subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

A shoutout to Charlie Olken


One of the most influential books in my wine education was The Connoisseurs’ Handbook of California Wines, whose first edition was in 1980. The little handbook, which would fit in the back pocket of your jeans, was my constant companion, as I jaunted around San Francisco visiting fine wine shops.

I loved that book. It contained maps, a glossary of grape and wine varieties, an atlas of wine regions, a report on vintages back to the 1960s, and — its heart — a comprehensive encyclopedia of all the wineries in California. For good measure, the authors also included every winery in America!

There was a section on touring, a couple pages of statistics, and even a “when to drink” chart. All that, in a little book that measured 7” x 3-1/2”. It was quite an accomplishment, and I’m delighted to let people know that University of California Press (which published my two books) will be coming out with an updated version; I don’t know when.

The Handbook had three authors: Charles Olken, Earl Singer and Norman Roby. Norman went on to become a fixture at Wine Spectator. Earl Singer, I never really knew, although I’ve run into him from time to time over the years, including last week, at a tasting of the wines of Rockpile. As for Charles Olken, well, anybody who reads my blog knows Charlie.

Charlie’s famous, of course, not only for the Handbook, but for his authoritative wine review newsletter, Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine, which the L.A. Times called “The oldest and most prestigious California wine newsletter.” Its system of using puffs to indicate quality is well-known. He’s also a fixture on the tasting circuit, and it’s always a pleasure to meet up with him, in the city or in wine country.

Although I’ve known Charlie for a long time, our relationship deepened when he began commenting on my blog with great frequency and articulation. If I understand it correctly, Charlie didn’t know very much about wine blogs or social media when he posted his first comment here, on 2/28/09 (there have been another 591 comments from Charlie since!). That inaugural comment set the template for Charlie’s style: it was long (434 words, nearly as long as my post), and it was intelligent and well-reasoned. In that comment, Charlie speculated on the condition of print journalism vis a vis the Internet. He expressed sorrow at the prospect of print wine writing disappearing, with nothing evident to take its place, but he also (gratuitously) congratulated me on “filling the void” via my blog. Charlie did make one erroneous statement, however: “I am an old dog, and I really have not tried to learn new tricks,” he said, meaning, I think, that he did not feel capable of tackling something so new-fangled as a blog. Although, if you scan his statement carefully, his tense was in the past imperfect (I think it’s called). He didn’t say he wouldn’t learn new tricks, he just said he hadn’t yet tried.

Well, Charlie has now tried to learn a new trick, and has succeeded. You can check out his new blog, which he launched last week. (The blog is free; you have to pay to access the online CGCW newsletter.) I predict Charlie’s new blog is heading straight to the top of the English language wine blog pantheon. Certainly, it will be required daily reading for the industry.

It’s interesting that Charlie took two years to launch his blog, after his entry into the blogosphere via his comments. I assume that’s because he decided to study other blogs first, absorb lessons, meet people, understand the issues, and meditate on just how he wanted to go about blogging. That’s the opposite approach from the one I took; I jumped in with both feet. Charlie’s more methodical approach shows in his blog’s complex structure. He plans, mirabile dictu, to publish seven days a week. I italicize those words, because that’s going to be a lot of work, and it underscores Charlie’s commitment.

His blog’s structure may change. In fact, I’d be surprised if it didn’t evolve. Some of his blog categories may prove to be more popular than others. Because of the interactivity of the Internet, every blogger learns that his readers will show him the way to go. My readers told me to keep politics out of this space, and so I do. I asked the other day if they — you — liked the idea of my occasionally posting sections from my memoir, and the response was 100% affirmative. So I will. If people had told me not to, I wouldn’t. I think Charlie similarly will find a balance between what he wants to do, and what his audience responds to. It’s called finding your author’s voice, and it takes some time.

I heartily welcome Charlie Olken to the wonderful world of wine blogs!

And a shoutout to me!

Check it out: as of this morning, is the #1 wine blog in America! Of course, the rankings change every day, but I can be happy today.

  1. Yay! I always look forward to Charlie’s comments and humor. Love his blog lineup – keep ’em coming and thanks for the tip, Steve!

  2. Uh oh, you called them “puffs”…..stars, those are puffy little stars. I cannot think of a more fair, balanced and articulate voice in the wine blog world and not only do I think Charlie’s blog will rise to the top, I think it should. Welcome Charlie, some of us already adore you, so happy that even more will now.

