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Low alcohol trend in California? I don’t think so.

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Oz Clark has it just about right when he says the big California style is here to stay.

The British wine-writing wordsmith, one of the world’s most successful wine book authors, accuses the “wine chatterati” of getting it all wrong in their mistaken conclusion that there’s a revolution in California away from high alcohol wines [back] toward the lower alcohol, less ripe wines that they–the chatterati–consider more balanced and elegant.

I’m glad the word finally has filtered across The Pond. I’ve been saying it for years: this supposed “trend” toward lower alcohol wine is largely a fiction invented and perpetuated by writers who (a) wish it were true and (b) need something sexy to write about in their columns and on their blogs.

You, dear readers, would be surprised and appalled to learn about the pressures on writers to discover trends and report on breaking developments in the world of wine. This pressure comes from editors, who want to put the word “new” or “trendy” in every headline and on every front cover. A headline like this:

NEW LOW ALCOHOL TREND CATCHES WINEMAKERS BY SURPRISE

is much catchier than this:

MOST WINES CONTINUE TO BE MADE IN THE USUAL FASHION,

but the latter headline, while true, happens to dull and un-newsworthy. What’s a writer to do when the trend he wishes were happening isn’t? He just goes ahead and cites it anyway, and is able to trot out enough examples to make his claim sound credible (often by the popular but suspect practice of “quote shopping”).

In the case of a “trend” toward lower alcohol, the names of Cathy Corison and Copain are often cited as proof that wines–at least, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir–are being made lower in alcohol. But these writers almost never point out that Corison and Copain are outliers. The reason we single out their wines–justifiably, for they are incredibly good–is because they’re so different from 90% of the other high-scoring Cabs and Pinots that are not low in alcohol.

I myself haven’t done a scientific analysis of the approximately 10,000 wines I’ve reviewed in the last 2-1/2 years (I have no way of doing so), but I can tell you, as someone who has to double-check the alcohol-by-volume level (according to the label) of every one of those wines before it goes into Wine Enthusiast’s database, when it comes to Cabernet and Pinot Noir, the number “15” is a lot more common than the number “13” (as in 15.4% vs. 13.5%). The number “14” marks the highest quantity of these wines, but in my opinion most wines labeled as 14.5% alcohol (the majority) are higher than that, often considerably so, given the TTB’s rather slippery allowance of a degree of difference. So let us dispel the notion that California wines are getting lower in alcohol. They’re not.

Now, having said that, there are complications. Coastal California is undergoing a cooling trend. The temperature in Napa Valley is not getting hotter (and if you have data to contradict me, please send it). The last six vintages have been cool, 2009-2010 severely so, and 2011 may be following suit; the upshot being that a cooler vintage will, overall, result in lower alcohol wines. But not by much, “cool” in California being a relative term; and even in cool years, we have heat spikes that raise brix by several degrees overnight. Then too, we have no idea whether or not many Cabs and Pinots are actually being produced at 15%-16% and then having their alcohol reduced through a variety of means. Your 14.1% Cabernet may have started life out considerably higher, and then gone to see the equivalent of a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon for a tummy tuck and facelift. Do you consider a manipulated 14.1% wine “low alcohol”?

Bottom line: Be wary of predictions that California wines are getting lower in alcohol; certainly not Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. Consumers (and critics) have stated over and over that they like the big, voluptuously ripe style (I certainly do, if it’s balanced). That gives producers absolutely no incentive to change, which is why they won’t. Kudos to Oz Clark for telling it like it is.

  1. I was at a wine store yesterday and saw a recently emptied bottle of 1982 Ridge Monte Bello – 11.5% abv. I was shocked. What would CA cab drinkers think of that wine today? What did they think of it then?

  2. Carlos Toledo says:

    Consumers (and critics) have stated over and over that they like the big, voluptuously ripe style (I certainly do, if it’s balanced).

    Well, that sounds to me people really don´t know what they eat, drink, wear, buy, swallow…do they?

    As i evolve as a wine drinker/importer/seller/retailer/person my taste just goes for the european (Italia and France, mainly) style. Less sugar, more nature, less alcohol (integrated into the wine or not).

    Food with catchup only for the ignorants in the dark.

    If a joe blow like me can learn how to eat;drink;consume better stuff, will the “market” do the same? Do they want to?

  3. You’re absolutely right in your assessment that the key is the combinqtion of temperature, where the fruit originates, how long it hangs, whether or not the winemaker does some post fermentation re-structuring and other things. In the Paso Robles AVA with what we consider a normal growing season when I get the flavor profiles I want the sugars are generally high. I don’t think our wines would be as good if we picked based on wine chemistry alone and ignored flavors. If the wine is well balanced it can carry higher alcohol levels.

