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In a nation of sellers, the consumer is king


Had a call from a guy working on his WSET. He’s doing a paper on rising alcohol levels over the last 20 years and wanted my viewpoint.

He began by listing 6 reasons that, in his judgment, account for higher alcohol: later harvest time, climate change, locale (planting in warmer areas, is what I think he meant), viticultural practices, vinification techniques and consumer demand. Then he asked if I thought any of them was more important than the others.

Here’s what I said. “Obviously, one of them is driving the rest.” He knew I was going to say “consumer demand.” The others (excluding climate change, which I’m not sure has a place in this discussion) are manipulatable — they can go any way the owner wants. An owner or winemaker can pick earlier or later, farm the way he wants, make the wine any way he wants. The one uncontrolled factor — the only thing he can’t manipulate — is consumer demand. Which is what matters: a winery is a business, not a charity. Therefore, consumer demand drives all else.

So we have to ask, why is the consumer demanding these high alcohol wines? Well, they’re not demanding high alcohol in itself, they’re demanding lots of fruit. And the way to achieve lots of fruit is extreme ripeness, i.e. high alcohol. It’s an unintended consequences type thing, like energy consumption. Consumers don’t consume gasoline (with all the political, financial and environmental problems it causes) because they like gas. They buy it because they need gas to drive.

Winemakers don’t want to make high alcohol wines; it’s the price they pay for ripeness. Which is why the holy grail is to achieve physiological ripeness at lower brix levels. If there was an easy way to do it, everybody would know, but there’s not. You have to try lots of different things, over many years, and even then, it’s not entirely in your hands. There’s no formula.

The WSET guy wanted to know if the high alcohol trend is reversible. I said that, while cooler vintages in California may be helping, and there’s a critical backlash against high alcohol, in general the answer is, no. We’re not going back to 11.5-12 percent alcohol.

Then he asked if high alcohol leads to homogenization. I said it does, because it leads to similar flavors in all varieties. I’ve said this before, but everytime I do, somebody — usually Charlie Olken — smacks me upside the head. But I do think fruit flavors are all pretty similar across varieties in California. (Do we really need an argument that one area is red cherries and another is black cherries? I don’t think so.) Flavor isn’t hard to achieve: I could grow grapes and get them really flavorful. Just don’t pick until they’re super ripe! But what I couldn’t achieve in wine is structure. And structure requires 3 things: money, talent and good taste (that’s assuming a good vineyard). Even if a winemaker has the first two, that doesn’t mean he has good taste. You’d be surprised at how much bad taste is out there. I constantly am.

So does high alcohol mask terroir? I said I don’t think so. The wines of Saxum have terroir. I know that vineyard. It’s a very special, unique place. It also happens to be in a hot area. Justin Smith’s wines routinely approach and sometimes exceed16%. And yet they’re delicious and compelling. So high alcohol in itself does not mask terroir. (And low alcohol doesn’t necessarily guarantee it.) I told the guy, “If you want to talk to someone who’s on an anti-high alcohol crusade, find Dan Berger. High alcohol doesn’t bother me, if it’s balanced.”

In the end, it all comes down to the consumer. Justin Smith caters his small production to his admirers. So does everybody else. And until the broad mass of consumers says “We’re sick of high alcohol and we won’t take it anymore,” high alcohol isn’t going anywhere.

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  1. Where for art thou, Balance?

  2. Richard says:

    “You’d be surprised at how much bad taste is out there.”

    Bravo Steve – so true in more ways than one, thanks for saying it!

  3. Morton Leslie says:

    Years ago the second largest winery in California hired a new V.P. to head up R&D and Q.C. His previous employer was Pepperidge Farms. After about two months and experiencing part of the harvest he brought everyone together and explained what he had learned. “The problem with making wine was grapes!” How could you control quality in a product that was made from something that changed each year and could vary from one vineyard to another in the amount of color, flavor and chemical composition? To make it worse each prima donna winemaker had a different way of going about the process. The challenge was then, to find a way to make wine from a bunch of ingredients that could be put together with a recipe and be done by loyal technicians who would not question the directions.

    Last harvest I happened to drive by a vineyard that talks a lot about their terroir and fruit forward winemaking and I noticed something odd about the way the men were picking the grapes. I stopped and leaned up against the fence. They were not using knives to cut the clusters off the vine, the were just grabbing the clusters with their hands and snapping the cluster off the vine. With normal grapes this would cause a lot of damage to the cluster, crush a lot of berries, and actually the cluster would not just snap off. But none of that was happening because they were not picking grapes, they were picking raisins. I’m not talking about a little raisining here, these were hard, dry, raisins on dry brownclusters. Brian Croser calls this “dead vine” winemaking. This vineyard calls it physiological ripeness.

