Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Low-alcohol lovers have high-alcohol winemakers worried

The battle over alcohol levels has been going on ever since California winemakers discovered in the '90s that they could get higher scores from James Laube and Robert Parker by letting the grapes hang an extra week or so.

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.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


John M. Kelly said...

What? Me worry?

The "demand" for low alcohol wines may seem loud in this internet/media echo chamber, but in the real world it is a non-issue.

Beau said...

I've observed what John Kelly stated, the high alcohol stuff is still flying off shelves, much to the dismay of the low-alcohol crowd.

- A low-alcohol wine imbiber

Brian Loring - Loring Wine Company said...


The continued assertion that the reason for higher than traditional alcohol levels being due to Jim Laube and Robert Parker is getting pretty stale. As is the "they taste 150 wines a day". The REAL reason alcohol levels have gone up in some regions is due to growers and winemakers attempting to discover the true terroir of sites. In many cases, especially at more southern latitudes (in the northern hemisphere), getting fruit ripe necessarily means accumulating more sugar than at more northern latitudes. The fact that critics such as Jim Laube and Robert Parker responded positively to these wines was a validation of what was being achieved - not the cause. Sure, some wineries may have decided that simply going "bigger" might mean higher scores, but even as cynical as that may sound, in many cases it meant that they actually made better wine, since they were dealing with ripe (instead of marginally ripe) fruit.

The fact that 90 point Spectator scores don't move as much wine as in the past isn't due to people looking for lower alcohol wines. It's simply due to the fact that there are so many great wines being made these days. More competition is the real reason.

Using 2011 to show that ripe wines can be made at lower alcohols is problematic. Due to the cold growing season, we didn't see as much sugar accumulation as in previous years. But to think that you could replicate the same ripeness/alcohol combination in average years doesn't track. It's easy to say "see, it can be done"...but without an understanding of the unique (and rare) circumstances of 2011, a winemaker may be headed for trouble.

BTW - who says that those of us making wines over 14% aren't concerned with balance? Sure, we made some unbalanced wines in the early years as part of our learning curve, but these days we're all about balance. In fact, I'd argue that we're on the leading edge of trying to achieve balance.

And I seriously don't understand this continued "battle" that's being waged by you and others. What's the end game? Do you want us over 14% producers to follow your banner? So that we actually become the sycophants you accuse us of being, albeit to a new leader? How about a win-win situation? I've done that for years. Check out While it's not part of our active site at the moment due to us updating things, it will be back soon. Look at who I recommend. That's what our wine community should be about.

wine-ev said...

Due to its long, dry, sunny growing seasons (with extremely high solar radiation levels), higher alcohol levels in CA are a fact of life.
However, regardless of personal preferences, one frequent (and reasonable) objection is that despite the naturally occurring high Brix levels, many winegrowers still leave (ripe) grapes hanging an extra two-to-three weeks in order to achieve a utopia called “complete phenolic maturity”. This stage is usually reached at the cost of grape dehydration and a substantial decrease in acidity: i.e., precisely the ingredients that later will be added to the must in an attempt to restore the lost balance.

Brian Loring - Loring Wine Company said...


I admit that in the early days, as a consequence of trying to figure out what "ripe" meant in CA, we did go too far. But that was necessary to find the upper limits. Subsequently, we now pick sooner, and as a result haven't needed to add any acid to our Pinot Noir lots the past 3 years. It could also be due to the fact that the vines have gotten past their juvenile stage, and are now better at holding acidity.

I'd like to think we've learned a lot over the 13 vintages we've made wine. And not just from our own experience, but from the experiences shared by our friends who make wine from the same vineyards (Siduri, Pisoni, Auagust West, ROAR, Kosta Browne, AP Vin, etc). While we all probably went too far at one point, the common consensus is that most of the vineyards we all work with need to be picked at sugar levels that result in wines over 14%.

Some people may not like the results. And I'm cool with that. But we feel what we do is true to the sites' terroirs, as well as being responsible to our customers - in that we don't accept "less than" when we can make minor corrections in the winery to make better wine. And I do mean better - as we see it. Others might disagree. Once again, I'm fine with that. But please recognize that everything we do is focused on making the best wine possible (per our tastes). Just like the motivation of (I assume) those looking to make lower alcohol wines.

John M. Kelly said...

Wine-ev (Peter?) there are some - very far from "many" - producers who choose to leave the grapes on the vine until they are overripe, but it is not in an effort to get "complete phenolic maturity" - their choice is to make very high alcohol wines with jammy flavors. And it is my personal choice not to buy those wines, because I don't care for that style.

"Phenolic maturity" is a moving target as grapes are ripening. Last year we had ripe seeds and skins at unprecedentedly low sugar levels, despite relatively normal insolation levels. Across the board, acids were normal and pH was high. It's not ever simple choosing when to pick.

Man About Wine said...

I have a different question, since I am bored with the standard arguments on low vs high. My question: you say that the high alc. wines are winners in the marketplace, the makers drive the nice cars, are financial success etc. Is that actually the case? I know there are a lot of brands in the dustbin. Many new brands come and go in a few years. Is there anything besides anecdotal reports, any real numbers, that show whether hi abv. wines in a given price bracket, are more financially successful? Not in cases sold, but actual free cash flow, or GAAP profits. And not for a person who is a consultant to many brands, like M. Rolland, since that muddies the financial reality. Now, let me struggle with the captcha thing you use. I have dealt with it before, I see some other catcha service that is easier to read. This one is hard.

