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14. I Become a Blogger!

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Some of the best times of my wine writing career were the simplest: just hanging out with winemakers. I like winemakers. They’re earthy, basic, smart, funny people, comfortable in muddy vineyards and cold cellars, dragging hoses or pruning vines, and they usually have really interesting hobbies. Their passions are often unseen by outsiders: the passion to create memorable wine. And winemakers are usually—not always—humble. No matter how talented they are, they realize how dependent they are on Mother Nature.

I never fancied myself a super-knowledgeable guy about the ins and outs of grape growing or winemaking. I surely knew more than most people, but my knowledge paled beside that of many sommeliers and, particularly, compared to those Lords of the Wine World, the Masters of Wine (MWs). People like that have to be able to explain the difference between a Geneva Double Curtain and a Scott Henry (two different kinds of vine trellising systems), or write an essay on Croatian wine varieties, or recite the precipitation statistics in Pauillac over a 20-year period.

To tell the truth, there were many technical aspects of wine that bored the hell out of me. I mean, how many bottling lines can you see before you never want to see another one? Winemakers often are justifiably proud of their bottling lines, though, or their fermenting tanks, or their grape sorters, so even though touring the winery wasn’t my favorite thing, I had to show interest. Ditto for the vineyards. “And in 2002, we budded this over to Clone 4.” What I really liked to do with winemakers was have the kinds of free-wheeling conversations I recited in my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff. Those chats included technical stuff, naturally, but I also loved talking with winemakers about the industry, and how they got started, or how they felt about scores and critics, or their hopes and dreams, or their pricing strategies, or did they like being on the road. That’s the juicy stuff.

I also liked tasting with winemakers, but that presented a different set of problems. I was never comfortable letting them know how I felt about their wines, especially if I didn’t care for one. That’s pretty awkward. What are you supposed to say? You’re a guest in their home (or winery). It’s like saying, “Your baby is ugly.”

But the truth is, there was only one reaction from me that the winemakers really cared about, and that was [drumroll…] THE SCORE. (This was after I went to Wine Enthusiast.) Sometimes, I’d have to give a bad score—that was my job, to tell it like it is. And it was always hard for me emotionally when a winemaker called up to complain. “Parker loved that wine!” they’d say. “Jim Laube gave it 96. It won Double Gold in Indianapolis.” I’d have to kindly explain that I’m not Parker, I’m not Laube, I’m not Indianapolis, I’m me. If the winemaker asked me to explain exactly what the problem was with the wine, obviously I couldn’t do that technically, because I didn’t have a laboratory to rip the wine apart, and I’m not a trained enologist. I could only do so in terms of the way it smelled and tasted and felt to me. And since these impressions are so fundamentally personal and subjective, I’m sure a great many winemakers didn’t know what I was talking about.

I’ll give you an example of how personal and subjective tasting is, even among professionals. When I started out, I went to a tasting in San Francisco of “mountain Cabernets” from Napa Valley. (This was around 1992.) One of the wines was the Cabernet Sauvignon from Dunn Vineyards, on Howell Mountain, which at that point was one of the most coveted and collectible wines in California. If I recall correctly, the vintage was 1979, so the wine was then 13 years old.

I simply didn’t know what to make of it. The wine was tough, tannic, dense. Puzzled, I sought the opinion of two people in the room whose expertise I valued: the afore-referenced Jim Laube, from Wine Spectator, and Anthony Dias Blue, “Andy,” who then (if I remember correctly) was wine columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, and has gone on to great success through his industry magazines. Both were famous—in my circles, anyhow. I no longer remember which was which, but the first guy said the Dunn wasn’t ready yet; its mountain tannins needed years more to resolve. The second guy said that the wine was too old—“over the hill,” in the parlance. I thought, wow. These two famous experts don’t even agree with each other on something as fundamental as “Is this wine ready to drink?” What the heck does that mean?

Learning experience! To me, it meant that I should trust my palate. Write your review the way you see it, and don’t apologize. You’re as “right” as the next guy; just be confident in your assessment. In the same context, I can’t tell you how often I tasted wine with MWs at events. I found the same phenomenon: even these highly-educated men and women often disagreed with each other over specific wines.

