Steve Heimoff on Wine Blogs and Journalism
A guy from Brooklyn meets a guy from the Bronx inside an Oakland Whole Foods to talk about wine blogging and journalism. This is not a set up line to a cheap joke. It’s a real vignette that was the basis of yesterday’s post about the real Steve Heimoff. We did gab about the New York Yankees, since I’m a fan and Steve grew up across the street from the old Yankee stadium. But the South Bronx and Brooklyn reminiscence was nothing more than an ice breaker to a sincere exchange about the convergence of new wine media and traditional journalism. Mostly, it illuminated how Steve Heimoff managed through a career in both without compromising his own set of well defined values. I didn’t record the conversation, but serious note taking produced this recap with just a modicum of paraphrasing:
WZ: How many years were you writing for a living before you launched your blog?
SH: I started at the Wine Spectator in 1989. Jim Gordon hired me. I was set on writing about wine so I followed up with Jim every day. I told him he would either have to hire me or kill me if he wanted me to leave him alone.
WZ: Why did you leave the Wine Spectator?
SH: Jim Gordon was a great guy. But he not only hired me, he also fired me. I wanted to write for other publications at the same time on a freelance basis, but Marvin Shanken wouldn’t allow it. Yet, there was a travel editor on staff that was freelancing. Marvin insisted she had been writing before joining the Spectator, and her reputation had been established before he hired her. I wasn’t going to stand for that, nobody was going to own me. Not ever. Eventually it got to the point that Jim became the messenger of my termination.
WZ: What did you do before the Wine Spectator?
SH: I worked at a career center for a local college. I remember a Gallup poll that suggested 70% of Americans disliked their job. I always told the students that it was not all about the money and to find work at something you love to do. Stay focused on job satisfaction, not only money.
WZ: Did you practice journalism anywhere before you joined the Wine Spectator?
SH: Yes. I first got my stuff published in the East Bay Express. I took those clips down to the Oakland Tribune and landed a job there as a stringer. I would excitedly show up at 8:30 each morning to meet my editor, Pat, and pick through the possible stories for the one I would write that day. Everything from local murders to women wrestlers to reunited families. It was old time journalism with daily deadlines…sometimes I would phone in the story, you know, stop the presses…here’s the story. It was all very exciting and I was really loving life.
WZ: Do you write anywhere else now besides Wine Enthusiast or SteveHeimoff.com?
SH: No, isn’t that enough?
WZ: Why do you write?
SH: I love to write. Writing is like sex. I remember being 4 years old and picking up a pen to make circles on paper like cursive letters. Writing is never a burden. Deadlines are deadlines, but it’s never ever a burden.
WZ: Do you plan an editorial calendar for your blog or keep a notebook of ideas
SH: No, and it creates beautiful stress (smiling). Often I sit down at the keyboard not knowing what to write about. I have a bunch of links and alerts so I just hit the internet.
WZ: Is there a more organized editorial plan at the Wine Enthusiast that allows you to operate more loosely with your blog?
SH: Yes. One gets good at managing resources. Over the years the magazine has gotten more proactive about planning stories. It used to be where we would just say, ‘let’s do 2500 words on Napa Cab this month.’ It wasn’t very efficient, and sometimes you would submit close to deadline and hear ‘that’s not what we are looking for.’ Now we work out advance schedules in much greater detail. While it’s a templated schedule and I can plan in advance, when Mondavi dies, I have a major story to write at the last minute and all bets are off.
WZ: How does creating content for a traditional wine magazine help or hurt your ability to manage SteveHeimoff.com content creation efforts?
SH: The magazine job puts me in front of every kind of California wine business and I do get ideas. I think it helps.
It’s fun. What else could be as much fun as this? It’s the whole social media thing. It opened up a whole new dimension of life and level of involvement that I would not have otherwise had. When you are a print guy, assignments are ‘top down.’ The work does not even get published until months after you write it. To have stuff that is instantly online and then get instant feedback?…..Oh my god, I love that. Maybe like other writers I am a private person and it gets me into the world.
