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Monday Manifestos
Stop The Anti-California Nonsense

I hear it all the time. You blare out “I don’t like California wines.” OK, but why is that you then follow that with an “oh, but”. It is time for the makers of “oh but” journalism to stop. You cannot tell me that you don’t like California wine, that they are all overripe and have nothing but primary fruit going for them, that they are “dreadfully generic”, that “they have become parodies of themselves”, that you like “quiet, not noisy wines”, and then add “oh but”.

You know who you are and you have to stop doing that, and then saying “oh, but” you do happen to like Failla Syrah or Dehlinger Pinot Noir or O’Shaughnessy Howell Mountain Cabernet. You have to stop telling me that Riesling is supposed to taste like mineral water with wine instead of water. In short, you have to stop insulting my intelligence with you backhanded compliments as if to cover you ass with faint praise—all the while intimating that if you have not named any other producers that you like, then all those other wines are some form of dreadful generics or parodies of themselves.

I know you mean better. I know you really like some California wines. I know you know that there are plenty of finely balanced, flavorful, complex Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, Cabernet Sauvignons and Sauvignon Blancs. I know you know that there is more dull, boring wine in Bordeaux or Rioja than your comments suggest. I know you know that not all Burgundies taste like Romanee-Conti or Le Montrachet. I know you know that the beauty of Riesling is in its fruit—it is not called an aromatic wine for nothing.

I don’t care one way or another if you like California wines or you like high acid, green wines from somewhere across the pond. There are no disputes in matters of taste. But when you write in your newspaper or blog or book that you do not like California wine except for some chosen names, I get concerned. You see, wines like Failla Syrah or Dehlinger Pinot Noir are not unique. Yes, they are very good, but they are not unique. There are hundred more like them. And you tell me that you do not like California Chardonnay because they are too oaky, overripe and too low in acidity, and I then suggest that you try wines like Paul Hobbs Ritchie Vineyard, and you tell me “I love his wines. He’s the exception”, I get concerned.

I get concerned because you do like California wine but are somehow not willing to admit it. Is it because it is now au courant to say that you do not? Is it because some 25-year old sommelier told you that Muscadet is better with your Sand Dabs than Roth ($15.00) or Handley ($15.00) Sauvignon Blancs or Dry Creek Fumé Blanc ($12.00)? If you like Hobbs or Failla or Dehlinger or O’Shaughnessy, there are hundreds more like them. It’s fine to like minerally, brisk Chablis. Lord knows I do—for the right setting just as I like a big Pahlmeyer Chardonnay for the right setting. But, what I don’t get, what frustrates me into writing rants like this is the derision that you pile on California wines before you admit to liking them.


Cali wines
by Steve Heimoff
Posted on:10/18/2010 7:36:02 AM

Charlie, name names!

by Charles E. Olken
Posted on:10/18/2010 11:32:49 AM

Steve is correct in that there are real people who made these comments, and one of those quoted comments was pinched from his own blog. You can read more about those comments, from NYT winewriter Eric Asimov, on Steve's blog.

But this is not a rant a person or persons uniquely. It is directed at the whole "I can't say anything nice about CA wine unless I also bash it first" syndrome that seems to be affecting wide swaths of people these days.

I don't care personally who agrees or disagrees with me about the place of CA wiine, What is stuck in my craw is the need these folks seem to have to damn all CA wine and they admit to exceptions. It is disease affecting large swaths of the wine biz these days. And it hides the fact that there are lots and lots of CA wine that is very good--not just their chosen exceptions.

by Jon Bonne
Posted on:10/18/2010 11:26:36 PM

I'm with Steve ... it sounds like there are specific folks you've got in mind ...

by Charles E. Olken
Posted on:10/19/2010 12:49:08 AM

Hello Jon. Thanks for stopping by. For those who may not know, Jon Bonne is the head wine writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. That paper has probably the most extensive wine pages of any daily newspaper in the country. I say "probably" only because I don't see all the newspapers in the country.

