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Truth, lies and alcohol in California wine

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Every so often, as the defender of Trust, Justice and California wine, I have to stand up for my state against the heathens who attack it. This can be dirty, hard work, but somebody has to do it.

There are certain templates in wine journalism that writers drag out when they’re on deadline and can’t figure out anything better to write about. One of these is to bash California wine for being (you know where this is going) too high in alcohol. Asimov, over at the Times, does it a lot. It’s a Pavlovian response, I suppose, because when these writers level that accusation, they get rewarded by all kinds of citations and agreements from elsewhere that burnish their halos as arbiters of good taste. The latest bashathon comes, unfortunately, not from a New Yawkah but from a Californian, a good writer named Jordan Mackay, the wine and spirits editor for a magazine I once wrote for, San Francisco. (The article is not yet available online.)

Let’s start with Jordan’s headline: “The fruit bomb resistance.” I was actually alerted to the article by my cousin Keith, who knows a little but not too much about wine. He’d saved it for me because, he explained, he found himself largely agreeing with it. After I read it, I told Keith that the article could have been written years ago, and, in fact, was, by Dr. Vino, in his blog, “Is the clock ticking on hedonistic fruit bombs?” People have been complaining about high alcohol in California wine for a decade if not longer, so the point is rather stale. (I also told Keith that, if he doesn’t like these high alcohol California wines, I can always stop bringing them to his house, an idea he didn’t seem to support.)

Jordan early on in his tale posits the existence of “the long-standing rift between the high alcohol faction and the low alcohol camp…that has become increasingly wide.” But there is really no such “rift” in California. To suggest that there is is to set up a straw man and a false basis on which to advance one’s argument. Jordan, having identified himself with the “low alcohol camp,” now uses phrases such as “a world gone mad with its attraction to high alcohol wines” as a way to paint such wines as liked only by crazy people. He next points out how Alan Meadows, the Burghound, “has shown a willingness to criticize wines for over-ripeness and excessive alcohol,” as though such a “willingness” on the part of a professional critic were a kind of begrudged conversion from a position previously defended to a more rational conclusion–namely, one that Jordan agrees with. But good critics will criticize any wine for imbalance, including wines unbalanced with high alcohol. I do all the time. To use the phrase “show a willingness” is misleading. One shows a willingness to change one’s mind even though to do so may be painful. But I’ve never heard of a critic who pulled a 180 from admiring high alcohol wines to criticizing them. Parker likes high alcohol wines and consistently defends them, which is why, I think, Jordan refers to him as a “sneering” critic.

Jordan also trots out the old fable that a high alcohol wine “rarely exhibits any sense of the vineyard where its grapes were grown.” (As if a lower alcohol single vineyard wine is guaranteed to exhibit terroir.) Really? The Paul Hobbs 2007 Stagecoach Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon begs to differ. So does Janzen’s ‘07 Cloudy’s Vineyard Cabernet and, moving into other varieties, Melville’s 2009 Carrie’s Pinot Noir and Diatom’s 2009 Babcock Vineyard Chardonnay and others I could name. All these wines exceed 15% in alcohol. And that’s not even counting all the great wines with official alcohols of 14.9% but could well be, and in many cases are, into the 15s, given the Fed’s wide latitude in such matters. So I often wonder if these high alcohol bashers don’t make up their minds by simply looking at the label and thinking, “Hmm, if it’s 15-plus percent, it can’t be good.”

Most of my highest scoring wines are below 15% (assuming the labels are accurate). That’s true across the varietal board. But that’s precisely my point: when people like Jordan criticize California wines that are well into the 15s, they’re deliberately seeking out unbalanced high alcohol wines. Any wine region produces unbalanced wines. California has plenty of 15-plus wines that are hot and flabby, and when I review them, I knock them down. What gets me is the implication that all high alcohol California wines are unbalanced because some are unbalanced. And even worse is the implication that most California wines are high in alcohol except for the handful (Corison, ABC, etc.) Jordan approvingly cites. Most California wines are not high in alcohol. I suspect I taste a lot more California wines than Jordan, so I’m on firmer ground than he is when I declare that the majority of California wines are below 15%, including a majority of the great ones.

