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Thursday Thorns
Who Appointed You a Winewriter?

By Charles Olken

I like to think that I am a nice guy. But, on occasion, I can be a very prickly bastard. Stay tuned because I am about to walk the line between considerate, civilized writer and edgy curmudgeon.

My friend and fellow winewriter yesterday unburdened himself of his baggage and confessed that anyone could learn to taste wine. I agree. But I demur beyond that point because there is talent, pure talent in what he does that separates him from most wine drinkers and even from most wine bloggers. Joe has ability borne, admittedly, from hard work both as a writer and as a taster. And, he will continue to get better and better because his knowledge base will continue to grow.

I got a little huffy (apologies to Joe, my adopted internet son) over on his blog today with my comments that follow. In my view, Joe sells himself short, and in so doing, sells all of us who work to hone our writing, tasting, wine appreciation skills short. Read on and decide for yourself if I am being to hard on the lad. His blog can be found at:

My comments, not all of which I published to his blog entry, are as follows:


It is unarguably true that anyone who can differentiate between hamburgers that he or she likes and say why with more than monosyllabic grunts can learn to do the same thing with wine. But just as great chefs and food critics know more about hamburgers than I do, surely you and I know more about wine than my well-educated, middle-class neighbors.

I don't know much about your basketball skills, but I would speculate that even if you were 6' 8", you could not hit a 30 foot "J" as well as Messrs. James and Bryant.

The point is that practice can make better, but exceptional is still exceptional, and that is as true in winetasting as it is in winemaking as it is in basketball.

Joe, my son, you give yourself too little credit. The reason why you are a famous and revered winewriter is down to more than just 10,000 hours of dedication. It is also down to capability. My grandfather, an uneducated immigrant, was a wonderful finish carpenter. No one taught him how to do it. He could just do it. Two of his five sons, including my father, inherited that capability although they turned out to be an architect and a professor of pathology.

I am not saying that the rest of us cannot wield a saw and hammer but could we turn a balustrade even with 10,000 hours of practice? Not necessarily. The same is true in winetasting. Not everyone can be an expert just by application and effort. But, just as I do not need to be able to do finish carpentry, so too do my well-educated, solidly middle-class neighbors not need to be able to know that the scent they like, or do not like in their Chardonnay, is the result of malolactic fermentation or new barrels or sur lie aging.

You and I do, but they do not. And, given my long experience in tasting alongside winemakers here in CA, I can tell you that each palate is different regardless of how much time it has put in tasting wine. People do not need to be afraid of wine, and frankly, most of ny neighbors are not, but they also do not need 10,000 hours of application to know enough to differentiate between fruit and oak, between sulfites and grass, between high acid and low acid. I realize that this latter comment is consistent with your message, but it is not immodest on your or my parts to think that we can differentiate more than my neighbors and can explain what we can differentiate. If we cannot, we are in the wrong business. That is why you are famous and I am trying to follow in your footsteps.


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