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Truth, lies and alcohol in California wine


Every so often, as the defender of Trust, Justice and California wine, I have to stand up for my state against the heathens who attack it. This can be dirty, hard work, but somebody has to do it.

There are certain templates in wine journalism that writers drag out when they’re on deadline and can’t figure out anything better to write about. One of these is to bash California wine for being (you know where this is going) too high in alcohol. Asimov, over at the Times, does it a lot. It’s a Pavlovian response, I suppose, because when these writers level that accusation, they get rewarded by all kinds of citations and agreements from elsewhere that burnish their halos as arbiters of good taste. The latest bashathon comes, unfortunately, not from a New Yawkah but from a Californian, a good writer named Jordan Mackay, the wine and spirits editor for a magazine I once wrote for, San Francisco. (The article is not yet available online.)

Let’s start with Jordan’s headline: “The fruit bomb resistance.” I was actually alerted to the article by my cousin Keith, who knows a little but not too much about wine. He’d saved it for me because, he explained, he found himself largely agreeing with it. After I read it, I told Keith that the article could have been written years ago, and, in fact, was, by Dr. Vino, in his blog, “Is the clock ticking on hedonistic fruit bombs?” People have been complaining about high alcohol in California wine for a decade if not longer, so the point is rather stale. (I also told Keith that, if he doesn’t like these high alcohol California wines, I can always stop bringing them to his house, an idea he didn’t seem to support.)

Jordan early on in his tale posits the existence of “the long-standing rift between the high alcohol faction and the low alcohol camp…that has become increasingly wide.” But there is really no such “rift” in California. To suggest that there is is to set up a straw man and a false basis on which to advance one’s argument. Jordan, having identified himself with the “low alcohol camp,” now uses phrases such as “a world gone mad with its attraction to high alcohol wines” as a way to paint such wines as liked only by crazy people. He next points out how Alan Meadows, the Burghound, “has shown a willingness to criticize wines for over-ripeness and excessive alcohol,” as though such a “willingness” on the part of a professional critic were a kind of begrudged conversion from a position previously defended to a more rational conclusion–namely, one that Jordan agrees with. But good critics will criticize any wine for imbalance, including wines unbalanced with high alcohol. I do all the time. To use the phrase “show a willingness” is misleading. One shows a willingness to change one’s mind even though to do so may be painful. But I’ve never heard of a critic who pulled a 180 from admiring high alcohol wines to criticizing them. Parker likes high alcohol wines and consistently defends them, which is why, I think, Jordan refers to him as a “sneering” critic.

Jordan also trots out the old fable that a high alcohol wine “rarely exhibits any sense of the vineyard where its grapes were grown.” (As if a lower alcohol single vineyard wine is guaranteed to exhibit terroir.) Really? The Paul Hobbs 2007 Stagecoach Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon begs to differ. So does Janzen’s ‘07 Cloudy’s Vineyard Cabernet and, moving into other varieties, Melville’s 2009 Carrie’s Pinot Noir and Diatom’s 2009 Babcock Vineyard Chardonnay and others I could name. All these wines exceed 15% in alcohol. And that’s not even counting all the great wines with official alcohols of 14.9% but could well be, and in many cases are, into the 15s, given the Fed’s wide latitude in such matters. So I often wonder if these high alcohol bashers don’t make up their minds by simply looking at the label and thinking, “Hmm, if it’s 15-plus percent, it can’t be good.”

Most of my highest scoring wines are below 15% (assuming the labels are accurate). That’s true across the varietal board. But that’s precisely my point: when people like Jordan criticize California wines that are well into the 15s, they’re deliberately seeking out unbalanced high alcohol wines. Any wine region produces unbalanced wines. California has plenty of 15-plus wines that are hot and flabby, and when I review them, I knock them down. What gets me is the implication that all high alcohol California wines are unbalanced because some are unbalanced. And even worse is the implication that most California wines are high in alcohol except for the handful (Corison, ABC, etc.) Jordan approvingly cites. Most California wines are not high in alcohol. I suspect I taste a lot more California wines than Jordan, so I’m on firmer ground than he is when I declare that the majority of California wines are below 15%, including a majority of the great ones.

Readers of this blog know that I’ve always said you can’t bash wines just because the alcohol level is high. So when Jordan writes “…drinking a wine with a high level of alcohol…gets in the way of my enjoyment,” he’s putting down an entire class of California wines that have enjoyed the support of, not only consumers, but a majority of the world’s wine critics. It may be true that some people such as Rajat Parr (whom Jordan references, and also explains is his coauthor for Secrets of the Sommeliers) also bash high alcohol wines, but to cite Parr in such matters, as opposed to, say, Parker, is simply to bring a friendly but prejudiced witness to the stand to testify in your behalf. Rajat Parr is just another celebrity somm with a bias against California wines, as anyone who’s read Secrets of the Sommeliers knows only too well.

  1. Interesting – I’d prefer of course to read the article as well but will need to wait until it’s available online I suppose.

    “What gets me is the implication that all high alcohol California wines are unbalanced because some are unbalanced.”

    I do agree (removing this from the context of the article itself for a moment) that high abv bad wine. However, there’s a good deal of not-so-great high-abv juice floating around, as you say, so I think one could be forgiven for associating high abv with a less-than-optimal drinking experience.

