Why did I finally quit Wine Enthusiast? Many people have asked me that question. After all, I had one of the top jobs in wine journalism and criticism. I had a good name in the industry, was liked and respected, and continued to enjoy my work. But there were things going on that few knew about, except my family and close friends.
For one, I’d been doing the same thing for 25 years, at Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. And the truth is, when you do the same job for that long—even a job you like—you find yourself thinking about alternatives. I wasn’t getting any younger. The twilight of my career was getting closer every day. I wasn’t quite ready to retire, but I did feel—as I’d been telling my friends for several years—that I was sure Life had one final adventure in store for me, before I hung up my wine writing gi.
(A gi is a martial arts uniform. I’d earlier retired from karatedo, after years of serious practice. When I did, I put away my gi, with its embroidered black belt I had made for me in Japan. So I had a feeling for retirement.)
But what that final adventure was, I had no idea. I just felt in my bones that it was out there. And I’m a person who’s crammed several lifetimes into one, in terms of all the times I’ve reinvented myself.
I thought a little about making some extra money through my blog. After all, it was quite popular. Lots of people seemed to like it: why not try to leverage that popularity? But to make a long story short, it proved not to be possible. Lots of wine bloggers were thinking along the same lines. Advertising? Subscriptions? Some other form of revenue? Alas, nothing was realistic. (One popular wine blogger told me his financial ambition was to sell his blog to Rupert Murdoch for $1 million. It hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t think it ever will.) The truth is, monetizing a blog has been next to impossible for anyone except the likes of Jancis Robinson, who has a worldwide audience.
And the Wine Enthusiast job was getting, well, let’s call it déja-vu. It’s November? Time for another “What wine to drink at Thanksgiving?” column. Summer? Time for another “Fresh, crisp whites to drink by the pool.” Winter? “Zinfandel: the perfect wine for hearty stews,” for the umpteenth time. There was the ever-constant demand from New York to discover fresh faces, celebrity winemakers, offbeat destinations, hot new mixologists, top new somms. In coastal California—my beat—I found myself writing more or less the same articles, on a four- or five-year cycle. (Of course, I still got off, enormously, on reviewing wines. The pleasure of doing that hadn’t run out after 25 years—and still hasn’t.
So I didn’t particularly feel “burned out”, and I think that would not be a fair characterization. It’s just that the template of wine magazine writing had, after so many years, run into its own self-imposed limits. And I can tell you, without mentioning names, that I’ve had this conversation with other well-known wine writers of my age cohort, and they experience the same Groundhog Day sense of déja-vu.
So I was ready for a change. Once again, I didn’t know what it was, or how it would present itself, or when. I just knew, in an intuitive way, that something was out there, lurking just beyond the horizon, and that it would be an exciting new step in my career. And, as things turned out, that’s exactly what happened in the late winter of 2014. I’ll write about it next time.
I’d heard of wine blogs by the mid-2000s, although I can’t say I read them with regularity. Tom Wark’s Fermentation already was famous (and I’d known and respected Tom for a long time), and a few others were up and coming. By 2007, Adam Strum, at Wine Enthusiast, had told us editors he wanted to develop the magazine’s website (he was enough of a visionary to see that online was going to be very big), and as part of that, he wanted some of us, including me, to blog.
But a year came and went and nothing happened. I think the magazine experienced technical issues with software and hardware. Whatever the problem was, all I knew was that I’d developed an appetite for blogging—only I wasn’t blogging.
So I started my own blog. I didn’t quite know what I wanted steveheimoff.com to be, and indeed, its style has changed over the years. What I did know was that I wanted a place to write, be published—and be read—that was entirely under my own control.
When you write for an editor or publisher, that person has the ultimate control. It’s true at wine magazines, and even with my U.C. Press books, it was true to a certain extent. “A Wine Journey along the Russian River” was the closest I’d ever come to writing in my own voice. But that was a one-off. I wanted to do it regularly, and blogging gave me that opportunity, or so I thought.
I began on May 10, 2008. My blog quickly became well-known. Tom Wark gave it an early, good review. It eventually came to be nominated multiple times for American Wine Blog awards, although I never did win. Blogging undoubtedly boosted my image—more on this later. But it also had the unfortunate result of plunging me directly into the politics and wars of social media.
