, Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay (2010)

Parr, the famous sommelier, partnered with Mackay, the San Francisco writer, to produce this insidery account, a sort of “day in the life” of a wine pro. It’s heavy on name-dropping, and while the somm trade has perhaps lost some of its glamor in recent years, Mackay’s breezy style makes it a good read.

In Search of Pinot Noir (2011) and Claret and Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon (2013). Both by Benjamin Lewin, MW.

These are pretty much the last wine books I bought. I mention them together because they’re both great books, and for the same reasons. Lewin, a much-respected wine writer, is high-class. To me, he comes from the Hugh Johnson-Gerald Asher school of writing, which is scholarly, precise, knowledgeable and elegant. In both books, he demonstrates his mastery of the subject matter, and brings new twists in his interpretations, giving fresh insights into areas like cult Cabs and “The Holy Grail,” the Grands Crus of Burgundy. Explaining terroir, in all its complexities, is a Lewin specialty. His tasting notes are a delight, on a par—mirabile dictu!—with Broadbent’s.


My wine books and papers are going to U.C. Davis

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The U.C. Davis School of Viticulture and Enology has asked me to donate some of my wine books and personal papers to them for permanent archiving or display, a request I’m pleased to comply with.

I have about 300 books of various kinds, assembled from the late 1970s until about 2010, when I pretty much stopped acquiring new ones. The U.C. Davis people asked me to identify which of my wine books have been the most influential on me. Here’s the list I sent them:

World Atlas of Wine, Hugh Johnson

Gorman on California Premium Wines, Robert Gorman

California’s Great Cabernets, James Laube

The Wines of America, Leon Adams

Which Wine? Peter Sichel and Judy Ley Allen

Alexis Lichine’s New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits

Hugh Johnson’s Story of Wine

Gerald Asher on Wine

The Taste of Wine, Emile Peynaud

The Official Guide to Wine Snobbery, Leonard S. Bernstein

The Romance of Wine, H. Warner Allen

Notes on a Cellar-Book, George Saintsbury

California Wine, James Laube

The Great Vintage Wine Book, Michael Broadbent

The Wines of California, Roy Andries de Groot

The University of California-Sotheby Book of California Wine

The Wine Atlas of California and the Pacific Northwest, Bob Thompson [inscribed]

Vintage: The Story of Wine, Hugh Johnson

Secrets of the Sommeliers, Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay

The Complete Wine Book, Frank Schoonmaker and Tom Marvel

The Signet Encyclopedia of Wine, E. Frank Henriques

The Pocket Encyclopedia of California Wines, Bob Thompson

Drink, Andre Simon

Great Winemakers of California, Robert Benson

Wines, Julian Street

ABC of America’s Wines, Mary Frost Mabon

The Father of California Wine: Agoston Haraszthy, Edited by Theodore Schoenman

The Fine Wines of California, Hurst Hannum and Robert Blumberg

The Wines of Bordeaux, Edmund Penning-Rowsell

The Harry Waugh Wine Diaries: Diary of a Winetaster, Winetaster’s Choice, Harry Waugh’s Wine Diary 1982-1986, Pick of the Bunch

I’ve treasured all my wine books, but these have been the ones that most inspired and impacted me, and to which I have returned, again and again, to savor.

Among my papers are tasting notes assembled from roughly the same period, 1979-2010. They number about 10,000, and do not include some 50,000 wine reviews I did for Wine Enthusiast.

I kept every scrap of paper containing every note from the start.

I had no idea why, or what I would do with it all, only the thought that they were somehow worth keeping. (Maybe I had visions of Michael Broadbent’s “Great Vintage Wine Book” dancing in my head!) There were some grand tastings, that’s for sure. Among the more memorable were:

  • a vertical of Joseph Swan Pinot Noirs, 1972 through 1981, at Chez Panisse, for which Alice Waters prepared salmon with Champagne butter and grilled lamb with fava beans and potatoes
  • a Taylor Fladgate vertical going back to 1948 (very great wine)
  • the 1991 vintage in Germany, covering about 400 wines; that tasting severely burned away the enamel on my teeth!
  • An April, 1993 vertical of all seven “great growths” of Bordeaux, including the 1947 Cheval Blanc. This was with Bill Newsom, the late father of our Governor
  • Speaking of Gov. Newsom, I also have the reviews from a half-year of tasting with him to select the wines his new Plump Jack wine shop would offer. Young Gavin drew up the charts in his own hand; the notes themselves are in my handwriting.
  • A Leoville-Las-Cases vertical, 1928-1988, conducted by the renowned collector, Dr. Overton, at the old ANA hotel in San Francisco
  • The 1991 vintage from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
  • A fascinating tasting of the five First Growths of Bordeaux from both the 1990 and 1982 vintages
  • A Gaja tasting, always a treat. This was primarily the 1988, 1989 and 1990 vintages.
  • A “California mountain wines” tasting, by Andy Blue’s old Bon Appetit tasting panel, which held such monumental tastings back in the day. I will always remember this particular one because it taught me an important lesson. I had tasted the 1979 Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon (this was in winter, 1990), and wrote, “Inky black, orange at rim. Dead? Raisined note. Massive tannins either hiding it all, or the wine is gone.” Unable to make up my mind concerning such a famous wine, I turned to two of my colleagues. Jim Laube said, “91 points, hold 5 or 6 years,” while Andy Blue entirely agreed with me that the wine was over the hill. The lesson I learned: even professionals can disagree. Trust your own instincts.

