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My thoughts on the S.F. Chronicle’s Top 100 Wines of 2014



Of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Wines of 2014,

  • 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?

  1. Let me echo the popular sentiment that I have enjoyed reading these comments as much as I enjoyed the article.

    As far as the “fudge factor” is concerned, the FDA will allow a fudge factor up to 1.5% for wines below 14% ABV, and 1% for wines above 14% ABV. However, 14.1% is the line drawn by the federal gov’t, so it is illegal to fudge above or below that number. Therefore, a wine that says 12.8% might actually be 13.9%, but a wine that says 13.9% cannot be 14.2%.

  2. Hey Charlie,

    In the spirit of Animal House: “Road trip!”

    (Tim writes: “. . . come up and have lunch with me. . . . C’mon – I will cook your favorites!”)

  3. Dear Mr. Flintstone, now you’re just being silly.

  4. This is a first in my experience: comments running so numerous they cross over into a second page.

    Steve, at 50 comments and counting, you are catching up to Wine Dude’s triple digit mark of 164 on this posting:

    “The Wine Blogging Community Is A Joke”


  5. Grampa Gus used to say, “That’s why they make seven different kinds of Buick’s, ’cause there’s one for everybody.”

    You guys & your lists, your 100 points ect., at least it keeps you all out of trouble and not causing any really harm to anyone other than your back & forth sniping of one another.

  6. Randy Caparoso says:

    Steve, I’m torn about your commentary because I agree with you that Mr. Bonne always has an all-so-obvious ax to grind — something that he works 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. At the same time, I love his list — probably a lot more than I would other critics’. So here’s what I reckon:

    1. So he grinds an ax — who doesn’t? He still can’t be anywhere near as chauvinistic as, say, Mr. Parker was during his Bay Area interviews earlier this year. Mr. Bonne has peculiar taste, but isn’t that the definition of “taste?”

    2. On the other hand, I cannot disagree with you that Mr. Bonne goes off half-cocked in his inferred assessment of American wines between 1980 and the early 2000s — a period of time when there was double-digit growth of American wine consumption each and every year, fueled by the post-“golden years” explosion of plantings and wineries. I bought, sold, wrote about and enjoyed American wines throughout that period (having started in the business in the mid’70s), and if anything, American wines got better and better each year. Clearly. To say otherwise would be an insult to the laudable work of growers and producers, as well as to the taste of American consumers.

    3. Sill, Mr. Bonne has a point: evolution of anything, including wine, also entails transitions through periods of awkwardness — like the funny beehive hair you used to wear, or the the unfortunate leisure suits in your closet. In wine, that includes periods of overripened varietal fruitiness, ridiculous over-oaking, flabby/buttery texturing, and yes, excessive levels of alcohol — often in the name of “scores,” but also to appeal to relatively infantile consumer tastes. Bonne’s point that these trends, as popular as they’ve been, tend to blur regional, vineyard as well as varietal and brand distinctions is well taken. I, for one, am in complete agreement.

    Ergo: we may very well be in a different, and separate, “golden” era of American wine — although I personally suspect we are as yet approaching one — since we are, in fact, transitioning from awkward and unfortunate periods. It’s not to say that what we did before was “wrong” — only that both producers and consumers seem to be finally coming into a little more maturity, whatever that may be.

  7. “Haven’t we ridden this low-alcohol train about as far as it can usefully take us?”

    no, as long as people are cranking out 16% alc zin and ripening Pinot in RRV until it 50% raisined.

    Jon’s preference provides a valuable source for people who prefer European style wines, and thankfully, a balance to the far more dominant (but thankfully declining) WS and Parker.

    I buy and love many of these wines, and would not have found some of them if it weren’t for Jon’s weekly column, and am thankful, grateful the Chron gives him the latitude that it does.


    William Allen
    Two Shepherds Wine

  8. Gabe,

    As a postscript your comment . . .

    “As far as the ‘fudge factor’ is concerned, the FDA will allow a fudge factor up to 1.5% for wines below 14% ABV, and 1% for wines above 14% ABV. However, 14.1% is the line drawn by the federal gov’t, so it is illegal to fudge above or below that number. Therefore, a wine that says 12.8% might actually be 13.9%, but a wine that says 13.9% cannot be 14.2%.”

    . . . let me proffer this recent Dan Berger column.

