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Post-WOPN thoughts on alcohol, Pinot Noir and scores


First off, a confession. I didn’t go to the panel on alcohol levels at World of Pinot Noir, which was moderated by Eric Asimov, and included on the panel were Adam Lee, of Siduri (a frequent commenter here) and Jim Clendenen, of Au Bon Climate.

Instead, I went to Fred Dame’s Vintage Burgundy session. But, as good as that was, I kind of wish I’d gone to Eric’s session, because it sounds like it was really a helluva time.

It was the talk of WOPN. Everywhere you went, tongues were wagging. Adam and Jim, apparently, got into a showdown over alcohol levels. It’s still buzzing on Twitter.

If this exchange — Adam Lee: “I would never deign to say someone is making wines for Parker scores, would you?” Clendenen: “Absolutely I would.” — occurred as described, then I have to come down on Jim’s side, because I know of at least one case where someone admitted it to me.

Well, confession #2: It wasn’t Parker this winemaker told me he was designing a wine for, it was Laube. But we can, for philosophical purposes, assume that Parker/Laube are essentially the same person.

It was in the 1990s. There was a Pinot Noir producer determined to get a 90 from Wine Spectator. He told me how he had made a careful analysis of California Pinots that scored 90 or above in that magazine, and figured out a formula. He made the wine according to that formula, got his 90, and voila! His Pinot Noir became one of the most popular on American restaurant wine lists.

If it happened in one case, I’ll bet you a case of Romanée-Conti it happened in ten cases. Or a hundred. Or a thousand. All winemakers, on some level, think alike. They profess passion, but passion sans profit equals poop. [P – P1 = P2. Einstein developed that.] And you can’t live on poop.

Let’s examine the concept of integrity in a winemaker. The first thing to consider is that winemakers are no more and no less ethical than you or I–and I don’t know about you, but I’m not the most ethical person in the world. I try to be; I tell myself I’m a good person. But really, when you get right down to it, I’m not particularly proud of some of the stuff I do in this life.

If a winemaker is an employee, rather than an owner/producer, he or she is going to do what his boss tells him to. If the boss says, “I want a 15.5% Cabernet [or Pinot, or Syrah, of Chardonnay, whatever” that will get a high score from Parker, and it appalls and disgusts the winemaker, that winemaker has two choices: quit in protest, or comply with his employer’s wishes. True, he can try to talk his employer out of what he may consider to be a disastrous position, but chances are the employer didn’t resort to that disastrous position without some careful consideration of facts, some of which the winemaker may be unaware; and the employer isn’t likely to change his mind.

You don’t think that happens all the time? Trust me, it does. I’ve had probably hundreds of winemakers describe that scenario, or a similar one, to me. It’s one reason why employed winemakers love to do their own thing on the side. They get to make the decisions, not someone else. (It’s not hard for insiders to think of winemakers who make very high alcohol wines at their paid day jobs, then turn around and make elegant, delicate ones for their own projects.)

I don’t know if Jim Clendenen had anyone in particular in mind when he said “absolutely” he believes someone would make wines for Parker scores. Parker has apparently liked Jim’s wines; it says right on Au Bon Climat’s website that “Au Bon Climat was listed on Robert Parker’s Best Wineries of the World in both 1989 and 1990,” although that was a long time ago. Parker’s enthusiasm for ABC may have waned since then, to judge by the scores he gave ABC in the 7th edition of his Wine Buyer’s Guide. Four 90s or above, out of 19 wines reviewed. Doesn’t exactly sound like one of the best wineries in the world. What happened to explain ABC’s descent in Parker’s pantheon?

Perhaps some clues can be garnered from Alder Yarrow’s excellent report of the conversation during Asimov’s panel. In a heated discussion of alcohol levels, Alder reports Clendenen as saying, “Adam [Tolmach, of Qupe] and I were invented by Robert Parker, but when he invented us, the wines were 13.2%. Something changed, and his [Parker’s] tastes moved to the richer, higher PH, sweeter wines.” Although Clendenen resolutely insisted that “I have no problem with alcohol,” i.e. he does not go out of his way to pick early at lower brix, it may well be that his wines no longer suit the Parker palate, if in fact “Something changed” to make Parker like the bigger wines.

At any rate, we don’t have to worry about Parker in California anymore, do we? And I do believe there’s a trend here toward lower alcohol wines. It’s  not a thundering trend–not explosive, like the growth of Pinot Noir was following Sideways. It’s slower, more natural, a modest curve that, I think, is being fueled by sommeliers, by critics who are rediscovering balance, by winemakers rebelling against the tyranny of high alcohol, and by a younger generation that seems to be saying, Hey, if I want high alcohol, I’ll have a mojito.

