(This is a real-time stream of consciousness report on a tasting I did yesterday, Tuesday. In all probability it was the last professional event I will ever do now that I’m retired.)
10 a.m. Arrived early in downtown Napa for the tasting. Sitting here by the river, on the Napa River Trail,
sorting my thoughts out on this, the final day of my professional life.
I thought I’d feel more reflective, more definitive, more–what? At least, feel something. Instead, there’s—not exactly nothing, but a lacuna. So I just sit and watch the river roll.
The morning fog is lifting, south to north,
and it’s fast getting warm, as Napa Valley awakens to another harvest day. I push my nose into a big rose;
wine critics, or should I say ex-wine critics, like to smell things. A young guy paddleboards down the river.
I imagine the feel of the breeze and the sun on his face, his torso working calm and alert, the sound of the shiny water shushing. How apropos that this, the last day of my career, should be in Napa Valley, where it all began, nearly forty years ago, when I made my first trip to wine country. We went to Freemark Abbey and Robert Mondavi. Now it’s come full circle. In all these years I have come to the valley hundreds of times, but never really felt like I “got” it. How do you “get” a place like Napa? Like the Napa River itself, the valley just keeps rolling along, always changing. Downtown Napa is a totally different place. Up-valley is a welter of cults. Yet the Vaca Mountains, stolid, austere, and just across the river, remind me of permanence: the complementarity of things. They are the same Vacas of forty years ago…forty thousand years ago.
There, I am feeling something! What is it? A certain wistfulness. Calm. Reflective. Respectful of my history, Napa’s history, being itself. I wouldn’t call it nostalgia. It hasn’t defined itself yet, to me. Then I realize that I always go into a sort of energy dip before hosting an event. It’s as if I were conserving myself before going onstage. It’s just my way. So I decide to wait until later to see how I feel.
The Jackson Family Wines event is at Celadon,
on the riverfront, in the Napa River Inn. It was set up by my (now former) colleague and a wonderful woman, Ann Wallace. We’re tasting 12 wines: two whites, Stonestreet 2014 Estate Sauvignon Blanc and Carneros Hills 2012 Chardenet, as greeting wines. Then ten Pinot Noirs over the sit-down lunch, in three flights:
Penner-Ash 2013 Willamette Valley; Grand Moraine 2013, Yamhill-Carlton; and Zena Crown 2013 “The Sum,” Eola-Amity Hills.
Champ de Reves 2013, Anderson Valley; Copain 2013 Kiser en Haut, Anderson Valley; Wild Ridge 2013 Sonoma Coast (Annapolis); and Hartford Court 2012 “Sevens Bench” Carneros
Carmel Road 2013 Panorama Vineyard, Arroyo Seco; Siduri 2014 Santa Lucia Highlands; Byron 2013 Nielson Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley.
That is a high-class tasting! My guests are eight buyers from top restaurants, mainly Napa Valley. This is the kind of intimate, casual tasting I like. As soon as the event starts my feelings become buoyant. There it is, the old energy! It was just waiting for when I needed it. The small plates come, are passed around: good food. The conversation becomes animated as folks relax and get properly lubricated. This is a smart bunch of people; they know their wine. I do my thing. Some tastings are happy; not all. This is a happy tasting.
The hours pass pleasantly.
2 p.m. Before you know it, it’s over. Nothing left but the empty and half-empty bottles.
It’s a metaphor: the way things look when they’re over. And I’m thinking, “I have had such fun. This has been such a pleasant time. The wines were showing beautifully, the pacing was great, everybody was really happy. I quit this job??? I must be out of my mind!”
And yet, quit it I did: no looking back. I still don’t quite know how I feel about this. But why do I need to know how I feel? Why this obsession with labeling and categorizing and defining everything? Let it be. Float. You can’t control it anyway. I look back over my last 28 years in wine writing and, Wow, what a ride it’s been. My Facebook page, where I made the retirement announcement on Monday, has 212 comments and counting, all wishing me well and saying the nicest things about this career I’ve had. I take intense pleasure in that, in knowing (because all those people said so) that I gave something to people they liked, and will be remembered.
