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Monday Manifestos
The Threat of Intolerance

By Charles Olken

One of the first lessons we learn in wine appreciation is that there can be no disputes in matters of taste. Your palate is not my palate and my palate is not my brothers’ palates. My sister-in-law has a pretty good palate, but not my brothers.

I have two brothers. One thinks that the higher the tannin and the higher the oak, the better the wine. No one else in the family wants to drink the wines he likes. I keep a few overwrought Petite Sirahs on hand to make him happy when he and his wife come to call. The second brother isn’t much of a drinker at all—which is a great surprise to all who knew him in high school. These days he drinks whatever I am drinking. If we go out to dinner, and I have a glass of bubbles to start, he drinks half of it. If I order a single-malt, he drinks half of it. If we go out for burgers and I order a beer, he drinks half of it. We have no disputes in matters of alcohol taste because he never orders any.

But the world is not always a neat and orderly place, and while I have known for decades that asking people to agree on such matters is a fool’s errand, I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the rhetoric in the wine business. I have a friend, and she will likely complain that I am picking on her if she reads today’s rant, who hates Rombauer Chardonnay. Nothing wrong with that. Rombauer Chardonnay is unabashedly sweet. Never mind that it is also high enough in acidity that its overall balance would make many Pinot Gris and some Rieslings seem soft by comparison. The wine is sweet, and that bugs her. But she is smart enough to accept that large numbers of the wine-drinking world like Rombauer Chardonnay and that they are no more wrong for that than she is right for being addicted to high acid wine like Chablis.

Here is where the discussion gets off the track for me. In my Thursday blog, I listed a bunch of Syrahs that I like, that I find decently balanced, well-focused and useful. I have been in this business of wine evaluation for almost four decades now. Yet, someone who should know better called those wines “monstrosities”. Now no one told that gentleman to like those wines. They are wines I have liked in my professional work. They are clearly not his favorites. But, labeling them as “monstrosities” has the sadly deleterious effect of ending the conversion. Not only has a matter of taste become boldly disputatious, but it has also become insulting—and not just to me, but to the thousands of people who happen to like those wines.

The threat to civility in conversion exists everywhere in our world. Those words do not come close to what goes on in the political arena, but they sadden me nonetheless. If we cannot have a discussion of about wine styles without denigrating each other’s choices, then we will find ourselves sinking into a morass which will make wine talk far less enjoyable and enlightening that it ought to be.


by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:1/24/2011 9:56:26 AM

Oh I don't feel like you're picking on me Charlie, (it's me he is talking about, I'm the Rombauer hater) in fact I am flattered here, I look like less of a tool than the Syrah guy...hooray! I have to agree with you about people bashing any wine, even my much hated Rombauer, I would never tell someone that likes it that it's a foul, sweet and out of balance, who the hell am I to yuck anyone's yum?! If someone digs it than right on at least they are drinking wine and I dig that about them. I've got an on going conversation happening at work right now, most of us are Old World drinkers and we have in the past gotten caught up in the very wrong habit of making comparisons and I'm sorry to say, bashing New World wines...I want it to stop. First off, it's smug and I hate that as much as I hate people telling me I'm a snob for drinking French wine. Second, it's just stupid from a business point of view, people like them and want to buy them, why the hell would we bash them? Kind of like shooting a big ass hole in your own foot. Last, it's just wrong. Everyone has a right to drink, make and swoon over whatever gets them off and anyone that thinks they have it "right" when it comes to taste is....well, tasteless. Thanks for pointing that out...gonna go get me a Pastis and think more about this.

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/24/2011 10:52:45 AM

Hi Sam--

Great comments from first to last. And I especially like the comments about the role of wine merchants. All of us have opinions, likes and dislikes.

But none of us is perfect, infallible, all-knowing. And if our jobs are to help people find wines that suit their palates, it helps to appreciate the good points about a wide range of wines and styles.

The day will not come when I choose to drink a pruny, overripe, late harvest Zinfandel, but I am capable of tasting through a bunch of those wines and findng the one that have better articulated fruit, more vibrant acidity and a sense of style. I am able to say to my readers, and it is my responsibility to do it, that I favor this wine or that wine within the genre.

