Fire and Fury: the Carr Fire in the heart of “Jefferson State”

 

I left Oakland for my drive north at noon on Saturday. The morning fog had burned off, and the sky was sunny and blue. I first smelled the fire 125 miles south of Redding, in Yolo County, north of Vacaville, even with all the car windows shut and the AC on. By the Colusa County line, the sky had turned a milky, opaque silver. It looked like fog, but wasn’t. It was smoke from the Carr Fire, drifting south. I parked the car to walk Gus. The smell! Dirty dog, like when Gus needs a bath. But it wasn’t Gus. It was ash, burnt wood, and lots of other incinerated stuff.

The farther north we got up the I-5, the darker and hazier the air became. Visibility was sharply reduced, and it was fiercely hot. At 3 in the afternoon on a late July day in the Sacramento Valley, that sky should have been blindingly blue, not mother-of-pearl.

In Red Bluff, 27 miles south of Redding, things were really bad. The haze was super-thick—this picture hardly does it justice.

And the sun was a weird, reddish-orange smudge in the haze,

Fire and Fury: the Carr Fire in the heart of “Jefferson State”

the way it must look from Neptune. The smell was very strong, very bad: a burnt-out fireplace. People were wearing face masks.

We stayed that night in Red Bluff. A few days earlier, I’d had an email from a guy who reads my blog, name of Alain Teutschmann, who owns Mount Tehama Winery, in Manton, a tiny town (population 347) southeast of Redding, in the Sierra Foothills. He’d read on my blog last week that I’d be in Red Bluff and wondered if we could meet. Sure. He took me to a dive bar—my favorite kind—out in the boonies, E’s Locker Room. They don’t have a website but they are on Facebook.

Alain–a lovely, interesting man, with a great back story–had read my comments about “Red Trump Land” and wanted me to experience “Jefferson State.” Here’s a picture of Alain in front of E’s:

Fire and Fury: the Carr Fire in the heart of “Jefferson State”

Here’s a poster on a tree that tells visitors they are now in the State, not of California, but Jefferson.

Fire and Fury: the Carr Fire in the heart of “Jefferson State”

We met the owner and the bartender, two very nice, young (to me) guys. Hard not to like them: salt of the earth types. Alain’s girlfriend, Betty, had joined us. We talked pretty passionately—I did, anyway—about politics, and the owner and bartender listened, but didn’t add much. I mentioned the Jefferson demand for “Smaller Government.” Then Betty—who by the way had evacuated her home–asked an interesting question. “I wonder, if we were an independent state, who would pay for putting out the fire?”

“Good question,” said the bartender, without offering an answer.

I wish he had. This is what these anti-government, anti-tax types never consider. There are thousands and thousands of firefighters (some of them dying), rescue personnel, private contractors driving heavy equipment (also dying), doctors and nurses, cops and law enforcement—you name it, fighting the Carr Fire and helping the people. Someone has to pay them. Someone has to pay for the gasoline for the water-dropping planes and vehicles. For that matter, someone has to pay for the paved roads the firetrucks and ambulances drive on. Someone has to pay for all of the infrastructure. And yet these tea party types demand “no government, no taxes.” With all due respect, I think they sit around at night drinking and getting stoned and complaining about “Big Gummint” taking all their money and giving it to the Blacks and Mexicans. Yet when their community is on fire they expect the Feds and the State to come in and rescue them.

What can you say to such unreasonable people?

I awoke on Sunday morning to nonstop local T.V. coverage: evacuation centers, reports by officials on the fire’s progress, weather forecasts, road closures.

Fire and Fury: the Carr Fire in the heart of “Jefferson State”

The weather was not favorable to the firefighters. The smell of ashes was stronger than ever. I departed Red Bluff northward with great trepidation, not knowing what I would find in Redding. Someone had said on Saturday night the I-5 was reduced to six miles an hour due to the gridlock of mass evacuations and ambulances and firetrucks. Getting through Redding, though, was easy. The freeway was mercifully free of vehicles. The good news, I suppose, was that the high temperature would be “only” 100 degrees, as against Friday’s 113. Humidity ten percent, winds gusting and erratic, exactly what the firefighters don’t need.

For the folks who live in these parts, the Carr Fire is a catastrophe. Redding has about 90,000 people. Add in a few thousand more for the little mountain towns to the west—the fire’s epicenter—and it’s still a small community. Thirty-eight thousand had already been evacuated—nearly half the entire regional population. Many roads were closed. And the death toll was rising: six by Sunday evening, with many areas still on fire, and thus unsearchable by rescue squads. As I drove on from Redding up towards my next stop, Medford, Oregon, I kept the radio on the local stations, and it seemed like everybody in the entire vicinity was volunteering to help: people offered their barns and pastures for displaced livestock, their homes for the evacuated, food, clothing, rides, cell phone chargers, prayers. That’s the best part of Jefferson State. But I like to think that would happen in Oakland, too, or anywhere in the U.S.