WZ: Does the magazine leverage the benefit it gets from you blogging at SteveHeimoff.com?
SH: I think there is a benefit (pause), I know there is a benefit. I don’t know how it is leveraged. I link frequently to the magazine. I hope I drive traffic there. I am also more visible in the California wine community, where most of the magazine’s advertising comes from. But I don’t think about that, and I don’t know how Adam Strum (Wine Enthusiast Head Honcho) thinks about it either. The magazine is making efforts now to get our social content fed into its site and social networks. But I don’t understand yet what we are actually going to do or how it will technically work, to be honest. I have to call my web developer even when I want to add a new category on my blog.
SH: I think what I know about online and offline wine media now…everybody gets. Traditional publishers’’ struggle with ROI problems. They need to spend more for the content but don’t have a clear path to monetize it.
I do it just for the love and pleasure. Is it just an act of faith? That it will pay off? If you make me think about it, then I guess I can say it has made my personal brand more layered.
But I am not sure I can measure the benefits in any specific way. I am not analytically oriented; you can see that. I have gotten some speaking engagements. You can say the industry likes what I do on the blog . When I started blogging I had no idea who I was writing for….no plan nor template. I never knew. Now look.
WZ: It seems like your blog gets a lot of engagement from the trade, but your audience levels prove you are being read my so many more consumers. Do you understand where your readers come from and who they really are?
SH: I really don’t. I am not sure who these people are or really how many of them there are….I don’t know how many people subscribe to the blog nor am I really sure what RSS means. When they comment and share anecdotes, I like it…it feels good. It’s nice to be liked.
WZ: Is it harder to make a living in journalism and traditional media in 2012 than it was in 1995?
SH: It is. Wine magazines are shutting down…. getting rid of staff. Nobody is starting wine magazines. I was very lucky in 1989. I forced my way in…who else wanted yo be a wine writer back then besides me?…nobody! Now, everybody wants in. Some of my once journalist friends that can’t find work have gone over to the dark side, doing PR and advertising in the wine industry. They manage to make a decent living, but I could never do that. You’ll never find me on the dark side. I am at the stage of life where I don’t feel I need to do anything I don’t want to do.
SH: (pause) I am not going to tell anyone what they should be doing more or less of. I don’t want to rekindle the wine blogger wars of 2008. It was nasty. I’ll say this…nothing goes uncovered anymore. Everything is out in the open.
Writers shouldn’t take themselves so seriously. If you are going to lampoon others, you have to be comfortable lampooning yourself. Wine critics take themselves way too seriously. They talk sourly about wines but never about themselves. It’s healthy to be transparent. Some of the most enjoyable things I ever created on my blog were humorous videos, especially the one that spoofs blind tasting. You should search it out. I want to do more video.n (Here is the link to Steve’s early vintage wine tasting video)
WZ: If you could move to any other regional wine beat in the world where would that be?
SH: Champagne, but it’s too cold, not like California weather. If Hawaii had a great wine industry….then there. But honestly, I like it here in California. I have been at it since 1989. My life in another region would be too short at this point. I always think about two different kinds of wine writers; those that talk broadly about a wide range of wines like Jancis Robinsn for example, and single regional focused people like myself. I would choose to stay in California. I love what I do.
WZ: Anything else you want to share about your perspectives on wine blogging or journalism?
SH: One of the reasons I like blogging is that it keeps me feeling younger. I like engaging with young people. They are a very honest, smart, and direct group. They keep me on my toes and remind me to never compromise my authenticity.
I am writing about what I want to write about. I love my blog’s integrity. I have defended that in every possible way. The very best and ultimate compliment I ever get is “good read.” I get it often and it’s worth its weight in gold. It makes me cry sometimes…. it’s such a source of great joy for me. In a life that can sometimes be hard and cruel, blogging is a warm safety net that I can get very emotional about.
Note: Steve has written two books including the 2005 release of A Wine Journey Along the Russian River and New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff published in 2007. His books are as personal to him as his blog, and he claims to have constructed his first book on the Russian River as a work that is not only relevant today, but will serve as a historical record for decades to come.