    But as always I’d add the caveat that it’s not high abv that’s at fault, it’s **unbalanced** wine that is the culprit. High abv means that you probably need higher levels of a wine’s other constituent components – acidity, fruit, etc. – to counterbalance the impression of the booze factor. So, looked at another way, one could easily say that in those cases it’s low acid that masks the wines true potential.

    BTW, I know that you know all of this. 🙂


  2. Bill Green says:

    This is like arguing that Fellini is a better director than Hitchcock. Only the fanatics on either side give a damn.

  3. Dude, I do know it. It’s important to say it again: Every wine region makes bad wine, especially one as large as California. To pick out the bad ones, and then to bash the entire category of high alcohol wines, is to engage in the equivalent of racial profiling for wine.

  4. I think there are some people that just do not like wines over 13.9. The reason is that it affects them and they cannot drink as much, therefore the wine MUST be imbalanced.

    Really, I prefer to be able to drink more than one glass of wine but sometimes the higher alc wines need appropriate foods for me to do that.

    Another aspect of this is that perhaps wineries/winemakers are being more honest than some wineries of past. I think we all have tasted wines and then looked at the label to check the alc level thinking ‘that can’t be right’.

    People who cut there wine knowledge teeth on euopean wines can be biased as to the new world wines that can have lots more fruit and also acl, but of course they oooh and aaahhh over Ports don’t they? LOL

  5. California, Australian and to some degree Chilean and Argentinian will be “naturally” higher in sugar at optimal ripeness than France and Italy given lower relative lattitudes and warmer growing conditions. To consistently pick wines in these areas at a Brix which would result in a 12 or 13% wine, you would end up with a lot of green and ultimately unpleasant flavors (well, at least for most of us). While California wine can attain ripeness at lower ETOH levels (e.g. 2010 as well certain sites/varietals), as a rule, more plush wines will be made here, consistent with the “terrior”. If you like this style, then buy new world wines. If you do not like this style, then buy old world wines. Its as simple as that. And if you must criticize with your keyboard (as opposed to your wallet), then I could could counter that many “Old World” wines are bretty, austere, tart and require ridiculous amounts of time to become drinkable. Plus, when the best of California go head to head with the best of the old world in blind competitions, more often than not the California wines come out on top.

  6. Andy, I couldn’t have said it better myself! Thanks.

  7. gdfo, great point about ports. I actually feel there should be another classification between Table Wine and Port/Dessert Wine. Something like Dry Port for 15% to 18% ABV dry wines. Not sure this is exactly the right term, but this would help. No one would compare a port to a table wine, or a Pinot to a Cab. Yet Dry Ports are regularly compared to Table Wines. How does one compare a classic 13.5% ABV Cab to a 15.5% one? It’s not that one is hot and the other is not; rather it’s that the ripeness, mouth-feel and density are so very different.

    At any rate, after tasting a bunch of Zins in Amador last weekend, I can tell you that giant high alcohol wines, some with noticeable RS, are alive and well. For every spicy, peppery Zin I tasted, there were several raisiny, syrupy ones. But it seems people like these wines. Who am I to say they shouldn’t drink them? These Zins aren’t preventing old world influenced producers like Terre Rouge and Noceto from existing.

  8. Raley Roger says:

    I’ve often found the Diatom wines, in particular, to be great examples of complex, enjoyable, arresting wines. I’m also a fan of SQN, also usually above 15%.
    I’ve noticed with celebrity somms and with certain critics, that they kind of believe their own hype; they get pretty cocky because they’ve gotten some notice and celebrity. So, the game changes; it becomes more about possessing some kind of controversial or strong opinion or position, rather than just about the sheer love of wine. So, some somms won’t even try high alcohol wines anymore; that’s how close-minded they are. I find that so childish and almost quaint.
    They want to be the popular kids and say stuff that’s cool just for the sake of getting attention. It’s like high school all over again.
    Not saying this is the case with Parr or Mackay. Don’t know either one of them and don’t have a bone to pick but I’ve seen it plenty with other somms and some writers; it’s gets very tiring and tedious.
    Remember that adage during the Clinton years: It’s the economy, stupid.
    Well, I just want to say, It’s the wine, stupid….don’t worry so much about the numbers on the bottle or your own ego. Taste the wine. It’s that simple.

  9. The fact is that California terroir to some winemakers comes from the end of a hose and a bag of acid. I find it absurd that some winemakers let fruit hand until the grapes are so dehydrated that they look like raisins and then talk about their terroir. Make Amerone style wines if that is what you like but call them what they are, wines made from naturally dehydrated grapes. Finding the balance is what is important and if you let it hang to get certain flavors you are sacrificing natural acidity and alcohol levels. I know Steve doesn’t like the term natural wines but most of those monster wines have more in common with wine making kits than grapes.

  10. I think Steve’s blog and Andy’s comments sufficiently encapsulate the High Alcohol Issue in a way that I wish I could quickly hand off to the many who will continue to enter the debate. The more I read on the subject and the more wines I taste I find a growing desire to make my wines with lower alcohol. Though when I am tasting grapes in the vineyard I know that will be a challenge in certain years because, as Andy said, I am in California and I know hang time is key to flavor development.

