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On the inaugural Sonoma Barrel Auction–a great success–and meeting old friends

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Hearty congrats to the first ever Sonoma County Barrel Auction, which raised a respectable $461,000 last Friday, under the big tent at the Vintner’s Inn, on Fulton Road in the gorgeous Russian River Valley.

I was there representing Stonestreet. That was fun, but even better was running into so many old friends, folks who’ve been there for and beside me for so long. Here are some photos of a few of them, with some memories.

Rod Berglund is the winemaker and co-owner of Joseph Swan Vineyards.

Berglund

We probably met in the 1990s, but I got to know him better when I wrote A Wine Journey along the Russian River, in 2003-2004. Rod helped me with some history, including tales of the late, great Joe Swan himself, and, of course, Rod’s wines at Swan are nonpareil. They define the terroir of the southern, Laguna part of the Russian River Valley.

Everybody in wine country knows and loves George Rose.

GRose

He’s a great picture-taker of rock stars and sunsets and vineyards, and, as I sometimes tease him, he seems to pop up everywhere these days, the Zelig of photographers. George also is one of the best-liked personalities in our industry. Whenever we run into each other, he makes me feel better.

The immortal Greg LaFollette seems to have been central to Sonoma’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay scene forever.

GregLaF

I’ve enjoyed, and given high scores to, his wines for twenty years, and also come to develop a great affection for this shy, smiling gentleman, who surely will go down in history as a pioneer.

I met Lisa Mattson in the early 2000s, I think.

 

LisaMattson

Since then, she’s gone on to great success as Jordan’s effective communications ambassador, and particularly for her innovative videos. Lovely and charming, Lisa is a woman of great integrity and character.

In the case of Jim Gordon, I do remember precisely our first meeting.

JGordon

He and Kim Marcus invited me to lunch in San Francisco when I was pestering them to hire me at Wine Spectator. Jim did, thus giving me my first big break as a wine writer. Since then he’s gone on to edit Wines & Vines, and, in an ironical twist, now covers part of my old territory as a reviewer for Wine Enthusiast. Thanks, Jim, for taking a gamble on me!

Tim McDonald is in that same league as George Rose, one of wine country’s inimitable presences.

TMcD

Wry and witty, urbane and uber-smart, and a great success as a P.R. guy, Tim has been a happy presence in my career almost from the beginning.

By the way, the Anakota 2014 they poured at the barrel auction was spectacular. It really blew me away, a potentially perfect wine.

Anakota

This man surely needs no introduction. He is Adam Strum, my former boss at Wine Enthusiast,

Strum

who hired me way back when, after I parted company with Wine Spectator. We’ve been through a lot together. Adam, thank you. We really have got to “do” lunch one of these days!

Ted Seghesio is the winemaker at Seghesio Family Vineyards.

Seghesio

I met him when I was writing A Wine Journey. But even before that, I adored his wines, which for me define Sonoma County Zinfandel and old vine field blends. His “Venom” Sangiovese, from the Rattlesnake Hill Vineyard, is just about the best in California.

Now, here are two very special people. Jean-Charles Boisset (on my right) is a quiet, unassuming man, not the sort to draw attention to himself. But seriously, folks, nobody in wine country brings more joy and laughter than JCB, and he’s done remarkable things with De Loach, Buena Vista and Raymond. I love you, man, but do be careful next time you pretend-punch me in the solar plexus. You might lose your hand! As for Bob Cabral (on my left), what can I say that hasn’t been said more eloquently about his talents. He was so kind to me when I was writing A Wine Journey, and we’ve remained friends since. Sweet, gentle, and one of the premier winemakers of the world, Bob is a winemaker’s winemaker and a true icon. I wish Bob (and I know we all do) great good fortune in his new gig at Three Sticks.

Boisset&Cabral

And here’s a new friend, Mike Osborn, who founded wine.com.

MOsborne

We met a while back when we did a Zinfandel tasting at his S.F. headquarters. Not only is he a lovely man and a fabulous entrepreneur, he’s got the world’s best smile, and is a fellow Oaklander! Mike, let’s have that meal we’re always talking about. How about Boot & Shoe?