  3. Wow. Thank you, Steve. I have been amazed and flattered by the reception of the Connoisseurs’ Wine Blog. I have been publishing my newsletter for three decades plus and have seen the wine writing business take many turns. It is now turning again, and I pretty much figured that I needed to turn with it or retire.

    Retire? Not for me. I have always had several passions in life and I have only asked that I get paid for one of them. It turns out that wine is the one that allows me to pursue my other interests. For that, I am incredibly grateful. I get to taste wine for a living.

    My Bus. School class is now reaching or past retirement age and the class secretary sent out a questioinaire asking us what we were doing now. I responded that I had no intention of retiring–to which one of my classmates wrote back, “Of course, you don’t. You’re doing what we all want to do when we retire”.

    If I might, a couple of additions to your story, Steve. Congratulations on becoming No. 1. When I belatedly discovered the wonderful world of blogging (by then Alder Yarrow had been publishing Vinography for four years–who knew? Certainly not me), I mentioned to you privately that I thought you were writing the best blog out there–with all due respect to the many other very good blogs that I now read with great enthusiasm.

    Now it turns out that the world agrees. I may have been wrong about an old dog learning new tricks, but I was right about your blog and the recognition for it that you so richly deserve.

    And, by amazing coincidence, as I was about to launch into my second point, the door bell rang, it was FedEx delivering my first look at my new book, The New Connoisseurs’ Guidebook to California Wines and Wineries. I am told that it will be in stores by October 1. I just checked and Amazon is already selling it in pre-release at a 34% discount.

    Steve, many thanks for noticing my efforts. One of the things I learned in my two year observation of blogs was that I was not going to try to write deeper or more knowingly of the wine world than Steve Heimoff. I realized early on that it was necessary to go in a different direction, hence the more structured nature of my blog. Thanks for welcoming me to this part of your world. It has been fun so far.

  4. Kudos to Charlie and to you Steve for great work!!!

  5. Congrats to two of my favs!

  6. Steve, one day or not, congratulations on an Herculean feat. Last I counted there were near 900+ wine blogs, and mine done weekly(usually) didn’t even register. Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving and entertaining guy. Incidentally, if it is just one day, there will be many others, rest assured.

  7. Thanks Larry. Keep it up!

  8. Looking forward to reading Charlie’s blog. Meanwhile, congratulations to you, Steve, on your top ranking! You’ve earned it. I don’t find myself always in agreement with you, but you bring smarts, insight, creativity, energy and commitment to your blog day in and day out. I marvel at how dedicated you are to your readers.

  9. I hate to be a joykill, but two things merit comment:

    1) I appreciate Charlie as much as the next guy, and it’s certainly of merit to mention his foray into writing online, but he does not have a blog. He has a web site that he writes at regularly. The difference between a blog and a regularly updated website is an RSS feed. And Charlie or his web designer elected not to provide an RSS feed which is the actual underpinning notion behind whether’s it’s a blog or a web site. So, people have to go to the site, they can’t subscribe to it and have it delivered to a feedreader.

    Why mention this at all? Because it’s a a mild annoyance for the people that read wine blogs via RSS to have to go visit a web site on a daily basis instead of having the content delivered to a feedreader.

    Surely, many people will enjoy Charlie’s writings, but it will be limited in scope relative to providing a feed that circulates on the Internet. I hope he recognizes this and changes it.

    #2 You do not have the most popular wine blog in America. What you have for a day is a site that ranks as the most “engaged with” wine blog in america — probably because you had a lot of Retweets and comments on your advertising post last week. PostRank ranks engagement with content, it doesn’t rank popularity or traffic.

    Yours in policing digital, technical accuracy,


  10. Jeff, how much does the next guy appreciate me?

    As for your definition of blog, I am in no position to dispute it. I barely understand any of this? RSS feed? Facebook? Tweeterings? Web 2.0? It’s all gobbledygook to me. I just write.

    But, I do get that RSS feeds make it easier for folks to read, and for that reason, I will talk to my web company and see about having that added. If that helps with my bona fides, fine. But I actually care less about that one way or other. What I do care about is making it easier for folks to read–in that regard, Jeff, you have me fully engaged. Thanks.

  11. Aww, Jeff, please don’t take away my 15 minutes of joy, which I get rarely enough in this hard life. Yes, I hear you. Tomorrow somebody else will be #1 at PostRank. However, I’ve been in their top 10 consistently for quite a while, and I like it enough that I think I’ll stay there for a while.