Take me out to the ball game

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Jose and I went to see the Giants play the Dodgers yesterday at Oracle Park. This continued a tradition stretching over many years of us going to a game or two each season, although last year, for obvious reasons, that tradition was interrupted.

Going to see the Giants is a always a highpoint of my summers. Ever since I was six or seven years old, living three blocks from Yankee Stadium in the 1950s, I’ve loved going to ballgames. My father, who was an ardent Giants fan until they moved to San Francisco, used to take me to see them at the old Polo Grounds; we’d walk over the bridge crossing the Harlem River into Manhattan. Whenever the Giants played their greatest enemies, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the tension was palpable.

So yesterday’s Giants-Dodgers game was the place to be. Both teams are doing well in the National League West, the Giants in first place, the Dodgers in second. The Giants have a lot of young players; even Jose, who keeps up with these things, didn’t recognize some of them. The weather was baseball-perfect: mild, about 70 degrees, with fleecy white clouds scudding in front of a hot sun. The boats were gathered in McCovey Cove, hoping to scoop up a home run ball.

We had good seats, on the ground level, about seven rows up from the first-base line.

Jose had brought two of his grandsons, ages six and nine. This was their first-ever professional baseball game, and it had also been their first time on a ferry boat: they’d come over from Larkspur. I told the younger boy, Max, that something very special was going to happen in the seventh inning.

“Will they squirt water?” he asked. He thought the giant scoreboard had some kind of contraption.

“You’ll just have to wait and see.”

At the seventh inning everyone rose, and 35,000 people lustily sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” I’ve been singing that song at ballgames for 65 years and I still love it.

Many people weren’t masked. I had thought that, with the delta variant, they would be, but no. I was, and so were Jose and the kids.

But people were just so happy to be outside, at Oracle Park, on a beautiful day. Probably most of them had been vaccinated, and they felt that, having done their part, they didn’t have to mask. That’s the conversation going on now in America.

It’s hard to describe the happiness of being at a baseball game. People may have worries and cares, but they’re set aside for those magical hours. Everybody cheers for the same things and groans when things go south. The organist plays his silly little tunes and we all clap along. Somebody starts to chant: LET’S GO GIANTS and suddenly thousands of others join in. But “we don’t do the wave,” as one woman seated behind me explained to her friend. The camera catches up with someone in the stands—a kid wearing a Posey shirt, a young woman dancing—and their face goes up on the scoreboard, 40-feet high. People laugh, cheer, eat hot dogs and garlic fries and ice cream. (Max insisted on letting his melt to soup, and then he drank it through a straw.)

Oracle Park has completely transformed this part of eastern San Francisco, in a good way in my opinion. It made me think of our current struggle in Oakland to have a new A’s stadium built on the waterfront. A lot of people in Oakland would say that Oracle Park has destroyed the old neighborhood. Where before there was lots of cheap housing and auto body shops, now it’s multi-million dollar condos and expensive restaurants. Is that “gentrification,” or is it a healthy upgrade?

Anyhow, the Giants beat the Dodgers 5-0, and everybody was happy (except for a few Dodgers fans).


The Old Man and the Boy

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“INCOMING!” yelled Stevie Resnick.

I looked up just in time to see 3 or 4 fat brown paper bags come hurtling down at us from above. Laughing, we covered our heads and scattered out of their way. The bags smashed down harmlessly, bursting at the seams and splattering shit all over the sidewalk, like scat bombs in an X-rated cartoon.

In the past, all Old Man Gouck would do was stick his compact, red-faced head with its bristly crewcut of white hair out from his window and curse at us, his dark eyes radiating anger we could feel five floors below. 

“You goddamn kids! Shut the hell up, you damn brats!”

But lately, he’d escalated his war against us, loading paper bags with his own excrement. The first time he’d actually caught us unawares, and Donald Brotman got pelted. It was disgusting, the way the slime ran down his shoulder and bare arm.

After that, whenever we played in front of the building, we assigned a Gouck spotter, one of us whose task was to keep an eagle eye on the old grouch’s window.

That day had been Stevie’s turn. He’d done his job well; no one was slimed. But the sidewalk was a fecal mess. We’d have to wait for rain to wash it away, or for Norris, our building’s black super, to hose it down.

So we decided to play across the street, in the park.

“What an asshole,” muttered Donald.

“Yeah, what an athhole,” lisped Bobby Alexander. He was a bit of a sissy. But this was the 1950s, when young boys didn’t yet know about the vagaries of human sexuality, like they do today. So even though Bobby preferred Mah Jong to stickball, and tended to avoid our more strenuous adventures, we liked him well enough, and let him hang out with us.

We were waiting for the light to change when Big Paul said, “That old fool’ll get his.” The rest of the afternoon, we spent throwing a football around. Except, that is, for Bobby, who just watched.

Old Gouck lived alone. He was a mysterious geezer; I can’t ever recall seeing him outside his apartment, although I suppose he must have left it from time to time.

