Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Thank the taxman for well-balanced wines

Many of us are not loving the IRS today. I lost a bunch of money last year -- and still had to write the government a big check. Arrgggh. At least it's going somewhere worthwhile, to hedge-fund traders and the like. Arrggh.

Anyway, wine lovers should be grateful to the taxman for one thing: introducing the average wine drinker to the concept of a well-balanced wine.

Here's why. US tax law requires wineries to pay a slightly higher rate on wines over 14 percent alcohol.

The law doesn't affect superpremium wines one bit, as wineries just pass along the cost. At 50 cents a gallon, the tax turns out to be about 10 cents higher on a 750 ml bottle. For wines over $15 retail, that's no reason to harvest early or use an expensive alcohol-reduction system.

But in the "fighting varietal" category, where wines are actually getting cheaper lately (remember when $4 bottles of wine were a rarity?), every 10 cents counts. If you closely examine a bottle of $4.99 wine, you'll notice that the glass is lighter than more expensive bottles, the capsule is thinner, and the label may not have 4-color reproduction. All of these moves save a few pennies.

Major wine companies used to harvest their grapes early enough to have sugar levels low enough to come in under 14 percent alcohol. There's a big problem with that, though -- most cheap wines come from the hot Central Valley, and harvesting grapes early enough to have subdued alcohol levels means the wines won't have the big, bold fruit flavors consumers love now.

Thus big companies now use alcohol-reduction systems, such as removing some alcohol by osmosis, to bring the total alcohol level under 14 percent, while still providing big fruit flavors.

Wine purists sometimes complain about these wines as being manipulated, but wine purists have no business buying corporate wines anyway. They're for the supermarket shopper who doesn't care about wine ratings and just wants something tasty with her dinner. And they're valuable to the industry, because today's uncritical shopper might become tomorrow's obsessive collector. Even if she doesn't, she's still buying wine and keeping the industry rolling and people in it employed.

I believe entry-level wines today are better than at any time in history because of the advance of wine technology, much of it having to do with hygiene. But reduced-alcohol wines are also a plus. If people drank unmanipulated Central Valley Cabernet, they would think one of two things: wine tastes sour and bitter, or wine sure does make you drunk fast. Given the current taste trends, it would probably be the latter, and that would change the entire experience of wine.

Instead, even wines like Two Buck Chuck, with their subdued 12.5 percent alcohol, teach beginning drinkers the joys of a wine that goes with dinner, rather than overpowering it. We can thank the taxman for this. It doesn't make up for redistributing money from a poor schlub like me to the executives at General Motors. But at least it's something.

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