  12. Well Charlie, I’d write my own love letter to you as somebody who has been in the game for 30 years and engages in a passionate, level-headed and grounded everyman way, but it’s already been done a couple few times in the last week. That’s what I appreciate — no Ivory Tower, just a “been there, done that” groundedness that is really accessible and has a common touch.

    Anyways, glad you’re listening. Your web company should really, really, really get you set-up for RSS feeds — not for cranks like me that mingle in technical minutiae, but for the growth of your site. It’s an imperative.

    Regards to you Charlie and regards to Steve, as well. He may not have the most popular wine blog, but he certainly has one of the most consistently thoughtful.


  13. And one thing I’d add concerning RSS feeds etc., there are all kinds of technical things that new bloggers don’t understand. You can’t condemn a man because there’s something he’s not doing that you think he’s supposed to do.

  14. Congratulations Steve. I don’t stop in everyday, but at least once or twice per week I enjoy a visit. Definitely the best wine blog out there right now. Your dedication to the craft is outstanding; only surpassed by the quality of your posts and writing — although I’m willing to overlook your gas station interview video 😉

  15. I add my huzzahs to the other commenters. The shear volume of posts by Charlie on this and other blogs did make some of us wonder why he didn’t move to authoring the piece that others respond to, though he really didn’t need to launch his own docking station in cyberspace because his comments , while necessarily reactive, were de facto mini blogs.

    Also, like SH, CO has a publication that provides revenue. While SH tends to create an arms length from his mag, mostly because it is not a WE blog, Charlie is much more direct in promoting the for-pay pub, sandwiching his ruminations, and those of his associate, between all his ads and other exhortations to subscribe. Put in this context, it is odd that Charlie didn’t launch a blog designed in this fashion before now.

    I’m just glad to read more of Mr. Olken’s prose and observations about the wondrous and wacky world of wine. I needn’t say it, though I will of course, that most of CO’s time and effort, like SH or ST or JL, or RP or AY is devoted to offering one person’s opinion about the merits of different domestic wines and are necessily limited, i.e., ~too~ personal/ individualistic. However, when he directs his opinions to the wisdom he has accumulated about the larger industry issues and themes, as well as about the people and places associated with the growing, making and peddling of our beverage, I am greatly pleased. Also personal, certainly, but these sorts of broader views are not about recommending a product, which the reader tends not to have tasted, but about shared experiences about which one can agree, disagree, or expand upon.

  16. Steve,

    I’m not condemning anybody. I don’t think anybody would infer I was condemning Charlie. In fact, I think it was me who went out of my way to send you an email with a couple of pointers when you launched your blog — pointers you implemented, by the way.

    The reality is that an RSS feed makes it a blog. Without an RSS feed it’s a web site that’s updated.


  17. I wondered as I read your words here and there when you’d take the plunge, Charlie. Congrats!
    And Steve, even when I don’t give my more than two-cents worth, I always stop by to enjoy the words. May you always be numero uno.
    Jeff, interesting about RSS. Read today that it is on its way out thanks to social media (I thought that odd). Then again, it could have been a slow news day.
    Thanks all. Keep on truckin’

  18. Congratulations Steve! Your blog is the second place I go every morning. After I check out what’s going on with the Warriors.

    One thing, one very important thing, that separates you from other professional wine writers at major magazines, and is readily evident on your blog, is the sense of joy you convey to be doing what you are doing…keep up the great work.

  19. Yo, Jeff, one should never let a little professional validation and success stand in the way of being “accurate.” Way to suck the fun out, geez.

  20. Chuck Hayward says:

    Charlie is the man!! I too remember those first handbooks and they were like bibles to me as I first learned about wine in the backwoods of Louisiana. I later had a chance to meet the man in person working hard behind the tables at ZAP tastings and have been honored to be invited to his beautiful house for a blind tasting or two. He always has a smile, enjoys stimulating conversation and people and I find myself a happier person after I talk with him.

    Now I am not much of a blog man myself (actually I lie, I am cranking them out regularly now) but I will say that his opinions are always right on and embrace his philosophy of wine that tastes good served to the consumer without pretension or attitude. As I get older and find myself saying “kids these days” a bit too often, I think many young people in the biz should raise a glass in his honor because many would not have jobs without his contributions to the wine industry. Cheers, dude!


  1. TDWine » Everybody’s in the Online Wine Media Pool.  Now What? - [...] launch of the Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine (CGCW) online (well covered here, here and here), save for Ronn…

Leave a Reply


Recent Comments

Recent Posts