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Alcohol level: In a historic shift, they may be going down



Throughout most of wine history—certainly from the Middle Ages in Europe forward to our own times—the challenge to vintners in most regions and years was to increase wine’s alcoholic strength, and thus its body.

We had, for instance, Burgundians and the Bordelais blending into their own stuff, not just wines from the more southern regions of France (where warmer temperatures let the grapes get riper) but even from Northern Africa, particularly, following the phylloxera disaster, from Algeria, in order to—as the Globe and Mail says“surreptitiously…pump up anemic bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy.” Bordeaux was called “claret” [“clear red” — my interpretation] by the Brits for a good reason: it often was “a dark rosé” rather than a true red wine.

Why “surreptitiously”? Because tinkering with wine has always been a no-no, and the notion of terroir, however it was thought of a thousand years ago, always has been integral to man’s appreciation of wine. I don’t know who first uttered the cliché, “Wine is made in the vineyard,” but something similar seems to have been understood, at least tacitly, long ago.

Well, the French don’t have to pump up their wines anymore, especially with global warming. Now, for the first time in human history, the problem is exactly the opposite: How to lower the alcohol in wine. As this scholarly article from South Africa confirms, the issue isn’t just limited to here in California (where some groups, such as In Pursuit of Balance, have made it controversial). The article, from the trade journal WineLand, assesses that, “Over the last few years, pressure is internationally applied to produce wines with lower alcohol,” stimulated in part by a U.K. study that found that “28% of the respondents were concerned about the alcohol content of the wines they buy.” The writer made the further distinction—vital, from a production point of view—that, while consumers want to drink lower alcohol wines, they want them made “without the addition of water or using alcohol reduction technology.”

Now, it is patently difficult to make low alcohol wines—let’s say, the “12.5 to 13.5% [that] have…become popular,” according to the WineLand article—in wine regions, like California, that are sunny and warm. You can do it—but then you run into the problem, as Esther Mobley, the wine columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote about last Sunday, of green, pyraziney wines. And whatever else consumers want, they don’t want to drink wine that smells and tastes like cat pee, asparagus, boiled broccoli, green bell peppers or any other of those veggie traits.

What then are these warm areas to do? The WineLand article suggests “certain policy decisions” that have to be made, beginning with a shift away from varieties, like Chardonnay, “which require high alcohol concentration,” to be “replaced by cultivars like Riesling and Malvasia Bianca.”

Beyond that, the article recommended fairly standard viticultural and enological practices, among them terminating the fermentation process “to leave sufficient residual sugar for better balance in the wine with a lower alcohol content.”

These would be pretty drastic steps for a winery to take, especially in America, where Chardonnay is and long has been the top-selling variety. Americans have voted with their dollars that they are not willing to substitute Riesling, much less Malvasia, for Chardonnay. They also don’t want (for the most part) residual sugar in their white wines, at least, any more R.S. than they’re already getting. As for reds, what varieties would compensate for Cabernet Sauvignon, the other top seller? We all know Cabernet needs a certain degree of ripeness to succeed—especially if the winemaker vows not to use intrusive alcohol reduction methods, such as the spinning cone. It’s all well and good to celebrate, say, Corison, but let’s face it, Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles or most other places is not going to be achieved lower than 14.5%–and in general, if that’s the number on the label, you can assume it’s higher. (I always make that assumption.) So I’m not sure how helpful it is for arguments like this to be put forward. It puts winemakers in an insanely impossible situation: literally between a rock and a hard place.

My hunch is that this “pressure internationally applied to produce wines with lower alcohol” is a temporary phenomenon. Consumers are rightfully concerned about the amount of alcohol they put into their bodies, but they also want (or say they want) fruity wines. And fruitiness comes, in California, at a cost. So, as sometimes happens when you poll consumers (or voters), you get mixed, contradictory and conflicting messages. Politicians can split the difference using rhetoric: winemakers, who must actually make wine and not just talk about it, can’t. Their wine either will be ripe, or it won’t: one taste (or sniff) will tell all.