  4. Steve,

    My wife Lise and I just returned from visiting the Northern Rhone region and I was a bit surprised to find many of the famous wines we try to emulate exceeded 14.5% alcohol. We visited Chapoutier, Jaboulet and quite a few of the smaller producers and while trying hard not to inflate the French ego, most of the 2009 Syrah wines we tasted exceeded 14%… and they were all fabulous.

  5. Steve,

    With all due respect, I think you’re missing a large piece of the argument. Within the context of the best (certainly not all) articles on “lower alcohol trends in CA”, journalists point to the fact that certain winemakers like Copain, Corison, Rhys, among others, are pushing California in a new direction. The Liocos, Arnot-Roberts and Wind Gaps represent a more European-styled wine, whose neighbors and future generations are growing to emulate.

    Before there are trends, there are trendsetters. The majority of California wine, particularly the stuff that’s schlepped overseas, remains rich and ripe – no doubt. But to completely dismiss an emerging trend as hogwash, as Clarke does in this piece, shows that he’s simply out of touch with the current developments in California winemaking.

  6. Lindsay Ronga says:

    Hi Steve, very thoughtful post.

    I have to say I agree with Troutman here, however. Additionally, we wouldn’t want many of the stellar California producers who make wine at 14.5 / 15 to produce a lower alcohol % wine. It would be completely out of whack, out of balance and taste awful. If the wine is in balance, then the ABV shouldn’t play as big of a factor. Sometimes the alcohol can be overwhelming but perhaps the grapes aren’t be picked at the right time, etc. But I think it’s unfair to generalize all high ABVs CA wines when there are those great producers who do make well-balanced wines.

  7. David Cole says:

    The “trend” is staying and growing! Consumers are not building wine cellars and storing wines to mature in time! they want to buy it at the store, take it home and drink it. Thus wines need to be more drinkable now, part of that is picking the grapes more ripe, some of it is blending and thus some higher alcohol levels.

    If you want to see a “trend” look at all the proprietary named wines that are blends. Look at the ones that got “hot” or “culty” like The Prisoner. People want it now!

    I for one wish more people stored more wine and shared them later, but sales numbers don’t lie. And most winemakers don’t make wines that stand up over time.

  8. Steve,

    I think that you and everyone, misses the point of the range of ABV allowed. You are taking a measurement from a hydrometer and correct for specific gravity, the error of the test is roughly 1%. It may be correct that people don’t understand this and figure they can adjust what’s on the bottle by 1%, but for every tenth of a percent they adjust themselves, is essentially loss of buffer. The 1% is the error of the test. No test is perfect.

    You certainly would know more than me about wine practice, but I’ve seen a couple of attempts to measure ABV and correlated it with what’s on the bottle and they all came out within range, though a clear majority were higher than stated (http://www.wineandspiritsmagazine.com/pages/features/0910_TaxingTrends.html).

  9. Mauricio says:

    It is very expensive to do what you need to do in the vineyard in order to get maturity at lower sugar levels…also, as long as people do not understand and do not learn vine phisiology, steve…the high alcohol wines are here to stay.
    Another point to consider is that some Winemakers do not know when to really pick their grapes and they choose to just wait and wait…

    I do like the big, bold wines and I also make my wines following the trend. The difference is that as Steve Lock said, I am in Paso Robles, where grapes most of the time (except for last year and maybe this year), rippen when we already are going to be over your magic number.

  10. Cool is indeed a relative term. As, my family (visiting from England) keep pointing out to me (accompanied by hysterical laughter,)when I tell them we are having a cool summer!

  11. Mauricio – I’d like to know your thoughts on what expensive things you need to do to get maturity at lower sugar levels. You say a few things about winemakers not knowing what they are doing, but then you go on to say that you (and presumably others in Paso Robles) typically harvest with high sugar levels. Is that because you don’t employ the more expensive things or you just want very ripe wines or does the Paso Robles climate limit what you can do?

  12. I learned the hard way that you cannot just pick the grapes at an ideal potential alcohol in the Russian River (or at least, in my vineyard) and get they best wine you can. My first Pinot was in 1992, a long harvest, and we made a wonderful wine (if I may say so myself) that turned out to be 14.2 abv. When I told my brother Miguel in Spain, he felt we had waited too long to pick… So in 1993 I picked at exactly 13.5 potential alcohol — and made the least interesting wine I’ve ever made. Thus I learned that in our vineyard, we need to pick by flavors and hang tight until these are ripe.

