Monday, February 1, 2010

Wine Biz Interviews Part Two Sir Charles Olken...aka Puff Daddy

I had so much fun interviewing the, “Wine Blog King” Tom Wark and got so many interesting comments, (and let’s face it, we bloggers are in it for the comments) that I thought I would do a series of them….that and it gets me off the hook with the whole actual, “writing” deal. So I asked a few people that I find terribly fascinating if they would be willing to let me interview them; retailers, writers, sales reps, importers…still waiting to hear back from them. In the meantime I did find a couple people willing to partake in this little plan of mine, and one of the first to get back to me just so happens to be one of the first people I thought of and asked…

Hard Hitting Questions For Sir Charles Olken Editor and Publisher of Connoisseurs’ Guide To California Wines

When did you begin blogging and why?

I don’t blog, and I am proud of it. People who blog have too much time on their hands. And I always wonder when I read these endless strings of blogs, if these folks have so much time on their hands, when was the last time they wrote letters to their mothers. On the other hand, I am probably going to start my own blog one of these days, but here is my problem. There are a couple of dozen blogs I like and a couple of thousand that are too boring for words, and I am scared of those odds.

How come?

Well now, that really is none of your business. I don’t go around asking you why you read the Hosemaster of Wine or love your neighbor’s kid or drink that yukky Pastis, do I?

Okay, when did you begin your publication?

Earl Singer, a friend and co-worker and my mentor in serious wine-drinking, and I had too much time on our hands in 1974. Not our fault. Our boss, one Mr. Richard Nutcase Nixon, tried to shut down the poverty program we were working on at the time, and as the result, our entire agency was told to stay in our offices and do nothing for six months. So, instead of doing the people’s business, we used our time to devise a mythical wine publication for California wine drinkers like ourselves.

What inspired you to start Connoisseurs’ Guide To California Wines?

Seems that no one was writing much about the wines we were collecting. No offense to Robert Lawrence Balzer and others, but, frankly, the wine writing of the day either favored Europe to the exclusion of California or was being written by folks who, to be polite, were a couple of chapters short of a short story. After a while, it seemed like we might have a good idea on our hands, and, we became convinced that there were probably enough other crazy folks like ourselves out there to allow us to make a go of it. So we mortgaged the ranch, sold the kids and started publishing. It took about eight months from first idea to first newsletter in November, 1974. We bought ads in Vintage Magazine, the major wine publication of the day, and to our amazement and incredible good fortune, people sent us more money than the ad cost. So we wrote the next edition of our rag, took another ad, and people sent us more money.

How come your stars are so, “Puffy”?

In the words of Ronald Reagan, “there you go again”. I am not telling you why my eyebrows are so puffy or my stars so puffy—except for this. If you ever have a chance to read a red Guide Michelin, take a look at the “etoiles” that are employed in that publication. You will see that their stars are also puffy. In fact, we liked their puffy stars so much, that we copied them. Over the years, they have been called (by others, mind you) snowflakes, cookies, clouds and bomb bursts, but the nickname that stuck was “puffs”. I can’t tell you how many times I have met people over the years who have said to me, “Oh, you’re the ‘Puffs” guy”. If I ever get my hands on the SOB who first identified our stars as “puffs”, I will have a few unkind words for him, his mother and his offspring.

Have you ever gotten hate mail from winemakers?

It’s funny you should ask. Connoisseurs’ Guide has a couple of unfortunate habits that make it unpopular with some wineries. For example, we have this bad habit of reviewing every wine we taste rather than ignoring the bad wines the way some candy-ass writers do. You see, if you only say nice things, then you get to do things like ride Rachel Alexander and go to nice dinners at Cyrus. But, we started CGCW for the sole purpose of providing evaluations that would be as close as possible to what people would find when they pulled a cork. And part of that responsibility to the very people who put us in business (wine consumers like ourselves) was and is to also tell people what wines to avoid. So that was sin Number One to some wineries. And sin Number two is that we have not, to the best of our ability, engaged in grade inflation. Thus our ratings have always been stingy. Tant pis.

Are you afraid I am going to ask you from whom?