I didn’t understand, at first, what I was getting into. That all changed in the summer of 2008, barely two months after I began blogging. I’d started noticing all these reviews for the same wine—Rodney Strong’s Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon—popping up on various blogs. I thought that was strange. Coincidence? Then I found out that Rodney Strong’s brilliant P.R. guy, Robert Larsen, had staged a sort of coup: He’d promised bloggers to let them review the Rockaway—and only them, because he wasn’t sending it to established print critics, like me. The only thing the bloggers had to do was promise to write about the wine. Robert didn’t ask them to guarantee good reviews—although I suspect he figured they would be good, because Rockaway is a good wine. So that’s why I was seeing all these Rockaway reviews.
This is the post I wrote about it that summer of ’08. It got me into a hell of a mess with my fellow bloggers. I think the word “manipulate” was particularly infuriating to them. Before long, a few bloggers were writing pieces like “Does Heimoff hate social media?” and accusing me of all sorts of nefarious stuff, including trading sexual favors for high scores!!!!
This opened my eyes to the dark side of social media. Last week, I referred to the camaraderie that marked our wine writing circle in the 1990s. Unfortunately, by 2008, that spirit of friendliness seemed to have evaporated. Younger bloggers were accusing older writers of being faded dinosaurs who were paranoid of losing their jobs as print journalism died. It’s true that print, in the years 2008-2010, was in trouble, but it wasn’t because of social media. It was because the Great Recession robbed it of its chief source of revenue, advertising! Much of blogging descended into silliness, enabled by the fact that the very simplicity of hitting that “publish” button makes it hard for a writer to contemplate what he’s written and form a sound judgment about whether he really wants the world to read it.
The Rockaway situation was a sad one, from my point of view, but I rolled with the punches. I admit to enjoying a little bit of a tussle now and then—I’m from the South Bronx, and you learn how to defend yourself on those mean streets. I never took it personally. Social media had become the poster child for uncharitable, false and bombastic statements, although today, the wine blogosphere has become a much more civil place.
Adam, at Wine Enthusiast, also had problems with my blog. He read it every morning, and told me how much he liked it. But every once in a while, I’d write something that irked him, and then the shit would hit the fan. I never knew in advance what would push his buttons, although as time went on, I found myself holding back a little if the topic was something I thought he’d find sensitive. (I was self-censoring myself.) The way I viewed it, the added fame I got from having a successful blog redounded favorably to Wine Enthusiast—an appraisal with which everyone I knew in the wine industry agreed. In other words, my blog was good for both of us: my brand, and Wine Enthusiast’s brand. The way Adam saw it, my blog competed with Wine Enthusiast, in some way I never could fathom. Adam let it be known on several occasions that he strongly wished I would stop blogging. I never gave in, because I knew I was right, and I think Adam eventually came to soften his feelings.
Looking back on it all, I can see that these various situations—the Rockaway furor and the Enthusiast tempest—were symptomatic of a broader phenomenon concerning social media. It upset many traditional apple carts. Social media changed the way mass communication happens in America, and whenever something as big as that is forced to undergo change, there’s misunderstanding and turmoil, as the paradigm shifts.
At any rate, blogging gave me a taste for something beyond Wine Enthusiast. I’d stored up a lot of investment in the magazine; I wasn’t actively seeking to leave. But I wasn’t seeking not to. I’ll talk more about this tomorrow.
Part Four: The Wine Enthusiast Years
My career really took off when I joined Wine Enthusiast. No longer just second (or third) fiddle, as I’d been at Wine Spectator, but the California guy. To tell you the truth, though, it was several years before I was allowed to review wine. Back in those days, Adam had a third-party organization, the Beverage Tasting Institute (BTI), which I believe was in Chicago. They tasted the samples and wrote the reviews that appeared in the Buying Guide.