If you ask me which winemakers I liked best, take a look at the second book I wrote for University of California Press: New Classic Winemakers of California [2008]. Those 28 individuals are in there for a reason. It’s true I wanted heterogeneity in the book—to include younger and older men and, especially, women, and to have geographical diversity. But even using those criteria, California had multitudes to choose from. The plain and simple fact is that I liked Merry Edwards, and Billy Wathan, and Rick Longoria, and Heidi Peterson Barrett, and Adam and Dianna Lee, and Michael Terrien, and the Pisonis pere et les deux fils, and Kathy Joseph, and the rest. Oh, and by the way, they all were making great wine. I would not have included anyone, no matter how much I liked them, if they were making plonk!

Speaking of New Classic Winemakers, this is as good a place as any to record how I came to write it, and its predecessor book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River [2005]. Surely, having those two books published—and by so prestigious a publisher as University of California Press—was a high point of my career, one of which I’m proud.

In the 1990s, I’d tried to get a book published, together with my friend, Joel Butler, one of the first two MWs in the country. We put together a proposal and wrote a sample chapter (on Rhone grapes and wines), but we couldn’t get any interest from anyone. So I gave up the idea of writing a wine book.

One day, I think in 2002, I got a phone call from a chap named Blake Edgar. He said he was an acquisitions editor for University of California Press, in Berkeley. Might he take me to lunch? He might. He’d followed my career, liked my writing: would I write a wine book for him? About what? “Anything you want,” Blake replied. I was stunned. That’s not the way things are supposed to happen! Usually the only authors who are given carte blanche have proven track records, and even then, there are restrictions.

But that’s how it happened. Out of that came A Wine Journey along the Russian River (and don’t ask me why they didn’t capitalize “along,” but I’m not going to argue with University of California grammarians!). I told Blake I wanted to write a wine book that would read well in a hundred years, not some version of “My top-rated wines” or “The wines and vines of Sonoma County” that would be obsolete the moment it came out. The idea behind Journey was based on Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, which also was what Francis Ford Coppola based Apocalypse Now upon (and incidentally, after Journey was published, Coppola sold it in his tasting room). The central conceit was for me to travel the Russian River, north to south (or east to west, since it twists a lot), telling a story that would build to a climax at the end. Journey was equal parts history, geology (including plate tectonics), climate, wine regions, local personalities, individual wines and vineyards, and my overall take on things. Journey is, I have to say, a really good read; I hear from strangers to this day who email me to say how much they enjoyed it.

After Conversations came out, in 2008, people asked if I were going to write a third book. I’d tell them that my blog, which I’d started in May of that year and wrote five days a week, was my third book!

* * *

I’d heard of wine blogs since the early 2000s. At first, I thought they were stupid. The ones I saw were sadly lacking in wine knowledge and, worse (from my perspective) badly written. From time to time, people would tell me to start a wine blog. My reaction was always the same: I don’t think so!

But in May, 2008, I fired up the Steve Heimoff wine blog—the one you’re reading now, although it’s no longer just about wine. I just decided it was time. Maybe I sensed which way the wind was blowing, and wanted to be there. Maybe I felt creatively hampered at Wine Enthusiast, where I couldn’t really speak in my own voice; a wine blog, at least, would be all mine. Whatever my reason, I knew one thing: If I was going to write a wine blog, it was going to be the best goddamned wine blog in the English language.

And you know what? It was. Well, if not “the best” (and who’s to say?), certainly one of the most popular. I was astonished how fast it soared to the top. Partly that was because I started out with a huge advantage: name recognition. I was already famous. People were curious what Steve Heimoff, the esteemed and powerful wine critic, had to say on his blog. And it turned out I had plenty to say.

At first, I didn’t know what my format or style would or should be. I floundered along. Some of the early posts are really lame. Eventually it came to me: opinionating. But there was one post that really launched my blog into the stratosphere.

I began noticing, in the summer of 2008, references on other wine blogs to a wine from the Rodney Strong winery called Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon. I wondered what was up. Was it a coincidence that wine bloggers across America simultaneously decided to write about the same wine? What were the odds of that?