This was in the South Bronx during the post-World War II years of the Fifties, when our Dads — ex-GIs, now factory and office workers — were impregnating our Moms at a prodigious rate, with the result that Baby Boom kids like us were being manufactured like cans of soup in a Campbell’s factory.

I had a million friends I’d known since we were toddlers. Despite the reputation for violence the South Bronx subsequently acquired, in those days it was peaceful, except for the occasional Gouck attack. On summer evenings, the old Grandmas set up beach chairs on the sidewalk and gossiped, their Russian-Yiddish accents salting the warm, sultry air. Our Dads sat on the front stoop and talked about the Yankees, proprietarily if they won, sullenly if they didn’t — the Stadium was only three blocks away, and I can still hear the roar of the crowd when, on a hot August night, Mantle sent one into the bleachers. After our Moms finished cleaning up the supper dishes, they too came downstairs, wrapped in shawls, sometimes knitting for still more babies on the way. And we kids played on the sidewalk, pitching pennies or playing hide-and-seek behind the parked Buicks and Chevvies that lined the tenemented streets for mile after mile after mile, all the way up to Westchester, and beyond.

Young boys love mysteries, and to old Mr. Gouck were attributed many tales that intrigued us. Ours was a crowded, gossipy neighborhood, where stories were told and retold over and over, all the while growing in outlandishness, like in an old-fashioned game of Telegraph. Gouck had been, it was said, a spy; a private eye; an assassin; a soldier of fortune; an inventor; a scientist; a Nazi. Somewhere during the course of his exotic travels, we heard, he had come into a fortune in gold, or money, or precious jewels, which he kept hidden in his apartment. The specifics changed over time, depending on who was telling the story.

My friends had their own theories. Stevie Resnick claimed the fortune consisted of thousand-dollar bills, stuffed into the mattress of his bed. Donald Brotman said Gouck had coffee cans filled with diamonds and rubies and sapphires. From Norris, who lived in a flat in the rear of the basement, we learned Gouck had a king’s ransom in gold coins he kept in a wooden chest.

We fantasized from time to time about getting into his apartment and helping ourselves to the booty. But Gouck was always there, and we didn’t know how to get in, or what we would do if we did and he came raging at us. So it remained a fantasy.

One Spring day — we were 9 years old, and it was during a warm Easter break — Bobby Alexander, Big Paul, Stevie Resnick, Donald Brotman and I were playing Boxball in front of the building. I remember how the little cabbage caterpillars were hanging by the hundreds from fluttery silver threads that dangled from the branches of the mimosa trees. 

Now, Boxball could be quite a noisy sport. Two players faced off across two big sidewalk squares, trying to hit a nickle with a bouncy, ham-colored Spalding hand ball. The play-by-play is fast and furious, and if you throw in 3 or 4 other boys, screaming from the sidelines, you can imagine the ruckus that can be raised.

So it was usually Boxball that got us in trouble with Mr. Gouck.

But that day there were no Gouck alerts. It took a while for this to sink in, but then Stevie said, “Hey, y’know what?”

“What?” Bobby asked.

“No Gouck.” 

“Yeah!” buck-toothed Donald agreed. “He’s usually yelling at us by now.”

“Or throwing doody,” Bobby said. He still used baby words like that: doody, poop your pants, pee-pee.  

We played a little more and I think we were probably noisier than usual. After a while, bored, we sat on the front stoop, chewing bubble gum and talking.

“Maybe Gouck’s dead,” Big Paul suggested. We all shuddered and giggled at the thought of old people dropping dead in their apartments, their bodies rotting away until the smell forced someone to call the cops.

“Yeah!” Donald cried. “He’s probably on the floor, with ants crawling up his nose.”

“Eew,” said Bobby, the most squeamish among us.

“And rats eating his ears,” Donald went on, enjoying the attention. “And worms–”

All of us cracked up, even Bobby. The picture of old dead Gouck seemed suddenly the funniest thing in the world.

“I wonder who’ll get his treasure,” said Stevie, eyes bulging behind coke-bottle glasses.

“How much d’ya figure it’s worth, anyhow?” Donald said, addressing his question to Big Paul. Big Paul was our leader, the best athlete, the strongest and handsomest, the most daring, the boy with the dazzling smile you wanted to like you the best.

Big Paul ran a freckled hand through his thick wavy red hair. “Dunno,” he reflected. “A lot. Maybe a million.”

“A million!” oohed Bobby, his eyes widening. “That’th tho muth moolah.”

“I bet that’s more than your Dad makes in a year!” said Donald to Bobby, whose father was a chiropractor, and whom we figured was the richest of all our Dads.

“You think he has relatives?” said Stevie.

“Old man Gouck?” said Big Paul. “Nah. You ever seen anyone visiting him?”

We all agreed we hadn’t.

“The only person I ever saw visit him,” I said, “was Rudy.” Rudy was the young Italian guy with the greasy pompadour of black hair who worked as a soda jerk in Feldman’s drug store, and also ran errands for the other stores on the block: Lehrer’s grocery, Fox tailor, Lee Chinese laundry, Dave’s butcher shop.