Scared to death. I can tell you this. A winery owner/winemaker once sent us a letter so filled with vile images that our description of his wines as barnyardy paled by comparison. It was so threatening that to this day, when I see his wines on the shelf at Trader Joe’s, I walk the other way just to be sure that I am safe.

Boxers or Briefs?

I don’t have a dog.

Where do you stand, Mr. Fancy Pants print guy, on the whole social media argument?

I am too old to understand what the hell social media is. Blogs, to me, are not much removed from the old wine bulletin boards. I like the writing on some blogs, but I like even more the conversations that go on in those blogs. As for Twitter, well, I have a marketing person, one of those new, smart winedrinkers who is studying to get two letters after her name (please don’t tell the Hosemaster), and she insists that I “tweet” as a way of getting attention. So, for the last six months, I have been tweeting semi-so often, and I have earned all of 37 responses. As for FaceBook, I am sure there is a way to use it constructively.

You have been very active in the blogosphere, how many blogs do you read and comment on regularly?

I read six or eight blogs regularly and others when I see mentions to something interesting that someone references or something interesting that a blogger will say on someone else’s blog. It is all a bit incestuous, isn’t it?

More than one blogger has named you the most interesting and prolific commenter, if they were to give you an award which would you prefer, a crown or a sash?

Tom Wark made a comment that I was the commenter he would most like to see have his own blog. I took that to mean that he hoped I would go away and stop posting so often on his blog. And, just the other night, I was at the ZAP Good Eats event, and a winery guy I have known for a bit (Tim MacDonald, who himself will comment on a blog now and then) said, “I know that if a good controversy blows up on one of the major blogs, you will be in the middle of it”. Sounds to me like he has been reading Wark and agrees with him.
And, by the way, my award of choice is a good Corned Beef sandwich on rye with strong mustard, no mayo, and a really briny dill pickle.

Hangover cure of choice?

Bloody Mary, hands down.

How have you seen your readership shift or change in the past 36 years?

A really bad thing happened to me tonight at ZAP. A guy comes up to me, a really old guy, must have been as old as me, and asks for my autograph. Turns out that he has been reading Connoisseurs’ Guide from the beginning. So, yeh, my readership has shifted. It is made up on octogenarians and their children. I plan on retiring when I start getting subscriptions from the grandchildren of my early subscribers.
Aside from that, the real difference is that we now have both Online and Print options, and as the older subscribers drop off, the newer subscribers are predominantly Online.

Have you ever sneezed while peeing?

No, but I once dropped a rozzer in snide.

You drink a butt load of California wines, when you reach for French….where do you go first?

No fair. You know I don’t drink that stuff. I am the California wine guy for goodness sake. So, now that I have that off my chest, I probably have ten or twenty answers to that question but not one.
No wait. Bring me a bottle of DRC La Tache or Romanee-Conti.
Or to put a more day-to-day face on it, we (my wife and I) go out of our ways to drink something other than California wine when we can find a decently or even semi-decently priced bottle on a wine list. And since I tend to bring reds from my own cellar to nice meals out, I look for whatever white fits what we are eating. Sauzet and LeFlaive whites Burgs, Dageneau or Huet, Zind-Humbrecht, Cuilleron.

Single best bottle of wine you ever had?

So many wines, so little time. One of these days, I will write a book about the one-hundred wines that are the best single bottle I ever had.

Single worst bottle of wine you ever had?

Did I tell you about the vile letter I got from the guy whose wine I called barnyardy? Perhaps, you missed that part above where I said I was still afraid of him two decades later. Well, let me tell you that barnyardy was a kind description, and the merde in his bottle had nothing to do with Burgundy. It could have been real merde.

Do you think wine blogs are having any effect, like at all, on the wine business?

My guess is that blogs are like all kinds of wine writing, and that they have an effect on those who read them. For example, when a noted wine writer tells people that they need to use words like “sweet” correctly, I assume that everyone who reads those comments does penance for their sins and gets it right going forward. Or like when Tom Wark charges out after the defenders of the three-tier system or Tyler Coleman (Doc Vino to his friends) does surveys about which wine to serve with smores. Sam, this is serious shit we are talking about here.

Pastis or Almond flavored sparkling wine?

May I leave now?

Vacation: Riverside or Provence?