I think you and the folks at your store sound like you need to open your minds. That does not mean equating my favorite Chardonnay with your Chablis, but it does mean being able to say "this Ramey or that Marimar, etc" are good, flavorful, balanced wines in the CA model of higher ripeness and good acidities. No need to change preferences, but every reason in the world to move past narrow-minded bias.


by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:1/24/2011 11:02:26 AM

Open my mind? Kinda thought that was what I was doing....

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/24/2011 11:37:15 AM


Ongoing conversations are good. Conclusions that you as a staff need to actively search for good CA Chards, for example, in order to find out why the people and the critics like them is the next step,

The answer is not, as was suggested over on the Thursday thread, that Americans are unknowing tasters. You may not have said that, but it is too often part of the theme that says "it does not matter that critics and winedrinkers everywhere like CA Chardonnay. I know better."


by John Kelly
Posted on:1/24/2011 12:52:34 PM

Charlie - haven't you heard? "If we tone down the rhetoric, the shooter wins." Or some such nonsense.

Anyway I believe the issue boils down to writing versus conversation. In a private conversation among friends that generally share my wine preferences I might refer to certain wines as "monstrosities," but I would hesitate to write it - even in a blog comment - because my tone of voice and the smile on my face is missing in the written word (even if I insert little winking smiley faces).

For the same reason when I am debating online with egoists who feel they must defend some style of winemaking as being the "right" one, or some particular taste profile as being the only "correct" one for a grape variety, I try to avoid typing words like "apologist," "zealot," "partisan," "fetishist," or even "soup Nazi." The problem with using the richness of our language in technically correct fashion is that our culture has elevated emotional reaction to words above rational understanding of their meanings.

by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:1/24/2011 2:56:50 PM

Now why is it that a California wine defender like yourself can make a somewhat insulting comment of the, "Now you're getting it" nature and when someone like Eric or myself voice our opinion about a region we are being narrow minded? Seems to me that the pot might be calling the kettle a little black. I adore and respsct the hell out of you Charlie so I'm trying really hard not to feel insulted but it needs to be fair dude. I listen to comments about Chablis being thin and too acidic, I feel you and know for you it's the truth but is it not also the truth that some of us think Zinfandel or Syrah can be outta whack? Just feels like there is a bit of a doubel standard....

by Michael
Posted on:1/24/2011 3:11:30 PM

Being open to new, unique & interesting wines is the best way to be.  While I might not pick up an Australian wine or many CA wines for that matter that doesn't mean that I would dismiss a customer or show some sort of disdain choosing either to purchase. They are essentially paying my salary & that completely eliminates the entire customer service aspect of our industry.  No one, whether customer or colleague, wants to be talked to as if they are wrong or poorly informed in their palate or wine choices.  I keep myself open at all times & from my experience with Sam she does too.  That openness is the mark of a good wine salesmen. 

by Sam
Posted on:1/24/2011 3:19:02 PM

Thanks Michael!

bus stop
by TBeaune
Posted on:1/24/2011 3:45:31 PM

Hey Charlie,

I think you might be stretching a misdemeanor hyperbole to the level of felony intolerance .    You are running a bus stop in your kitchen after all.  As a wine blogger you're going to have to put up with metaphors, gross exaggerations and the typical Napa Valley riffraff passed out in your bathroom from time to time.

Love of Grapes
by Benito
Posted on:1/24/2011 4:06:28 PM

Hell, having been nearly thrown out of a wine shop for asking about Pinotage and having to defend a love of grapes from Turkey, Greece, and Switzerland, I wish I only had to argue about certain Syrahs.  


I got some weird hate mail a few months ago blasting me for being unfair to Eastern European wines... because after praising the wines of Bulgaria, Hungary, Georgia, Croatia, and others, I dared insult the wines of Romania and Belarus two years ago.  Even my friends give me a (gentle, good-natured, and well-received) hard time about my advocacy of obscure wine regions.  For the record, Russian insults don't translate particularly well.  Say what you will about me, but there's no need to go back three generations up my family tree.  

