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The big lie about low alcohol wines


I will tell you that the easiest, laziest meme making the rounds of wine writing today is that California is in the throes of some massive “anti-high alcohol” revolution.

Lazy, biased or ill-informed journalists often resort to the conventional wisdom of the moment when, under the pressure of deadlines, they receive assignments from their editors, or are just looking for something controversial. Not just in wine, but anything: politics, entertainment, the cultural zeitgeist. Somebody begins by writing an article that causes a modest stir: then somebody else has to write about it. She or he knows little or nothing about the topic, so they turn to the magic of Google. And lo and behold, they come across the first person’s article, the one that purported to report on the “new” craze. And so reporter #2 writes a photocopy of article #1, sometimes even calling the same people as sources, who will, naturally, say the same thing. Now you have 2 articles coming up on Google searches both reporting on the same phenomenon, which of course makes it mandatory for reporters 3, 4 and out to infinity to repeat the “news.” And once you have a hundred or so articles on the phenomenon, it truly becomes–not reality–but the perception of it. Which, as they say, makes it reality.

That is the dark side result of our Internet-based “reporting.” Lemming-like me-too writing always has been an inherent virus in authentic journalism, but the Internet has caused it to go pandemic. So much easier to parrot what someone else said than to do real reporting based on the facts.

The latest periodical to report on the “anti-high alcohol revolution” which is not actually happening is Newsweek, a magazine that’s been faltering for years. Wherever the author got her inspiration, the article uses a standard, shopworn–and  phony–device: it develops a thesis, then finds a few people who agree with it, and quotes them to “prove” that the thesis is correct. I’m a reporter; believe me, this tail-wagging-the-dog stuff goes on all the time. It isn’t journalism, it’s telling stories.

Another writer who’s been on the anti-alcohol bandwagon (and sometimes seems to think he’s leading it) is our own local Blake Gray. Here he is again, admitting he must “sound like a broken record on the lowering alcohol trend in California,” which indeed he does. Again, he uses the tail-wagging trick, by finding somebody who says he wants to make lower alcohol wines and then identifying it as part of “a trend.” The funny thing is that Blake can’t even get Gavin Chanin to come out and say anything bad about high alcohol. The furthest Gavin will go, in talking about the Pinots from Durell vineyards, is to say “Even though the [Durell] vineyard has that reputation for super ripeness, it’s interesting to see what it’s like when it’s not that.” Not exactly a stinging assault on high alcohol wines, nor a passionate defense of lower ones. Just “it’s interesting…”. The other weird thing is that Blake implies that Gavin left Au Bon Climat in order to make low alcohol wines (at least, that’s the spin I think he put on it). But ABC’s Pinots routinely are in the 13s.

Look, high alcohol California wine isn’t going anywhere. It’s baked into the souffle. Cabernet is going to stay high, 15ish or so, especially in Napa Valley, where it makes one of the most exciting wines in the world. Pinot will stay in the high-13s to the low 15s but mostly in the mid- to high 14s. There is no trend against high alcohol in California. There are people playing with lower levels, to see what they can do, like Gavin. There are always winemakers tinkering with technique; that’s the nature of winemaking. But please, can we fold up this “trend” nonsense and throw it away with yesterday’s papers? There are better things for wine writers to write about, like: Why our climate mitigates against low alcohol wines. You can’t just pick Pinot Noir at 21 degrees of brix and make a 12% wine because you want to, or because some writer told you to.

P.S. I’ve been experiencing hacking issues with this blog. The blog itself is safe; you can access it through a URL entry or bookmark and navigate safely. But searches for it, through Google and Yahoo and other engines, appear compromised. My web host is working on solving it.

  1. So wait, does this mean I, (a blogger, sort of) should not write a story about being at The Wine Writers Symposium and listening to Antonio Galloni, on stage, talking about his recent trip to Sonoma where he talked to a bunch of winemakers that were pulling back on ripeness and alcohol in their Chardonnays? Just curious….

  2. PAWineGuy says:

    If one had 40-60 hours to kill, or an intern with time on their hands, they could start a TTB search to see how many wine labels were being re-submitted because their alcohol levels fell below 14%.

