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MONDAY MANIFESTOS
02/27/2012
Monday Manifestos
Let The Name-Dropping Begin—My Wine Gods of The 1970s

By Charles Olken

The world of wine blogging has changed. It used to be that you could write an article about the 100-point system and draw a big audience. Now, you have to drop a bunch of names, or drop one really big name. Go read those other blogs. The evidence is everywhere. And now it’s my turn.

I first time I met Louis Martini, he told me the truth. He was a gentle man, and, over the years, he told me many truths. But that first time. I met him at a Napa Valley Wine Library seminar and told him that I was about to join the industry. “What are you going to do?”, he asked, and I told him that I was about to start a wine publication. He informed me, in his kindly way, that I was about to become a writer about wine and that was not the same thing. I did not understand that then , but I do now.

Things went a little better for me when I met Ric Forman at that same seminar. Ric was then the winemaker at Sterling and one of the rising stars in the wine business. I don’t much remember what Ric taught me that day, but I do remember that he could spit a stream of wine into a bucket from five feet and not miss. I vowed then and there to learn to spit like Ric Forman. I still have the stained shirts, pants and shoes to prove that I could not do it then—and still cannot some three and a half decades hence.

Meeting Robert Mondavi was considerably more intimidating. Not his fault. Mine, I guess, but I don’t ever remember being in his presence and thinking that this was a man who was about to become a friend. People who knew Mr. Mondavi well tell me that I should have just relaxed a bit around him, but somehow, he was always Mr. Mondavi to me. Still, to this day, I recall him saying that someday the Napa Valley will be as famous as the great wine-growing areas in Europe. No need to discuss whether he was right or he was wrong, because rightfully or wrongfully, the name “Napa Valley” has become synonymous with “California” for many European wine drinkers.

I don’t blame Mr. Mondavi for the reverent, even somewhat deferential attitude that I felt in his presence, but it always struck me that I should have felt equally intimidated in the presence of Andre Tchelistcheff and I did not. Somehow, sitting with him on the porch of his house back then discussing why Pinot Noir was having such a hard time in California was not at all intimidating. Here was the finest winemaking mind of his generation, and we could have been old friends having a beer “down the local”.

It took Connoisseurs’ Guide until its third year to get around to Pinot Noir coverage back then. By that time we had done Cabernet Sauvignon four times and had already reviewed Chenin Blanc, Sylvaner and Napa Gamay. I like dropping those names if only to remember our humble beginnings. But, it does make me sad that there is simply not enough Chenin Blanc around to review any more. Somehow, Verdelho and Vermentino, also not enough around to review but getting so much play in some parts of the wine press that you might think they were the second coming of Chardonnay, just don’t allow me the same feeling of satisfaction when I drop their names.

Did I ever tell you the story about the first time I met Joe Heitz. I was walking acros the lawn at one of those Napa Wine Library shindigs they hold every August, and Mr. Heitz crossed my path going right in front of me. He looked up, gave me the finger (yes, that finger) and walked on. I asked in my astonishment, “What was that about?”, and he replied, “Aren’t you Harvey Steiman?”. I stammered, “No, I’m Charlie Olken and I just gave three stars to your 1974 Martha’s Vineyard Cab”. We became friends of sorts after that, and I was honored to be the guest writer at his annual prerelease Martha’s Vineyard tasting for several years. Since the great Gerald Asher, my favorite wine writer ever, had directly preceded me in that seat, it was an honor. I never knew if it was bestowed out of some form of embarrassment on his part, but folks told me later that Joe rarely felt embarrassed at anything.

Now, you may be wondering why I am engaged in all this name-dropping, and it is simply this. Wine-writing is, in my humble opinion, supposed to be about wine. But with every topic in the universe used up three times over by many bloggers, I find them resorting to name-dropping. It is not a practice that I think has much value, but I am happy to prove that I can name drop with the best of them. And like fine wine, I am delighted that some of those names and their stories have improved with age.


 

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Comments

Name Dropper Here
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:2/27/2012 11:09:16 AM

Sir Charles,

Well I'm as guilty as anyone of name dropping. I just wrote a post about the Wine Writers Symposium where I met and mingled with a few of the wine world's big names. It was thrilling for me, someone that is not a wine personality, to meet and rub elbows with a few people I admire...just as I did when I met you, Ron, John Kelly and Tom Wark. Not something I would write for the store blog or newsletter but this blogging, which I see as much more a personal diary of sorts. Least for me, and sharing those moments with the people that, for whatever reason, follow along as I bump my way around the wine world may sound like bragging or come off as boring to someone in the wine business, can be an exciting connection for someone that isn't and kind of digs being part of it in anyway they can.

