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Monday Manifestos
The Truth About Overripeness—From 1970 to Now

By Charles Olken

Accusations of rampant overripeness in California wines are not, as some would have you believe, a new phenomenon. It is a festering sore that Euro-palates have picked on for the last forty years.

And for all I know, it goes back way beyond that, but “forty years” represents that limit of my personal time horizon in the wine collecting world. So, for me, this notion, this “red herring” that all California wines are out of control has always been a part of the fabric of wine criticism.

My first recollection of it goes back to the 1970 vintage. It was then that my wine pursuits shifted shape from enthusiasm into serious collection. I experienced the zealout-like rush of the newly converted and bought up everything I could to put into my cellar. The fabulous 1968s were about gone from the market, and while I managed to corral a few of those, it was the 1970s, both Bordelais and Californian, that formed the basis of my cellar then and still represent the largest group of older wines in it today.

Back before the 1976 Paris tasting, when the 1970 California Cabs and their Bordeaux equivalents experienced similarly successful vintages, the wine collecting world was doing side by side comparisons from one end of this country to the other. Those who preferred the French wines pointed accusatory fingers at California excess ripeness even then. “Too fat”, they said. “Too jammy”, they said. “Too obvious”, they said. “Will not age”, they said.

Those were the excuses offered for the large number of victories that wines like Ridge Monte Bello, Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, Chappellet and Mayacamas were extracting from the hidebound backsides of the Europhiles. The difference was not recognized then, as it is not recognized today, as just that—a difference, not a disqualifier.

Some will call it preference. Some will call it prejudice. It matters not. Ultimately, it is an excuse for one set of wines, for one tighter, less generous style. Never mind that the great Bordelais vintages then and now are those in which ripeness comes the easiest. And never mind that the accusation that California wines will not age did not start with the vintages of the late 1990s and early 2000s. It is easy to make excuses based on difference.

So, today, we hear a cry that California wines have become overripe, that they need to return to the days when they were all under 14% alcohol, that today’s wines are too fat, too jammy, too obvious and that they will not age. Certainly, there are wines that fall into those camps. There always have been. Anybody remember that pruney Zinfandels we called Late Harvest, or the fat and fleshy, high pH Pinot Noirs of forty years ago.

But, the rush to brand an entire set of wines as misshapen, to use language like “Napa Cabernets have become a parody of themselves” or “today’s low-alcohol wines are California wine rethought” or branding anyone who would differ with your Euro-palate as “high alcohol apologists” is not only wrong-headed, it is also old hat. And it is the stuff of commentators who simply are not old enough to remember the long and heated debates about the 1970 vintages in Bordeaux and California. Those folks also do not know, because they would otherwise not be so quick to judge, that the 1970 California Cabs won more than their share of the early side-by-side contests, just as they fail to recognize that the California 1970s, now forty years old, have held up far better than their widely heralded counterparts. And they have held up despite accusations of too fat, too obvious, too jammy, won’t age.

Those who forget the lessons of history are bound to repeat it.


The Others
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:5/9/2011 10:00:05 AM

Now I almost never weigh in on the California Cabernet vs Bordeaux debate, the reason? I drink neither. Sure I taste them and could (sometimes do) make comments about the impression I get after taking it for a quick spin in my mouth..hell, it's part of my job to do just that. I taste for work but I drink to feed my passion and I am simply not at all turned on by Cabernet, from anywhere. You will rarely hear a peep outta me on that debate but when it comes to "The Others" I might have a thing or two to say...


The thing is, it all boils down to preference and no matter how fair and balanced we are, well no one likes hearing that their prefered thing is "too" anything. It's that "too" that seems to ruffle everyone's feathers; too hot, too acidic, too rich, too sweet, too thin, all sound like flaws or faults therfore implying that someone's beloved wine is flawed. Maybe we are all just a little too sensitive? I know I have been when I get botty hurt by someone scrunching their face at my "too tart" Savigny-les-Beaune during a Pinot Noir tasting.


It's wine. It tastes good to someone and makes us feel good. Nothing too about it....

