Long ago, in a land not even able to imagine Web 2.0, lived a publicist who found herself explaining to newbie winery owners who was whom in the wine world, and why this wine writer was important to his or her future as a vintner. After a while it seemed to be a bit repetitive, so this publicist began to copy and paste the explanation into Word documents… “Surely there must be a more efficient way to do this?” she thought. And so, the snippets began within her computer.
Then, the wonderful world of interactive web sites began, and I – um… she – began to take this same approach, by putting wine writers onto wine-blog.org, but in a question and answer format. Q&A’s are much more revealing and personal.
Today, these writers live in biography format on wine-blog.org for not only my clients, but also for the world. These writers have been the unsung heroes of the wine world, writing about wines they’ve tasted, and the brands that have been talked about. These recommendations have then been used as third party endorsements to help support their sales efforts for years and years.
This is why I’ve found it important to give these heroes and heroines their day in the limelight. They deserve to have the spotlight reversed for a brief moment in time.
When I just asked Charles Olken if he’d like to answer my Q&A, he returned it to me saying, “I am attaching answers to your questionnaire… I thought it was brilliant.” I told him that I’ve worried that my questions might be too simplistic, but I don’t get complaints from anyone… So so-far-so-good. Charlie has given me the feedback that I needed, now knowing that I’ve got a good mix of questions. More importantly, though, is how Charlie has answered my questions. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I never tire of reading these more private thoughts from each writer. The information is much better than I would get in any other setting.
In my title, I’ve referred to Charlie as “Old School.” I, too, fall into that category, because we’ve been in the business a lot longer than most of today’s on-line wine reviewers and story tellers. What I’ve loved about him lately is that I find him defending all of the new technologies and practices on other people’s blogs as comments. Charles Olken has the wisdom of his years of experience, and the foresight to keep his mind open to the future. I appreciate that about him.
We were just talking about something related to wine, and it occurred to me that we’ve not done the Q&A yet… only because this category is a stream of consciousness thing that I do. I did write about Charles Olken as an early wine critic a few years ago, but that was pre my Q&A days. I trust you’re going to enjoy his thoughtful answers.
Writer Profile questions:
[Q] Many wine writers also have a day job. If wine isn’t your job, what is and for whom?
[Charles] This is it. It took ten years of combined day job and wine writing to get to this point, but the last 25 have been solely in the wine writing biz.
[Q] When did you start writing about wine?
[Charles] I started in 1974.
[Q] What prompted you to start writing about wine?
[Charles] In those days, most wine writing, especially the “critical review publications” were focused on European wines. There was nothing that was specifically written for California collectors like me, and so the idea of creating a wine publication for my variety of wine crazy arose. My friend, Earl Singer and I, created CONNOISSEURS’ GUIDE TO CALIFORNIA WINE, published the first issue in November, 1974, took an ad in the wine mags of the day and people started sending us money. We have never looked back and have been lucky enough to stay at the same post for well over three decades.
[Q] What aspect(s) of wine do you most enjoy covering?
[Charles] The amazing, and still on-going, changes in the California wine scene. During the existence of CONNOISSEURS’ GUIDE, I have seen the emergence of new varieties, the change in the landscape that has allowed wineries to sharpen their foci on where to plant certain varieties to get the best results, increased emphasis on balance (especially lately). During the past several decades, California has been the most exciting wine place in the world because of the way the quality of wine produced here has allowed us to claim our place on the world stage.
[Q] How has your job changed since you’ve started?
[Charles] In the beginning, our responsibilities were much more about education and investigation than they are today. CONNOISSEURS GUIDE was the first, for instance, to publish a map of the Napa Valley with smaller-area designations. That seminal work was later quoted in many AVA applications. We did the same kind of geographic looks at the Dry Creek Valley, Monterey and elsewhere. We do less of that today because the landscape is now pretty well-defined and because there are now publications that are better suited to that kind of work. We also did seminal work on Pinot Noir clones and on Petite Sirah. Today, CONNOISSEURS’ GUIDE tends to focus more specifically on wine quality.
[Q] What’s the most memorable wine you’ve ever tasted?
[Charles] I have one-hundred answers to that question, but not one. If I had to mention one, it would be Freemark Abbey Chardonnay 1971 because that wine turned me from wine drinker to wine collector. An amazing bottle of Heitz 1962 Pinot Noir tasted just a couple of months ago would rank highly, but, frankly, how do I really separate my few experiences with DRC or my continuing love affair with Beaulieu 1970 Private Reserve? I think I might write a book about my one hundred most memorable wines.
[Q] What’s your favorite variety?
[Charles] I have more Cabernet Sauvignon, and its French peers, in my cellar than any other, but, these days, I drink more Pinot Noir than any other variety. My favorite white is Riesling, but I still drink more Chardonnay than any other white variety. And if you had asked me twenty years ago about my interest in ever becoming a winemaker, my answer would have been that I wanted to make six separate styles of Chardonnay from unoaked to buttery. To me, Chardonnay is the most amazing variety because it can be made into great wines all over the world, and in so many styles that are satisfying to my palate.
[Q] Do you believe that there are better quality, lower priced wines today, than in past vintages?
[Charles] Absolutely. When we started CONNOISSEURS’ GUIDE, the inexpensive wines of the day were a bizarre mix of sweetened, cooked bottlings from the Central Valley, often made from varieties that have been abandoned (thankfully) today or were blends of leftovers from coastal vineyards. Now, those latter bottlings could have been amazing or disastrous, but when they were good, they were essentially the equivalent of today’s rustic red from the North Coast save for the lesser or non-existent use of oak. And they used to cost a couple of buck, not the twenty-plus that they bring today.
Today, at almost every level, wine is “clean”, without winemaking flaw. And because of the current oversupply, quality in the mid-priced level, which I have always found a little dodgy because those wines were mostly leftovers, is now very high in many instances. We are finding lots of $10-20 wines finishing very high in our tastings.
[Q] What’s your favorite innovation in the wine industry over the past few years?
[Charles] I would cite four. The first is the use of the screwcap to bottle wines that do not want long-aging. The second is the great improvement in the cleanliness of natural cork closures brought about by the emergence of the screwcap and other alternative closures. Call me old-fashioned, but I like corks made out of one piece of cork, and the belated but necessary response by the cork producers to clean up their acts means that I can rely on corks more completely today than ever before. The third would be the use of mechanical methods to bring alcohol levels back in line. I would prefer that the changes happen in the vineyard, but I prefer the changes to lower alcohol levels by almost any method to the parade of high alcohol wines to which we were (and to some extent, still are) being treated. And the fourth are the changes happening in some vineyards in search of physiological ripeness in grapes at lower Brix levels and higher acidity levels.
[Q] What’s your favorite food and wine pairing?
[Charles] Crisp, yeasty, rich sparkling wine, California or Champagne, with fresh-shucked Miyagi or Kumamoto oysters on the half-shell.
[Q] What are your interests outside of the wine business?
[Charles] Sports (baseball and soccer), travel, modern art, theater and politics.
[Q] Who inspires you (wine business or outside of it, doesn’t matter)?
[Charles] My family—my wife, my kids, my grandkids—are the most important parts of my life by light years. Friends with whom I share interests, hopes and fears and laughs are an important second.
[Q] For what would you like to be remembered?
[Charles] For being a great, solid, 100% reliable husband, father, grandfather, friend. For being someone who made the lives of those closest to me better, bigger, more complete, more fulfilled.