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Tuesday Tributes
Wineries Afraid Of The Media

By Charles Olken

I tasted a really lovely Zinfandel, Mouverdre, Syrah blend up in wine country the other day. When I asked its maker why he had not submitted it for review anywhere, he said that the media would not understand it.

Now, I will admit that I don’t understand the media much of the time, and I am part of it. But, the one thing about which I am 100% sure is that someone out there is going to “get” the story of about any wine one would like to make. And I am equally sure that my compatriots in wine writing, from those who seemingly like big, rich wines to those who profess to only wanting to drink lighter wines, all have the capacity to understand a Zinfandel-based “Rhône” blend as they do a Grenache-based or a Syrah-based blend.

That’s the beauty about wine tasting. No matter what our preferences and no matter how wide or how narrow we define the range of acceptable outcomes, the experienced members of the wine writing profession like new experiences, seek them out, learn from them. Even those whose mantras seem to include “no wines above 14% alcohol” will not fail to recommend wines above those levels when they find examples they like.

As we talked, this winery owner and I, he then pulled out a Chardonnay. “Well, how about this?” he intoned as he poured a bright-looking potion into my glass. Light on its feet, bristling with acidy energy and possessed of Chardonnay’s green appley fruit, it was a perfect example of the clean, easily liked yet less bombastic style of Chardonnay that is popular with consumers but less so with the wineries. It was also a somewhat simpler and more direct wine, and here again, the winery owner professed his belief that the writing community would not like it because less than fully expressed Chardonnays were not well received in the media.

Okay, he has a point. But it is a point that has a basis. When one makes a simple, clean wine, no matter how well, that wine is not going to “wow” the world. Indeed, that is why this rather nice Chardonnay came with an $18 price tag in the first place.

We wound up talking for a long time about the philosophy of wine tasting, about Chardonnays from various makers, including folks like Freestone, Dutton Goldfield, Bjornstad who are all making versions of this man’s Chardonnay. And we talked about wineries that had been following the balanced style, names like Mount Eden, Marimar, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Cuvaison, just to name a few, who have always made less than bombastic wines but have long garnered favorable reactions from the media. “What’s to fear?” I asked. Most writers, even those who rhetoric these days has been held up to scrutiny in this blog for damning California wine before praising it, do not have impossibly narrow, monolithic palates.

Over the weekend, a phone message was left in the Connoisseurs’ Guide office. “I enjoyed our conversation, and I am going to subscribe and send you my wines”. We taste blind and we tend to like wines of all stripes as long as they are clean and well-made, have a decent sense of balance and “taste good”. That is all I can guarantee my new friend, except to say that I enjoyed the conversation as well because we challenged each other, we looked inside each other’s views and we came away with mutual respect. The wine business should work that way. I am glad that it did on this occasion.

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No Subject
by Randy
Posted on:6/21/2011 11:57:19 AM

Submitting to any professional reviewer is not a good idea for small wineries.  Large one need any public exposure they can muster, however the day of submitting and hitting the "jackpot" is over.  There's too many savy consumers out there doing their own homework to pay any attention to established (corporate) reviewers, esp those who've helped construct the unbalanced and in my opinion unsustainable state California (and to a point Europe) wine is in.

Wine that most of these reviewers like and rate high are way over the top with things that shouldn't be like excessive alcohol, glycerol and new oak.  So they've lost near complete legitimacy in the eyes of those who matter... My clients.  In a way, thanks. 

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/21/2011 12:10:02 PM

fascinating hypothesis, Randy, but one which is belied by wineries and readers who (a) pay to read reviewers in the same numbers that have always been there and (b) by folks like the owner of the small winery who restrained but focused products will get the same kind of positive reception being accorded to small wineries like Peay, Dutton Goldfield, Bjornstad and scores of others.

The suggestion hidden in your email, and correct if I am wrong, is that winewriting is irrelevant but wine merchatns and winery retail sales rooms trying to sell merchandise in which they have a vested financial interest are both relevant and reliable.

A good wine merchant can be a very useful source of information. It is not, however, the only one. Not by a long shot.

Media coverage.
by Joe Miller
Posted on:6/21/2011 12:13:08 PM

I can sympathize with the winemaker you mention. I have been making California wines for 40 years, but my style is generally called "French." At our winery ( in the tasting room, people can appreciate our style, but head to head with California extracted, oaky wines, it doesn't stand up so well. I suspect many famous French wines wouldn't stand up either. We have discussed changing our approach, as I can mimic the popular styles of California, but we decided to "stick to our guns." Having taught courses in UC on wine appreciation for more than 30 years, I appreciate the range of styles in world, and we  feel we have a place. But it is hard to get the word out.



The Word
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/21/2011 12:58:00 PM


Getting the word out is no more complicated than allowing various reviewers to sample your products. If wineres like Dutton Goldfield, Morgan, Mount Eden, Freestone, Pey and Peay, Bjornstad, Pfendler and dozens of others can succeed with their less than full-blown efforts. so can you if the wines have the goods.

Most competent professional wine critics have the ability to appreciate a wine for what it is regardless of style. But, whether French or Fresnoian, any wine does need balance, focus, precision and likeability to succeed in comparative tastings. What it does not need is bombast. Go have a look at the reviews here, in ths SF Chron, in Dave McIntryre's columns in the Washington Post. There does not exist a wine that will succeed when it is is over the top--or when it is green and anemic.

That is what these discussions have brought out so clearly--as they did also with the winery owner referenced in today's blog.

Wineries Afraid Of The Media
by Ron
Posted on:6/21/2011 1:52:59 PM

I recently spent the day tasting wine in Sonoma with friends.  They had some spots they wanted to hit because of good scores.  I had a few that I wanted to visit because of word of month but they had no scores.

