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Monday Manifestos
SF Chron Proclaims RRV Pinot At Crossroads—I Beg To Differ

By Charles Olken

Did you read the wine headline in yesterday’s Chron—“Russian River Faces Crossroads”. Yes, dear readers, if one believes headlines, RRV Pinot Noir is on the precipice. And, lest you miss the point, the Chronicle says it is in danger of following Napa Valley Cabernet into the realm of vinous complacency.

True confession: I read the Chronicle’s Sunday Food and Wine section without fail every week. It is quite possibly the best in the country. But, yesterday, it missed the mark.

Perhaps this is the time to point out that Napa’s vinous complacency has it producing volumes and volumes of very good to great wines. It also produces volumes of not so great wines, and it has been ever thus. That is an equation that has not changed much over the years, but certainly has not changed for the worse. Decanter Magazine, the English wine journal whose love of California’s fancy Cabs has never been exactly over the top, loved the 2006s. Those of us here, or most of us at least, think the 2007s Napa Cabs were a lot better. What kind of complacency is that?

But the Chronicle article would have us believe that the only way the Russian River can save itself from becoming the Napa Valley is a dose of reinvention. This is gotcha journalism gone to wine country. This is RRV Pinot Noir, broadly accused by the Chronicle of suffering from “too much oak, too much overripe fruit, too much heat”. It’s nonsense. The Chronicle is talking about 2009 Pinot Noir. Those wines released to date are part and parcel of the continuum that has brought the Russian River not to the precipice of complacency but to the precipice of greatness. Russian River Pinot Noir suffers not at all. It is performing exactly the way it has always has in its early releases.

Now, dear readers, we critics are not cheer leaders. We are not supposed to lose our objectivity in a rush of vinous love for every drop that crosses our palates. Neither the Chronicle nor Connoisseurs’ Guide nor any other reviewer of competence and honesty is going to like everything—or should. And the early 2009s are unique in themselves—as are the wines of any vintage. Many of them are simple, direct, lacking in complexity and short on the lovely, rich patina that Pinot can get once past its gawky youth. The early release wines of many vintages follow that pattern. Even in 2007, the finest Pinot Noir vintage in my memory, the early release wines were rarely possessed of grandeur.

And the Chronicle is forced to admit, but only after their wholesale swipe at the genre, that the later released wines of the vintage have not yet been seen. The Chronicle tells us that it has tasted 40 Russian River Valley Pinots, but does not tell us what they have tasted. Did the overwhelming lot of denigrated wines include the 2009 Williams Selyems, Peays, Evening Lands. I have tasted those 2009s, and I can and will tell you that they are not overripe, overoaked, overheated, flat and dull. They have shown themselves to be deep, focused and balanced. Those wines (and let’s agree that they are also not the whole picture) are brilliantly conceived, solid and are not be denigrated. But when one reads the article as written, the broad brush of condemnation falls on Russian River Pinot as an entity and it takes those very fine early released wines down with it. Moreover, the notion of “crossroads” suggests that the Chron will find a high degree of disappointment in the Merry Edwards, the Siduris, the Bjornstads, the Dehlingers and the whole array of 2009s that are yet to be seen.

I have no argument with individual choices. I could care less if the Chron liked 20 of 40 or liked 4 of 40. That is their business. If the Chronicle tasted and did not like Williams Selyem 2009 Westside Road Neighbors, we will agree to disagree. That’s the wine biz. But, this wholesale questioning of Russian River Pinot Noir on the basis of a few dozen early released wines and the repetition of the holier-than-thou litany of accusations that get trotted out with every discussion of California wines is silliness piled on top of silliness. It is an unbalanced discussion from a publication of record that should know better than to brand the entity itself as in trouble on the basis of early results.

I respectfully but firmly disagree with that characterization of the Russian River Valley. Ladies and gentlemen of the vinous jury, the question is now laid in your laps.


by TomHill
Posted on:5/16/2011 11:58:02 AM

Yup.....I was a bit puzzled by Jon's article when I read it this morning. "Too much oak/overripe fruit/too much heat" certainly doesn't match a whole lot of the RRV Pinots that I taste. If anything, I find the RRV Pinots show much more diversity than Pinots from any other area (since you included the Peays, I'm assuming you're including the extreme SonomaCoast as well).

   OTOH....print journalists oftentimes overstate their case in order to get a better "buzz" on the street. So I spect that that was what Jon was doing and I'm not gonna get my knickers in a knot over the article. But your criticisms are dead-on I think, Charlie.



No Subject
by Chuck Hayward
Posted on:5/16/2011 12:30:07 PM

Being as all wine trends go from one extreme to another, we need to start an over/under on when the first "not enough oak/fruit/alcohol" article comes out. I vote "not soon enough".

by John
Posted on:5/16/2011 12:47:23 PM

Tom, I think you have it about right. Charlie, I'll take your point a step further and say it's just a matter of time before we see articles warning of impending vinous complacency in Dry Creek or Paso Zins, in Lake County Sauv. Blancs, in Finger Lakes Rieslings. Oh... wait a minute... the appelaltions and wines "becoming complacent" have to have already received excessive glowing praise.

OK, so what about complacency in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chianti, Aussie Shiraz, NZ whites? Wait another minute... haven't I already read those articles? Haven't I been reading them since I first got interested in wine?

I'm not picking out the Chronicle here - Jon is usually very good - but there is nothing in journalism more certain than the punditry cycle: 1) build subject up beyond its capability to deliver, 2) knock subject down for failing in its "promises," 3) show how public exposure of these "failings" has led subject to "reform" and 4) start the cycle all over again.

