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An open letter to certain wine critics


Can we get one thing perfectly clear? California Cabernet Sauvignon is big.

End of story. Stop your whining that it’s too fruity, oaky, alcoholic and sweet. You want dry and earthy, go get some Bordeaux Superiéur and enjoy. And stop, puh-leeze, trotting out Cathy Corison every time as your poster child for what you think Cabernet should be.

The latest is Jon Bonné, in yesterday’s San Francisco chronicle, who says the 2008 Napa Cabs “swagger.”

swagger. To walk with a bold, arrogant or lordly stride; strut. To boast, brag, or show off in a loud, superior manner. [from Webster’s New World Dictionary]

Interesting choice of words. Whether or not it occurred to Jon spontaneously, or he turned to his Thesaurus, it’s clear he was looking for some form of insult. It’s all right for somebody not to like Napa Cabernet, but Jon’s complaint is a continuation of his meme that there’s “a general move [in California]…toward lighter winemaking and more nuance. For better or worse, Napa’s fame is still built on a big foundation of impact.”

His theory is that 2008, a cool vintage (although not as cool as 2009 or 2010 or as 2011 so far is looking) might have been “a year that could offer subtlety. Yet subtlety has been harder to come by in this realm [of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon]. For all the talk of ripeness being dialed back and a lighter hand in the cellar, we’re still plodded [another interesting choice of word] through a forest’s worth of oak…and alcohol levels that averaged in the high 14 percents.”

A “straw dog” is something (an idea or plan) set up to be knocked down. There’s a bunch of critics out there who have set up the idea that California wine is way too high in alcohol. They then further posit some kind of “general move” toward lighter alcohol which they assert is a historical imperative. Then, when they find wines that are “in the high 14 percents” if not even higher, they accuse them of marching against history–of being out of touch “swaggerers” in need of slapping down.

Let’s get the record straight. There is not nor has there been a “general move” to lower alcohol levels on Cabernet Sauvignon nor should there be. Cathy Corison aside (and I have great respect for her wines), the best Cabernets are going to average from the mid to high 14s through the low to mid 15s in percent of alcohol, and if a critic can’t handle that fact, he or she should just get out of the business of reviewing Cab and stick to European wines or maybe Pinot Grigio.

Some of my top scoring Cabernets over the last year or so have been from Stonestreet, Venge, Trefethen, Araujo, Vine Cliff, Paul Hobbs, Krutz and Au Sommet, and all would, I imagine, be in the crosshairs of critics like Jon. I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree, but I do find it odd that, after his lamentation (I won’t call it a rant), Jon’s team found themselves able to recommend a clutch of ‘08 Cabs with fairly high alcohol, like Rock Wall’s, Chappellet’s Pritchard Hill and even Mondavi’s, which officially clocks in at 15.3% (and as we all know, the real numbers could be considerably higher than what the label says, a point dramatically illustrated by Jon a few months ago when he exposed the discrepencies between claimed and actual ABV that are so routine).

So if I could persuade these critics to do one thing, it would be to cease complaining about alcohol levels in Cabernet Sauvignon. Cab got to where it is today–America’s top red wine–because it’s ripe, lusty and delicious. The top wines do not “swagger.” They sing, as Keri Hilson does on “Pretty Girl Rock”:

All eyes on me when I walk in,
No question that this girl’s a 10 Don’t hate me cause I’m beautiful. Don’t hate me cause I’m beautiful. My walk my talk the way I dress It’s not my fault so please don’t trip
Don’t hate me cause I’m beautiful Don’t hate me cause I’m beautiful

  1. Still sorting all of this out as a young consumer, but finding myself fatigued by the constant banter of high vs. low. Jeans are not for every occasion just as a pair of tailored slacks are not. Why should we drink from one cup and ignore the diversity that exists in wine (high and low)?