I learned that Rodney Strong had sent the wine to certain wine bloggers (but not to in-print critics like me) with a condition: they had to write about it. The Rodney Strong people didn’t tell them they had to like it, but the bloggers did have to promise to review it. As soon as I heard that, I recalled the wine scandals of yesteryear—the newspaper critic who was fired and other pay-to-play instances. The journalist in me thought that such behavior verged on unacceptable. You can’t strike deals with journalists. You can send them your wine if you want, and take your chances, but you can’t bargain with them beforehand. “If you do this, we’ll do this,” and so on. That’s not the way ethical journalism works.

So I wrote a post called “Did Rodney Strong Manipulate Wine Bloggers,” and the shit hit the fan. (Here’s a link to that post; it’s dated 2013, because I think that’s the last time I accessed it, but it’s the original 2008 piece. I promise that this is the only link you’ll find in these memoirs.)

My post got 79 comments, the most my blog ever got. It immediately propelled steveheimoff.com into the top ranks of wine blogs, a “must read,” and a controversial one. An ancillary result of this was the fierce, almost hostile criticism I encountered from some quarters; it was my introduction to the dark side of social media.

Nonetheless, I loved all the attention, loved the “juice,” the energy—what writer doesn’t crave being read? But my boss at Wine Enthusiast, Adam Strum, had different feelings.

In his view, which he did not hide from me, people—the general public and the wine industry—were confusing the Steve Heimoff who wrote the blog with the Steve Heimoff who worked for Wine Enthusiast. I thought that was silly. There was only one Steve Heimoff. He could walk and chew gum at the same time. I never reviewed wines on my blog—that would have been a conflict of interest. I self-edited myself all the time by asking, “Will this upset Adam?” Still, Adam found cause to complain.

Tension between us grew. Numerous times he asked me to drop the blog. I refused. Things reached a standoff: Adam was perfectly free to fire me but, on the other hand, I was his star writer, the California reviewer everyone liked and admired, whose credibility was unimpeachable. He might not have liked my blog, but he knew I was a great writer–he told me so–and that the industry read me every day—and that redounded to Wine Enthusiast’s benefit.

The situation peaked one night in San Francisco. Adam was hosting a large public wine and food tasting at the Opera House, one of the fanciest venues in town. The place was packed. The Wall Street Journal had arranged for a VIP lounge. Adam asked me to address them, which I was happy to do. I gave some general remarks—I don’t even remember what I said—when the Q&A period started. One of the first questions was about my blog. From there someone asked what I thought of the future of print journalism.

Now, I should explain that at this period (around 2010 or 2011), there was a great deal of speculation that print periodicals were dead, or at least mortally wounded by the Internet and the rise of social media. The 2008 Great Recession had happened; advertising, their major source of revenue, had fallen off the cliff at magazines and newspapers. The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle were said to be tottering on the edge; some newspapers and magazines folded. Bloggers were among the loudest voices proclaiming that “Print is dead, long live digital” although, of course, they were hardly unbiased.

My own view was that print was not dead; indeed, I thought it had a fine future. Yes, many print publications were bleeding money, but that was because of the Recession and loss of advertising, not because of blogs. When the Recession ended—and it would, they all do—advertising would return, and print would be better than ever.

That was the essence of my response to the Wall Street Journal. When my VIP talk was over, I went back down to the main floor of the Opera House, where many wineries were pouring samples, only to find Adam Strum coming at me with a look on his face I did not like.

“How dare you tell the Wall Street Journal that print journalism is dead?”

It was one of those WTF? moments. Excuse me, I didn’t say that. Seems that one of the Wall Street Journal employees in the VIP lounge, a P.R. person, had reported to Adam that, indeed, I had predicted the imminent demise of print journalism—which would have been a hugely un-diplomatic thing to say to people who made their living at one of the nation’s premier print newspapers!

Adam and I had a terrible row, right in front of all those guests (most of whom had no idea who either of us was) and winemakers and P.R. people (who did). Things got so bad that I asked Adam to step outside the Opera House if we were going to continue our conversation. On the steps of that ornate Beaux Arts building, Adam backed me against a wall—my thoughts drifted back to the commune, and Michael wedging me in the booth of the bar in West Springfield. I thought Adam was going to hit me.