On the way to Medford, you pass Mount Shasta. Anyone who’s driven the I-5 knows how suddenly and awesomely it appears, this majestic, perfectly-shaped sleeping volcano, clad year-round in snow. There’s a Vista Point turnoff on the I-5. Here’s a rendition of what the mountain should look like from there:

Fire and Fury: the Carr Fire in the heart of “Jefferson State”

Here’s what I saw:

Fire and Fury: the Carr Fire in the heart of “Jefferson State”

Nothing. A nearly 10,000-foot tall mountain, totally obscured by smoke.

Even in Medford—200 miles north of Redding—the sky was filled with smoke, and the air quality was horrible. But there are fires here, too. There are fires up and down the entire West Coast. “Oregon is on fire,” the local T.V. news anchor in Medford said on Sunday evening. It’s terrible, horrible, heartbreaking. But Donald J. Trump and his allies tell us that climate change is a myth, that the weather isn’t getting hotter, that elite scientists and Democrats are lying. Please, Jefferson people, if you read this, think! Rise above your anger and use your God-given brain. You good people have backed the wrong side, and they’re screwing you blind.

A family trip (and one down Memory Lane)

 

I’m driving up to Seattle with Gus on Saturday for my grand-niece’s bat mitzvah. I could just fly, but I want to take Gus with me, and he’s not an official service dog, so that means the car.

It will be a slow trip, maybe 150 miles a day, with plenty of stops along the way. I’ll be going up on the inland route—Highway 5—instead of the Interstate 101, along the coast. Reason is, I get cold very easily, following a 2002 incident in which a rowboat I was on overturned in the cold Russian River. My friend and I were trapped in the water for a long time, and I developed hypothermia. Ever since, my body’s thermostat has been haywire, with the result that in the wintertime, in particular, I’m cold pretty much all the time. This past winter, all I could think of was being in the Central Valley this summer, where I could bake to my heart’s content and not be cold.

My route will take me through some pretty hot places, like Redding and Red Bluff. As I type these words (Thursday afternoon), Google tells me it’s currently 110 in Redding. The high tomorrow (Friday) will be 111. That’s pretty hot; in fact, the only other time in my life I experienced 111 degrees was years ago, in Paso Robles, when the heat was so crushing I had to take refuge in the air-conditioned library. I think I’m better prepared to handle the heat now, though. As for Gus, I’ll have to take extra care of him. He doesn’t like the heat, so we’ll walk in the early morning and later at night. And I’ll keep both of us hydrated.

I like going to out-of-the-way places that are off the tourist beaten path: Medford, Roseburg, Salem. It’s fun to explore these towns and small cities, checking out restaurants and bookstores, finding new bars, meeting new people, seeing the sights. Once you get out of the Bay Area and up towards the California-Oregon border, you leave Blue State territory and enter Red land. Siskiyou County went for Trump over Hillary 56.5% to 35.8%. Shasta was even more lopsided, 65.6% to 28.2%. Locals call that part of the country “Jefferson,” and they wouldn’t mind not being part of either California or Oregon. There are also a lot of libertarians. It will be interesting the meet some of the Trumpers, have a few beers or whatever with them, and sound out their feelings about Trump. After all the scandals and lies, are they having second thoughts?

In case you don’t know what a bat mitzvah is, it’s the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony for girls (for boys, it’s a bar mitzvah). It happens at the age of 13. Here’s a picture of me at my bar mitzvah:

Cute, huh!  That was a long time ago. Dwight Eisenhower was president, but JFK was running hard, and I was already attracted to him through the T.V. A year or so later, after he’d gotten the nomination, I read in the New York Journal-American that he would be at a campaign stop at the Concourse Plaza Hotel, which was just a few blocks away from my building in The Bronx. (The Concourse Plaza was where the New York Yankees lived during the season.) I sawed the handle off one of my mother’s brooms, bought a big piece of posterboard and wrote, with a big Magic Marker, “All the Way with JFK!” When I got to the hotel, there were sawhorses set up at the side entrance and only a few cops and spectators. A black car pulled up and JFK got out. He stood, straightened his tie, gave me a little smile with a nod of the head when he saw my sign, and disappeared inside. That was the closest I ever got to a future President of the United States.

