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Thursday Thorns
It’s Elementary, My Dear Watson. Someone Is Trying To Kill California Wine

By Charles Olken

It seems that we in the wine business are always announcing the death of something or other. If it is not Frank Prial, once of the New York Times, telling us that vintage charts are dead or Randall Grahm holding a wake for the cork or a movie about a couple of overactive drinkers trying to kill off Merlot, it is the current movement to put any wine over 14% alcohol on the chopping block.

But, like the supposed passing of Samuel Clemens a century and more ago, those reports of the death of Merlot, Syrah, cork and ripe grapes are exaggerated. Merlot, for example, so clearly pronounced as dead by that active prognosticator, Mr. Prial, never stopped selling. Maybe it was given up for departed by a few Pinot drinkers, but the world never stopped enjoying Merlot.

And let us consider the cork. Yes, that villain of the piece, that ruinator of good wine, has not died either. In fact, it has not only not died, but it has seen off, for all intents and purposes, its plastic imitators who themselves turned out to be the destroyers of more wine than the very corks they came to bury. Cork is healthier than ever.

Thirty years ago, California wine country was visited by a plague known as “food wines”. Some eastern-based pundit, and it may well have been the otherwise wise Mr. Prial, announced that California wines were too ripe, too full of themselves and that dialing them back would be a good thing. When the wineries followed suit, for surely the New York Times always gets it right, we were flooded with thin, anemic bottlings whose voices barely rose above a whisper and whose personalities were straight out of the Wonder Bread school. In a word, we wound up with far too many boring wines.

Today, we are threatened with the same plague. Those who argue that California wine is overripe, overoaked, too high in alcohol have failed to realize that the alternative is worse. Trying to make Chardonnay into Chablis is a fool’s errand for California vintners yet that is what some are trying in their own ways. They won’t say so, of course. Indeed, they do not even know what they are attempting with their lowered alcohol, stainless steel wines. But what they are accomplishing is to recreate the food wine scourge of the past.

In a recent Chardonnay tasting, we found wine after wine whose elevated acidities all but drowned out varietal character—and, not to put too harsh a face on it, but some of those wines simply never had a chance to be anything interesting because they never developed personalities in the first place.

Every wine region has wines that do not succeed. And overripe wines with their fruit burned out, their acidities gone, their pHs so high that not only are they flabby now but they have little chance to improve with age are not exactly my cup of tea either. But, if the wineries become so afraid of getting their grapes ripe enough to develop identifiable character, then the resulting wines are bound to fail.

The beautiful underbelly to the new “food wine” movement is that it will only half succeed. It will not die because many wines are already being made with a newfound, enhanced sense of balance. We certainly have a new sensibility to thank for that. But that style will not take over either, because the good never really goes away no matter how much ink is shed along the way.

In the long run, it has turned out that no one killed Merlot, that Syrah while not prospering is also not going the way of the dodo bird and that cork refused to stay in the grave. And so too will wines with personality not disappear in California. Some wines may go too far. We have complained of that very thing ourselves. But, California is best when it makes wines that react to place rather than to punditry. And, it is our fate, whether the boo-birds like it not, to be able to make flavorful, rich wines with balance. It’s what we do when we let place talk.


killing California Wines
by Gregory Graziano
Posted on:6/2/2011 1:04:17 PM

I agree with much of what you say but at the same time I am also tired of drinking pinot noirs that don't look, smell and taste like pinot noir. Pinot noir wines that look, smell and taste like syrah with 15% alcs are not my bag. I am also tired of and never drink chardonnay because most are over-oaked, flabby and smell like buttered popcorn. Zinfandel is also a problem, with too much alcohol, too much sugar, low acid, high VA and not enough aging. This is why I drink more European wine.

Gregory Graziano


CA Chards
by PaulG
Posted on:6/2/2011 1:39:10 PM

The harsh and unpopular truth may be that 1) chardonnay as a grape does not have significant varietal character; 2) the fad to oaky, alcoholic butter bombs has peaked and faded; and 3) with or without climate change, a lot of California vineyards may be in locations that are too hot to ripen chardonnay phenolically at moderate sugar levels. Just sayin'....

Killing All CA Wine
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/2/2011 8:30:06 PM

Greg, you are a winemaker. You must know that the overwhelming majority of CA Pinot Noir does not come with 15 per cent ABV. I could go without saying, but I will say it anyhow, you should drink whatever it is that makes your palate happy

And I do thank you for your kind words about the overall direction of my comments. Clearly, I agree with you that Pinot Noir should taste like Pinot Noir and that Chardonnay, or any other variety, ought not be high in VA or low in acidity.

But perhaps where we part ways is in the availability of scores and scores of CA wines that are balanced, keenly varietal, reflective of place and capable of aging in accordance with their variety's potential.

I am sure that you aware of wines like Peay, Dutton Goldfield, Bjornstad, Freestone, Sanford, Ridge, Ravenswood and lots more. These are not wines that are flabby or high in VA or will not age.

I'm Moving To Seattle
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/2/2011 8:36:42 PM

Hi Paul

Thanks for stopping by. It is pretty clear to me that all California wine lovers need to move to Seattle. With all the rain we have been seeing lately, we won't notice the differene. :-}

killing California wines
by Mongo
Posted on:6/3/2011 12:31:52 AM


If you are tired of drinking 'pinot noirs that don't look, smell and taste like pinot noir. Pinot noir wines that look, smell and taste like syrah with 15% alc', nor chardonnays 'because most are over-oaked, flabby and smell like buttered popcorn', nor zinfandels 'with too much alcohol, too much sugar, low acid, high VA and not enough aging', then don't do it!

