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Friday Fishwrap
Thoughts While Shaving: On Aging, On Wine Cellars, On Tom Wark

By Charles Olken

I have long done some of my best thinking while shaving. It has been harder to think lately, however, because of my recently acquired beard. But even a hairy guy needs a trim now and then, and here are a few pithy thoughts that have come out of the experience.

ON AGING—Part One: Wine gets better with age—most of the time. Whether the time frame is six months or sixteen years is not really the issue. Most wines simply like a bit of age. First they need to shed their grapey, fresh-pressed baby fat. Most wineries keep their offerings long enough for that to happen, but not long enough for the aging curve to have given us the best the wines have to offer. Unoaked, simple wines probably don’t have much to gain, but even they can be too clean, too scrubbed if issued very young.

I was writing the tasting notes on a bunch of 2010 Sauvignon Blancs last night, and so many of those wines were still in their infancy—even the inexpensive ones. And, because they are so close to their bottling dates, there were also far too many wines whose protective sulfur dioxide were intruding with matchsticky, dusty, vaguely dried out grass notes. To be sure, the good wines are going to outlive that problem, and it won’t take them months to do it. Still, I wish wineries felt that they could hold off issuing wines that are not really ready for prime time. Heck, some of them weren’t ready for adolescence.

ON AGING—Part Two: The other day, a young and not very polite person decided to tell me that I was past my sell-by date as a winewriter. The essence of his message was “you are sixty-three; I am thirty-three; and you are out of touch with the way the world wants wine reviews to be done”. Now, I can’t argue with the first part of his premise. I am all of sixty-three and have been at this stand for three decades and change. In fact, I have been at it for more years than he has been alive. And that may well make me past my useful age and I need to carted out to pasture, but I am not so sure that being thirty-three qualifies my young friend to be the voice of experience.

One of the most interesting things that has happened to me as a taster of late is that my tasting acuity is changing. On the one hand, I am less likely to dash off strings of adjectives, yet, on the other, I am much more likely to spend lots of time looking at varietal consistency, suggestions of place, ageworthy structures and the like. Those kinds of recognitions are, in fact, borne of experience. My granddaughter can smell wine and tell me whether it is redolent of flowers or berries. I am sure my thirty-three year old friend is also capable of that feat. But I am betting my years in this biz has prepared me better than most youngsters to be able to pick West Rutherford from East Rutherford and the Freestone region of the Russian River Valley from the Westside Road section. Age does have its benefits, and just like fine wine, I may not be as spry as I once was, but I am a lot more complex.

ON WINE CELLARS: A good friend of mine and long-time subscriber came for a visit not so long ago. He lives overseas and imports a fair bit of California wine. We get together about once a decade and have done so several times. Because he was coming down from wine country and catching a plane the next day, he stayed with us and happened to find himself face to face with the overflow from my wine cellar. I justify keeping thousands of bottles of wine on three or four different grounds, and, believe me, I rely on each of those pleadings to stop Mrs. Olken from tossing me and them out into the street.

A few weeks ago, I pulled out a 1975 Joseph Swan Zinfandel for a group of winewriting friends who had gathered up Sonomaway for our occasional breadbreaking. The wine was spectacular—although truth be told, I did bring a backup bottle in case that one had lost its way. Last weekend, I joined a very different kind of dinner party. My writing compatriot, Steve Eliot, has often mentioned that he also has taught wine to the fledgling chefs who attend the California Culinary Academy. Several of the instructors from that organization joined in a multi-course meal, and the Olkens were invited. This time, I reached into the cellar for an older Alsatian Riesling, a 1997 Trimbach Cuvée Emile. It had all the ripe but steely character I want from an Alsatian version of the grape. Being able to enjoy wines that have aged into great beauty is one of the best reasons to have a wine cellar. I can haul out several other “excuses” as needed.

ON TOM WARK: The inestimable Mr. Wark, for those who do not know him, is a wine publicist. He is also an exceptional wine columnist whose blog, Fermentation,, is one of the most insightful, intelligently analytical endeavors in the wine internet space. If you do not read it regularly, I urge you to start now. Most of us who blog about wine are critics of one sort or another. We have views that must, of needs, be substantially borne from our experiences in that part of the wine scene. Mr. Wark comes from a different place, and while he and the critics often speak about the same topics, most recently the kerfuffle over wine ratings that momentarily burst into flame in the last week or so, he also has unique insights into the industry from the other side. The beauty of his blog is not that he speaks for the industry, which he may or may not do, but he knows the other side of the coin and thus makes all of us who read him into smarter people.


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by TomHill
Posted on:8/13/2011 1:00:16 PM way are you ready to be turned out to pasture. You got a good many yrs in you yet, Charlie. The knees may be a little creaky, you maybe can no longer dunk a basketball...but the mind is sharp as ever.

Charlie sez:

"One of the most interesting things that has happened to me as a taster of late is that my tasting acuity is changing. On the one hand, I am less likely to dash off strings of adjectives, yet, on the other, I am much more likely to spend lots of time looking at varietal consistency, suggestions of place, ageworthy structures and the like. Those kinds of recognitions are, in fact, borne of experience"


When I read that comment, Charlie; I thought, why that's me as well.

When I taste a wine anymore, I'm not so likely as throw out "gobs of hedonistic fruit" or similar nonsense. I'm much more likely to think..."Wow, thiis reminds me of that Qupe PasoRobles Syrah '82" when it was young. That probably means precious little to your 30-something friend, but to you & I, and other old folks, it says a whole lot about the wine.

   I was chatting w/ some folks ystrday (vnyd owners from Calif) over apps & wine about  aging of wines. I posited that it is far easier to select an ageable white that'll be good/great 10-20-30 yrs down the road, than it is a red.  They were a bit surprised by assertion. But the '76 Ockfener Auslese, w/ its $6.49 price tag, certainly supported my case.



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