“Let’s ask him!” Big Paul said. We ran around the corner and piled into Feldman’s drug store, where, just as we’d expected, Rudy was behind the counter. He was a handsome, juvenile delinquent-looking guy who looked like Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause. Like Sal, Rudy carried a pack of Camel cigarettes rolled up in the short sleeve of his white T-shirt. On his veiny left bicep he had a tattoo of a slinky mermaid coiled on an anchor. I was quite attracted to Rudy, and I liked the way his white soda jerk’s pants fit so snug around his hips, but this was many years before I’d sorted all that out.

The store owner’s wife, Mrs. Feldman, a short, wrinkled old bag with heavy makeup, who always suspected us of shoplifting (which we did frequently), gave us a disapproving look when we came running in, five loud, troublesome kids she (who famously had no children) obviously despised. We took our seats at the counter.

“What’ll it be, boys?” Rudy asked.

“Cherry coke.” “Cherry coke.” “Root beer.” “Egg cream.” “Me too.”

“What’s a Me Too?” Rudy cracked.

Rudy started to mix everything up when Big Paul said, “Hey Rudy, you ever deliver anything to old man Gouck?”

Rudy was loudly squirting seltzer from the machine. “Gouck? The old guy in–?”

“5-B,” Big Paul said.

“Oh, sure, sure,” Rudy said. “Lotsa times.”

“What kinda stuff?” Donald asked, although this was beside the point.

“What kinda stuff? Oh, I dunno. Groceries from Lehrer’s, meat from Dave’s. He’s a lousy tipper.”

“You go in?” I asked.

“Inside his apartment? Sure.” Rudy set down the glasses on little paper doilies in front of us on the marble counter.

“What was it like?” asked Big Paul. We all started slurping our drinks noisily through straws, seeing who could make the most obnoxious sounds. Mrs. Feldman give us a dirty look.

“What was it like?” Rudy had a way of repeating questions before answering them. “I dunno. Just regular-like, I guess. Kinda hot. He keeps the heat way up, even in summer.”

We took this in. I don’t know if we were all thinking the same thought at that moment, but I was, and I was reasonably sure Big Paul was, too, for I knew how his mind worked.

“You ever see anything strange?” I ventured, in my best imitation of Sergeant Joe Friday interrogating a suspect on Dragnet.

“What d’ya mean, strange?” Rudy asked.

“Like, valuable?”

Big Paul shot me a look. “Oh, somebody said he had all these, uhh, paintings,” I said.

“Paintings? I don’t think so,” Rudy said, wiping down the counter. “On the walls? Maybe a calendar.”

We finished our sodas, paid the dime apiece, and left. I shoplifted a Spalding ball on the way out.

We crossed the street and went up into the park on the sloping east side, leaning back on our elbows on the soft green grass. This was one of our favorite places to just talk things through and plan our next adventure.

“Hey, Bobby, did you know you can pick your friends and you can pick your nose but you can’t pick your friend’s nose?” said Big Paul. 

“Speaking of boogers how about this?” Donald said, turning toward Big Paul and flicking a finger at him. Big Paul flinched, and everybody laughed.

The conversation drifted in this harmless way for some time. I knew we were eventually going to return to the subject of Gouck, but I was in no hurry to rush things. These moments with my pals, in the sweet luxury of a warm afternoon with no school, were among my favorites. I was aware of their specialness, of the pure pleasure of making them last as long as you could.

The bees were droning, and the bright yellow forsythia was in bloom. My thoughts leaped ahead to summer and three blissful hot months of hanging out with my buddies, and just being able to be a kid with no responsibilities, until the school year started again.

We lapsed into silence. Bobby Alexander gave a little snort. Big Paul, the wise guy, looked at us, put his finger to his lips, and mimed “Shhh.” He wriggled over to where Bobby was, flat on his back on the grass, asleep. Big Paul leaned over him, hocked his throat, and drooled a string of phlegm onto Bobby’s fly.

“Hey Bobby!” he called out, shaking him by the shoulder. “Bobby! Wake up! You peed your pants!”

We all cracked up. Bobby blushed, but he was used to being the butt of our jokes, and we liked him all the more for the fact that he could take it and laugh along with us.

It was Big Paul who first mentioned Gouck.

“Maybe he’s not dead, after all,” Big Paul said. We all knew who “he” was.

“What do you mean?” Stevie said. “If he’s not dead, then why’s he so quiet?”

“Maybe he’s gone,” Big Paul suggested.

“He never goes anyplace,” Donald objected. “He’s got no friends or family.”

“How do you know he doesn’t?” I asked.

“How do you know he does?” Donald shot back.

“Didn’t you thay he doethn’t?” Bobby asked Big Paul.

“I think,” Paul said, “he went away for a while. I think he’s got relatives in the country, maybe Jersey, and they invited him to stay with them.”

We considered the possibilities. If he’d gone to visit relatives, or was dead, either way, he couldn’t protect his apartment.

“We gotta get in there,” Big Paul said.

There. It was uttered. I’d known it in Feldman’s, nursing my egg cream, but I knew it had to be Big Paul who said it, because he was our ringleader. Nobody could refuse the suggestion of an adventure if it came from Big Paul. 

