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Monday Manifestos
Paso Robles: A Finger in the Eye of The Insipid Wine Revolution

By Charles Olken

Okay, I exaggerate a little. The low-alcohol revolution that folks like Jon Bonne and Raj Parr and friends espouse is not about insipid wine per se. Lots of the wines that these folks make and like are tasty, bright, fresh and delightful. It is just that too many of them are not only low in alcohol but low in flavor. That is because ripeness, and the higher alcohols that result, do also bring about intensity, potency, drama and the ability to work with full-flavored foods. Oh, and by the way, being about some magic alcohol level, say 14% which the new and self-proclaimed soothsayers of wine would have us believe is, in fact, some kind of magical vinous Maginot line, turns out to still yield a plethora of impeccably balanced, tasty, delicious wines.

No wine region in California does a better job of proving my point than Paso Robles. In our latest tastings of Rhône wines, red and white, it turns out that Paso Robles is disproving the theories of the new paradigm sycophants by issuing praiseworthy bottle after praiseworthy bottle of ripe to highly ripened Syrahs, Grenaches, Grenache Blancs, Viogniers with alcohols levels that range upwards from 14% and lack not a wit for balance, precision, usefulness at the dinner table and ageworthiness.

In fact, so many wines from Paso Robles have turned out to be delightfully successful that the whole notion of the new paradigm needs a rethink. While many pundits, indeed powerful pundits, are running around spouting that a revolution in California wine is in the offing, the wines are proving just the opposite. There is no revolution going on. There is, instead, an entirely healthy extension of the range of possibilities. The wines of the western Sonoma, the cooler parts of the Anderson Valley, the Santa Rita Hills and occasional offerings from elsewhere with their lower alcohols are wholly worthy of praise when they are successful rather than insipid.

And it is abundantly clear, as our latest round of tastings of Rhône varieties has shown, that the ripe, deep wines from Paso Robles and elsewhere are to be accorded the same respect when they are successful rather than being derided for not following some preset notion of what is right and wrong. Not only are the big wines of Paso Robles successful in the own right, but, judging by the overflow crowds of folks coming in from all parts of California and beyond to enjoy those wines and to meet the wineries and winemakers, the consuming public, as opposed to the one-note Jonnies, agrees with Paso and not with the new soothsayers of so-called low-alcohol revolution.

Once again, the philosophies of inclusion and diversity are winning out and the vinous Maginot line is proving to be about as reliable as its century-old militaristic counterpart.


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by TomHill
Posted on:7/15/2013 10:13:59 AM

Good rant, Charlie...but one that sorta has a familiar ring to it. But I'm not in the Jon/Raj camp that lower is (necessarily) better. And I could dredge up the "monster Zins w/ shabby table manners" quote from yrs ago....but I'll leave that sleeping dog lie...for now, anyway.

   But I am curious how the TablasCreek wines fared in your tastings. They are a real outlier in the Paso paradigm. Usually w/ lower alcohols, less ripe character, more restraint...yet I think they have plenty of flavor. They're consistently some of my favorites.



Curioser and Curioser
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/15/2013 12:11:26 PM

Hi Tom--

I have to admit that I had you in mind when I was writing sections of the today's column. To me, you are the model of what ought to be in CA wine. No pat answers. Lots of curiosity. A willingness to like many styles for their usefulness even while also understanding that different styles make wines useful in different circumstances.

As for Tablas Creek, some did very well and some did not. And, of course, not every highly ripened Paso wine is an object of great beauty. Sometimes, highly ripened is "overripe". My point, of course, is that one needs to judge wine, not place, and one needs to have an open wine, not a closed mind.

Some of Raj's Sandhi wines from Sta. Rita Hills are gorgeous creations even with their bold acids and their lowered alcohols. It is all in the wine, not in the concept.

