Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Low-alcohol lovers have high-alcohol winemakers worried
The high-alcohol forces have pretty much ruled the battlefield ever since: they got the scores, they made the money, they drove the nice cars and bought the big houses. And the high-alcohol wine philosophy spread around the world: "riper is better" brought recognition to Argentina and Australia, created whole new categories of wine in Italy and Spain, and if you think they weren't paying attention in Bordeaux, take a look at the fine print on your wine bottles.
Some of this is natural, as improved farming methods have led to more consistent ripening, and there's also this liberal hoax called "global warming." (Thermometers are controlled by socialists!)
But the attitude that higher alcohol is by itself is not an issue to be addressed, and the corresponding attitude that there is no upper limit for how high alcohol can be in a good wine -- these are new philosophies, less than 20 years old for an industry that has been around for centuries.
A decade ago, people who disagreed with these ideas were definitely on the outside. Some were extremists, with philosophies like "wine must be under 14% alcohol or I won't taste it!" In public forums they often had that mad-eyed look that you get from walking a picket line in the sun for hours on end. The calm, intelligent responses that you get from Wine Spectator on this issue, and the professional aloofness of Parker, made a successful contrast: people who wanted lower-alcohol wines were the fringe.
The "balance backlash" has gathered steam over the last five years, and without anybody realizing, it may have passed a tipping point.
I noticed this in Santa Barbara County recently, where people who make higher-alcohol wines felt like they were under constant attack. This is not the way it was in 2002, when ripeness equaled high scores equaled wealth equaled success.
Laube's tastes haven't changed, and that might be part of the reason Wine Spectator is increasingly marginalized; the magazine simply hasn't adapted for millenials. Retailers will tell you that a 90-point Spectator rating used to be all you needed to move cases of wine; nowadays, the wine market is less predictable.
I (and several other writers) had dinner last night with David Duncan, CEO of Silver Oak, which has stayed under 14% alcohol and has not done well in Spectator ratings, and has not even been rated by the Wine Advocate in 8 years, but is still one of the most popular high-end wines in the country in restaurants.
"The public taste did not create those (high alcohol) wines or the demand for those wines," Duncan said. "It's definitely changing in the winemaking community."
Duncan thinks 2011 wines, which will be lower in alcohol almost everywhere in California because of the cold, rainy summer, will be a landmark change. He called them a "bookend" to 1997, the overripe year that Laube and Parker prematurely overrated.
"2011 was a difficult vintage, but the coffee shop talk is, (winemakers) are pleased with the wines," Duncan said. "It's kind of back to the good old days. People who were making wines at 28-30 brix are surprised at how good the wines are. Next year's Premiere Napa Valley will be fascinating."
Duncan thinks the public is primed for a change. He spoke of an event where he said, "We keep our alcohols moderate" and got a standing ovation.
One reason the "balance backlash" isn't in command is that it has no Parker or Laube: no one confident enough that his own beliefs are universal to proclaim that a wine is a 94, rather than "it's a 94 for me." I know most of the major wine writers in America, and the majority are on the side of balance, but I don't see anyone ready to step up and redefine greatness in wine in this way. It might be Antonio Galloni, but I doubt it; he's still working for Parker, which gives him the dual problem that he'll never be completely accepted by Parker's followers or completely trusted by the other side.
Don't look at me -- I don't want to taste 150 wines a day, every day. That's likely what caused Parker and Laube to overrate overpowering wines in the first place.
Even without the existence of a lower-alcohol Emperor of Wine, that feeling that high-alcohol producers have, that they're under attack, is significant. I won't say the lower-alcohol forces are winning; Napa Cabs over 15% alcohol still fetch the highest prices of any American wine while Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, which costs more to make, can't sell for $100. The marketplace is still on the side of high alcohol.
But the Battle of the Wine Bulge is turning. Listen to the whispering on the Internet, in wine bars, in fine restaurants, at seminars, wherever people talk about wine. You can hear it.
Posted by W. Blake Gray at 6:00 AM