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Off to World of Pinot Noir today, a great event for keeping track of what’s up with the variety, in California and around the world. I’m looking forward to seeing old friends and making new ones. Among the seminars I’m excited about are “The Insider Wines of the Cote d’Or” and a comparison of the wines of Willamette Valley and its sub-AVAs with the wines of Maison Jadot.

Less formally, I’ll be looking for information on how the 2012 and 2013 vintages are looking, and what winemakers are saying, not saying, doing or not doing about the question of alcohol level, an issue that just won’t go away.

It was put on the table, so to speak, with the 2008 formation of In Pursuit of Balance by Jasmine Hirsch and Raj Parr (I’ll be going to their March 10 event in San Francisco). In this era of wineries looking for magic bullets to launch them instant P.R., we should look no further than IPOB for an object lesson par excellence. Whether or not Jasmine and Raj had the intention of making their fledgling organization a vital pulse of the industry, that is what happened. I’ve been amazed by how central IPOB has become to almost every discussion of Pinot Noir–certainly in the circles I travel in. So I was not especially surprised when, last week, Jay McInerney wrote a glowing tribute to IPOB in the Wall Street Journal. When the author of the cocaine-saturated Bright Lights, Big City writes about cool somms partying until dawn in Manhattan clubs after an IPOB event, you know Jasmine’s and Raj’s homegrown enterprise has hit the bull’s eye of the zeitgeist.

I’m not going to play that silly game that determines an artificial alcohol level and then say anything above that is unbalanced. I went over my highest ratings for Pinot Noirs in the last year; the alcohol levels range from 12.4% on Flowers 2011 Moon Select to Rochioli’s 2011 West Block, at 14.5%, with most of the wines hovering between 13.5%-14.2%. All of these wines scored at least 95 points; most of them are ageable. By contrast, I also checked out Pinots with my lower scores, and could detect no correlation with alcohol levels: most of the wines I gave paltry 84s and 85s to had alcohol levels in the 13s and on up to 14.5%, same as the high-scoring ones. If you want to look for a number to estimate the quality of a Pinot Noir, look at its price, not its alcohol level.

I do have the sense that winemakers are more conscious of alcohol levels than they used to be–or, to put it bluntly, conscious of the buzz that alcohol levels engender, largely because of IPOB’s influence, among the cognoscenti. Nor is it merely IPOB itself that is so causative of the discussion: IPOB has a strong following among sommeliers, whose roles as tastemakers are more potent than ever before. (We used to live in the era of the celebrity winemaker. This current one is the era of the celebrity sommelier and mixologist. The non-tattooed need not apply.) Indeed, it’s fair to ask: Is IPOB leading somms, or are somms informing IPOB’s weltanschauung? It’s probably a feedback loop with both sides reinforcing each other.


  1. Bill Haydon says:

    I agree with you that arbitrary alcohol labels are silly. I had a Ruche di Castangole recently at 14.5% that was a beautifully balanced wine with all the bright red fruit and NATURAL acidity one could want. At some point while ridiculously high alcohols (15% Chardonnay/16% Cabs/17% Zins!) are inherently a sign of unbalance (and the correspondingly necessary massive acid adjustments), balance is a much more subjective notion for me. For instance, any wine that requires a massive acid adjustment can never be balanced in my opinion regardless of whether it falls under somebody’s arbitrary alc. threshold.

    As for IPOB’s influence on the market, it may ultimately help to redefine California’s perception in the market if not completely away from the Napa/Rolland cookbook then at least as a more diverse and varied source for wine, and that will be a good thing. As for their influence within the California wine industry, I think that has already happened to a large degree. I couldn’t help but notice that the latest batch of releases from John “It’s Burgundian, Damn It!” Kongsgaard are all curiously labeled at 14.1%. Now, I seriously doubt that all of those wines are hitting that precise alcohol level, and I also doubt that Kongsgaard has changed his winemaking one bit. He has, however, clearly taken note of market trends and perceptions and used the ttb labeling leeway in this regard to make his wines seem as compatible with current tastes as possible.

  2. Bill Haydon, I don’t know what the ABV levels are on Kongsgaard’s wines, but you make a salient point about producers using TTB labeling windows to appeal to current perceptions.

  3. Steve,

    Regarding this statement . . .