So goodbye Napa Valley! Goodbye Sonoma Mendocino Monterey Santa Cruz Mountains San Luis Obispo Santa Barbara Willamette Valley and all the other places. Goodbye to old friends, some dead, never to be forgotten, most thankfully still living. Goodbye to deadlines (won’t miss them). Goodbye past, hello future. Somebody at the tasting asked me what I’m going to do now and I said, “I don’t know.” That’s okay, too.
Although I was raised in a Democratic household, I always considered myself a middle-of-the-roader. I hardly paid any attention to Presidential elections until 1984, when I voted for Jesse Jackson in the California primary, and for Mondale in the general election. But in 1988, I voted for the Republican, George H.W. Bush. Dukakis seemed hapless, and I admired Bush’s strong resume and character.
I was also an early Bill Clinton supporter. I still have a letter from him to me dated 1988, years before most Americans had even heard of him. I’d seen him interviewed by Brian Lamb on C-SPAN and was so impressed, I wrote the then-Arkansas governor—my first and only fan letter—to tell him I admired his articulate intelligence. He responded politely. Four years later, of course, Clinton went on to win the first of his two terms as President. I liked him (still do), and also Hillary, whose gumption and values commanded my respect (and still do).
So it was that, when the Republican Party went after the Clintons with ill-concealed hostility, I began to see the GOP, not as an authentic political party—the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and, yes, George H.W. Bush—but as a damaging degradation of political discourse, and thus of this country’s values. It gradually became clear to me that Republicans had allowed themselves to fall into two horrible traps. First, they appealed to the worst, most prejudiced instincts of white American voters, a cynical move actually begun under Nixon with his “Southern strategy” that was clearly an attempt to drive a wedge between the races; and secondly, Republicans made strange bedfellows with what was, and is, a group I fear more than any other domestic cabal: evangelical Christians. That unholy marriage was orchestrated by Reagan and his consiglieres, including Lee Atwater, Karl Rove’s malign mentor; I doubt that Reagan himself (much less Nancy) was comfortable with Bible-thumpers, although he had to pretend to be. (I might say the same about Trump, whose cozying up to religious extremists—witness his embarrassing performance at Liberty University and his declarations that the Bible is his favorite book—prove that he will say anything, no matter how absurd, in order to win over credulous voters.)
Together, the Republican Party and these two groups—evangelicals and resentful, white working-class voters—decided to go after the Clintons, not on policy (Clinton was a centrist, hardly the socialist they painted him and Hillary out to be), but simply because he was a Democrat. By the 1990s Republicans had entirely given up on any idea of compromise. Instead, they resorted to what was essentially an attempted coup de main, using lies, smears, dog whistles and innuendo, in order to stir up the latent resentments and anger that their pollsters (who now include Kellyanne Conway, doing the same thing for Trump) told them would resonate. The litany of falsehoods Republicans hurled at the Clintons was endless, and every one of them lies: Whitewater, Vince Foster’s “murder”, Travelgate, trashing the Oval Office. The Republican penultimate attack on the Clintons extended to the political violence of Impeachment, driven by religiously conservative hounders (including Ken Starr, who last week had to resign his university post due to personal scandal) and a House of Representatives that had been taken over by radical Christian elements. The attempt at Impeachment was roundly rejected by the American people, and was stopped by a more sensible and politically responsible Senate. Clinton was not convicted. But the Republican Party had let it be known that, if they could not win power legitimately, they would subvert it illegitimately through propaganda (via Fox “News,” which arose at this time. Fox’s wunderkind, Roger Ailes—himself just fired due to a sexual scandal–was a student of Rove’s).