Too Right
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:5/9/2011 10:46:07 AM

We all have preferences. That is what makes it fun. Some of us have wider acceptance ranges and some are narrow. No one is ever wrong in their own preferences. It is just when they try to foist their own preferences on others as the "right" way, that makes them look and act silly.

The point of this essay is not really to take on the latter day zealouts. They have no idea about history or that French wine, all of it, has changed into riper, richer, more complete versions. Back then, it was 13% alc CA wines that were overripe. Now, the French are making 13 and even 14% alc wines and their accolytes are still calling CA wines overripe.

It has never really been about preference. It has been about prejudice. That is very different, Sam, from your complete preference for wines of a certain style.

Yes But
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:5/9/2011 11:45:00 AM

Not trying to be a thorn but as the French wines tick up to 14% their counterparts here in California aren't exactly staying as they were, they too are getting higher. The gap isn't closing any time soon if you know what I'm sayin...

Gap ?
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:5/9/2011 12:31:32 PM

There is no discussion here that the gap, to the extent that it exists and to the extent that it matters, is closing. But, if one believes all this talk about the new paradigm, then there is at least some distinct evidence that whatever gap does exist is closing for some producers.

More than that, however, it is the "gap" that some folks hide behind to diss CA wines. As I think this article shows, that gap has been with us for forty years and CA wines have not fared badly for it. Indeed, in comparison to Bordeaux, we seem to have fared far better than the conventional wisdom would suggest. Even Californians have at times been bowled over by the gap argument, but every time we put the wines to the test, they do just fine.

And trying to suggest that there is much of gap, not that you have, between 13.5 Red Burgs from Bonnes Mares and Gevrey-Chambertin and 14.2 RRV Pinots is simply a useless argument.

Now to be sure, comparing Savigny LB to SLH or SRH heavyweights, and not all wines from those CA locales are heavyweights by the way (see Sanford, Morgan etc), will get you a bigger gap. But it also gets you a very different style.

think again
by Kurt Niznik
Posted on:5/9/2011 12:38:03 PM

I believe the gap IS closing, or has never really been that big.

While the 1% legal leeway in label vs. actual alcohol on US wines may seem big, what actually happens with European wines is often much larger. A burgundy with 12.5 on the label may be over 15% in some cases.

From my perspective as a winemaker in the California industry, knowing the true alcohols of many wines that have very different numbers on their labels (because we often test them out of curiosity), it seems that while there are many good, compelling reasons to seek balance with a lower alcohol, the consuming public still tends to talk low alcohol and drink high alcohol.

Hold Up
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:5/9/2011 1:41:49 PM

I just want to make clear, (to your readers not you Charlie) that I happen to be one of those people that is in favor of all wine, regardless of alcohol content and the champions behind whatever style creams their Twinkie. I am a retailer and am very, very aware that not one palate suits all....hense my unwillingness to use any critic ratings or scoring to buy or sell any of the wines we have on our shelves. I celebrate all wine lovers, period. I don't think my way, the way I drink or what makes my heart patter is the right and only way, never have. It's right for me and I have even had to tell customers that want to like the things I like, the wines that I know will make them pucker and scrunch their nose, that just because I like it does NOT, in any way, make that wine better. When it comes to matters of taste we are all correct. That being said....


I do think there is a double standard in that if one prefers wines from Europe and makes a case for those wines, we are often labeled as California wine haters or snobs and for many of us that is simply untrue. I prefer the wines of Burgundy, (and if you can find one on my shelf over 15% I would be seriously, profoundly shocked. No DRC, no Roumier, no Dujac) over those of the Russian River or Oregon, just a taste thing, not a "it's better" or "more refined" thing and I can tell you, from having to deal with it for 15 years, when I state my preference I have had to hear, "Oh, I see, you like French wines" always with an exaggerated snoot face and gestures, more often than not. Gets just as old....I'm assuming as having to hear people tell you that all California wines are clunky, fat, sweet and too high in alcohol. So I guess what I was trying to say is that I feel ya kid, just happen to feel you from the other side of the pond.

Historical Perspective
by Tom Johnson
Posted on:5/9/2011 3:22:32 PM

You'r right that the argument goes back more than 40 years. In the 1898 USDA Yearbook, Professor George Hussman -- one of the founding fathers of the California wine indusry -- lamented the bigness of California wines relative to their more sophisticated European counterparts. This "injurious practice" he attributed to inexperience with California's long, warm growing season.