    It occurred to me at that moment that the Pepperidge Farm guy would have loved this solution. You basically pick sugar and concentrated phenolics and minimal acid packaged in the form of raisins, soak them up in a measured amount of water, add some yeast food and other ingredients you don’t have to show on the label, ferment and press them, add a measured amount of oak (as extract or one new barrel per 60 gallons of wine), bottle them young when the alcohol smells really fruity and covers up the dense coarse phenolics. You know, get them to the critic before the prune smell sets in.

    It’s a great solution, the wine is pretty much the same every year. It has little varietal aroma that could offend someone, but an intensity that says, “There’s a lot of stuff in here.” It can be made by a novice. The critics, who don’t know any better, will lap up the wine and the cover story about “physiological ripeness”.

    I know if a ’45 Mouton or a ’68 B.V. P.R. were young again and lined up against 20 or 30 2-year-old fruit-forward wines in a blind tasting, they would be panned for having green varietal aromas and hard thin finishes. What they offer(ed) was something that went deeper than the smell of ethanol, the dense color and intensity of extraction, and the lack of acidity. Something that required a great deal of experience and skill in bringing to the table. Something that could only be appreciated by a few dinosaurs prone to wasting their breath talking about by-gone days.

  4. Are you ready for another smack across head? Even a little one?

    I don’t get the notion that red cherries or black cherries or raspberries or currants or plum, black plum, dried plums or sour plum changes all that much whether super ripe or physiologically ripe at lower Brix.

    Today’s Cabernet Sauvignon smells pretty much the way it did 35 years ago, and that is true both here and in the Medoc. And one can smell BV Pri Res and Lynch-Bages and know that they are made from the same grape.

    Getting riper does not mash all the fruit characteristics into one pot. Wine books of three decades ago and six decades ago all agree on the character of the various grapes, and today’s descriptions of those grapes, whether yours or mine or Peynaud’s have not altered that landscape.

    Other than the loss of green characteristics, which our buddy Berger decries as if his birthright were being denied, the overall characteristics of the grapes have not changed. Zinfandel at 14.9% still smells like Zinfandel, not like Cabernet at 14.9%.

    And one final bit of proof. Go visit Shafer and taste their many reds all of which are high alcohol. If you find the Syrah smelling like the Cab and cannot tell them apart blind, then you have a better argument for your point of view. I would argue that they can be told apart–Syrah, Cab and Merlot and yet those wines are all super ripe.

    I hope that little smack did not hurt too much. And, I don’t know about you, but I have been smacked around so much over the last three decades that I rarely notice it anymore.

  5. I think you about got it right, Steve. The only point I’d add is that sometimes producers do misread consumer preferences. The market ain’t always perfect; like wines, it sometimes gets out of balance. And while I think the mass consumer preference is for big, fruit-forward wines, it could be there exists a subset of consumers—not comprising a majority, not even close, but still potentially lucrative—who would pounce on less fruit-heavy wines <14% ABV that deliver nuance and complexity.

  6. Pete, I think the # of people who consciously seek out < 14% can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Well, maybe 2 hands, and a couple feet.

  7. Charlie, I’m getting to like the smackdowns. I get lots of them on the Internet (some blogs really smack me). I don’t care, as long as they’re not hiding in the bushes outside my house.

  8. Pepperidge Farm. Aahh, donuts! Or is it Wonder Bread? We do have our Wonder Bread wines out there.

  9. Richard: My pleasure. In vino veritas.

  10. Steve, I think your affirmation, “winemakers don’t want to make high alcohol wines; it’s the price they pay for ripeness”, seems correct for warmer places like California, Australia, South Africa and Argentina. But cooler places like New Zealand, Chile, France, Oregon, Northern Italy, etc…, are systematically raising alcohol levels through chaptalization; turning originally 12,0-12,5%(ABV) wines into 14,5-15,0% “quasi-spirits”.
    While I agree that high natural alcohol is not an issue in itself (these wines, however, lack natural acidity and winemakers have to pull a trick or two to achieve balance), my view is that today, wine consumers prefer big body, high alcohol, fruit bombs because these wines work well as a stand-alone drink.

  11. Peter, I agree that these wines work as standalone “cocktails.” That also makes them harder to match with food. But there’s no one “consumer.” Instead, there are many different types of consumers, and each winery has to figure out which consumer it’s trying to appeal to. That drives their winemaking decisions, which is the point I tried to make in this post.

  12. I guess we have to define ripeness with more care in these conversations. No one wants green wines anymor–except Dan and Morton. Not the Californians and not the Bordelais. And, the reason why there used to “vintage of the decade”, “vintage of the quarter century” and even “vintage of the century” is that those were the vintages when the grapes in Bordeaux got ripe enough to avoid being green. The fabulous 47s were described in their youth as port-like. That made them into some people’s vintages of the century. How many raisins went into the 15.4% alcohol Cheval Blanc?

