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What The Real World Is Drinking

By Charles Olken

Has the world given up on California wine? One might get that impression from the words of a few cynics and critics and importers of Spanish wine. But the fact is that only the geeks and those who have never understood that California is not the rest of the world believe California wine is in free fall and is about to be abandoned by the everyone with half a palate.

So, let’s look at a couple of truths.

Exports of California wines grew last year by double digits 1. Maybe a few sob sisters who cannot stand wines that actually taste good (even the SF Chronicle’s head wine pen describes them pejoratively as “big flavor” wines) want to hide their heads in the sand and deny the facts. The rest of us know better.

Those who favor higher acidity and lower alcohol make a lot of noise. But when push comes to shove, they wind up liking wines that are typical of just the opposite. Their recommendations for a Rockwall Cabernet Sauvignon, a perfect fine wine by my lights, stand in absolute stark contrast to the professed goals of the geeks. That wine is about 15% in alcohol and just about out of whack in underlying softness according to the professed standards of the “hate big flavor” crowd. Yet there it and other wines that contravene their stated sense of balance go with their imprimaturs clear stated.

I like to judge wine by what real winedrinkers like. I say “real winedrinkers” because I mean to contrast my neighbors and the friends of my upwardly mobile children with the inner geeks. I recently supplied wine to my daughter’s wedding. One hundred forty of her closest friends and relatives came from all over the country and cleaned out the supply of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. And I could hardly believe my eyes when folks started swooning over the deep, rich Zinfandels laid on for the opening night party (first of three) accompanied by brick over baked pizzas from Girl and The Fig from their travelling pizza oven (I want one).

What all this and the fact that so many good wineries are running out of wine long before it is time for the new vintage to be released proves is that the tastes of the real winedrinkers, the ones who actually keep the wine industry in business, have not changed. A Chicago importer can try to say otherwise all over the internet, but he is only looking at a few restaurants. The real winedrinkers, the educated, financially comfortable crowd who will spend more than $10 on wine, still love Chardonnay that is rich and buttery, still find supple, deep Cabernets to be wonderful choices for fancy meals, have only increased their love of local Pinot Noir every year for the last twenty.

It did not take a movie like Sideways or a tasting in Paris to prove that California wines taste good. It took, as it still does today, the palates of real winedrinkers. And while I have nothing against the diversity argument that goes with the wine geek insistence that the rest of us have it all wrong, I have a hard time grasping why they are so angry at those who do not worship their narrow screed.

The death knells of California wine are not upon us. Not when those wines sell like hotcakes and are liked by real winedrinkers.



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Geek Here
by Samantha
Posted on:6/10/2014 11:53:04 AM

Just checking in and wanting to let you know, we like real wine too, just happens to be our definition might be different. Can't see how your rant is any different than the ones you are complaining about in it. You, and "They" seem to think you have it right and the other is full of shit...what's wrong with approving of people drinking what it is they like without judgement and condemnation? Just because some of us prefer one style doesn't imply that the other style is less, just not to our taste. You toss about terms like "Real flavor" and "Real wine" just as easily and haphazardly as the ones you are pointing your figer at use words like "Overblown" or "Too ripe".....and frankly you are all getting too loud. Think I'm just going to kick about in the shop selling wines to both sides, drink my too-whatever-thehell wines and watch while you people call black to each others pot and kettle. I do love you though...and you sucked me in damn you!!

Geek There
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/10/2014 12:49:59 PM

My Dear Samantha--

I wrote this editorial for only one reason--to suck you in.

And now that you are here, I will reveal the truth. 

I was commenting on the people, who do not include you, that loudly proclaim that the popular styles of CA wine are "silly", "imitations of themselves", "drunk only people in country clubs in Omaha", "Pinot Noir for novices only" etc. You don't say things like that. Too many folks do, and I object at being told that I am a dunce for not embracing In Pursuit of Balance as the only true way.

From Alice Fearing to Bill Haydon (see STEVE!) to John Bonnet, these folks not only do not like the popular style of CA wine, which is their right and is just fine with me, but pretty much dismiss the legitimacy of those wines and the opinions of the people who like them.