Readers of this blog know that I’ve always said you can’t bash wines just because the alcohol level is high. So when Jordan writes “…drinking a wine with a high level of alcohol…gets in the way of my enjoyment,” he’s putting down an entire class of California wines that have enjoyed the support of, not only consumers, but a majority of the world’s wine critics. It may be true that some people such as Rajat Parr (whom Jordan references, and also explains is his coauthor for Secrets of the Sommeliers) also bash high alcohol wines, but to cite Parr in such matters, as opposed to, say, Parker, is simply to bring a friendly but prejudiced witness to the stand to testify in your behalf. Rajat Parr is just another celebrity somm with a bias against California wines, as anyone who’s read Secrets of the Sommeliers knows only too well.

  1. “Poor taste” to call out a writer for pushing an unsupportable POV? I don’t think so. Homey don’t play that way on the interwebs.

    I had forgotten that JM has a book to flog – so I have yet one more reason to cut him some slack for pushing this tired old saw.

    But I put up a post on my blog today, critical of this POV from my perspective. Mr. Olken read it and suggested I add my own comments here. So here goes an abstract from my post.

    I personally avoid drinking over-the-top cocktail wines, and certainly don’t make them — so yes, you could label me as a “fruit-bomb resister.”

    “But now a small yet influential band of vintners, critics, and sommeliers has decided enough is enough—and is setting out to change the way we drink.” Oh really? I am getting so sick of hearing and reading this meme that I’m going all curmudgeonly.

    First of all, like Tonto said to the Lone Ranger when they were surrounded by marauding Native Americans: “who’s this ‘we’ kimosabe?” Changing the way “we” drink? Oh shut up already. That statement is elitist and condescending.

    Second, the premise of this article — that there is some huge feud between high-alcohol and low-alcohol winemaking camps — is a total fabrication. The fallback position of the lazy journalist these days is that every issue is depicted as having just two diametrically-opposed sides. It’s facile, and sophomoric, and emblematic of the way the media are failing in promoting public discourse at any level above the schoolyard playground. In the real world, winemakers are not running around playing capture-the-flag over this issue.

    Third, though there might actually be a few neophyte or even some fewer journeyman winemakers who actually believe that one can simply harvest at lower sugar and make good wine, as I have said before — this is just not true. As for the older guys who are espousing some new catechism of “lean, low-alcohol” wines — you sly old foxes, you! And as for the journos who have bought this, um, marketing hype? Well, you got played, suckas. Thanks for helping us sell more wine.

    In my opinion JM wrote a decent article from a flawed perspective and that’s not a sin. But to the rest of the wine journalists out there — fair warning. Time to cut it out.

  2. I asked Mr. Kelly to post his remarks here not because he vehemently rejects the premise of the article in question, but because he makes factual arguments along the way.

    His wines, while not as low alcohol as some the are mentioned in the article, are indeed on the lower side. He is not a high-concentration proponent by any means–so when he tells us that there is no rift between camps of winemakers, he speaks with more authority than most of us who have weighed in here.

    Secondly, and even more to the point, his comments on the unlikelihood that one can simply pick fruit at several degrees Brix lower sugars and come out with wholly satisfying wines are instructive. Indeed, they go righ to the heart of the matter.

    No one has yet argued that pruny overripeness is a great positive. Clearly there are vineyards that are intentionally picked late, and it would be possible for them to come in at lower sugars. But that is hardly a universal trait. Mr. Kelly suggests otherwise, and, he speaks from experience.

    There is a strong argument to be made for lower alcohol wines. I have been making it for years, and I am not alone. But, there is no “single way” to make wines and no single style that satisfies all needs. Somehow, that notion got tossed out in the article in question. It is now back on the table.

  3. Let’s just go ahead and put on all our calendars to drag this out in 3 months and do it all over again. Yay! This reminds me of those Field & Stream magazines where every September they start getting you excited with “new” tips on hunting that big buck.

    Maybe next time maybe we can take more umbrage, personalize this more, come to blows, impugn integrity, threaten retribution. This was all too civil. That might make it more fun. It might make for a 100 more comments?