Telling that story reminds me of a Mickey Mantle moment. I was a real autograph hound as a kid. The Yankees were easy to find during the season (they’d shop at the local A&P supermarket, buy pastries at G&H Bakery, wait in line for smokes at the drugstore), and you could always spot a Mantle, a Berra, Ford or Kubek on the street, and mostly they’d be happy to sign an autograph book.

But Mantle had a reputation among us kids. He could be super-charming, but if he’d had a bad day (like striking out a lot, which he did), he could be mean. You never knew. (Of course, we now know that he was an alcoholic.) I already had his autograph six times, but when I saw him that day, crossing 161st Street, I wanted #7. I caught up to him at the pedestrian island. “Mick, can I have your autograph?” Evidently, he’d had a bad day, for he shoved me to the ground and walked away.

Can you imagine a professional baseball player physically assaulting a little kid today? Headlines! Lawyers! Big trouble! But those days were different. Actually, I didn’t mind it in the least. I was shoved by Mickey Mantle! Pretty cool!

Have a great weekend. More on Monday.

Remembering Sensei

 

Sensei Ajari was the most infuriating man I ever met.

He was a complete narcissist. My friend Bob, no mean karate warrior himself, used to joke about “the legend of Ajari—in his own mind.” But Ajari had reason to think highly of himself. He was an eighth dan Wadokai Wadoryu karateka, the highest-ranked in North America. He had studied under Wadoryu’s founder, Hironori Otsuka, who himself was a senior student of Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of modern karate. So that was really something, and Ajari never let us forget it.

He demanded much of his students, although no more, and probably less, than was demanded of him, when he was coming up, in pre-war Tokyo. One Christmas, we, the senior members of the dojo, gave him a fax machine for a present. Big mistake. Every night, around 11 p.m. and into the wee hours, the noisy WHHHRRRRRR would awaken me. A drunken Sensei was faxing more of his “philosophical observations” for me to edit and word-process. His chicken scrawl was virtually indecipherable. Yet I knew he would expect the pages, neatly printed out and lovely to read, at our next class. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent working on those essays. He even made me work every Saturday at the YMCA kids’ class.

If you were looking for compliments, though, Sensei was not the guy. I won a kata competition in my very first karate tournament. So proud and excited! The event was in a high school gym, and Sensei, who was judging something else, had not been watching. I ran over to him and said, “Sensei! I won!”

I don’t know what I was expecting, but Sensei just gave me that look—cold, imperious—and replied, in his Japlish, “I guess judges make mistake.” Then he turned his back and walked away, leaving me standing there, feeling baffled and foolish. But he had taught me something. Never expect praise!

The opposite—“never expect blame”—was not true. Sensei could be harsh, extremely so. Rude, insulting, intemperate. My sempai—my seniors, the black belts who came before me—told me that Sensei had trained upwards of 1,000 black belts over a 40-year career, and almost every one of them had quit his dojo, in anger and sadness, because of Sensei’s meanness. Much later, I came to do the same thing.

Yet he could be the most endearing of men; “Ajari stories” were fixtures of generations of his pupils; everybody had one. I once was thrown, during a practice, and dislocated my index finger. It looked horrible. I went to Sensei to show it to him. Without preamble, he grabbed my hand, gave the finger a yank, and straightened it out. “Finger fix,” he announced. Mister Miyagi.

When I got my shodan black belt, Sensei proclaimed “old Japanese custom. Now black belt take Sensei out.” That meant: Sensei consumes massive quantities of nigiri and sake, and black belt pays! We used to go to a local sushi joint in my Oakland neighborhood. Once, he pointed to one of the itamae and told me, in a whisper, “That guy yakuza.”

“Really, Sensei? Japanese mafia?” Only I said it out loud. Sensei immediately panicked. “Shh! No say loud.” But I never saw him worry about anything. If anything, he became obstinate and combative when challenged.

Those sushi dinners were really something. He would consume a magnum of sake over the course of a meal. Since he lived in El Cerrito, we would never let him drive home; he could barely walk, much less negotiate a car at night. So one of us would drive him, or take him to BART and hope he could find his way.

The breaking point for me was on the night Ken was going for his black belt. I was Ken’s sempai. He was my kohai—junior. He was my responsibility. They explain the sempai-kohai relationship to you very early when you start karate. It is simple, based on militaristic principles. The kohai must obey the sempai without question. And yet the sempai must show lovingkindness to the kohai and always keep his welfare in mind.

