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Monday Manifestos
Five Myths About California Wine Die Hard

By Charles Olken

Wine is about what is in the glass. Yet, unfair and inaccurate generalizations about California wine have persisted so long and get repeated so often that they have taken on mythic status. They need debunking, and I am happy to be a proud member of the “truth squad”.

All Chardonnay Is Overoaked, Overripe and Sweet

Most wine critics understand that California Chardonnay was never universally thus, and these same critical voices also understand that the latest vintages have tended to be higher in acid and livelier in personality. What too many of them do not understand, and what the sommelier class has been so slow to accept, is that it is not alcohol levels that determine balance but the whole wine. To be even more blunt about it, too many folks have stuck their heads in the sand and are letting old wives tales dictate what they recommend and what they put on their wine lists. These so-called arbiters of taste have forgotten the first rule of wine. Let the wines speak.

All California Pinot Noir Tastes The Same

Now, we will admit that we are not big proponents of the “terroir is everything” movement. After all, when a Pinot Noir tastes like Syrah, it is hard to find a way to recommend that wine just as it is hard to like underripe, green Pinots. First and foremost, Pinot Noir needs to taste like Pinot Noir. But, the beauty of Pinot Noir is that it can be the most nuanced wine we make, and those nuances, both big and small, are then dictated both by place and by winemaking choice. The argument that Pinot Noir from the western parts of Sonoma County cannot be distinguished from Pinot Noir grown along Westside Road or, more significantly, from Pinot Noir sourced in the Santa Lucia Highlands or Santa Rita Hills gets disproven in every blind tasting. Yet the argument persists. French wines reflect place; California wines do not. Friends, that line of argument is filled with blatant poppycock.

Modern Versions of Napa Valley Cabernet Will Not Age

The notion that wines with alcohols more that 13.5% will not age is being propounded by two types of activists. The first are writers whose palates developed twenty and thirty years ago and have not evolved as the wines of the world have evolved. The second were older winemakers who somehow could not accept change. This is not a new phenomenon, of course. Back forty years ago, when California Cabernets were coming out of the wilderness and into international prominence, the argument was that the California versions might win tastings when they were young, but would fall apart as they aged. That argument proved to be about as useful as flat-earth theories. Still, as a new generation of wines have emerged starting in the 1990s, folks with old palate preferences have failed abysmally to accept that riper wines can be in balance and will age. Well, if “twenty years” is a measure of ageworthiness, then the wines of folks like Pride, Shafer, Rubicon can now be said to have definitively put the lie to the notion that wines over 14% alcohol will be dead at ten years old.

California Sparkling Wine Is Sweet and Low In Acidity

As much as I dislike writers and sommeliers who judge by label and assume that myth is truth, I dislike even more when those folks spread falsehoods because they are factually wrong. I like the restaurant Spruce in San Francisco, but I hate it sparkling wine list. There is not one California bubbly on the list, but there are fifty or more Champagnes, most for show. So, on a recent visit, I asked the sommelier why that was the case, and she informed me that “California sparkling wine is sweet and low in acidity”. I am not making this up. This sommelier for a major restaurant, this sommelier who informs me that she is studying for the Master of Wine credential, is simply full of failed information. And she spreads these uninformed falsehoods as easily as you or I spread room temperature butter on our morning toast. The facts, the measurable facts are that California sparkling wines from good producers are so nearly identical to Champagnes in technical measure as to be virtually indistinguishable. I don’t know why this easily debunked myth continues, but if it allows us to drink our Roederers, Domaine Carneros and Schramsberg bubblies while the uniformed or misinformed drink only French, I guess that is okay with me—as it should be with you because, if you did not know the truth before, you do now.

Climate Change Will Destroy The Napa Valley

It has been argued that climate change will make California coastal vineyards into Syrah territory because they will warm up so dramatically. Yet, even a basic understanding of how the California fog bank works will debunk that myth. The warmer it gets inland, away from the coast, the more fog is generated offshore and will wind up cooling down the coastline. We in San Francisco call it our “natural air conditioning” and if you have ever been visiting the Golden Gate Bridge on a summer’s mid-afternoon, you have discovered why Mark Twain said the coldest winter he had experienced was summer in San Francisco. Rather than experiencing earlier and earlier harvest, the California coastline has been subject to normal to late harvests for more years than not of the last decade and change.

The Bottom Line

Old myths die hard, especially when writers and sommeliers bring preconditioned bias into the equation. The only way for anyone in our business to be up-to-date is to taste and to learn. Some myths are simple misstatements of fact while others are the products of bias and the failure to look at obvious truths. California wines do age; California bubblies do have structures that fit the classic model. It is time for folks who profess to knowledge to actually have knowledge. If not, old and biased preconceptions will continue to exist even in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary.