    We’re so predictable. Are we self-aware though?

  4. Nick, who’s “we”, kemo sabi?

  5. Raley Roger says:

    What John Kelly said. Anybody know what his blog address is? That’s a blog I’d read.

  6. We the wine commentariat. I guess I’m just mocking along with you the repetitiveness of this and other similar discussions. Even as I participate in said repetitive discussion. Not taking anything away from said discussion either. I think the self-aware comment is pretty obvious–you made clear for your part that this is an old saw, not everyone does.

  7. Raley Roger says:

    Thanks Mr. Olken. Just went through Kelly’s blog. He’s a smart writer. Looks like he actually edits his work. Thanks for the intro. I’ve added it to my “favorites” page.

  8. I cannot speak for others, but our Cerro Prieto westside mountain vineyard ripens Cab, Syrah, Merlot on Oct 1st, with brixes ~24-24.5. Since we pick on flavor, not brix, on Oct 1 our vines are DEVOID of flavor. Taste any of the above grapes and you get sugar water. But flavor? Fuggedaboudit. There hain’t none there. Zero. Zippo. Nada. Taste every day hoping for a hint of flavor, and check brix just for heck of it , and brix just creeps up…and up, and then up some more. Many times I have plaintively looked at the buyer of our “sold” grapes, watching raisins collect on S. or W side of vine, and yet, no flavor. More times than not, flavor comes in 3 weeks after grapes were officially “ripe” by refractometer. I have had wines made from those “brix picks”, and they were horrid. Just your standard tasteless, flabby, zero taste that is so readily available at Albertsons for $7.50/btl or less. No, the real reason for hi alcohol grapes in Cerro Prieto’s vineyard is that flavor comes in ridiculously late, often times preceding a mountain freeze by a day or so.

    I taste from the entire mountain vineyard grapes daily from Oct 1st on. Hundreds of grapes daily, maybe thousands. And i assure you there is no flavor there. I was asked to host a wine critic from Bay area by our local PRWCA(wine country alliance),and his name was “Gray” something or other, a young man very full of himself. He reamed Westside Paso’s hi alcohol content and yet when i asked him did he know why we made our wines from such high sugar/ alcohol levels, he had no idea our flavors came in so late. To tell the truth, i am not certain he was even aware of the term “picking on taste, not brix”. When he had it explained to him he looked quizzically and said , “Oh”. My neighbors of 1 mile radius or less, (most 1/2 mile)
    are Jack Creek,(colder, lower, Pinot, Chard, Syrah,), Linne Calodo, L’Aventure, Booker, and Saxum, all have similar experiences. Heck we could all pick at 24 brix, and make some stunningly weak sister wines…but by gosh they sure would be 12-13% alcohol.

    The point is we ALL pick on flavor, a window of some 48-72 hrs at Cerro Prieto, which if you miss, leads to fruit bombs. If you pick the moment flavors come in you get the wonderful bouquets and flavors we are so well known for…albeit at higher alcohols. It is a small price to pay for truly magnificent wines and none of us could care less what anti hi alcohol types think. Our answer is in the glass. Just ask Justin Smith…unnh, 100 pt , #1 WS wine for 2010 release. We don’t make hi alcohol wines for the sake of alcohol. We make hi acohol wines because we are after flavor…magnificent flavor, for those that have tried us.

    One final thing: this yr was a Bordeaux harvest on Westside Paso. 24.5 Brix. Why? Because like our French neighbor who is from a higher latitude, this yr was the big, dark ,cold, windy, wet. And our flavors came in at 24-24.5…not 26 or 28. Anyone caught hanging 3T/acre or more got an ugly surprise on the westside this yr. There were almost 30% less heat/light days than usual for necessary ripening, and if a grower was pruned just a touch heavy, this yr was a disaster. You will also find all the wineries i mentioned above with yields well below 3T/acre, which were rewarded by ripening…at Bordeaux brixes. We aren’t wedded to alcohol…we are driven by flavor. The hi/lo alcohol debate is silly. If you want to harvest lousy to absent flavor, 24 Brix grapes in the Westside area, hey be our guest. But if you are looking to make truly memorable wines, most times they will be hi brix, hi alcohol, waiting on flavor.