Well, I could have taken pictures of 50 other people who were at the auction. As I read over what I’ve written here, it sounds a bit over-the-top in encomiums, but I meant every word. I’m very grateful for the people in the wine biz who have enriched my life. Thanks to all of you!


Pouring in Sonoma (wine, not rain) & Gus!

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On Friday, when you read this, I’ll be up in Santa Rosa, at John Ash & Co., pouring wine for Jackson Family Wines at the Sonoma County Barrel Auction (which by the way raises lots of money for charity).

The wine I’m responsible for is Stonestreet 2012 West Ledge, a blend of 95% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Malbec. It’s a special blend, i.e., non-commercial, as is the habit for wineries at these specialized barrel auctions, where folks who drop big bucks want something unique.

I like pouring wine for people, interacting with the public and in general yakking it up. In my previous job as a wine critic, much of my time was quite solitary, so I always welcomed these occasions when you get to mix it up with people. I will admit to getting a little nervous before I go “on,” not so much for an event like the barrel auction, which is pretty informal, but for standup things, like presenting wine to an audience, large or small. For example, last week, in Maine, I did a dinner for about 100 people, and was a little on edge right before I took the floor. But I know that I do that to myself, and I know that it’s quite common, so it’s okay. I’ve read numerous interviews with theatre actors and they almost always admit to feeling a little queasy in the belly right before taking the stage. That’s par for the course, human nature. The trick is to shed that nervousness as soon as your shtick begins. For me, that’s not too hard, fortunately. (Of course, it helps to be prepared!)

Besides, I think a slight case of nerves serves a purpose. It makes you gird your loins. Who was it that said “When a man knows he’s about to be hanged, it concentrates the mind”? Not that I’m comparing public speaking to being hanged, but a mild case of the jitters does cause me to focus intensely on what’s coming. It’s like being spring-loaded: as soon as the spring is released, the tension ebbs.

Communicating to the public about wine forces you to think on your feet. You have to gauge—quickly—where someone is coming from. Is the person a total amateur? An expert? Trade or consumer? And you have to be able to have an intelligent conversation with all of them (provided they want to have a conversation with you. You never want to force yourself on people). But above all, you have to be enjoying yourself. I’ve been served by pourers who hated what they were doing, or were bored out of their minds. Not a good thing.

By the way, many of you have expressed interest in how Gus is doing. He suffered a ruptured anal sac, which is not as bad as it sounds. Some dogs, especially small ones, get impacted glands (this is the organ that dogs use to spray and mark with), and on occasion, the impacted gland bursts. The solution is antibiotics, but since dogs will chew on irritations, we have to keep Gus from doing that until the thing heals. Ergo, the blow-up collar.

GusFGI

The great thing about dogs is how well they adapt. Gus didn’t like the collar at all yesterday. He was practically catatonic. But today, he hardly notices it. That’s the thing about dogs: They don’t sit there and stress over stuff. They are the ultimate optimists. All Gus asks for is love, and in turn, he gives me unconditional love.

Meanwhile, the Great Drought goes on. Wildfires, smoke taint, it’s going to be a long, hot summer.


Why Napa Cabernet costs so much

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The most interesting quote in the Napa Valley Register’s article on the 30th birthday of the Carneros Wine Alliance is from David Graves. The co-founder of Saintsbury said, “There’s no ‘Napa of pinot noir.’ No one place dominates the market.”

Isn’t it interesting how the cultural evolution of the market has treated our two leading red wine types so differently? One, Cabernet Sauvignon, has become almost exclusively dominated, in the mind of the consumer, with a single appellation: Napa Valley. The other, Pinot Noir, resists being associated with a dominating region. Indeed, if you were to ask leading wine critics, What is California’s top Pinot Noir appellation, they would tell you the question makes no sense.

Beyond being merely of academic interest, this is a pocketbook issue. How much a winery gets for its wine (and how much, in turn, the consumer pays for it) are intimately linked with the wine’s origin. While the average statewide price for a ton of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in 2013 was $1,339, in Napa Valley it was $5,469, a difference of 308 percent. Pragmatically, this is why the average bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet is many times higher that the average bottle of Cabernet from, say, Alexander Valley.