I never knew very much about BTI, which seemed like a secretive organization. I didn’t understand how they worked. I knew (or thought) that they charged money for each review. I didn’t know who the tasters were, or if they had any qualifications. I know that, by 1995 or 1996, I felt ready to do my own reviews of California wines, rather than farm them out. I don’t recall the exact timetable, but I remember trying to convince Adam to let me (and Enthusiast’s other freelancers) do the magazine’s reviews. Finally, he assented. This would have been around 1997.
One of my earliest and most passionate goals, when I got to Wine Enthusiast, was to upgrade the magazine’s reputation in California, which wasn’t very good, to be honest. Compared to Wine Spectator—well, actually, no one compared it to Spectator, which stood alone at the apex of wine journalism. People didn’t understand the BTI thing (it must have seemed ridiculous to California winemakers), and the magazine itself was very much a work in progress, artistically and editorially. Hence, Wine Enthusiast didn’t have much clout.
I set out to change that. Believing that the magazine’s credibility was inextricably linked to my own, in my travels up and down the state I worked very hard to come across as professional, hoping and assuming that aura of competence would spill over to the magazine, in a sort of halo effect. And that’s exactly what happened. By the turn of the new century, Wine Enthusiast was firmly established as a force to be reckoned with, especially in California. I take pride in having helped to achieve that.
I took my wine tasting extremely seriously. And I also worked very hard on the other parts of my job: the articles and columns. My library of wine books helped me enormously in this regard. I’ve always loved good writing, and I developed a style, partly influenced by other writers, that I felt was lucid, elegant and informed. Over the years I never stopped paring down the fluff. At a certain point, I abandoned the use of exotic flavor descriptions (loganberries, for example), because I, like most other people, wouldn’t know a loganberry if it walked up to me and slapped me across the face. “Simplify, simplify,” urged Thoreau. I took his advice.
The wine-sample spigot opened up with tsunami force, but it never got to the point where I was overwhelmed. My attitude towards samples was, “If you send it to me, I will review it.” I was, as far as I know, the only prominent critic who reviewed every single bottle I was sent. (In recent years, this issue has exploded in controversy, with some critics taking a rather blasé attitude concerning reviewing. I always felt that wineries weren’t sending me their samples just for the hell of it. It was to get the wines reviewed, and I was honor-bound to do it.)
Sometimes there were periods of incredible quantities of incoming, so much that I could barely keep up; the storage closet I rented in the local UPS store was on occasion filled to the ceiling with dozens of cases of wine waiting to be reviewed. But then, incoming would grind to a halt (often during the summer months and around the holidays), and I could catch up. Over the years, I averaged 15 wines a day—not a great deal, when you consider the volumes some other critics claim to review.
Tasting all that wine did impact my work in an important way: I had less time to hit the road. I liked traveling, but if you do the math, you can see that a week away from home would result in 7 x 15 wines (105) unreviewed for that week—with more wine coming in every day. So I was forced to do more and more of my work using the telephone and, as computers became more ubiquitous, using online methods. This gave me more time to taste wine (which I think was the primary part of my job), but I didn’t like the loss of travel time. I didn’t see any solution to that quandary—never did fully manage to resolve it.
Since Wine Enthusiast was in New York (Westchester County), I only got there once or twice a year. But we had a tight-knit staff, and it kind of felt like family. That implies the good and the bad! I never saw a family (including mine) where people didn’t occasionally get into scuffles. We certainly did—and my relationship with Adam himself could be testy, both of us being more or less cut from the same cloth. But he put up with me for a long time, and I put up with him, and we also had many good moments. I always wished Adam would relax a little more and just be himself, instead of fancying that he had to be this great corporate leader who used intimidation to remind people who was Boss. But I loved Adam nonetheless in my own way and I think he loved me.
By the mid-2000s my career was at its peak. In 2002, Blake Edgar, the great acquisitions editor for University of California Press, had invited me to write a book for him. The topic: Anything I wanted. It was pretty unbelievable, because I’d previously tried, and failed, to get a publishing contrast with any major publisher. And now, here’s Blake, giving me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted on the topic of wine. Was I interested, he asked?
Reprise Duh #4. Do bears defecate in the wood?
