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Friday Fishwrap
How Long, Oh Lord, How Long?

By Charles Olken

I picked up Decanter Magazine this morning and laughed out loud. The headline reads, “New Elegant Australia” and the picture on the cover is of a Molly Dooker wine with an alcohol level that would poison half the sommeliers in San Francisco.

Indeed, every single Shiraz recommended in Decanter is 14% alcohol and higher. There are restaurants in San Francisco that would not put one of those wines on their lists because each and every one of them violates the sacred “no wine over 14% rule” to which the herd mentality in these parts now subscribes.

The question that arises is this: Are the San Francisco wine snob set out of touch or have the English lost their minds? I think I have the answer. The “wine must be low-alcohol” crowd are not leaders. They are followers. They follow each other and they talk to each other. And in so doing, they miss the point. It is not that wines like Aussie Shiraz are bad or that ripe Napa Cabs are bad or that all Chardonnay is overripe, overoaked and lacking in acidity. It is that the herd mentality now makes it impossible for these folks to taste with an open mind.

For that, as usual, we have to turn to the English whose words on wine have always been way ahead of the rest of the English speaking world. And now that the English have told us that 16% alcohol wine is elegant, you can count on a turn in the herd thinking (although I predict it will take a few years to fully take hold) that will also recognize “elegance” in ripe California wines.

It has always been there, of course. Wine like Spottswoode Cabernet and Dehlinger Pinot Noir and Ridge Geyserville and Ramey Chardonnay and HdV everything are all over 14% alcohol, are all excoriated for it by the herd and all have been and remain well-made, balanced, focused, ageworthy and superb.

Many of us have known this truth despite the herd and the writers for papers like the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times telling us otherwise. Many of us have known this truth despite famous sommeliers writing books that tell us how wrong we are.

Now, it is time for the herd to admit that it has gone way over the top in its use of labels as points of judgment, and, like the English, to taste wine, not labels.

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No Subject
by Anonymous
Posted on:10/28/2011 4:17:57 PM

Thanks, Jason. I agree it was a doubly good column.

No Subject
by Anonymous
Posted on:10/29/2011 12:19:46 AM

Okay well that worked. Just a question, if Jason is agreeing with you, does that make him part of your herd?

Well said!
by Jason P
Posted on:10/29/2011 12:48:38 AM


The Herd
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/29/2011 1:14:12 AM

No, Jason, it means that they judge wines by taste, not by label.

by Chickybaby
Posted on:10/29/2011 1:23:25 AM

What about the "wine must be low-alcohol' crowd" who likes Sherry???

14% rule
by Colorado Wine Press
Posted on:10/29/2011 8:39:22 AM

The restaurant to which you refer only restricts pinot noir and chardonnay to less than 14%. Syrah/shiraz are free to be over 14%...

Just a guess
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:10/29/2011 10:05:23 AM

I'm no member of any crowd but I am a sherry lover and assume that most like me aren't drinking a bottle of it over dinner....

The 14% Solution
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/29/2011 10:43:53 AM


Thanks for the comment. I was not referring specifically to RN 74, but did have that place in my sights. San Francisco is loaded with places that have wine lists with very tight restrictions, many of which echo the RN 74 mentality.

By the way, you might find it instructive to look at the RN 74 list. It has something like 100 listings (I did not count) and almost all of them are under 14% regardless of variety.

But the point of this blog entry is not to criticize RN 74 so much as to point out that what is going on here is absolute madness because it substitutes a label reading for a wine judgment.

Decanter has put several dozen nails in the coffin of the misleading "keep it under 14% argument" wiith its comments on Aussie Shiraz.

Sherry By The Bottle
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/29/2011 10:47:13 AM

We are having ten people in tonight for tapas and paella. I will have a bottle of sherry standing by, but, Sam, you are so right. No one is going to be drinking this stuff by the bottle.

I expect the bubbles and red wine--and Sam, this will kill you, I am serving Ridge Zin among the reds.

Ridge, etc.
by Mike Dunne
Posted on:10/29/2011 3:28:19 PM

Is it the Ridge 2009 Ponzo Zinfandel? Just got introduced to it, and what a wonderfully vivacious take on the varietal, and at 14.8 percent alcohol, at that. In other matters, spent some time yesterday with longtime Calaveras County winemaker Steve Millier. He talked of the high interest the UK market has in fresher, fruitier styles of California wine, thus the popularity there of his cabernet franc from Lodi under the Ironstone label, the 2010 of which comes in at just 13.5 percent alcohol. Maybe there are different degrees of elegance, on both sides of the pond.

Zin, Elegance and Paella
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/30/2011 3:57:58 AM

Hi Mike--

Turns out we served three Zins plus a Chivite 2004 Reserve Colleccion 125, from the Navarra region in Spain, an underappreciated location immediately adjacent to Rioja but which gets far less play than it should.

The Ridge wines were all newly released 2009s, the Lytton Springs, the York Creek and the Pagani Ranch. The Lytton Springs at 14.3% was simply superb. We had it the other night in our tastings and were blown away by it. It needs a retaste before we write the tasting note for CGCW and decide how high to rate it. I think it goes very high, but won't have more on it until we publish our Zin review.

As for differing degrees of elegance, I could not agree more. There is no magic number, no label limit, no mathematical formule for elegance. The Lytton Springs is elegant at 14.3. The Decanter tasting panel, with so many top English tasters, found elegance in Molly Dooker Shiraz. There is elegance in wines at 13.5, although I would suggest that lightness and bright acid by itself is not elegance so much as lightness and brightness--certainly fine traits and those which I would like to see more of from CA wines. Not because they define elegance or correctness but because they are traits of a certain set of wines that have interest in themselves--and not just because of their numbers.

ah, glorious history
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:10/30/2011 2:34:32 PM

A brief scan at history will show you that the British seem to have always loved a lot of alcohol in their wine...

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