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Jon Bonne Blows Town

By Charles Olken

It is true that I have no great love for Mr. Bonne. He came here and proceeded to denigrate much of California wine even though he claims he was saving it. He called the prevalent style of Chardonnay that millions of people love “silly”, he described the delicious Pinot Noirs of Kosta Browne as “wines for novices”, he once turned down a story described to him as likely to appeal to his newspaper’s readers on the grounds that he “long ago gave up trying to meet his readers halfway”.

I wish it had been otherwise. Mr. Bonne was the full-time wine voice of the San Francisco Chronicle, and as such he sat in a position of power. And while there is no doubt that he used that power to advance his views, he also used it to advance himself. Sadly, it must be concluded that this man was not a friend of California wine and that he did as much harm as he did good.

I cannot pretend to be sad at the diminution of his place in California wine writing, but I will confess to my appreciation for his dogged determination in championing a lighter, lower alcohol, higher acid style of wine. California needed that—not because its wines were bad, but because there is a tendency here in some parts to lose sight of balance in the search for intensity.

California is not a place without an abundance of sun and good weather. There will always be those who say it is too warm to make great wine, and it is their right to hold that opinion, but, in reality, it is an opinion about what one likes in wine and not about wine quality in a broader sense. Mr. Bonne is proud of his Euro-palate. But, California is not France, and our wines need not mimic French wine in some form of lock-step obeisance.

There were times when it appeared that he got that difference, but mostly, he did not. We all come with our own preferences, our own likes and dislikes, but most of the world of wine criticism appreciates that it is the wine that speaks and we need to be tolerant of others with different views. Even the most renowned and feared power writers know and understand that basic principle. It is the wine that the readership cares about, it is the wine the drives wine criticism. It is not the writer.

So, now that the San Francisco Chronicle has found a way to drop his massive salary, and in that he is not alone because the Chronicle has gutted the best wine and food newspaper section in the country, Mr. Bonne is scurrying back to New York City. He will be missed by some, and it is my hope that a fair bit of his desire for a lighter sense of balance is not lost in his departure.

But, in what must be a first, I received emails, absolutely unsolicited emails, yesterday cheering the plane he was getting on. No critic is ever going to be universally loved unless that critic turns him- or herself into a cheerleader. Believe me, I get that. I could give you a list of wineries that will not speak to CGCW because of reviews they did not like. That goes with the territory. But, tone and style, humility and an open-mindedness towards and respect for the opinions of others are, in my opinion, absolute requirements for wine critics.

That Bonne was a champion of lighter, higher acid wines was and is a good thing. That he threw everything else under the bus with haughty dismissal was not. You can bet that there was some quiet but profound “dancing on his grave” in wine country yesterday.

No one knows publicly what the Chronicle will do now for wine writing aside from the once monthly column that Mr. Bonne will contribute from his perch back east. But, whatever it is, it will hopefully be more in line with the tastes of the paper’s broad readership and come with a fuller understanding of the possibilities and potential. And, such a change, assuming that it comes to pass, will be the best news of all.


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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.


Frequency of Online Updates
by Ed Supplee
Posted on:3/5/2015 5:40:38 PM

How quickly is the online information updated. There seems to be a long lag between when the magazine is made available and when the search data is available on your web site. Can it be made available  simultaneously?



Online Updates
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/6/2015 12:55:34 PM

How quickly is online data updated?

It is updated simultaneously with the issue. The new issues cannot go live without the database being ready. 

Now, it may have happened at some point that there was a programming error, but as far as I know, both the text of the issue and the database go live at the same time.

That said, I would appreciate getting more information from you about what happened and when. Please send that by email using the CONTACT button in the masthead. Thanks.

I am surprised to see your pornographic headline
by Blake Gray
Posted on:3/9/2015 10:57:43 AM

And I didn't think Mr. Bonne liked this town enough to service it.