That first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, was published in 2005. I loved that book and still do. I always called it “the terroir of Steve.” I even did my own black-and-white photographs, because U.C. Press couldn’t afford to hire a real photographer! I had told Blake I wanted to write a wine book that would be read 100 years from now, not one of those books that has about 15 seconds of fame before it disappears into the remainders bin. And that’s what I think I did—I’ll let others be the judge.
Three years later, in 2008, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff, was published by U.C. Press. I think it’s a good book, and will stand the test of time because of its historical record, but it’s not in the same league as “A Wine Journey.”
After “Conversations” I met with Blake to discuss a third book, but something intervened to kill that idea. I began blogging in May, 2008. I published a 600-word post five times a week, and as things turned out, that was the word-count equivalent of ten full-length books over the years. So my blog made me sacrifice more book writing, but I didn’t care. Blogging was one of the joys of my life. I’ll write about that next time.
Part Three: The 1990s
You know that story about the Broadway understudy who gets his big break when the star falls ill and he has to stand in? That’s what happened to me one day, when Jim Gordon called and told me Harvey Steiman, who was supposed to write about an event in Napa Valley, was sick. Could I cover for him?
The event was a three-day symposium at Meadowood on Rhone varieties. It was to be attended by all the “Rhone Rangers” of California and their French counterparts. Wine Spectator had planned on giving it major coverage. Could I make it, Jim asked.
Reprise Duh #3. Do bears defecate in the wood?
I worked hard on that event. I knew I had to knock the article out of the park—and I did. I attended every technical session, interviewed everybody, and even hid myself in a stall in the men’s room so I could overhear a conversation that Randall Grahm and Marcel Guigal (I think it was) were having at the urinals. When I turned that story in, four days later, Jim told me everybody at the magazine thought it was great. That story cemented my reputation at the magazine. That summer, I had three major stories in the magazine. Somebody called it the Heimoff issue.
I enoyed my time at Spectator very much. I was never a regular employee, just a freelancer, but it was pretty much a fulltime job. I traveled a lot, setting the pattern for roaming the wine regions of California, everywhere from Santa Barbara through Napa and Sonoma, on over to the Sierra Foothills. They even sent me up to Washington State. I got to know most of the winemakers and owners, not to mention the other denizens of the industry: P.R. folks, business analysts, and, as I’ve already pointed out, collectors. It was major saturation in the inner workings of wine industry, and I quickly learned what parts of it I liked and what parts I didn’t. I early on gravitated towards an interest in the communications side: writing, marketing, P.R. I found I had a natural ability to understand the sales part. As for the technical stuff, like rootstocks, trellising, crushers and fermenters, that never did much interest me. I learned as much as I had to, in order to write intelligently. But after a while, I started feeling like, “If you’ve seen one bottling line, you’ve seen them all.” I still feel that way.
But tasting wine remained my firmament. I not only enjoyed it immensely, I had a talent for it. I developed and refined my tasting practices at home, but at Wine Spectator, I still wasn’t formally permitted to review wine. I remember I sneaked in a review, with a rating, in an article I wrote (the wine had not yet been reviewed by anyone at Spectator), and I was fully ready for Jim Gordon to delete it. But lo and behold, when I got my copy of that issue, there it was: my review and score! I suspect it somehow escaped Jim’s notice, but I don’t really know.
My articles got bigger and bigger. Back in the early 1990s, Wine Spectator was doing a lot of profiles of individual wineries (they do far fewer these days, to the chagrin of P.R. types). Some of my first assignments were feature stories on Flora Springs, Calera, Wild Horse and Chateau Potelle. It was great getting to know these people: The Garveys and Komes, Josh Jensen, Ken Volk, and the inimitable Du Sartels, Marketta and Jean-Noel, whom they called Johnny Christmas. I was learning like a sponge, building up my knowledge base of California wine and terroir, even as my exposure to non-California wines slipped, an inevitable by-product of regional concentration. But I went to every tasting of France, Italy, Spain and Germany I could in San Francisco—and there were a lot of them.