“How’re you gonna do that?” Stevie said, not convinced. “I bet he double-locks his door. All old people do.”

“Maybe he keepth hith keyth under the doormat,” Bobby said helpfully.

“No, you doofus,” said Big Paul. “We don’t need keys. We can get in from the fire escape.”

“Ithn’t that dangerouth?” Bobby frowned.

I didn’t exactly disagree. Gouck’s fire escape was 70 feet above the concrete sidewalk. The railings were low, and there were spaces between the metal bars big enough for a pet — or a child — to fall through. Mom and Dad had raised me with few rules, but one of them was never, ever, under any circumstances go onto a fire escape, and I had accepted that advice unquestioningly. What Big Paul was now suggesting sent a chill up and down my spine.

“Ellen Marcus lives right above him in 6-B, right?” Big Paul was talking fast now. “We can wait until her parents are gone, then she lets us in, and we climb down from her fire escape to his.”

“We’d have to do it at night, so no one sees us,” I said. My desire to please Big Paul was stronger even than my fear.

“Right. And even if he locks his window, I know how to open it.” Big Paul explained how a Puerto Rican kid at school had showed him how to jimmy open a window with a carpenter’s file, which Paul’s Dad just happened to have.

So we made our pact. Standing in a circle in the deepening twilight, we held out our hands, palms down, and stacking them one on the other, solemnly agreed to do it as soon as an arrangement could be made with Ellen Marcus — break into Gouck’s apartment, and steal his treasure.

* * *

It was my job to talk Ellen into it, but that wasn’t hard. She was a pal. We’d used to spend time together when we were younger, 6 or 7, her mom dropping her off at our apartment, or my mom bringing me to hers. Ellen got me into dolls and what we would later think of as role-playing. She was a little crazy, a tomboy who was always up for anything. 

Turned out her parents were going out that Saturday evening, and since Ellen was mature for her age, they didn’t mind leaving her by herself. It was I Love Lucy and Gunsmoke night, and her parents knew she’d be glued to the T.V.

We guys met up in the lobby, then raced up the stairs to the sixth floor and her door. I rang the bell. Ellen opened it instantly, dressed in sneakers, blue jeans and a dark brown Micky Mouse sweatshirt. Her face was flushed with excitement, and her eyes had a feverish glow. She carried a big silver flashlight.

“What’s that for?” Big Paul asked.

“For when we sneak in,” Ellen said. “So we don’t have to turn on the lights.”

“Who said you could come?” Big Paul said. 

“I thought–”

“No girls!” Big Paul said. I thought Bobby Alexander looked a little scared, and he was real quiet, too. Donald seemed frightened, but determined not to show it. Stevie Resnick, who always was the first of us to cry if something didn’t break his way, was excited. “Lemme go first!” he clamored.

“You can follow me,” said Big Paul, as if there’d ever be any question about who led. He took the file from his back pocket and passed it around. It was about a foot long and ridged on both sides, with the edge narrowed to a sharp chisel.

We’d taken the precaution of wearing dark clothes to minimize the danger of anyone spotting us on the fire escape. Now, as Ellen led us single-file to the kitchen through the foyer, we seemed like something out of a war movie, Stalag 17, maybe, soldier spies behind enemy lines. My breathing was sharp and rapid, like I’d been holding my breath underwater. I was uneasy, yes, just a little. But I wanted to please Big Paul, and to show him that I was the bravest of us all, besides himself.

When we got to the kitchen, Ellen opened the window. Big Paul kind of shoved her aside. He looked out, and up, and then down. I felt the breeze come in, cool and moist.   

Big Paul turned back around and faced us. Keeping his voice to a whisper, he said, “All right, here’s the plan. Me, Stevie and Donald go down first, in that order. Kenny, you follow us, but just halfway; stay on the stairs, to keep watch.”

“Aw, Paul,” I protested. I didn’t want to bring up the rear, I wanted in on the action.

But he ignored me. “Bobby, you stay up here with Ellen.”

“I wanna go too!” Ellen objected. “It’s my flashlight and my fire escape.”

“Don’t be a doofus,” Big Paul said. “I said no girls. Besides, you have to stay up here in case your Mom calls.”

“She won’t!” Ellen insisted.

Big Paul was having none of that. “How do you know? She might. If you don’t answer, she’ll think something’s wrong.”

This was so logical, Ellen could think of nothing to say.

Big Paul lifted one leg, hoisted it over the sill, and with a silent leap was gone, like a raven into the night. Then it was Stevie Resnick’s turn.

He hesitated.

“Hey Stevie.” I heard Big Paul hiss after a while.

“It’s your turn,” Donald said to him, uncertainly.

“I don’t wanna go,” Stevie whined. “My Dad’ll kill me.”

“RESNICK!” Big Paul was whisper-hollering from the night. 

Stevie Resnick is such a pussy, I thought.

“I’ll take your place,” I told him. I nudged beside Donald and leaned out the window and said, “Psst, Paul.”

“Who’s that? Kenny?”

“Stevie chickened out. How ‘bout if I take his place?”

There was a moment of silence. Donald, Stevie, Bobby, Ellen and I looked around at each other. Then Big Paul said, “All right, but make it fast. Sheesh!”