This is not true of Pinot Noir, whose price tends to be more consistent across all the top coastal growing areas. Here are some examples, all reflective of the price of a ton of grapes in 2013:

Sonoma: $3,078

Santa Barbara/San Luis Obispo: $2,586

Mendocino: $2,652

Statewide: $1,594

Indeed, as I have long suggested, when it comes to Pinot Noir, it is somewhat misleading to focus on individual growing regions. Instead, the way to look at things is that we have a single Pinot Noir terroir that stretches from Anderson Valley down to Santa Barbara County, extending inland perhaps 20 miles. No single A.V.A. within this vast stretch can plausibly pretend to supremacy because, in truth, all of them are roughly equal, although, of course, wine writers and critics make their livings discerning differences within the similarities.

In the case of Napa’s lopsided price for Cabernet, this cannot be credited to matters of terroir. Napa Valley demonstrably is not the best, only place to grow qualitatively significant Cabernet Sauvignon in California. Alexander Valley has equal precedence. So too do the Santa Cruz Mountains, Paso Robles, the easternmost parts of Santa Barbara, Lake County and other regions of Sonoma County, including Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Knights Valley and Chalk Hill. (I refer, in all cases, to the top wines.) I don’t think any critic who’s being objective would object when I say that prime Cabernet growing areas in California are at least as widespread as those for prime Pinot Noir.

Why, then, the incredible price differential on behalf of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon? One reason and one reason only: perception. Napa Valley is perceived as being the best place to grow Cabernet. That perception clearly impacts the choice of consumers (and the restaurateurs and merchants who sell wine to them), but it also distorts the impressions of a surprisingly high number of critics, who do not taste blind and thus are subject to the biases within their own unconscious or subconscious minds.

Now that I’ve been “relieved” of the job of tasting many thousands of wines a year, I find I’m developing a refreshingly clearer sense concerning these matters of terroir. Perhaps it’s a form of now being able to see the forest for the trees. If one is looking for pleasure and complexity in wine (and what else would one look for?), then it’s simply astonishing how easy it is to find those qualities in California wine. This is not to suggest that quality differences do not exist, but it is my considered judgment that these differences are neither as vast as I once thought, nor as distinctive as consumers believe. This may be due, in part, to the 100-point system, which I long employed and for which I will never apologize. But I am glad that, when it came to very high scores for Cabernet, I always included Alexander Valley right up there with Napa Valley, for I was able to get past the “perception thing” and focus on the wine itself.

The history of California wine is replete with paradigm-shifting events, such as the Paris Tasting, the advent of the current era of Pinot Noir, replanting after phylloxera, and, if we go back far enough, to the use of French barriques and the creation of the Federal labeling laws. To these, I will predict a gradual shifting in the consumer’s perception, a widening of appreciation that great Cabernet Sauvignon can in fact come from many more places than only Napa Valley. When this will occur is open to question, but I have no doubt that it will.


Connectedness: the Holy Grail of winery marketing

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Last week, while Americans were watching developments concerning the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, which eventually (and thankfully) collapsed, another more successful merger went almost unnoticed. That was the marriage between Blue Bottle Coffee and Tartine Bakery, a far happier union that consumers could celebrate, instead of worrying about.

Blue Bottle was founded in my hometown of Oakland and now has cafés throughout the Bay Area, L.A., New York City and Japan. It’s become what Starbucks used to be: the hippest java joint around, one of the high-end coffee industry’s most respected roasters,” according to Fast Company, an appraisal shared by Bloomberg Business, which described Blue Bottle as “the next wave of artisanal coffee shops” and reported on enthusiastic investments in the company by Silicon Valley tech giants such as Google, WordPress and Twitter.

Tartine Bakery sprang from the famous San Francisco restaurant, Bar Tartine, a Mission District hotspot that helped make the Valencia Corridor one of the city’s most visited dining destinations. Tartine’s bread makers earned the prestigious James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef. As wildly popular as the bakery is, Tartine has not been able to figure out how to expand to other locations. Blue Bottle has. The San Francisco Chronicle predicts the merger will “provide mutual benefits to both,” as consumers continue to seek out “well-crafted quality, locally sourced and planet-sensitive foods.”

