Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Alcohol Challenge: Me vs. Adam Lee

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post in which I said I don’t like Pinot Noir with more than 14.5% alcohol.

Siduri owner/winemaker Adam Lee challenged me to a blind tasting, claiming I wouldn’t be able to tell which wines were over my arbitrary limit and which weren’t.

On a sunny Sunday morning, we met in an empty restaurant in San Francisco’s Marina district for the challenge (he's the one with good posture). Would my palate back up my words, or am I just another bloviating pundit?

Here’s the setup. Lee took 10 of his own wines from the 2008 vintage and placed them in brown paper bags, numbered 1-10, two weeks before our meeting.

Then, his mother had a heart attack. So he flew to Texas to attend her. Consequently, he forgot which bottle was in which bag.

“Sorry to tell you this, but this tasting wasn’t the main thing on my mind,” Lee said. His mother recovered, and the now double-blind tasting went on as scheduled.

Lee brought the technical data on the wines, including the real alcohol percentages, as opposed to those listed on the bottle.

US law allows some difference between reality and the label. If a wine is less than 14% alcohol, there’s 1.5% leeway. If it’s over 14% alcohol, there’s 1% leeway. However, the label must accurately reflect which side of 14% alcohol the wine lands on.

In other words, if the label reads 13% alcohol, in reality the wine can be anywhere from 11.5 to 14%. If the label reads 14.5% alcohol, the wine can be anywhere from 14 to 15.5%. This is why so many French wines list “12.5% alcohol” on the label (actual alcohol: 11 to 14%), and why Shafer Vineyards lists all its alcohol percentages at 14.9.

I imply no cynicism here. Changing the label even in this tiny way requires lots of paperwork at both state and federal levels and costs money as well. Lee said it costs him $1,300 in licensing fees to change the alcohol level on a label from one year to the next, even if nothing else changes. So why change the label if he doesn't have to?

On to the wines. For ease of reading the play-by-play, I’ll tell you what the wines were right away. But Lee didn’t reveal any of them until we were all done. Remember that all are 2008 Siduri Pinot Noirs.

Wine 1: Rosella’s Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands. A rich wine with good body. Lee thinks it’s over 14.5%. I say it’s not; I say out loud, “I think it’s about 14.3.” This is my finest moment of the day; the label reads 14.1 but it’s actually 14.29. I should have stopped there.

Wine 2: Ewald Vineyard, Russian River Valley. Tart and persistent with good acidity. We both think it’s under 14.5. The label says 14.3; it’s actually 14.88.
“This is a vineyard that got frosted very badly” in the spring of ‘08, Lee says, explaining that the first grape buds died, and the secondary buds took longer to develop. “That’s why it doesn’t taste so ripe.”

Wine 3: Keefer Ranch Vineyard, Russian River Valley. Probably my favorite overall wine in the first run through (and one of 3 bottles I took home), it’s smooth and well-integrated, with some earthiness. We both think it’s under 14. Oops. Label says 14.1, actual alcohol 14.88. More on this later.

Wine 4: Sonoma Coast. This one tastes a little hot but doesn’t have a big body, so I guess that it’s about 14.0. Lee also thinks it’s under 14.5. Another good moment: Label 14.1, actual 14.11. Right now I’m 2 for 4, and Lee is 1 for 4 on his own wines.

Wine 5: Beran Vineyards, Willamette Valley. It doesn’t have much color and I take that and its light body as tips that it’s the lowest in the flight. Another success: Label 13.0, actual 12.77. Who said American Pinot was too big? I’m 3 for 5 and still one up on Lee.

Wine 6: Santa Rita Hills. It’s big and rich and I think it’s not only over 14.5, but has residual sugar. Wrong on all counts: Label 14.1, actual 14.24, and it’s completely dry. Oops. But Lee missed it too; I’m 3 for 6 and still up by one.

Wine 7: Abre Vert Vineyard, Willamette Valley. It’s ripe, bright and on the big side. We both think it’s in the high 14s. Oops. Label 13.0, actual 13.63. I’m 3 for 7 but still ahead by one.

Wine 8: Cargasacchi Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills. It has bright fruit, but also a minty note and some funk. To quote Adam exactly, “It’s got some earthy, stinky character. But not in a … There’s James Brown funk, and there’s … funk.” I say it’s over 14.5; Lee disagrees. Label 13.8, actual 13.86. Good God! There goes my lead; we’re both 3 for 8.

Wine 9: Sonatera Vineyard, Sonoma Coast. I drink this wine more often than anything else of Lee‘s, both because I like it and because it’s on several San Francisco restaurant wine lists. I recognized its nice cranberry fruit and its, er, James Brown, and I say it’s under 14. Lee thinks it’s over 14.5. Label 13.1, actual 13.96! I’m 4 for 9 and back in the lead.

