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Friday Fishwrap
The Washington Post Pushes Back

By Charles Olken

First, the Post accused CGCW of “wailing” about the return of underripe, anemic “food wines”. Now, Mr. McIntyre has raised the specter of “vodka wines”. When will this silliness stop?

I have no personal axe to grind with Dave McIntyre. His response to Wednesday’s blog is civil, friendly, thoughtful and thought-provoking. It also closes the gap between east and west at one point and then opens it up again. And, we here in California need to do some pushing back ourselves. There are some essential truths that need stating, and folks like the thoughtful Mr. McIntyre needs to hear them-—not to change his preferences in wine choice but to change his rhetoric so as to reflect reality rather than some half-true construct of reality.

Here is his first paragraph from his comments on our Wednesday blog.

“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.”

Push-back 1: Any focus on hang-time is not a focus on how ripe can the grapes get but how tasty can the grapes get. “Super ripeness” is one of those half-true constructs that needs to be debunked. Grapes can be picked at various levels of ripeness. Unless a winery has a market for prune juice, it dare not pick its grapes so ripe that they have lost their ways. Please see the comments on the Wednesday blog from winemakers/owners Tom Ferrell (Spring Mountain Vineyards) and Dave Hanna. Neither of their wineries makes wines that anyone would consider “vodka wines” or over the top or prune juice. And neither do the majority of wineries whose products I review by the thousands every year.

Push Back 2: Mr. McIntyre does now use language like “all too often”, and, of course, no one will disagree that there are wines in California whose character is more reflective of ripeness than of variety or place. Connoisseurs’ Guide was perhaps the first voice decrying overripeness decades ago. Reader and wine savant, Tom Hill, likes to quote our comments from long ago about wine with bad table manners. But, “all too often” is one of those weird phrases that suggests regularity rather than occasionally. And it is that choice of language that the drumbeaters roll out time and time again. There is a “right by exception” quality to that phrase rather than a “substantial body of well-made balanced wines” quality. And that is the problem. The phrasing is simply misleading, and misinformed in my humble opinion.

Well, Mr. McIntyre has more, and his words are again too value-loaded for my taste. I appreciate the politeness and open spirit of conversation with which they are offered, but, here again, they convey an impression of near universality rather than the real truth which is that there are scores and scores and scores again of California wines from producers all over the state that do not do the heinous things that they stand accused of doing. Here again, Mr. McIntyre.

“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.”

Pushback 3: This business of accusing California wine of being showoff wines that do not work with food is only true in the exception. More than that, it was not so long ago that CGCW criticized some Petite Sirahs as being too tannic to enjoy with food only to get inundated with letters from folks who named all kinds of dishes for which they choose Petite Sirah. Their point, and one with which Mr. McIntyre may disagree is that the wine is an integral part of the meal and it can stand on its own alongside the food. Wine does not need to be subservient. Do you want to drink Chablis or Le Montrachet with your grilled salmon filet? Do you prefer Lafitte or Latour? There is no right answer.

Pushback 4: The notion that “the food is there to soak up the alcohol” is yet another value-loaded phrase. It again carries the ring of universality in its very being. The whole paragraph, seen within the context of Mr. McIntyre’s comments in his newspaper, treats California wine as if it were monolithic. In this, Mr. McIntyre is doing a great disservice to his readers. Rather than focusing on the mountain of California wine that is balanced, focused and reflective of variety and place, his overall charge reads as if California cannot be trusted for those desired attributes. That is the nonsense that permeates the drumbeat.

“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.”

Mr. McIntyre has a point. When eastern writers hold up wineries like Donkey and Goat or Dutton Goldfield as examples of folks who are doing it right, they are not choosing to champion the cause of thin, anemic wines. But my “food wines” comments in the blog entitled “Someone Is Killing California Wine” did not refer to balanced wines made in a lighter style. They referred to the ocean of tasteless, green drivel that wineries offered in the early ‘80s in response to the anti-California wine drumbeat of that era. It is that scourge that threatens California again if the wineries listen to those prophets of gloom. Mr. McIntyre choose to criticize that concern that we are headed back to the era of nothingness. He missed the point, as my entry for Wednesday pointed out. I wish he had been a little more balanced in his language because he is still, as far as I am concerned, overgeneralizing and thus misleading in his commentary.

