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Thoughts While Shaving

By Charles Olken

It’s cold this morning and the mirror is fogged over as I try to rid my visage of its whiskery overload. I have never liked shaving at the best of times. My first beard took shape while I was in high school. It was the time of the beatniks, and if they could have goatees, so could I. The school itself was relatively tolerant. My girlfriend at the time was not, but the college kids in our town (Cambridge, MA) wore them and so did I.

Over the years, facial hair has appeared and disappeared with the times, and I will admit that I was clean-shaven for most of my college days and immediately beyond, save for my summer in Europe, until the day that I was drafted into the US of A Army. In short order, I joined the Army Reserves and grew a mustache. “Neat” Mustaches were allowed as were sideburns that did not go below the ear. And this being the era of Vietnam, which I protested a bit, growing a mustache was both the least I could do—and the most I could do—at the time.

Fast forward about four decades, and lo and behold, a short stay in the hospital to have certain vital organs cleaned out and tuned up, led to the formation of a full beard, which I sport to this day. But shave I must because my beard is “shaped” and when I do not clean up the “clean areas”, I look like a latter day mountain man who is a bit long in the tooth to be hanging around the hills.

So, here I am, standing in front a fog-shrouded mirror in the near dark of early morning trying to save myself from my misbehaving whiskers.

And, I find myself musing about the need for a good five-cent cigar. Not literally, of course. My father was a life-long cigar smoker, but I have never found much solace in a cigar of any sort. Of course, he also smoked cigarettes, drank black coffee and strong whiskey. I don’t do any of those things—except for the whiskey, and while he was a Wild Turkey enthusiast, as is the current Olken household, I have also moved on to single-malt Scotch—and there are no five-cent cigars in that category.

Back many decades ago, when the Coca-Cola company tried to get into the wine business through the now long lost Taylor California Cellars brand, I was asked to speak to their annual sales meeting about the state of play in the California wine industry. Talk about whiskey drinkers, this crowd of soft drink peddlars, had never heard of wine until they were asked to sell it. Re-educating them fell to me on that day.

And among the themes that I choose was the need for a good-five cent cigar. Even in those days, when there was not the wholesale rush of imports from all over the world, the California wine industry was having a hard time with quality at the low-end of the wine price spectrum. By 1980, the old field blends of the North Coast had disappeared into true varietal bottlings with corks and higher prices. Old favorites like Gallo Hearty Burgundy and Italian Swiss Colony Zinfandel, once substantially coastal-based bottlings now found their produce in the hotter, less appreciated grapes of the Central Valley.

And brands like Taylor California Cellars rushed in to fill the void using grapes not from old North Coast plantings but newer vines growing south of San Francisco. Taylor did well in the early years, besting the competition from folks like Almaden, Masson, Inglenook and Gallo in our blind tastings. It was likely those early wins in CGCW that got me invited to Palm Beach in the midst of winter to talk to the Coca Cola folks.

Nowadays, and for some decades, the low-end California offerings have continued to struggle for leadership at their price points. We are simply too costly a place to make really inexpensive wine, and so the equivalent of the good five cent cigar has been generally beyond our doing.

Yes, there are the occasional exceptions, but, for the most part, one has to spend $10 to find the occasional California wine that is clean, fruity, balanced and varietally focused. Asking those wines to have “terroir” is a fool’s errand, but, for $10, “clean and fruity, etc.” is more than enough.

Those wines do exist. Makers like Bogle and McManis occasionally hit them spot on and so do others if one looks around the marketplace and spots the bargains—two of which have impressed at our tasting tables of late.

Just the other day, we came upon Rancho Zabaco Sonoma County Zinfandel Heritage Vines 2013 priced at $10 and Gloria Ferrer Brut priced at $13.00, and while those are not full retail prices, they do exist in the market and are out there to be found. Both wines are highly regarded by us, and both are about as close as California can come to achieving that elusive goal of the five-cent cigar. And in particular, it is the Rancho Zabaco Zin, having just beat out a batch of higher priced wines in yesterday’s faceoff, that has me thinking while shaving and being thankful for wines that are exceptional bargains.

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