In a nation of sellers, the consumer is king
Had a call from a guy working on his WSET. He’s doing a paper on rising alcohol levels over the last 20 years and wanted my viewpoint.
He began by listing 6 reasons that, in his judgment, account for higher alcohol: later harvest time, climate change, locale (planting in warmer areas, is what I think he meant), viticultural practices, vinification techniques and consumer demand. Then he asked if I thought any of them was more important than the others.
Here’s what I said. “Obviously, one of them is driving the rest.” He knew I was going to say “consumer demand.” The others (excluding climate change, which I’m not sure has a place in this discussion) are manipulatable — they can go any way the owner wants. An owner or winemaker can pick earlier or later, farm the way he wants, make the wine any way he wants. The one uncontrolled factor — the only thing he can’t manipulate — is consumer demand. Which is what matters: a winery is a business, not a charity. Therefore, consumer demand drives all else.
So we have to ask, why is the consumer demanding these high alcohol wines? Well, they’re not demanding high alcohol in itself, they’re demanding lots of fruit. And the way to achieve lots of fruit is extreme ripeness, i.e. high alcohol. It’s an unintended consequences type thing, like energy consumption. Consumers don’t consume gasoline (with all the political, financial and environmental problems it causes) because they like gas. They buy it because they need gas to drive.
Winemakers don’t want to make high alcohol wines; it’s the price they pay for ripeness. Which is why the holy grail is to achieve physiological ripeness at lower brix levels. If there was an easy way to do it, everybody would know, but there’s not. You have to try lots of different things, over many years, and even then, it’s not entirely in your hands. There’s no formula.
The WSET guy wanted to know if the high alcohol trend is reversible. I said that, while cooler vintages in California may be helping, and there’s a critical backlash against high alcohol, in general the answer is, no. We’re not going back to 11.5-12 percent alcohol.
Then he asked if high alcohol leads to homogenization. I said it does, because it leads to similar flavors in all varieties. I’ve said this before, but everytime I do, somebody — usually Charlie Olken — smacks me upside the head. But I do think fruit flavors are all pretty similar across varieties in California. (Do we really need an argument that one area is red cherries and another is black cherries? I don’t think so.) Flavor isn’t hard to achieve: I could grow grapes and get them really flavorful. Just don’t pick until they’re super ripe! But what I couldn’t achieve in wine is structure. And structure requires 3 things: money, talent and good taste (that’s assuming a good vineyard). Even if a winemaker has the first two, that doesn’t mean he has good taste. You’d be surprised at how much bad taste is out there. I constantly am.
So does high alcohol mask terroir? I said I don’t think so. The wines of Saxum have terroir. I know that vineyard. It’s a very special, unique place. It also happens to be in a hot area. Justin Smith’s wines routinely approach and sometimes exceed16%. And yet they’re delicious and compelling. So high alcohol in itself does not mask terroir. (And low alcohol doesn’t necessarily guarantee it.) I told the guy, “If you want to talk to someone who’s on an anti-high alcohol crusade, find Dan Berger. High alcohol doesn’t bother me, if it’s balanced.”
In the end, it all comes down to the consumer. Justin Smith caters his small production to his admirers. So does everybody else. And until the broad mass of consumers says “We’re sick of high alcohol and we won’t take it anymore,” high alcohol isn’t going anywhere.
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