    One of the problems is the timing of this discussion… after the last two North Coast vintages, “some” winemakers may be trying to explain a stylistic change, which was handed to them by the vintage.

  3. It is an interesting thought….how much are winemakers promotig a “we are making lower alcohol wines” to appeal to some critics when it really is simply a reflection of vintage? Apparenly (according to some), the high-alcohol wines were all an attempt to appeal to certain critics (and yet they were also a product of the hot 2003 and 2004 vintages) so, if one believes that, why wouldn’t one think the same motivating factor is occuring now?

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  4. I have to say I love the irony in this article. Isn’t it another writers trick to simply use criticism of others as their content? That being said, I plan to steal the phase “baked into the souffle.” Also, I personally do not much worry about alcohol levels in my wine. I will try a bottle of anything once, if I like it, I will buy more. Keeps it pretty simple and I don’t feel like I am missing anything.

  5. Adam has a good point. We have wine to sell. Telling a story to help sell is what we do. If the media give us the outline of a narrative that we can use to get more exposure, we’ll run with it.

  6. Steve, you used to be a reporter. What happened to you?

    Because you so badly mischaracterized my blog post from last Friday, here’s a quote:

    “Sorry if I sound like a broken record on the lowering alcohol trend in California wine, but that’s what this was all about.

    Durell Vineyard is known for ripe, rich wines. Its Pinots were big before big was hot.

    Chanin, by contrast, makes beautiful, expressive, low-alcohol wines.

    “Bill approached me after In Pursuit of Balance* last year about making some Durell Pinot in my style — a low-alcohol style,” Chanin said. “I jumped on it because it was outside my element, one of the great vineyards of Sonoma County.”

  7. Oh, there you go again, Steve,

    “biased or ill-informed”, “conventional wisdom of the moment”, “knows little or nothing about the topic”, “Lemming-like me-too writing”?

    You have a point about ripeness and alcohol being [to an extent] intrinsic to California, but, Golly-Gee Willakers, Mister H, did you start this piece looking in the mirror?

  8. I wish we would all stop focusing so much on alcohol numbers. I think what we are really talking about here are style preferences. There are the overtly ripe, voluptuous style of Pinot Noirs, for example, and the nervy, acid and mineral driven versions. And there are examples in between those styles. I like them all, depending on my mood, as long as they are balanced. Key word being balanced. But I do think, at least with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, you get a truer expression of the grape on the lower side of the ripeness scale. Just my opinion… and of course, this is a bit of a generalization as there are always site and vintage considerations at play.

    But alcohol level is just a result of style preference or style goal. You want ripeness and richness, you let the grapes hang longer and higher brix/higher alcohol is usually the result. You want more verve, acid and “freshness”, you pick earlier with usually lower brix and lower alcohol is the result. Note that even the best laid plans to achieve a certain style can be torn to shreds with vintage weather craziness.

    Don’t know if any of you have read The Tipping Point, by Malcom Gladwell. But, for many years, several factors, conditions and events aligned to drive style towards ripe. Not the least of which were two high profile and influential (for wine sales) wine critics AND the preference of the majority of American palates for all things softer and sweeter. It’s clear that many wineries produced wines for business reasons alone on the very ripe side and, in some cases, much to the chagrin of the winemaker. And, yes, many wineries made and still do make excellent riper style wines because that’s what they want and that’s what sells. Simple.

    But, now things are changing. The playing field is a bit different. The influence of one or two palates is waning. More sommeliers, bloggers and simply a wider variety of people are getting their voices heard on all manner of wine issues and debates. And the weather has been historically VERY cool. Some wineries, I would argue, in the last few years have taken bold, almost risky, steps to dramatically shift their winemaking/farming protocols towards producing wines with more elegance and finesse as opposed to power and opulence. Just because that is the style they happen to prefer and have always wanted to make. And the last few very cool vintages have certainly helped their causes. But it has still been a choice, as I have tried several 09 and 10 Pinot Noirs in the 15%+ range, proving it was still possible to get 25-26 brix and riper flavors in many locations… But when these winemakers started this shift, did they know there would be enough of a consumer and critical audience to support this style? It appears so. It seems the scales are tipping the other way… just a bit.