With the coming of Barack Obama, Republicans have doubled down on their radical obstructionism, becoming truly a cult of uncompromising lunacy, hatred, violence, stubbornness and intellectual dishonesty. How strange and ironic to see so-called “moderate” Republicans now turning against Trump, when in reality, he is simply a distillation of everything these Republicans have been preaching for decades. Trump spouts stupidity and bigotry, but those emotional ideas were forged by conservatives, tea party supporters and evangelicals long before his political rise. The blatant falseness of the attacks on Obama—he is a secret Muslim, he is a Kenyan not an American, he pals around with terrorists, he is the worst President ever, he created ISIS, he wants to take your guns away, he hates white people, he is a liar, he hates America, he hates Israel–a litany of horrors dredged from the foulest sewers of the Drudge report, Breitbart and Hannity—this is the test of blood purity the Republican Party now demands of its members. If these moderates, the Susan Collinses, Kelly Ayottes, Barbara Bushes, Mitt Romneys, Colin Powells and those 50 national security experts, really mean it when they say Trump is entirely unfit to be President, they should quit the Republican Party, at least until it returns to its senses. Trump represents its nasty, ugly, congealed essence—an essence they abetted all of their political careers, even as their party increasingly went off the rails. Trump is their nominee, the Republican nominee, whether they like it or not. If they had any honor, any moral fiber or personal dignity–if they were, to use a Yiddish phrase of my childhood, mensches–they would quit the party and condemn it for the horror show it has become.
As a gay man, I have additional reasons to loathe Republicans, and you should, too, if you love American freedom and liberty. This Republican Party has tried for decades to besmirch gay Americans, to deny us our rights, to dehumanize us, to stigmatize us, to stir up hatred against us, to convince their followers that we are dangerous. (Another Hitler comparison: he said the same things about Jews.) Republicans fought every step of the way against gay marriage and opening the military to LGBT people, even against letting gay people adopt children, despite the obvious fairness of those ends. Even now that the Supreme Court has approved gay marriage, they continue their homophobia in a hopeless revanchist action to try and upend the Supreme Court, a revolt led by bigoted Governors and religiously fanatical local judges. Let there be no mistake: this smearing of millions of gay Americans has been spearheaded by evangelicals, Mormons and Catholics (and don’t get me started on the irony of churches run by pedophiles who bash gay people). Even those Republicans who might be repelled by homophobia choose to keep their mouths shut, rather than risk censure by radical mullahs who they know are out of their minds, but whose support, or at least abstention from criticism, is politically necessary.
I have nothing against Christianity, which is one of the world’s great religions. But I am angered by the intrusion of Christian radicals into our nation’s governance and lawmaking. The Republican Party has become little more than an extension of a politicized Christian party in America (and a militant rightwing Christian party at that), something that should concern every one of us who cherishes the Constitution. This rightwing Christian movement has ties—murky, but repeatedly proven: think David Duke—to a white supremacist movement that even the FBI considers a clear and present danger. Many of the leaders of this Christian movement are delusional, perhaps even psychotic, by any definition of those terms: Pat Robertson believing he prayed away a hurricane, or Jerry Falwell claiming that God sent the Loma Prieta earthquake to San Francisco to punish it for its gayness (as if the same God were not punishing Bible Belt Christians every time a church is destroyed by a tornado; perhaps Louisiana’s floods prove that God hates that red state). Many of these Christians, especially uneducated evangelicals, believe the world is less than 6,000 years old, that Noah’s flood created the Grand Canyon, and that Adam, Eve and babies Cain and Abel frolicked with dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden. These are not religious beliefs we should respect, much less debate; they are the rantings of lunatics—moreover, of people who revel in their ignorance. This is your Trump base. And yet this fever-swamp theocracy is a majority owner of the modern Republican Party, whose leaders must pay it obeisance even while they privately ridicule it.
