Truth, lies and alcohol in California wine
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.