    I don’t think there is much of an anti high-alcohol movement either. It’s just that a certain style is getting more of a voice than it has in the past and conditions have been in place to bring it more into the spotlight. I don’t blog and never post but felt like giving it a try.

  9. Steve! Well said!!

    Let wine be made to reflect the best of what its creator can accomplish, and not be influenced by marketing trends just because someone commented that “THEY think that the alcohol content of wine has become too high. Trending, whether in writing or wine making is for the sheep, and when someone is searching for the unique then bucking the trend is where the art will emerge.

  10. I’d say the “easiest, laziest meme making the rounds of wine writing today” is writing about wine writing…

  11. 15+% alc Cab’s are exciting for you, eh? This should sum up your opinion. Your opinion has been noted. Steve, when was the last time you sat in front of actual retail consumers and engaged them? This blog post really sems to highlight your flat out ignorance on what’s happening really on the ground level. If you actually looked at most new and up and coming growers and winemakers, the youth is figuring out that less hang time and less new oak is the upward trend.

    Look at your petty attacks on your industry cohorts. I’d be embarrassed and that says alot.

    Thanks for feeding my fire. I think I’ll go down stairs to a full TR and inspire another group of young passionate winefolk WHY YOU ARE WRONG.

  12. Santo Roman says:

    This post is the mere reason why I only have 2 wines from CA in my wine shop. First we have someone who only drinks wines that are 15+% and from California. Has no actual experience on what the average consumer wants when it comes to wine, then tells us this is the norm. Yes Cabernet will stay exciting…in places like Bordeaux where the norm is around 13%. But then again Steve, you’d actually have to taste something other than wines from CA.

  13. Steve, in my very limited experience I’ve not met one person who bought a wine because of its % of alcohol, except that when a dry Riesling was desired over a sweet one by the same Winery and vintage (12% vs. 11%).
    Julius said it perfectly!

  14. Michael says:

    I think alcohol levels are a “thing” right now. And 5 years ago that thing was something else. And 5 years before that, again, something else. I do see it and hear about it. But I don’t think it’s the thing because lowering alcohol was suddenly thought to be the thing, rather it’s a by-product of something that is going on at wineries that we can’t read on the label. Maybe it’s the vintages as Adam Lee pointed out, maybe it’s the winemaker wanting to work with new grapes as Blake Gray quoted (himself), so perhaps just new winemakers coming on board and simply wanting to do something different, to make a “here I am” statement. The 200% new oak thing is done (see Goldschmit), so what’s next?

    And as far as comsumers so, I have two stories of people caring about alcohol levels. I am in the business on the distributor side and have one customer who refused to buy any Zins about 13%: too hot about 13%, the alcohol is practically offensive to her. What did I find: Nalle at 13.7% and no sale to this person. Second, when showing a Cabernet from Lake County, the buyer liked the wine, thought it very well balanced and said, “really well done for being low alcohol.” Low alcohol here being the hot topic, the in thing to “know” about wines. Well the wine was 14.5%, not low, just right in the middle. Here, he wanted to be in the in-group, and low alcohol was part of that group.

    Low alcohol, like “sustainable”, is another in the known phrase which may or may not mean anything at all.

    2 cents,

  15. A lot of these comments seem to be missing the point of the piece — i.e. Steve’s assertion that there actually is no “trend” in favor of lower alcohol wines and writing about this so-called “trend” is all a bunch of lazy writer make-believe. Instead, they are diving into the debate on the merits — i.e. whether alcohol levels in wines are important or desirable.

    I think it’s interesting because I think the debate in the comments is some evidence that Steve’s basic assertion is just wrong. People are debating this constantly because there is an obvious trend and many are determined to dispute the merits of it or criticize the proponents of it. (Similarly, I’m well aware that the proponents of the low-alcohol trend often lead the way with criticism the wines of a different style.)

    I don’t know how one can credibly contend that there is not a “trend” toward lower-alcohol wines in California. Sure one could debate the size of the trend, how lasting it will be, etc., but the assertion that this is just the product of a couple of lazy bloggers is itself a lazy assertion. A minimal amount of research would turn up many, many winemakers who say they are consciously attempting to dial back the alchohol in their wines to achieve a different and more restrained style. This is particularly true among California Pinot Noir winemakers. There is a significant body of consumers and wine writers who are supporting this trend. Just go read some of the discussions on Wine Berserkers. I think Adam Lee would confirm this. Acknowledging the trend does not mean accepting its merits, or accepting the frequently pejorative and condesceding descriptions of some about wines make in a higher alcohol style.

