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13. Turning Points

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In my aim to be a wine writer, I set my sights high—and why not? I called Wine Spectator, which then was headquartered at Opera Plaza, in San Francisco, and told them I wanted to write for them. “Send us a resume,” they said. I did—but remember, I’d been a career counselor; I knew how these things worked. Don’t just send a resume. Follow up on it, to the point of being obnoxious (almost) to let them know you’re passionate.

I called the magazine back every week or so, and gradually in this manner got to know the managing editor, a guy named Jim Gordon. After a few months, I said to him, “Jim, one of two things is going to happen. Either you’ll give me work, or you’ll have me arrested for harassment!” He laughed.

A few days later, he called. “I have a problem,” he began. “There’s an important conference slated for Napa Valley, a three-day symposium bringing together California’s top winemakers with those from France. I’d assigned it to [and here he mentioned a Wine Spectator writer] but he got sick and can’t go. Can you?”

“When is it?”

“Tomorrow.”

Lennie Bernstein became famous overnight in 1943, when he was summoned to replace Bruno Walter, who had fallen ill, to conduct the New York Philharmonic. Yes, I told Jim, I’ll do it.

At the symposium, which was held at the exclusive Meadowood Resort, the Americans wanted to learn the professional practices of the French, who were the greatest grape growers and winemakers in the world. The French, for their part, had been hearing about these rich, upstart Californians. They were curious, and also a little paranoid: might these ambitious young Americans steal market share? There thus was tension between the two groups. I decided that this tension would be my story line. It was apparent everywhere: at one seminar, a leading French enologist told stunned Californians, in translated French-to-English, “You can steal our grape varieties. You can steal our techniques. But you cannot,” he thundered, “steal our terroir!”

The competitiveness between the two groups was the talk of the seminar. At one point, I sat in a toilet stall in the men’s room so I could eavesdrop on conversations the winemakers had when they stood next to each other at the urinals. (Yes, budding investigative journalists, that’s how you do it.)

I wrote a great story. Jim invited me to lunch (Chinese food), checked me out—it was the first time we’d physically met–and offered me a job as a regular freelancer. That July, when most of the Spectator’s staff went on vacation, the magazine had three stories by me, including another cover story. “The Steve Heimoff issue,” Jim called it. My dream had come true. I was in solid at the most famous and influential wine magazine in the country. My star as a wine writer began its long ascent.

To put this into perspective, it’s important to note that in the late 1980s, Wine Spectator was the voice of authority in the U.S. when it came to wine. Yes, there were newsletters (such as my friend Charlie Olken’s Connoisseurs Guide to California Wine) and, of course, Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. There were some pretty good magazines that covered wine, and a handful of big city newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times, had wine columns.

But nobody carried the prestige of Wine Spectator. It was the Big Enchilada, and if you wrote for them, you were (excuse the mixed metaphor) a Big Fish. America’s new wine consumers, primarily Baby Boomers who finally had a little disposable income to spend, were fascinated by wine; at the same time, they desperately needed guidance. Confronted with the infamous “Wall of Wine” in the supermarket, they were overwhelmed with choice, and had more questions than any supermarket clerk could answer—just as I’d had when I’d begun my wine journey, ten years previously.

I took my responsibilities at Wine Spectator in earnest. After a couple assignments, Jim called me one day with an offer I couldn’t refuse. “Do you want to write The Collecting Page?”

This was always the last page of every issue. It concerned matters of interest to wine collectors: what to buy, how to store wine, auctions and the like. I’d venture to say The Collecting Page was the most popular recurring feature in the magazine (aside, I suppose, from the reviews), especially among the collectors who were the magazine’s backbone of subscribers. Jim explained why he offered it to me: “Because none of the regular writers has the time to write it every week.”

If you were a baseball freak and the Commissioner of Major League Baseball offered to let you announce every game—if you were a movie freak and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences asked you to present the Oscars—well, that’s basically how I felt. My own page in Wine Spectator! In every issue! The word “joy” hardly describes my feelings.

Through The Collecting Page I got to know most of the important wine collectors in the country. Usually this was by phone, but these were wealthy individuals (you have to be rich to collect wine), and they often visited San Francisco on business or pleasure or both. I remember, for example, a time when an uber-wealthy midwestern guy (his company manufactured medical devices) was in the City, and invited me to dinner at Fleur de Lys, which then was the top French restaurant in town. He had his own private wine locker; the staff and chef, of course, rolled out the red carpet for their esteemed, big-spending customer. That was my first fabulous restaurant experience, but hardly the last.

Today, of course, things would be different, as well they should be. But back then, standards were more relaxed. At the same time, I have to say that, in all the years I wrote The Collecting Page, nobody ever offered me even a sip of anything in their collection. There was a guy who lived down the California Central Coast who had the world’s most extensive collection of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild—even more than the chateau itself. I drove down; he was thrilled to be on The Collecting Page. For hours, we chatted. I kept waiting for him to ask if I’d like to taste the ’61, or the ’45, or the ’64…but nothing ever happened. That really puzzled me.