The war against women—many Republicans want to deny them even birth control, much less abortion rights, and they also wish to criminally prosecute doctors who perform abortions—the xenophobia of Trump and his ridiculous wall, which will never be built, and whose justifications are odious—the ongoing homophobia—the ramping up of Islamophobia, whipped to a frenzy by Trump amongst disgruntled white men who find hating “the other” easier than critical thinking and believe that Syrians are stealing their jobs—the Republican insistence on tax cuts, at any price, including for the wealthiest Americans, which has allowed the current income gap, the worst in our country’s history, to become a threat to national security, and which, moreover, has caused the nation’s infrastructure to crumble—the animosity towards evidence of man-made climate change, and towards science in general—the constant hammering of “government” as “the problem” (except when disaster strikes a red state and Republican Governors are the first to demand free money from Washington)—the sexist, racist personal attacks against Michelle Obama, as noble a First Lady as any in our country’s history—the mendacious insinuations against Hillary (she killed innocent people in Benghazi, her health is poor [Trump’s hitman on that one is the repellent Giuliani, and what is he lusting for—Homeland Security?], she is an enabler of Bill’s philandering, she murdered Vince Foster, she is a compulsive liar and a secret Lesbian, as if there would be anything wrong with that)—any of these would be sufficient to loathe the Republican Party for sheer coarseness and baseness. Every time I hear a Republican go on and on about “family values” I wince. Hello former Sen. Larry “Wide Stance” Craig, former House Speaker Denny “Coach” Hastert and untold Republican pols and preachers caught in dirty bookstores, men’s rooms, and adulterous scandals, committers of pedophilia and victims of coverup blackmail.
As I said, I voted for George H.W. Bush in 1988. I am not a bleeding-heart liberal. I agree with traditional Republican beliefs, which actually are not Republican at all, but American: I uphold law and societal order. I value our cops and soldiers and dislike the unjust criticism sometimes leveled against them from the far left. I firmly believe people should work to support themselves and their families rather than relying on a welfare state. If you make a baby, take care of it! I disagree with Occupy types who smash and loot; they’re not the freedom fighters they purport to be, but mindless vandals and looters.
But believe me, this modern Republican Party has nothing in common with its great conservative traditions. Keep in mind that Barack Obama sincerely sought bipartisanship when he took office. It was Republicans, and particularly Mitch McConnell, who declared their intention to make Obama “a one-term President” and then proceeded to stall, obstruct, filibuster and block nearly every proposal the President made, even as Fox “News” and the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Trump, the leading Birther, spread the most outrageous lies about him. Look: the Republican Party has become an insane asylum of irrationality; a cabal of greedy plutocrats like the Koch Brothers and the Trumps; a melting pot of every petty resentment, fact-free and without solutions to America’s problems; a tool of the uber-rich and, ironically, of economically suffering, uneducated white men who apparently don’t understand that cutting the estate tax on billionaires will benefit them not a whit; an anti-science ideology of medieval superstition; a theocracy, an American Taliban, a crypto-fascist-preacher mafia that shamelessly bilks its credulous adherents with Orwellian disinformation, the same way Trump’s “University” and his late-night “get rich quick” T.V. infomercials bilked imbeciles. Should these Republican gangsters ever achieve real power, I have no doubt America would descend into domestic intranquillity.
But I do not believe Americans will elevate these Republicans to power. This country has at most 30% of diehard Republicans who would vote for anyone who happened to become their party’s nominee. That, thankfully, is not enough to elect a President. More sensible, patriotic, intelligent, thoughtful, caring and educated voters will prevail. I myself will happily and proudly vote for a woman I’ve admired for twenty-five years, Hillary Clinton, a decent person and a good Democrat. The Democratic Party of my parents—of Wilson and FDR, Harry Truman, JFK, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—is a political movement that upholds the highest ideals and aspirations of humankind: justice, equality, opportunity, fairness, reason, compassion and progress. I am a Democrat because I share those ideals. And because Republicans suck.
Last Friday, I told Rick Tigner, the CEO of Jackson Family Wines and a man for whom I have the utmost admiration, that I was quitting the job I’d held since March, 2014.
Why? Because I turned 70 years old in June, and I’m feeling my age.