I also made friends with the other Bay Area wine writers and critics, some of whom are no longer with us. We were a friendly, comradely group. The thing to keep in mind about the wine writing community is that it is insanely passionate about what it does, and also, that nobody gets rich from wine writing. For a while, I tried to form a professional organization I called the Northern California Wine Critics Circle, the NCWCC. I pitched it to all my writer friends, but it never did get off the ground. I envisioned us getting together at fine venues, like a restaurant private room, and roasting each other (I wanted to start with Dan Berger). I still think it would be a good idea.
With my increasing visibility at Wine Spectator came a certain amount of fame. I hadn’t been looking for it, and was surprised when it came. I never took it personally. I knew from day one that the only reason people invited me to things, and were deferential towards me, was because of my job. This became even more pronounced when, later, I went to Wine Enthusiast, and was actually able to review and score wines. I always knew that the second I left those jobs the phone would stop ringing. This gave me, I think, a healthy attitude about my work. Some wine critics who become famous get reputations for bloated egoism and pomposity. I always liked to think my reputation was more along the lines of “Hey, he’s a nice guy, he’s fair, and he’s not filled with himself.”
But with that increasing fame came other opportunities to write for publications besides Wine Spectator. By 1992, lots of publishers were asking me to write for them. The wine media was expanding, with the good national economy and the Baby Boomers maturing and finally having enough money to buy fine wine. But I felt honor bound to pass along these requests for other writing jobs to Jim Gordon, who would let Marvin Shanken know what was going on. This led to the first big brouhaha of my professional wine writing career. Marvin, it turned out, was a jealous god—he did not want his “discovery” to write about wine for anyone else. In the world. This led to a little chat I had with Marvin, who had flown out for the Napa auction. I explained to him that I wasn’t exactly getting rich from writing for him, and that, as a freelancer, I would appreciate the opportunity to write for others. He wasn’t buying it. A few days later, after the Spectator crew returned to New York (they’d previously left their San Francisco headquarters for Manhattan), I got a letter from Jim Gordon. It said, “We all feel you’re a great wine writer, with a great future ahead of you. Only it’s not at Wine Spectator.” It turned out, I’d pushed Marvin a little too hard. He felt (Jim explained) that since he’d discovered me and created my fame, he owned me—and he didn’t want me working for anyone in a position to compete with Wine Spectator.
That was a disappointment, but at the same time, I felt like a slave on a plantation, and I didn’t like the feeling. As soon as I got that letter from Jim, I telephoned Mr. Adam Strum, who’d started up Wine Enthusiast magazine to compete with the Spectator. Adam jumped at the chance to bring me onboard. That was in 1993, I think, and in the next chapter of this memoir, I’ll review my Wine Enthusiast days.
Part Two: The 1980s and early 1990s
Finally, after about three months of my lobbying efforts to land a job at Wine Spectator, Jim Gordon called me up with my first assignment. “It’s very simple,” he explained. “Just give Tom Eddy a call. He left his job at Christian Brothers to start his own winery. Interview him over the phone, then give me 50 words. Think you can handle it?
Duh. Do bears defecate in the woods?
I should explain here what the atmosphere surrounding wine writing was like in 1989. There were very, very few opportunities, because there were very few magazines or newspapers that covered wine seriously. But it wasn’t like everyone was clamoring to be a paid wine writer, the way they are now. Young people wanted to be MBAs. That was the unhealthy part of Ronald Reagan’s legacy, an emphasis on getting rich fast. I certainly didn’t want to be an MBA. I was living in Noe Valley, and every morning took the MUNI Metro out to S.F. State, on 19th Avenue. Standing on the nearly deserted outbound platform, I’d look across the tracks to the inbound side, jammed with hundreds of commuters who all looked the same: Men and women, dressed in Financial District drag, carrying their little briefcases and looking like—well, like those legions of robot IBM salesmen in that famous Apple commercial that aired once on the 1984 Super Bowl and was never shown again. I must admit I felt a little superior to them, and vowed never, ever to be part of the lemming herd.
I guess I did okay on that Tom Eddy article, because afterwards, Jim started giving me regular assignments. They were little ones, just phone interviews. One day he invited me to lunch, just him and Kim Marcus. We went (as I recall) to a little Chinese joint not far from their offices. I had the feeling they wanted to meet me in person, eyeball me up close and see if I was Wine Spectator material. I suppose I was, for at that lunch, they mentioned that there was this section in the Spectator called The Collecting Page. It was on the last page of every issue, a regular feature. Problem was, nobody wanted to write it. Was I interested?
