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Five Decades of Wine: The Arc of My Career

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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.

  1. Jonathan King says:

    In the late ’80s I was offered the managing editor job at WS, but after arduous soul-searching decided to stay where I was (atop the masthead at another publication, decidedly non-vinous). Have often thought about that decision in the years since, as I’ve yet to taste my first Gaja,let alone Screaming Eagle. On the other hand, your experience suggests certain psycho-professional hazards obtained for those working on the mag, at least at one time.

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