You’ve probably read about it: According to Fox News, a new study out of Spain has been widely reported to “prove” that “People think weaker wine tastes better.”
But, in fact, the study doesn’t show that at all; and much of the second-hand reporting on the study actually shows how lazy journalists can be.
For example, the Fox account of the study claims that “people think wine with a lower alcohol content tastes [better] because it allows them to focus on the diverse flavor profiles of the beverage.”
That’s a pretty sweeping statement. If you’ve been deep into the alcohol-level tall weeds, as I’ve been, you might think, “Wow, that gives credence to the In Pursuit of Balance argument.” But, in fact, if you read through the entire Fox report, you won’t find a single wine variety mentioned. You will find the implication that wine with 12 percent alcohol “induce[s] a greater…exploration of sensory attributes” than wines in the 14-15 percent range, or higher.
Well, let’s think about that for a minute. Do you really want to drink a 12 percent Zinfandel? A 12 percent Petite Sirah? A 12 percent Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc or Viognier? In fact, let’s be even more generous and raise the alcohol level on those six varieties to 13 percent. What do you think they’d taste like in California?
Not very good. They wouldn’t be ripe—nowhere near ripe. They’d be all sour in acidity, with chlorophyll flavors and tart green fruit. This is why California vintners allow those varieties to get ripe enough to yield wines above 14 percent and usually above 14.5 percent. In the case of Zinfandel and Viognier, sometimes the alcohol level is 15 percent or higher.
When we’re talking about Pinot Noir (and sometimes Chardonnay), the story is, of course, different. California can indeed produce splendid Pinots below 14 percent in a good vintage, as the recent I.P.O.B. tasting showed. But to use the Spanish study to “prove” that consumers don’t like any wine over 14 percent is completely misleading.
Let’s look at the study itself, not just Fox’s reporting. Its key finding—the one seized upon by so much of the media—is, “significantly greater activation [of the brain’s flavor-processing regions] was found for low-alcohol than for high-alcohol content wines…”. It is this assertion that led to such headlines as:
“Does weak wine taste BETTER?” (Daily Mail)
and “Taste Perception Higher With Lower Alcohol Wines” (The Drinks Business)
But, again, the actual study did not identify specific grape varieties that were given to the subjects. (Does anyone really think that a low- alcohol Zinfandel from Amador County or an unripe Viognier from Russian River is “more appealing” than a ripe one?) All the study says is that the wines tasted “were red Spanish [varieties] coming from Rioja, Navarra, and Cataluña),” of unidentified grape varieties (although we can presume they were old varieties like Garnacha, Tempranillo and Monastrell; there may have been some Cabernet and/or Merlot blended into them to make them richer). All of the 26 subject tasters were Spanish. From this, we can infer that the subjects all had palates geared towards Spanish (not California) wines. We also can infer that, in all probability, they are not familiar with our California wines that routinely clock in higher than 14.5 percent alcohol. And so, it seems to me, the study has very little application to an assessment of ripeness and alcohol levels in California wines.
Discover Magazine also reported on the Spanish study and also read into it things that are not supported by the facts. They wrote: “people tend to pay more attention to the flavor when the alcohol content is low.” Well, I would wager that if you give a big, tasty California Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet, Viognier, etc. to anyone, even Europeans, they would not and could not indict it for lacking in flavor! Some of them might not care for that particular wine—but they’d pay attention. And that’s what makes the world go ‘round: Different strokes for different folks. That doesn’t bother me at all—but sloppy reporting does. The Spanish study simply doesn’t support the “low alcohol wines are better” headlines.
Writer David Darlington makes the case, perhaps unwittingly, for how hard it is to explain why alcohol levels are higher in Russian River Valley Pinot Noir than they used to be, in his article, “Accounting for Taste,” in the April issue of Wine & Spirits. (Sorry, I can’t find a link online.)
After first positing that today’s wines are, in fact, higher in alcohol than, say, twenty years ago—an unarguable statement—David makes his position immediately known, calling “so many so monstrous.” At one point, he even calls them “dangerous.”
Now these are awfully harsh words: surprisingly so, coming from the guy who wrote what is possibly the best book on Zinfandel ever, “Angels’ Visits.” But let us grant that Pinot Noir is not Zinfandel.
After having slammed so many Pinots, David at least has the reportorial curiosity to ask why alcohol levels have risen. He phrases his question thusly: “Are the winemakers responsible, or is it attributable to something beyond their control?”