Why Do They Do It
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:5/16/2011 2:44:26 PM

Hello gents. Thanks for stopping by. I am at a loss to know why the article in question was ever written. It is not only premature as a judgment of the 2009 vintage, but it breaks no new ground in the discussion of CA wine except to somehow slander Napa in the process and then attempt to tie the Russian River Valley to that slander.

I guess everything in CA wine is just plain lousy, with the good spots rating as the exceptions and the "oh by the way" afterthoughs.

I don't expect any writer to be a cheerleader. We have too many of those, and frankly, I don't read them because they only offer pablum by way of commentary. But, the Chron has pushed criticism of CA wine to a new level. It must be some kind of reverse snobbism in which SF and CA are not good enough. I guess all those years of being good has made us bad. Complacent, smug and no longer caring about quality.

I almost did not publish this piece because no one likes a whiner, and there is some of that here. But,  in the end, it seemed to me that someone had to look at a moe balanced approach. What is ultimately most amusing to me is that the wine industry finds CGCW to be the most critical of all the print reviewers, and yet here I am defending the wineries.

The article says more about the tasters then the wine.
by Napa Dan
Posted on:5/16/2011 5:06:16 PM

RN74 - a road through Burgundy.  Arlequin Wine Merchant, a great store, but not exactly California-centric.

The Tasters
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:5/16/2011 6:00:25 PM


There is truth in that statement, but consider who it was who chose the tasters. It was the SF Chronicle knowing that it was tasting Pinot Noir and bringing in a somm from a restaurant that refuses to consider Pinot Noir over 14% alcohol. It's not like he was there for balance because the other two guys are hardly CA wine lovers.

Now, they do not have to be "fans" to write about CA wines, but it is more than strange that a tasting of RRV Pinot had to start with a bit of bias. I would not expect anyone on one of their panels who likes raisins, but when virtually all of RRV is under the cosh from the beginning, the wines and the category never had a chance.

And, Dan, what do you make of the intentional backhanded slam against the Napa Valley?


Saying it
by Patrick
Posted on:5/17/2011 9:19:01 AM

The Chron wine column has its problems: they don't list all the wines they tasted, and they rely on stuff that's sent to them. BUT, I have to admire them for calling it as they saw it. Charlie: You need to get more specific: Which wines did they mis-judge? You know the best way to refute their column: write an opposing one with equal depth. Get to it.

Just Sayin'
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:5/17/2011 9:49:23 AM

Hello, Patrick--

I don't take issue with other people's judgments about individual wines. Sure I disagree with several of their recommendations, just as I would disagree with individual items from any reviewer and they would disagree with CGCW on some wines.

On June 1, when our new issue covering 150 Pinot Noirs comes out, you will be able to see our take on the subject--which, of course, I gave away with my Saturday blog. And like you, I wish we knew which 32 wines they found wanting. Did they taste the new Williams Selyem Westside Road Neighbors or the W-S RRV appellation bottling?

But, in truth, individual wines are not my concern. It is the wholesale "RRV on the precipice of disaster" tone that bugs me. It simple beggars belief. Oh, and the totally gratuitous swipe at Napa as if that place had totally lost its way.

When any reviewer essentially says that two of the very best, broadly liked sets of wines from CA are in trouble, I have to wonder what they are thinking--or smoking.

Pappy speaks truth
by 1WineDude
Posted on:5/20/2011 9:37:39 AM

Nice write-up, Charlie.  they can't all be zingers, but if this had been a blog post written by Jon or anyone else in the CA wine-writing scene I think it would have been okay to let loose & speculate a bit.  But probably wasn't the right call for a Chron weekly, especially comin' off the recent JB award.

I think Jon's earned some slack, though, because his writing normally kicks all kinds of ass, and I'm betting he'll be back to wowing us with prose shortly.  "Shortly" wasn't intended as a height joke, btw - which I think I can safely point out since Jon and I are about euually height-disadvantaged :).


No Subject
by Napa Dan
Posted on:5/20/2011 1:35:03 PM


The slam on Napa is tiresome, but remember it is a Hearst paper. William Randolph would be proud.

Upholding the Status Quo...
by Mark Ryan
Posted on:5/21/2011 3:38:19 PM

While Mr. Bonné may have overstated his point, the truth is that CA wine in general is at a crossroads. The pioneers of regions such as Napa and Russian River Valley planted on the easy-to-farm flat valley floors using "safe" grape varieties that would be guaranteed to ripen every year. The best vineyard sites are most likely yet to be discovered - California wine is still in its infancy. It's not a good thing when every vintage is a good to great one. It means they're playing it too safe. No risk, no reward.

Prune Wine
by Winenut
Posted on:12/19/2011 3:39:58 PM

Well, I for one am sick and tired of just any RED wine where the fruit in that wine was picked over 24 brix. I don't care what the finished alcohol level is. That has almost no bearing on flavors of the finished wine. High Brix fruit produces wines with relatively little distinctive varietal character. Mostly they've all just become roasted plum, blackberries, and dried fruits (mostly prune). Cab, Pinot, Syrah now all pretty much taste the same...and so tell me why I should want that...when I can just get a good quality Zinfandel (that's often picked at a lower Brix) and that tastes like Zinfandel. I mean, Duckhorn (and others) are picking Cab fruit at 28 brix with the resulting alcohol being 14.5%. I want "Old Style" Burgundy-like Pinot. Not the new Parkerized Red Burgundies (which are more Syrah like), but the older style wines. Any other effort is just a sad waste of vineyard acreage. Because if you can't make Pinot Noir that tastes like Pinot Noir using Pinot Noir grapes, pull out the vines and replant with Riesling.

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