That is why it is so misleading for noted writers to suggest that everything that they do not like personally is the work of the devil. That is such arrant sophistry that we should all dismiss it out of hand even while we like many of the wines themselves.

by TomHill
Posted on:7/15/2013 12:26:23 PM

Wow, Charlie....I'm flattered that I came to mind when you were penning your wisdom. To me, the curiosity thing is what drives my wine-drinking habits more & more these days. I'd much rather try a Vranac from Macedonia than a RRV PinotNoir...though I'd probably enjoy the latter more. To me, the intellectual pleasure a wine gives me is sometimes/oftentimes as important as the sensual pleasure. I like the wine to engage my mind as well. So...I keep trying every weird thing in a bottle that comes down the pike. Sometimes, I get wildly exstatic...sometimes just scratch my head in puzzlement. It's about the journey.'re right about the Sandhi wines...I find them absolutely beautiful. Sometimes, I even look at the alcohol level.

   And, yup.....some writers can be very dogmatic in expressing their likes in wines....sometimes nauseatingly so. But I don't let it rile me.



by Wine Curmudgeon
Posted on:7/16/2013 1:19:02 PM

Wow. No one has ever called me a syncophant before. Now that I have been firmly disciplined, I will go sit in the corner and make not another peep. What was I thinking?

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/16/2013 1:30:56 PM

The sure cure for sickophantism is to taste blind to judge balance not by words but by palatal impressions.

I have no argument with anybody who has a particular style of wine that he or she may prefer. I have a giant bone to pick when a whole class of wine is dismissed out of hand for some preonceived notion that has nothing to do with how any single wine performs.

Take the very admirable Adelaida 2011 Roussanne-Gren Blanc blend at 14.8% alcohol. It also has a TA of 0.74 and pH of 3.29 yet the nattering nabobs of negativism would have us believe that any wine with high ripeness is a vinous pig.

If the shoe fits, than you are wearing it. If not, then you are not a sycophant and you may now leave the corner.

High Alcohol
by Fred
Posted on:7/28/2013 11:24:04 AM

I have noticed lately that one of the surest ways to identify an average to poor winery is to look at their alcohol levels. If the Reds are all 13.9 and the whites all 13.4, despite the fact they produce a broad variety of wines from different grapes, you almost always have nothing worth buying (except by accident on the the part of the wine maker). I recently went to a Paso Robles Winery and had Syrahs that went from 14.1 to 15.9 in the same vintage and the rest at various points in between with no wine at the same alcohol level. Most were estate wines, with one Santa Barbara wine which was not the lowest Alcohol level. All were very good and different, as if the grapes were harvested at the point the wine maker thought was optimal by some other measure than just sugar level. Could it be that thee is an art to winemaking?

Brain Power
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/28/2013 5:49:26 PM

I am not sure that there is art in winemaking although great wine can make me was poetic, which probably is also not art, but I do know that there is skill, discipline and brain power.

I sometimes wonder about wines that follow a formulaic pattern, but I hcannot say that they always lead to boring results.

It really matters not whether you are a winery like Epoch in Paso high on the westside hill with its seemingly always high alcohols or you are Arnot-Roberts for whom all wine seemingly is low in alcohol and high in acidity.

It is not their formulae that concern me so much as it is their results. One formula across all lines can, I agree, lead to inconsistent results, but I don't see it leading to "nothing worth buying" in all cases.

There are times, and I would point to Gary Farrell, the winemaker, when he was at the winery of his own name, and after that when he sold and moved on to Alysian. He seeks out vineyards that allow him to make wines in his vision of what he likes. So does Jordan at Epoch. So does Tom Dehlinger. Three wineries. Three styles dictated by the preferences and visions of the winemaker. Three versions of success.

It is, for those folks, art or brain power or both that brings them success.


The first is that the pattern does reflect the strengths and visions of the winemaker. When they coincide with the needs of the grapes, it is possible that very good wine will ensue.

And beyond that, there are patterns that simply

High Alcohol
by Fred
Posted on:7/30/2013 12:24:12 AM

Charlie, I think we are really saying the same thing. Winemaker like Medicine is a science, but in the field of medicine, they do (or used to) refer to medicine as a science and an art. What is taught in medical school is valuable, but experience and close observation makes one a real physician. Medical situations are like vintages, no two is absolutely the same and all involve mulitple factors that need to be weighed and ballanced. The art is figuring out, sometimes by instinct informed by edcuation and experience, what to do and when. ou won't find that School texts. Excellent practicioners make guesses. I call the art, maybe it has a better definition.

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