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Old wine writers never die…


It was back in the late Eighties I first met Steve Pitcher at some wine event. He was this rather rotund guy, with a chubby pink face, wire-framed eyeglasses and thinning hair. He seemed always to be in his fifties, even though he must have been only in his early forties at the time. Holding himself with a certain reserve and distance, he seemed formidable, but I soon found that behind the rather dour mien (Steve had been trained as a lawyer, although he never practiced) lay an acute intelligence that was not without a wry sense of humor. He was very smart. He used sometimes to pretend to be German (I think he was of German extraction) and would revert to a German accent with a ja wohl accompanied by a formal little bow. But the eyes sparkled behind the glasses, and the little smirk on his rather small mouth told you he was having fun and giving you permission to have fun, too.

Steve was a good wine writer. He was of the old school, preferring long, scholarly essays to the short, snappy little poofs that are popular today. I don’t believe he ever Facebooked or blogged, much less tweeted; I suspect he would have scoffed, and he was an awfully good scoffer. I remember a piece he once wrote for The Wine News, which employed him longer, I think, than any other periodical he worked for. It was on California Sauvignon Blanc, and ran to 5,000 words. (!!!) That was verbose even for long-form wine articles.

I never saw Steve socially. He was a very private person, seldom referring to anything in his outside life beyond wine. I thought he might be gay, but as close as we were professionally, I never would have dared to ask him anything so personal. However, we did run into each other frequently. The San Francisco Bay Area’s wine writing circle was, in past days, a small one, rather like a fraternity. Wine writers associate with all kinds of people from the wine industry: winemakers, growers, cellar rats, P.R. folks, marketing and sales managers, wealthy owners, field workers, tasting room personnel. But it is within our own group, with our own kind, that we can most easily relax and let down our hair and share war stories. Steve was great at that. I knew that he always understood where I was coming from, and vice versa, so there was a certain telepathy between us. I also respected Steve’s palate. He loved German wine, and probably knew more about it than all the rest of us combined.

I liked him well enough so that, whenever I went to an event in San Francisco, or up in Napa Valley, I hoped and expected he’d be there. He usually was, chatting with someone, glass in hand, either listening intently with his eyes focused on the speaker, or saying something himself, in his soft-spoken monotone. I liked to sneak up behind him and tap his shoulder, whereupon he would turn around, recognize me, and make that formal little bow, accompanied by a Welcommen Herr Heimoff!

I miss and mourn Steve. I didn’t know he was sick, even though he’d apparently been suffering from the cancer that killed him for years. He certainly was around less and less over the last year or two, and on those occasions when I did see him, he was noticeably older and slower. But he never gave a hint that he was ill, much less dying, and his eyes never lost that glimmer that made him so special. I posted his death on my Facebook page Friday, and the tributes immediately began pouring in. Steve was well-liked by everyone in this industry. That’s as fine an obituary as a wine writer can hope to get. Ruhe in Frieden, mein alter Freund!

  1. Rusty Eddy says:

    I’ll miss Steve, as well. He was a stand up guy, always ready with a pithy comment to lighten the mood. Makes me feel like I’ve been in the wine industry a long time: Mead, Cartiere, Balzer, Everett…

  2. Amen.

    Steve Pitcher was a member of the fraternity and he served with dignity. Never called people out, never disrespected those with differing opinions–or at least not enough to be a bother, since we winewriters all have differing opinions about everything and know we are right in our own opinions.

    He was a gentle man, and that is saying a lot of a person who lived by his opinions of others. We need people like that in wine writing. He will be missed.

    Thanks for penning such fine tribute to him.

  3. I fondly recall talking to Steve at wine events, the S.F. International Wine Competition, etc and he calmly responded, never disrespected anything that was ever said. I often told him to buy a Dictaphone so he would not have to write an hour for each wine he tasted, he just smiled.
    For professional (and of course personal) purposes, I have always looked at California wineries, but for personal and extracurricular interest I often ventured well beyond that. I was somewhat lost in Germany – Steve to the rescue! One time at a North West wine tasting he talked to me for over an hour about the various regions, terroir, etc. that I got writer’s cramp and I only had a only 30 minutes left to taste.
    Thanks Steve, we’ll miss you.