In the days and weeks leading up to Ken’s dan, I repeatedly asked him if he desired my help. Part of the test involves the black belt candidate teaming up with another student to explain the meaning of the moves in a particular kata. This is called “bunkai,” or analysis. A move might involve rotating the right arm, bent at the elbow at 90 degrees, hand in a fist, and sweeping it clockwise across the chest and face, followed immediately by a 90-degree rotation of the body to the left and a similar sweeping movement of the left arm. The candidate knows the theoretical meaning of these moves; in the dan, he must demonstrate how they function against an actual opponent.

Bunkai is not easy and requires practice. If both partners know what they’re doing, bunkai is beautiful to see, like a graceful dance, a pas de deux of attacks and blocks and counter-attacks. If the partners don’t know what they’re doing, it’s ugly. I had explained to Ken that he had to practice his bunkai with another student, and he had promised that he would do just that.

Well, the big night came. Ken’s did all his required performances—the kihon, the kata, the theoretical, the jiyukumite–as the three judges, led by Sensei, watched, and then it was time for his bunkai. Ken turned to me, bowed, and asked me to be his bunkai partner. I had not known he would do that! I had expected him to have chosen someone else—Mikhail, probably, who was just below me in the pecking order. Now, suddenly, I had to take the floor and go through 45 kata moves with Ken, completely unrehearsed.

It was a fiasco. Afterward, the judges retired for their deliberations. I said to Ken, “You told me you’d been rehearsing!”

“Sorry, sempai,” he replied. I wanted to strangle him.

Ken was not promoted that night. As the class sat in seiza, the Japanese kneeling position, Sensei called my name.

I rose, bowed deeply, and waited.

“Yeah, Steve Heimoff, you Ken sempai, you disgrace, you let him down.”

No amount of explanation sufficed. In fact, there could be no legitimate explanation in Sensei’s code, which was an ancient one: you either did your duty or you didn’t. I had let Ken down, Sensei down, Otsuka down, Funakoshi down, karate down, a thousand years of samurais down.

I was furious. After ten years of loyal, dogged service to Sensei—ten years of being his slave, his secretary, his punching bag—this was what I got: insults and public ridicule, for something that was not my fault. The next day I informed the dojo I was quitting. My fellow students, who liked me, protested. They brought me out for sushi and tried to get me to change my mind. I said I would return, but only if Sensei apologized. They went to him and came back and said, “He will never apologize. It’s not in him. Yet he knows he was wrong, and he is sorry. If you return to class, he will let you know, in his own way and in his own time.”

I suppose I was looking for a way out. I was already in my mid-fifties. My body was no longer what it had been. Moreover, my job was getting more demanding. It was simply no longer possible for me to practice karate three or four nights a week. Part of me had been wanting to retire for a couple of years, but retiring from karate, and from the karate lifestyle, with its camaraderie, is not easy. Nor was it easy to part with Sensei. For all that he infuriated me, he had become central to my life. He was the father-figure I could never please, whose love I was never good enough to earn.

In the end, there was no apology. The Japanese emperor Hirohito apologized to America when he surrendered after World War II, but Yoshiaki Ajari could not apologize to me.

I saw Sensei only one time after that, a few years later, when we were both on the 19th Street BART platform. Eye contact. Little semi-bows; no words. And then, last week, a friend told me Sensei had died. He would have been at least 85 years old, so his demise wasn’t shocking, but what stunned me was that I hadn’t heard anything through the grapevine. I would have thought someone would have organized some kind of memorial service. But there was nothing. Just, I suppose, a lot of people, like me, with a lot of memories of a stubborn, curious old man whom, for better or worse, we will never forget.

Reflecting on the Golden Age of Wine Critics

 

 

Michael Mondavi, whom I’ve known for a long time, invited me to lunch the other day. Over a leisurely meal of sushi at Ozumo in Oakland, our chat naturally ranged all over the board, wine-wise, but it certainly included a good deal of reminiscing.

Hey, that’s what you do when you reach a certain age!

Michael, who’s a few years older than I, told me many charming anecdotes about his Dad I’d never before heard. Surely Robert Mondavi’s legend will only continue to grow as his place in wine history—iconic and inimitable—becomes ever more heroic. Tinged throughout our conversation was a certain wistfulness that bordered on nostalgia. The “good old days” seemed just fine to us, although one does always have to keep in mind Proust’s epigram: “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”

Be that as it may, Michael prompted me to reflect on my time as a wine writer and critic, and it immediately became clear to me that I had lived through, and thoroughly enjoyed, being a part of the Golden Age of Wine Critics. One must be careful, too, of promiscuously applying the term “golden age” to things. There was a golden age of Greece, for sure, but the phrase contains a pejorative in its implication that the high point is over; never again will Greece be as spectacular as she was in 500-300 B.C.