The editorial I wrote was directed at a pradtice that I find inappropriate. As Steve Heimoff knows, it was occasioned in part by a debate on his website between himself and Eric Asimov. But it recalled so many other conversations, mostly private but some public, in which the same sorts of sentiments were expressed.

I mentioned Eric's name in my response to Steve, but calling people out loses sight of the principle involved here. I find it disappointing that a whole class of wine gets derided and then a few names get mentioned. The problem is that receiver of those sentiments is then left with only the exceptions as good wines and every other wine in the class is denigrated. That was what set Steve Heimoff off and that is what set me off.

Throw around names? Not my style. Take a stand on principle. That is more like it.

I would welcome anything you would care to add that addresses my concerns one way or the other.

Names, cont.
by Jon Bonne
Posted on:10/19/2010 8:15:39 AM

Hi Charlie -- Thanks for your reply. Not sure I see how a principled stand equates to a generic condemnation of a point of view, but let's get away from names and focus on the matter of criticism ...

I think Eric's response to Steve in this case (can find it here: ) cogently sums up any reply I might offer. I'm not as down as Eric on CA Syrah, but it is a category -- among several -- beset by uniformity, mediocre winemaking and, in this case, a marketplace that has largely turned its back.

I declined to write about the Syrah pneumonia campaign for other reasons, but even if I have issues with Syrah, I've given up plenty of free time to moderate panels on said grape (and others) for the Rhone Rangers, so my interest in hunting exceptional Syrah (or Grenache, or whatever) is pretty clear.

But to Eric's point, I think highlighting exceptional wines is only part of a legitimate critical viewpoint.

One quick, final note on your comment about dull, boring Rioja or Bordeaux (or whatever from the old world): There's lots of bad wine in Europe, enough that the EU has stepped in over time to trim the glut. But let's acknowledge the difference in economics. Many of those wines are made by families that have been making (probably bad) wine for generations. When a dull, boring wine is made here, there's likely a very large bank loan -- or a rapidly declining fortune -- behind it. Neither of which justifies its place in the market.

No Subject
by Eric Asimov
Posted on:10/19/2010 8:44:58 AM


If it makes you feel any better, I've criticized dull, boring wines from France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Washington, Oregon, Australia and New Zealand in addition to the dull, boring wines of California. New York, too, for that matter. It's all part of an ongoing, vigorous debate, and not at all gratuitous. If you have particular issues with people you ought to name names. Otherwise you seem to be making straw-man arguments and it comes off as defensive.

No Names
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/19/2010 9:11:01 AM

Hi Jon--

Nice to see that you, like me are an equal opportunity poster--that is, we will comment at all hours of the day and night.

I loved your summary comments about bad wine. I have made my living over several decades by pissing off CA winemakers. Not intentionally of course, but calling them both ways goes with the territory. Critics are not cheerleaders. I have made that point all over the place for a very long time. It is not any of our responsibilites to be in the PR business. We are in the honest opinion business.

It matters not why dull, boring wine is made. Bad wine is bad wine is bad wine. Frankly, CGCW is one of the few publications that will publish reviews of all the wine it tastes--good or bad. That also goes with my territory as a comprehensive review. A newspaper article of one thousand words, give or take a little, is not going to do that.

But I do think we have an obligation to give correct messages to our readers, and when a writer who picks Dehlinger Pinot blind as his favorite in a blind tasting with red Burgs then slams CA Pinots, for example, it gets a little much. Eric did something similar to CA Syrahs in my view, and in Steve Heimoff's view.

I regret that Eric has become the point on the lance here. My comments were not meant to do that but to call out what I consider to be a widespread syndrome that seems to affect a lot of winewriting these days.

Thanks for stopping by and for expanding your comments.

Nice piece in the Sunday Chron about Anderson Valley 2008 Pinots and smoke taint or not, by the way.


No Names
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/19/2010 9:19:20 AM

Hello Eric--

The problem with naming names is twofold in this case. In the first, it takes away from the point being made. As I said to Jon, I would have preferred that your name not come up at all.

I blame Steve Heimoff for that. :-}

And that leads to my second point. It is generally my personal preference to speak about issues rather than people. Over the years, I have at times openly disagreed with folks but usually in the context of an issue and only after they have been identified with that issue.