I do think the moment of pushing the high alcohol envelope has been reached. Winemakers have gotten the message: This high and no higher. I also think vintners should be thinking of ways to get lower alcohol while still preserving ripeness. But I don’t think Malvasia or Riesling (or Beaujolais) are wave-of-the-future wines in America, good as they can be. The taste of consumers goes in cycles. Wineries that pander to the cycles usually don’t survive. Wineries that stay the course, do.

California wine, Blue Bottle, Led Zepp, IPAs and pot: What do they have in common?



For years the meme has been out there that California wine is getting bigger, badder and bolder—wine on steroids. Some critics decry this, which is their right; but consumers by and large do tend to favor this riper, fruitier style. But why is this happening? Is it really the Parkerization of wine, as many have alleged, or is something else going on?

An answer may be found by turning to another popular beverage: coffee. A recent article by Marcie Hanel in the October 2015 issue of Food & Wine, called “The Coffee Conundrum,” maintains that “today’s coffee [may be] too strong to drink” and quotes a well-known chef, Jonathon Sawyer, that “Coffee is so powerful now [that] you can’t have a triple espresso cortado followed by a pour-over [or else] your heart’s going to explode.” (Blue Bottle is the poster child for this phenomenon.) Marcie herself attests to the “skyrocketing” of coffee’s caffeine content; Chef Jonathon even compares coffee to “weed”, in the sense of its powerful extraction—so much more intense than it used to be.

“Powerful extraction…”. Hmm, that’s exactly the phrase critics of the California style use to disparage wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, not praise them. Let us grant that many of the things we eat, drink and use are more powerful than they used to be: not only wine and pot and coffee, but spirits: The current issue of Food & Wine has an article called “The Secret to a Richer Rum,” as if Rum isn’t rich enough!

Beyond booze, everything else in life seems to be getting plus-sized. Computer chips and all of the associated devices that use them are faster and more powerful than ever; Moore’s law applies to everything these days. Even in film we’ve seen an acceleration of “power” in the sense of more, and more graphic, violence and sexual activity. We see more or less the same thing in politics, where hyperbole and exaggeration have largely replaced reason, and in science, where technology is employed to peer further and deeper into the smallest and largest recesses of the Universe. And of course, with beer, we have the IPAs and the double IPAs, which a friend of mine once described as the beer equivalent of Napa Cabernet.

This penchant for “more” and “greater” obviously comes from the consumer; producers would not create and sell more powerful products if the masses weren’t buying them. When did Americans turn away from subtlety and embrace gigantism? Well, one synonym for “subtlety” could be blandness. Wine didn’t used to taste so good as it does today!

As I look back over the arc of my life, I can’t help but compare the placidity of the 1950s to the chaotic explosions of the 21st century. I can’t pinpoint when this penchant for power started; the advent of psychedelic drugs clearly was an expression of it (if not the cause), because drugs like LSD did “heighten” awareness far above the mundane level. Maybe it was that experience that created a craving for “more is better” among Baby Boomers, a heightened-everything craving which has been passed onto their children, the Millennials. Even heavy metal and thrash rock are more “heightened” versions of the rock and roll of yesteryear.

I offer this line of reasoning, not to justify the current trend towards richer, riper wines, but to explain it. Look at it this way: California wine—the majority of it, anyway—is pretty much on a par with Blue Bottle coffee, Led Zeppelin, IPAs and medical marijuana. That’s not bad company!

Embracing the alcohol of Paso red blends, and a word about that Benziger deal



For the past half-year, I’ve been hosting a series of wine tastings up at Jackson Family Wines headquarters, just outside Santa Rosa. So far, they’ve included both JFW and non-JFW wines, but the next one is strictly non-JFW. It’s a tasting of high-end Paso Robles Rhône-style blends (JFW currently owns no Paso Robles wineries), and I’m getting excited even before I pop a single cork.

Here’s the lineup so far:

  • Saxum 2012 Heart Stone
  • L’Aventure 2013 Cote de Cote
  • Tablas Creek 2012 Esprit de Tablas
  • Law 2011Sagacious
  • Linne Calodo 2013 Sticks & Stones
  • Jada 2012 Hell’s Kitchen
  • ONX 2012 Crux

I’m also trying to get a bottle of PharoahMoans 2012, and maybe one or two others.