And then cannot answer the question. Which is, of course, beyond his own control, for the fact of the matter is, there is no one answer why alcohol levels have increased. David certainly did his homework, interviewing multiple winemakers in an effort to find out why. Here are ten causes they suggested to him:
- vertical shoot positioning, as opposed to the California sprawl of old
- the market
- consumer preferences
- climate change/global warming
- Dijon clones
- longer hangtime
- super strains of yeast
- younger vines
- warmer fermentations
Well, that’s pretty much the whole nine yards! By article’s end, the reader’s impression can only be confusion. Why are alcohol levels higher now than they used to be? Who knows? Pick a reason—pick any reason—pick them all! But what does any of it have to do with Russian River Pinot Noir being “monstrous”? Well, with that remark, David at least is honest, if hyperbolic, about his bias.
The winery that David holds up for particular praise is Small Vines. I personally can attest to the quality of their Pinot Noirs: I gave them eight 90-points-or-higher scores over the years, and since I left, Virginie Boone has given them another four. With all this talk of low alcohol, I was curious to know what Small Vines’ levels have been. Google brought me to The Prince of Pinot; this article shows that alcohol levels in Small Vines Pinot Noirs varied between 13.2% and 14.5%, with seven of the 15 wines The Prince reviewed above 14%. This is not particularly low, and is in league with most of the Pinot Noirs I reviewed from coastal California, which were anywhere between 13.8% and 14.5%.
I’m glad David quoted the great Merry Edwards, who reduced the low-alcohol movement in Pinot Noir to incoherence. “The fashion norm is shifting now,” she told him; “people are listening to Raj Parr (the In Pursuit of Balance ringleader), and French marketing has convinced people that you should pay a lot of money for wines that are light and watery. I’m on the opposite side—we’re not in France, we’re in California”
Light and watery! You go grrl! When one has been in the arena as long as Merry (she’s been making wine since 1974), one sees “fashion” come and go with merry-go-round (excuse the pun) regularity—and one learns not to succumb to it.
It can be hard to resist fashion, if all you want to do is appeal to the latest trend. But winemakers who are dedicated to their art are not slaves to fashion. They stay the course; they know that style goes in and out, but that true quality in winemaking, as exemplified by Merry Edwards, remains undeterred by these perturbations in the critical aether.
I like beer, but didn’t have much of a chance to enjoy it when I was tasting and reviewing wine. Popping the corks on at least 15 different bottles a day, and then sitting there thinking and writing about them, took so much effort that I had little time or energy left over for any other kind of alcoholic beverage.
All that changed fairly dramatically a year ago, when I took my new job at Jackson Family Wines. Suddenly, I didn’t have to taste a gazillion wines anymore. (Not that I’d minded it—I loved, and still love, reviewing wine.) All the samples that had flooded my doorstep for so many years abruptly ceased.
Well, not 100%. Although Wine Enthusiast, and I personally, did our best to notify California wineries that I wasn’t working there anymore, wine still comes to me with some regularity. I always send it back, of course, but if you’re a California winery, and reading this, please take note: I DON’T WORK AT WINE ENTHUSIAST ANYMORE!
Anyhow, shortly after I started the new gig, I decided to get back into beer. Nowadays, you’ll always find a few bottles chilling in my fridge. Starting at 5 p.m.—Happy Hour, yay!–I like to have some in a frosty mug I keep in the freezer.
What kind of beer? It can be anything, but it’s often an India Pale Ale. I don’t claim to know much about beer, except that I like it (hey, if all there is on a hot summer afternoon is Bud Lite, count me in!). But I do know that I like that big, hoppy IPA style, which I also recognize as the California Cabernet Sauvignon-equivalent of beer: full-bodied, rich and heady.
This article, which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Inside Scoop online portal, gives a nice summary of where beer trends are at here in the Bay Area. The author is Jon Bonné, who recently announced that he’s stepping down from his fulltime gig as wine editor of the paper, although he’ll continue a monthly column of some sort. Now Jon, as we all know, made his bones by coming out against the prevailing style of California wine, which is ripe, sunshiney power. Jon favors the In Pursuit of Balance style of lower alcohol wines that many in the IPOB crowd consider more classic and elegant than your typical Napa Valley Cab or, for that matter, Pinots that are riper than—oh, I don’t know, let’s say 13.8%. So I didn’t find it surprising that, in his article, Jon came out against “the hoppy amping-up of American craft beers” as evidenced by “the style that defines most IPAs…”. In fact—just to make sure that we readers understand that hoppy IPAs and big Cabernets are crimes against their respective beverage groups—the craftsmen who produce them, according to Jon, are profiting from a “follow-the-money argument,” which means, presumably, that the producers Jon doesn’t care for are venal.
