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Remembering Eugene, who died thirty years ago

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I met Eugene in a Folsom Street bar in the Spring of 1982. We did it that night, which wasn’t unusual for the place and time. What was different was that we wanted to see each other again.

Our first proper date was at a club on Upper Market, just northeast of Castro Street. It was a classy, retro joint, out of Hammett: up a flight of stairs, with soft music, dim lights, thick carpets, mirrors and a big long bar. We sat at a little table and had beers. A lot of beers. And talked and talked. And then we went back to my place.

Later, in bed, very late at night, Eugene asked me to tell him a story. I always liked that aspect of him. Although he was seven years older than me, he had a childlike quality of innocence, although he certainly wasn’t naïve. Cousin Maxine called him “the nicest man in the world.” He was polite, laughed easily and happily, adored his friends, and was, mirabile dictu, sane. After we’d lived together, in Bernal Heights, for some years, his rheumatoid arthritis, which he’d had all his life, grew worse, and he began taking Percodan for the pain. The pills made him grouchy, never to me, but toward his tormented body. His job didn’t help: he was a “speedy,” a Special Delivery driver for the U.S. Postal Service. For eight hours a day he lugged 40-pound gift boxes of Hawaiian pineapples and other heavy crates up front-door stoops and it took its toll.

Our work hours were opposite to each other, which limited our time together, but we managed to do a lot. There was a Chinese restaurant on Mission that served, oddly, pesto pizza which we loved. We’d drive out to Ocean Beach and take walks in the dunes, or go to the movies, or visit his friend, Barbara, whom he called Babs, in her little flat on Telegraph Hill, and hear about her latest affair. We went to Yosemite a couple times, and once to Waikiki, and one time to South Tahoe, where my father’s cousin, the late comedienne Joan Rivers, invited us to her show in a casino and received us backstage. Eugene’s folks lived in a trailer park in Calistoga, and we’d drive up there too.

Eugene had the sweetest relationship with them. He loved his stepmom but his biological dad had a special place in his heart. His dad was already in his eighties and physically shrunken so that he had an elfin quality. Eugene would walk down the sidewalk in front of their trailer park on a hot summer day and his dad would race ahead and hide behind a tree and “scare” Eugene at the last moment. Eugene loved that; it cracked him up.

After five years I got a job in Oakland and moved there. The relationship never actually ended, it just sort of slowed down. We remained friends. One day, in 1991, his friend Calder called to say Eugene had died. Something to do with his lungs, due to the rheumatoid arthritis, I was told. To this day I keep his photo on the bookcase in my living room. Together with Gus, my late dog, Eugene was one of the two living beings that loved me most in my adult life, and whom I loved.

Oh, the story I told Eugene? It was about a monkey king. It was improvised, which a proper story should be. Eugene held me tight at the end and kissed me.


New reviews: 7 wines from Nick Goldschmidt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Michelin 3-stars, with paper plates

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The day had finally arrived.

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

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

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

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

“You’re driving where?  For what?”

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

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

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

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

Hours: 4 p.m. – midnight.

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

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

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

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

“Uh-hem,” I politely coughed.

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

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

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

“We have something available in March.”

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

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

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

“Impossible.” His adamant tone brooked no appeal.

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

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

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

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

He glanced down at the unseen reservation book.

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

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

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

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


The ugly truth about evangelicals

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The Kaiser Family Foundation took a poll of Americans about getting the COVID shot. The lowest percentage of those who said they would never, ever get vaccinated was Democrats (less than 2%) and Americans over 65 (8%). The highest percentage? Rural residents (24%), Republicans (23%) and white evangelical Christians (22%). Never in a thousand years, they insisted, would they get inoculated…and these three categories are, of course, actually a single category: white evangelicals who live in rural areas and consistently vote Republican.

They tend to believe what their preachers say more than what science and the news say (unless the “news” is from Fox), which is why President Biden has been leaning so heavily on “local ministers and preachers” to convince “MAGA folks…to get that vaccine.” Sadly, that well-meaning tactic isn’t working. “If I put forth effort to push [the vaccine], I’d be wasting my breath,” Nathan White, a pastor at the late Jerry Falwell’s church, Liberty Baptist, told Politico.

So indoctrinated have White’s rural parishioners become by decades of evangelical propaganda that they no longer have the capacity to think straight. These are the people who believe the Rapture is at hand. In many cases, Rev. White’s churchgoers are the same ones who sat in the same pews when Falwell told them, “Christians, like slaves and soldiers, ask no questions.”

This is the same Falwell who told them Sept. 11 was caused by “the abortionists, feminists and gays.” The credulous evangelicals who listened to him believed every word of it, not because they didn’t possess God-given brains, but because they chose not to use those brains. They chose to be good Christians and “ask no questions.”