These are all expensive wines, among the priciest in California outside Napa Valley. The most expensive is the Saxum. I’ve written before about Justin Smith’s amazing story: how he started this little winery that zoomed straight to the top. (If there are more expensive wines in Paso Robles, I don’t know what they are.) I’m not sure how Justin got there; probably he isn’t either, and has been pleasantly surprised by his success. I think my reviews helped, as did the chapter I gave him in my 2008 book, “New Classic Winemakers of California.”

I liked Justin’s wines from the moment I first tasted them (I gave them lots of 95s and 94s), but I realize these are not wines for the In Pursuit of Balance crowd. The alcohol on them can be very high. But then, the same can be said of many of these Paso Robles blends. The grapes get ripe, sometimes super-mature under that hot Paso sunshine, even in the Templeton Gap where things are supposedly cooler. Well, I drove right through the Templeton Gap yesterday during the hottest part of the afternoon, and yes, the temperature did fall from 92 just north of Paso Robles to 87-88 at Templeton, evidence that there really is a cooling influence that makes it in from the coast. Still, the Templeton Gap area is still pretty warm.

It would be a shame to dismiss these big, hearty Paso Robles red wines simply because of the alcohol level. They’re really world class. I’m excited about this tasting and will report on it here.

* * *

I asked my Facebook friends yesterday what I should blog about today and a lot of them said “Benziger.” I don’t have a super-strong view of the sale to The Wine Group, except for a couple thoughts. Number one, I like the Benziger clan and especially Mike, who was very kind to me when I was coming up as a wine writer. The family worked hard to establish both the Benziger brand and Imagery, and the wines from both were very good. The family did what they felt was in their best interests, at a time competition is fierce and Benziger was doing battle with brands from all over the world. I don’t know what The Wine Group will do with the brands—whether they’ll maintain them, elevate them or crush them into the ground. (By way of contrast, had Jackson Family Wines bought them, I’m confident the Jackson family would have elevated them.) Hopefully, The Wine Group will elevate them, although I do have some concerns that The Wine Group is not necessarily associated with the top quality tier. (Here’s a list of their brands.) Perhaps with this acquisition, The Wine Group is trying to go upscale and improve that image. If so, kudos to them.

* * *

Miss Sherry asked on Facebook for me to blog about Gus because she likes him a lot. So, Miss Sherry, here he is, relaxing on my queen bed at the lovely Santa Maria Radisson. We’re here for a couple days to hang out at Cambria and Byron.


The New York Times discovers IPOB



Nice, balanced treatment of the In Pursuit of Balance movement and those who think it’s silly by Bruce Schoenfeld in the New York Times magazine. The very fact that this phenomenon has hit the pages of the Gray Lady is indicative of how important IPOB has become in the weltanschauung of our wine conversation.

Let me get this out of the way immediately: I’ve thought since IPOB’s inception that they’re too ideological in declaring that some wines are “balanced” and some aren’t and that the dividing line is some ill-defined notion of alcoholic strength.

I don’t believe I’m one of the “invective-filled…partisans” who opposes IPOB, in Schoenfeld’s words; he catches the family quarrel well, but does tend to exaggerate the animosities a little bit—bringing in Robert Parker and his stinging critiques of IPOB (“jihadists,” “anti-pleasure,” “useless”) makes things sound worse than they are. For my part, I certainly wouldn’t use inflammatory language like that. But then, IPOB’s supporters haven’t gone after me the way they’ve gone after Parker. (I’m not important enough.)

If you believe IPOB you’d think that their members all make Pinot Noirs below 14%, but at the recent San Francisco tasting, there was Calera, whose wines can exceed 14.5%. For example, the 2007 Ryan I reviewed was 14.7%, and it was a very good wine I gave 93 points. But how do you explain Calera’s presence in IPOB? This is not a diss of Calera, whose wines I quite like, or of Josh Jensen, whom I respect, but it is a question posed to Raj Parr and Jasmine Hirsch. Why is Calera there? Are you saying that most other Pinot Noirs of that alcohol range are “unbalanced” but by some divine intervention, Calera isn’t? Enquiring minds want to know.