I armed myself up over the sill and onto the fire escape, trying not to look all the way down to the street. I could see Big Paul below me, halfway down the ladder that led to the fifth floor and Gouck’s window. Big Paul was staring up at me, his eyes glinting where the moonlight hit them.

Big Paul climbed silently the rest of the way down, followed by me and then Donald. He crouched by the window, spreading both hands on it, one under the top sash, the other on the middle pane. He gave the window an upward tug, and it slid open.

“Guess we won’t need that file,” he grinned.

Big Paul hoisted himself in. I did the same, and then Donald. It was immensely hot inside, like an oven, and the air stank of old grease and rotting meat. I heard the buzzing of flies.

“Phew,” said Big Paul.

We stood there getting our bearings, breathing in the fresh night air that spilled in from the open window. 

“Kenny, you stay here. Donald, c’mon with me.” Big Paul and Donald disappeared through the door, leaving me alone in the kitchen.

There was just enough light to be able to make things out, and as my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could see more. A Formica table with some dishes and cups. A crust of toast on a plate, an opened tub of margarine. A framed picture of a haloed Jesus on the wall. There was a big empty can of Savarin coffee on a counter, but it contained only pennies, not diamonds or emeralds.

The sink was filled with pots and pans, and the faucet was dripping, making slow, metronomic plonks where the drops fell into an over-flowing saucer. On the white-tiled counter, black spots moved in random, rapid zig-zags.

Cockroaches! Startled, I involuntarily jumped back, and felt my heart tighten in my chest.

“Kenny!” It was Big Paul, in the next room.

I turned and ran out of the kitchen, toward a circle of yellow light that was bobbing up and down and side to side.

In the living room, Big Paul was shining the flashlight on a wooden chest the size of my Grandma’s dowry trunk, the one with the silks and satins she’d brought over from Russia. Donald stood beside him, still and silent as a wax dummy.

Big Paul was smiling in triumph. “I bet this is it!” he gasped.

Visions of gold bullion filled my mind. Like every other boy, I’d grown up on pirate stories. I’d seen Treasure Island — in fact, with Big Paul and Stevie Resnick — at the Earl Theatre, just the summer before. I remembered the scene where young Jim Hawkins opens the chest on the beach, and his eyes flare at the cache of gold coins gleaming under the tropical sun. And then, how his excitement turns to horror when a shadow passes over, throwing the coins and himself into darkness: Long John Silver, with one eye and a murderous, toothless grin.

But the chest was locked. Big Paul worked at it with his file, chinking at the sides, trying to pry it open, stabbing the hasp with the point of the chisel. All to no avail. After a few moments, he stopped, to get his breath, and figure out what to do next.

“Hey, where are you guys?”

It was Ellen’s voice, from the kitchen.

“Kenny? Paul?” Bobby Alexander, too.

“Shit!” Big Paul muttered. The others filed into the living room. Even Stevie Resnick had come. We were in a huddle standing around Big Paul, who was down on his knees on the carpet. He had put the flashlight on the chest top, so that the light shone from under, making his face look skeletal and demonic.

“Why’d you guys come down?” he said. He was upset. “I thought I told you to stay upstairs.”

“We wanted to be part of the fun,” Ellen explained.

I looked at Big Paul. Suddenly, something didn’t feel right. 

“I’m going back up,” I said, and started to turn to the kitchen, when I heard a click that was so loud it shattered the night like the crack of a bullet.

We all froze.

“Someone’s at the door,” Stevie Resnick whispered, in a voice that was barely more than a breath.

More clicking sounds, metal on metal.

Suddenly all hell broke loose. The six of us rushed toward the kitchen. It was every kid for himself, with me in the lead, then Big Paul bypassing me, shoving me out of his way. We were a wild clutter of bodies, elbows, knees, all scrambling toward the kitchen window, like some ungainly creature with twelve legs and twelve arms and a single desire: to escape.

Big Paul and I were at the window. He punched me hard in the bicep, so I let him go first. Then as fast as I could I leaped out onto the fire escape and, clutching the metal stairs, began hauling myself up. Behind me I heard the other kids, but I really didn’t see anything, just was aware of them fear-filled and moving fast, in a welter of sobs and gasps and shouts. I heard someone cry out and then it trailed off and away, and I figured it was Stevie Resnick, losing it as usual. Then I was back at Ellen’s kitchen window.

I scampered up onto the sill — Big Paul was there, and he pulled me in. I took my place next to him as, one by one, the others climbed through: Donald Brotman, his sides heaving like he was going to throw up, Ellen, wild-eyed and laughing like a madwoman, Stevie Resnick, his eyes moist and red. He no longer had on his coke-bottle glasses.

We all stood there breathing heavy for a moment. Then Big Paul said, “Where’s Bobby?”

Then we heard a scream. It was an unearthly, high-pitched howl, like the cry of a victim about to be torn alive in a monster movie. But we were in no movie. The scream was coming from outside, from down below, in the street. “He’s bleeding!” the voice wailed. “Help! Police! Someone call an ambulance!”

* * *

I remember, from this vantage point so many decades later, some indelible images: The howl of the sirens, the flashing red and blue lights of the police cars, the big white ambulance pulling up in a squeal of tires. We kids had rushed down to the street immediately upon realizing that Bobby must have fallen off the fire escape.