I do appreciate your visiting my little corner of the Internet. Please feel free to come by again when your ears are not burning.

Tossing My Name In the Ring
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:10/19/2010 11:39:14 AM

I'll go ahead and name myself as one of the people Charlie is shaking his finger at here. I have been highly critical of California wines both on my blog and at The Wine Country (store where I work) for years now. I stand behind many of the things I have said; the charges of over extraction, heat, sweetness and over oaked, out of balance wines. To act as if this is not an issue, if you like or dislike the wines, is just plain silly. Is there a market for this glopular style, I like it, absolutely not, nor will I keep my mouth shut about it. I go after California and I get that it bugs you but where is the outrage when I go after Australia or the Rhone for the same things? California is your beat, STEVE!'s too and I understand your desire to defend it but when your arguement is about sweeping and broad statements then I think your bark should be just as loud when I write a post about Chateauneuf-du-Pape taking a page out of the Australian playbook. Look, I've come to not only adore you but respect the hell out of your balanced view but I think in this one area we shall never see eye-to-eye....nor do we need to. I happen to read Eric all the time and I have seen him go after everyone when he felt something needed to be said and I respect the hell out of him for it. You cats don't like the fact that he pointed a finger at Syrah but as a retailer I can tell you, those wines are NOT selling and I happen to agree with Eric here, it's because many of them are insipid and flat...not terribly inspiring. Are they all that way, well of course not but the market is telling these winemakers something and I think rather than blame or come down on a journalist it might do more good to stop bitching about the bitching and investigate where things went and are going wrong. For every Eric, Jon and Samantha there is a Steve, Charlie and Robert. We don't always agree but is that not is great about what we do? There is an ear or eye out there for all of us, people that adore California and those that don't...seems pretty balanced to me.

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/19/2010 3:59:46 PM



It is not the finger pointed at Syrah, but the choice of finger. It is not that Syrah or Chardonnay or anything else is questioned. It is the painting with broad brush and thus the denigration of the whole category that is the issue.
I criticize Syrah all the time. I single out 60-70% of Syrahs tasted as not recommendable. That is my job. It pisses the wineries off when I do it, but it goes with the territory. Critics are not cheerleaders. But, by the same token, we have a responsibility to avoid misleading generalizations. That is the point--not the criticism.

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/19/2010 4:02:37 PM

It is not the finger pointed at Syrah, but the choice of finger. It is not that Syrah or Chardonnay or anything else is questioned. It is the painting with broad brush and thus the denigration of the whole category that is the issue.
I criticize Syrah all the time. I single out 60-70% of Syrahs tasted as not recommendable. That is my job. It pisses the wineries off when I do it, but it goes with the territory. Critics are not cheerleaders. But, by the same token, we have a responsibility to avoid misleading generalizations. That is the point--not the criticism.

by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:10/19/2010 5:13:34 PM

Charlie Love, is it really a misleading generalization if you yourself say that over half the wines are not recommendable? There is a real problem with the Syrah that is being cranked out and sales are proving it. They aren't selling, period and fluff pieces like the bullshit I just read in Food & Wine, (Why you should drink Syrah with Thanksgiving...utter crap) is far more misleading if you ask me.

I have to agree with Sam
by k2
Posted on:10/19/2010 7:00:50 PM

Charlie, I admit I have been on the California bashing bandwagon from time to time, though not all California wines are the same.  I have a lot of favorites from California as I do other parts of the world.  My issue with California Syrah is the price.  In a word, ridiculous.  There is no way that these wines can sell, regardless of the review, as long as they are over $25 bucks.  No matter if it's God almighty suggesting these wines, no one budges.  I love Lagier Meredith, Qupe, and many others, but I won't put them in the store because they are guaranteed dust collectors.  And now is the worst time to tell people they should be drinking it; the economy sucks.  There is no easy answer, other than wineries should try to find a way to make these wines more accessible to the masses, not more expensive for elitist collectors.