    I am cuious Steve if you have come across Timothy Milos up in Napa/Sonoma in your travels? I am working on a piece from an interview I did with him. No one yet has explained to me why some of these cabs are “big” and why that works, so eloquently as he. If I find my notes I may post a clip or two, as I think you would agree with his observations.

    A critic should understand all forms and judge them accordingly just as a true movie critic watches all films, not just a single category. It is OK to have favorites and not OK to promote one style as the greatest form of a craft. Kudos.

  2. Very well said, Steve! Comments like these are one of the reasons that I respect your reviews – thank you!

  3. Wayne, I don’t think I know Timothy Milos. It’s been some years since I tasted Rubissow wines. You’re absolutely right, a critic should be able to appreciate all styles, even those that are not to his personal preference. For example, I don’t care for white Zinfandel, but I can support a well made one that’s priced right.

  4. Steve – I wonder why this issue cannot go to rest, in spite of your efforts. What bothers me is that alcohol is blamed for things it doesn’t do in wine: create big jammy, sweet flavors. Picking late does this which higher alcohol is a by-product of. It is not a necessary condition for that style (note all the low end, overly jammy wines that are sub-14% ABV; alcohol is removed from those wines but they still achieve the flavors producers know sell well). I’ve had plenty of high alcohol wines that display earthiness and savory characters. Even in Jon’s piece on revealing alcohol the “old world” styled darling Calera was shown to be well north of 15% ABV, yet that wine is mushroomy, spicy, AND not too jammy. Let’s focus on taste and be done with it! The debate of what a wine is and should be is better suited to how it tastes, not some technical number that doesn’t even come close to telling the whole story of a wine.

  5. “the best Cabernets are going to average from the mid to high 14s through the low to mid 15s in percent of alcohol, and if a critic can’t handle that fact, he or she should just get out of the business of reviewing Cab and stick to European wines or maybe Pinot Grigio.”

    Wow. Upset the Mavs beat the Heat?

  6. I agree, Steve, that Alcohol is not the real issue; it’s style. But I don’t think you’re right in saying “California Cabernet Sauvignon is big. End of story.” We’re old enough to remember Napa cabs from the late 60s & 70s that were lighter & more elegant, with a different varietal sensory identity. To me, lots of today’s Napa cabs drink like Zinfandels with a better acid structure.

  7. My memory may be failing me, (as it sometimes does) but I seem to recall, back when I was a Parkerite, that he really took Robert Mondavi Winery to task for their restrained, food-friendly, European styled Cabs….that they were out of touch with the emerging, large-scaled versions that he preferred. True or False?

  8. kelkeagy says:

    Well said Steve.

  9. Though I am not a big fan of jammy high alcohol Cabernets and would like to see more choice on the shelves and at the dinner table, I didn’t find much helpful content Bonné’s critique. While I know of a few winemakers who are backing off from extreme alcohols, few are going back to the days when 13.5 was a rarity and 12.5 was the norm.

    Bigger is usually judged to be better and who can blame a winemaker for making wines that get high scores. Rarely is a winemaker recognized for achieving balance and richness or subtlety lower alcohol product. I’m glad Kathy gets some recognition, but I would like to see an opening for others as well. Bonné was no help; he missed the point he was trying to make.

    Why can’t a critic recognize that there are different styles and separate them in their tastings. Evaluate each style on the basis of what that style has to offer. Give the consumers who buy on the basis of a critical recommendation a choice. If the consumer finds they prefer a given style then guide them to the best of that particular style.

  10. Steve, amen brother and l’chaim!

  11. richard says:

    Yes, Steve, California Cab is big, especially Napa Cab. You seem to be happy about that, so good for you.

    Please note, however, that when the Baby Boomers are all gone, Big Napa Cab will not reign supreme as it does today.

