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Ten Rules For California Winemakers

By Charles Olken

The Government is always making rules for wineries, and most of them are not helpful. And even the ones that are helpful are not always enforced. I have been hanging around the Internet most of this past weekend, and I have discovered that winewriters also have rules for winemakers—and they aren’t enforced either. But, sometimes the wineries think they have to live by them. It is time to sort out the confusion, and I am the guy to make fun of our own rules.

Rule: Don’t bother telling us that your alcohol statements on wine labels are accurate.

We all know that you the Gov’t lets you exaggerate, and now it turns out that the Gov’t is not enforcing the very rules it promulgates. If you want us to believe that alcohol labeling means something, it is time for you to tell the Gov’t that its rules are far too lax.

Rule: Stop putting Syrah into your Pinot Noir.

We all know that Pinot has no color when left to its own devices so we winewriters do not have to smell the wine to know there is Syrah in the cepage. If your Pinot has color, it has Syrah.

Rule: Why are you bothering to talk about terroir?

We all know that there is no such thing as terroir in California. Only Europe has terroir. They invented it, and they aren’t sharing. Never mind telling us that anyone with half a nose can smell the difference between Pinot Noir from Westside Road from Pinot Noir from Freestone regardless of the fact that they are both labeled with a Russian River Valley appellation.

Rule: If you tell us that you got your 2010 late-ripening reds in before the rains, you have to go directly to jail. Do not pass Go.

Fess up, boys. Aside from the early-arriving varieties, and especially in the North Coast, it was simply not your best vintage. Oh sure, some of you will succeed. You had little umbrellas over your grapes or you simply got lucky, but every time we winewriters hear that 2010 was not as bad as advertised, we wonder if your nose is growing.

Rule: Robert Parker is dead. Well, not dead, exactly, but he’s gone, folks. You can now go back to making wine to satisfy wine drinkers instead of the beast of the east.

Besides, there are always folks like Jim Laube, Steve Heimoff, Steve Tanzer, Jon Bonne, Lettie Teague, yours truly, a thousand bloggers and the collective voices of Snooth and Cellar Tracker to help you find right from wrong, fruit and desiccated grapes, oak from oak chips.

Rule: Wines with residual sugar are not dry.

It is not our place to tell you not to make your Chardonnay with a teaspoon of sugar. It helped Mary Poppins so why not you. But, please, not only do some of us come equipped with reasonably trained palates but we know how to use Dextrocheck—and it is good enough to tell dry from not dry. Oh, and Riesling makers, the term Medium Dry is an oxymoron. Those wines are not dry, they are slightly and noticeably sweet.

Rule: Lose the critters from your labels—all of them.

Just because the Aussies thought they could sell wine with Kangaroos does not mean that you should put pictures of the family dog on the label or name your vineyards after them. Not every label with a canine prominently displayed has character that is about as unpleasant as a barking canine, but when yours does, don’t blame us for the bad jokes that ensue. The target is just too easy.

Rule: Try to remember that your wines do not go with everything.

Cracked crab, pizza and chocolate cake as wine recommendations might be fine, but not on the same label.

Rule: Twitter is not your friend.

I know that several hundred of you have signed on to follow me on Twitter. And believe me, I do make an effort to read everyone of your Tweets. But, folks, I have to tell you that none of us—not you, not me, not Robin Williams—can be interesting in 140 characters or less on a regular basis.

Rule: Don’t stop loving the blogosphere even though almost everyone who posts there is in the wine biz.

Yes, winemakers, those new entrants to winewriting have plenty of interesting things to say. And yes, a few of them actually do get readers who are not in the biz. But not all that many. Go look at the comments here or, better yet, over on a really popular blog like Steve Heimoff. I saw a comment there yesterday that I swore was from an amateur—a real wine drinker and not an industry person looking for a moment of glory. But I was wrong. He was just a new blogger whose head is not yet swollen into believing his own word. Oh, well. He will.


Tell Us How You Really Feel, Charlie.
by Wine Harlots
Posted on:3/8/2011 1:58:50 PM

That was an awesome rant.

I'm laughing so hard I'm crying.

by John
Posted on:3/9/2011 10:25:00 AM

Yes I think we are all aware that sub-$20 Pinot probably - I say probably - has some "extender" in it. Too difficult for wineries to hit that price point without stretching the meager yields that Pinot can give.

But as I have said elsewhere - I don't know anyone who is doing it. Swear on a stack of Bibles. Adam Lee, who knows a bunch of Pinot winemakers I don't interact with, says the same thing.

Other than that - I am laughing just like WH. Spot on, sir. Except for the Twitter bit - a little, maybe. You're right - even Randall Grahm is not interesting on a regular basis. But I do find it an effective form of communication.

Tuesday tidbits
by Christian Miller
Posted on:3/10/2011 3:05:49 PM

My turn to congratulate and quibble. Very funny, but...

"Oh, and Riesling makers, the term Medium Dry is an oxymoron. Those wines are not dry, they are slightly and noticeably sweet."

Maybe it's an oxymoron as a stand-alone descriptor, but it was well-tested as part of the IRF Riesling taste scale. In a representative sample of consumers:

--91% placed it at 4-6 on a - point scale of dryness running from 1 (very sweet) to 7 (very dry). Only 17% put it at 6 and 0% put it at 7 (very dry).

--The ratings for “medium dry” on the scale were significantly dryer than “semi-sweet.” (Or even “fruity” for that matter, although that’s another topic.)

--Consumers found “off-dry” more confusing than “medium dry” (8% were unsure where to put medium dry on the scale vs. 25% for off-dry).

So I think that medium dry in context of the IRF taste scale (which is on an increasing number of Riesling labels) is useful information for consumers.

"Cracked crab, pizza and chocolate cake as wine recommendations might be fine, but not on the same label."

Or even worse, in the same sentence. I recall a wine description telling me that this Merlot tasted of chocolate and dill. I know what they were trying to say, but...gag!


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