Do you remember when you first got into wine… when the wine bug bit you? For Steve Heimoff, it happened in an instant. It was 1978 and he was with his cousin in a Safeway supermarket in California. Lightning struck in aisle seven (okay, sorry, I have no idea what aisle it was), and from that day forward there was no looking back. It was true love at first sight.
“There was no way of explaining it,” Steve said to me in an interview I conducted with him a few weeks ago. “Zero to a billion miles an hour. I started buying books and hanging out in wine stores and picking the brains of clerks. You have to start where you start.”
When Steve was at Wine Spectator a dozen or so years after the supermarket moment, he wrote an article about getting bitten by the wine bug. He had spoken with many wine-collecting psychoanalysts and therapists trying to decipher the underlying code of this strange phenomenon (which, coincidentally I suffered from as well). It doesn’t appear that he ever got to the bottom of it, but in a blog post he wrote in 2008, he did say: “I still don’t understand what the ‘wine bug’ is and how and why it bites so improbably, but I don’t waste time anymore thinking about it. I’m blessed that the bug chose me to bite; wine has afforded me a great job for many years.”
And that is certainly the truth.
For over twenty-five years, Steve Heimoff has been one of the leading voices on California wine. He’s an acclaimed critic, author of two books and has one of the top wine blogs in the country. A blog, I may add that was an inspiration for me when I started my own journey into drinks writing. Most recently, Steve left his post at Wine Enthusiast to become the Communications and Content expert at Jackson Family Wines. And although this new role puts him on the opposite side of the table, he is still able to pursue the two things that he’s most passionate about in the world: wine and writing.
On the day I interviewed Steve in Boston, he had just completed a mini memoir on his blog, SteveHeimoff.com. It was a seven-post retrospective of his five decades in wine; the arc of his career as he put it. He wrote engagingly (as he always does) about getting into wine, pushing for his first assignments at Spectator, making the transition to Wine Enthusiast and then eventually becoming Steve 2.0 (his digital self). At the end, he left readers (and himself) with a big life question: What’s next?
And you’ve got to admit, that’s a valid question. For someone who is “five decades in,” who has tasted over 110,000 wines (and got “tendonitis from opening up all those bottles with a damn corkscrew”), who has travelled the expanse of California more times than he can count, and who has interviewed and befriended many of wine’s most iconic figures, “what’s next?” is a question that seems to make a lot of sense.
He even questioned if he’d continue on with the blog. (Gasp).
I asked Steve if he’d done everything he’d set out to do in wine; if there was anything else that he’d still like to accomplish. He shook his head no. “Well, if there’s one thing that I would kind of like to do but it’s too much work, would be to do verticals all over the world. But that ain’t gonna happen. So, no, I’ve done it all.”
I don’t know why I was surprised by that statement. But I was. And I don’t know if impressed is the right word or if it’s envy, admiration, reverence… I don’t quite know what I felt at the time. But I was slightly taken aback and genuinely happy for him. To find yourself at a moment of introspection and reflection and just know that you’ve done so many amazing things that were all driven by passion–that’s special. And what continued to become clear to me as we kept talking that evening was that Steve truly looks back on his journey with pride, fondness and a total sense of satisfaction.
Of course, he just has to convince himself of that a bit!
“I’m not normally a person that talks about being proud of things,” Steve said. “I sometimes need to be reminded by people who love me that I came out to California broke, with no job prospects, got fired from my first post-graduate job. In 1989, I went home miserable, embarrassed, humiliated, broke with a mortgage. And I said, I need to work for myself, and I need to do something I love so much that I’ll be the best person doing it in the world. The only thing I had was the ability to write. At two and a half years old, I would sit at my mother’s vanity, I would open one of her books and I would take a pencil and pretend to write in it because I liked how it looked.”
“There is nothing that replaces writing. I can be too tired to do anything else, but I can always write. Somehow writing makes me feel better, all the time.”
By the end of the 1980s Steve had figured out how to bring these two passions—writing and wine—together. “I was in San Francisco, and so was [Wine] Spectator,” Steve said. “It was not that hard for me to get a position. I was very persistent. Told Jim Gordon after 40 phone calls, ‘one of two things will happen, either you will give me work or you will have me arrested for harassment.’ And he laughed, because we had this phone relationship by that time, and one day he called up and gave me work. I was very lucky.”
Steve wound up spending only three years at Wine Spectator, but it was enough to give him the running room he needed for his wine-writing career to really take off. In 1994 he joined Wine Enthusiast where he would spend the next two decades, the bulk of his career.
