Oak in wine

Oak is makeup for wine. Restrained oak enhances beauty. Spread oak with a trowel, palates howl.

Oak has its place. Oak can elegantly perform with fruit, but fruit must play the lead and oak the harmonious supporting role. Balance. Balance.

Trouble triumphs when fruit is not lead-worthy. Given demand for wine, wine, wine all the time, it is no surprise there are commodity wine makers who don’t blush about oak overload. New American oak barrels, oak chips in those barrels. Overplay oak to hide not-right fruit. Pull the wood over people’s ayes. “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

In addition to attempting to mask inferior fruit, oak adds its own tannins, which are more bitter than the tannins stems and seeds bring to the dance. A little oak tannin: good. A lot of oak tannin: bad. Actually, unpleasant—not an adjective you want associated with wine.

Americans have been ambivalent about oak. Twenty years ago, we couldn’t get enough wood. Buttery oaky chardonnay? OK! Big toasty oaky cabs? Roll out the barrels.

Then came backlash from experienced tasters who reminded us grapes provide the magic, not trees. Internet wine giant Gary Vaynerchuk railed against “oak monsters” while other wine writers piled on Robert Parker’s ostensible oak obsession, if for no other reason than to take cheap shots at the king of wine critics. Parker’s actual palate is more nuanced, but whatever.

Oak is OK, even good, but the soul of wine is fruit. Think grape shears, not chainsaws.

Tasting notes:

• Paso Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2010. Red-black fruit; simple, medium body, some heft, balance, OK tannin, OK oak, better than expected. $13

• Joseph Carr Josh Cellars Chardonnay 2010. Stone fruit, peach, pear, citrus; stroke of vanilla; acidity balances oak/butter; creamy, nice. $14

• The Dreaming Tree Crush Red Wine 2010. Big fruit: berry, raspberry, plum, smoke; low tannin; easy drinking soft merlot plus syrah, zin and three other grapes. $16

Last round: Reasons for drinking wine: pairing with your meal, visit with a special friend, wine excellence, any other reason you can come up with.