    Is Complexity the difference between a good and a bad high alcohol wine? Can Integrated Alcohol become part of the discussion on a high alcohol wine? Because even though I want more acidity and lower alcohol in my wines I know from experience that higher alcohol will happen again in a future vintage, especially with certain varietals.

  11. Randy Pitts says:

    It’s good to hear some wine professional in California denounce the syrupy, sweet state on wine country… Even if he’s changed his mind… Better late than to miss the boat entirely.

    There are too numerous of reason to spew out on this blog about why high alc wines are bad for business, bad for the vineyards and bad for society at large so I’ll touch on a few good reasons.

    The syrupy mouth feel that excessive glycerin in the fruit bomb crap offers. Even if it’s “balanced” like many of the “professionals” taught, it doesn’t hide the glossy sweet impression esp with a few short years in bottle.

    High alc wines do not age as well as the traditional style of wines. Because the ph is in the 3.8-4.0 range, there’s no natural acid left to prevent the structure and true personality of the wine to show. This is why the fruit bombs age in barrel a mere year rather than the full term that most world-class dry red wines necessitate.

    High alc wines are disrespectful in nature. Allowing the fruit to sit in the hot October sun to dehydrate out the precious water so they can get a big score is eneologically criminal. Oh and by the way, 20-30% unnecessary weight loss screws the hard working grower from hundreds of dollars per ton. And what’s more offensive is the amount of WATER from the spigot that is dumped into the batch of raisins to “reconstitute”. Screw the guy who grew the fruit, only to water it back after he/she leaves the winery. Nice way to do business.

    Finally, the most significant curse of the “California Cocktail” phenomenon is the lack of nuance and subtly at the nightly dinner table. Big wines (fat clumsy) need big boy meals to pair otherwise the wine overpowers the food leaving the wine to be consumed after dinner as an a… cocktail. Is it possible that big alc monsters are perpetuating the obesity and diabetes rates in our country? Your not going to have a Hobbs with a summer salad, corn on the cobb and grilled chicken… You’re going to need short ribs… fillet of red meat in a massively intense reduction…

    We need two separate distinct classes of wine today. Traditional wine for the nightly table and to cellar with expectations of more layers and nuance to show and the “California Wine cocktail”. Cocktails do not need time in bottle nor would they benefit from more than say two years. Cocktails could all be screw capped and would let the consumer know whether they’re drinking/buying wine or cocktails.

  12. Darek – what’s needed is more work in the vineyard as harvest approaches! I’m working on trying to balance active leaf area to crop load to control rate of sugar accumulation. Um… no results/data for 2010, BTW. But I think I might have a handle on it in a decade or so.

  13. You make an outstanding point: It is about balance, not alcohol level hi/lo. Cold vintage Chablis is often out of balance w/ low alcohol and high acidity.

    Nonetheless–I also find higher alcohol wines to be more likely to be out of balance (and sure, varietal and appellation matter in determining what is “high”).

    Sure, there are exceptions, like the Paul Hobbs cited, and most Pahlmeyer stuff. But, when I don’t know the wine, and I have lots of choices, and the price is high, one (of many) criterion on which I reject a wine is high alcohol. High alcohol is no guarantee of imbalance, but if I am unfamiliar with the wine, I am playing an odds game. And I’ll play those odds every day. Because for every good, balanced, high alcohol wine, there are 10 unbalanced bombs.

    The winemaker’s skill REALLY matters here. That is why accomplished winemaker’s sometimes get treated like celebrities, and wannabes fizzle out. Anybody can make 16% cab. Formula is easy. Wait for sugar. Add nutrients. Use killer yeast. ferment dry. Barrel down in new oak. Making it well, that is difficult!

    I also want to challenge the notion that most CA wine is not high alcohol. Let’s just eliminate from the discussion the mega-brands that all list 13.9% on the label (and make up 90% of CA wine). They were alcohol adjusted. There is nothing wrong with that, but they just aren’t relevant to the conversation.

    Truth is, some of those high alcohol but in-balance wines have been alcohol adjusted too. I know, because I have made a few of them (I am not claiming any of the above mentioned examples as my own). But, that is the lesson about balance, huh?

    High isn’t the problem, (im)balance is.

  14. BTS, when I say most Cali wines aren’t high alcohol, it depends on the definition of “high alcohol.” Most of the high scoring wines I taste are below 15%. I don’t consider anything under that “high alcohol.” And I could have extended the list of high alcohol wines I admire. How about Saxum?

  15. Mike, one word: Syramarone! Except the common practice seems to be to water back once the grapes have raisined.

    Randy, don’t most premium growers sell by the acre, not the ton? I agree there is likely correlation between sugary wines and the soda pop/corn syrup processed food culture in the US. But I don’t think the growers are necessarily getting screwed, or that high alc bombs cause obesity. Preference for monster wines is a reflection of taste rather than a cause, I suspect.

  16. Steve: good clarification. If you look at say 1999, you see fine wines starting to cross the threshold into the 14’s. A lot of us back then wwere saying, screw the taxes, I like what I am tasting.

    If you look at 1989 say, CA wine labels looked a lot like European labels: 12.5-13.5% alcohol.