I give IPOB credit for sparking this conversation. Whether it’s a conversation that actually leads to any responsible conclusions, however, remains to be seen. Some years ago, the conversation in California was all about “food wines”—what they are, what they aren’t. Then, it was the application of oak that was at the heart of the chatter. This IPOB thing is a modern rendition of that discussion, which actually did have the positive result that it led to a renewed consideration of the proper application of oak to wine. There seems to be something self-regulating in the American wine industry—helped by social media and the chatty opinionizing that characterizes the wine industry—that perceives excesses almost as soon as they occur and tries to curtail them. This is a good thing.

But I suspect that IPOB will run its course in due time; other organizations will arise and fall, people’s attention will be diverted elsewhere, California’s climate will certainly play a role, and Raj, Jasmine and IPOB will go on to other, less contentious things. In the meantime, they’ve already succeeded in making wineries (which means winery owners) make, at the very least, contingency plans for what to do if, in fact, there is a serious consumer swing towards low-alcohol wines. I don’t think there is, yet, although if you read the wine press voraciously you might be forgiven for thinking it’s already happened. But this is how the media works nowadays: somebody stirs the pot, everybody starts talking about it, and the next thing you know, self-fulfilling prophecies pop up all over the place.

Have a great weekend!

Hey elites: Ordinary people love California wine!



With the bashing that California wine sometimes gets from the old boy’s club (AKA the cool kid’s club), it comes as a refreshing reminder to learn that “beyond the beltway” of snobbery and exclusivity, ordinary people love our wines.

Up in Canada, the Ottawa Citizen yesterday reported on the upcoming “California Wine Fair” to be held this Friday. Ottawa is, of course, still gripped in winter: as I write these words, the temperature there is 32 degrees. That’s why the article’s headline is “Dreaming of California Wines,” and the lead sentence refers to our state’s balmy weather: “Just when we need it most,” it says, “A taste of sunshine and warm breezes—California wine is coming to Ottawa.”

This is the thing we mustn’t ever forget about California wine: People love it. They love it the same way they love California itself. For most people all over the world, California is a magical place, of sunny beaches and swaying palm trees, of jasmine-scented evenings and year-round backyard barbecues, of beautiful people and gracious living. Granted, those of us who actually live here know that it’s not always that way. But it is enough of the time. California really is “the golden dream at the edge of the world.”

Our wines reflect that notion. They’re rich, sumptuous and bold, reflecting a place and a people that are distinctly Californian. I know this, and it’s why I grow impatient with the accusations (which actually seem to be diminishing) that California wine is not delicate enough for some people. That may be so; but ordinary people everywhere love our wines. This may be part and parcel of the eternal struggle between the masses and the elite, a struggle you find reflected in every aspect of life and culture. But even if you consider yourself among the elite, you should remind yourself of certain verities.

Among them: As the Ottawa Citizen says, “California wines…strike a chord with many people. [They] consistently demonstrate a pleasant and appealing flavour profile…California vintners have learned from the traditions and history of others and have innovated and put their own spin on techniques and practices.”

That’s how the non-elite see things: not in terms of alcohol level, but in terms of how much pleasure they get from sipping our wines. To be truthful, if California wine can only appeal to one group—the elite, or the masses of everyday consumers—I’d much rather it be the latter. That’s the California way: open, free, egalitarian, meritocratic. We’re the State that developed the ballot initiative by which the people get to vote directly on important issues, instead of leaving them to the “experts” who, occasionally, may find their judgment clouded. I’m proud to be a Californian (by way of New York City and the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts), and I’m proud of California wine!

California Pinot Noir: A followup consideration



A question arose on my blog late last week, after my March 27 post, What about those reports that “weaker wines are better than stronger ones”?

When the comments turned to a discussion about soils, the topic of limestone arose. Now, as any historian of Burgundy (including Chablis), the Loire and Champagne is well aware, limestone (or chalk) has been considered the “bedrock” (pun intended) of those regions’ terroir. Hugh Johnson, in his “World Atlas,” praises the limestone of Nuits-St-Georges (to use a single instance) for causing “the inimitable sappy richness of the Pinot Noir.” James E. Wilson, in his book, “Terroir,” titles his chapter on Champagne “Chalk Country” and reminds us that it took centuries for “the significance of the relationship of this lifeless-looking white rock and the soils of Champagne” to be recognized.