I always had believed I would be retired by seventy, provided my finances were in order. I inherited no money from my parents, and I never had a proper pension, because I’d worked for nearly 30 years as a freelancer for Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, neither of whom paid very well. What I did have in the way of a nest egg, though, was a very nice private investment through my family that gave me every expectation of a comfortable old age.
Alas, that private investment turned out to be run by Bernie Madoff. On Dec. 10, 2008, I—along with thousands of others—got the bad news: My life savings were gone. Along with the money went hopes of an early retirement.
However, there was some good news: In 2005, the feeder fund I was invested in unexpectedly stopped accepting new deposits. Thus, for the next four years—until the date of the Madoff arrest, and for the eight years since–I was, through force majeure, able to invest my money elsewhere. And when, in 2014, Jackson Family Wines offered me the new job—at considerably more money than I’d ever made at Wine Enthusiast—I was able to tuck away much of that, too, with the result that, by last week, my banker and I determined that I did have enough money to comfortably retire. Granted, I will never have a high-spending lifestyle. But then, I never had one before, and you can’t miss what you never had!
Turning seventy, in case you haven’t had the experience, is psychologically impactful. When I turned 40, 50, 60, it didn’t change how I felt about myself. My health was wonderful: I’ve always been in the top one percent of my age cohort when it comes to fitness. But seventy? You can’t make believe any more that you’re not old. Seventy may be “the new forty,” but it’s still threescore and ten, which Psalms tells us are “the days of our years.” The aches and pains accumulate; one fatigues more easily. More to the point, one becomes happy with (or at least reconciled to) what one is, and stress, which is inevitable in any job, is no longer welcome. The result was that, after an enormous amount of reflection, and plenty of back-and-forth in my own mind (Should I do it? Shouldn’t I?), I decided to “do it.”
This decision obviously has major consequences for me. For one, it means I’m on a fixed income. For another, it means that my career in wine is over. Period. Done, finis, #ByeBye. I no longer have any reason to be interested in wine, aside from drinking it, although it’s likely to be years before I fully disengage from thinking and reading about it; old habits die hard. But I have already begun that process in full deliberation. The symbolic act of interment, which I have yet to take, will be to eliminate all the Google alerts for “wine,” “wine industry,” “wine critic” and so forth that have filled my in-box for so many years. I haven’t done that yet…but I shortly shall.
And this blog?
Well, I still have a lot of readers. Whenever I traveled the country for Jackson Family Wines, people—complete strangers—came up to me and told me they read me every day. That is enormously gratifying; the only people who probably can relate to it are my fellow bloggers. It hasn’t always been easy to come up with topics five days a week, but then I think of all those folks across America (and in other countries) who begin their day with a little Steve, and I don’t want to disappoint them…to disappoint you.
So I will continue this blog. But there will be changes. Big ones. Going forward, I’ll write about anything that interests me. It won’t necessarily be about wine. I will frequently write about politics, which is an intense interest of mine, and I will certainly do my best to demolish the Republican Party, which deserves it. I’m sure I’ll lose readers, maybe a lot of them. But I may also gain some new ones. Be that as it may.
So, to those of you who are going to bid me a fond “farewell” because you want a strictly wine-oriented blog, I say, Adieu to you, too. Thank you for reading steveheimoff.com all these years. But you might check me out from time to time. The writing will be better than ever.
One final remark: I can’t begin to express how grateful I am to the Jackson family “kids” (as I call them) for the friendship, support and, yes, love they have given me. Julia…Chris…Ari…Hailey…Max…Katie…Shaun. You are wonderful, kind, special people with extraordinary hearts. I’m so very glad I had the privilege to get to know you; our tastings (and we still have one more left!) have been a highlight of my career. Your parents raised you right.
I Googled “wine news” and here among the hits were these scintillating headlines:
Expert reveals 3 things you need to know about drinking wine on planes
Never spill your wine again with the __ wine glass and its metal stake
Eva Longoria’s wine goals for T-shirt designs
Delta pays a sommelier to pick wine for its flights—here’s her wine tasting advice
Extreme heat can taint the wine
Does the color of your wine influence your hangover?