The CGCW Experience - Take the Tour

Meet the New CGCW

For thirty-five years, Connoisseurs’ Guide has been the authoritative voice of the California wine consumer. With readers in all fifty states and twenty foreign countries, the Guide is valued by wine lovers everywhere for its honesty and for it strong adherence to the principles of transparency, unbiased, hard-hitting opinions. Now, it is becoming the California winelover’s most powerful online voice as well. And, our new features provide an unmatched array of advice and information for aficionados of every stripe.


Proof that bigger wines age?
by Blake Gray
Posted on:10/29/2012 5:48:24 PM

Hey Charlie, I'd like more specifics on your statement that modern Napa Cabs will age well. I'm sure you're talking about some specific wines from your cellar that HAVE aged well. Can you share the notes, specifically vintages and alcohol percentages?


by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/30/2012 2:31:07 AM


I don't need no stinking proof. I just make these things up.

Seriously, Blake, the question is too broad. CGCW has published vertical tastings of Pride, Shafer Hillside, Phelps Insignia and Spottswoode. And we just had an opportunity to taste Shafer Hillside wines again last month. I don't think we have charted the alcohols specifically so much as noted that Shafer Hillside has been running around 15%.

Would you care to venture an opinion on the subject whkle you are visiting with us?

Ahmen, Brother...
by TomHill
Posted on:10/30/2012 8:26:36 AM


I, too, get so tired of somms/bloggers/wine writers panning Calif Chard as "alcoholic/over-oaked/buttery/sweet/underacid" that it makes me want to toss my cookies. That claim is so...yesterday. You can walk into any TraderJoes and buy an $6 TJ's Reserve that doesn't fit that description. I can't think of any Calif Chard I've tried of late that fits that paradigm. Even Fred's 2$Chuck is not like that (though it is boring as hell). Mostly that line is tossed out by wine gliteratti trying to force the latest au courant variety, like RibollaGialla or GrecoDiTufo, or the latest GreenHungarian amphora-aged orange wine down our throats.

   Even if there are some/a few Calif Chards out there that fit that description; some of them can be darned good. I, and I'm sure you too Charlie, have fond memories of that DavidBruce LateHarvest Chard '73. Darned good drinking that was.

   All good rants, Charlie. I'm proud of you.



Ca WIne Myths
by Mike W
Posted on:10/30/2012 10:02:50 AM

Thank you for reaffirming my faith in intelligent life out there

Not growing old gracefully
by Adam Mahler
Posted on:10/30/2012 10:04:04 AM

Going to have to disagree with you on the age worthiness of Napa Cabs. Sure, top bottlings are built for a bit more durability, but with the exception of traditionalists like Heitz and Monetlena, I have quite unsuccessfully attempted to age good producers, including Shafer, Viader, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Beringer Private Reserve, Cain among others only to find quite dead 1996-2001 vintages in the last several years. I've even seen Clos du Val Napa falling apart after 5 years. These same wines 10 years previosuly would outlast their later counterparts 2-3 fold. I'm certain we can cherry pick Napa Cabs in the $100 price range that will age well, but this is the exception and now, very far from the rule. I challenege you to take a handful of verticals of Cabs under $70 retail and let us know if you see similiar results. 


The real shame, IMO, is that Napa has the ability to outclass and out age Bordeaux, the best wines I've had in my life have been from the 70's and 80s Napa wines. They age more profoundly and more predicatbly. Alas, those wines seem tightly wound with structure and Earth upon release, and the critics (who drive price and demand) deride this style.


I don't belong to either activist, the proof in your articicle is in the very exceptions that both you and I list.

An opinion? From me?
by Blake Gray
Posted on:10/30/2012 10:28:51 AM

Charlie: I think much depends on how you define "modern Napa Cabs." I wanted to see how you were defining that phrase.

I'd rather hold back on giving an opinion off the cuff for now. If/when I have something to say on this topic, it will not be done without more research.

Graceful or Graceless
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/30/2012 1:09:50 PM


Before we go too much further down this path, I think we can agree that graceful is in the eye of the beholder.

You are unhappy with middle-aged Shafers. I most assuredly am not. We have how tasted those older Shafer twice in the last several years--once at a vertical spanning every Shafer Hillside ever made--organized for us uniquely--and once just last month up at Shafer as part of a small gathering for writers on the occasion of Doug Shafer's book chronicling the winery's history and published by the University of California press.

There was nothing in those older wines to suggest premature aging. Even the 1998, from a vintage that is not exactly anyone's favorite, was doing just fine at 14 years old. It will last twenty by not much more. Other vintages will last longer--in my opinion, of course.

We did a SLWC vertical not so long ago. Those wines are essentially under 14% alcohol and not much changed in winemaking philosophy. We admittedly were not blown away by some of the results, but then, we have not been blown away by those wines when first tasted in any event. Same for Cain.