I want to like it more...
by Vicki
Posted on:10/19/2010 7:30:48 PM

I really do. I live in California. I shop at the farmers' market. I try to buy local. I don't even go to chain restaurants unless I'm drunk or desperate. It's so hard to go local with wine, though. Just me (a loyal customer of Sam's), and my palate. There are some California wines I like. But none that I love. And the Like wines from California are way more expensive than many Love wines from the Old World. I keep trying. I go to tastings of California wines, and it happens every time:"Hey this is ok, but (fill in the blank, France, Italy, etc.) is better for my palate, and it's 1/3 less $, or half the money. So, yeah, I generalize about California wines. I tend not to like them. I also don't like Bordeaux. So it's not just an Old World chauvinist thing for me, either.
by John Kelly
Posted on:10/20/2010 10:12:51 AM

Interesting discussion. I'll take a break from making some of those bashable California wines to throw in my 2-cents.

Charlie's observation is well-grounded - a lot of wine writing does bash in general and then walk back with praise for the specific. I don't believe that this is unique to wine criticism - pretty much any rendering of an opinion in our current cultural millieu takes this format. Charlie - that's an awfully big ship to try to turn around.

Let's be honest - there is a lot of dreck out there, whether it be wine, food, writing, movies, music, politics... And when it comes to wine it's not just California, and not just specific varietals. Seems to me that every wine-producing region in the world produces an ocean of dreadfully generic plonk of every color. In each ocean there are islands of really good stuff, and on those lislands are peaks of exceptionality (is that a word?).

That said - Eric was right. Syrah is a tough sell. I'm not the only California grower with tons of it hanging on the vine that is finding no buyers this year. Considering the demand of the market, everyone is still long in this variety. The reasons that the market is so soft are many. I do think a lot of winemakers don't really know how to treat Syrah. I think a lot of growers planted it in poor locations and then overcropepd it. I think Yellowtail and other imports lowered consumers' expectations for the wine, and that a lot of what we have made here in Cali has lived down to those expectations. I think an average Cali Chard, SB, Cab or Zin probably offers more simple drinking pleasure per dollar than an average Cali Syrah.

And I have heard from consumers that they are confused by the variation in styles among the exceptional Syrahs we produce here. This is the bit that bugs me. These same consumers have no trouble accepting variation in styles in other varietals.

by Charles E. Olken
Posted on:10/20/2010 11:39:10 AM

Thanks for the comments.

The various criticisms of Syrah as overplanted and in the wrong places, confusing to consumers, cheapened by oceans of cheap Syrah, etc are all true.

I am not so sure I agree with Mr. Kelly about whether Zin offers more for the money than Syrah these days, but that is a topic for another time. The really good Syrahs, of which there are dozens, are not overpriced, and rather than all the cheap stuff being boring and generic, I find some amazing values in low-end Syrah. Novy (the second label of Siduri) has a $9 Syrah on the market that is balanced and focused. I don't know of another CA red that I like more for the money.

But, Syrah is really not the issue here, and I appreciate Mr. Kelly's recognition of that in the early part of his comments.

Overly Broad Brushes
by Scott
Posted on:10/21/2010 4:01:06 PM

I agree with John Kelly about the trend in critical writing tending towards using broad statements. Perhaps with some reason - if as most comments here agree, Sturgeon's Law applies to wine, then it's not too surprising that people would seek out a broad brush. And I'm willing to say this "shortcut" is not totally bad - it's good (useful, anyway) to have some idea of a person's biases up front.

That said, rather than leading off with a broad statement and then detailing "exceptions", why not lead off with some of those exceptions as a way of discussing what someone is looking for/expecting when they taste a wine? A broader arguement could then be made as to why these are exceptions, rather than the norm.

Broad Brushes
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/21/2010 4:14:51 PM

Thanks, Scott. Criticism, even broad brush or generalized criticism is not the issue. I criticize wines for a living. That is what a critic does. But, the manner in which it is done determines how the message is perceived. My fear is that too many messages these days damn an entire group by the way they are constructed rather than pointing out where and why the fault lines lie.

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