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Wine and Food Wednesday
The Battles Rages On—And The Washington Post Gets It Wrong

By Charles Olken

It’s not unusual for things coming out of Washington to be a little cock-eyed. It takes that town a bit of time to get things right. So, it is no surprise that the Washington Post would not know what is meant by the pejorative term “food wine”.

Perhaps that is why the Washington Post has ridiculously claimed that “food wines” may be the savior of California wine. Back about thirty years ago, California wine was criticized for high ripeness by the writer for the New York Times because he had concluded that our 13% alcohol wines would not go with food. The preferred wines for that eastern scribe were European offerings with 12% alcohol. The result was that many (too many) California wineries scaled back their wines to 12% and wound up with thin, watery, flavorless potions whose grapes had not been allowed to ripen to maturity. We here in California dubbed them “food wines” as a polite way of saying that some wineries had bowed to labels and forgotten about things like taste, balance, focus.

Enter the new century and California wines have crept up to 14% while European wines are now 13%--or so we are told. Along comes a new generation of winewriters, and it matters not whether they are writing in New York or Washington or, sadly, for the San Francisco Chronicle. These Johnny-come-latelies are all in a dither over alcohol. This time, of course, 13% is okay but 14% is not. It’s the same eastern, euro-palate bias all over again. These guys are the Yogi Berra’s of our time (“It’s déjà vu all over again”).

“Food wines” was then, and is now, a term of derision. Mr. McIntryre of the Post apparently is blissfully unaware of history, and so he is wishing, mistakenly I believe, for those who have not learned from history to repeat it. Please do not.

In my column last week entitled, “Someone Is Killing California Wine”, I decried the déjà vu return of “food wines”. In turn, the Washington Post has dubbed that sentiment as “whining” and has endorsed the return of “food wines”. I forgive Mr. McIntyre for he knows not what he is doing. He is too young to remember the curse of the “food wines” and how quickly California wineries abandoned that trend because the wines generated zero interest—just as the “food wines” of today will also generate zero interest.

Now, let’s be clear. Wines of balance, flavor and focus need not be highly ripe in order to exist. Despite silly pronouncements that wines of that ilk are “California wine rethought” and a trend towards lightness, such wines have always existed here in California. In past columns, I have mentioned dozens of producers who are not new, whose styles are not new, whose visions are not “rethought” but whose chosen path is towards the lighter end of the spectrum. I also mentioned the “rethought” comment to one of the wineries cited as a purveryor of the new and the owner simply laughed out loud, “Of course, it is not new. That style has been around forever”.

So, I forgive Mr. McIntyre for not knowing about food wines, but I cannot be so easily forgiving of those who believe that the salvation of California wine is to reduce its character to nothingness in the search of lightness. Drink what you want, you critics, but for goodness sake, learn about the past. And stop, as the SF Chronicle did this week, criticizing the California style and then recommending wines that are very high in alcohol and very high in pH. I am not arguing with their judgment. I am arguing with their biased rhetoric on the subject.

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by Chuck Hayward
Posted on:6/15/2011 11:16:56 AM

Charlie, you know I absolutely agree with your basic tenets about wine and I am glad you are bringing "truth to power", as they say, about these issues. But I find out that Samantha Dugan, THE Samantha Sans Dosage, was at your house last night and you write about this? Surely you could have postponed this and offered us some insight about her for your blog... While she does pour herself out on the page (so to speak), I am sure that her readers, and I am sure yours, want to know more. Time to wear the journalist hat! You know she loves you!!!

No Subject
by Jennifer McCloud
Posted on:6/15/2011 11:56:10 AM

Frankly, Mr. Olken, if I had to deal with sur maturité fruit at 28° brix while trying to make a balanced wine, I'd say "food wines" were for the birds, too! (And “…crept up to 14%...”? Seriously? C’mon! More like 16%, and those that are at 14% have either been watered and/or de-alced.)


Jennifer McCloud

Chrysalis Vineyards

Middleburg, Virginia




No Subject
by tom ferrell
Posted on:6/15/2011 12:17:52 PM

Excellent posts this week and last, except I don’t remember “food wine” being just the East Coast, euro-centric thing, but a mass hysteria than consumed the entire wine writing establishment. In my mind, it began with the unusually light, soft 1976 inaugural vintage of Jordan Cab released toward the end of the decade. It met rave reviews by most everyone who wrote about wine. The word used to explain its lightness was that it was “a food wine.”