Reprise Duh. Do bears defecate in the woods?
That Collecting Page was quite an adventure. It got me in touch with just about every serious wine collector in the country. These were rich white guys who all wanted to be quoted in the august pages of the nation’s premier wine magazine. It was one way they could out-testosterone their fellow collectors. Anyone with enough money can buy Petrus—but not everyone can land on The Collecting Page!
Segue. This brings up the memory of the L.A. lawyer for various rock and roll clients. He lived up in the Hollywood Hills, on Mulholland, and Jim gave me the assignment of doing a big story on him. I drove down to L.A. and found his house. Just as I was arriving, a UPS truck was unloading case after case of the then-cult favorites: Petrus, Dunn Howell Mountain, Opus One, Latour.
I tried to make small talk. “Looks like you’re into the good stuff,” I said, as I mentally tried to add up what it had all cost him.
“That?” he sniffed, nodding towards his newly acquired treasures. “Nah, I don’t even like that stuff.”
“I don’t understand…”
“Look,” he said. “I have a tasting group with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. They invite me over and serve ’67 Petrus, so I have to piss further and invite them here for ’64 Petrus.” He was buying wines he didn’t like, just to show off to his friends.
“So what do you like?” I asked.
“Ahh!” he said. “Let me show you.” And he led me to his back yard, where he’d dug a wine cave out in the hill. It was just a bunch of rickety wooden compartments, but the temperature was cool, so it was good storage. Rummaging through his bottles, he yanked one out and showed it to me. It was a Petite Sirah, from (I think) San Benito County, the product of a then-defunct winery I’d never heard of.
“What do you like about this?” I asked him.
“I like it,” the lawyer replied, “because Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner can’t get it!”
That episode, plus numerous others involving these bigtime collectors, taught me some valuable lessons about that side of the wine community. I realize then the arrogance and hubris that can characterize it—an arrogance that creates the lust for “cult wines” whose prices bear no relation whatsoever to their quality. This realization on my part stayed with me later, when I turned into an actual, fulltime wine writer and critic. It informed my sensibilities and gave me a certain prejudice against the high-end part of the business, a sensibility I carry with me to this day. It also gave me sympathy for inexpensive wines and for the people who drink them. This, too, is a sensibility I carry to this day, and it put me in good stead when, in 1993, I went to work for Wine Enthusiast. But once again, we’re getting ahead of the story.
Part One: The 1970 and 1980s
I boarded a plane during a blizzard at Boston Logan in December, 1978, and, six hours later, stepped into the bright, T-shirt warmth of SFO sunshine, where my cousins were waiting for me.
I was to live with them in Benicia, as I readied myself to go to graduate school. My goal was to be a psychotherapist. That, I thought, would combine my interests in philosophy and human nature, and also allow me to be self-employed, as it were: I seldom do my best work as a team member. That’s why my athletic pursuits have always been solitary ones: competitive running and karate.
The psychotherapy part, alas, didn’t work out. I visited the campus one day before the semester began (John F. Kennedy University, in Orinda), for a meeting with my new Dean. When I couldn’t find his office, I asked a student, who promptly inspected my palm and told me I had a good lifeline. When I found the dean’s trailer, he invited me in. He had an Indian name, Hatha S.___, but somehow didn’t seem Indian. When I asked him where he was from and he said, “The Bronx,” I laughed. “I am, too! What neighborhood?”
But Dean Hatha would have none of it. He explained that he’d left his past far behind when he’d changed his Jewish name, and preferred not to relive it.
Well, those two experiences were enough for me. I’d borrowed $30,000 to get a degree from JFKU, which now seemed to me to be living a loony tunes existence. That, plus the fact that every waiter and carpenter I’d met in San Francisco had a degree in psychotherapy, made me realize that I didn’t want to be the ten thousandth unemployed, heavily indebted therapist in the Bay Area. So I informed JFKU that I would not be attending after all, and set out to discover what else I could do, now that I was a bona fide Californian.