There are lessons for the wine industry, particularly for family-owned wineries that want a more personal connection with consumers. Consumers do want “planet-friendly” things to buy. They do want quality that’s apparent, and preferably locally-sourced. But, maybe more than anything, they want a connection with the people who sell them products and services. Never in the history of American industry has that personal connection been more important. People—in their loneliness, idealism and confusion—desire to feel something human. Not the appearance of something human. Not something crafted in some P.R. shop that seems human. Something that is human.

Tartine and Blue Bottle (I’ve been to both) provide that connection to human-ness. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how, or to describe it, unless you’ve been there; the blogger Kevin Lindsay has called it a “visceral reaction” that can create lifelong connections with the shoppers who can and will become compelling brand evangelists.” This is, of course, the Holy Grail for all companies, including wineries: to “create lifelong connections.” A lifelong consumer does not have to be marketed to with the same ferocity (and costs) as a new, unaffiliated consumer. This is the magic of branding: it’s why I met so many fans of Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve wines on my trip last week. It’s why the About Money website says branding is not about getting your target market to choose you over the competition, but it is about getting your prospects to see you as the only one that provides a solution to their problem.”

What a concept! So doable, and yet so rarely done. This is precisely the challenge wineries must confront, and solve, in the coming years, if they are to remain viable, in the face not only of domestic competition but international, as trade agreements erode traditional national boundaries and the entire planet becomes a single marketplace.

How is this to be done? Now that the clamorous exaggerations for social media have begun to calm, we can see that merely having a robust online presence isn’t nearly enough. Social media is simply a tool: put a chisel in the hands of Michaelangelo and you end up with David. In the hands of a child, a chisel is merely something to thump and bang with, and possibly do damage. To really connect with the consumer, you have to think like the consumer. You have to have empathy. You have to get out of your box and into the mind and heart of the consumer you hope to reach. That may sound New Agey, but, as Mark Benioff explains in this interview about his late friend and mentor, Steve Jobs, Jobs’ spirituality (inspired by yogic meditation practices and The Beatles) made the Apple co-founder “a prophet” who knew what consumers wanted even before they themselves did. Steve Jobs not only gave them what they sought, which was a way to increase their connectedness to the world, he made them—and the world—a better place.


An appreciation of rosé and a call for changing the rules of wine criticism

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It was hot in Oakland yesterday—the city of Pittsburg, in the Delta, hit 93 degrees—and I was doing a lot of running around, so when I got home, around 5 p.m., I was thirsty. I happened to have a bottle of a rosé in the fridge (not Jackson Family), and it looked mighty welcoming, so I popped the cork, poured myself a glass, and sipped.

Rose

Ahhh.

The label doesn’t say what the blend is, but it’s Provençal. I think there’s some Grenache in there, maybe Cinsaut and almost definitely Syrah, but it doesn’t really matter. We make too much of the varieties in these blended wines. The winemaker isn’t trying to do some cookbook sort of thing, according to some theory, but to craft the best wine she can. But we’re addicted to knowing the blend, so there’s pressure on proprietors to put it on the bottle. In a way, I admire this particular winery for resisting that impulse. They’re telling us, “Don’t focus on the grape varieties, focus on the wine.”

Rosé is red-hot (no pun intended). It’s always been around, of course, but it’s never been this popular. I wonder why. Summer’s coming, of course, and rosé hits that sweet spot of being midway between a white wine and a red wine. When I was on the road last week in New England, I was surprised by how many people I met who told me that they don’t care for (red or white: pick one), but love the other one. I, myself, can’t imagine ever being in that dilemma. But if you are, I’d think a rosé would be the best of both worlds.

How do the critics treat rosé? Not very respectfully. There’s a tendency among them to view it as a simple, inexpensive wine, made from press juice, without complexity. That can be the case, but not always. The wine I’m drinking now—the rosé from my fridge—is quite a complicated thing. It’s bone dry, with wonderful acidity, and the fruit (strawberries barely turned pink, orange zest, pink grapefruit) has a herbaceousness that reminds me of fresh thyme and white or pink peppercorns. Were I reviewing it, I’d probably give it 89 or 90 points, but I’m pretty sure that most other critics would score it lower than that, maybe around 87 or 88.