What followed was a rush to imitate. An example was Sterling Vineyard which had, under Ric Forman, produced rich, tasty, beautifully balanced wine particularly 1974 through 1978. Under new owner Coca Cola, who bought into the “food wine” mantra, it produced a string of light, thin wines from 1979 through 1982. The wines hovered above and below 12 % alcohol. The wines got their share of “food wine” accolades, but didn’t sell well. Coke got out and beginning in 1984 and through the rest of the decade, under Seagram and winemaker Bill Dyer (who learned what to do from Ric and what not to do from Coke) returned the wines to balance, high scores and excellence.

 Most wine writers are desperate for material and tend to exaggerate to make a point, but winemakers should be wary of following their advice. This mistake can be made on both sides of the alcohol equation whether it be “fruit forward” or “food fashioned.”

wine and alcohol
by Tish
Posted on:6/15/2011 1:32:24 PM

Charlie, your take on this subject counts as much as anyone's, and I see your points. But I think you still need to acknowledge the legitimacty of those who prefer to seek out lower rather than higher alcohol wines. The deicison by THe San Francisco Chronicle and Decanter to start listing alcohol in reviews (as I do at my site, is one of the most welcome developments in wine criticism in the past 10 years.

Simply put, the alcohol level listed on labels is legal date that many people find relevant. And I would propose to you that any critic who excludes such information is shorting his/her readers. It is information that people can use, just like grape composition, origin, vintage and price.


Food wines
by Michael Donohue
Posted on:6/15/2011 4:03:16 PM

I have a slightly different take on food wines: They are the ones with enough structure, acidity and tannin to deserve, if not demand a place at the table (where it once was thought wine was meant to be enjoyed) - as opposed to most CA wine which is flabby, sweet and quaffable. Euro-centric? Maybe - but I certainly don't consider the alcohol content the major culprit - it's residual sugar. Reign it in, add acid if you must, but make mine food friendly.

Food Wine
by Bill Hanna
Posted on:6/15/2011 8:33:18 PM

I consider "food wine" to be wine that is full flavored but balanced so that it compliments food.  I think many of the "high scoring" (Robt Parker) wines to be suitable for consumption only with cigars.  They overwhelm the senses so the food is, at best, a secondary player. It is hard for me to get rich, ripe flavors below 24 brix which now produces close to 14% alcohol. The balance is key.

"Food Wines"--My Use Of The Term
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/16/2011 9:29:23 AM

"Food Wines", as they were defined in the 1980s, were not likeable then and they will not be likeable now. Wine is supposed to taste good. Thin, acidic, anemic wine is not good wine.

But that is what we got the last time a bunch of eastern writters tried to tell CA that all their wines were undrinkable. It was not true then and it is not true now.

And it is not true, desptie assertions above, that they all run up to 16% and are sweet. Those comments are simply wrong by light years.

Balance, focus, attractiveness as a beverage are the keys, and they are the reasons why CA wine keeps selling even as some uninformed people throw the same old brickbats.

by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:6/16/2011 12:38:28 PM

Chuck you sweet thing you, you better be careful, you keep making me blush like this and you are gonna make me fall in love with you and junk....

Elements of Style
by Dave McIntyre
Posted on:6/16/2011 6:11:45 PM

Charlie - Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back from the focus on "hang time" and "super-ripeness," which creates some fascinating wines but can lead all too often to unbalanced "vodka" wines.
The emphasis on these trophy wines also contributes to the recent nonsense in the blogosphere that people don't drink wine with food. I believe most people do - it's the showoffs who don't, and we writers tend to gravitate toward the trophy crowd. When we're drinking wine to show off rather than wash down dinner, it doesn't matter if the wine obliterates food. The food is only there to soak up the alcohol.
I haven’t seen anyone advocating under-ripeness when they argue against the excessive power and concentration of too many wines today. They are arguing that such wines too easily become unbalanced and tiresome. Those sound like descriptors you might apply to “food wines.”
So what we have is differing style preferences. We can favor power and concentration, or elegance and finesse. But we both like our wines balanced. I think the chorus you remonstrate against is simply more people expressing a preference for the latter style.

by Charles E. Olken
Posted on:6/17/2011 8:39:27 AM

Dave, loved the title of your comments above. Elements of Style sits on the shelf next to the Thesaurus and the dictionary.

Thanks for your thoughtful and thought-provoking response. I am about to write today's blog about it because there is much grist for the mill in your comments. We may or may not find ourselves in reasonable agreement, but these kinds of conversations are useful to us all.


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