  1. Steve,

    If I may, I was attempting to put a bit finer context on the discussion than probably came thru in Alder’s notes (or actually in the discussion itself as time was running short and neither Jim nor I were particularly succinct).

    Jim was quoted in San Francisco Magazine as saying, ““There are still grapes at a vineyard where I picked six weeks ago,” he ranted. “It’s not my goal to say that somebody who makes a 16-percent-alcohol wine is making a mistake. What I would love to know, and I have to know one day: What would allow someone to walk through a vineyard where the grapes are desiccated, dehydrated, shriveling, losing dollar value to the grower, losing quality for the winemaker, and say on any level it’s not ready…. It’s just like deciding if you’re going to overcook steaks or undercook them. People have the right to make their own decisions. But when it’s palpably to the detriment of wine quality in every sense except [to please] one stupid man’s palate…I can’t even understand the insanity that would allow you to destroy the quality of the fruit you have and the condition of your vineyard by waiting—unless you’re appealing for Parker points.”

    On the WOPN panel he was saying, “everybody can do whatever they want to do….just don’t tell me what to do” — which is, of course, fine….but very different than what he says above. Oh, he tries to say that above, but then I think he rather disingenously denegrates people who chose to do something different by lumping them all together into one category….not acknowledging that some winemakers do what they do because they prefer it.

    I said that Adam Tolmach did the same thing in his newsletters — painting everyone with the same broad brush, not acknowledging that others may have reasons for doing what they do other than appealiing to critics.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  2. Greg Brumley says:

    Actually, this seems to be good news.

    If wineries are playing to one or two reviewers’ palates, they’re joining a funeral cortege. The number of wine enthusiasts, who allow self-anointed “experts” to dictate their purchases, declines by the month. A reflection of that is the difficulty in retaining readers experienced by websites or blogs focused on an expert’s reviews.

    The force which is changing wine purchasing habits is not any one expert’s opinion (or even those of a few). It is not Facebook or Twitter. It is the exponential growth of wine drinkers who trust their own opinions, rather than someone’s they’ve never met. Their enjoyment of exploring wines leads them to increase purchasing. While most wine commentators focus on this phenomenon among Millennials, we are now seeing indicators of it among the older generations including Boomers.

    In time, that will root out the high-alcohol sledge hammer wines — which darn near nobody enjoys. One should think the evolution will show itself dramatically in Pinot Noir. To that degree, your conclusion seems accurate: California Pinot’s best days are ahead of it.

  3. D. Mil. says:

    One correction Steve Adam Tolmach is from The ojai Vineyard not Qupe.

  4. Well the Consumers love the BIG A … It’s all about balance in business and the wine business is that.. a business. We must remember others palates. Like I say to our Wine Buyer… The day he buys wines he likes is the day our multi million dollar establishment starts losing $$$ (we buy wine based on consumers palates and everyone likes different types of Pinot Noir). So we say make all different types of Pinot Noir and bottle it up!!!!

    WE HAVE A BUSINESS TO RUN !!!! Oh yeah smile : )

  5. Keith, you make a great point — kind of which came first, the chicken or the egg. Is the consumer really demanding higher alc, sweeter wines, or are those the kinds of wines that gatekeepers (waiters, merchants, influencers) are telling consumers to buy, because those gatekeepers have been influenced (however consciously or subconsciously) by the Big Alc critics? My own view of consumers when it comes to wine is that they’re pretty timid and want to be told what’s good. That may be changing with the younger generation; the jury’s still out.

  6. D. Mil, right. Noted.

  7. The cynic in me says “business ethics” is an oxymoron. However there are ethical and moral considerations that enter in to the decisions I make regarding the way I choose to prostitute my craft for profit. For example I employ a calculus that balances revenue and productivity with an ongoing drive to lower the environmental footprint of our farming, production and distribution.

    I balance my need to achieve tannin “ripeness” in our fruit with my desire to put wines with moderate alcohol on the market. If I have an ethical consideration here it is that It would gut me to find that someone’s last tipple before they turned their car into a weapon was a wine I made, but truth be told this is not a pure motive – concerns over liability enter into the equation.

    I have chosen to make wines in our own style – including alcohol level – and then work to bring the market to those wines. The idea of making a wine to a formula that appeals to one or two critics/gatekeepers, or to a particular demographic, has always struck me as short sided for a small winery.

    Years ago I did a study of the literature on the geriatrics of taste. I pulled a seminal group of papers together and titled the file “There’s A Reason Grandpa Wants His Dessert First.” It happens to everybody (even me) but few reviewers are self-aware enough to step off when their tastes change. Relying on one reviewer’s palate to drive sales may be a smart short-term play, but it has no legs.