But that’s getting ahead of the story. Meanwhile, my cousin Maxine, with whom I’d more or less grown up in New York, set out on that first day to the local Benicia Safeway, where she and her partner, Keith, picked up some steaks to barbecue in the back yard. (Toto, I don’t think we’re in Boston anymore, I reflected: barbecue in late December!) After she’d loaded the shopping cart up with steaks, potatoes and sourdough baguettes, she wheeled it into the wine aisle. I trod dutifully alongside.
Picking up one bottle of red wine after another, she studied the front and back labels, reading them with a scrutiny I didn’t understand. Finally, after the sixth bottle, I asked Maxine, “What are you doing? Just grab one. They’re all the same.”
Big mistake. Maxine gave me one of her infamous looks I call Schoolmarm’s Raised Eyebrow. It’s a combination of scold and amazement. She said, “You don’t just grab a bottle of wine. You think about it.”
Well, that made about as much sense as if she’d said, “You don’t just grab a bottle of ketchup.” Why not? What’s different about wine? Isn’t it just like any other food you consume?
As it turned out, the answer is No. But in that moment, in the wine aisle of the Benicia Safeway, something happened to me that I later called “Getting bitten by the wine bug.” Years later, when I was at Wine Spectator, I wrote an article about it, interviewing numerous psychoanalysts and therapists I’d met through the magazine, all of whom were wine collectors. What is this “wine bug” thing?, I wanted to know.
Today, I remember nothing of what they said, except for one—a famous collector from Marin—who mumbled something about being anally retentive. So I can’t really explain what happened that day in Benicia. Whatever it was, it seized me by the collar and never let go. Within weeks I became a wine fanatic. I bought all those little pocket guides (Bob Thompson’s and Charlie Olken’s were my favorites), and began visiting wine shops. A year later (1979) I moved to San Francisco, to a hideous, unheated little apartment just below Top of the Hill Daly City, and there, the patterns of the rest of my life were established. Among them was the wine craze. I was working fulltime, going to grad school (at S.F. State) fulltime, trying to get to the gym every day, volunteering for the first AIDS assistance group, Shanti Project, and attempting to maintain a social life and a live-in relationship. But somehow, I managed to squeeze in plenty of wine stuff. I joined the old Les Amis du Vin and was asked to lead the San Francisco chapter (which I declined). And every weekend, while my friends were flying kites on Marina Green or sunbathing at Dolores Park, I was hitting up every major wine shop in town. I’d start in the east, at Draper & Esquin on Montgomery Street, then head out to the Avenues. Inbetween were the Jug Shop, down on Polk, Hennessey’s, in Upper Market, Ashbury Market, and the old Liquor Barn, on Bayshore in the south. I can’t even remember the others. In each store, I’d pick the brains of whoever I could find: Why does this Cabernet Sauvignon cost $4 while this one is $14? How are they different?
And I read, read, read. I began assembling my wine library, which today numbers hundreds of books. My favorite at the time was Alexis Lichine’s Encyclopedia. I devoured it. I crammed in trips to Napa Valley and the Russian River Valley when I could. Meanwhile, I got my M.A. from S.F. State, got my first “real” job running the Career Center at the California College of Arts and Crafts, in Oakland, moved to that great, crazy city to avoid the commute across the Bay Bridge, ended a relationship, and began a new life, while the wine bug continued to bite me deeper and deeper. I’d subscribed to Wine Spectator since the early 1980s, when it was a tabloid published out of its San Francisco offices, at Opera Plaza on Van Ness. One day in 1989, I sent them my resume. I was still running the Career Center at the College, but it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. What I wanted to do was be a wine writer. I pestered the Spectator’s editor, Jim Gordon, so much that I eventually told him, “One of two things is going to happen. Either you’ll hire me, or you’ll have me arrested for harassment.” In the event, it was the former that turned out to be true. But that’s the subject of tomorrow’s post.
It’s lovely to remind people, as Randy Caparoso does in the April issue of The Tasting Panel magazine, that it’s not right to evaluate wines “in terms of varietal character rather than terroir or origin.”