But Spottswoode and Pride, for which we have done full verticals are doing just fine--again in the eye of this beholder.

Bottom line then, Adam, is that I see no reason to expect well-made, balanced wines to fall apart early. Unbalanced or poorly made wines have always been with us and always will be.

by Donn
Posted on:10/30/2012 11:22:19 PM

Just my 2 cents:  it isn't the high alcohol, it is the usual correlate of lower acid and less intense pH that makes the hi abv wines less changeworthy.  I value the silky texture of aged reds, especially Cab/Bordeaux.  I think, maybe, just a notion, that the silky texture doesn't happen when there is lower acid to begin with.  And my high horse to ride has to to wth the readability on the label.  I really want TTB to make the abv on the label large enough to actually read.  Without squinting, using Colonel Klink's monocle, or Dr. Edell's readers.  Ridge is the gold standard in labels.   Now, maybe a lot of us in the biz don't pay attention.  But in a retail world, I do.  All day long.  And after explaining that European wines have sulfites, that sulfites don't cause itch-redness-headache, next it seems in Calif. that I will get the chance to explain how meaning less it is to warn people on the food label about Luther Burbank.  I mean, GMO.  Or maybe it will be illegal for some whose Pinot noir has mutated into white Pinot noir to make wine and sell it as vin ordinaire.


Oh, I found a old vintage, not gonna mention, at a large retailer, not gonna mention, but it is a Spain 2001.  Will let you know soon how it aged.

Wishful Thinking Doesn't Make It A Myth
by Lenny
Posted on:11/1/2012 10:50:04 AM

Sorry, Charlie.  Calling something a myth just because you don't like it doesn't make it so.  California's reputation in all these regards (except perhaps the global warming point) was not the result of some slanderous marketing campaign by the Europeans but rather was built up over the course of two decades of their willingly and gladly chasing Parker scores and using Napa Valley's abundant fertile, volcanic soil and warm temps to that end.  A myth is not the end result of two decades of reality....a reality that Napa and Sonoma willingly chased and gladly embraced when it was what the market wanted!


Just last week, I tasted through a winery's lineup of 135-160 dollar cabs.  There were four, all vineyard designated from blue chip Napa Valley vineyards.  To listen to the winery owner talk, they we all incredibly unique.  To the four very experienced tasters present, they (all 14.8 to 15.1 in alc) all tasted identical--jammed up, alc'd up and oaked up overipe fruit.  This is still the rule in Napa


I'll grant you that there are a few younger winemakers attempting to break away from the model of the last twenty years (Scribe jumps immediately to mind), but they are still few and far between.  Until they become the dominant force in the high end California wine scene, your myths will continue to be reality.


One other point, I will grant you that the search for the next "new" thing can get a little tedious and occassionally go off the rails (orange wine), but what I'm seeing in major metropolitan markets is rather a return to traditional terroir based European wines.  Sommeliers (and increasingly as Parker's influence begins to die off retailers) are not looking for the next new thing but rather going back--to wines of lower alcohol, lower Ph/higher acidity, balance and a sense of place.  And this moevement is both picking up steam and becoming more nuanced and thoughtful.  I met with the Sommelier at a Michelin 3* in New York recently, and he remarked that he was getting rid of his entire section of Priorats because they were too "Parkerized" and "California like" and was filling the space up by beefing up his selections from Rioja, Toro and Bierzo.


The rule of thumb among individual consumers has always been that once they transition from California wines to European wines, they rarely if ever come back.  The interesting thing for California over the next few years will be to see if they are successful in attempting to win back entire metro markets.  In particular, I'm thinking about NY, DC, Boston and Chicago....maybe even San Francicso, where a very prominent Calforinia broker of high end Napa wines (and true believer if you will) told me once in a moment of candor, "I can't give high end Napa Cab away in the city right now."

Lenny, Lenny, Lenny
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/1/2012 1:09:24 PM

Thanks for the extensive comments both on this topic and on the topic that follows.

There is no question that some wineries have chased high ripeness, but most did it because of a belief that consumer preference was headed that way. Certainly some of it was, but there are dozens and dozens of wines that never lost their ways, and yet they are tarred and feathered with the myth that all Napa wines are overdone. You have essentially repeated that myth yourself. I reject it because the proof has been and continues to be in the pages of Connoisseurs' Guide.

I would also strenuously object to any categorization of CA sparkling wines as low in acid and high in sugar. That is a myth being perpetuated by the same folks who lump Proirat m with California. These myths treat CA as one big lump. They throw Trefethen, Coarison, Spottswoode, Dunn, Phelps Insignia etc, etc, etc. under the bus as if they were no more than another version of Coca Cola. It is trash journalism on the parts of those who are repeating these myths, and it is the worst kind of ill-informed bias when stated boldly in an SF restaurant by a 28-year old sommelier who clearly is not speaking from any point of actual knowledge.

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