    Truth is, we make wine better in the 14-16 range–it takes more time to ripen grapes here, because (most places) we spend much fewer hours in the 66-88 deg F range where vines ripen their fruit (flavor and phenolics, forget sugar and acid for a moment) than say the Medoc.

    But on the whole, I think the wines tasted better in 1999 on average than in 2009. Sure, there was some green pepper, and some of them needed a few years to take the edge off the acid, but still on average, better, because they were balanced (more likely).

    These are pretty broad generalizations. But truth is, historically, I set the bar at 14% for “high” alcohol (see caveat). That is the point at which a winemaker (or an accountant) says, “screw the taxes, I am making the best wine I can”.

    Again, I support this. I may like 1999 better than 2009, but I like 2009 better than 1989.

    I keep comign back to balance–we need to know what that tastes like–and how to achieve it as winemakers. Adding Saxum to the “Demonstration” list is a great idea.

    CAVEAT: High alcohol of course is relative. Lodi Cabernet is going to be over 14% (easily over 15%). Period. Anderson Valley gewurtztraminer (dry) is pushing the edge at 13%. And again, at least in “typical” years.

    I bought an Amarone labeled 13% once out of curiosity. I won’t name the producer of this monstrosity, but it really was the worst of both worlds. Clearly somebody had watered back 30 or so brix Amarone for a country with legal requirements (it wasn’t purchased in the US). It was both overripe, and weak and thin. Yuck!

  17. Steve,
    No punches pulled, what about previous vintages of Saxum that refermented in bottle? Perfect wine? 100 pts?

  18. As the owner and winemeaker of a California winery, I set out originally to make wines that were not very high in alcohol, typically less than 14%. Over 90% of my own wine cellar is made up of French wines, and I am not a fan of highly extracted, intense, highly alcoholic wines. But i discovered two things that have frustrated my desire for low alcohol wines. The first is that the grapes from the cool-climate vineyards where I source my fruit don’t become physiologically ripe until the sugars are fairly high. The signs of grape maturity- seeds turning from green to brown and complex flavors showing up- often don’t happen until the sugar is well over 24 brix.

    The second part of the problem is that the modern yeasts now in use are very efficient at turning sugar into alcohol. Old textbooks give a figure like 0.54 or 0.55 as the number to mulitiply the brix level to get the alcohol yield, but I find that number is consistently 0.60. Thus 24 brix, a level where I often find my grapes just going from underripe to maturity, yields a 14.4% alcohol wine. 25-26 brix is not uncommon. Thus higher alcohol wines seem to be a necessity for many vineyards if California if mature grapes are desired.

    I want my grapes picked as soon as they are mature, as I am not a believer that longer hang-time will result in a finer wine. It will result in a more alcoholic wine, but to me a less satisfactory wine. French grapes (and many grapes from the 2010 California vintage) apparently reach maturity at lower sugar levels, which I welcomed. More common than is usually admitted is letting the sugars go very high “for more flavor” and then adding water to bring down the alcohol. I think this is the wrong way to go, as my experience is that if one picks just as the grapes reach maturity, a balanced wine is the natural result. One Pinot Noir that I made from just-mature grapes at 25 brix (we checked the grapes every day) has 15% alcohol, but nobody tasting the wine has ever commented that the alcohol is obvious or offensive, as the wine is very well- balnced and “carries” its alcohol nicely.

  19. Steve, Dan Berger has been flogging this for how many years???

  20. Steve,

    I guess I don’t fully understand what the problem is with different people making different decisions and consequently making different wines. If Mike and Randy don’t like certain wines, then there is no need to buy them or drink them. But denigrating certain wines because they don’t fit your palate seems unnecessary to me.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  21. I know so many Alc. bashers claim high alc wines do not pair with food but the fact is about 60% of the wine I drink is likely not at the dinner table but before/after dinner or socializing. In this case I often enjoy a larger wine that can stand on its own without food.

    At the end of the day I would like to see the cellar and everyday drinking patterns of some of the high alc bashers. My cellar is mixed with a bit of this and that but more often than not I find myself reaching for a fruit driven juicy Zin or Syrah with a touch more alcohol than that older Brouilly that pairs well with mushrooms but not much more.

  22. Amen Adam..And Randy….which do you find more “offensive”—acidulation/hydration or chapitalization. As you well know, the latter occurs quite commonly in regions that produce “balanced” wines (well, at least to your palate)

  23. Some sommeliers try to make the point that high alcohol wines do not go well with food. There are some Southern Rhone wines with a high alcohol that are very food friendly. An Amarone with high alcohol can go well with a great many dishes. If any wine is hot or unbalanced there is nothing you can put on a plate that will work. To ban all high alcohol wines from a wine list just shows that the sommelier is just lazy. They do not have to make the effort to sort of the balanced from the unbalanced. Some sommeliers use high alcohol content or a region to effect some snobbery and elitism, that we can all do without

  24. Frank, thanks for pointing out that just because a sommelier says something doesn’t make it true. I’ve had some terrible wine pairings at restaurants where sommeliers suggested what I buy.

  25. Marlene: since the Carter administration. I may be off a year or three.

  26. Mike, I confess to not having tasted Saxum wines except when young.

  27. Jordan Mackay says:

    Steve, thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my article. It certainly means a lot to me that someone like you is so diligently reading my work. Now, I’d like to take a moment to respond to your response. I’m glad the article is now online, so that your loyal readers can see what we’re talking about.