Well, I’ll let those producers make their own rebuttals. Here’s Jon’s: “The arms race of oak, extraction and jammy flavors, which proved successful for a previous generation of Cabernet makers, is a direct parallel to the hoppy amping-up of American craft beers.” Both drinks are “flavor bombs”; neither is part of the “avant-garde” which Jon so assiduously courts.
I should think Jon might have modified his views following his recent visit to Paris—his beloved France, source of “balanced” wines, and original home of the avant-grade—where he discovered, evidently to his dismay, that “the French craft brewing renaissance is currently populated by hopheads, and obsessed with IPAs…”. I guess forty million Frenchmen can be wrong.
But the real point is that Jon has not served the California wine industry well. He dismissed a large part of its best wines, in many cases refusing even to review them in the Chronicle despite being sent tasting samples, and thus distorting reality to his readers. This has disturbed many California winemakers, who were afraid to criticize Jon publicly for fear of retribution. My own position has been consistent: It’s unprofessional for a wine critic to throw so many wines produced in his own home region under the bus by refusing to even taste them. It’s a fundamental axiom in wine criticism that you don’t have to like a wine in order to review it fairly. You review it within the context of what it purports to be. For example, I might not like Sherry (in fact, I do), but even if I didn’t, I’d feel honor-bound to recognize what a good sherry is, and then to give good sherries good scores.
Jon never gave so many California wines the chance to just be what they are, simply because of a number—alcohol percentage by volume. Instead, he trashed these wines with epithets like “fruit bombs” and “male swagger.” Such snarkiness may have made him a hero to IPOB, but not to many of our state’s winemakers, who might be forgiven for being happy now that he’s gone. Personally, maybe I can finally get into the cool kids’ avant-garde club even though I like Napa Cab and IPAs!
If there’s a new no-makeup, or low makeup, look for women—and the Wall Street Journal says there is–then I’m a fan. I never did like that Tammy Faye Bakker over-the-top clown face, although I did like Tammy Faye herself, who seemed to be a big-hearted, fair-minded, loving woman who never hesitated to part company with her co-religionists when she felt they were wrong on an issue.
The WSJ article suggests that the tendency for stars such as Jennifer Anniston and Reese Witherspoon to “brave the big screen with little-to-no visible makeup” is a welcome alternative to the “fully made-up look of [the] Kardashian sisters,” a look that “social media [has] helped spread…”. Cosmetic companies, the article reports, “are responding with lighter foundations, sheerer lip glosses and new products” that allow women’s faces to look like what they really are, rather than somebody’s fantasy of what they should be.
This is great news: what America has always needed are people comfortable in their own skins.
And the wine connection? Pretty obvious, really. You can draw a straight line between the no-makeup look and the emerging taste among American wine drinkers for wines that are less oaky and less extracted.
We can all agree that there is such a trend. You hear it from sommeliers and from consumers themselves. Wineries are listening and reacting accordingly. I do not believe that things are as dire as some winemakers and some wine writers allege; we don’t hear overwhelming consumer demand for no oak, or for wines that must be below 14% alcohol by volume. What consumers want are wines that taste of the grapes, and not of toasted barrels and prunes. Well, we all want that.
Actually, speaking of poor Tammy Faye (she died in 2007), the winemaker Jean-Noel Formeaux du Sartel, who co-founded (with his wife, Marketta) Chateau Potelle (whose Mount Veeder estate was purchased by the Jackson family in 2007), twenty-plus years ago told me, as we sipped his fabulous VGS Zinfandel on the winery’s deck, that in his view too many California wines were “like Tammy Faye Bakker,” in that they were too big, extracted, ripe and oaky. His vision was to craft wines more in “the French style”: balanced and elegant. So this current importuning for “balance” is nothing new.
However it has picked up steam, and social media has certainly played a role in that. I’m onboard, if this movement really is about balance and not an ideological quest for a sort of ethnic cleansing in wine. I do think our era is defined, in part, by a desire for a new kind of simplicity and purity. Post-Sept. 11, post-Great Recession, and still in the midst of political and cultural schism, we collectively yearn for a stripping-away of what’s irrelevant, so that we can focus on the real, the true, the sincere, the credible. This applies to women’s faces; it applies to wines; it applies to the foods we put into our bodies. It’s a good revolution to have, and to be part of.