Many of you may be familiar with Steve Heimoff through his blog. That’s where I was first introduced to him. It was around 2010, just a couple of years after he had launched his website, and I was considering starting my own drinks blog (which I eventually did in January 2011). I was immediately drawn to Steve’s style of writing. His words were so easy, so relatable, knowledgeable and genuine. He made reading about wine engaging in a way that few have accomplished. I quickly became a regular reader and rarely started a morning without checking in for the latest from Steve.
I clearly wasn’t the only one who felt this way because SteveHeimoff.com had amassed quite the readership by the time I found it. Of course, I doubt Steve thought much about that. To him, the blog was just another outlet to pursue his passions; another place where he could write (and, man, did he write! Steve’s output on his blog is essentially unmatched in the drinks blogosphere). The community that built up around it, the traffic, the respect… those were just secondary benefits.
Part of the reason I think Steve’s blog has stayed so relevant over the last eight years (aside from the fact that he has a seemingly endless amount of knowledge and ideas to share about wine) is that he is particularly good at sparking debate. There has always been this really intriguing friction around him that has continuously bubbled up in his blog comments and throughout the social/blogosphere. That draws people in. If you talk to those who read Steve or know him, they’re bound to have an opinion about what he has to say. In fact, just last week he posted an article called “From the Old Guard to the New Guard: Lighten Up,” which sparked a rather heated set of interactions amongst his readers.
In Steve’s case I think you can boil much of this friction down to three things: he’s incredibly passionate, he wears his heart on his sleeve, and he is an eternally curious journalist that’s not afraid to question or say what he thinks.
Despite what his audience may think, however, this whole digital thing—the process, the community, the feedback—has been full of learning and personal growth for Steve. “One of the things I got from social media that I did not know,” he said, “was transparency.”
“I did not have a concept of transparency, you know, my age, my generation, it didn’t exist. If you write something in the paper, I know I’m telling the truth, and you should believe me. To me it seemed so evident. Through my blog, people started writing in and saying like how do you taste? Nobody ever asked me that, nobody asked how I bagged my wines. You’ve got to tell the truth about anything, you can get asked about anything in a comment section, people finally had access to the ivory tower. I had never been asked these questions, and I suddenly was like, I gotta tell the truth. We all know what happens if you lie in such a way that someone finds out, it doesn’t matter who you are. The truth will never hurt you. Transparency is a noble value in communication. It’s right up there with correct grammar.”
A Career Change.
Just about a year ago, Steve left his career as a wine critic to go to work for one of the industry’s most respected families: the Jackson family. It was a huge shift, and one that Steve wrote about in his final entry to his seven-part memoir titled “I Go Over to the ‘Dark Side’.” Of course, sitting across from Steve, with me in the interviewer’s seat—a seat he had been in for the majority of his career–I had to ask: What was it like now that he was, literally, on the other side?
“The way I see it is I’m using the same muscles in a new sport,” he said. “Different sport, but it calls for the same skills. Writing, understanding wine history, tasting, palate. I put the ‘dark side’ in quotes because I don’t believe there is one. I had a friend who went into PR for Napa Valley and he was sort of embarrassed, and I told him that there’s no such thing as the dark side, and no matter what you do, you do it with dignity and integrity and honesty, you never lie, and that’s just the way it is. We all get paid. Everyone works for somebody else. Everybody’s aware of their lines, and you don’t cross certain lines. I don’t see it as the dark side, it’s very different but it’s also the same.”
So maybe he didn’t answer my question directly, but I think it’s safe to assume that Steve Heimoff is happy in his new role on the “dark side.” He has got a tremendous amount of respect for Jess Jackson and the Jackson family (which we’ll get into in Part II of this series), and whether this is his final act in an impressive career or just another stop along the way, you know that—no matter what side of the fence he is on—if he’s writing about wine, he’s doing what he loves; and if he’s doing what he loves, that’s all he needs.
Although Steve was unsure about continuing his blog when we met in Boston several weeks ago, he’s continued to write with as feverish a tempo as he has for the past eight years. I can only conclude that, for now at least, he’s decided to keep the blog alive. As for the other life questions, such as: Where does he go from here; well, you’ll just have to keep reading Steve’s blog to find out.
Stay tuned for Part II, in which Steve imparts massive amounts of wine knowledge while taking me through some of the Jackson Family’s portfolio. Also, check out Steve’s books, A Wine Journey Along The Russian River and New Classic Winemakers of California.
A huge thanks to Steve for treating me to a truly enjoyable conversation in Boston, and to Aimee Sands for making it happen. Cheers!