A policeman interviewed me. His name was Sergeant Crawley (funny how the name, so irrelevant, sticks in my memory). My parents were out front by then, too, along with what seemed like hundreds of people. The block was mobbed with activity: flashing lights, sobs, loudspeakers, hushed whispers, crackly police radios, parents calling their children’s names, frightened kids looking for their moms and dads.

I knew I was in big trouble but there was nothing I could do about it. Mom took me by the wrist and told me to come upstairs with her and Dad now and go to bed, we’d talk about it in the morning. I said, Just a second. I wanted to say ‘bye to Big Paul, and wriggled my hand free and darted away before either of them could stop me. I’d seen him over by the mimosa tree on the corner, talking with a cop, Big Paul looking not so big after all, but frightened and deflated. Somehow I couldn’t let go of the night and everything that had occurred in it without one final assurance from Big Paul. Or maybe it was I who finally wanted to reassure him.

I was moving toward him when I felt cobwebby stickiness all over my face and something burned my eyes. I’d walked right into the caterpillars hanging on their silk threads from the mimosa tree, like tiny insect bombs. Bringing both hands to my face, I tried to brush the stuff away, clawing at my lids, scraping my cheeks, spitting. When I could see again, Big Paul was gone. The medics were loading a gurney into the back of the ambulance, the lifeless body on it covered with a bloody sheet.

I turned around and went back to my parents. We took a crowded, silent elevator up to the third floor and our apartment, where I sank into a dreamless sleep.

* * *

Bobby Alexander’s parents moved out of the building shortly after that, and we never heard from them again. We did learn what had happened to old man Gouck, though.

It turned out he’d been dead after all, of an apparent heart attack or stroke, stretched out on his bed, in the very next room from where we kids had been. Norris had been alerted by Dave, the butcher, and Mr. Lehrer, the grocer, that the old man hadn’t bought any food for more than a week. Norris had gone up to 5-B to inquire. He’d knocked on the door a couple times — this must have been right before we came through Gouck’s window. When there was no answer, Norris had taken the elevator back down to his basement apartment, where he kept the extra keys to everyone’s units. Meanwhile, we had snuck in.

Then Norris came back up and put the key in the lock. The sound that had spooked us had been him jiggling with the dead bolt. While we were scampering back down the fire escape, and Bobby was falling off it, Norris was discovering Gouck’s body.

So there were two dead people that night, one old, one young.

* * *

I never saw Donald Brotman again after we both went to college, although I heard he moved to Buffalo and became a pharmacist. Ellen Marcus married young, had kids, and died of a brain hemorrhage when she was only 34. Big Paul, after a tryout for a Yankee’s Double-A team, settled for teaching gym at a high school in New Rochelle; I heard from him a few years ago. He was retired, living in Boca Raton, and playing a lot of golf. Stevie Resnick was the most successful of us, a bigtime tax lawyer who, it turned out, once represented Donald Trump. I have thought, too, and tenderly, of Bobby Alexander, of a life cut short for no other reason than his earnest desire to be one of the boys.

We never found out if Gouck’s treasure really existed. Sometime after that awful night, a white box truck double-parked in front of the building, and two beefy men with a hand cart loaded it up with everything from Gouck’s apartment. When they drove away, they took with them the mystery.

As for me, I went on to my career as a wine writer. But I never forgot Gouck and Bobby. They, or their ghosts, have followed me through the decades, the young boy looking for his place in life, and the old man who just wanted peace.

* * *


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.


Great Wine Books: “The Romance of Wine”

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I blogged the other day about “California’s Great Cabernets,” Jim Laube’s book that had an influence on me. Another book with a far more lasting impact is “The Romance of Wine,” which H. Warner Allen published in 1932.

Herbert Warner Allen (1881-1968) was an English dandy and polymath, the son of a Royal Navy Captain and grandson of an Oxford don; Allen himself attended Oxford, where he specialized in modern languages. His passions (there were many) included journalism, Greek and Roman literature, detective books (which he also wrote) and, of course, wine. Of his multiple wine books, “The Romance of Wine” is considered his masterpiece. I put it beside George Saintsbury’s “Notes on a Cellar-Book” (1920) as one of the important wine books in the English language of the early 20th century, and it’s noteworthy that Allen and Saintsbury were friends.

H. Warner Allen, a good-looking man

Allen wrote in a style which has completely disappeared from our language: Victorian, floral, perfervid, allegorical and verbose. His greatest fondness was for pre-phylloxera Bordeaux, the older the better. Of an 1869 Latour he drank when it was 50-something years old, he wrote, “The palate recognized a heroic wine, such a drink as might refresh the warring archangels, and the perfection of its beauty called up the noble phrase ‘terrible as an army with banners.’ The full organ swell of a triumphal march might express its appeal in terms of music.”

You don’t get that kind of literary overdrive anymore!

