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Wednesday Warblings
How To Make Wine Seem Unpleasant

By Charles Olken

It is wholly unseemly when winewriters argue with each other. So, with apologies, I am about to enter into a dispute with my good friend, Dan Berger. This is not a new thing for Berger and me to disagree. We do it all the time, mostly face to face, and generally with a fair degree of good humor.

But, today, I am going to disagree directly because Dan has penned an article for his local newspaper up in Santa Rosa in which, in the name of demystifying wine jargon, he was essentially said that most wine words mean almost the opposite of what they say. In other words, when we say things about wine in a positive vein, what we are really doing is making excuses for bad things that are going on in the bottle.

Let’s agree, first of all, that there are ways in which sales pitches for wine use language that is not always accurate. Nothing new in that. Most advertising does that. But, friend Berger is not talking about commercials here. He is suggesting that wine lovers lie—and in that, I take exception.

Let’s examine some of what Mr. Berger offers as his version of the truth:

“This wine has a hint of smoke" is interpreted by Berger to mean “it's so oaky that Greenpeace has demanded the winemaker sign a reforestation pledge.”

Sorry, but that explanation is too cute by half, and what Mr. Berger is really saying is that he does not like smoky oak. Frankly, oak is used in winemaking because it has been found over the decades to enhance wine texturally and organoleptically. A hint of smoke is just that. A smell of an old ashtray or campfire is something else entirely. But wait, folks, we are just scratching the surface here:

"It's a big, bold wine." It has 16.5% alcohol and ought to carry a warning label that says "Flammable."

"It's a delicate wine." It has no flavor at all.

Let’s be clear about a couple of things here. Mr. Berger has been consistent in not liking wines of high ripeness—except when he makes an exception. We all do make exceptions because wines are to be judged by their character, not prejudged by what we think their character is. “Big and bold” are used here to suggest that any wine with those characteristics is inherently flawed. What utter nonsense. “Delicate” is now reinterpreted to be universally bad as well. I find many Rieslings to be delicate. I do not find the ones I like to be lacking in flavor.

There are many other examples in his recent article,, and certainly, you should go look for yourself if you think I am exaggerating.

But this is my column, and I object to categorizing useful descriptors as “euphemisms/lies”. We all use descriptors in our writing, and Mr. Berger is no exception. If the rest of the world is lying to you, then you no longer can trust anyone who uses jargon—including Mr. Berger.

The problem here is simple. Wine descriptions must use analogies at times to make the point. If Berger thinks that most analogies are “lies”, then he is basically saying that most wine descriptions are not to be trusted. That is a “bridge too far” for me. The words of responsible reviewers, the words of your friends are not lies. They are honest interpretations. You can agree or disagree based on your own perceptions and your own preferences, but what you should not do is believe Mr. Berger when he essentially says that most descriptors are untrustworthy simply because they exist.


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Dan Berger
by doug wilder
Posted on:12/19/2012 1:55:47 PM

Charlie, I read this too and disagree with the broadness of Dan's generalizations. A 'little oak' to me is when it is a well-integrated component to the wine and its overall feel. If it is overtly oak-laden, I have no problem saying so. His post only serves to cause readers to think that as critics, we tip-toe around out of balance wines and come up with phrases that make our words inoffensive and boring.

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/19/2012 2:04:53 PM

Thanks, Doug. I am still trying to figure out why Dan wrote this in the first place. There are only negatives and insults inherent in the piece. I am sure he meant it to be more lighthearted than that, but the result was totally negative.

And he directed those words not just at writers, He specifically said "winelovers", which means that anyone who uses those phrases is perpetrated fraud--or in his own words, "lies".

Too bad. He does know better, and if he and I were having a private discussion about those phrases, we would both be laughing. But this was not a private discussion between a couple of old geeks. It was a public column in an important newspaper in wine country.

by David Rossi
Posted on:12/21/2012 10:28:39 AM

I just think Dan is being witty(if you didn't like it you could say he is "trying" to be witty).  Hosemaster and even Steve Heimoff have being boosting up the satire this season.  At least that is how I see it.

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/21/2012 11:03:46 AM

Hi David--

I will admit that I read Dan's column three times before I decided to take it on. I know Dan pretty well, and he has a wicked sense of humor, and I really did try to find even a scintilla of evidence that this whole piece had been written tongue in cheek.

Humor is a good thing. I see that you are now sitting in at Hosemaster. Ron can be scathiung in his writing, but there is never any question that he comes at his topics from the standpoint of satire. I wish I had found a reason to think that Dan was trying to be funny.

There is another problem with judging Dan's piece as humor. He does. in fact, hold many of the views expressed, to wit his views on ripe wines.

Maybe you are right. If so, then I would happily admit that the article in question was a failed bit of humor rather than insult to winelovers. His use of the term "lies" further inclines me against that view, but as I have said, I like Dan-and I would rather view that article as failed humor rather than runaway dyspepsia.

Dan Berger
by Donn Rutkoff
Posted on:12/27/2012 11:28:08 AM

I recommend y'all ighten up on Dan.  "Green peace re-forestation" and you are in literal ville?  OK, he isn't Jonathan Swift.

But,  in a daily newspaper, he was writing to the general public, not to we weenie wine geekees.  Remember them?  The public?  The millions who buy wine and don't read glossy magazines, self published blogs, and are the core of our business?  The millions who, when they do read some reviews, or a shelf talker, or a back label, can't make any connection between what they read and what they taste???  I couldn't mentally identify the oak component of wine until I walked into a cooperage, about 20 years after I moved to Calif. and started drinking fightin varietals.

Love Dan
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/27/2012 11:42:34 AM


If I have said it once, I have said it hundreds of times. I am a fan of Dan Berger. Like most of us in this business, he can be a little full of himself at times. That is OK with me. We are all subject to that human failing.

But, Donn, I read Dan's article very carefully before criticinzing it. I looked for even a hint of something tongue in cheek, and I know Dan to have a sharp and incisive sense of humor.

But, honestly, I did not spot any humor here. What I spotted was a column directed at the common man in which Dan essentially said that all euphemisms are lies.

Not some; not some of the time. And to me, the result is very negative message--as conveyed by my article's title. Dan was writing, as you say, for the general public. What message was he sending other than that you cannot trust what anyone tells you? Does that make wine more understandable or less?

Berger redux
by Donn
Posted on:12/27/2012 12:03:38 PM

Charlie, "Methinks the lady doth protest too much"   "If the shoe fits wear it"    "A hit, a palpable hit"  etc etc etc.  You didn't think greenpeace was funny?  Time to "Move On".  Let us know if his article hurts your circulation or sales of some of your highly recommended wines.

No Subject
by george kaplan
Posted on:1/3/2013 1:24:43 PM

Having read the post, I'm going with the touch of humor. The guy is closer to Heimoff than to hosemaster, but it's ok.

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