  9. Larry–

    It’s time for the industry to tell this prophets of thinness to open their minds. If we follow their formulas, we are going to get oceans of weak sisters. We went through this back in the 1980s after the New York Times criticized CA wines for not being “food wines”. So, the industry made underripe, thin, pinched wines and it took about half a decade before folks realized that making wine by a formula that is dictated by the New York Times was pure folly.

    Now, they are at it again. A whole bunch of new voices who have no memory of past failures urging the CA wine biz to fail again. Do not let them do it. They know not where they speak.

  10. Interesting that many of the so called best vintages from Burgundy and Bordeaux also happen to be riper ones…

  11. I thought I was the only “full of himself” wine writer named Gray in the Bay Area. Dammit — competition.

    FYI, if somebody has been writing about wine in California for even 6 months, he/she will have heard at least 50 winemakers say they pick on taste, not Brix. It’s such a cliche that I don’t bother using it anymore. If this alternate Gray really hadn’t heard that before, he was probably a travel writer there for a free wine tasting.

  12. How about everyone stop telling me what “good” wine HAS to be.

    I like intense alcohol in some wines.

    I hate the beatles.

    Harry Potter sucks.

    Just because the rest of the world disagrees, doesn’t mean they’re not all wrong.

  13. I can’t believe anyone hates The Beatles. Just sayin.

  14. Does anyone remember Clos Du Val Cabernet from the 70′s and 80′s? I’d say those wines were of grapes picked on flavor and the experience of a wine maker seeking balance and lo and behold, did not have too much alcohol.

    I enjoy many wines from around the world, but I do not enjoy high alcohol in any form. For my palate, the wine seems unbalanced if any heat is perceived. I immediately question the wine and its very existence if in fact the flavors don’t come into their own until the sugars get out of hand. Perhaps the grapes just don’t belong there.

  15. I make high alcohol wine. Our wines always tip over the 15% mark. However, it is not something that we set out to do. We aim to present a wine that delivers everything the vineyard offers. We are able to extract the full range of characteristics by letting the fruit hang. Our grapes are typically in the 28 brix range. I personally think it is amazing that California can give us grapes that are that ripe and can deliver a flavor spectrum that is completely unique to our terroir. Personally, I think us high brix wine makers are pioneers in the industry. We are bucking years and years of tradition to showcase a flavor spectrum that some growing regions could only dream. In the end, just taste the wine and judge by what is in the glass.

  16. tannic, I remember those CDVs. Eventually Bernard Portet began making them riper because they weren’t getting good scores.

  17. @Steve,

    CDV’s John Clews and at the time, Kian Tavakoli were day to day wine makers. Bernard still had some oversight, but if fully in charge, I believe he would not have made those wines. I believe CDV’s major gaffe was not buying property in SLD and other Napa appellations when they had the opportunity to do so. The resulting lower score wines were contracted fruit augmented by Sierra Foothills cab.

  18. @blake gray: You may have heard “picking on taste” so many times that it seems like a cliche to you – but just because winemakers say it so often that it may sound like a throwaway line doesn’t make it less true, or smart. This is not an opinion here – it is a fact: if a winemaker is not picking fruit when it tastes ripe that person had better be spending serious dollars on a service like Enologix to get useful numbers.

    @tannic: “Perhaps the grapes just don’t belong there.” Really? Pretty damning statement for most of California, Australia, southern Spain, Sicily, etc. But hey, you’re the expert, right?

    I base my choice of when to pick on many factors (I posted about this on 7/5/10 (“Grape Ripeness & Wine Alcohol” if anyone is interested). Flavor is just one of those factors, albeit one of the more important ones for me. During aging my wines can pick up over a point in alcohol. I have heard from some talented and reliable palates that they don’t taste “hot” even when sometimes pushing 15%.

    But that just doesn’t matter to some folks. They see 15% on the label and assume heat, perhaps even taste it psychosomatically. Oh well. Really it just breaks my that guys like the anonymous @tannic “question the very existence” of my wines. Really.

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