A few evangelical leaders have had the courage to stand up to their colleagues and urge churchgoers to get inoculated. Two of them, Curtis Chang and Kris Carter, recently published an op-ed in the New York Times in which they blamed “conspiracy movements such as QAnon and antivaccine campaigns” for stirring up “outright fear and hostility” toward science. Chang and Carter referred to the widespread evangelical belief that “the vaccines contain a microchip or that they are ‘the mark of the beast.” They begged “local churches and individual Christians [to] take the lead in convincing fellow evangelicals to get vaccinated.”

But their words are falling on deaf ears.

There’s one word that hasn’t yet arisen in this conversation: Trump. The same white, rural evangelical Republicans who won’t get a COVID shot because it’s the mark of the beast are the ones who voted for Trump. They continue to love and support him, even though his entire life stands in violent contradiction to the Christian values and morals they profess to cherish. Frankly, it’s no use preaching facts or science to them. It’s pointless to argue with them. They’re a lost cause. Certainly, many of them are about to succumb to COVID and its variants, but even when they’re sick and in hospital, on ventilators, they will clutch their Bibles and look forward to seeing Jesus in Heaven, and bless Him for killing them; and they will never accept that their deaths are, in reality, suicides.


Newsom is correct on homelessness. His Republican opponents are dead wrong

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Sometimes, it’s hard being a Democrat these days, if you support the police and want homeless encampments, with their garbage and filth, cleaned up.

The Democratic Party somehow has gotten saddled with being the defund-the-police party, and also the party that refuses to get serious about encampments. Regarding the former, it’s astonishing to me that the Democratic Party should be so associated with anti-police extremists. Supporting the police has always been a bipartisan effort in America; Republicans and Democrats alike believed in strong policing to protect the citizenry from crime. Sadly, with the rise of the “woke” or social-justice movement, bashing and defunding the police has become routine among some Democrats, and Republicans are making hay of it.

The encampment issue is trickier, but here, too, Democrats are on shaky ground. Increasing numbers of people dislike the filth and sordidness of encampments and want them cleaned up or cleared out. This doesn’t mean people don’t feel compassion for the homeless; but there are too many reports that many homeless people choose to live in the streets and parks, and there is a justified resentment that cities are apparently unable to roust them. Citizens see their government losing control of the streets, and they know this is a first step on the downward path.

Republican pollsters, who are very smart, know how to appeal to this resentment. This is why the two main Republican candidates running to replace Gavin Newsom as Governor of California both did the same thing in recent days: They outlined their plans for eliminating camps.

Of the two, Cox’s is by far the more severe: He says he would arrest people who refuse to leave camps when ordered to do so. Both his plan and that of Falconer seem, on the surface, harsher than the one proposed by Newsom, which is essentially to throw huge quantities at money to buy hotels, motels and other existing housing stock, or to erect new modular housing on vacant land.

Falconer’s plan and Cox’s, even more so, appeal to the fed-up-ness of the electorate. I understand that. I’m as fed up as anyone, and I probably have encampments a lot closer to my home than most of you do. At the same time, I recognize that this volatile issue won’t be solved by being emotional. Cox knows he can’t just arrest tens of thousands of homeless people. That doesn’t stop him from saying it, but it’s just cheap rhetoric. Falconer, too, knows that he will need money to pay for his proposal to offer alternative housing to homeless people; thanks to the Boise v. Martin ruling, municipalities can’t eject people from encampments without offering them a roof over their heads, however modest it may be. Falconer won’t, or can’t, say where the money will come from. Newsom already has: from COVID relief funds and from California’s remarkable budget surplus. So Newsom is being honest about the problem, while Falconer isn’t; indeed, if Falconer were honest, his plan would actually be the Newsom plan.

It’s obvious that this homeless situation will require huge amounts of money to solve. I, personally, wish officials would get tougher on the most resistant criminal elements who live in tents and refuse to relocate to shelters even when they’re available. But I recognize that just because citizens are pissed off doesn’t give cities, counties and the State the ability to arrest large numbers of people. That sort of behavior is what I consider Trumpian—fascist, dictatorial and unConstitutional—and it’s why I remain a Democrat, even though sometimes it’s hard.


Wine: A matter of taste?

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Is there such a thing as “objective” quality in wine? Or is it all personal preference?

I ask because I bought a $22 bottle of a non-vintage white Rioja (I don’t want to identify it) at a wine shop here in Oakland the other day that the floor clerk highly recommended as being “dry, crisp and yeasty.” As I love a good fino sherry, I got it, never having previously had a white Rioja. On tasting, my first thought was, “this wine is too old.” It tasted stale and tired.

But it made me wonder. This particular wine shop is wildly popular with younger folks; the proprietors seem to have their fingers on the pulse of the tastes of their customers in their twenties and thirties. One of their biggest sellers is orange wine. So when I tasted that white Rioja, and hated it, my next thought was, Am I out of touch with the taste of younger wine drinkers?