But maybe you should find a merchant who could lead you to versions of these California wines that are balanced in these characteristics, and provide wonderful drinking experiences. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of examples. See Steve Eliot's recent post on zinfandels on this blog.

I find it interesting that you, as a Caifornia winemaker whose wines are (were?) exemplary for style and balance, seem to dismiss California wines out-of-hand . What's your deal?

ps Popcorn popped in oil/olive/oil/butter represents a pinnacle of food pairing, with lightly oaked, balanced chardonnay, FYI.

Dumb Press
by Donn R.
Posted on:6/3/2011 8:45:32 AM

Maybe the journalists who wrote all those death pronouncements, are just making a typical mistake:  they announce a conclusion based on a tiny sample.  Remember the numbers that were in Jon Bonne's article recently, that what, 90% of Calif. wine by volume, was taxed at the table wine and not the dessert wine tax bracket.  90% was 14% abv or less.  So, when bloggers or journalists or headline writers proclaim a trend, based on the last 6 months of their personal sampling of a few hundred wines, and they ignore the hundreds of millions of cases of wine worldwide consumed by normal people, who don't read The New Yorker or Wine Spectacle, overwhelmingly huge amount of the wine less than 14.1% abv,  the headline writer is commiting fraud.  Charlie, you are right for taking the writers and the pronouncers to task.  They are selling their own importance, not wine.


And re: Chard, do you think that many of the Chards you taste now have been acidified?  It is easy to grow 1000s of acres of ripe, bland, Chard., leave in about 1% or 1.5% sugar, toss in some oak and then some acid, and sell it for $8.99 by the truckload.  Or $39.99 if it suits the label well.

Not Trying to Kill but....
by LittleRip
Posted on:6/3/2011 8:51:10 AM

...most CA Varietals all  $20. to $25 and under tend to taste alike. Even some of the more pricey Cabs and Chardonnays. Lets call them California Generic. Where is the uniqueness of the area or vineyard. I believe many of the wines are manipulated after they are made to meet a desired palate.

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/3/2011 9:31:49 AM

Donn, I got into wine via food. As the cook, not chef, for my grad school roommates, I loved learning how to use spices and techniques to make things taste better.

Flavor, balance, enjoyment are the keys. If someone acidulates a Chardonnay and that process does not add sourness or a chalky texture, but instead brings a potentially good Chardonnay into balance, just as a touch of acidity in some dishes is necessary to bring them into balance, then I am all for it.

I like it when a Russian River Pinot tastes like what I expect of a Russian River Pinot, but if one tastes like a great Pinot from Carneros or Burgundy, New Zealand or Patagonia, I don't hold that against the wine.

All of which is a long way of saying that I expect winemakers to use the tools available to them to make wine that people will enjoy. Added acid can help or harm. A flat, insipid, lifeless wine would show less well in our tastings than one that is balanced. But a wine with too much acid is no better than a wine with too little. And that, plus the loss of the varietal depth are the twin dangers in the "food wine" direction that is now being visited upon California.


by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:6/3/2011 9:54:08 AM

As someone who has added acid to wines and wished I hadn't, and hasn't added acid and wished I had, and has occasionaly stumbled into doing it correctly.....I think that the timing of an acid addition is perhaps the most important factor in whether or not it stands out.  Modest acid additions done to juice usually integrate thru the fermenation process.  Those done after the juice becomes wine tend to stand out more.

Just my $.02 worth.

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

Chasing the trends
by Matt Smith
Posted on:6/3/2011 10:00:12 AM

Hi all,

Great discussion, here is my take on things.  Many California wineries are completely dependent on getting good scores to sell wine.  Many winemakers are judged by their employers by how well the wines score.  The on line vehicles for selling wine won't even touch a wine that does not have a Spectator score of less than 90.  Reviewers like spectator taste through 100s of wines a day.  If you don't make an oak bomb chard, a 17% alc zin, or dark smoky pinot, you won't get noticed and you wont get a good score.

  Chard is trending back now as people try to chase the trend, Once everyone is making all stainless chard someone will come out with a revolutionary concept, the over oaked popcorn bomb.  As for pinot, sadly price has been the driving force for blending it with syrah.  For a while folks were buying up all the Gamay they could to help control the cost of their pinot as grape prices sky rocketed.  With the decline in Syrah, many producers found themselves with great syrah wine that they could not sell.  And while a little syrah is pinot is a good thing, they have to use it all up.  Thus the emergence of the mighty pinot with black color and tannnins.

As for Zin, the best ones seem to hang in the 15 % category.  It all comes down to balance.  I have tasted many zins that clock in at 16 % but they are balanced so they work.  Likewise, the zins I have tasted under 14% tend to be pretty plain and simple.  You can't make a sweeping statement that all wine should be under 14%, thats like saying all meats should be cooked medium rare.  It's nice on a steak but not so much on the chicken.

Death Pronouncements
by Jason Brumley
Posted on:6/7/2011 6:47:24 AM

It's a fortunate/unfortunate fact that sometimes a vineyard manager or winemaker must let the grapes hang on the vine for quite some time to develop phenolic complexity. Often times, this can lead to higher sugar levels and low acids. Just because you harvest grapes at lower brix and higher TA levels, does not mean that you are going to make a better, more food friendly, wine if the polyphenols have not been allowed to develop to their full potential.

I'm not a fan of high alcohol low acid wines; but, some vintages and varietals require it to see full flavor development.

by jon campbell
Posted on:6/10/2011 10:51:29 PM

"this pinot isn't dark enough, throw some petite sirah in there"

"this grenachce isnt dark enough, throw some petite sirah in there"

this etc etc etc.....................

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