"The important point," Hussman wrote, "(is) that rainless summers produced fruit very high in sugar, and the wines made from it were heavy and heady. The French and German vintners fell into the error of letting the grapes hang on until they were very ripe, as was the custom in their native countries, where they could hardly obtain a thoroughly ripened product except in the best of seasons."

Hussman believed that California wines would not overcome the prejudice against them until winemakers adjusted their practices to produce lighter, more European wines.

I wonder if there aren't a few people in this argument who suffer from the "colonial" inferiority complex that presupposes all things European to be automatically better than their American equivalent. Whether the subject is art, music, achitecture or any number of other creative and aesthetic fields, the argument is familiar: Europe is better.

Ironically, the same Very Serious People who insist on wine as a natural product reflective of its terroir seem to be arguing that California winemakers should manipulate their wines to immitate wine grown in colder, less sunny -- but infinitely classier -- climates. No matter that people since at least Hussman in the 1890s have noted that California's climate makes bigger, "headier" wines likely. That nature must be ignored.

Colonial complex, anyone?

Colonel Johnson Has Spoken
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:5/9/2011 3:34:10 PM


Thanks for stopping by and for the history lesson. I will have one of those old-time quotes from the 90s for tomorrow's blog. Only mine will be from the 1990s.

In the meantime, I think I will take my high alcohol in a glass of your hometown Merlot.

Revisionist History..
by TomHill
Posted on:5/10/2011 12:06:35 PM

Why....Charlie....I always laid the abomination of the low-alcohol "food wine" Zinfandels of the early '80's at your feet. As I recall, in the late '70's, you railed against the plethora of Late Harvest Zins appearing then and labeled them as "monster Zins with shabby table manners". Wasn't that so? Isn't it really all your fault?? Confession time here, Charlie!! :-)

   I think much of the clamor for lower alcohols in Calif wines is driven by the Pinot crowd. In areas like the StaRitaHills and extreme SonomaCoast, they were having to leave the grapes out there longer to get ripeness they wanted and the wines were often over 14%-15% alcohol. But these Pinot nuts "know" that Pinot is not supposed to be above 14% alcohol. Look at any RedBurgundy and the label says either 12% or 13%. End of discussion.

   Like you, Charlie...having been around the block a time or two...there's one thing that I find striking in today's Zins (and Syrahs...which we didn't have back then). Back in the old days, by crackey, when you got a Zin above 15% (and it was usually labeled as LateHarvest back then) it had a lot of overripe/raisened/pruney/stewed fruit character to them....that LateHarvesty character. Nowadays, you often find Zins that exceed 15% (and they won't be labeled LateHarvest anymore), like MikeOfficer's, yet they don't have that overripe/pruney/raisened character. And, oftentimes, they carry the alcohol much better than those Zins of yore.

   You must recall those LateHarvest and Essences that DavidBruce made in '70-'71 from MaryCarter's Gilroy grapes?? Massive/black wines they were. One SanDiego writer predicted they'd peak about 2020-2025. Most were on their last legs by the early '80's.

   Those were the days.

   First visit to your blog, Charlie. Thanks for suggesting on Steve's that I drop in. Very nice site...I'll be back.




Ripeness Then and Now
by Charles E. Olken
Posted on:5/10/2011 1:05:32 PM

Mr. Hill--

It is a pleasure to have you join us. As our regular readers here will soon discover, you are a national treasure whose knowledge base and wisdom are instructive to us all.

As for my role in creating the food wines of the early 1980s, I plead not guilty. I will, however, admit to calling for the end of pruny Zinfandels as long as three decades ago.

Those wines were out of balance and totally lacking in fruit. Too many of today's wines are as well. But, the absurd conceit that all wines above 14% ABV are overripe, fat, heavy, out of balance and will not age are simply falsehoods spread by folks who either know better or should.

by Chuck Hayward
Posted on:5/16/2011 12:09:41 PM

Kudos upon kudos for the excellent research and commentary by Tom Johnson. I am completely flubbered by the information you found as well as your pointed analysis and can say no more....

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