Why is it that certain wines never seem to rise above a certain score? Sauvignon Blanc is another. I’ve wrestled with that question for a long time, and still can’t really answer it. Since I’m “guilty” of the same thing myself, I can’t accuse other critics of any sort of impropriety. I think what it comes down to is that Sauvignon Blanc and rosé (to mention just two California wines) traditionally never got very high scores, and so critics don’t want to go out on a limb and give them 95s or 97s. After all, they have their reputations to protect. And yet, why shouldn’t a great rosé get 97 points?

Parker says his highest ratings are for ageable wines, so I guess he’s off the hook. The vast majority of rosés aren’t ageable. But one could argue that, within the context of rosé-ness, there are rosés that approach perfection, so why wouldn’t you give a perfect rosé a perfect score? Because to give a wonderful Provençal wine 100 points—the same as Petrus or Verité—would seem a little odd.

But why? Ageability aside, we’re talking about perfection within the context of what the wine is—the sandbox it plays in—and it seems to me to be unfair to say, “This is a perfect rosé” and give it 94 points, and “This is a perfect Cabernet” and give it 100 points.

Well, here I am, realizing stuff after I’ve retired as a wine critic! But if I had to do it all over again, I’d be more generous with my 100s. Break the rules, if you will, redefine them. Wine criticism has turned rather baroque, if you ask me: mannered, adhering to a strict canon, rather rigid. It needs to be shook up—intelligently. Not smashed, not taken over idiotically, but systematically redefined in a way that’s fairer than it has been, when only certain regions or varieties could star. That has got to change.


I’m baaak! A report on my New England wine trip

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Haven’t blogged in about a week partly because I wanted to see what the reaction would be when I said I might cease writing steveheimoff.com, and partly because I’ve been on a weeklong sales trip for Jackson Family Wines that has been exhaustive in every sense of the word.

For example, last Friday began with waking up slightly hung over after a very late night, following the previous two days of lunches, dinners, tastings and the inevitable late nights at bars with sales guys. Then it was off on a 250-mile round trip from Boston out to Lenox, near the New York State border, a lovely old town (f. 1767) in the Berkshires. That was for a lunch for local restaurateurs at a place I’d never heard of, The Wheatley. The mansion was built as a wedding gift for his daughter by a wealthy New Yorker in the 1870s. She had married an impoverished Spanish nobleman. (That story is straight out of Edith Wharton or Henry Adams, isn’t it?) The owners have turned it into a fabulous destination resort and restaurant. We saw a room that costs $1,800 a night—without breakfast! Anyhow, it’s a beautiful place and the Berkshire setting was very nostalgic for me.

Berks

I lived in those mountains for close to 16 years, enduring blizzards, sub-zero cold and the most wonderful springs, summers and falls imaginable, at a time of my life filled with the wonder, love, friendships and the discoveries of youth.

Then it was back (through rush hour traffic) to the Liberty Hotel, on Charles Street in Boston, where I had an appointment with a blogger, Terry Lozoff, who writes about wine, beer and spirits at Drink Insider.

He grilled me for more than two hours, tape recording the entire session. Nice young guy, smart, and I hope he gets my quotes right! After that, I was ready for a nice martini and some pizza in the hotel restaurant, and then it was straight to bed. Saturday, it was a rental car drive up to Ogonquit, Maine, to a grand old resort on the Atlantic, The Cliff House, where I presided over a dinner for 90 people (more on that later).

In response to last week’s post, I did get a ton of comments on the blog, on Facebook and in my private emails from people urging me to continue blogging. They apparently like reading this blog over their morning coffee! I’m not sure why, but I have a few guesses. I think people crave good writing, and by that I mean not only technically accurate (no misspellings, run-on sentences, etc.) but also honest, colorful writing from someone who might actually have something interesting to say. Terry and I talked about this at some length. He asked me what effect blogging and social media have had on my writing and I told him how I’d discovered (or been introduced to) both transparency and immediate communication. Also that my writing continuously has become simpler and more pared down. But harder to define is how to pour your self, your spirit and soul, mind and heart into the written word. Terry asked me, if I stopped my blog, would I consider podcasts, and I said, no, because, for me, there simply is no replacement for writing.