    Here’s the link:

    (PS: I’m sorry this blog doesn’t seem to allow italics. They would have made my lengthy response more readable.)

    You wrote: “One of these is to bash California wine for being (you know where this is going) too high in alcohol. Asimov, over at the Times, does it a lot. It’s a Pavlovian response . . .”

    Obviously I don’t “bash” all California wine for being too high in alcohol. In fact, in the article I cite many California wines that aren’t. I’m just critical of wines that are, in my opinion, too high. And I take pains to clearly state my reasons for being so.

    You wrote: “After I read it, I told Keith that the article could have been written years ago, and, in fact, was, by Dr. Vino, in his blog, ‘Is the clock ticking on hedonistic fruit bombs?’ People have been complaining about high alcohol in California wine for a decade if not longer, so the point is rather stale.”

    First of all, as much as I respect Dr. Vino, I reject comparing my highly reported, multi-thousand word feature story with the short blog post you link to. Second, indeed, some people have been complaining this issue for years. In fact, I acknowledge the existence of the debate, writing, “Advocates of the two styles have been at loggerheads for years, but lately, the dynamic has shifted.” The last phrase of the sentence is the point of the article, which doesn’t propose to continue a stale debate, but rather describes in detail how it is changing both in its media representation and in winemaking. We felt this article was timely precisely because of people like your cousin Keith, who appear to be beginning to seriously articulate their own tastes. I’m so glad he read it.

    You wrote: “But there is really no such “rift” in California. To suggest that there is is to set up a straw man and a false basis on which to advance one’s argument.”

    Are you serious? The battle has been raging for years, a statement I back up and you yourself just pointed out. Indeed, the very nature of your response to this implicitly and explicitly suggests a rift.

    You wrote: “But good critics will criticize any wine for imbalance, including wines unbalanced with high alcohol. I do all the time. To use the phrase ‘show a willingness’ is misleading.”

    I disagree. I feel I have observed many critics—not at all referring to you—who don’t criticize wines for imbalance due to excessive alcohol.

    You wrote: “. . . which is why, I think, Jordan refers to him [Parker] as a ‘sneering’ critic.”

    To be accurate, I refer only to something he said as a “sneering quote.” There’s a difference, and I don’t wish to be characterized as rude.

    You wrote: “Readers of this blog know that I’ve always said you can’t bash wines just because the alcohol level is high. So when Jordan writes ‘…drinking a wine with a high level of alcohol…gets in the way of my enjoyment,’ he’s putting down an entire class of California wines . . .”

    Here’s what I really wrote: “To my taste, drinking a wine with a high level of alcohol is like biting down on a piece of steak covered with a layer of chewy fat. That fat doesn’t deliver flavor; it just gets in the way of my enjoyment of the meat. Excessive alcohol works in a similar fashion, like a chewy, flavorless membrane between what I think of as a wine’s essence and the taste receptors on my tongue. When the alcohol level is lower and less obtrusive, I can fully taste the wine. But that’s just me.”

    As you can see, I’m talking about wines that I personally find have “excessive alcohol.” I’m certainly open to wines that might be balanced at 15%. But, even if they’re balanced, I often still tend to prefer wines of lower alcohol. However, as I said, that’s just me. I certainly wouldn’t dare to tell other people what they can and cannot do.

    You wrote: “It may be true that some people such as Rajat Parr (whom Jordan references, and also explains is his coauthor for Secrets of the Sommeliers) also bash high alcohol wines, but to cite Parr in such matters, as opposed to, say, Parker, is simply to bring a friendly but prejudiced witness to the stand to testify in your behalf. Rajat Parr is just another celebrity somm with a bias against California wines, as anyone who’s read Secrets of the Sommeliers knows only too well.”

    Rajat has been a significant actor in the low-alcohol movement not only as a sommelier but as a winemaker. In the piece I didn’t even mention the Pinots and Syrahs he’s been making that are both fully ripe and often deeply colored at alcohol levels as low as 12.2% and as high as 14%. These wines he makes are from California, so Rajat’s bias can’t be all that strong. As for bringing an agreeable witness to the stand, isn’t that what one does when trying to make a point?

    Anyway, like I said, thanks so much for discussing my article. That’s what’s important. I hope all the denizens of this blog get a chance to check it out, as there’s even much more in it than you had the chance to get into here.

    Also, Steve, thanks for your previously review of Secrets of the Sommeliers. I sincerely appreciate the fact that you take time to read and respond to so much of what’s being put out there. Bravo.

  28. Please spare us the pop-drivel of “so long as everything is balanced, high alcohol is just dandy” The style of wine being discussed here (and let’s be clear that this is not unique to CA – Austrailian Shiraz?, Chateauneuf du Pape?, Bordeaux?) is not about balance, but fundamentally about excess – they have too much of everything – alcohol, fruit, oak, sugar?) Sure, the components are “balanced” but each of them exist at levels beyond anything even close to natural, and the only way they remain “balanced” is due to the magic of spinning cones, and a host of additions. I remember asking a famous Australian vintner how much acid he had to add to his Shiraz. “bags upon bags of it mate!” he said – referring to 50lb sacks.

    These wines are the fake boobs of the wine business.