Pour It Up! 9 Times a Glass of Wine Was Rihanna’s Favorite Accessory!
Well, I admit to being terribly behind the curve on cultural issues. Yesterday, a Facebook friend referred to something called “Ween,” and it wasn’t until I asked what a “Ween” was that I became educated in the fact that Ween is a major rock and roll band I had never heard of!
So perhaps there are burning wine-related issues of which I’m equally unconscious. But I don’t think so, which makes me regret all the more the vulgarity that has invaded what has now become “wine writing.”
Throughout the history of the English-speaking people writing about wine was reserved to the smartest, most literate among us. Wine—the beverage of our ancient Greek texts, and of the Bible, Old and New Testaments—was regarded as something too special to make light of. Generations of wine writers going back hundreds of years, of which I consider myself a recent incarnation, reserved their finest journalistic skills to writing about wine. Today, the Internet has made writing about wine not only common but promiscuous, with the result that people can headline their writing with the kinds of B.S. I listed above, and actually get others to read it.
Do we need tips on how to drink wine on planes? I don’t think so. You have to take the wine the airline is selling, and drink it from the glasses they give you. What other choices do you have? When there are no choices, there’s no need for advice, which doesn’t stop some people from offering it anyway. Next!
“Never spill your wine again.” I wasn’t aware that spilling wine was a major issue in America. I almost never spill my own wine, and as I am not a particularly well-coordinated person, I doubt that there are many people who spill their wine more than I do. So I have absolutely no need for any device or technique to prevent me from doing so. Next!
Eva Longoria and T-shirt designs. I barely know who Eva Longoria is, nor do I care. Since I don’t care about her, I certainly don’t care about whatever chotchkies she’s selling. Next!
Delta’s sommelier. Well, isn’t that special. It makes me feel so much more hopeful about my next Delta sardine can. Next!
I did not know that extreme heat can taint a wine. I thought you could heat wine up to, oh, I don’t know, a gazillion degrees, and it would be as fresh as a can of tuna fish. Thank you for that advice. Next!
Does the color of your wine influence your hangover? Now we’re getting down to matters of substance! I’ve been trying to figure this particular question out for decades, and after extensive personal experimentation, still haven’t arrived at a conclusion. My advice: Don’t be a schmuck to begin with and drink so much that you risk getting a hangover the next morning.
As for Rihanna’s favorite accessory, I’m already choking, as are you, on this celebrity-forced-fed diet we’re being fed by the media. Next! (Or not.)
Have a great weekend!
Copernican moments—also known as paradigm changes–don’t happen often. Change occurs constantly, but most changes shift reality only incrementally. Massive changes, the kind that set reality upside down, are fortunately few and far between—a good thing, otherwise life might prove unlivable. But, as Richard Mendelson, a Napa lawyer who recently interviewed Warren Winiarski, tells us, these Copernican moments are almost never foreseen, and can be identified only in retrospect. Such was the Paris Tasting of 1976, where Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, from the 1973 vintage, beat out a clutch of other wines, from both California and Bordeaux, in a blind tasting the consequences of which proved to be paradigm-shifting.
Copernican moments also can be personal rather than massively historical, and Winiarski describes his own falling-in-love-with-wine moment (which actually sounds a lot like mine: like me, Warren got bit by the wine bug in an unpredictable and mysterious way).
Warren, who worked early in his career for Robert Mondavi, describes another personal Copernican moment for himself: when Mondavi told him that a wine “must present itself to the eye by way of the building, making it esthetically pleasing, as much as it presented itself to the mouth.” I have never heard a Mondavi quote to that effect before, but it clearly sounds like something Robert Mondavi would have said; and when you think of the Cliff May-designed winery Mondavi caused to be built, it is indeed as esthetically pleasing as any winery in California, a delight to the eye, whose perfect lines and arches and earthy colors bring a sense of serenity and drama to the visitor even before she has had an opportunity to taste the wines. “No one,” Warren Winiarski says, “has looked at winery buildings after that the same way.”