And so, Sam, I invite you to read the editorial above again. It speaks directly to those who claim that CA wine is in free fall failure mode, and it points out directly that there is a very large body of winedrinkers, who are not collectors but do know their onions well enough to know what they like, who are ardently pursuing the very wines that the narrow-minded set are castigating. 

These folks are my educated, thoughtful neighbors, they are the classmates of my now forty-something (now old enough to be successful and to have the disposable income to drink whatever they like short of DRC and that ilk), they are the world, but they are not the "cool kids". Their preferences cannot and should not be dismissed.

by TomHill
Posted on:6/11/2014 8:16:07 AM


Like Samantha, you got me sucked in here, too.

   I guess I'm at a loss as to which critics & pundits are declaring Calif wine is in a free fall. Since you seem to like Jon as your favorite target...I can't think of anything he's written that even hints that he thinks Calif wine is in a free fall. I think you're reading too much into his stuff. Clearly, he's passionate about anemic Calif Ribollas and teeth-chattering skin-contact SauvBlancs and regards them as the most-exciting thing about Calif wine, but I can't recall anything from Jon that suggests the Calif wine industry is in "free fall".

   And I'm sorta at a loss how to reconcile Jon's bias against "big flavor" and his recent article on Cucamonga. Cucamonga Zin is about as "big flavor" as you can least CarolShelton's that I've had.Maybe he's not as anti-"big flavor" as you'd have us believe.

   I'm looking forward to this yr's RibollaFest to get my dosage of insipid/anemic Calif whites. Then next day I'll meander up the road and taste some of MollyHill's SequoiaGrove "big flavor" Cabs....which I also like.



Big Flavor
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/11/2014 1:44:47 PM

Hello Tom--

Several things about your thoughtful response struck me as interesting and extensions of this conversation.

Let's start with the easy one. The Cucamonga piece in the SF Chron recommended no wine. It was one of the most offhanded, "why am I writing this" articles ever by the author. Mr. Bonnay rails against BIG FLAVOR all the time. That he would write this piece is confusing until you realize that he is simply speaking about CA history and not about wine to drink.

As for the CA free fall, there is a long discussion on Heimoff that speaks to that topic, and the maker of those judgments cites Bonnet as one reason why.

I interpret John's rage against "the current silly style of Chardonnay" and Kosta Browne Pinots, "wines for novices", as part and parcel of the same ill-considered position. And while neither he nor Raj Parr, his partner in crime in IPOB, claim to be against any other style, the words heard at IPOB reflect otherwise.

And it was Dan Berger who said that Napa Cabernet is a caricature of itself. 

All of these folks are essential anti-CA wine as it exists for the most part. That is certainly their right and privilege. I am not fond of Gruner V. and Ribolla G., but I do not denigrate them or the people who like them. 

And, while I will admit to a bit of pot-stirring in this article, I would point back to the underlying theme. The large majority of folks I encounter who drink $20 wine are not clamoring for Ribolla or Trousseau Gris or high acid Chardonnays. They want, like, buy and drink ripe, buttery Chardonnays and full-rich Pinots and lush, ageworthy Cabs like those from Sequoia Grove. 

It is the tone on the part of the "cool kids" that says I know better than you what you should be drinking and it aint what you like that bugs me. I have no problem laying that charge at Mr. Bonne's feet. Those folks are not interested in diversity. They only care about their narrow view of the world.

That is why tiny, unheard of wineries get favorable treatment from that crowd but wines like Phelp's Freestone, Dutton Goldfield, Marimar get branded by John as "big distributor crap" publicly on Facebook.

Well, Tom, now it is you who have sucked me in. I guess sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander (<-- just a little phrase I just made up  :-} ).

Dr Evil
by sigerson
Posted on:7/1/2014 4:16:45 PM

So you get those poor kids snockered on Zinfandel and save the 60s and 70s BVs and Heitzes and Montalenas and Ridges for yourself.  And then troll about it.  Very Chatsworth Osborne III, IMHO. And teasing poor Samantha. Them champagne botttle are heavy , you know, even empty. 

Dear Doctor
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/1/2014 5:32:37 PM

I get them snockered on whatever it is that makes their palates happy. As for my older wines, well can you imagine pulling out the last bottles of I have of those wines for 140 enebriates--including yours truly. Better to drink good bubbly--which we did.

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