    I’ll take finesse over balance any day.

  29. You say critics have been “complaining about high alcohol in California wine for a decade if not longer.” As it turns out, they’ve been complaining for much, much longer. Professor George Hussman, one of the founding fathers of the California wine industry, noted the controversy in 1898.

    I wrote about it here. There’s not a lot new being said today, versus what Hussman wrote then.

  30. Tom, thanks for the insight. When I wrote that, my first draft was “forever,” not “for a decade.”

  31. If consumers don’t mind the high alcohol, why do most producers of these “dead vine” wines consistently understate the alcohol? If a wine says that it is 14.5 alcohol, more often than not, you will find it to be closer to 15.5. As a consumer I am continually mis-led by labeling, and constantly find myself putting tap water into my glass. The big lie is in the mis-disclosure of actual alcohol content.

    I love the story about modern yeasts being so efficient that they are responsible for these high sugars. (excuses, excuses!) If this were true these yeasts would re-define stoichiometry. What is really going on behind this myth is the raisins in the cluster that contain sugars that are not dissolved and measured at crushing,but later soaking in the fermenting must they plump up and releasing sugar during fermentation. Anyone who has made Zin knows about this.

    The simple truth is that up until the mid-1990’s if you had a valley floor vineyard on heavy soils your wines were likely to be light in color and flavor and not competitive with wineries that possessed vineyards in more optimum soils. This problem was solved by allowing the grapes to dehydrate thereby increasing the skin to juice ratio and concentrating color and flavor. This comes at the expense of varietal aroma and flavor, but the sweet aroma of alcohol combined with sweet raisiny aromas (more like rum than wine) was given the name “fruit forward” which makes many critics go ga…ga. And we get the story that physiological ripeness comes when the grapes are shriveled up and stems and seeds are brown.

    I applaud Mr. Mackay and his calling a spade a spade.

  32. What particularly bothers a few wine critics about California, IMHO, is that local (wine-industry) players have always given far more importance to the economic factors of production, than to underrated geographical factors.
    There’s no question that it is safer to grow Cabernet Sauvignon in a Region III area (Winkler’s Scale), even a Region IV, than in a Region I to II, like Bordeaux. It is also more dependable to grow Pinot Noir in the cool RRV, with an average of 220-270 days without killing frosts, than in Laytonville, Mendocino, or Dijon, Burgundy, both with an average growing season of 160-170 days.
    Still, one will never attain a synchronized development of sugars, acids and tannins in a geographic area that is not well fitted for the variety. This is the reason why true balance is achieved in the vineyard, not in the cellar. It also explains why the French say that one only makes exceptional wines in marginal areas, with some risks involved.
    In Europe, geographical factors were always regarded as the most critical aspect of wine production. California’s winegrowers, on the other hand, commonly understate this fact planting most varieties in areas with inappropriate macro and meso-climates, usually too warm, with disproportionally long growing seasons; and often dismiss the possibility of optimizing these elements through a robust selection of variety vs. site (soils, temps, solar radiation, precipitation, altitude, aspect, topography…) and vineyard (water, yields & canopy) management.

  33. Morton,

    I’d put 14.5% on the label if the wine was between 14 and 15.5% and I felt that was its typical range because it would mean that I wouldn’t have to resubmit the wine approval if the wine fell within that range every vintage. That would save me over $1000 in fees per wine. So some years the wine would be less than that number and other years more. —

    Have you lab tested many wines and found that most producers are understating the alcohols? If so, I think we’d all be interested in seeing the numbers.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  34. I know Jordan Mackay. Jordan Mackey is a friend of mine. And, folks, this is no Dan Quayle moment. I have said for several years now that I think Jordan can become one of the leading writers in the generation that will replace me and Steve and Laube and Parker and all the rest of us who got our starts back decades ago and are now in our sixties.

    But, Jordan Mackay has not called a spade a spade. He has called for all spades to be made in the shape he likes and he agrees that he has quoted those who agree with him to prove his point. One can “prove” almost anything if one only quotes those who already agree.

    I can find you hundreds of CA winemakers and thousands of CA wine lovers who think he is calling for half a loaf to be everybody’s loaf. Lower alcohols in fully tasty wines is a fine objective. You get no argument from me or most everyone else as to the objective. The arguments come when the discussion is so one-sided that it can be believed only by the accolytes and not by those looking for proof rather than rhetoric.

    Time to stop here. I just “cut” a good short story because this discussion could go on for as many words as Jordan posted in his original article. If I feel the need to post them later, I will do it in my own space and not burden Steve’s home with them. You get my views clearly enough already.

  35. Peter,

    I always felt that economic factors played into many decisions, both European and otherwise, with regard to where vines are planted. So, for example, Champagne became a favored area even though wine had to be made completely differently there because of proximity to Paris. Cahors fell out of favor because the Bordelais would tax the ships from there on the way to England — thus providing them with an economic advantage. Etc, etc. I think relating this to CA only is a bit short sighted historically.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  36. Lisa Khajavi says:

    I agree with the racial profiling comment. Once something becomes trendy, many jump on the bandwagon. Drink what you enjoy, stay open, and don’t judge a book by its cover! Easier said than done in a climate where the 100 point scale is king, and critics have more weight often than ones own taste buds!