It depends on the river. I like vacationing along the Thames, the Seine, the Rhone, the Po, the Charles (a river I used to believe was named for me when I was a wee lad growing up on its banks).

You once rode my ass over at Reign of Terroir, do you feel bad about that?

I thought I was trying to jump your bones. I guess it did not come through over the Internet.

When you play rock star in your car who do you pretend to be?

Billy Gibbons or Pete Townsend. I also play a very mean blues guitar, sort of like Ry Cooder in my mind but probably closer in real life to Eric Clapton imitating John Lee Hooker.

Airplane reading: The MS Conspiracy or TV Guide?

I could never cop to reading the M. S. Conspiracy, that lunacy over on the Hosemaster of Wine website. To do that, I would have to admit that my own sense of humor has a certain dark side that makes me laugh right out loud when the Hosemaster makes fun of Harvey Steiman’s backside. So, TV Guide, it is. I do need to preserve at least a shred of my dignity.
Oh? You say you saw my almost daily comments over at Hosemaster of Wine? Well, that must have been some other Charlie Olken.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about getting into the wine writing business?

I was walking along the beach in Atlantic City the other day when this cat comes up to me and says, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall”. I replied, “Practice, brother, practice. You’ll get there”.

If you had to change the mind of one of those simple minded, not using their words carefully, dismissive of California wines, people….what one bottle would you choose?

Freestone 2007 Chardonnay, a wine of great depth, impeccable winemaking, brilliant balance of acidity, alcohol and oak. At 13.7% alc, it puts the lie to the drivel that all CA wine is overripe, overoaked and flat as a pancake.
But, I would then serve them Hudson 2006 Chardonnay, a wine so pure that our tasting panel thought it was a ringer from that other place. Like the Freestone, it is brilliantly crafted. But in this case, it has 15% alcohol. OK, some people also do not like Le Montrachet. I do.

If I were to tell you that having you read and comment on my blog has humbled this goofy wine slinger, would you give me a hug and share a bottle of Pommard with me?

I like many blogs for all kinds of reasons, but there is not one blog I read that is as real, as giving of the writer, as cannily crafted as your best, and it is not I who humbles you. I stand in awe at the way you have twisted me around your finger in the last couple of weeks. Sure, bring on that wimpy French stuff. I am man enough to take it.

Thank you Mr. Charles are a gifted writer, a cool ass cat and dude, you crack me up. Cannot tell you what it means that you would take the time to do this, not to mention reading and commenting on this goofy blog. I adore you kid.


Ron Washam said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,

As the coiner of the moniker, Puff Daddy, I feel like I should have interviewed Mr. Olken on my lame blog. But he ain't crazy enough to do that. Besides, you're a much better interviewer than me. The questions I like are always along the lines of, "When did you become a fan of my blog and why do you think I'm so good at it?"

Mr. Olken, you're too good to have your own blog. I urge you to resist the temptation to start one. We all think we can raise the level of wine blogging, but what happens is that we end up being dragged down into the mire (by which I mean baloney, by which I mean Oscar Mire). Except for My Gorgeous Samantha, of course, who writes like an angel.

And while I have you two together in the same room, may I just say that I feel incredibly lucky to have made your acquaintances. I am humbled by both of your talents, and honored to call you friends.

I love you, Samantha
Puff Daddy, you ain't so bad yourself.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Oh, and when are you going to interview the HoseMaster? Puff Daddy and Wark ain't got nuthin' on me, aside from reputations.

I anxiously await your questions

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,
Angels say fuck?! You are far too kind as you always are but you have to know that I am absolutely crazy about you pal. Meeting you, (well, you know what I mean) is one of the most unexpected and wonderful things that has ever happened to me. You are an amazingly talented make me laugh, blush and beam with pride. Thank you so much but, I am so not doing an interview with you. Not sure even my readers are ready for your brand of "hard hitting" answers...Charlie was scary enough.

You and Sir Charles...humble me, flatter me and you both have a very real spot in my heart.

Anonymous said...


My comment about you was supposed to be taken as encouragement for you to start a blog because your comments are interesting and insightful. I'll take it as a personal affront if you stop commenting at FERMENTATION.

Tom Wark...

Charlie Olken said...