  12. Mr. Heimoff, I respectfully encourage you and others to drink wine that you like, of whatever pedigree or alcohol. And, I believe that you’re setting up, in your words, a “straw dog.” There is a pervasive sentiment among service professionals, waiters, sommeliers and chefs, that “America’s top red wine” does not pair easily with what most people like to eat on a daily basis. Many critics are serving readers who are food savvy. Mr. Bonne would be remiss in failing to talk about the weight of the wines you favor. I understand that you are offended by what you read as condescension, and I do not mean to condescend to you, as I am certain that you have a good history of tasting. I do think that your defensive posture is misplaced.

    Steven V

  13. J.R. Wirth says:

    The more subtle you make the wine, the more it shows its flaws. Light wines are like a white sofa, for the neat freak it may be fine, but not for the other 99% of us. Cabernets are the opposite, you can hide a lot of problems in the bold flavors.

    I always reach for the cab, you rarely get burned. Also, I like to actually taste my wine.

  14. Richard, that’s a pretty bold prediction! I don’t see how you can be that sure.

  15. Tom Barras, I don’t remember if Parker did, but I’m pretty darned certain Spectator did. And Opus One, too.

  16. Hardy, I could care less about basketball, so no, I’m not upset. It’s just that the whole alcohol debate is getting tedious. If a critic doesn’t like 14.8 and up Cabs, then just say so upfront — and don’t then contradict yourself by giving some of them high scores and recommending them. I have a 5 word message that sums it up: Adam Lee and Raj Parr.

  17. Kudos Steve! For two things.
    1. For calling out people who point to the exception as the rule…(of course its how Vegas built!)
    2. For pointing out something most everyone deep down already know.
    CA cab is big. So what? That doesn’t make it bad or good necessarly. I imagine one of the most difficult things reviewers can do it to try to review something without a paradigm against which to base the review. If I had a big, fruity forward, 14.9% Vosne-romanee, it would probably score poorly b/c everyone knows what that wine should be. But California is still in its infancy in defining a wine region should be producing in terms of taste profile. Its going to be a long time to resolve this issue, but maybe the first step is accepting that we get more sun in CA than in France….

  18. Steve, sorry to jump back into this but I think this is an interesting debate. So this is what Timothy Milos (winemaker at Hidden Ridge) told me last December regarding factors people don’t take into consideration regarding alcohol levels:

    “I was working at Mondavi and I had access to this old time grower. So my question was, ‘you have been in business since the 50’s. When did you pick grapes back in 1955?’ He said, ‘well the [Napa] valley floors started coming in at the end of September and we usually finish the higher mountain sites at the end of October.’ OK, well when do we pick now? Bottom of the [Napa] valley floor maybe the end of September, mountain sites the end of October. It hasn’t changed, we aren’t waiting longer. What else has changed?”

    “We went to virus free plant material and stopped using AxR, we went to different types of root stocks. We went from sprawl to VSP. AxR was a great root stock, you only got to 24.5% [brix], you carried a large a crop and you made fantastic wine. You do that with 101-14, you do that with 110R, you do that with 11-03, 5C, name your other rootstock and it will not carry the load and the sugars will spike higher by the time the fruit gets ripe. It is a big part of the modern function of the vineyard. But that part of the [alcohol] equation never gets discussed.”

    “People want to blame winemakers for the change, but the change has happened for lots of reasons, not just because we want higher alcohol wines.”

    There is more he said that I will be posting later myself later this week. Just thought this was an important factor in the “debate.”

  19. I don’t know, Richard. Working in a tasting room, it doesn’t seem that way to me. The younger crowd seems just as interested in the big Cabs as the older crowd, if not more interested. On a similar note, they don’t appear to be very concerned about ratings. I don’t think the younger crowd likes to be told what they should and should not like. That’s just my impression based on what I see.

  20. Steve, do you mean “I couldn’t care less” about basketball? That would make more sense.

  21. Steve: The reasons the high-alcohol debate continues (despite your weariness of the subject) is modern Cabernets are simply not as fine as Cabernets of previous decades. Their winemaker-created complexity from bold oak flavoring, added acidity, grape concentrate, mega-purple and other tricks create a wine-like beverage that, to me, tastes more like sweet, rotted fruit than my memories of fine Napa Cabernets of the 60s and 70s.