We were long told that television’s golden age was in the 1950s: I Love Lucy, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Alfred Hitchcock, Gunsmoke, The Twilight Zone, and some of the greatest live drama ever on such series as Kraft Television Theatre and Playhouse 90. But some critics also celebrate the television of our current era as the golden age, with Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, The Sopranos and others too numerous to mention. So when was T.V.’s golden age–in the past, or is it all around us right now? One might paraphrase Zhou Enlai, the former Chinese foreign minister (under Chairman Mao), who, in reply to a query concerning his opinion of the French Revolution, said, “It’s too early to say.”

Still, I don’t think it’s too early to say that the years (roughly) from 1978 to 2008 were the Golden Age of Wine Critics. I date the start at 1978 because that is the year some of the major guidebooks to California wine first appeared; also the year Wine Spectator began gaining traction, and was in fact the year Robert Parker launched The Wine Advocate.

As for my end date, 2008, that was the year the Great Recession struck in all its force, with still unquantifiable repercussions in the wine industry; but more importantly 2008 marked the emergence of social media onto the American and world stage, as cultural pattern-shifters of major import. The important critics remained vital, but you could feel their importance fading among a younger generation that preferred the crowd-sharing intimacy of twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs to the sage counsel of older white Baby Boomer males pronouncing verdicts from lofty ivory towers.

Thus we had a span of thirty years, which is just about right for a cultural era, before it expends its energies and is replaced by some other paradigm. And it was my privilege to have been a successful part of that brief, shimmering illusion.

What a time it was! To have been at or near the center of vitality in the industry, especially here in California, which in many ways established itself as the center of the wine world. Not only in production, but in media, in the emergence of “celebrity winemakers,” in a wine-and-food culture especially along the coast, in wine getting interwoven into popular movies (Disclosure, Sideways), in wine becoming a huge public interest, when consumers needed all the help they could get figuring out what to buy, and we wine critics were more than happy to help them.

Never again, I suspect, will wine critics be treated with the reverence by producers as we were during those thirty years. We were courted and flirted with, wined and dined, as proprietors both wealthy and famous, and not-so-rich and obscure, sought the imprimatur of our good scores. We were interviewed by radio, television and magazine journalists seeking insight into our glamorous and esoteric lifestyles. We were asked to write books by major publishers, and trotted out as celebrities on the tasting and dining circuits. We were aware of that fact that a good review could deplete a particular wine overnight, while a bad one could jeopardize the owner’s ability to make payroll. We even, some of us, ended up in the movies.* We were part of an exclusive elite, and we knew it, although we tried to keep our fame in perspective. I did, anyhow: fame is fleeting, too soon gone, and containing nothing of value in itself, so that humility has much to recommend it.

I wonder how historical writers of the future will record this era of wine critics. Will they say the country went temporarily insane, giving so much power to such a motley crew? Will they view it as a necessary transition—sort of a set of training wheels–during which Baby Boomers went from near-total ignorance of wine to a near-obsession with it? Will there be a new golden age of wine critics that will be even more splendid than the old one? One thing’s for sure: no single wine critic will ever again enjoy the power that a handful of us did.

It was fun. Yet when I quit my job, on Sept. 2, 2016, I put the wine industry behind me forever. I think I left at exactly the right time: the torch was being passed, the times had changed, the practice of wine criticism was getting (for me) a little too baroque and stylized. And the playing field had definitely become mobbed. I personally like some elbow room. I have plenty of it, now. Goodbye, golden age of wine critics! It was a blast.

 

__________________________________________________________

 

* My brief appearance in Blood Into Wine

 

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1394383/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm

 

was the high point of my film career!

Unicorn wines, and maybe unicorns in Napa

 

When did all this talk about unicorns get so crazy? Suddenly, it’s unicorn this, unicorn that. Fifty-five million results on a Google search, of which this one, published earlier this year in Fortune, is most explanatory: “a unicorn is a private company, valued at $1 billion or more, and they’re seemingly everywhere, backed by a bull market and a new generation of disruptive technology.”

New, over-priced tech companies. Hmm. We’ve seen this before, haven’t we? Back in 2000 we called it the “dot-com bubble,” the catastrophic melt-down of a short era in which seemingly any company that ended with a dot-com enjoyed meteoric growth on the stock market. A good example was a startup called onsale.com. It was popular for a while after amazon.com got too expensive for most people to afford. I should know; I bought a bunch of onsale, and got slaughtered when it collapsed, along with all the other phantom dot-coms.