What brought Randy to this evaluation was a tasting of Pinot Noirs. He’d encountered a 2013 Failla (Occidental Ridge Sonoma Coast) which he found to have “a dead weight on the palate.” This is not a favorable description.
But the more Randy thought about it, the more he realized that the Failla was a true representative of where it came from: “a deep, foggy pocket of Sonoma” whose cool climate yields wines that are hard and tannic when young. That made him reconsider it, as well as other wines he tasted: A Merry Edwards 2012 Meredith Estate (similarly cool climate Russian River Valley), and an Adelaida 2012 from Paso Robles, from a cool, high elevation vineyard in the western part of the appellation. What Randy realized, mirabile dictu, is the importance of appreciating these wines “within their own context… [When you do], it’s amazing how bright and diverse the wine world turns out to be.”
Thank you, Randy. I’ve been making this case for many years: that you can’t ask all Pinot Noirs to conform to your notion (whatever it is) of Pinot Noir perfection, because to do so is to totally trash the notion of terroir that is the basis for all Pinot Noir interpretation. Pinot likes a cool climate, but The Green Valley of the Russian River Valley is not the same as a 2,000-foot elevation Mendocino Ridge vineyard, high above the fogline, or western Paso Robles. Although all three regions are cool climate, they will yield different kinds of Pinot Noirs. It’s simply wrong to denigrate one at the expense of the other—provided they’re all fine examples of their terroir.
How do you know if they are or aren’t “fine examples of their terroir”? Well, that’s the professional task of a wine reviewer. A pro should be able to discern quality in a wine, even if it’s not a wine he savors. Too often in contemporary wine reviewing, we have a situation in which a reviewer (or somm, or whoever it may be) raves about a wine that’s to his liking, and disparages those that are not. In so doing, he does away with terroir’s fundamental premise: that of individuality.
I love Randy’s take on this delicate topic, but it does have to be said that there’s a risk in tasting every wine “within its own context.” And that is—you probably guessed it by now—that this is a slippery slope. Since every wine exists “within its own context,” how do you ascertain that one is better than another. After all, aren’t all contexts equal?
Well, no, they’re not. Any wine pro knows that quality levels vary dramatically in wines. So how is the pro to distinguish between a wine that really is mediocre, versus one that (as with Randy’s Failla) is “aggressive” in tannins and “plop[s] like a dead weight on the palate”?
This is an extraordinarily important question. Although Randy (by his own admission) doesn’t like numerical scores, I had the feeling that, had he rated the Failla, he would have given it somewhere around 86 points and complained that it wasn’t “a little finer, limber, more lifted and delineated,” like a Baxter 2012 Valenti Vineyard he tasted, from Mendocino Ridge. But—and this is the whole point of his column–when he understood its origin, he was willing to give the wine a second chance.
I’ve long argued that blind tasting is the only way to completely eliminate bias—and Randy’s palate did exhibit a certain bias towards “more lifted and delineated” Pinot Noirs, whatever that means. So how does he intellectually justify re-assessing a wine when he knows where it comes from?
This is the conundrum all reviewers face. But although it seems almost impossible to resolve it, it’s actually not. Even when tasting blind, the reviewer has to ask himself, “Is this actually quite a good wine that displays the qualities of its terroir, even if they’re qualities I don’t like or understand? Or is it actually mediocre?” This can be a hard nut to crack, but it is crackable. One way to approach it is to ask yourself another question: “Is it ageable?” Young Pinot Noirs, especially from cooler regions, can be aggressive and hard in youth. When you’re tasting such a wine, you have to imagine it six years down the road. (I use six years because in my experience that’s the turning point for most Pinots that are resistant upon release. A good one will open up at six years, whereas a mediocre one will simply remain mediocre.)
Randy’s column is one of the most interesting op-ed pieces I’ve read lately (you can find the digital edition of The Tasting Panel here, although you might have to scroll through to page 26). It raises questions of profound importance. I’m so glad that Randy has widened the scope of how we perceive Pinot Noir here in California—a scope that’s been unreasonably narrowing lately due to ideological concerns among some critics.