Though now I understand
by Blake Gray
Posted on:3/9/2015 11:01:37 AM

why so much California wine seems to leave a bad taste in his mouth.

Bonne leaving
Posted on:3/10/2015 10:53:50 AM

I always felt he was unhappy here...and it showed in his writing. His favorites were his favorites and there was little coverage of so much of the rest of the story. Maybe at PUNCH he can return to European wines.

Bye, Bye
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/10/2015 11:06:14 AM

Blake--How come you don't publish comments like that on your blog? No worries. Funny wins every time.

Hi, Pam. Word out of the Chronicle was that he was perfectly happy until he got marginalized out of his bully pulpit. (Aside to Blake: now that is a double entrendre).

Jon was having a fine time of it in his early years, but when he was told to do columns about drinks, he used the column to say that SF was no NYC, and his latest screed about the loss of sommeliers in SF is more about the loss of his sycophants than anything else.

Yes, he does seem unhappy at this point. Who would not be when his co-workers, his boss and the industry he purported to cover all disliked him? 

It will be interesting to see what happens next for Jon. He has just signed a new book deal to report on the "new" European wineries, and I suspect that he will find lots of sympathy with the same, young, "new and natural is better" set that he "serviced" here.

It is not that he covered those wine and those of his friends in IPOB that bugged me, but that he threw everything else under the bus with a sneer on his lip. 

Wine Writers
by Bob Noyes
Posted on:3/10/2015 1:17:06 PM

Hi Charlie - I know the unwritten rule that wine writers do not criticize other wine writers tasting palates and everyone is entitled to their opinion which should be respected. But you do like to write and comment about other wine critics, which I also like. A few months back on Parker, a two parter on Lettie Teague of the WSJ, and bye bye to Jon Bonne. All very good stuff and my favorites of your blog articles are on the others in your business.

Recently, Wine Access (an online marketer) in the blurb to sell a wine stated "from the toughest chardonnay critic on the planet, Stephen Tanzer." It struck me as a little bold and maybe just marketing hype, but in your opinion is it accurate ? Mr Tanzer has been in the business for awhile as you have and he may even be a friend of yours. But what do you think ? Let me disclose I think his ratings are fairly accurate, but remember I use the CG standard, not the pull numbers out of the sky of unnamed others.   

Bonne leaving
by Mark C
Posted on:3/16/2015 6:51:38 PM

I still don't understand crtitics tasting with their eyes(wine alcohol% on the label) instead of their nose and mouth. Their dogged pursuit of just a few variables in such a complex subject makes no more sense than the earlier obsession with ripeness and intensity. These are just two ends of the pendulum swing. Hopefully more open minds will prevail.

Re Tanzer
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/16/2015 7:05:37 PM

I don't know Mr. Tanzer. Spoke to him once re a matter of his webhost, WineAccess, wanting to be ours. He was cordial and brief, but I have no argument with what he told me.

As for his ratings, he is pretty accurate for my money. He does taste at wineries with labels showing and the winemaker et al at his side for those wineries that encourage that sort of thing whereas CGCW refused to follow that practice.

As for his being the toughest Chard critic, well, I really have no opinion on that as I do not taste Chards from anywhere but CA, and our ratings tend to be pretty strict and are sometimes described even by our friends as stingy. 

This whole ratings business is difficult because the standards seem to have changed over time. When Parker started with the 100-point system, he rarely gave CA wines scores above the low 90s and damn few of them. Now he is tossing them out like penny candy at Mardi Gras. It is an open joke among writers to say that Parker will be the first to give 100 as a rating--although it is a joke because he is smarter than that.

But someone somewhere is going to do it because once 100 becomes easy to ascribe, how does one rate wines better than the mass at 100? And, there will always be wines that simply rise to ethereal levels. That is why CGCW does not use 99 and 100. It is a silly thing on our part, but we just do not believe that there are 50 CA wines at 99-100 per the latest Parker review.

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