He goes on to suggest, in his comments on that blog entry, that the only thing that separates his palate and mine is his preference for elegance and finesse whereas we Californian are all about power and concentration. That is the nub of the drumbeat that is going to force some vintners back into the anemia of “food wines”. It is apparently useless to keep telling the beaters of the drum to look to the enormous quantity of well-made, polished wine coming from the dozens and dozens of names that have been listed in this blog or that could be listed. There is nothing wrong with a preference for a style. There is an enormity of wrongness in casting California wines as overwrought and all about power and concentration. Personally, I think Mr. McIntyre knows better. And if he does not, then I invite him to taste with me the next time he comes to California. Not every wine is going to be to his taste. But enough of them will be to put the lie to the drumbeat.

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"Food Wines"
by steven
Posted on:6/17/2011 12:05:54 PM

Cant we all just get along? You like Anna Nicole Smith and Dave prefers Audrey Hepburn. I think they're both beautiful. It's only wine folks!

Getting Along
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/17/2011 12:42:07 PM

Here's the problem. This conversation is not about getting along. It is about the problem that wineries are likely to feel pushed into thin, anemic wines by the rhetoric that is being thrown about.

I have no problem with what Mr. McIntyre likes. That is his business. Mine isto  comment on things I see, and I see a lack of balance in commentary that brands CA wine as universally this or that. CA wines are not monolithic. But treating the topic as if they were, or even substantially were, all over the top, is wrong-headed and misleading in my opinion.

by Dave McIntyre
Posted on:6/17/2011 1:10:49 PM

Charlie - I never said all California wines are like that. If you read my column and my comments here (limited to 1,200 characters) a little more carefully, I hope I clearly communicated that I was distinguishing between different style preferences and different ways people drink wine.

I used your original blog post as the starting point for my column because it was thought-provoking and well-argued, even if a bit hyperbolic. ("Killing California Wine" sounds somewhat universal in rhetoric, after all.) And I'm a sucker for a Sherlock Holmes reference. (For those missing that, the full title was, "My Dear Watson - Someone Is Trying to Kill California Wine.")

I may take you up on the invitation to taste wines with you next time I'm in California. I'm sure the wines, as well as the discussion, will be quite lively.

Not All
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/17/2011 1:40:35 PM


Thanks for the added comments. The original premise was, and is, that the pendulum swung too far before in response to the same drumbeat we are hearing today.

I would prefer that we not repeat that sad chapter in our vinous history.

I do think you missed my meaning, but chances are that we are pretty close when it comes to defining balance in blind tastings. That is the interesting part about tasting without knowing what the label says.

A hyperbolic title? Moi?

You think?
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:6/17/2011 2:46:49 PM

Awe c'mon Charlie, do you really think that a winery would change their winemaking style just to empress or woo the press? Oh wait.....erm, nevermind.

No Subject
by Randy
Posted on:6/17/2011 3:34:27 PM

This is a very interesting blog today.

Missing Messages
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/17/2011 9:53:38 PM

To Lucie Morton and anybody else whose messages may have gone astray today--

I am not exactly sure what happened, but the system is up and running again.

I do know that the system does not seem to like messages that are written in Word and then cut and pasted.

So, please try again, but do try by typing in the comments box below. Thanks.


overipe napa wines
by bunt marker
Posted on:6/18/2011 11:14:19 PM

Dear Charlie

   YAFOS.  If you like overripe wines just say so.  Don't pretend they're not.  "Anemic' wines DO taste great with food and they don't make you drunk.  If you have a hamburger palate, drink light beer and booze, or if you insist on wine, cut the shit and drink port.  Sorry, no can't we all just get along namby pamby feelgood here.  Lead palate?  Eat lead!  Bunt

Wrong and Hiding
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/19/2011 12:23:19 AM

Hey,  Bunt. Now that was funny. Anemic wines taste good? Wines with no character will not make one drunk?