Now, the word “unicorn” is being applied to wineries. Wine Spectator picked up the term from Twitter back in 2013, quoting Raj Parr’s tweeted definition: “A [unicorn] wine that is ‘rare,’ ‘not seen much’ ‘special bottlings.’ Not always the most expensive but just hard to find.” By 2015, unicorn wines were all the rage in somm circles: the Wall Street Journal said “they confer[red] status not by cost but by the skill—or luck—it takes to acquire one.” Eater jumped into the fray, describing unicorn wines as a new category of wine taking hold in Manhattan—the once in a lifetime bottles that every sommelier dreams of drinking, and bragging about, before they die.” Eater’s list was exclusive to Old Europe, mainly France. You would never find a California wine on a unicorn list, especially not in Manhattan.

Most recently, here’s Wine Spectator again, with Dr. Vinny asking the question, “What is a unicorn wine?” and pointing out that the opposite of unicorn wines are “first-growth Bordeauxs, or ‘cult’ California Cabernets.” Interesting. Not that long ago “cult California Cabernets” were the hottest wines in the world, coveted by everybody. Can it have been only eight years ago that the San Francisco Chronicle called Aubert, Ovid and Sloan “six cult wines to covet”? Today, you won’t find them on anyone’s unicorn list. They’re more like your great-grandfather’s wine than something the cool kids drink.

By the way, the hashtag #unicornwine still gets a lot of play on Twitter, although the category finally seems to be opening up to include California wine—as long, that is, as it fulfills the requirements of being rare and impossible to get. Someone tweeted a link to an Instagram post from “Mcvino82,” who posted this pic of an Inglenook 1978 Petite Sirah with the hashtags #unicornwine and (funnily) #whereisfreddame.

So a nearly 40-year old California Petite Sirah just might qualify as a unicorn. Story time: Years ago, I was on one of my first assignments for Wine Spectator, to interview a wealthy rock-and-roll lawyer who lived in the Hollywood Hills and was a bigtime wine collector. As I pulled into his driveway, a UPS truck was unloading case after case of Dominus, Dunn Howell Mountain, Opus One, Petrus, Tignanello—you get the idea. As we shook hands I tried to make small talk and said, “Man, I see you like the good stuff.”

He pointed with his chin to the stacks of cases on his driveway and said, “That? Nah, I hate it.”

Wow. “Then why do you buy it?” I asked, mentally doing a financial calculation of the cost.

“Look,” he explained, “those are what I call ‘pissing wines.’ You know how, when you’re kids, you have contests to see who can piss the furthest? Well, ___ and ___ [and here, he mentioned some real Hollywood heavyweights] invite me to their homes, and they serve Petrus ’66, so I have to invite them here and give them Petrus ’64.”

I took that in. Then I asked, “So, if you don’t like these wines, what do you like?”

“Ahh!” he grunted, grabbing me by the elbow. “Let me show you.” He led me to his backyard, where he’d dug a storage cellar into the hillside. Rummaging through the racks, he pulled out a bottle. It was a Petite Sirah from San Benito County whose producer, even on that day 25 years ago, was long defunct. “This is what I like!” he exulted.

“What do you like about it?” I asked.

“I like it,” he replied, “because no one else can get it!”

That was the rock-and-roll lawyer’s unicorn wine. So, you see, there’s nothing new about the concept, only the word. And while we’re on the topic of fantasy, it looks like Napa may be getting ready to allow marijuana dispensaries within the city limits. It’s far from a done deal, but I can see a time when upscale tasting rooms selling sips of unicorn wines will also offer unicorn weed to inhale, leading to the very real possibility that tourists emerging from these establishments, staggering down the street, may visualize actual unicorns.

Photo credit: goodmenproject.com

When drinking is your job

 

I can relate to Richard Betts, the 44-year old “alcohol entrepreneur” whose drinking is “endemic to his work.” Profiled in the Wall Street Journal last Thursday, Mr. Betts described how he avoids the “belly” and other unpleasant consequences of the near-constant drinking he does as part of his job; the Master Somm is on the road 300 days a year, working for restaurants and running his mescal company.

When I first became a paid wine writer, I quickly grokked that there’s a lot of drinking and eating that goes with this job. That can expand the waistline quickly, and also lead to other, potentially serious problems. So I made the determination not to let it happen to me.

I was fortunate in that, when I was 14 years old, my uncle, who was our family physician, made me go to the YMCA three times a week, after school. He was a union doctor; among his patients at the “Y” were some old Golden Glovers, a little punch drunk but sweet, whom he had teach me the fundamentals of weightlifting. Other kids might have protested against this forced diversion. I didn’t—in fact, I loved it, and going to the gym became a lifelong habit I practice regularly to this day.