    But I believe that what matters is balance, and if everything in the vine and the fruit is balanced, the alcohol is a natural support that may help the wine age better. At least I see this in our wines…

  13. Time after time great tasters are fooled by their perception of alcohol and actual alcohol levels. The rest of us are probably fooled, too.

    I question the logic in Oz’s article. Is Shafer wine currently desirable because the Shafer name is a wonderfully established brand name or because of the “supposed” higher alcohol style? Would they lose their customer base if their alcohol levels dropped a bit? I doubt it. I think brand easily trumps style. Besides, we already know that great tasters and less experienced consumers won’t be reliable enough to tell the difference. We’ll just say “Oooooh, Shafer Hillside Select, so scarce, we’re lucky even to taste it, oooooooh.”

  14. My entire 2008 vintage (yep, even the zins) clocked under 14% and they’re some of the most structured, complex wines I’ve ever made. They’re not for the bubblegum drinkers seeking a nightly cocktail rather for those who know and understand why wines need to age and become more complex because of the additional three-five years in bottle.

    There’s a divergence of wine styles now a days meant to cater to two very different types of consumers. There’s nothing wrong with either but if one is interested in entertaining a conversation about world-class reds, there’s only one style that remains at the dinner table.

  15. BS!!!
    Writers do “wish it were true”, and I believe they write about this “trend” more as a service/desire to inform their reader base that – hold on to your corkscrew – they believe this “trend” is true, and, it is in the best interest of every channel of the wine industry.

    Listen, much has been written (ad nauseum?) about high-alcohol levels, as I have (guilty as charged!), but what continues to amaze me most on this over-discussed/under-adopted phenomenom is a) the higher the alcohol, the less consumed – vintners are you listening (?), and, b), consumers and the industry have their eyes wide shut, but law enforcement doesn’t! DUI’s are at an all time record!
    So, please try not to feed into the “consumers like over-ripe, high alcohol” wines fallacy. Wine consumers deserve better!

    Yeah, sure it all makes for good headlines, but my “bottom line” is that lower alcohol wines does not mean sacrificing flavor, complexity, etc. Under 14% wines have been made before and can be made today!

  16. Bruce, It’s not my place to tell consumers what they should or shouldn’t like. All I’m saying is that, from my vantage point of tasting nearly 5,000 California wines a year, I don’t see them moving away from high alcohol, especially the Cabernets.

  17. Donn Rutkoff says:

    Well, how about looking at alc. versus price. I bet that if you look at how much wine, priced around $10 or less, is in the 13s, while most of the wines priced, say, at $30 or more, are in the 14s or 15s. When talk of the “trend” is bandied about, are most writers forgetting that the vast majority of wine consumed, is the stuff that sells for $10 or less, and is not running in the 14s or 15s? Are y’all spending a lot of time focusing on a very small segment of the real market? Or, maybe, the segment that buys magazines, while, the vast overwhelming majority of wine drinkers don’t buy magazines or subscribe to newsletters.

  18. I like ripe flavored wines. The “food wine” trend of the 1980s was not a happy time for me. Lower alochol and higher acid without ripe flavors did not deliver gustatory delight to this wine drinker.

    One way for me to tell that a wine not known to me will be “ripe flavored” is to check the alcohol. Higher alcohol might indicate riper flavors. I know, this isn’t a foolproof test. There are plenty of wines below 14% that delivery ripe flavors. But how is the wine consumer supposed to know that?

    If I want a big ripe red, and I want to try something new, I’m darn sure going to consider wines that list alcohol at 14.5% or higher before I take a gamble on something labeled with 12.5% alcohol.

  19. Donn, if you’re familiar with Wine Enthusiast, then you know we review all wines, including those priced below $10. And the reason so many of those wines have ABV in the mid-13s is because the vines are overcropped and the wines can be watered down.

  20. David Hance, I would try a Riesling or Gewurz or something like that at 12.5, but certainly not a California red wine!

  21. I do believe that the wines sent to you average 14-15%, on the label and are actually higher in bottle. Could that could also be because those wines tend to score higher?
    I wonder what the average is for another publication like Burghound? I would guess lower as he prefers that style and rewards higher scores for it and tends to mention heat regularly if it is apparent.
    Not every winery sends every wine to every publication and if they did I doubt you would be able to taste them all. As far as trends I have no idea, but I for one and trending down and supporting those who are doing it naturally not by means of Jesus units, spinning cone, reverse osmosis, or maxing out the legal limit of variance.