It all turned out okay. He called a day or so later and we talked it out. I assured him I had not said print was dead, for a good reason: I didn’t believe it. I don’t know to this day how a supposedly professional P.R. person who worked for a credible publication like the Wall Street Journal could have mangled my real remarks so badly. But things were never the same between Adam and me. I loved him on some level, was deeply grateful to him for helping my career, and I respected his prowess as an entrepreneur. But personally, our relationship never recovered.

* * *

In the early Nineties, I took up the study of karate.

There are different styles of karate, or karatedo, as it’s properly known: Karate means empty hand, i.e., no weapons, while do means path, or way: The way of the empty hand. Our style was Wado, the way of peace: peace through strength, as it were. (Technically there are different schools within Wado, but to keep things simple, I’ll just call it that.) Traditional Japanese karatedo was introduced to Japan in 1922 by an Okinawan, the legendary Gichin Funakoshi. One of his top students was Hironori Ohtsuka, who founded the Wado style that blended in more fluid elements of Korean taekwando. Ohtsuka was the sensei of Yoshiaki Ajari, born in Tokyo in 1933. Ajari was my sensei.

Ajari was old school. He’d learned karate in Tokyo before World War II, before the Americans pablumized it with rainbow-colored belts and an “every kid succeeds” egalitarianism. Intensely aware of the honorable samurai tradition he had inherited, Ajari had been personally charged by Ohtsuka himself to introduce Wado to the North American continent when he, Ajari, came to California to study architecture. He was tough, but fair. And he was a real character; generations of black belts still tell tales of him.

Here’s what Ajari said to me when I won my first tournament. He’d been in another part of the arena and hadn’t seen. I rushed over to him to brag. Yes, I was proud of myself. “Sensei, I won!” He looked at me with something approaching deep contempt and said, in his halting Japlish, “I guess judge make mistake.” Then he turned and walked away. I had expected praise. Ajari never praised. Excellence was expected, was its own reward. But woe to you if you screwed up.

Karatedo was difficult for me physically. As a short man, I was fighting men six, eight inches taller, with correspondingly longer reaches—of arms for fist-punching and legs for kicking. They were not only taller than I, they were far younger. I didn’t begin the study of this martial art until I was 49. Almost all my sparring opponents were in their twenties or thirties.

I sought the advice of a friend of mine, a small Chinese-American man named Bien, who had attained his sixth degree black belt, the rokudan. “How do I fight against someone bigger, younger and faster, sensei?” “You must become a badger,” Bien advised: savage, vicious–a small animal that even larger creatures fear.

Sensei Ajari awarded me my shodan—first degree black belt—after four years. I continued my studies for an additional three and was on the verge of competing for my nidan—second degree—when joint pain struck, the result not so much of karatedo but of the arthritis of age. This also was when my wine career was burgeoning. Karate and wine writing both required prodigious amounts of time and energy. I had to make a choice—as I had to between working and standup comedy, as I had had to when I joined the commune. At the age of 58, I hung up my gi and retired.

I loved the practice of karatedo. It was a great privilege to study under someone so connected to so ancient a tradition, whose standards were so impeccable. Karatedo kept my body hard and lean, improved my self-confidence, made me feel better about myself, and, in the streets of Oakland that sometimes could be dangerous, gave me at least some measure of protection (although I never had to use it). I gave myself credit for sticking with it, even through the hard times when Ajari’s criticisms left me close to tears, and I’d wonder why I was doing this. But I knew sensei loved me, in his own weird, old-fashioned way—a way he could demonstrate only by toughness; had he not cared, he would have ignored me. And I knew that karatedo was good, not because it was easy, but because it was hard.

* * *

Meanwhile, gay life in San Francisco was getting crazier. The disease crested and took its violent toll, eventually causing thousands of deaths. I did not refrain from having sex, but I did stop the particular behaviors I thought were riskiest.