Sorry, wrong.

Has The Herd Mentaility Taken Over?
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/19/2011 9:49:08 AM

Here is the question that has bugged me overnight. Why is that those who prefer a lighter style wine denigrate all CA wine in the process as if wines from dozen of producers have not always existed in that style and are being joined by others.

We know by taste that the wines of Grgich Hills, Mount Eden, Ridge, Cuvaison, Marimar have always followed a tighter line, and it has not mattered whether their wines were 13.7 or 14.2 ABV, those wines are almost always in impeccable balance.

Even folks who will recommend wines with alcohols over 14%, and that includes most writers, will do so with a backhand swipe at the wines in the introductory comments. It has become a mantra for writers to excuse themselves first and then rate the wines they like later. I don't get it. Feels like weird kind of herd mentality.

Not all....
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:6/20/2011 9:54:54 AM

Not all of us that prefer lighter wines denigrate those that are not Charlie. Just as you hate blanket statements about California wines I get my crunders in a bunch every time you act as if those of us that crave those, "acidic and thin" wines are smack talking on wines that are plump and rich.....grrr.

Sam's Crunders
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/20/2011 10:26:20 AM

My dear Samantha, how right you are. There are several people like you who are able to say what they prefer without denigrating CA wine generally first.

I apologize to you and your crunders, but I am unwilling to accept the kind of writing that says CA wine is simply overripe, overdone, etc and that lumps everything into one basket. Even important friends of yours do that--as you and I have discussed on more than one occasion.

I know you do not, and I was just delighted to read your comments about the Chardonnays you tasted with us the other night. Those Chardonnays are not the exceptions to the rule.

But if one reads the comments from too many knowledgeable folk, one might well get the impression that wines like the Bjornstads you tasted were the first of their breed here in CA rather than part of a tradtion of managed ripeness that goes for as long as I have been enjoying CA wine. Mount Eden, Ch. Montelena under Mike Grgich, Grgich Hills, etc, etc, have always made wine that way. I know you know better. But, I am amazed, astounded and dumbfouned with leading writers claim we are in the midst of some new wave that has hetetofore not been part and parcel of the ongoing wine scene here.

rhetoric and grand standing
by frank
Posted on:6/20/2011 11:43:45 PM

Charlie- obviously you are very passionate about Cali wines, I have no personal preferance to east vs west coast.

but I have read, the original article, the Post's and your retort. you are quick to point to things like "all to often" as being a death sentence to cali wines! bit of a drama queen!

The Post took your - very one sided article and put it to the test and it came up wanting, it seems if anybody's opinion about styles of wine divers to yours its a full frontal attack.

maybe you arent the best advocate for Californian wines then...

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/21/2011 12:09:00 AM

My original article spoke to the return of the "thin food wines", as they were derisively called three decades ago.

Mr. McIntrye, if you read all his comments here, and I agree that that thin, anemic, characterless wines are not desirable anymore than are pruny, soft, dull, heavy wines.

Depletion Ratios
Posted on:6/25/2011 9:25:25 AM

I like to look at the numbers, we produce 8 different wines mostly "big" . Our big boys (15.9% - 16.2%) outsell our happy little devils 14% by a huge margin. We make what sells, what sells are the big, ripe, chewy, balanced wines ($15.>). We have all but stopped production on the lighter style wines. Furthermore, despite all the opinions of the herd, our best sellers are the ones we harvest at optimum or Physiological ripeness, again California Big. Finally, when the grapes reach optimum Physiological ripeness, they tend to yield higher alcohol.... we don't believe in removing the alcohol, its very, very invasive to the wine, kind of like colonoscopy. 


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