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Monday Manifestos
There Are Many Roads To Damascus

By Charles Olken

  I have seen the error of my ways. I have preached against food wines. I have turned my back on light, thin wines with acidity as their main virtue. I have blasphemed those who have told me that the use of ripe grapes was a sin against Bacchus. Yes, I have been of closed mind and blocked palate. I have enjoyed wines over 14% in alcohol. I have found fruit and balance, beauty and sheer drinking pleasure in Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. I have anointed my eyes with oak juice. I have poked fun at sommeliers whose wine lists seek out wines no one has ever heard of because of their claim that California wines do not go with food.

  But, now. Now. Now, dear readers, I have seen the error of my ways. How could I have blindly followed wineries like Paul Hobbs and Dehlinger, Staglin and Shafer into the vinous Nirvana? Why have I not loved Gruner Veltliner and embraced Albarino as the saviors of my taste buds? How could Kuleto be accepted in my house with its India Ink Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine whose very name should stand as a warning that it is loaded with oak and tannin and named after darkness? And, much to my very embarrassment, I have held these views, worshiped those big, rich, tasty wines like the 1970 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons against the advice of the “informed”, and never mind that those Napa wines live on whilst their fancy French counterparts have fallen apart.

My dreams have shown me the way. I have awoken to a new reality. I have had a Damascus-like conversion. I have given up my evil ways.

And then I really did awake, and it was all just a bad experience born of too much acidity, too much green wine, too many bottles that really did not go with the Cal-Med, tasty, fresh ingredients that feature on the menus of the restaurants that I like best. It was a bad night that went away with the light of day. I was truth that trumped loud ideology. There are many roads to Damascus, but unlike the conversion of Paul of Tarsus, my road to Damascus leads back to California.

It turns out that I have been right all along. I drink wine because it goes with food, and I am not afraid of wines with character because I eat foods with character. I am not afraid of acidity, but I am not a slave to it. I am not afraid of richness because a salmon filet that is grilled in black skillet with shallots and butter deserves a wine that has the moxie to stand up to it, and a standing rib roast does not want a thin, acidy red wine. It can be happy with a wine that has aged twenty years into a softer, rounder version of itself, but it can also go perfectly well with a Dehlinger Pinot Noir or a Staglin Cabernet Sauvignon. And despite the claims that wines like Shafer Hillside will not age because they are ripe and open under their tannins and have alcohol levels in excess of 14%, I have the proof that they will in the findings of a twenty-five year vertical tasting that proved otherwise.

And, once again, I denounce the false prophets who see only one way to make wine and who now claim that there is, for the first time, a few wineries in California smart enough to make balanced wines—by which they mean wines created in their narrow image of what it right and why California is wrong. The facts are that California wineries make very good wines in many styles and have for years. The facts are that Schramsberg sparkling wine has been and will remain every bit as bracing as its counterparts from Champagne despite San Francisco restaurants who will stock no California bubblies and assert that none of them have the right balance. The facts are that Dutton Goldfield and Marimar and Bjornstad and Ramey make briskly built Chardonnay and that Williams Selyem Pinot Noirs may be ripe but they are also balanced. It is the naysayers, dear readers, who need a Damascus conversion, not you and me. We will drink bitingly crisp wines when the occasion calls for those wines, and we will drink medium-bodied wines that show restraint but are not afraid of themselves and we will drink our Ramey Chardonnays and our Williams Selyem Pinot Noirs with our pastas in creamy fois gras sauces.

We have seen the light, and it has many faces. And some of them grow right here in California.

Post Script: Eric Asimov, the noted New York Times winewriter, paid a fine complement to my new book, The New Connoisseurs’ Guidebook to California Wines and Wineries, with a simple sentence proclaiming that the book, so clearly focused on what I find of value in California wine and why, was free of “boosterism”. My rant above, I admit, is not entirely free of boosterism. It is, however, free of bias. It comes from within and reflects the understandings that I bring to my work every day. California wine is to be judged bottle by bottle. It is not a rarity to find good wines that have balance, depth, precision and beauty and that come in many styles and many forms. We need not follow simplistic versions of what numbers make our wines right or wrong. We need only stick to the standards that wine should be balanced and focused, should reference the fruit from which is made and the place where it is grown and should taste good.


by Steve Heimoff
Posted on:11/29/2010 7:32:09 AM

Kudos to you Charlie for defending BALANCED wines no matter what the alcohol!

by Steven Mirassou
Posted on:11/29/2010 11:32:27 AM

Sommeliers are like new-age priests; their existence is bound up in the "different" because someone(s) has already explicated the "known." What good would the new religion be if it were exactly like the old religion?


Mr. Charles Olken
by Chuck Hayward
Posted on:11/29/2010 3:27:58 PM

Once again, the right words said the right way. Makes me wish I had written them but glad he did, much better than I could do. I now go back to work knowing I am not alone.... though I think I already knew that from his previous jottings.

by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:11/29/2010 6:39:20 PM

Okay….so explain to me why it’s okay to call some wines “afraid of themselves, thin and acidy” and not okay for those of us that happen to prefer that style to say that some wines are overblown, too fruity or aggressively oaked? Just as with food and music we all have things we like, things that sing to us…please us and just as I don’t get how anyone could call Lady Gaga brilliant I just don’t get it when someone tells me the wines of Orin Swift are brilliant. I can believe that some people feel that way and they have every right to but it won’t change the fact that I think both are a bunch of flash with little substance…to me, one makes my head hurt and the other wears meat clothing. I am an old world wine lover but that does not mean I think new world wines are not wines of merit, not well made wonderful wines but that being said…most of them turn me off faster than a guy drinking Prisoner listening to Gaga. I do however adore you Sir Charles even if I feel like you pointing your finger a bit here while doing the same thing you are accusing others of doing…..okay that’s all. I love you bye.

by CharlieOlken
Posted on:11/29/2010 8:59:24 PM

Steven--Despite the fact that too many young sommeliers substitute numbers and MS-think for true knowledge, most wine lists are helpful. The ones that drive me crazy have wines from unknown places from unknown makers and follow limited stylistic criteria. Those lists are done for the ego of the sommelier, not for the pleasure of the clientel.

Chuck--Your are too kind. Well, not really. :-}

Sam--We can agree from the git-go that you and I like different styles. I have no problem with that. But I do have a problem with wines at both ends of the spectrum. Green and acidic wines are no more interesting to me than overripe, pruny wines.

But, within those extremes lie the great bulk of wines including most of your favorites. I doubt that I would dislike your favorite Chablis, but that does not mean that I like every thin, underfilled white Burg. My guess is that you do not either.

I recently had a lasagna made by a CIA graduate. It was rich, flavorful, layered and easily the finest lasagna in my memory. It wanted nothing so much as a ripe, balanced Zinfandel like Ravenswood Teldeschi or Ridge Lytton Springs. A thin, acidic red wine would be totally blown away by the food. But I would also not want a soft, prune juice Zin.

I have suggested the standards I expect of wine in my rant above. Balance is key above all. And balance occurs in wines of all sizes and from many places.

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