Wine 10: Eddie’s Lot, Pisoni Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands. This was a one-off Lee did to honor Eddie Pisoni after his death. He farmed a section of the vineyard differently, taking several steps that ended up leading to extra ripeness. I liked this wine a lot for its bright cherry fruit and great acidity. I think it‘s under 14.5; Lee says it‘s over.

At the reveal, he opens this bag last and says, “You ready for the painful one?” Label 15.1, actual 16.01. Ouch. He proved his point -- I liked a Pinot at over 16% alcohol, and missed the alcohol percentage by more than 1.5%.

And we ended up tied. I was right only 4 times out of 10 -- but so was Lee, and these are his wines. So I’m calling it like the US-England soccer match: Gray beats Lee 4-4.

As my prize, I took home three of the wines: the Keefer Ranch, the Beran Vineyards and the Abre Vert. I loved the Keefer Ranch, and I confess that part of the reason I took home the two Oregon wines was that they actually are lower in alcohol, so I could drink more of them and reflect on my bloviating punditry.

The story doesn't end there. I invited my wife to take the same test. She is my co-author of a wine book in Japanese, but she doesn't taste wine every day like I do, and she rarely drinks more than a glass. I thought I'd show her how hard the test was.

Hard for me and Adam -- but not for her. For the Abre Vert, she guessed 13.8; actual was 13.63. For the Beran, she guessed 13.5; actual was 12.77. And for the Keefer Ranch, she guessed 14.9; actual was 14.88. Wow.

After jumping up and down to celebrate (Nippon scores!), she explained that she's very sensitive to alcohol because it affects her so much. Because I can drink more than her, she says it's not as important to me.

There's one more postscript. At the showdown tasting, the Keefer Ranch was probably my overall favorite. It also showed well when I was retasting it with my wife.

But by the end of the night, the bottle with the least in it was the Beran Vineyards -- the one with the lowest alcohol level. I refilled my glass with it after I stopped drinking the Keefer Ranch.

Was this because a low-alcohol wine is naturally easier and more pleasurable to drink, or was it because I knew very well that this was the lower-alcohol wine? I'm not sure, though honestly I lean toward the latter.

But as a bloviator, I know what I should say: American Pinot Noir alcohol threat level orange!

And it sure goes well with humble pie, especially the fine version my wife makes.


  1. Great post and I don't think one should eat the proverbial "humble pie" just because a highly regarded theory is slightly bashed. I am a big believer in the theory that it doesn't really matter the details as much as the overall. Case in point, high alc as opposed to low alc. I've had crappy and wonderful on either end of the scale from all sorts of different varieties. But that also goes for filtered v unfiltered, fined v unfined, native yeast v commercial yeast, organically grown v conventionally grown and so on and so on... It is a testament to the complexities and nuances that are wine and winemaking. Cheers to the complexities!

    And, BTW... Luckyyyy for such a great tasting!!!!

  2. And your wife is very likely a much more 'sensitive' taster and this would give her a higher intensity of chemesthesis associated with alcohol and bitter pehnolics, expecially in Pinot! Fun stuff - when we gettin' together? I think I can help sort this out for you a bit with the research I am doing.

  3. Great post! I love stuff like this. Adam Lee is great- the dude is everywhere. He's omnipresent on the wine internet!

  4. The point of wishing lower alcohol levels in Pinot Noir and for me in most new world wines these days, enjoyment. Good quality wine makers are often able to integrate high alcohol levels so well into the wines that you do not even realize they are over the top until you stand up after a night out and feel wobbly. This has chilling effect on many consumers enjoyment of wine. If a couple goes out to dinner today, invariably one of them is either not going to drink at all, or stop at a few sips for fear of driving drunk. Recently, I had an opportunity to meet dan Phillips, of Grateful Palate and questioned him about the high level of alcohol in many of the wines he handles. Among several arguments he made for high alcohol levels was that consumers drink wine for the alcohol. I have only met a handful of people in my almost twenty years in selling and consuming wine who have said bring on the alcohol! Most people would like to be able to consume wine without fear of getting rip roaring drunk. Wine is to be savored and enjoyed, not the beverage of choice for drunks

  5. Wait until it ages for 2-4 years and the alcohol will be quite obvious.

  6. Great post. I definitely agree with Sequoiagrapeboy. Any 'rule' I follow as a winemaker and drinker is second to the most important rule which is quality first. Good wine, as the drinker of that bottle percieves it, is good regardless of the wines 'stats' which include the wine's chemistry but also include price and critical acclaim.