    Today, because of all kinds of reasons, mostly the ones you cite above such as longer hang times, climate change and better viticultural conditions (healthy vines and better understandings of those vines), we rarely see disastrous vintages in Bordeaux–or even “green” vintages.

    The grapes of 140 years ago were uniformly low in sugar with wines that measured about 10% or less in alc. Do we really pine for that lost era? Why should we pine for the green wines that were manifest four decades ago? Is older better?

    That said, prunes are prunes are prunes and raisins ain’t fresh grapes. Morton’s scenario invariably yields wines that (a) smell like raisins or prunes regardless of their alcohol levels, (b) have pHs that are off the charts regardless of how much bag acid is thrown in them and (c) finish with sour, chalky characteristics, not with balanced, lasting complexity.

    No competent winewriter mistakes prunes and alcohol for real fruit. No competent winewriter, even those who allow that some manipulated wines taste good in the here and now, recommends those frontal, soft fruit-bombs for long aging.

    And very few competent writers care whether a wine is 13.8 or 14.3% in alcohol. The use of numbers in the place of judgment is simply not practiced by anyone who judges wines by taste, balance, adherence to varietal potential and adherance to the commonality of place.

    We need now and forever more to get away from the notion that the only alternatives are either wines under 14% alcohol or unmannerly, sloppy overdone wines. Those images are far too limiting, and they are used as a way of saying, if you do not adhere to my standards for lighter wines, you are damned to drink ponderous crap. Sorry boys and girls, but that is patent nonsense.

  13. Carlos Toledo says:

    In the 3rd world , where i was born and currently live people couldn’t care less for the alcohol content. All they care about is price and taste (read fruit, and general balance).

    Who can tell apart whether a wine is 12, 13, 13.5, or 14 GL?? We can’t.

    Very pertinent article…..

  14. Carlos, I think it’s the same here, except for a very small number of critics and aficienados.

  15. The last Saxum I experienced seemed like the juice of prunes stewed (and I mean cooked) in brandy, but I was told by experts on these matters that I don’t know what I’m tasting, and that the wines are great!

    Silly me.

  16. Thomas, I know you’re being facetious, but you raise a very important point, namely, we all have different tastes! I like Saxum, usually, and I suppose I’m an “expert” (he said modestly). But I would never say that if you find Saxum overripe then you don’t know what you’re talking about. Your point of view is completely valid.

  17. Steve,

    This always seems like a bit of a “Which came first, the chicken or the egg” type question to me. How did wineries come to know that consumers wanted riper wines? By making riper wines? So did consumer demand drive the winery, or did the winery create consumer demand?

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  18. Adam, it’s never that simple. But it’s not an either/or. It was a nexus of both causes that produced the effect. But I think the weight is with the consumer. Once Jess Jackson accidentally made a slightly sweet Chardonnay the consumer reacted with great force. And with K-J’s success, other wineries followed suit. That this coincided with the rise of Parker is not a coincidence.

  19. steve, about your remark,”each winery has to figure out which consumer its trying to appeal to. That drives their winemaking decisions”…that best fits wines having no point of view. of COURSE they’ll chase consumers when they don’t know what to stand for, or don’t have anything different than the next guy to stand on. no risk and easy breezy. it’s those wines that have a distinct point of view that will break ranks, and alcohol levels. the revolution is coming, my friend. we hope!

  20. Stephanie, I think all wineries chase consumers. Some make a point of saying they don’t, but if they thought nobody wanted to buy their “terroir-driven” wines, they’d change direction pretty quickly, you betcha! Small wineries are maybe better suited to make wines with “a distinct point of view,” but even they eventually figure out who their consumers are, and then they cater to them.

  21. I work for a winery that strives for better balance, brighter acids, better structure and present flavors. We do all this with ripe fruit and come in at ~ 14% abv. It takes a lot of extra work…we berry-sort at the crush pad, and pull out raisins and overripe berries. Backbreaking and costly in labor, but we achieve elegant wines that are not hot and are full of varietal character.

    When presenting these wines to consumers, we repeat your story over and again…the discussion of consumer demand for fleshy, fruit driven wines is a familiar one.

    While our wines may not be showstoppers, and would not score well on the RP scale, we feel that we are producing a style of wine that has long-term viability in today’s marketplace.

    We feel the pendulum of consumer demand swinging back towards graceful and balanced wines….do you?

  22. Wine structure requires money? Winemaking talent, yes. But money?
    Steve, respectfully I ask, what wines are you primarily tasting? I taste (and sometimes represent) wines from small growers around the world who are miraculously producing amazing wines (and structured) without a huge stash of cash.
    Of course, like many wine attributes, it comes down to a question of personal taste. Does structure equate expensive new oak barrels? Or why do you think wine structure needs money thrown at it?
    Cheers, Amy

  23. Steve, Higher alcohol wines offer the perception of more body/richness and sweetness. Sweetness is often confused with fruitiness. It may be that the alcohol directly increases the fruit-driven perception and there are actually no more ripe fruit flavors being produced in the grape while waiting to pick later.

