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2003 Olson & Ogden "Sonoma Valley" Syrah, Sonoma

As regular readers know, I am very interested in small, family-run wineries. These come in several flavors in the industry, and one of the most interesting to me is the estate-less label -- those wineries who have no permanent physical presence. These types of operations have no vineyards, own no buildings, and sometimes don't even own any equipment. Such wineries are most often the result of someone taking small steps towards their personal dream of being in the wine business, and are often sources for great wines at reasonable prices.

Olson & Ogden winery is a perfect example of such a label.

Proprietor John Ogden worked in the high tech corporate world for most of his life, doing business development, marketing, advertising, and sales. Through the boom and bust of the Internet, he quietly socked money away for the day he could leave that world behind. The only problem was, he wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life. Taking a year off in 2000 to answer precisely that question, John traveled the world with his wife. One of their stops around the globe was the South of France, where John had actually spent several years of his childhood. Their time there triggered many memories of family, food, and wine, and in the process John started paying more attention to wine than he ever had. Call it falling in love, call it an awakening, call it whatever you want, but Ogden returned to San Francisco with the desire to work in the wine business in some way.

With no background, training, or contextother than his newfound passion, John simply just started talking to everyone he knew, trying to make connections in the business. In the process of his networking, he met Tim Olson who was just finishing up a stint as the winemaker for Tarius vineyards and looking for his next project. Together they batted around the idea of a small production label focused on Rhone varietals (though Tim has made John promise that they will eventually do a Pinot Noir), and a partnership was born.

Tim does the winemaking, and through previous connections has brought with him several contracts for fruit from Unti Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley, while John does the business management, marketing, and sales. Both work on the wine part time, and think it will probably stay that way for the foreseeable future. Like many other small estateless labels, they don't have huge aspirations, just a desire to make small quantities of great wine. "Right now we just want to make interesting wines from interesting places," says Ogden, who emphasizes that this means first and foremost sourcing great quality fruit from top vineyard locations.

In the long term, Ogden envisions the label having two small portfolios of single vineyard designate wines, one focused on Rhone varietals (Syrah and Grenache mostly) and the other on Burgundy-style Pinot Noir. "One day it might be nice to make a really great premium cuvee that could be our top wine," says Ogden, but for now, they're content at the current production levels of about 340 cases with little plan to expand.

True to the form, Olson & Ogden is made at a custom crush facility provided by Chasseur winery in Sonoma, and both Ogden and Olson work out of their homes when they're not in the vineyard or cellar. Ogden and his wife have a playground equipment construction company that pays most of the bills.

There is no easy way to find out about small wineries like this. By definition they don't have large marketing budgets or widespread distribution, and their lack of a physical presence means there aren't signs on the side of the road as you drive through the Sonoma Valley. However, for those who choose to seek them out, they can be a source of excellent wines that represent the passions and dreams of a new generation of winemakers.

This wine is a blend of different barrels of Unti Vineyard fruit that were removed from the final blend that went into Olson & Ogden's vineyard designate Syrah. The wine is aged for 13 months in French oak, only 15% of which is new, before being bottled unfined. 116 cases made.

Tasting Notes:
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a delicious nose of blueberry and chocolate, with a hint of blackberry and vanilla. In the mouth it is light and well balanced, in more of a French style, with a decent amount of acidity and nearly imperceptible tannins supporting primary flavors of blueberry, blackberry, redcurrant and spices that taper to a reasonable finish.

Overall Score: 9/9.5

How Much?: $19.

While wines made at this small production level can sometimes be frustrating to find, these small labels are extremely open to customers who want to order directly from them, or locate distributors in their area who might carry the wine.

This wine is sold at several restaurants and wine stores in the Bay Area and also in New Jersey.

If you're interested in purchasing some of this wine, or of their slightly beefier vineyard designate Syrah, John Ogden would be happy to oblige. You can reach him at: 707-823-6127.

Comments (3)

Cork Dork wrote:
04.22.05 at 7:03 AM

Nice post, Alder. This was one of my favorites at the Rhone Rangers event. I had it on my blog as well! What I find remarkable is that their Unti in 2003 was better than Unti's! -CD

Sasha V (Eno) wrote:
04.22.05 at 9:26 AM

Great write-up. John and Tim are making some wonderful, balanced, and graceful wines. Definately a winery to watch!

