One of the hottest issues in wine circles these days is heat—as in, too much alcohol. Obviously, wine wouldn’t be wine without the alcohol, and the buzz it delivers is part of the pleasure. But alcohol levels have been climbing, much to the chagrin of some oenophiles, who find higher-octane wines overbearing and exhausting to drink. I sympathize: I am not a fan of syrupy cabernets and syrahs that leave me wishing I’d brought a pillow to the dinner table. However, I also think way too much dogmatism and vituperation has crept into the discussion. Taste is personal, some wines hold their alcohol better than others, and there are plenty of wines to suit every palate. Whatever happened to just agreeing to disagree?
All this ferment has its roots in the fermentation process, which converts the sugar in grapes into alcohol. Sugar is a function of ripeness, and the more sugar there is in the grapes, the more alcohol you end up with in the wine. Alcohol, in addition to getting you mellow, adds body, texture, and a perception of sweetness to wines, and as the alcohol content increases, those qualities get ratcheted up. Grapes such as zinfandel and grenache naturally yield wines that are fairly high in alcohol, as do warmer regions like the southern Rhône and the Barossa Valley. But alcohol levels have been rising in a number of places. Oenologists recently told Britain’s Decanter magazine that increased potency is threatening the character of Bordeaux’s wines. Similar concerns are being voiced elsewhere.
Yet it is California that has become the main flash point in the debate over alcohol. Visit any wine shop and you’ll quickly see why: the shelves are groaning with California wines in excess of 14 or even 15 percent alcohol, and the labels may not even be telling the full story. Under U.S. law, wines 14 percent or under can vary as much as 1.5 percent from what is stated on the label (as long as the actual content does not surpass 14 percent), and those above 14 percent are permitted a 1 percent margin of error. Although California has always produced its share of floozies (I’m still talking about wines), Napa cabernets and merlots generally weren’t as heady in the past. A recent study led by University of California Davis professor Julian Alston found that sugar levels in California grapes have jumped 9 percent since 1980.
What accounts for the spike? Climate change is often cited, and it certainly appears to be a factor in other regions. But Alston and his colleagues suggested that the higher sugar levels in California were mainly the result of farming practices. They speculated that different rootstocks and new planting systems may have had a role, and they also raised another possibility: producers harvesting riper fruit in order to craft wines that appeal to critics, namely to Robert Parker. They noted that the largest sugar increases have been for premium grapes—cabernet, merlot, chardonnay—and in premium areas such as Napa and Sonoma. They wrote that this “could be consistent with a ‘Parker effect’ … of wineries responding to market demand and seeking riper flavored more intense wines.”
Parker has wielded extraordinary influence, and his California scores have long indicated a yen for ultra-ripe (read: high alcohol) wines. His words, too: In 1999 and again in 2000, he blasted Tim Mondavi, Robert’s son, for making wines he considered too light and restrained. He accused Mondavi of “going against what Mother Nature has given California” and said the strength of California wines “lies in power, exuberance, and gloriously ripe fruit.” In 2007, he launched a similar broadside against California vintner Steve Edmunds. “What Steve is doing appears to be a deliberate attempt to make French-styled wines,” he said. “If you want to make French wine, do it in France.” Considering the power of Parker’s ratings, it would stand to reason that many producers took the unsubtle hints and made sure to deliver the kind of wines he favored.
Parker’s thirst for hedonistic fruit bombs, as he calls them, extends to pinot noir. In Burgundy, where pinot is the signature red grape, the cool northerly climate makes ripeness a challenge, and as a result, the wines tend to be modest in alcohol and emphasize elegance over power. But with Parker’s blessing (or prodding), California pinot has evolved in a very different direction: The wines are often very ripe and lush, with alcohol levels pushing or even topping 15 percent. Echoing Parker, proponents of this style contend that it is a natural expression of California’s sun-splashed terroir and that comparisons with Burgundy are misguided. Apples to oranges, they say.