    A toast to you, Steve or as they say in Germany “Prost!”
    Frank Melis

  4. I have known Steve for almost 20 years and like many thought the world of him. Thank you for such a well-written tribute. What I will remember the most is his total passion for wine. I know that all of us in the industry are supposed to like wine, duh! But for Steve it was different: his enthusiasm was palpable, his desire to understand the most minute details unsatiable. I remember in my earlier years presenting my wines to Steve and going home with the feeling that through the tasting it was I who had learned the most, both about my wines and about wine in general.Yet it was never a lecture; more like two football fans discussing the merits of the current quarterback. The wine world has lost a true fan.

  5. Thanks Steve. I didn’t know of this news and am saddened to hear it, as this terrible disease continues to take people far too young.

    You have a gift for words and you honor your colleague and friend. Our industry has certainly lost another champion. RIP

  6. Thank you, Steve.

  7. Steve and I shared his great love and appreciation for German wines.
    Not long after I started working as a journalist, Steve heard me talking about my fist wine job – managing a 5,000-bottle private cellar that was stocked exclusively with German wines – and how that experience had been my calling to the trade. From that moment onward and just about every time we met, we shared some lively discussions about food, the fine and performing arts, history (also one of his great passions)and about my wacky hobby of historical costuming and what that entails. I have fond memories of Steve and the greatest respect and admiration for his insightful work. I will miss him and our inspiring discussions.

  8. A sweet tribute, Steve.

    I was thinking of posting a eulogy on my site, but you have summed up Steve Pitcher’s fit in the wine community so well, that I will simply affirm your observations here.

    Steve (Pitcher) was always kind, he was a keen observer, and had a good palate. The fact that he spent so many years tasting corrosive young, tannic, high alcohol wines – I wonder if this might have contributed to his throat cancer?

    We are all keenly aware that alcohol, like smoking, can be a common cause of throat and oral cancers… and I wonder if there is an elevated incidence of such cancers among those of us who taste a lot of wine professionally?

    Any of your readers – or you – care to wade in with facts, observations or follow-ups to this observation?

    Good column, Steve (Heimoff). Keep up the good work.

  9. Such a nice picture. He will be missed.

  10. Steve,

    Thank you for this wonderful tribute. I had heard Steve was sick and was dreading this day would come.

    My first job in the wine business was working as an editorial assistant at The Wine News. Over my four years on the staff, I learned so much about wine–and about journalistic integrity and thoroughness–from Steve. His ducks were always in a row. He went to such great lenghts to make sure the editors knew actually why he’d approached a subject a certain way. He was relentless about fact-checking before sending in his first draft. I think I remember getting a bibliography from him to accompany a cover story.

    I love the picture you posted of Steve. That’s exactly how I remember him.

  11. Steve that was a great tribute you wrote. I’ve known Steve as long as I’ve been making wine and always enjoyed his company and wisdom. I remembeer one article he wrote about my family’s Monte Rosso Vineyard for the wine News, he called me three times a day checking on facts so he had it right. Turned out a fabulous article. Always the gentleman and perfectionist. He will be missed.

  12. Michael Weis says:

    Thanks Steve for a wondeful tribute. Thanks Steve for your wonderful insights and writings – you will be missed. RIP..

  13. Steve was always a staple at trade tastings in California and went about his encounters with vintners in a thoughtful, deliberate manner to understand their wines. That ethic surely showed in his writing. I remember telling him once how much I enjoyed one of his articles on a particular region and a few weeks later I received a package from him containing the article along with a hand-written note thanking me for my interest. Who does that anymore? Now you get pdf sent from a PR company. He was nice that way.

  14. Thank you for such a great article on the passing of Steve Pitcher. We didn’t know he had passed away and are very sorry it was cancer that claimed him. We first became acquainted with his writing with that same Sauvignon Blanc article to which you referred. We still have it on the computer! It was obvious from all of his articles that he always carefully researched the subject and set it forth his writing in a very scholarly way. He was a great contributor to the industry.


  15. Clayton Gantz says:

    What a sweet tribute to Steve Pitcher. A friend introduced me to his tastings at what I think was called the London Wine Bar (now Georges) in San Francisco. Steve was welcoming and patient with a newcomer, and I learned from him and everyone else who showed up. A lot of people have helped me along the way (I’m now a grower in the Russian River Valley), but Steve was one of those people who passed it on (as Keith Richards would say). He was a good one, Steve was.

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