Well, we ran the gamut of wine styles-from typical California to some more European style wines that would pair well with food.    Across the board, the places with good reivews made huge, unbalanced wines!  A Zin at 17.9 Alc, an SB at 15.2, a PN at 15.4 (wineries will go unmentioned)!  The wine was terrible but had very high scores.  Thank goodness I put my foot down and insisted we hit the smaller, non reviewed wineries first because our palates would have been shot.    I asked the smaller places why they don't send in the wines for reivew and the answer was the same-when reviewing a line up of wines, the bigger wines that are oaky, sweet and alcoholic will stand out more and over-shadow the more balanced, nuanced wines.  Both places sell 100% of their production to wine club and through the tasting room and both have huge followings on yelp.  What happens if the reviewer gives them a mediocre score because they thought the wine was in their opinion "anemic"?  

Bottom line-at the end of the day where did we go back to buy wine?  The small unreviewed winery.  


Not In My World
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/21/2011 2:45:54 PM

I went wine tasting in Sonoma. That is what the article was about. I tasted wine from Spann, Anaba, Westwood, Joseph Swan, Failla and others both at the wineries and at dinner.

Not one 17.9% alc Zin in the bunch. Not one 15.2% SB in the bunch. Now, I am not doubting you, but the absence of names does undercut your message. I have named the names above. Did you visit any of those wineries?

The problem with your anecdote is that you make it sound like the only wines that get favorable reviews, and please do tell us who gave a positive review to a 17.9% Zin, are those that are demonstrably over the top.

Perhaps your sample was a unfortunately skewed by chance--once again, name the wineries so we too can judge.

For the record, I just looked back over the several thousand Zins I have reviewed in the last four years and not one of them reached 17.9% alcohol. Most were between 14 and 15--not low but this is Zin.

I am sure there are 15% SBs in CA. Most of the hundreds and hundreds I have reviewed were 13 to 14.5.

not in your world
by ron
Posted on:6/21/2011 5:53:12 PM

how about Deerfield Ranch Zin at 17.4% alc AND .12 % resdidual sugar-95 pts from WE.  Or Simi Russian River Chard at 16.9% Alc, 90 pt from WE that we had at lunch-we didn't finish the bottle between 4 of us.  The Deerfield especially was so hot, it burned going down-its practically a fortified wine!  

The winery we all bought wine from was Loxton Cellars. We heard about it from friends and they had by far the best wines of the day.  None of us had ever heard of them since he doesn't send his wines out for reviews and sells everything from the winery.  Nothing was oaky, nothing was hot and none tasted sweet.  Were they 100% pt wines? Maybe not by critics standards but we all agreed they were only wines we tasted that day that we wanted to take home and drink with dinner.

Too Bad About Your World
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/21/2011 6:37:31 PM


You deserve better. I have no knowledge of either of the wines you mention, but clearly they would not be my first choices for lunch. The RS in the Deerfield Ranch is bone dry if it is reported accurately. 1.2% RS would be sweet. 0.12% is below threshold. However, at the level of alcohol, the grapes would have been very ripe, probably had some desiccation and the wine would certainly have had a high level of glycerol, a component of alcohol, that is not sweet by measure but tastes sweet on the tip of the tongue.

Years ago, Connoisseurs Guide criticized such wines as having bad table manners. I have no disagreement with your feelings about that wine. But, it is not all Zinfandels. It is not most Zinfandels. If you look through our Zin choices, you will see that we most often select wines in the 14-15% range. And when we select wines above that level, we rarely recommend them for lunch. Maybe with 24-hour barbecue brisket--but not lunch.

Finally, Connoisseurs Guide has frequently reviewed Loxton Zins--and recommended them. We have also on occasion recommended Zins pushing 16% alc. The two are not mutually exclusive except as to their uses with food.

Thanks for writing back.

No Subject
by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:6/22/2011 5:08:46 PM

"Impossibly narrow, monolithic palates" has always been exactly the issue with mainstream wine criticism.  Not too long ago, for instance, it was the "hedonistic," "opulent" wines that racked up the high scores; unfortunately, recently, there has also been a backlash in the way of new fangled punditry intolerant of fuller bodied, riper style wines, hailing lighter,  higher acid wines as clearly "superior."

At which point will anyone realize that no one has a lock on "quality," and that all wine criticism is like any other pursuit of aesthetics:  purely subjective.  The scariest people -- whether it's those who give 99 points to 17% alcohol wines or those who ballyhoo the 11-12% alcohol wines -- are those who think they're "right."

That's also why points are nonsense to begin with, because these systems presuppose quality standards. Standards at a certain level of quality don't exist, folks.  What's more important is how wine is described in terms of style and specific sensory components.  Realistically, of course, I know the wine industry as well as consumers are a long ways from this.  Most everyone wants things nice, neat and well packaged -- stars, puffs, points, etc. do that for people.

But someday -- and I hope it's soon -- a majority of the media, trade and consumers will begin to realize that it's not how a wine "rates," it's how it suits a given person's taste.  At that point, the poor winemakers who rightfully fear the media can be a little more confident in showing his/her stuff.

My way or the hi-way
by Steven Mirassou
Posted on:6/26/2011 12:54:37 PM


I, too, get tweaked when I read comments from "Randy" and other posters who claim to "know" the superior wine, the single, ONE way that wine MUST be made. Not a world view that has much going for it. 

I am sympathetic also to the hope that one day all wine consumers will be able to come wine with an unmediated view, just their palates guiding the way. I can't see it happening, though. There is so much wine out there that having a trusted guide can help cut what would otherwise be an all-time-consuming endeavor just to pick a bottle out for that night's dinner.

And though I am ambivalent about scores, if they come from trusted and known palates, there isn't a more effective way to quickly communicate a message. 

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