So why would people like reading about the thoughts and adventures of an aging wine writer, who no longer wields clout as a critic? Search me. But they do. So I’ll keep on writing this blog until I don’t.

Meanwhile, my impression of the wine scene, in Boston, Maine and western Massachusetts, is that it’s very much alive and well, despite this talk about cocktails and craft beer eclipsing wine. I had many conversations with consumers about the popularity of California wine with respect to European, and apparently California is doing quite well. People, both younger and older, like it. So I think in this respect Boston is a little different from New York City. I’m glad that most of the consumers I’ve had contact with on this trip have been below 35 years of age. That’s an age group I feel close to (even though I’m old enough to be their grandfather). It’s exciting to talk with them, and when you really get deep into a conversation you learn that the stereotypes about them (they don’t read books, they live on their mobile devices, they’re clueless when it comes to news or politics or science) are ridiculous. It’s so easy to stereotype individuals and groups until you actually take the time to learn about them.

By the way, at Saturday’s dinner in Ogonquit, I put up a photo of the menu on my Facebook page

Menu

where they described me as “Celebrity Host Steve Heimoff.” That elicited the following comment: You can get fat eating all of that. Mazel-Tov Mr Celebrity. Can I have your autograph please.” That little dig was from my first cousin, Alan. It is a poignant reminder that no matter how inflated your ego gets, your relatives who knew you when you were a snot-nosed, crying little brat will bring you down to earth.

Memory: the first wine I ever tasted was given me by Alan’s father, a legend in our family, the tallest of all the men of his generation, dark as a Spaniard (that was the Sephardic Jew in him), and with a Spaniard’s passions. (Memory-within-a-memory: Uncle Ted once disappeared for many weeks; nobody knew where he was, although we children heard rumors, whispered in hushed tones by the grownups, or in Yiddish which always meant that the subject was juicy, that he was involved in something Important and Secret. When Ted finally showed up one day—as if nothing had happened—there was a new, framed photograph in his livingroom, of him with President Kennedy.) At any rate, I would have been five or six; the occasion was either Chanukah or Passover, both of which meant large gatherings of our Diaspora-ed family, huge quantities of greasy food and raucous conversation. The wine connection? Uncle Ted gave me a glass, one of those thick, stout, etched crystal ones meant, I think, for a highball. It was filled with a red liquid. “Drink, Stevelah,” he said, while the other adults in the family—my parents and all my aunts and uncles and a few grandparents—watched and smiled. I trusted my Uncle Ted; I sipped, and spat the awful stuff out all over my plate. It was Manishewitz. The adults thought it was awfully funny. It is a wonder I ever drank wine again.

Back to the present: The Cliff House dinner was a smash if I do say so myself. Public speakers will understand it when I say that I found myself “in the zone.” I’m reading Lillian Hellman’s memoir “Pentimento” in which she describes how she could always tell, in live theater, whether the audience was enjoying themselves, or if she was losing them. Last night my audience really had a good time. I don’t drink when I’m working like that but nonetheless I get a contact high from the people who do. It then becomes a feedback loop where my excitement excites them and vice versa. The ultimate compliment is when lots of people come up to you afterwards and tell you how great you were, and how much they liked the wines, which really did show well, partly because they’re good anyway and partly because Chef did such a good job creating foods for them. I was invited to the bar by two couples and enjoyed my usual vodka gimlets while chatting with a guy who seemed to have some sort of U.S. security clearance to get into all sorts of classified places, but who also was wild about wine—and his wife was a confirmed Kendall Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay fan, so I told her she was in good company, as that wine has been America’s top-selling Chardonnay for 24 years and counting.

Well, this morning (Sunday) I’m still high from last night, although I shouldn’t be, because I just went through the hassle of driving down from Ogonquit back to Boston. Thank God for GPS and that eerily disembodied satellite lady who tells you exactly how to get where you want to go. At Logan, security wasn’t too bad, although United had yet another problem with their plane, which delayed our departure. By the time you read this on Monday, I will have been reunited with Gus and the thought of that makes me very, very happy.

 

XmasGus


Five Decades of Wine: The Arc of My Career, Part 7: I Go Over to “The Dark Side”

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Years ago, I had a dear friend with a good job. He was the wine columnist for a periodical with considerable influence in Wine Country. One day, he found himself unemployed, because the newspaper he wrote for was downsizing. He took a job doing P.R. for a winery.