* * *
Correction: An earlier edition of this story misstated the date of Tammy Faye Bakker’s death.
- 9 of the 12 Chardonnays have alcohol below 14%
- 13 of 16 Other Whites have alcohol below 14%
- 8 of 9 Sparkling Wine, Rose and Others have alcohol below 14%
- 18 of 23 Pinot Noirs have alcohol below 14%
Did these wines make the cut because they really are the “top” wines of the vintage, or because the alcohol is low, which is where Wine Editor Jon Bonné prefers it to be?
Jon did select numerous Cabernet Sauvignons, red Rhone-style wines, Zinfandels and Other Reds that have well above 14% alcohol, but I suppose that’s because he had to include those varieties on his list, and for the most part, those grapes just don’t make good wine unless the brix is elevated enough to produce wines in the 14%s and even approaching if not exceeding 15%.
I’m simply puzzled. There are so many great Pinots and Chardonnays out there that don’t fit Jon’s restricted mold. And what’s up with that Calera 2012 Central Coast Pinot that made the list? At 14.6%, it’s easily the highest-alcohol Pinot of Jon’s bunch, but it certainly isn’t a Top 100 Wine of the year. I reviewed it last March 1, just a week before leaving my job at Wine Enthusiast, and gave it 86 points. It’s just what you’d expect: Not Josh Jensen’s top Pinot, not anywhere close to it, but his least expensive ($26), a nice everyday sipper that’s a blend of multiple vineyards along the Central Coast. (I think Josh must be praising the Gods of Caprice for that one!)
Haven’t we ridden this low-alcohol train about as far as it can usefully take us? There’s something fundamentally mashugana about it. I use the word “mashugana,” which is of Yiddish origin, deliberately, for in my version of street parlance, it means, not just “crazy,” but nonsensical. For it’s nonsensical to demand that California wine be picked underripe, just to satisfy the intellectual inclinations of a small band of adherents.
Jon himself seems not to sense the inconsistencies in his approach. In his introduction to the Top 100 article (after mentioning he’d hung out recently with Steven Spurrier), he tells us that, back in 1976, California wine “was as good as French” (a fact obvious to anyone after Cali wine swept the Paris Tasting). Then he adds that, whilst in London, “Our [i.e. California’s] wine promise was again unmistakable.” In fact, repeating a theme he’s held for some years, he trumpets “This is a golden moment for American wine,” which presumably means California wine, or certainly West Coast wine, “which is the scope of our annual Top 100 Wines.”
Well, if California wine was great 38 years ago, and has been in a “golden moment” for the few years that Jon’s been praising it, are we then to assume that between 1977 and 2008 or 2009, California wine was bad, unbalanced, irregular? I don’t think any credible person could claim that. Certainly our wines are wonderful now (the best really are world class), but they were wonderful in the 1970s and 1980s (when I started paying attention to them) and they were wonderful in the 1990s and 2000s (when I was paid to review them). They were wonderful through the second week of March of this year, when I left my old job, and they’re wonderful now, although I will confess I no longer taste as widely as I used to nor as broadly as Jon. But how much can have changed since last March? I would say California is in a golden century, not just a moment.
It takes, I think, a special form of mental jujitsu to dismiss higher-alcohol California wine, as Jon does, and then to come out with a statement like “Eight years ago, it would have been hard to imagine a wine like the 2013 Lo-Fi Cabernet Franc,” a wine that made Jon’s list. Well, it took me all of 40 seconds to go to my database and find Jonata’s 2007 El Alma de Jonata Red, a wine that is largely Cabernet Franc. I gave it 96 points, and while I don’t know precisely what the alcohol was, I really don’t care, either. And how about Lang & Reed? Great Cab Franc house, and has been for years. I could also mention Merryvale, Pride Mountain, Jarvis (both the estate grown and Will Jarvis’ Science Project), Peju, Constant and La Jota. All great Cab Francs. There was a Niebaum-Coppola 2002 Cabernet Franc that was so good, I still remember it. But perhaps Jon never tried it; he only arrived at the Chronicle in 2006.