In fact, though, California can also do pinot in a lighter, more delicate vein, and recent years have seen a jump in the number wines that evince a Burgundian spirit. Some come from vintners who have renounced the fruit-bomb approach. Others, such as the incredible pinots of Rhys Vineyards, are derived from sites that yield ripe grapes at lower sugar levels. The growing prevalence of this genre is an encouraging development, and I think it demolishes the idea that the boozy confections are inevitable or somehow more authentically Californian. With Parker’s recent decision to hand over California coverage to his associate Antonio Galloni, the movement toward greater finesse may well accelerate. An exciting new chapter for California pinot could be at hand.
But the battle over pinot and alcohol rumbles on. Ironically, at just the moment Parker is quitting the scene, the same intolerance that he exhibited towards the Mondavi and Edmunds wines seems to have infected the other side. One writer recently lashed out at “prune-colored California pinots that taste like over-oaked top-heavy syrahs” and labeled them a “wine crime.” Another declared that pinot’s “reckless era of fame” was coming to an end; there’d be no more “de-Pinoting of pinot” as “pinot masquerading as zinfandel is properly kicked to the curb.” A Central Coast winemaker described the grapes used to make higher-alcohol pinots as “raisined garbage.” Judging by the rhetoric, you’d think these wines were being used to euthanize the elderly and poison children.
While it’s fine to trash wines you don’t like—I do it all the time, often with pleasure—I don’t see what purpose is being served by these attempts to delegitimize a particular style. Aren’t diversity and choice good things? California pinot is still very much in the trial-and-error stage. There are no right answers, just preferences, and there is no reason why Burgundy-inspired pinots can’t exist alongside more zaftig renderings. Moreover, the alcohol issue is not as clear-cut as all this Sturm und Drang would suggest. Critics of higher-alcohol wines tend to frame the issue as a question of balance, the implication being that wines above a certain threshold are inherently out of whack. But balance is a wholly subjective—one might even say amorphous—concept; alcohol is merely one component that contributes to a sense of harmony or lack thereof; and some wines can deceive you. Setting arbitrary cut-off points, as some sommeliers and at least one retailer have done, strikes me as an especially bad idea.
This last point was convincingly demonstrated at an event in March called the World of Pinot Noir. The weekend-long gathering included a panel discussion on the subject of alcohol and balance. Participants included winemaker Adam Lee of Siduri Wines, which produces pinots in California and Oregon, and Rajat Parr, a San Francisco sommelier who has a policy of not serving pinots that are above 14 percent alcohol at one of his restaurants. Unbeknownst to the other panelists, Lee had switched the labels on the two wines that he served. One had 13.6 percent alcohol, the other 15.2 percent. You probably know where this is going: Parr, a formidable taster, liked one of the wines so much he asked Lee to buy some, and it turned out the wine he liked was the 15.2 percent. Parr was gracious about the ruse, and I think Lee’s stunt underscored the perils of litmus tests when it comes to the alcohol issue.
There’s another thing to consider: A lot of people enjoy buxom wines, a fact that has largely been ignored in all the frothing over alcohol levels. One of the gripes about full-throttle wines is that they can be difficult to pair with food, which is true: The flip side of all that alcohol is that the wines are low in palate-cleansing acidity. But for many wine enthusiasts, this apparently isn’t a problem: A recent survey found that most of the wine consumed in the United States is not drunk with meals. Instead, wine is mainly used as a cocktail beverage. The result seemed to shock some alcohol agonizers. But I think it reinforces the point: Diversity is good. We’ve just come through a period in which winemakers were under enormous pressure to conform to a certain aesthetic. With Parker no longer on the California beat, there’s now a chance for a variety of styles to flourish. Let a thousand pinots bloom, I say.
What kind of pinot drinker are you? Here’s one way to find out. Go to your local wine store and buy two pinots with significantly different alcohol levels—say, 13 percent and 14.5 percent. Next, find someone who can open and pour the wines and serve them to you blind. Taste the two wines, pick a favorite and then ask your designated pourer to reveal which was which. Although I’m a paid-up member of the anti-flavor wine elite, I recently put my palate to the test with two California pinots. One was from the aforementioned Adam Lee; I tried his 2009 Siduri Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir ($26), which clocked in at 14.5 percent exactly. The other was the 2008 Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir ($21), which was 13.5 percent. If I show you my results will you show me yours? I’ll post mine in the comments section, and I’d love to hear what you find.