    “I went over my highest ratings for Pinot Noirs in the last year; the alcohol levels range from 12.4% on Flowers 2011 Moon Select to Rochioli’s 2011 West Block, at 14.5%, with most of the wines hovering between 13.5%-14.2%. All of these wines scored at least 95 points; most of them are ageable.”

    . . . do you rate a wine “within its vintage” or “across vintages”?

    Meaning: is a 95 point score the same whether it is assigned to a mold- and mildew-afflicted Pinot Noir vintage like 2011, or a gloriously healthy and trouble-free Pinot Noir vintage like 2012 or 2013?

    Clive Coates, Master of Wine rates red Burgundies not against an “absolute” 20 point scale, but within the strengths or weaknesses of that one specific vintage.

    So an 18 point score red Burgundy in a mold- and mildew-afflicted vintage like 1983 is not the equal of an 18 point score from the superior 2002 vintage.

    ~~ Bob

  4. I don’t do it the way you describe Mr. Coates. A 95 is a 95 in any vintage.

  5. I reach out to Steve and Charlie and others for a memory jog.

    I recall reading in Decanter magazine years ago an article on a little-used practice adopted by some French vintners: two harvests from their vineyards.

    An early harvest to pick less ripe grapes which will ferment to lower levels of alcohol; and a later harvest to pick fully ripe (maybe in some opinions “overly” ripe) grapes that will ferment to higher levels of alcohol.

    The two wines are blended together to elevate the acidity of the cuvee, and lower its alcohol level.

    I simply can’t recall the term given to this practice.

    (Not to be confused with the multiple vineyard pickings when making Sauternes.)

  6. Steve,

    Thanks for the prompt reply:

    “A 95 is a 95 in any vintage.”

    ~~ Bob

  7. Reverse Osmosis, spinning cone, alcohol tax jumps at 14%. Dirty little secrets.

  8. Bob,
    Over at Donkey&Goat, Jared&Tracey use a similar technique. They do a green harvest early, press the juice & chill in a tank to stop fermentation. Then at start of fermentation of the regular/later harvest, they add this high-acid/preserved juice to the must to boost the acidity.
    You can check on their WebSite for details.

  9. Bob Henry says:


    The beverage I allude to is not verjuice . . .

    . . . because the free run juice is actually fermented, then later blended in. (Damn if I can remember the “technical” French term.)

    ~~ Bob

  10. TomHill says:

    Understand, Bob. Just not sure what the difference in the two tecniques would yield in the final wine. Seems like use of verjus would be a bit safer, though.

  11. Bob Henry says:


    This one: verjus is not fermented, whereas this high acid beverage is.

    So the cuvee is made between two wines, not two musts.

    ~~ Bob

  12. TomHill says:

    Totally understand your point. My question is would fermenting the verjus & blending the two wines yield a better/less better wine in the end than adding the verjus and cofermenting the two juices. I have no idea.

  13. Bob Henry says:


    I am operating at the ragged edge of my knowledge of fermentation science.

    But I suspect that enologists, perforce, have more experience blending “finished” wines than blending musts.

    So that alacrity lends itself to a better end-result.

    So a call-out to folks like Brian Loring, et. al.: Your thoughts?

    ~~ Bob

  14. TomHill says:

    Bob sez: “ragged edge of my knowledge”.
    Well, Bob….you can be like a LosAlamos guy & just make stuff up!!! Speak like an absolute authority..even though you know nothing about the subject at hand!! 🙂
    I can see where working w/ the fermented verjus would give you better control over the final blend. OTOH…blending the two musts is more risky…more of an all or nothing proposition. There’s this common perception (I think) that co-ferments yield a better, more complete, wine. heck out of me which is better.

  15. Bob Henry says:


    I have a few friends with Caltech educational roots who have Los Alamos affiliations(moon rock research; fractals).

    I would never be so churlish as to suggest they fall into that bluffer’s camp!

    ~~ Bob

  16. TomHill says:

    TFIC….that’s what the 🙂 emoticon is meant to imply.
    But I do see that “baffle ’em w/ bull$hit” attitude in my LosAlamos colleagues from time to time. Not common…but occasionally.

  17. Bob Henry says:

    Belatedly footnoting Tom Hill’s comment.

    See this San Francisco Chronicle (January 16, 2011, page J7) profile of Jared and Tracey Brandt’s winery Donkey and Goat, and their embrace of “verjus (tart juice from underripe grapes) to balance acid levels in their Brosseau Chardonnay.”


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