A little later, in my twenties, I took up road and trail running and, eventually, when I moved to San Francisco, became a serious competitive runner. Being short, with a low center of gravity and strong thighs and glutes, the City’s hills were a natural for me. I did well in my races; my best performance ever was fourth place in my age group in Bridge to Bridge, one of the City’s biggest races. I don’t run much these days (knees) but compensate for it with 60- to 70-minute aerobic workouts at 24 Hour Fitness, where I do a combination of recumbent bike, stairmaster, treadmill and ellipticals.

The result is that after decades of drinking and eating I’m still close to fighting trim. And when I’m on the road and don’t have the time or opportunity to work out, as soon as I get home I can’t wait to get back to the gym, where I’ll spend hours happily lifting weights and burning calories.

It’s important to work out no matter what your job is, but in our realm of food and wine it’s even more important. I try to eat well when I’m home, because it’s difficult to be selective on the road, where large meals and convenience foods often are the order of the day. I’m also lucky that, when I was in my twenties, I had a group of lady friends who were definitely into being healthy. I vividly remember the day they stopped me when I was eating a Twinkie and gave me a stern lecture on the evils of white sugar and processed flour. They freaked me out; to this day, I barely touch sweet things. You’ll never find cookies or cakes or anything like that in my house, and at dinners with friends, I’m the one who declines dessert (although I will take a bite of yours if you insist!).

(By the way, dental hygiene is also very important for people who drink a lot, particularly when it’s red wine. I’ve seen more blackened teeth in this business than I care to remember.)

So, point being that I feel entitled to give a little advice to up-and-comers. Eat well! Drink well! It’s a great perk of the job. But watch those calories. It’s a lot easier to avoid putting on weight than it is to lose it once it’s there. It breaks my heart to see young bloggers, PR folks, winery personnel and others swell up, men and women alike, after a few years, because they didn’t know that a fun lifestyle can also be a destructive one.

How does our taste in alcohol change over time?

 

When I was a young man I didn’t care at all for wine, except for its obvious ability to make a college freshman (me) drunk. Years later, I learned to appreciate and eventually love wine. At first I sought out Cabernet Sauvignon because that was the wine all the critics at that time (the 1980s) said was the most important grape and wine, at least here in California.

At about that time I got my first wine writing job, at Wine Spectator, where they assigned me The Collecting Page, which appeared in every issue. My job was to write articles of interest to wine collectors. I got to know most of the top collectors in America (they all wanted to have their pictures and names in the magazine, so they returned my phone calls and in some cases they sought me out). One thing I learned about these wealthy, white, middle-aged men was that, almost to a person, they had started out with a preference for Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux, then graduated to Pinot Noir/Burgundy. That was my first intuition that our tastes in booze change over time.

Of course it’s well known that many people begin liking sweet wines and only gradually move onto dry table wines, so that’s another calibration in the booze evolutionary scale. With me, a love of Pinot Noir took some time, because there wasn’t very much decent Pinot in California, and I certainly couldn’t afford to buy good Burgundy. But by the mid-1990s there was enough good Pinot, from the likes of Williams Selyem, Rochioli and so on, that I learned to love it. However, I never loved it more than Cabernet. To me, they were separate, but equal.

However now my tastes are definitely changing. I’ve acquired, or I should say re-acquired, a taste for beer—good beer, craft beer, not the watery stuff produced by America’s gigantic brewers. I’m not sure why this has finally happened to me. Beer has an umami quality that I simply crave, especially for my first drink of the late afternoon. Maybe it’s the fizz.

I’ve also acquired a new-found appreciation for liquor, particularly vodka. Again, I can’t say why this is. My favorite is a gimlet: good vodka and freshly-squeezed limes. None of that sweet Rose’s, please, and if you happen to have a basil leaf, feel free to muddle it in, but not too much; the basil should be a subtle background taste.

This isn’t to say I don’t still appreciate wine. I certainly do. I continue to love a good, dry white wine, no matter where it’s from: California, Sancerre, Chablis. It’s in the matter of red wines that I find my bodily tastes changing the most. I can still appreciate a red wine, but it really has to be a very good wine. For me, red wines show their flaws more readily than any other wine; and the chief flaw is a certain heavy blandness that can come with an over-emphasis of fruit. Many, many California red wines suffer from this flaw; a little fruitiness goes a long way, and if the wine is out-of-balance in acids and tannins, the flaw is even more obvious. Another way of putting this is that I can appreciate a good beer, white wine or cocktail by itself, but most red wines are more difficult for me to enjoy unless they’re coupled with the proper food.