 

Dunno, I could be way off and I admit I did cringe a bit when I read the first part of this post but, after that, reading your connection to those iconic winemakers, well I was glad you dropped too.

Joe Heitz
by Harvey Steiman
Posted on:2/27/2012 2:04:53 PM

Funny, I had many wonderful conversations with Joe Heitz and never gave me the finger. Are you sure he didn't mention someone else that day you met him?

Joe Heitz and Us
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/27/2012 2:48:05 PM

Hi Harvey--

Scoiut's honor, he truly did say, "Aren't you Harvey Steiman?".

Joe was pretty crusty so who knows what set him off. It was the summer after he had released his 74 Martha's (so probably 78). What did you do to him back then?

Cool Stories
by Ron Washam, HMW
Posted on:2/27/2012 9:51:17 PM

Charlie,

This is great stuff. You're an invaluable repository of California wine history. Which is better than being a suppository of California wine history.

I loved these anecdotes, and they have inspired me to try my hand at this sort of reminiscince, HoseMaster style. Thanks for that!

I'm lucky enough to be able to name drop Charlie Olken. That's cool.

Old Stories
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/28/2012 1:36:54 AM

Hi Ron--

It's a funny thing. I read Joe Roberts and Steve Heimoff and others dropping names like they were too hot to handle, and I realized that I rarely go out of my way anymore to meet the great names. Many of them are friends and most of those who are not dislike CGCW and me because their ratings are not high enough.

You know, because we have discussed writing enough times to almost learn from each other, that writing is tricky business. I did not know, until I reread this article today, how comfortable it felt.

The other day I tried my hand at comedy. Most people took it seriously. One very smartass even called me a troll for the sensationist headline I employed--and that was after I had explained the use of exaggeration to lampoon a topic or opinion. So, from now on, I am leaving the comedy writing to you.

Nice to have you drop by. Don't be a stranger.

Joe Heitz
by Harvey Steiman
Posted on:2/28/2012 10:04:12 AM

I don't know, Charlie. I liked the 74 Martha's, probably more than some others who preferred previous vintages at the time.

Let me see now...
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:2/29/2012 2:41:25 PM

Whose name can I drop--better than dropping a bottle of wine.

Uh, let me see. Uh, give me a minute.

Uh, does my previous career count? Back then, I met a lot of droppable names.

Let's see, I met Della Reese, Bob Hope, Eve Arden, Gower Champion, David Merrick, Mercedes Ellington, Debbie Allen, Jimmie Soul (sang with him), Dion DiMuccie, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Chantels, Bruce Morrow (did a show with them, only East Coasters would know Bruce's name), and, my favorite, Joe DiMaggio. I was his stand-in during commercials and then met him on show day. I was brash in those days--asked him if he really liked Mr. Coffee. He replied, "I like anything that pays me to say so."

Being a New Yorker, I also met a lot of dropper names just in trnasit and when they shopped at my wine store: Gloria Ruben, John Leguizamo's mom, (that was thanks to Roberto at Wine Expo), Dale Peck, Eric Azimov, Florence Fabricant, Ben Vereen (but he refused to admit it), Al Pacino, Jerry Orbach, and I once rode for five hours on a train from Syracuse to NYC in conversation with Patricia Neal, who wound up writing down my wine recommendations for her and for her daughter, who she said was always talking about wine.

Uh, let me see...there must be others. Maybe I should start a blog.

 

 

C'Mon Thomas!
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:2/29/2012 2:57:46 PM

Now Thomas, how could you forget the most famous name of all?! The HoseMaster of Wine of course, I hear he has nearly one million comments on his last post! Super famous that cat.

Fear of Heitz
by Ronald Washam
Posted on:3/1/2012 8:53:03 AM

The first time I met Joe Heitz was at a winemaker dinner I was conducting at Pacific Dining Car in the late '80's, so well after your story, Charlie, because I'm not old enough to have known George de la Tour like you and Harvey. Anyhow, the dining room was filled with my best customers--wealthy folks who loved wine but often didn't know that much. But they sure could buy. We arrived at the "Martha's" flight and one of the customers, a lovely woman who dined at the restaurant with her husband at least once a week (so probably dropping ten grand a year), asked why "Martha's" always smelled like eucalyptus. I cringed.

"Shut the hell up!" he explained. "It's mint, not eucalyptus. Eucalyptus is cat piss."

All in all, a wonderful evening.

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