  37. Adam,

    I’m simply for the designation and separation of wine and a Cocktail. Wines that are grown (left on the vine) and produced to drink soon and lack necessary acids have a place in the wine world, however the word, “world-class” should not be anywhere to be found near these cocktails. Quaffers are great. I buy and drink them regularly, however if they don’t age, and don’t go with most dinners and they’re at their “peak” entering into the screwcapped bottle, then what’s so world class about that?

    The fact is we need to create two separate classes of wine and even place them on separate retail shelves. This would help consumers and in turn would showcase the real differences between world-class wines and the California Cocktail. A good friend and I each bought (and supported you) two cases each of your wines recently and, with the exception of the Oregon Pinots and a few syrahs, none will see more than 1-2 years in storage as they, imo, won’t benefit for additional aging. This is why you’ve probably put some in screwcap and others with a cork. There are two types of wines. and each should be enjoyed for different situations.

    I hope we in this industry begin to acknowledge that there are clearly two schools of thought when it comes to wine and wine enjoyment. Quaff it or lay it down with expectations of additional layers, aroma and flavor integration and all that comes with world-class wine.

  38. Andy,

    If I remember, Chapitalization is when the sugars didn’t reach the necessary level to be called wine and adding acid and water is when the winemaker is either screwing the grower of weight or they are looking for the cocktail factor and need to add enough acid and water to get the future wine under 16% alc. Just because one can reach atmospheric sugars doesn’t mean they should.

    The most important job as winemakers is to get the fruit off the vine in perfect condition. We should make it illegal to add acid and water… Or at least water. It’s a joke that few consumers know about… Don’t worry though more and more people are talking about it.

    When one see’s, “25 brix at harvest”, no one is talking about sugar up. That 25 brix will be 27 once all the raisins have released their intense porty flavors and sugars. 27 brix X .55 = a lot more than 14.5%… There’s so much fibbing going on, I can’t tell what’s the truth and what’s a lie.

  39. Randy,

    I think it is a bit disingenous to say that you are simply for different designations when you post that such wines are bad for business, vineyards and all of society.

    I’d be happy to taste you on some of our older wines and you can judge for yourself how they age….As if often the case, I have been happy with some and less happy with others, but have not found that to be correlated directly to alcohol levels.

    Your comments on Oregon might be misguided however as, while they are often lower in alcohol, they are also end up being lower in acid (due to higher malics). Simplifying things too much in this debate is a real issue.

    Finally, screwcaps are an ongoing experiment on our part in an attempt to deal with the horrific problem of TCA. It isn’t a long term or short term issue per se.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  40. Adam, thanks for weighing in. There’s conventional wisdom out there that 15%-plus Cali wines don’t age, but to the best of my knowledge, there’s never been a conclusive study or tasting to that effect.

  41. Randy, why is it a joke to add water? It’s a natural ingredient, and if it makes for a more balanced, drinkable wine, I have no problem with it.

  42. Morton, I suspect producers understate the true alcohol level simply because it’s rapidly becoming politically incorrect to have alc in the 15.5 range. You can’t blame them. Nobody wants to be profiled.

  43. Hmmm… I think McKay’s article (now that I’ve read it) is a lot of the same-ole/same-ole…we’ve seen the same stuff being written but others over the last few yrs. Including in the WineSpec. I think his article is overly dramatic and almost makes it sound like the winemakers are coming to fisticuffs.
    His claim that the high-alcohol wines don’t age well makes me wonder if he’s ever had some examples of old Mayacamas or Ridge late harvest Zins. Probably not.

  44. LOL you are all killing me here, best part is saying that there is no rift and no pertinence to the issue when there is clearly a very big rift and much discussion. I will not add to that, who has the time, and I find this is less about the alcohol debate and more about something else. I will say I find it hilarious that Rajat is called a “celebrity sommelier” and that there seems to me to be such disdain for sommeliers from some wine writers. I think the fact that he and Jordan collaborated on a book is making some people anxious (jealous?). Reminds me of a dinner at which the somms and the writers were clearly divided at the table with Jordan planted firmly in the center. Can’t we all just get along? Isn’t writing all about opinions? Aren’t we all, even sommeliers, entitled to have them? Does being a writer mean we are supposed to love all wines equally? I will say that I may be biased having been a sommelier and will give you an additional caveat, I consider Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay two of my most respected colleagues and friends.

  45. Adam,
    I agree with you that the economic factors always played a decisive role in wine history; even in the form of random events.
    My point is that the economic factors should not be the single force driving the decision-making process. If that was the case, France would be planted exclusively with Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

  46. Rebecca, actually I wrote about Secrets of the Sommeliers here and said it’s a great book and how much I like it. But put yourself in my shoes. I review California wines for Wine Enthusiast. I have loved California wines for a long time. I just get tired of the constant bashing, and I feel it’s my role to defend our wines each and every time they come under attack for the same old reason, namely “high alcohol.”

  47. My Dear Rebecca–

    The issue is not somms vs writers or old vs new or rift vs no rift.

    The issue is simply that we are being told about a formula that makes wine good. Let’s not argue about who knows Jordan better or thinks more highly of him. Let’s stick to claims of fact.