  16. Mike, the thing about the comments in my blog is that my readers are highly informed wine people. They are not typical of the average consumer. My readers are obviously debating this among themselves, but the issue has not penetrated (or trickled down to) the American consciousness nor do I think it ever will.

  17. I find the comments from both Adam and John interesting and somewhat scary. To Adam’s point, I guess we’ll find out soon who the pretenders are and who are the winemakers. Lets see who changes styles and who sticks to their “philosophy”. Perhaps that’s one of the purposes of IPOB, a proving ground that the wines weren’t produced to satisfy the palates of a few but are instead produced in accordance with a philosophy and style. To John’s point, shouldn’t the wine sell itself? Everyone is so caught up in “stories” that we have lost the history and passion behind the wine. The market is flooded with “story” wines that are jamming up shelves and inboxes which is lending to a confused and exhausted consumer base. It lends back to Steve’s post about what makes a “great” wine.

  18. Peter: Agreed that the market is flooded with stories. Every PR agent tries to dream up a “unique” story about the founding couple or whatever. In the end it’s just a hash of information nobody cares about.

  19. Steve — Saying the issue has not penetrated to the average consumer is saying something different it seems to me than what your original post says, which is that there is no trend toward lower alcohol wines. The reality is many average consumers already drinks a lower alcohol wine because they can’t afford or don’t care to pay for the very extracted/concentrated wines that cost more to produce. I think there is a trend today among higher-end winemakers to make wine of a different style, often with lower alcohol levels.

  20. Mike,

    A question….why do you think that extracted/concentrated wines cost more to produce?

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  21. Ok I was just searching the web for wines with low alcohol content and came across this article. As a consumer I truly hope there is a trend towards lower alcohol wines. I enjoy wine, but not the hangover and headaches that come from only a glass or two of high alcohol wines. I always check alcohol content on the wines I drink. I started doing this after traveling to Europe and enjoying wonderful wines with lower alcohol without the headache or hangover. I hope there is a trend towards lower alcohol. If France, Italy, Germany, and other European countries can make wonder wines that are lower in alcohol content, then why shouldn’t health conscious California?

  22. As a winemaker on Long Island for over 30 years and having spent many a day on the streets of NYC marketing wines, I think I have a slightly different perspective on this issue. While I’ll agree that the more extracted style of California wine isn’t going to disappear, saying that the there isn’t a market trend towards lower alcohol wines is not seeing the forest for the trees. It’s very clear here in the NYC wine market that people are looking for a more elegant style of wine. What’s more, the market is hungry for wines that are sincere and reflective of their terroir – made with less oak, additives and manipulation. The push on the west coast towards the production of lower alcohol wines is nothing new and has accelerated both from the changing climate as well as a growing number of consumers looking for freshness and delicacy in their glass. It started in the 90’s through the use of spinning cone technology, evolved into the common practice of water amelioration and has recently manifested itself in vineyard management techniques.

    I recently attended a seminar that was given by one of the preeminent viticulturists in the country. One of the main topics discussed was the fact that a great deal of current research being done in California(in particular Napa Valley) is about reducing sunlight and heat in vineyards. They are clearly on an aggressive mission to quickly figure out how to produce wines of lower alcohol, higher acidity and greater aromatics in a climate that is getting progressively warmer for a market that is clearly changing.

    I would go so far as to call this trend a maturation of the wine consumer – perhaps even a higher evolution of the consumer palate leading to a more confident level of wine (and food) appreciation. It’s what I believe to be our inherent strong point here on Long Island and a wine style that we produce quite naturally (i.e. no added water, acids or other countless manipulations) The amount of viticultural work being done in this field clearly shows that the west coast producers are sensing a real shift in the wine marketplace and are trying to create these wines by doing less water addition in the winery and more thoughtful manipulation in the vineyard. Thankfully for us, we don’t have to stretch so far to become fashionable – this is what our vineyards genuinely produce and the type of wine that we sincerely create. It’s what we have always done – and we can do it completely naturally.

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