    On the other hand, if I had a big winery and grapes from everywhere I’d be working to produce individualized product lines targeting the tastes of each and every influential reviewer, and of focus groups representative of many different demographics. That’s just business. But a small winery can’t do that.

  8. John Kelly, re: “few reviewers are self-aware enough to step off when their tastes change.” I’m not sure if by “step off” you mean, when somebody gets to the age where all they can taste is sweet, they should stop being a wine critic! I’ll agree with that. But the more important question involves professional critics whose tastes do change over time. I think a critic’s palate should evolve as he/she learns and experiences more. That, however, opens the critic to charges of inconsistency. So I think some critics are afraid to allow their palates to change. I hope I’m not one of them.

  9. It’s much more difficult to make a wine that will get you a high Parker score than it is to a high Laube score. Laube tastes blind, therefore all you need to do is to make a wine that resembles the wines he scores highly and you have a good chance. Parker doesn’t taste blind, so he is strongly influenced by the story or label or the winemaker who is accompanying him.

    You can make an identical wine to that of a winery Parker likes, but you are unlikely to get the same score. You are more likely to improve your score by professing to be biodynamic, hiding the filter and fining materials, and paying one of his chosen consulting winemakers.

    I do not think it is more ethical to make a wine for your own tastes than it is to make a wine to please someone else. And if that wine is made to tickle Laube or Parker’s palate and those of thousands of wine drinkers who follow their advice, a winemaker should be unapologetic.

  10. I suspect that most critics are fairly consistent, but that they also grow over time if new things come along that please their palates. Certainly, high ripeness table wines were few and far between a couple of decades ago. Most critics embraced at least some part of that trend because there are high ripeness wines like Staglin and Chappellet Cabs that the NYT critic put first in his 2007 tasting even though those wines list their alcs as 15.6 and 14.7 respectively.

    So, not all high alc wines are universally hateful or to be hated, and even though the trend is away from the over the top wines, those that are balanced are not going away.

    By the same token, with new trellising systems, disease free vines and more efficient yeasts, it became difficult for winemakers to get mature grapes at lower Brix levels.

    Much of the change we see now represents more than just a paradigm shift. It also represents new understandings about how to make the wines the way the wineries want to them to turn out. Cooler areas like Freestone also contribute. And if those wines are in balance, then we will see (indeed, have seen) most critics embrace those new and improved lower alc wines. It is not a matter of being inconsistent but rather one of insisting on balanced wines.

    And a note to Mr. Brumley: can you cite any evidence of expert reviewers website that are losing readership? I can tell you that my online readership continues to grow. I see no evidence that Dan Berger or Steve Tanzer are losing readership. Can you supply more info on this topic?

  11. Charlie, please see my blog tomorrow morning on the subject of expert reviewers.

  12. Morton, without opening myself to a lawsuit, it is my constitutionally protected opinion that not everything Mr. Laube tastes is blind.

  13. Eric Asimov says:


    You write: “high ripeness wines like Staglin and Chappellet Cabs that the NYT critic put first in his 2007 tasting.” Please explain what you are talking about?

  14. Eric–

    Mea culpa. I have no idea where that notion came from. Clearly, you did like some high ripeness Cabs in your report on the 2007s, although you commented on that topic as well. In our tastings, the Faust did well but was adjudged by some as being sweet. The winery says it is not, but a winemaker friend used a simple test to come up with just enough RS that he thinks it was noticeable.

    The wines mentioned clearly were not in your tasting. One of these days I will remember where that data came from. Clearly not from you or the NYT.

    I wonder, however, since you are engaged on the topic, how you see changes in your own palate (actually not palate so much as range of acceptable styles). As I said above, new styles bring new challenges. Clearly, some very ripe CA Cabs and PNs do work well. Others do not, but as critics, I see us looking at those stylistic shifts and assessing both their hedonistic returns and the wines within those styles that have done better than others. We might disagree on some of the wines from 2007, but I think we assess the ripe wines more or less the same way.

    I think the new wines coming out of western Sonoma present the next challenge to recognized norms. The question of consistency gets raised when a critic who always praised big ripeness Chards starts liking the lower alc, higher acid wines from places like Freestone. I am guessing that some will like them immediately. Others will learn to like, and like me and Gruner Veltliner, never cotton to them.

  15. Charlie, if you’re referring to the 2007 Faust Cabernet, I did not score it particularly well. I didn’t find it sweet in residual sugar, but way too oaky and caramelized–which made it sweet in wood sap.

  16. I’m curious how nothing gets mentioned about the end of the meeting where the 15.2% ABV wine was the preferred choice of Rajat Parr, a vocal proponent of lower alcohol wines.

  17. I guess Raj broke his own rule!

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