This “esthetic experience,” Warren continues, “brought more than one sense into the experience of wine.” It brought, in fact, more than our five physical senses into the experience; it brought, and brings, an experience that is purely cerebral. Robert Mondavi understood that this meta-level experience might be the most important of all. How one feels about the wine one buys (or anything else one buys) is more than just the sum total of our sensory experiences. It’s about the feeling it evokes in us; and such feelings ultimately are irrational. They cannot be controlled. They can be prompted, and guided towards positive ends, but humans are not robots, and our feelings, evanescent and shifting, are what makes us distinctly human (among other things). Robert Mondavi knew that he wanted to influence our feelings. So has every other great winemaker in history. The best of them believed in the quality of their wine, of course, and worked very hard to ensure it; but they also understood that quality is not enough. A dubious or sated consumer has to be brought into the position where he can actually taste and appreciate that quality. Otherwise, what’s the point? And it does take a certain priming of the pump to get someone to appreciate quality: you have to make them believe that they are capable of appreciating it, and you have then to get them to take steps towards appreciating it, and you have to craft the entire environment within which the experience takes place so that it will increase the probability that the taster will experience quality in a high-minded way.
This, Robert Mondavi understood. It’s not a complicated message. But it can be distorted. Not everyone is as adept at crafting a message of power and subtlety as was Robert, and some overdo it to the point of caricature. Not every winemaker has thought the thing through, which is why not every chat with a winemaker, or every taste of wine, brings about a Copernican moment, even to those of us who are (believe it or not) looking for just such revelation. To expect it to is to demand the unreasonable. The thing that’s so exciting about the wine business at this time is that, while it suffers from a certain stasis, we know that someplace there exists another Robert Mondavi. Not that he will ever be replaced, but somewhere in this world there is a young man or woman, with a vision and the talents to communicate it, who will upset things in the wine world and cause a Copernican Moment to occur—not a small, personal one, but on a global scale, like the Paris Tasting.
What could that be? Who knows. But I have a feeling there’s one right around the bend. We won’t know until it happens, or shortly afterwards. That’s the thing about paradigm changes: you don’t see them coming. But it’s what keeps some of us alert and alive to news from the world of wine.
Jancis Robinson, “the most respected wine critic in the world” according to the cover of her new book, goes the route of brevity in this, our Twitter-addled world. “The 24-Hour Wine Expert” was just published by Abrams, a small house publisher specializing in art, photography and fashion. The book itself is small and thin, deliberately designed for easy-breezy reading.
For the beginner crowd—and, Lord knows, we love you, you are the future—“24” is a pretty good read. More experienced winos won’t find anything new in it, but let’s give Jancis credit for reinventing her brand for one, or even two, new generations who may not know of her renown but are about to discover it.
It’s a good, useful book, but I do have some gripes, and that is Jancis’s tendency, like that of so many world-famous wine writers, to stick with the same old famous names, a safely conservative but unsurprising and all-too-predictable practice that is a constant challenge for wine writers to avoid, if for no other reason than to show that they’re not stuck in some dusty old niche. Jancis has a category called “bottles to knock socks off,” presumably showoff wines. These are for your “label drinkers.” They are the classic illustration of the saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” People who clamor for these wines have just enough knowledge to pass themselves off as experts, but beyond that, there’s not much going on. Every once in a while they memorize another famous name, because some critic they love said so, and so it goes onto the “socks-knocking” list.
Here are Jancis’s “bottles to knock socks off” from California. These are the only nine California wineries she includes: Arnot Roberts, Au Bon Climat, Corison, DuMol, Frog’s Leap, Littorai, Rhys, Ridge and Spotteswoode. An eclectic list to be sure; one might add others to it. Jancis has also two lists whose relationship offers perhaps a glimpse into her attitude towards Napa Valley: the first, “Twenty heart-stopping (and bank-breaking) wines,” includes nothing from California. The second, “Some overpriced wines,” includes “California’s cult Cabernets.”