Allen’s penchant for the Classics resulted in frequent insertions of Greek and Roman quotes (without translation), as well as poetic references. Concerning the joys of old Port, he wrote, “There are many wine-lovers who prefer the vigour and splendour of a younger wine to the more subdued and complex charms which make its old age as radiant and peaceful as that of old Cephalos in the Republic”; readers not familiar with Plato will not know that the Master asked Cephalos, already at that time a very old, wealthy man, for his definition of “justice,” which he offered as “giving what is owed.” But even if most of the Classic references go over one’s head, the language is haunting and lovely; we may not be familiar with old Cephalos, but knowing that he is “radiant and peaceful” in his dotage tells us something vital about what Saintsbury called “centennial Port.”

What can the contemporary wine writer learn from H. Warner Allen? That writing can be a vast labyrinth of meaning and beauty. It’s one thing to write, as Anthony Galloni recently did, “The 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon Leopoldina Vineyard is powerful and heady, with all of the intensity that is typical of this site on the eastern hills of Oakville. Dark, savory and powerful, the 2017 has so much to offer. The balance of intense dark fruit and muscular tannins makes for an absolutely compelling Cabernet.” Workaday enough; I might have written it myself for Wine Enthusiast. Contrast it with Allen, once again writing of that 1869 Latour:

“The tapestry-like purples…contained that sheen of molten gold which only comes after many years of secret ripening in the still darkness of the cellar. The French call it ‘pelure d’oignon’…which recalls the homely simile in the Nineteenth Odyssey when Odysseus’s purple tunic that glistened like the sun is compared to the sheen upon the skin of a dried onion.”

Or this, concerning an 1871 Margaux: “Its magic bouquet envelopes the senses in a cloud of airy fragrance, raspberry-scented like the breezes from the Islands of the Blest, a dream of grace and delicacy, the twinkling feet of dancing nymphs, suddenly set free in our tedious world.”

Well, you won’t read that sort of thing in Wine Enthusiast, or Wine Spectator, of the Wine Advocate, or anyplace else anymore. H. Warner Allen’s Victorian, donnish world was already over when he wrote “The Romance of Wine,” although he perhaps did not know it. History was rushing on; ordinary people no longer studied the Classics, and modern publishers demanded simpler, more easily-digestible fare for their impatient readers. But for me, “The Romance of Wine” had an indelible impact, reminding me that wine writing once was the garden in which esthetes cavorted with delight in the English language.


Classifying Cabernet? I don’t think so

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The University of California at Davis’s Department of Viticulture and Enology asked me to donate my wine books and paraphernalia to them for permanent display, which I’m honored to do. As part of it, they want me to identify the books that were most important to me.

One of them was certainly California’s Great Cabernets, the 1989 tome by Wine Spectator’s Jim Laube, my former colleague. It was, and remains, “a landmark book,” as Marvin Shanken described it in his Foreward. I devoured every word, as I suspect a lot of other Baby Boomer wine fans did, back in the day when California wine, and Cab in particular, was dramatically increasing in importance.

There is, however, one aspect of California’s Great Cabernets that has not aged well. Jim decided to classify the Cabs into five categories: First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Growths. He justified this for two reasons: “I hope to put the top California Cabernets…in historical perspective.” And “I have tried to sort out for consumers the quality of the wines and how they rank.” Jim himself conceded that such an effort is controversial and is “resisted” by “most California vintners.” While modeling his 5-tier system after the 1855 Classification of the Medoc, Jim admitted that the Bordeaux classification is “outdated,” and he predicted, accurately, that no classification “will ever be undertaken by the California wine industry.” Still, despite these provisos, he went ahead and classified anyway.

Jim wasn’t the only writer of the era to attempt a classification. Seven years previously, Roy Andries De Groot wrote The Wines of California, which he subtitled “The first classification of the best vineyards and wineries.” Roy opted for a four-tiered system, using not numbers but adjectives: “FINE, NOBLE, SUPERB and GREAT.”

I loved both books, but even at the time, I had an uneasy feeling. The Bordeaux 1855 Classification had centuries of data upon which to depend, and was moreover fixed by law. California Cabernet, in the 1980s, had barely a few decades of serious production, and was in a state of constant evolution; my old friend Rob Thompson said keeping track of California wineries was like trying to count “rabbits in a hutch.” Many of today’s superstars (Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Bryant Family, Colgin and so on) didn’t even exist at the time, while others that Laube and De Groot praised have faded away completely, or been downgraded by new owners.

Still, as historical curiosities, both books have their place. Speaking of Cabernet Sauvignon, I opened this bottle recently, and here’s my review:

Stags’ Leap 2013 “The Leap” Cabernet Sauvignon (Stags Leap).  Tasting this wine reminded me of those 19th century clarets I’ve read about that remained stubbornly tannic for decades. It was wicked of me to pop the cork when the wine is only eight years old; I should have known better. That’s awfully young for a Cabernet, particularly from Stags Leap, where the tannins tend to be hard in youth. But open it I did, and what I found was a flood of fruit. Massive, gigantic in black currants, blackberry jam, mu shu plum sauce and raspberries, with subtle nuances of espresso, dark chocolate and spices. Dry and smooth, just a splendid wine, but I’m kicking myself for committing vinous infanticide. It’s nowhere near ready. Will the fruit outlive the tannins by, say, 2030? Will it be alive in 2040? Who knows? I won’t be here. Score: 93.


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