    Jordan claims that there is a layer of fat in wine (figuratively, of course), and that said layer of fat is present in all wines of a certain alcohol. Even if we accept that the layer accumulates gradually, i. e., that it does not magically appear at 13.8% ABV, or some such number, his argument, which has no modifiers, must be seen as saying that all wines of a certain alcohol are all equally guilty.

    That goes a bit too far in my view. Wines are not numbers. Alcohol does not affect each wine equally. There are hot wines at 13% ABV and not hot wines at 14.8% ABV. And the Chez Olken lasagna last Wednesday night, with its four meats and rich cheese and homemade tomato sauce absolutely loved Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel and Ravenswood Teldeschi Zinfandel. Yet, according to Jordan and Raj, those wines are layered with fat. Must be layered with fat. Cannot help themselves because they have past the threshhold.

    You know me well enough to understand that I don’t care one way or the other Jordan or Raj or anyone else drinks with any dish. That is their business. But what I do object to is the notion that there is some magic formula that proves that wines above some artificial construct must be out of balance.

    Balance is not a number. It is a taste sensation. Jordan, for all of his brilliance, and for all of the wonderful things he will contribute to the literature of wine for years to come, has oversimplified and forgotten the basic rule. Wine is measured by the bottle, not by the formula. And he has further forgotten another basic rule. The rest of the world cannot all be wrong when it drinks Napa Valley Cabernet and RRV Pinot Noir over 13.5% or so ABV.

  48. Charlie provides another reasoned argument against irrational conclusions when it comes to wine.

  49. Charlie,

    Thanks for the comment, if you read my reply carefully I do not come in on either side of the matter of high alcohol wines, low alcohol wines or balance and how to achieve that. I agree with many, in fact most of your comments, and Napa Valley and its wines are some of my favorites and I do TONS of work with California wines, selling, teaching for the Napa Valley Vintners, I am proud to live here and work with the wines we are lucky to be surrounded by. I know from experience how great Ridge is and I see alcohol levels creeping in the old world too. Quite honestly I agree with both camps and have not had the time today to read all the replies to this thread OR Secrets of the Sommelier OR Jordan’s entire article. I did not therefore make my own conclusion and assert one side or the next…I do think the debate is worthwhile. If I was still studying for the exam I would spend a few hours to address that in an essay and figure out which side I would like to defend, but frankly I’d rather go and play my guitar.

    My main issue was really only with Steve’s last statement “Rajat Parr is just another celebrity somm with a bias against California wines, as anyone who’s read Secrets of the Sommeliers knows only too well.” Although Steve avers that he enjoyed the book this statement does not make that clear and to me reflects negatively on the book, its authors and sommeliers in general.

    Also, if I were to debate the argument that high alcohol wines can be in balance I would be sure to use the comments of those in that camp to prove my point, so I do not see why there is issue with Jordan using Rajat to support his opinion. If I was testifying in a trial of course I would want a witness that was on my side rather than the other, that argument does not make sense to me. So I find the whole thing rather interesting. Reading this last sentence left me with a feeling that the author believes celebrity sommelier’s opinions are biased and should not count, and calling Rajat a celebrity sommelier is just comical.

    I did not want to infer that I know Jordan or Rajat better than anyone else I just thought that it was fair to mention that I may be that biased witness Steve is talking about, AND I will reiterate I have not come down on either side of the alcohol issue, I have not said which side I am on and do not feel that there is any reason to do so until I have done more research. If I learned anything in my studies it was that there are ALWAYS multiple answers to any question.

    I have the utmost respect for the writers (and commenters) who have chimed in blog here, and of course you know for you as well, I look up to you to improve myself. I do have a problem though when we call out another writer for work that they did or for having an opinion that differs from ours. I do not pick apart articles that Steve writes and correct his spelling (btw it’s Pfalz not Pflaz) or tell him his arguments are invalid. When I read Jordan’s article in its entirety I may agree or not agree, it makes for a lively discussion about these issues, BUT I found an entire critique of his article to be in poor taste.

    And since I have bothered to add another post I wanted to comment on this statement, Steve says, “Frank, thanks for pointing out that just because a sommelier says something doesn’t make it true. I’ve had some terrible wine pairings at restaurants where sommeliers suggested what I buy.” I would say that the same rules apply to wine writers as to sommeliers, just because a wine writer says something is true doesn’t make it true either. I just found that the overall tone here was aggressive towards sommeliers and wanted to address that (and not the alcohol issue.)

    So since we are being critical of each other’s work, I will say this… Steve is intelligent and a great writer, but I thought his argument could have been made (and would be more effective) without discrediting another author’s work. A mention of the article as a jumping off point and then delving into his opinion would have been sufficient rather than a play by play rebuttal sentence by sentence. It just comes off as harsh. Perhaps the debate could be taken up in a live format in a ring or something. In this corner…

    Maybe I am just too sensitive…or just nervous Steve will start reading my blog…

    By the way I just got your book, excited to read it.

    Thanks for listening.


  50. Lovely, Rebecca. Thoughtful, insightful and truthful.

    Just one thing. Steve’s pique is not ill-founded. Jordan has written an essay that looks, on its face, like it sets out to educate. Unless I have misread the article, it never says “I have a strong preference and here is why”. The article never suggests that he arguing a cause, yet that is exactly what he is doing. And that is why it has raised such a stir.

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