No worries. As long as there are interesting topics to be discussed, I will be there discussing them.

So far, no one has sent me away except you. Just kidding. I was very honored by your comments. I have been in this business for a long time, and it is one hell of a way to make a living. I get to taste wines for a living and to hang out with smart and nice people.


Samantha Dugan said...

See Charlie, you are like a big deal and got the very rare Wark comment! I expect to be all famous and stuff now.

Kimberly said...

Wow, now THIS is cool. . . I contributed a little teensy comment on the "sweet" used as wine descriptor convo that was going on here recently, and I kept reading these lengthy, well-informed comments by this Charles guy. All I could think was, "who IS this guy?" I didn't know if he was a pompous know-it-all, or a really cool "I'm-gonna-school-you-all-in-the-proper-use-of-the-word-'sweet'" kind of guy who really only seeks to educate and uplift.

After reading the interview, I've decided it's definitely the latter. Anytime I can learn as much from the commenter as from the blogger, that's a good, good thing. : )

Thomas said...

I feel like I've entered a Sammy Davis Jr appearance on the Tonight Show from the 60s.

"Man, I love this guy. We go back, you know. And I wouldn't say this if I didn't mean it. I love this guy..."

Kidding aside, I think Sam should interview a few of us at one time--ask the same question to each and record the varying answers, maybe in a paragraph string that would read like a Sarah Palin speech.

But Sam would have to find a way to keep Hosemaster from cheating and copying our answers and repeat them as his.

Samantha Dugan said...

You hit the nail on the head there girlie, your comment is exactly why I wanted to start this little series. There is such a stigma attached to wine people, this fear that because they know so much about a subject that can be difficult for people to understand, that they are bloated, self impressed jackholes, (there are some of those, don't get me wrong, but I did NOT ask them to play...oh maybe I should. Just to shine a little, "which of these is not like the other" light on them) and I think that reputation is absolute bullshit. Most of the wine people I know are very kind, very generous and wicked cool people....just wanted other folks to see that too.

Good idea! Maybe when this part of the series is over...
I'll tie the HoseMaster up while everyone takes their test, and punish him if he tries to cheat...I'll make him drink Sterling Merlot.

That Charles Guy said...

One of the reasons I hang around here, and with the HMW, is that we all take wine so damn seriously. Of course, we should take wine seriously. It is just ourselves that we should not take so seriously. And here, and over at HMW, we can just hang out and let our hair down.

Tom P. and I are are incredibly serious, thoughtful, brilliant students of wine. No one can spread the liverwurst further, cut the baloney any thinner, cause more angels to dance on the head of a pin, measure RS in thousands of a per cent better than the two of us.

We want precision, accuracy, clear thinking to be applied to every discussion of wine. We are, as Kimberly so accurately put it, "pompous know it alls". I have no trouble at all with that description so long as it is followed with "really cool"--because we are that too.

It was very kind of Sam to allow me to talk about my rag, Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine, on her blog.

And, if any of you have not seen it, or want to know more, I invite to visit our website at Just as Sam needs to sell wine at some point, so too do I need readers at some point.

But, just as Sam does not write this blog to sell wine, at least not directly, so too do folks like me not post simply to chase potential subscribers.

I have been lucky enough to have been in this business now for over three decades. Sometimes I just look around and smile at the joy of it all. I get to taste wine for a living. How bad can that be?

Thanks, Sam, for creating this wonderful place to hang out.


Thomas said...


"over three decades." You beat me by a few years...I knew I was the younger.

Samantha Dugan said...

Puff Daddy Sir,
You're kidding right?! I get such a thrill when I see one of my new comments is from you. Sans Dosage is a better blog for having you here, and I persoanlly feel like a better person for having gotten to know you, as much as I have thus far anyway. Just honored as hell that you find something compelling enough to keep coming back....didn't even have to work my voodoo magic on ya like I did with HoseMaster!

I always forget you guys are a little than I are all just so fucking (had to) cool!

Samantha Dugan said...

Shit...meant to say, "I always forget that you guys are a little older than I am"...I really have to start checking before I hit publish!

Anonymous said...

What kind of camera is that? That is definitely a great premium
Here is my web blog :: payday loans