    Excerpt from the Napa Valley Register “On Wine” Section
    (October 23, 2014, Page Unknown):

    “High Alcohol and Diminishing Wine Styles”


    By Dan Berger
    “On Wine” Column

    When you walk the aisles of a wine shop, you see a sea of wines that all look about the same, what can you tell about the style of wine each bottle represents?

    Not much.

    Take red wines. Cabernet sauvignon is probably the best known red wine, but in today’s world not many of them smell and taste like the grape. Manipulation in both the vineyard and the winery “elevates” most cabs out of the varietal niche in which it once sat and into a style that is greatly afield from decades ago.

    For many people, zinfandel is a popular choice, but there are pitfalls here as well. Take alcohol. In most zinfandels, to get the proper flavors, growers typically pick the fruit later than usual, and the additional sugars lead to a lot of alcohol.

    In the 1970s, we thought of 13.5 percent as a lot of alcohol for zinfandel. I still have bottles of a 1974 zinfandel that says “Late Picked” on the front label and the alcohol listed is a then-outrageous 14.1 percent!

    Today, a zin having 16 percent alcohol is not seen as particularly aberrant. Such wines can taste hot, harsh and sweet. Some actually are sweet.

    And speaking of sweetness, that’s another pitfall that wineries never tell us about. I tried a Livermore Valley cabernet the other day and got a rude shock: It was sweet. There was no indication on the label that was the kind of wine I was getting.

    This wasn’t an accident. The winery making this wine knew well what it was doing and did not disclose on its label anything about how the wine could taste. At least with alcohol, the law requires that it be stated on the label.

    But is that statement accurate? I believe it is accurate for all wines below 14 percent, since the tax on over 14 percent wines goes up, and the government monitors such things because to fail to pay the proper tax is risky. Winery licenses have been threatened for such violations.

    With wines whose labels say they have alcohols of more than 14.1 percent, the law says the statement carries a 1 percent leeway factor, so a wine whose label says it has 15.2 percent alcohol, in theory could be in compliance as low as 14.2 percent and as high as 16.2 percent. Remember that phrase “in theory.”

    Some years ago, I determined that the government has no penalty whatever for wines with more than 14 percent alcohol that are out of compliance. As a result, for all practical purposes, government officials do not analyze most expensive, high-alcohol wines. If they did, they might be shocked.

    A good friend and wine-maker not long ago was curious about this, so he sent samples of six expensive California wines to a lab for analysis. Each of the wines had labels that said the wines had alcohols in the high 14 percents. The lab results came back weeks later. The alcohols on all the wines were about 17 percent.

    At that level of alcohol, each of the wines would taste slightly sweet even if no sugar were present.

    As a result of this escalation of alcohol around the world, many wines now taste like one another and less like the varietals from which they come.

    . . .

  9. Hi,
    Most of us know that wines grown in California are bigger and higher in alcohol than wines from some other parts of the world…It is a Climate thing.

    In my personal experience, a California wine that is under 14% alcohol was picked uderripe purposely (Sauvignon Blanc), the yields where high and the watering was extensive so the end result is a lower alcohol wine with little or no flavors (table wine)or it was manipulated to take the alcohol down with an RO machine or spinning cone…If you like that type of wine, more power to you!

    Question: What is the average price point on the wines that SH mentioned? This will tell you a lot about the yields, fruit quality and the care and craftsmanship put into this wines as well.

  10. One more point of view on “Top 100” lists.

    From the Napa Valley Register “On Wine” Section
    (December 11, 2014):

    “The [San Francisco] Chronicle Adds a Blow to [Wine] Spectator’s Jabs”


    By Paul Franson
    “The Business End” Column

    Last week, L. Pierce Carson [Food & Wine Editor at Napa Valley Register] commented on how few Napa Valley wines were in the Wine Spectator’s list of top 100 wines, . . .

    [Inserted quote: “For the first time since Wine Spectator launched its year-end Top 100 list, no Napa Valley wines made it into the Top 25.
    The highest ranked wine from a Napa Valley producer comes in at the No. 33 slot”]

    . . . and this week, the report from the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonné was hardly any better to the valley.

    The Spectator included six wines from Napa Valley wineries, but only four had a Napa Valley appellation. The others were California appellation, indicating the grapes could have come from other areas.