A few California Pinot pioneers with experience in the vineyards of Burgundy recognized it. They sought chalky soil when they developed their properties. Foremost among them was perhaps Josh Jensen, at Calera, who once described to me how he had scoured the state of California, armed with geology maps and a little vial of acid, in search of limestone, which he eventually found on Mount Harlan. (“Calera” itself is the old Spanish word for “lime kiln.”)

When I began visiting the Santa Rita Hills, local vintners made a big deal of pointing out the white-stone outcroppings that burst through the soil along the shoulders of Santa Rosa Road—limestone, uplifted or exposed from the now-retreated sea bed. In western Paso Robles, too, one can see these eroded white rocks, evidence not only of the California coast’s birth deep below a long-gone ocean, but of the fact that there is more limestone in our state than anyone had previously thought.

The comments on my blog concerning limestone underscored its importance for Pinot Noir at such wineries as Calera and Chalone. This may well be true, although in the case of Calera the terroir is dominated by the warm summers, which in my judgment trump soil there. As for Chalone, its changes of ownership over the years have resulted in some inconsistency of the wines, which makes them difficult to appraise. If we view the broader Santa Rita Hills (and Santa Maria Valley, as well), with its fossilized seashells, it’s easy to apprehend that these old chalky deposits lend a certain something to the wines (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay especially), but precisely what that “something” is, is hard to say, beyond the intriguing but amorphous word “minerality,” which almost everyone in California claims to find in their wines, whether it be Zinfandels from the Sierra Foothills or Cabernets from Oakville. I will not at this time venture any further into the tall weeds of minerality.

So I see limestone, if a Pinot vineyard is lucky enough to have it, as a good thing. But so are the Gold Ridge soils of the Sonoma Coast, the barren, austere dirts of the Mayacamas stretch of Alexander Valley, the volcanic soils of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and indeed the clays and pebbles of Carneros. This is the puzzle of Pinot Noir in California: that so vast and turbulent an array of soils can consistently produce so fine a wine.

Which leaves us, then, with the only thing these regions have in common to explain wine quality: climate. (Obviously, all the different soils are well-drained, no matter their chemical composition. Well-drained soil is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the production of fine wine.) These regions all are within the Region I-Region II spectrum of the old U.C. Davis scale. I look to the warmer parts among them, such as the Middle Reach of the Russian River Valley, to give dense, textured and frankly flamboyant Pinot Noirs. The cooler areas yield silkier, more delicate and perhaps more complex Pinots, with the most complex of all coming from those places so impacted by the coast that, in a chilly year like 2011, the grapes might not get fully ripe. But in a more moderate year, like 2012, look out.

There’s no point in pitting these styles one against the other. It’s petulant to do so. Which is why I hold that, when it comes to Pinot Noir, California has achieved—finally—a degree of variation, based on terroir, that we long envied among the French. We need envy France no more—what we need is further exploration, fueled and paid for by consumers willing to pay the bottle price, because they know that California coastal Pinot Noir needs to offer no apologies, to anyone, for being what it is.

I do think that the lower the alcohol is on Pinot Noir, the more it will reflect its particular soil conditions; there is an inverse relationship between ripeness and the soil part of terroir. In this respect, it’s important to keep in mind that the soil part of terroir is to some extent at odds with the grape itself. Which will dominate? I see this as a pitched battle between two sides. There is a school of thought that roots for terroir, another school that roots for the fruit itself. (One might almost conclude that this is the essence of the difference between “old world” and “new world” palates.) Ideally, Pinot Noir, and all wines actually, is the result of an exquisite balancing act between terroir and grape, the sort of equilibrium sometimes referred to as “tension” or “nerve,’ which is more than just piquant acidity. It’s rarely achieved; one hopes that any wine that gets a high score from a reputable critic comes close. This touches upon the ripeness conversation we’ve all been having, but does not resolve it because, in truth, there is no resolution.

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