Sam Rocks
by Benito
Posted on:1/24/2011 4:09:41 PM

And major points to Samantha Dugan for bringing me a Croatian wine as a gift even though I know it was painful for her.  ;)

by Chuck Hayward
Posted on:1/24/2011 4:19:16 PM

I believe the issue boils down to relativism vs. absolutism, that there are many truths/goods vs. one truth/good. And this dialogue/debate, which I remember from late nights in college, will never be settled and, unfortunately, always grates the grits of the absolutists to no end. But what I prefer and like about Charlie and his preference for seeking out the good in all things/wines is that you make yourself available to more happiness since there is a greater likelihood that you will see something good in a wine/thing. If you believe, as too many in the wine business happen to, that there is an absolute way that a wine "should" taste, when they don't taste the way they "should," you will spend a lot of your time disappointed. And this is just my view but the absolutists always seem cranky while folks like Charlie and myself just seem to smile more. Wonder why...

No Subject
by Anonymous
Posted on:1/24/2011 6:10:17 PM

Samantha writes  <<  Now why is it that a California wine defender like yourself can make a somewhat insulting comment of the, "Now you're getting it" nature and when someone like Eric or myself voice our opinion about a region we are being narrow minded?  >>

What you "are getting", Sam, is exactly what Chuck Heyward commented on above. There is no one absolute standard. You and the staff at your shop are having <<  conversations at work right now, most of us are Old World drinkers and we have in the past gotten caught up in the very wrong habit of making comparisons and I'm sorry to say, bashing New World wines  >>

I don't bash Old World wines, Sam. I have a cellar full of them. I drink them. I collect them. And when I kid you about Chablis, it is just that. Not many people that you know and trust in CA bash Old World wines. The bashing is all coming from the fans of Old World Wines. OK, so I was not kind to Gruner. But, that's about it.

I Am Anonymous
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/24/2011 6:12:39 PM

By that, I mean that I wrote the comment above. Someday, I will take a course in managing the new media.

No Subject
by Ron Washam HMW
Posted on:1/24/2011 6:49:16 PM

God knows I never expressed strong opinions on my blog. But I'm shocked, shocked I tell you, to find Charlie disparaging the great wines of Austria and Gruner Veltliner. Ok, wipe that smaragd off your face. I just heard the White House is serving Gruner at the State of the Union Address post-party--to the Tea Party cretins.

Anyone who knows Samantha, whom you used as an example (rattling cages, are we?), knows that she is very tolerant and open-minded and filled with Joy, which is what we use to wash her mouth out. (OK, now I'm asking for it.) Opinions are not by nature intolerant.  That in itself is a wee bit intolerant. They are but opinions, subject to change or denial. You, Charlie, have done more to open Samantha's eyes to California wine than anyone, and that's a tribute to her open-mindedness. But she'll never like Rombauer Chardonnay specifically. I won't either. But Rombauer gets to laugh all the way to the bank.

But what you're speaking of is the rhetoric, often spewed on wine blogs, that gets troubled loners to buy Glocks and shot people at Safeway. And, well, wine bloggers are the very definition of troubled loners. So you have a point. Wasn't it a great American who said, "Can't we all just get along?"

Well, we can, but that's just so damned boring.

by Michael
Posted on:1/25/2011 7:21:08 AM

What's with all the anti-Gruner speech?

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/25/2011 7:42:20 AM

Part inside joke; part a statement of preference. On the whole, I prefer Riesling and Chenin Blanc among aromatic whites. I also prefer Alsatian Pinot Gris and some Alsatian Muscats. And I also would choose bubbles as a wine to go with first courses and as an aperitif.

But the hidden inside joke has to do with my friendship with Samantha who, in the midst of our continuing discussions over preferences always says that she does not like Zin. I respond that I don't like Pastis and Gruner.

Gruner has become part of an inside joke, but that inside joke has played out in the blogosphere, and it is done in the name of fun and friendship. The key point is that I don't denigrate Gruner or those who like it. I simply do not like it all that much.