I don’t mean to pick on Jon or anybody else. Shortly after he came to the Chronicle, I invited him to dinner, because I thought we Bay Area geeks should all be friends. He’s a perfectly nice guy. But I just don’t get this addiction to below 14% wines. Blind tasting clearly is the way to figure out what’s really going on—just ask Raj Parr and Adam Lee, if you know what I mean and I think most of you do. (Hint: World of Pinot Noir, 2011.)
If the Chron’s tasting panel really were tasting blind, their list wouldn’t be so heavy on the under-14% wines. It’s just not fair to be so harsh against all the others. I thought critics weren’t supposed to let their personal preferences affect their reviews. Have times changed?
The blog Gargantuan Wine has an interesting post, “Dark Secrets of the 100 Point Wine Scale,” that identifies a “pair of endemic faults” the author says are not only “shameful” but “which are seemingly never discussed.”
Well, never mind that they are constantly discussed, in blogs, newspaper columns and the like. The first “endemic fault” is what the author calls “glass ceilings for certain wines.” He points out that certain varieties never seem to get high scores, no matter how good they are. He cites the example of Beaujolais. He asks: “Why can’t a flawless vin de soif, or ‘quaffer’ — even if that very term conceals an unfair stigma — park itself in an upscale, 90 point neighborhood, without a stop and frisk? For some reason, we relegate even exceptionally tasty, inexpensive wines to an 86-88 point ghetto.”
This is true enough. There’s are reasons for it, which I’ll get to shortly, but first, I’ll point out that even when I was a working wine critic, I wondered about this. I myself gave comparatively few ultra-high scores over my career, but it is true that Chardonnay trended far higher than Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir trended far higher than Zinfandel, say, or Barbera or Sangiovese. Since I reviewed California wine, I didn’t have the pleasure of reviewing Beaujolais, Sancerre, Alsace, Hermitage or any of the other fabulous French wines I like. But I totally “get” Gargantuan Wine’s criticism, that a great Beaujolais seems to max out at 88 points regardless of how wonderful it is.
I said there are reasons for this. Here are two:
- In every sort of contest in which there are winners and losers, there are certain parameters. They may be spelled out explicitly, or they may be tacitly understood, but either way, they’re there. In the Academy Awards, comedies almost never win Best Picture. Why not? Don’t ask me, ask the members of the Academy who do the voting! But I can infer that most of them feel that drama has more importance, more classic virtues, than comedy. This may be unfair to a film like Tootsie, which lost out in 1982 to Gandhi; Gandhi was Cabernet Sauvignon, Tootsie Beaujolais. I personally think Tootsie is a better movie and will stand the test of time. But there you are. Like Tony Soprano always asked, What are you gonna do?
- The second reason is just as arbitrary: Generations of wine experts have determined that some varieties are inherently “noble.” These include Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, and possibly Syrah. Everything else, no matter how good the wine might be, is less than noble. This, too, is unfair: it’s based on outmoded European systems of royalty and class. But again, there you are: it’s how the system works. No critic is going to give a Beaujolais 100 points (or 5 stars, or whatever), because no critic, in his heart of hearts, believes that Beaujolais is capable of that sort of perfection.
Of course it’s unfair, and Gargantuan Wine is well within his rights to be upset. When he asks, “Can’t a simple rosé…be scored properly for what it is?” I feel his pain. A few nights ago I drank a rosé that was so good, at that particular moment (a warm, muggy night, and I was tired after a long day), that I wouldn’t have traded it for anything else. But had I been reviewing and scoring it, which I wasn’t, I don’t think I would have scored it above 90 points. So I’m not defending the point system, so much as trying to explain why it is the way it is. Perhaps when a younger generation of wine critics takes over (which already is happening), they’ll get away from the “glass ceiling” and we’ll start seeing 100 point rosés and Pinot Grigios. That would be fine with me.
I don’t have much to say about Gargantuan Wine’s second “endemic fault,” what he calls “the deleterious effects of moderation drinking rationale.” It’s an interesting take, but when all is said and done, it’s just another version of the “alcohol levels are too high” critique, which frankly is getting a little stale.
Anyhow, I like Gargantuan Wine as a blog. It’s smart, witty and informative. But I do wish the “About Me” section contained more information. The author’s name, location and employment may be hidden somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. I don’t like “blind reading” blogs; I want to know who the writer is.
Have a great weekend! I’m having an adventure tomorrow: working in the tasting room at Kendall-Jackson. I’ve been in a zillion tasting rooms over the years, but this will be my first time on the other side of the bar. Will report on it this Monday.