Hector Hill wrote:
04.22.05 at 10:27 AM

…happy Earth Day everyone…as this site makes a monthly contribution to the “global warming” debate I was hoping for a little commentary from the moderator…I recently saw a speech on CSPAN II that Michael Crichton gave at Georgetown University (very similar to the one he gave to the prestigious Commonwealth Club in San Francisco in September of 03) and I was shocked that he demanded environmentalists start focusing on hard data and not ignoring information based on personal ideology …you can imagine my horror when I opened the OP/ED section of the LA Times today to see an editorial by Ian McEwan (probably the hippest novelist writing today…-editorial enclosed below-) state almost exactly the same conclusion…what are the Literati attempting, it is most disconcerting that Crichton and McEwan would engage in this type of attack and if truth be told reeks of the ubiquitous GW Bush …Alder, I believe you can clarify this fulsome diatribe and look forward to your response…Finally, as a life long member of the Sierra Club I found it cute, as I do now, that in the early 70’s my fellow environmentalists chose the birthday of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin to celebrate Earth Day, if only our comrades had chosen the progressive Leon Trotsky’s birthday we could have had fantasies of Frida Kahlo as our earth mother…gosh…

The Hot Breath of Civilization
On Earth Day, a call for good data, not dogma.
By Ian McEwan

April 22, 2005

The commonplace view of the Earth from an airplane at 35,000 feet — a vista that would have astounded Dickens or Darwin — can be instructive when we contemplate the fate of our planet. We see faintly, or imagine we can, the spherical curve of the horizon and, by extrapolation, sense how far we would have to travel to circumnavigate, and how tiny we are in relation to this home suspended in sterile space. When we cross the Canadian northern territories en route to the American West Coast, or the Norwegian littoral, or the interior of Brazil, we are heartened to see that such vast empty spaces still exist — two hours might pass and not a single road or track in view.

But also large and growing larger is the great rim of grime, as though detached from an unwashed bathtub, that hangs in the air as we head across the Alps into northern Italy, or the Thames basin, or Mexico City, Los Angeles, Beijing — the list is long and growing. These giant concrete stains laced with steel, those catheters of ceaseless traffic filing toward the horizon — the natural world can only shrink before them.

The sheer pressure of our numbers, the abundance of our inventions, the blind forces of our desires and needs, appear unstoppable and are generating a heat — the hot breath of our civilization — whose effects we comprehend only hazily. The misanthropic traveler gazing down from his wondrous, and wondrously dirty, machine is bound to ask whether the Earth might not be better off without us.

How can we ever begin to restrain ourselves? We appear, at this distance, like a successful lichen, a ravaging bloom of algae, a mold enveloping a fruit. Can we agree among ourselves? We are a clever but quarrelsome species; in our public discourses we can sound like a rookery in full throat. In our cleverness, we are just beginning to understand that the Earth — considered as a total system of organisms, environments, climates and solar radiation, each reciprocally shaping the other through hundreds of millions of years — is perhaps as complex as the human brain; as yet we understand only a little of that brain, or of the home in which it evolved.

Despite that near ignorance, or perhaps because of it, reports from a range of scientific disciplines are telling us with certainty that we are making a mess of the Earth, we are fouling our nest and we have to act decisively and against our immediate inclinations. For we tend to be superstitious, hierarchical and self-interested, just when the moment requires us to be rational, evenhanded and altruistic. We are shaped by history and biology to frame our plans within the short term, within the scale of a single lifetime. Now we are asked to address the well-being of unborn individuals we will never meet and who, contrary to the usual terms of human interaction, will not be returning the favor.

To concentrate our minds, we have historical examples of civilizations that have collapsed through environmental degradation — Sumer, Indus Valley, Easter Island. They extravagantly feasted on vital natural resources and died. Those were test-tube cases, locally confined; now we are informed — reliably or not — that it is the whole laboratory, the whole glorious human experiment, that is at risk.

And what do we have on our side to avert that risk? Against all our deficits, certainly a talent for cooperation. We can take comfort from the memory of the 1963 partial nuclear test-ban treaty, made at a time of hostility and mutual suspicion between Cold War superpowers. Since then, globalization has not only unified economies, it has focused global opinion to put pressure on governments to take action.

But above all, we have our rationality, which finds its highest expression and formalization in good science. The adjective is important. We need accurate representations of the state of the Earth. The environmental movement has been let down by dire predictions — "scientifically based" — that over the last two or three decades have proved spectacularly wrong. Of itself, this does not invalidate current dire scientific predictions, but it does make the case for skepticism — one of the engines of good science.

Well-meaning intellectual movements, from communism to post-structuralism, have a poor history of absorbing data inconvenient to their fundamental precepts. We should not ignore or suppress good indicators on the environment — and there are quite a few — simply because they do not make the advocate's case. It is tempting to embrace with enthusiasm the latest bleak scenario because it fits our mood. But we should be asking, for the provenance of the data, the assumptions fed into the computer model, the response of the peer review community, and so on. Pessimism is intellectually delicious, even thrilling, but the matter before us is too serious for mere self-pleasuring. It would be self-defeating if the environmental movement degenerated into a religion of gloomy faith.

Whatever our environmental problems are, they will have to be dealt with by international laws. No single nation is going to restrain its industries while its neighbors are unfettered.

The climate-change debate is hedged by uncertainties. Can we avoid what is coming at us, or is there nothing much coming at all? Are we at the beginning of an unprecedented era of international cooperation, or are we living in an Edwardian summer of reckless denial? Is this the beginning or the end? We need to talk.

Ian McEwan's latest novel is "Saturday," published last month by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. This article is the introduction to a debate about climate change produced by openDemocracy and the British Council and posted at www.opendemocracy.net/climate_change/index.jsp.

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