  22. Steve, always a pleasure to read you, and congratulations as always for providing provocative articles that generate fascinating and informative comments.

    My two cents? Debating alcohol levels isn’t, at the end of the day, the point. Discussing balance is.

  23. Thanks Christopher.

  24. Steve,

    Agree that most the most the wine produced in California is over 15%. In fact many are higher. Why do
    I know this because I have tested these wines from Time to time. I don’t agree there better wines, in fact I believe many of the wines will fall apart sooner, and taste the same. if I want rains and prune
    flavors I will buy an Amarone. But those flavors don’t belong in Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Syrah.
    I have been making wine with lower and lower Alc. for some time and Can tell you there not you Grand Mothers Food Wines of the 80′s. No you can’t tell someone what to like just like that horse to water, but I will have none of the talk that higher alc. wines make better wines thats bunk! Ad normally those wines are not in balance. To end I will say to you and the audience there should be proof in labeling. Our wines are summited to a certified lab. The Alc. is correct on our label. If a consumer wants a copy, all he or she need do is ask! Novel Idea!

  25. Greg Linn, thanks for your comment. I wonder if you’ve tasted the best of the higher alcohol wines? The cheap ones taste as you say, raisins and prunes, and I dislike them as much as you do. However at the top end are fabulous 15%-plus Cabernets. The problem is that they are expensive and hard to find. I myself would never taste them, if they weren’t sent to me.

  26. Scott Mahon says:

    Steve,

    I think the real story that is missing from the discussion is this: the perception of alcohol level is much more relevant than the actual level. At this point an alcoholic tail is wagging a very staggery dog. Here we are talking about alc. levels and balance when most people can’t actually taste the alc. differences. The TTB’s “slippery allowance” on alc. labeling isn’t just a wide range; it’s categorical. And, I’d bet that over 70% of CA red wine is “manipulated” to lower the alc.
    You’re right; this “trend” is another case of reaching for new material, but so is the whole alc. discussion. It’s not just pressure; it’s laziness and ignorance. The real “balance” discussion is on acid levels as they affect all the things mentioned earlier to an exponentially higher degree, but of course it’s not on the label.

  27. Two questions, please:
    What impact does seasonal irrigation have on the final ready to pick moment and ABV in the bottle?
    When someone is looking to buy a vineyard, what impact does ABV from that vineyard have on decision to buy “here” or “there”?

    I think TTB did a study on ABV for spirits and actual ABV was slightly higher than label in majority (though some were less, can’t remember %s). Maybe Tom at TTB could chime in.

  28. Scott Mahon says:

    Kathy: I can answer question one.
    Irrigation (or rain) especially around harvest has a large impact on potential ABV. With water, grapes tend to swell lowering the sugar ratio and potential ABV. I’ve seen vineyards drop as much as 4 brix a week before harvest after a big rain. Obviously, the opposite is true as well. Three hot days without irrigation before harvest and the potential ABV can jump over 2%. That being said, that’s only “decision” one of the myriad of things that will effect the final ABV. But as usual with wine, it’s a slippery slope once you start in any direction.

  29. Wes Barton says:

    Writers may be overstating what’s going on, but there are things going on. First, it’s much easier make a flashy, super-ripe, fancily oaked wine that will impress the top CA critics. While most of the winemakers who pioneered this style make wines that age well, many that followed were just mimicking without much understanding. Critics like Parker and Laube who fooled by the latter, rating them the same and giving them the same sort of drinking windows. I’ve witnessed over and over again someone bringing a favorite bottle in the ’01-’04 range that has now fallen apart – to their embarrassment. So, on the high end, at least, consumers are having a major re-think. There are huge stores of unreleased Napa cults, held to keep the market price artificially high. The market will sort out the masters from the pretenders. I do think age-worthiness is a factor in purchase quantity and perceived value.

    But, as long as there is a critic bias, a la Parker & Laube, towards the riper style, that style will command a higher price at any given quality level. So the incentive is still strong to stay with that style, even if the market wants a proportionately lower number of late-picked wines.

    As a couple people noted above, picking by the numbers is a big mistake. Critics and consumers shouldn’t focus too strongly on the ABV. If you look at top producers who pick for flavor, you’ll see a huge swing in ABV numbers. Monte Bello is great at 11.5 and 15.1, Rhys is great at 11.5 and 14.5.

    As someone who lives in California, who is a fan of cool climate mountain grapes, I can definitely tell you the number of world class producers of this style is actively growing. It may be a niche, but it’s a lot more than I can keep up with. None of them seem to be having a problem selling all they can make in this poor economic climate, either.

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