  24. THere’s nothing new about this debate. In 1898 George Hussman of the University of California, in a report to the state legislature, lamented Napa’s tendency to produce big, fat wines.

    “Rainless summers produced a fruit very high in sugar, and the wines made from it were “heavy” and “heady.” The French and German vintners (of California) fell into the error of letting the grapes hang on until they were very ripe, as was the custom of their native countries, where they could hardly obtain a thoroughly ripened product except in the best of seasons.”

    Hussman believed that California wines would never be taken seriously until they lowered ripeness and alcohol levels.

    More than a hundred years later, the argument continues.

  25. Steve, I’m not so sure I agree with that last comment. A winery has to reach a certain size, one in which a certain level of critical mass (or replace with ‘pull-through from a group of consumers they don’t know’), before it can truly “cater to them.”

    My sense is that, at least as far as ours are concerned, we make wines in a style appropriate to our vineyards, appellation, and philosophy and hope we find enough like-palated people around to flourish.

    Hell, I have a difficult-enough time knowing my own palate without trying to divine those of my potential consumers.

  26. Not going back to lower alc wine, eh Steve? WRONG AGAIN!!! Balance is back! Leave it to a guy who doesn’t even make wine to offer miscalculations and outright off-mark statements about the future of winemaking. Geez.

    My 2008 line up doesn’t have a single wine over 14% (most are under 13%) and although most are still in brl (which is the correct way in barreling), they’re being received really well by my clients. This quote by you will be added to my list of quotes you’ll be eating years down the road.

    High sugars DO cook or stew out much of the terroir that was in the grape earlier in the season. If you don’t trust me, I invite anyone out to my small RRV vineyards come harvest and I’ll SHOW YOU what happens to the grape once full ripeness has been acheived (our harvest day) and then what happens to the delicate terroir-driven flavors once dimpling sets in and eventaully dehydration and shrivel. Now I know some of you older cats are more familiar with shrivel, but I assure you… Shrivel is not a good thing esp when it comes to grape and the crafting of world-class wine. Unlike the effect of cialis, hydration and fake acidification at the crushpad doesn’t maek up for SHRIVEL. I think ED is a serious issue with winemakers and owners who like big wines. lol, a corellation pehaps? Similar to many of the winemaker women who make in your face tannic huge wines… Penis envy? ok, now I’m digressing.

    What no one is talking about are these wines that are made with big booze and high glycerin content DON’T are worth shit! So these high scores with just a few years in btl are already plateauing with not much more interesting profiles than what were in there at bottling day. How can these wine be held up as fine examples of world-class wine when they won’t age? Why? Simply because they taste fat, plush and round right out of the btl?

    As the wine consumer evolves, they’ll be looking for wines that are turning down the volume not up! Mr Berger is spot on with his assessment of lower alc wines. They just taste better.

  27. Randy, a couple things. First, I said we’re not going back to 11.5-12 percent, and we’re not. Period. Second, to equate “world class wine” with ageability is an arbitrary definition. Finally, it’s not an either-or choice between fat, plush wines and leaner ones. California produces excellent examples of both. Last night I had an earthy, herbal Cab Franc-Merlot blend from Lake County that was the opposite of the modern Napa style, and it was a terrific, compelling and probably ageworthy wine. But I also do love that fat, ripe style right out of the bottle. Do I have to choose between them? Of course not, and neither does the consumer.

  28. And, of course, the notion that all wines above 14% alcohol must be fat, sloppy and unable to age is simply disproved by wines like Spottswoode, Shafer Hillside and hundreds of others.

    Randy simply defines the world too narrowly (i. e., in his own image) and then declares to be “the way”. Now, no one should or does begrudge Randy, or Dan Berger for that matter, his preferences but preference is simply not truth.

    Apparently Randy is too young to have ever tasted Gary Farrell’s wines when he was making them at his own winery or the wines he is making at Alysian. And those wines are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to wines that disprove their pet theories.

  29. I have tasted 1947 Cheval Blanc at least 3 times over the last 20 years and it was obviously aging perfectly. I believe the alcohol was over 14.4%.

  30. Even though climate change may not have a place in this discussion, increasing temperatures, particularly in Europe, are due to a change in climate. Vines were grown in northern England and today we see great wines ready to Champion classic wines and Champagne alike! 🙂

  31. A wines’ ability to lay down for a period of time and become more of a complex and integrated wine IS part of the definition of world-class wine. Otherwise, we’re simply making a cocktail to be consumed with in a few years.

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