I’m aware that tastes change. If everyone is drinking orange wine and bretty beer, then that’s the popular taste; if I don’t like them (and I don’t), then I’m out of step. But really, how could an old, tired white wine possibly be considered “good,” no matter how many people like it? Or am I just an old, tired white male who doesn’t get it?

I looked up to see what my former colleague, Mike Schachner, had to say about the wine in Wine Enthusiast. I found there his review of the 2016: same producer, same 100% Vidura. His experience resonated with my own: “A cloudy burnished-gold color and oxidized aromas of briny but stale white fruits get this Viura off to a shaky start. Bold malic acidity lends kick to an otherwise flat palate. This tastes lightly oxidized and briny to an extreme, while the finish is cidery.” Granted, he reviewed the ’16 while my bottle was nonvintage, but still, it might have been the same wine. “Oxidized…stale…flat palate.” There was nothing “yeasty” about it, as the floor clerk said, which made me wonder if she knew what she was talking about (but that’s a whole different story!).

So back to my questions. “Is there such a thing as ‘objective’ quality in wine? Or is it all personal preference?” I have to insist there is such a thing as objective quality. All my reading, all my life experience, all my studying and talking with winemakers for 40-plus years tell me that. Enologists have written books about faults in wine. And yet, I always remember when I interviewed Josh Jensen, down at Calera, about a million years ago. He told me that when he advertised for an assistant winemaker, the first requirement he had was “Must not be a U.C. Davis grad.” Davis, he insisted (and others told me the same thing) taught how to make squeaky-clean wines of no personality or distinction. He, Josh, wanted his wines to have personality. Tim Mondavi had told me something similar: he liked a little brett in his Pinot Noirs, even though the professors at U.C. Davis hated brett.

The idea of personality in wine, as in people, is highly appealing. But could the oxidized, or maderized, quality of that white Rioja conceivably be called “personality”? Kenneth Dahmer had “personality” too, but not one that was particularly appealing. On the second night after I’d opened the wine, I poured myself another glass. Still oxidized, still stale, still tired. But, I asked myself, is there something here, something that could be called interesting or charming or unique or even–gasp–intellectual? I finished the bottle, and thought about every sip. Had I been unfair? Was I so used to clean, fresh, fruity white wines that I was refusing to recognize the qualities of this maderized one?


Transition time for my blog

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I started this blog way back in May, 2008. Wine blogs were then getting to be “the next big thing” and I wanted in on the action. Unlike most other bloggers, I had a steady daytime gig at Wine Enthusiast that gave me plenty of visibility (and a decent income). But I wanted the greater freedom that personal wine blogging afforded. No editors! No publishers! Nobody but me!

My wine blog got big, fast. It was newsworthy that a well-known wine writer had a personal blog. My writing style, too, contributed to its success. Steveheimoff.com rose to the top of the wine blogosphere. It’s true that I never won any trophies from the Wine Bloggers Conference, but I got nominated a whole bunch of times and they asked me to co-keynote one of their conferences. Certainly, as measured by the “comments” my posts got, my blog was one of the most popular in America.

That continued even after I left Wine Enthusiast in 2012 to become Director of Wine Communications and Education at Jackson Family Wines. But when I retired, in 2016, I decided that it no longer made sense to write about wine. I would no longer have day-to-day contact with the industry. There wasn’t any more need to keep up with issues and events. And, to be honest, I wasn’t interested in the wine industry now that I wasn’t in it. So I told my readers I was transitioning. The subject of my blog would now become Donald Trump.

That was in September, 2016. He was by then the Republican nominee for president, running against my choice, Hillary Clinton. I knew what a horror Trump was. It was clear to me then that he, and the evil people around him, were threats to America, and to me personally. So I decided to use my blog to resist him. And that is what I did for the next 4-1/2 years, until he had been defeated in 2020, thank God.

Since then, my blog writing has been infrequent. I no longer post every day, as I did for more than 12 years. There was another reason for this: my blogging energies became transferred to my “other” blog at the Coalition for a Better Oakland, of which I am president. CBO, as we call it, absorbs a great deal of my thinking and time. My colleagues and I are serious about becoming a force for moderate Democrats in Oakland, a city long dominated by the “woke” politicians of the far Left. I hate seeing my beloved Democratic Party—the party of my parents and grandparents—being hijacked by ideological extremists, whose demands are driving voters away from the Democratic Party into the waiting arms of rightwing Republicans. The stakes are high.

I explain all this in order to tell my remaining readers why you don’t hear from me more often. Times change, and we have to change with them. I’ll still continue to post here every so often, but it’s no longer a priority. My daily blog at cfabo.org is now my priority. I hope you’ll read it regularly. It’s mainly about Oakland, but the issues will be familiar to all of you; they’re national issues. The important thing for me, personally, is to continue to have a platform where I can express my views, in the hope that my two cents will have some impact on things.

Thanks.


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