    The Chronicle’s list didn’t include any Napa chardonnays except an Enfield from Wild Horse Valley, which is partly in Solano County.

    Among “other whites,” the only Napa wines were Massican sauvignon blanc, Horse & Plow pinot gris from Carneros and Forlorn Hope picpoul. Yes, a picpoul, an obscure grape from southern France.

    The list didn’t include any Napa sparklers or pinot noirs but did have two zinfandels, Green & Red from Chiles Valley and Storybook from north of Calistoga, both on the fringes of the valley.

    Among the cabernets, Napa did have 10 of the 14 top wines: from Antica, Dominus, Pavia, Inglenook, Matthiasson, Neyers Ranch, Mondavi, Spottswoode, Stony Hill and Philip Togni.

    A very few Napa wines were also included in the list of 60 top values under $40.

    Looking at the list, it’s clear that unusual and new was a major criterion for picking wines.

    Few popular wines made the cut, and it seems the more obscure your location the better: An Arizona malvasia bianca, Santa Ynez chenin blanc, Russian River trousseau gris, San Diego sparkling muscat, Cucamonga sherry, Marin pinot noir, El Dorado Grenache and Napa Valley albariño.

    Experimenting winemakers like Steve Matthiasson were also rewarded. I’m surprised not to see any wines from Abe Schoener, the man behind the quirky Scholium Project wines.

    Bonné also likes wines with alcohol under 14 percent, which may impact their results.

    I’m sure all these are great wines, but are they the top 100? I’d call them Jon Bonné’s Most Interesting 100 Wines.

    The whole list, like that of the Spectator, is mostly irrelevant. Though great for the wines chosen, it has little to do with the wines most people drink; the vast amount of top wines are chardonnay, cabernet, merlot, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc, most from well-known producers sourcing grapes from familiar places.

    I’m always suspicious of such lists, for writers and critics get bored. They like something different, and they also sometime suffer from the Consumer Reports syndrome: The winner has to be unexpected.

    A list of wines by popularity (i.e., sales) is more relevant, but not if you think your taste is better than consumers.

    It should be noted that neither of these ratings is like those of winners from wine competitions like the Chronicle’s or the State Fair’s.

    Wineries have to submit (and often pay) to enter wines in most competitions, and most established wineries have learned that there’s only one winner – and it might be an Arizona wine. Everyone else loses.

    Why would a top winery like Shafer or Cakebread ever enter a competition? They’re only for newcomers and outsiders.

    But wineries do send wines to critics for review. Sadly, there’s little they can do to being bested by a picpoul.

  11. Steve – These Top 100 lists are ridiculous. I want to see a list of the following:

    Cabernet Sauvignon
    Top 10 over $50
    Top 10 under $50

    Sauvignon Blanc
    Top 10 over $25
    Top 10 under $25

    Pretty straight forward. For some of the varietals you could break it down by region, and reduce the number of recommendations from 10 to 5, if necessary. For example,

    Pinot Noir Anderson Valley
    Top 10 over $40
    Top 10 under $40

    Pinot Noir Carneros
    Top 10 over $40
    Top 10 under $40

    Also, try to recommend wines that are available for purchase.

  12. Steve, thanks for the mention and the well constructed and erudite piece of the Chronicle Top 100. As someone who makes wine and puts it our ‘There’ I have come to recall something a professor/artist told me when I was in College, Art School, in the early 70’s – “there will always be a conflict between the artist and the critic, as the artist is a creator and the critic an observer” This is a quote I mentioned to Jon a couple days after a review of his book that was, well, maybe confusing or not what Jon expected. Our Cabernet Franc has made the Chonicle Top 100 on serveral occasions, and once under Jon’s watch, of which we are always grateful. I also remember a quote from a design class which is appropriate – “one man’s kitch is another man’s coffee table” so is the world of taste.

  13. When I speak with consumers on the sales floor of retail wine stores, and ask them to describe their “ideal” Cabernet Sauvignon drinking experience, I come away from those conversations convinced that what they really want is a bottle of well-made Cabernet Franc.

    So kudos to John and his brethen for keeping alive the notion that Cabernet Franc can be a single variety bottle of wine . . . and not just an anonymous blending component.

  14. Full (or is it “fool”) disclosure: my favorite red wine (alas now outside of my budget) is Cheval Blanc.

    Try the ethereal 1990 sometime . . . circumstances and budget permitting.

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