“The 24-Hour Wine Expert” is ultimately a useful little book, a sort of stocking-stuffer for a holiday gift for that budding wine aficionado who’s probably younger and just starting out to explore the world’s most fascinating beverage. Experts will glance at it if for no other reason than to check out what Jancis, “the most respected wine critic in the world,” is up to.
That’s what the Washington Times is reporting. Seems my great state of California is considering allowing—not just barbershops—but beauty parlors too, a total of 42,000 shops in all, to serve wine and beer on their premises. The proposal is in the form of a bill, AB 1322, that would expand California’s current alcohol laws in order to “additionally allow the serving of beer or wine without a license as part of a beauty salon or barber shop service if specified requirements are met, including that there be no extra charge or fee for the beer or wine, the license of the establishment providing the service is in good standing, and the servings are limited to specified amounts.”
Sounds good to me! In fact, it sounds more than good: it’s civilized. But, wouldn’t you know it, no good idea goes without someone bashing it, and in this case the basher is the so-called “California Alcohol Policy Alliance,” a group whose website purports to “promote evidence-based public health policies and organize campaigns with diverse communities and youth against the alcohol industry’s harmful practices,” but which sounds suspiciously like the anti-alcohol groups in this country that have popped up forever, whose ideology seems like something out of Carrie Nation’s brain.
And not surprising! This California Alcohol Policy Alliance is just the latest incarnation of The Marin Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Other Drug Problems; they had to change their name because the Marin Institute got such a bad reputation. These people always claim that their motives are sincere, but there’s something fishily ideological about them, and their anger towards legal alcoholic beverages seems, well, outsized. They call themselves “The Industry Watchdog.” Well, “junkyard dog” would be closer to the point.
But I digress! The beautiful thing about the barbershop-beauty parlor idea is that it normalizes the drinking of beer and wine. There is probably no place more “normal” for Americans to go to than a barbershop or beauty parlor. That’s why serving beer and wine in such places makes so much sense. To be able to drink these alcoholic beverages in these normal, everyday hangouts would be a huge step towards making the consumption of wine—not a fancy thing for rare occasions—but an everyday practice, as it is throughout the wine-producing nations of Europe.
Incidentally, let me give credit to AB 1322’s Republican co-sponsor, Asemblyman Scott Wilk. It’s probably not a good idea for a Republican politician to ever be in favor of anything having to do with alcohol or drugs, and Wilk certainly represents a conservative district: Simi Valley and the San Fernando Valley. But he’s not a nutbag Republican, and he’s okay in my book for this humane and positive step forward. Our Governor, Jerry Brown, now has AB 1322 on his desk, and he may veto it or let it pass into law. The anti-alcohol forces, including the Alcohol Policy Alliance, are lobbying him heavily, on social media and directly, to veto it: they are fear-mongering the general public with alarmist warnings that, if passed, AB 1322 will allow beer and wine to “flow freely without licenses, permits, monitoring, Responsible Beverage Service training, or enforcement of current regulations.”
Well, that’s fine with me. I don’t expect a beauty parlor colorist to have training in “responsible beverage service.” When the neo-prohibitionists at Alcoholic Policy Alliance say that passing AB 1322 will put the “health and safety of all California residents” at risk, that’s just a big lie. I want a country where drinking wine is so natural that you can do it in barbershops, in supermarkets, in movies, in fact pretty much everywhere. Does that mean I’m in favor of public drunkenness? Of course not. But rightwing groups like the Alcohol Policy Alliance base their fundraising on spreading such fear, the same way certain politicians are trying to make us so afraid of ISIS that we close this country’s borders, making it no longer the oasis for “Your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” Fear is never a good way to govern, and those who use fear to further their own purposes are to be pitied.