    Modern Cabs don’t taste like they come from anyplace special. I challenge you to distinguish Rutherford from Stags Leap District from Mt. Veeder Cabs when their alcohol is above 15%. Terroir doesn’t mean anything to people who only want to drink a big glassfull of goo. Losing what little sense of terroir we once had in Napa Cabs means that appellations are as meaningless as Chamber of Commerce slogans.

    High alcohol wines are not food worthy unless you’re trying to outdo some big, spicy flavor in some anonymous stewed meat. Parker himself has written that Cabernet is not a particularly versatile food wine. A glass of high-alcohol Cab usually gets diminished when food is eaten with it.

    Perhaps most important, there is a cost very few wine critics comment on in regards to modern versions of Cabernet: the health consequences of drinking strong wine. A 14.5% wine is 16% more potent than a 12.5% wine. If one loves to drink wine rather than just sip it, getting hammered night after night from three or four glasses of wine is not a good thing.

    The suggestion that we should skip California Cabernet (many of which were magnificent at 12%) and drink Bordeaux if we want lower alcohol wines is a bit childish, don’t you think? Napa Cabernet may have been modeled after Bordeaux, but it never tasted like Bordeaux even in the early days when our Cabs were more civilized.

    As a wine merchant, I notice many of my customers who simply love the taste of big wines, as you and your readers do. I’m happy you all are happy. But I miss Caymus Cab back when it came from Rutherford and tasted like it.

    Man, that was Cabernet.

  22. Although I’m not positive whether 110 Richter and 1103 Paulsen are truly low-vigor stocks, vines with less vigorous rootstocks and a smaller crop load should reach physiological (and phenolic) maturity earlier; so harvesting on the same dates (as vines grafted on SO4, 5C and AxR1) means you’re getting much riper fruit.
    This implies that Cab growers should beware of daily maximum temperatures in October on the valley floor. Ideal mean maximum temps for late phenolic development (without depleting the plant’s acids and water reserves) should range from 66 to 72°F, which is exactly what you get in the mountain vineyards of Napa and Sonoma above 1200-1300 ft.asl.; in contrast to the valley floor where average daily highs are between 75 and 80°F (Calistoga – 80.6°F; Yountville – 77.7°F; Oakville – 75.0°F; Glen Ellen – 78.8°F; Healdsburg & St. Helena – 77.5°F).

  23. Mike V, “I couldn’t care less” is technically correct, but growing up everybody used to say “I could care less” so that’s still what I say!

  24. Annie Buck says:

    Interesting discussion. Bottom line: we buyers will drink what we enjoy and I certainly ENJOY a beautiful big California cab. Perhaps I’ve simply never tasted a great bordeaux, or my palate isn’t as refined as the experts’ because, almost without exception, a Napa cab wins hands down for me when comparing the two. Wine is ALL about pleasure (imho) and at the end of a day which wines do I purchase more of for my cellar??? As I look at my inventory, it’s those yummy opulent California cabs.

  25. Nice bit of wriring, Steve. Jon has caught himself out on this one. The wines may be big but the best Cabernets are still in balance, still show varietal character, still are reflective of their provenance. Whether the wine is Corison or Chappellet, Rock Wall or Shafer, they are wines that taste good, serve well with foods that we have long associated with Cabernet-based wines and are not, despite Randy Kemner’s misleading comments, going to get you hammered unless you overconsume.

    So, here you have Mr. Bonne assailing the wines and then recommendning them. This is not a new pattern for Mr. Bonne. He has yet to write a CA-focused column without throwing more than his share of brickbats before liking the wines. He even managed it in his review of CA rose’.

    One of the arguments about high alcohol is that it loses both varietal and provencial character. For Mr. Kemner, the essential level seems to be 15%. For Raj Parr, it is 14%. Both of them are demonstrably wrong because the wines, not other critics, prove them wrong.