It’s funny, though, because I still find myself mentally rating wines, even though it’s going on two years (!!!) since I was a working wine critic. Old habits die hard. Take California Cabernet Sauvignon. There are lots of them I’ll score at 92, 93 points, even though they’re not particularly wines I care to drink, except, as I said, with the right foods. But there’s a twist: most of these big red wines call for beef, and I’m not much of a beef eater. (I think of lamb as a Pinot Noir food. Pigs and Pinot, as we say.) So even though my formal training is in rating and reviewing big red wines, and I’m pretty good at it, those same wines play less and less of a role in my private life.

I’ve also evolved to another more interesting point, at least for me. I’ve cellared wine since, like, forever! But I’m finally at the point where I’m starting to drink my older bottles. I figure, I’m not going to be here forever, and those special occasions I always fancied would justify popping the cork on a 15-year old wine seem to come a lot less frequently than they used to. So why wait? What’s the old saying, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

El Nino is starting to hit us here in California. One storm after another, with a biggie scheduled to roll in on Thursday. But the week beyond that is dry, and our state water officials are warning us, with some urgency, not to stop conserving just because the “monster” El Nino is coming. So we’ll just have to wait and see what January, February, March and April bring.

A wine and food festival in The Bronx

 

The Bronx Wine and Food Festival! Who woulda thunk?

I am a proud Bronxite. I lived at 760 Grand Concourse for seventeen years, in the same 4-room apartment with my parents and older sister. It wasn’t until I went away to college, in Massachusetts, that I left The Bronx—and even then, I returned often to my parents’ apartment, on holidays. So I know the Bronx inside out—and believe me, The Bronx is the last place on earth I ever expected to have a wine and food festival! (Well, maybe Kabul is more unlikely…but not by much.)

When I lived there, The Bronx was home to the greatest number of Jews in the world, outside Israel. But it was a very ghettoized borough. Across the tracks, in the East Bronx, were the Puerto Rican neighborhoods. Scattered here and there through central and North Bronx were Italian and Irish enclaves, marked by the presence of 19th century Catholic churches constructed invariably of red brick. There were African-Americans, but not many: in those years, black people tended to live in Harlem.

In other words, these were not populations that drank wine! But they did celebrate their food traditions. Jewish “culinary” tradition consisted of the foods our Eastern European and Russian ancestors ate in the shtetl—what we today would call “deli”: lox, smoked whitefish, brisket, egg noodles, bagels and lox, boiled meats like corned beef and pastrami.

Over the decades after I left, The Bronx, particularly the southern end where I grew up, went through another demographic shift. The Jews left; Puerto Ricans and other Caribbean nationalities (Haitian, Dominican) moved in. Once, when I visited my old homestead in the late 1990s, most signs of the Jewish past had disappeared: there were bodegas instead of delis, but what was eerie was that the infrastructure of my childhood—the six-story apartment buildings, the old wrought-iron lampposts, Joyce Kilmer and Franz Siegel parks, the imposing statuary of The Bronx County Court House—remained. It was a very emotional visit.

Since then, I’ve followed media reports on how The Bronx has become “the new Brooklyn,” with invasions of yuppies taking advantage of cheap rents and easy subway access to midtown and downtown Manhattan. (They also call Oakland “the new Brooklyn.”) It is, I suppose, this upscale-ization of The Bronx that prompted the organizers to launch this Bronx Wine and Food Festival, which occurs in conjunction with—hold your breath—Bronx Fashion Week.

Well, The Bronx as cultural hatchery is nothing new. My borough was the home of Hip Hop; also of Anne Bancroft, Carl Reiner, Penny Marshall, Gen. Colin Powell, Calvin Klein, Dominic Chianese, Tony Curtis, Ralph Lauren, John F. Kennedy (yes, he was born in the Riverdale section). E.L. Doctorow, Danny Aiello, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Incidentally, why do I capitalize “The” on “The Bronx”? Because we were taught as schoolkids that the borough was named after an early Dutch settler, Jonas Bronck. He had a farm up there when it was all countryside. If people from Manhattan visited Jonas, they’d say they were going up to “The Bronck’s place.” “Bronck’s” became “Bronx,” while the use of “the” was akin to the way in San Francisco they say “The Mission” (for the Mission District) or The Sunset (for the Sunset District).

I’d love to go to The Bronx Wine and Food Festival. I won’t make it this year: maybe in 2016!