My Pleasure
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:1/25/2011 8:16:38 AM

Benito it was my pleasure to bring you that odd little wine. It's what you are into so it pleased me to no end to bring it for you. But I was just as thrilled to share Dagueneau, Billiot and Rougeard with you and Michael at our little blogger dinner. Sharing wines I love with people I adore is one of my greatest joys in life....hearing you groan over the Billiot and Michael getting spun by the Rougeard, well that brought me more happiness than I can express.


Charlie my dear, you are correct, I truly dislike Zinfandel but as a wine professional I make myself try them so I can serve our customers, give them what they want. Since meeting you and Ron I have been making a very real effort to get my mouth around every California wine we open. It's not been really easy for me and I can't say my tastes have changed in any way but because of you wanting to know better and understand you both, I've learned a lot and in return gotten better at my job and for that alone I love and thank you.

The Joy of Discovery
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/25/2011 8:55:15 AM


I am a self-confessed bubbles addict. It is my great pleasure to feed that addiction, in moderation of course, at every opportunity.

But I did not know enough about grower Champagnes and you have helped put that right. If I have had any useful part in encouraging you to learn more about things in the wine world that are less familiar to you, I am truly pleased.


A Little Help From Your Friends
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:1/25/2011 9:15:36 AM

I'm gonna take this last exchange as our, "I love you man" moment. One thing though Charlie, the word moderation belong no where near grower Champagne.....

"And never the twain shall meet."
by Deb Lapmardo
Posted on:1/26/2011 3:14:59 PM

I'm a wine retailer too, and I lead wine classes/tastings for geeks and novice wine drinkers. It happens time and again, that when I pour Old World and New World wines, the room splits just about down the middle: half love the Old and don't love the New, and vice versa. The preferences don't seem to correlate with the taster's experience -- i.e. you can be a total novice and jump straight to Old World whites, or to California Butter. I've decided that palates and preferences are born, not made. You take flint, I'll take oak, and never the twain shall meet.

Yummy Pairings
by Jennifer Manlowe
Posted on:1/26/2011 9:18:19 PM

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Hey there, Do you like your meals to go with just one bottle of wine or do you like different dishes to be paired with different wines? If you like "pairings"...are you going to this fabulous (Michael David Winery ) wine & local foods/gourmet dinner? It's happening Feb 5th on Bainbridge Island! All proceeds go to IslandWood 's environmental ed programs for inner-city schools. If you're interested in attending, I'd love to see you there.  And, if you would be so kind, will you post this invitation to all your oenophile friends?


P.S. If you want to register for this event of want to know more about IslandWood, see the details

Our First Spam
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/26/2011 9:41:46 PM

It took almost five months but we now have our first piece of spam.

At least it is a for a good cause with wines from a good winery. Good luck, Bainbridge Island--a lovely place.


Own your palate!
by Susie Hindle Kher
Posted on:1/27/2011 6:36:35 AM

Charlie, what a dead-on writeup! I'm with LetsPour - a social site where wine lovers are sharing wines they like without bias of ratings or other people's influence. Far too often I've seen people afraid of making "bad" decisions with wines and, as a result, not listening to their own palate. Just as we don't all like the same music, we can't all agree on which wines are the best. I say "own your palate" and drink the wines you like. Experts, critics and enthusiasts can certainly provide guidance along the way, but at the end of the day you're the one who has to drink the wine. Cheers!

Owning One's Palate
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/27/2011 10:35:42 AM

Thanks, Susie. While I am always flattered by readers who will tell me that they buy wines recommended in Connoisseurs Guide because "we agree", I am equally, if not more flattered by the readers who tell me that it is not always my highest rated wines that interest them, but wines that seem to fit their preferences based on the description of the wine, not on its point score.

Getting to know one's own palate is obviously a big step forward in drinking wines that fit that palate. Reading, tasting, listening to others--paying attention and learning--are the only ways that can happen.

Expert opinion, with or without ratings, from publications like mine or from sharing websites like yours, help folks weave their ways among the thousands and thousands of different bottles in the market place. But ultimately, for the wine to fit, the owner of the palate needs to have a sense of what he or she likes.

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