    Whether it is 14.9% Vosne-Romanee’ or 15%+ Chappellet and Staglin Cabs, we are talking about wines that have demonstrably not lost their souls, their character, their balance. These people chant their slogans as if it were a meaningful mantra rather than the property of the biased.

    They were properly called out a few weeks ago in the Russian River debate that raged here and on my website, and they are properly called out now by you.

    And when one writes judgments by label and then winds up choosing high alcohol, high pH wines by taste, it further exposes their bias.

  26. Largely I agree, Steve – big + balanced can indeed = beautiful.

    But Corison… well, they’re pumping out some of the most elegant stuff in Napa so I gotta give serious luv props to them on that.

  27. 1WineDude but are you saying you have to choose? If you were scoring would you automatically give higher scores to Corison than, say, Araujo? The questions pile up.

  28. We really don’t know for sure what the alcohol level is in the wines we taste. You can be pretty confident that a wine labeled 14.1% or above is over 14%, but not much more. Any conclusions about a wine due to alcohol level from that amount of data are a leap of faith. For me, it’s a serious flaw if the wine is hot, independent of the actual alcohol level in the wine.

    The bigger question is why is CA wine so often the target of negativity?

  29. You’re reading way too much into my comment, bro.

    I think we both know that I don’t view wine as a choice between styles (if I’m interpreting your question correctly?). So there is no condition of choosing one style or another in my mind, and certainly no predetermining factor that makes one wine automatically superior to another. Actually, there is one – balance.

    I do think that both the Corison and the Araujo (or the Continuum or Cardinale or others) can all be beautiful, even artistic. Being big does not preclude being balanced. And on the flipside, low abv or a restrained fruit profile does not automatically equate to elegance, or balance.

    By all means, if people dislike high abv styled wines then they probably should use abv % as a differentiator when making a purchase, but I don’t think you can be a truly balanced critic and write-of any one style as inherently inferior to another (with the possible exception of Retsina… just kidding, Greece… maybe…). Cheers!

  30. I’m definitely NOT a fan of most Cali Pinots, and I’m not overly in love with their cabs either, but I don’t expect them to change their style to suit my tastes.

    They are what they are, and we’re all free to purchase (or not) accordingly.

    Nice blog, by the way.

  31. Dear Todd, thank you.

  32. Thanks for the story and all the comments. I love to read your disputes. Regards from Germany

  33. Renoir in the Vines says:

    Interesting post. I would be interested to know what the average brix of these Cabs are at harvest. Also relevant would be the CA average temperature during the last three months of ripening. I think alcohol is always going to be a discussion point due to the fact that European grapes have historically been able to be harvested at lower brix (sugar content) than new-world ones. With global warming I’m not sure if that’s still a relevant factor.

    As others have posted the challenge for new-worlders is to create a supple, well-integrated Cab:- which will be high in alcohol but shouldn’t be jammy.

    In South Africa we are constantly struggling with this issue for both Cab and Syrah. It’s a fact that due to the late phenolic ripeness of these varieties due to the vagaries of our weather (upper 80’s avg. last three months this year) we have to be particularly careful with our winemaking practices to end up with wines which are still subtle in their reflections of their varietal characteristics as per old world dictates.

  34. Original post seems childish.

    Swagger … suggesting somebody needs a thesaurus to find that word is puerile. Besides, swagger is not an insult, per se, so using that to put words in somebody’s mouth is quite silly.

    I do miss the napa cabernet style from 35 years ago. I do not like the jammy, high alcohol, “modern” style, so I rarely drink napa cab anymore.

    To people who like modern napa cabs .. go wild, drink up. Make snotty comments to people who prefer elegance and subtlety in a red. Act insulted when others note that the style of 30+ years ago made for better wines. “If you don’t like cali cabs … you’re … you’re a weenie … I’m taking my ball and going home”.


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