He was very upset about it. “I’ve gone over to the Dark Side,” he explained confessionally, as if he’d done something wrong. He meant that, in our little industry, there’s a strong, longstanding perception that a writer who writes for an independent publication, like a newspaper or magazine, is more honest and straightforward than one who spends his days writing for a wine company.

I remember telling my unhappy friend, “Look. There’s no such thing as ‘the Dark Side.’ Wherever you work, and whatever you do, you do it with integrity and honesty. And remember this: Everyone’s got a boss. Like Dylan sang, you gotta serve somebody.”

I meant those words. I’ve worked with public relations, communications and marketing people for decades, and liked and respected the vast majority of them. They don’t “spin” any worse than a winemaker describing his or her wine, and they follow their own ethical principles. We have this belief in the wine industry that independent critics are “honest brokers” who can cut through the hype. That’s true, as far as it goes—but it only goes so far. The wine writer, no matter who he is, always walks a delicate balance, having to take many things into account. There are very few “fearless crusaders” among wine writers, who learn early on how to preserve their relationships, reputations and jobs by understanding where the red lines are, and respecting them.

So it was that, when I took my job at Jackson Family Wines and people made the “dark side” remark, I patiently explained to them that, no, I don’t see things that way. The way I see it is, I’m using the same muscles to do a different sport. In the world of martial arts, there’s much mixing up of different types of fighting: jujitsu, karate, muay Thai. I studied all of them; each is unique, and yet they all require the same skills (strength, speed, awareness). In the case of my career, I utilized my talents in research, writing, wine tasting and public speaking when I worked at wine magazines, and I use exactly the same skills in the things I do at JFW.

So what’s it been like for me? I took the job on March 10, 2014. It’s been a little more than a year now. I work with the company’s Marketing and Communications (MarComm) team, a bunch of smart, young pros whose skills run the gamut from social media to video, event planning and P.R. The kinds of things I do vary widely, and I work mainly from home, in Oakland. As I write these words, I’m in a plane somewhere over the Midwest, on my way to Boston, where tomorrow night (tonight as you read this) I’ll be hosting an Earth Day dinner focusing around issues of sustainability. Next week I’ll be pouring at the Sonoma Barrel Auction, and staging a wine tasting for some people, and reviewing wine for the company newsletter. So the stuff I do is all over the map.

I’ve enjoyed my year at JFW but things are going to be changing. Starting this summer, I’m beginning a new consulting phase. JFW will be my first client; I’m interested in others, provided the work is absorbing. I see this as the cresting of the arc of my career. I’m looking at turning seventy years old next year. While my health is fantastic, I’m thinking of a life beyond wine writing—taking things easier, slowing down a bit to smell the roses (or is it the coffee?). I’ve worked very hard for a great many years, and while I’ve enjoyed 95% of it, there’s also been a lot of stress—as there is in everyone’s life. But I’m just about the only member of my generation in my family who hasn’t retired, and the ones who have tell me the same thing. It’s fantastic, the best thing they’ve ever done. In fact, they’re all in agreement that they’re happier and busier than ever.

Well, I’m not retiring. Call it pre-retirement: I want to do interesting things that call on my talents. (I always liked JFK’s quote about the ancient Greek definition of happiness: “The full use of your powers along lines of excellence.”) But I also want more time for myself, to go to the gym, volunteer at the SPCA, take Gus on long walks, maybe even expand a social life that’s been on hold for too long because of the demands of the job. And I have a bucket list: learn how to bake bread. Study salsa dancing. Maybe even return to the painting I used to love.

And this blog? Well, I don’t know. It will soon be seven years old and, since I’ve already quoted Dylan, I might as well quote George Harrison: “All things must pass.” I haven’t decided whether or not to continue it. I’d like to hear from my readers: Do you still value reading me? Do I still have something to say, now that I’m no longer a F.W.C. (famous wine critic)? When the late, great San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen retired after more than fifty years, due to a deadly illness, he announced it one morning in a column and never published anything ever again. There’s something to be said about unprolonged exits.

 

 


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