When I got the job at California College of Arts & Crafts, I commuted across the Bay Bridge every day to Oakland. It was a reverse commute, but still awful, and I came to dread it. One day in mid-1987, Eugene and I had a little talk. We’d been together five years. The relationship was getting threadbare. He worked from 3 p.m. to midnight, including weekends; I worked daytimes from Monday to Friday, and was in bed by 10 p.m. We barely saw each other anymore, and decided to put things on hiatus. I looked for a place in Oakland. This time, I wanted to buy, not rent. My mother gave me $20,000 (Jack had died in 1983), which was enough for a down payment on a little condo in the Adams Point neighborhood, a block up the hill from Lake Merritt and Lakeside Park. I still reside there, 33 years later. The neighborhood has gotten very trendy; people tell me how fortunate I am to have bought my place for one-seventh of what it would cost today. But in 1987, from an affordability point-of-view, the cost was pretty much the same. Without Gertrude’s help, I never could have afforded my little one-bedroom, 620-square foot condo for $59,000. And even if I sold it now, where could I live in the Bay Area?

The 1980s also was when my political consciousness awoke, or re-awoke. I’d always been kind of political. My parents, as I wrote earlier, were Democrats, Gertrude fiercely, Jack less so. Back at 760 Grand Concourse, when I was a little boy, the Heimoff family worshipped two human gods: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was chief deity, with Adlai Stevenson only a notch below.

My political awareness went into hibernation during the drug and commune period and for my first years in San Francisco, when school, work and sex eclipsed it. But it never fully went away. When Reagan was elected, shortly after I’d moved to San Francisco (and despite the assurances of my local friends that it would never happen because he was a madman), I hadn’t been particularly alarmed. But Reagan and his political advisors, such as Lee Atwater, eventually did something that did alarm me. They made a devil’s deal with the Christian right; Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority suddenly had great power. Their homophobia was reckless, insulting and insane. The clincher for me was one day when I was driving back to San Francisco from Cousin Ellen’s house in Malibu.

It was a Sunday morning. I was coming up the 101 Freeway through the Salinas Valley, flipping through the radio dial, looking for something to listen to besides mariachi. I came across a Christian church meeting; a fiery preacher was speaking to what sounded like a huge crowd, to judge from their thunderous roars. Here is what the preacher said; I’ve never forgotten it:

“We’ll reach out to the non-believers with love. We’ll pray for them and teach them the Word of God. We hope that they join us. But some of them won’t. They’re stiff-necked; they’ll resist the truth of Jesus. And do you know what we’ll do then?”

“NO!” screamed the crowd.

“We’ll surround them. And then we’ll drag them kicking and screaming into the tent.” More roars, clapping, amens, praise the lords. I had to pull over to absorb what I’d just heard. The preacher had referred to “them.” That obviously included me, a non-Christian, a gay Jew. They were going to try to convert me, but if I resisted—which I would–they would “surround” me and “drag me kicking and screaming” into some “tent.” I envisioned a frenzied mob of Christian thugs seizing me by the arms and legs. I’d find myself—where? What was this “tent”? Some kind of concentration camp? We’ve seen that before.

It was frightening. But it was a signature moment in my political-intellectual development. As a gay American—hell, as an American–I had no intention of seeing radical Christians seize control of my country and force people like me into some kind of religious gulag. I made a vow that moment to resist these people. I have lived true to that vow ever since. And when Donald Trump became president, I doubled down on my resistance.

  1. Jeff L Lefevere says:

    Just to set the record straight, my blog Goodgrape.com and me were the flashpoint for Rockaway. What was widely misconstrued at the time, and apparently to this day, is that Rodney Strong coerced anybody or made any demands for coverage. Not true. I conceived the coalition of bloggers all writing on the same day, I gathered the bloggers and I coordinated with Robert Larson who was complicit willing even, but riding shotgun. One could make an argument that he pulled a Fast one on me, but that was never my sense. And, the idea was to launch a luxury label online without MSM. At that point, I had cachet, at least among the wine and tech savvy crowd. Now, in hindsight, was my move the right one? I was a journalism major in college and aware of journalistic integrity. At the time, I was operating with the headiness of blogging having a platform and a voice, not necessarily equating it to print journalism standards. Anyways, thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  2. Dear Jeff, thanks, and you’re welcome. It’s interesting how blogging has sort of faded away isn’t it.

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