Then there was Mr. Bigtime Hollywood Producer. Wine Spectator had sponsored a huge wine-and-food event. I was seated at my table when some flunky came over, knelt down beside me and whispered in my ear, “So-and-so would like to meet you.” He indicated a handsome man in his 40s at an adjacent table. I wondered why so-and-so didn’t just come over and introduce himself’; but that’s not how Big Shots do it. Instead, they send their flunkies.

Mr. Bigtime Hollywood Producer wanted to be on The Collecting Page. He not only wanted it, he was creaming over it. You see, by then there had arisen some competition between these highly-competitive men to see who could be mentioned on the Page; even better than a mention was a quote; even better than a quote was a photograph. And a photo with a quote? Nirvana. “Did you see me on the Spectator’s Collecting Page?” collector A might mention to collector B. It was like high school cheerleaders competing for the quarterback’s attention. (I have to say that the minute I left Wine Spectator for Wine Enthusiast, Mr. Bigtime Hollywood Producer stopped returning my calls.)

For a guy who’d felt shunned all his life, who felt like a freak, or the skunk at the garden party, being liked and loved was amazing. But, as I’ll get to shortly, I quickly learned to see through the phoniness of it all. I was learning the lesson famous people often experience, to their discomfiture: Do people like me for me, or for what they can get from me?

As an example, around this time I got a phone call from Billy Getty, a son of the ultra-billionaire Gordon Getty, whose father, J. Paul Getty, had been referred to as “the richest man in the world” when I was a kid. Billy and his friend, Gavin Newsom, wanted to meet me. Billy was living with his then-girlfriend in a house high up in the Berkeley Hills; he was going to U.C. Berkeley for his degree in Classics.

I drove up. Billy and Gavin were quite a pair: both tall and young, both really handsome. The “fan” in me responded. A Getty! Wow. And this Gavin—so cute, great smile. I was smitten. It turned out Billy and Gavin were starting up their own wine store, in the Marina District of San Francisco. They hoped I’d write an article on it. They felt the same way about publicity in Wine Spectator as I felt about them.

I wrote the story up, but Jim Gordon didn’t like it. “Nobody cares about Billy Getty, or this Newsom kid,” he said. “But if you can get the father—Gordon Getty—that would be a story.”

I told Billy. He said he’d run it by his father. Gordon Getty was publicity shy—unless he could control the publicity, which, in my case, he couldn’t. But I guess Billy and Gavin told him I was a good guy, so he gave me the interview.

I showed up at the mansion—the biggest, I believe, in San Francisco, on Broadway, in the city’s Pacific Heights neighborhood. A butler let me in. (Billy told me the butler had worked for Joseph P. Kennedy, JFK’s father, when he was U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain.) Gordon Getty led me to his music room, with a big window offering a sweeping view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands. I turned on my tape recorder and we had a nice conversation, which I made into my article.

Later, Gavin or Billy—I can’t remember which—told me Gordon had read the article and commented, “Well, he didn’t do any harm.” Today, the “kid,” Gavin Newsom, is the Governor of California. We—meaning the mutual friends who knew him—always knew Gavin was destined for something special. He drove himself harder than anyone I’ve ever met—and still does. And we still keep in touch.

I mention all this, not to name-drop but to suggest the world into which I had been thrust. From 760 Grand Concourse to The Getty Mansion! Not too shabby. It was heady stuff. Billy invited me to dinners—I remember once sitting next to Paul Pelosi, Nancy Pelosi’s handsome husband. I thought maybe I’d reciprocate by inviting Billy and Gavin to my Oakland condo for dinner; I wasn’t a bad cook. I told Maxine. “Stevie, don’t,” she replied. “Why not?” “Trust me on this.” In the end, I didn’t invite them, but I’ve always sort of regretted it.

And Billy was generous. He called one day. “My mother just bought an amusing little cellar, with all kinds of good wine. We’re tasting it now. Want to come over?” I raced across the Bay Bridge to the mansion. Billy had mentioned one of the wines was Chateau Cheval-Blanc 1947, one of the most famous wines of the century. I’d even written a story on it for The Collecting Page. So the butler lets me in. There are a few people milling around. I see the ’47 Cheval-Blanc on a table. I pick it up–empty! Just then Billy came along. I think he saw the disappointment in my eyes. He clapped his hands (is that a false memory or real?) and the butler appeared out of nowhere. “Another bottle of the Cheval-Blanc.” The butler returned, handed me the bottle. So there I was, by myself, with a full bottle of one of the rarest wines in the world. (What was it like? Californian! Rich, high in alcohol, super-fruity, almost sweet, and still luscious at the age of 45 years.)

As I look back, I wonder if I wasn’t a little too star-struck by those early years. But it would have been weird had I not been impressed by the people I was meeting and the experiences I was having. I don’t think I kissed any asses. But maybe I went further than I would have a few years later, when perspective caught up to me, and I understood the rules of the game: mutual backscratching.

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