Man About Wine said...

Oh, and I see that Brian Loring says he has not had to add acid to his P noirs for the last 3 years. Well, isn't that nice. And he admits taht in his early days, he chased rainbows. But you sold your rainbow chasers to the market instead of developing a reliable in-house testing method. You used your brand and the ratings driven sales, to test what you should have been doing on your own dime. Thanks. Put me down as not quite believing that now you are the leading edge of balance. You are a Johnny Come Lately. A follower. That what I read in your comments.

wine-ev said...

I agree with you that the quest for “complete phenolic maturity” is mostly an excuse to induce a partial (natural) passerillage; obviously with an eye on the results (high sugar concentration and must density, more soluble pigments, etc.).
My perception, however, is that (generally speaking) this high-alcohol, viscous, jammy style still plays a major role in CA.

W. Blake Gray said...

Man: First of all, sorry about the Captcha thing. I didn't design it, it's Google's. For a long time I didn't require it, but even though I like to think I have a thick skin, finally one day I just got tired of anonymous weenies coming here to insult me. I don't mind disagreements and you can't write as long as I have without enduring hundreds of insults, but it changes the tone when people have even the slightest amount of possibility of being found out. So far I'm really enjoying not waking up every morning to being called a moron for some 9-month old post.

Anyway, about your main question: There was a study several years ago for a limited area; I believe it was Bordeaux, in which higher alcohol led to a higher release price. But Bordeaux brings in the additional factor of actual underripe vintages. If anyone has studied exactly what you suggest, it's probably Leo McCloskey, and if so it's probably proprietary.

Anecdotally, much of what I wrote there is based on Napa Valley. You can just look at the release prices of the wines that "go to 11" in the Spinal Tap sense, not ABV, and the wines that historically did not. Plus, I have interviewed over the years many people who make the latter, and I'm going largely on their impressions. In fact, this whole post is based on my sudden realization that the under-siege feeling has shifted from the makers of balanced wines, who used to be defensive, to the full-throttle folks, who are defensive now.

W. Blake Gray said...

Christian Miller of Wine Opinions, foiled by Google's captcha and not wanting to join Google+, asked me to post this:

" "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."

Good for them. 94s, and 85s and 77s are always "for me", not subjective and universal.

David Duncan is correct; there was no groundswell in favor of higher alcohol wines, it was a complex evolution of factors that were largely producer and media driven. However, low-alcohol fans should not pat themselves on the back as "the voice of the people." I agree with John Kelly, and there is quantitative research to back this up, alcohol levels in wine are a non-issue for most wine consumers. Many people haven't really made the connection between stated alcohol level and wine style.

As for higher profitability of higher alcohol wines, you'd have to control for a bunch of other factors before making a direct connection (production levels, media exposure, flavor impact, marketing & promotion investment, distribution, cost of production, etc.) Mr. McCloskey only promised high Parkerator scores, not profitability, although some would argue for small producers they are linked. A potential problem with the Bordeaux study is insufficient variation in the independent variables or input data. The vast majority of lower alcohol wine in Bordeaux is going to come from cheaper appellations with larger production, while the highest alcohol wines will generally be from smaller high end estates with a long history of prestige and higher prices. Hard to tease out an independent effect for alcohol if that's the case."
-Christian Miller, Wine Opinions

Big Jim Slade said...

Moron! Err, just kidding.

OK, here's my story. I spent a couple years casually buying wines from Italy, France and, to a lesser degree, Spain - just out of interest. I was living in Boston at the time, so there was no pressure to drink Californian. I kept my price range from about $12 to $25. (So if you can't sell that coastal pinot for even $100, I just don't care.) Anyway, I found again and again that I could find wines with real character in that price range (let me just list, Chianti, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, dolcetto, barbera, nebbiolo, Valpolicella, Cotes du Rhone, cheap Bordeaux, and the rare cheapish Burgundy - mmm, oh yeah, Rioja, Ribera del Duero, bierzo...). Even if they weren't always great wines, they at least had identifiable character. But after 2 years of having almost NO California wines, I tried a few and they all taste like alcohol and oak. I mean, they are still ok, but they didn't have such a variety of character. And NONE of them had any bracing acidity. I found them a bore. I was born in CA and I want to like them. And, of course, if I want to spend double on my wine, I can find wines that are tasty, if not quite still what I'm looking for. I was at a tasting recently of CA cabs, priced from $15 to $70. Well, they were warm - a pet peeve - and they all tasted amazingly alike. Though I don't think the warmth helped that (loose, unfocused, alcohol-ly and oaky - ugh).

And if I read the words "silky tannins" one more time, I'm going to barf.

So, even if it is shorthand for wines that have some of the character that I like, I started to avoid high-alcohol wines.

I recently tried some wine made not far from where I grew up in Malibu. I didn't know we had vineyards now. So I sauntered into the Rosenthal tasting room and... I like it pretty well! Then the guy pouring the wine tells me that the winemaker is French! All I can say is bienvenue a Malibu, mon ami :-)

Hey, Mr. Gray (who is not a moron), help me get a new reaction-thing going - no warm red wines!!! If it's over 75 degrees, it better be free. But I would rather that it's served closer to the mid 60s.

W. Blake Gray said...

Big Jim: I'm with you on the cellar-temperature reds. In restaurants I have occasionally asked for an ice bucket for a red wine. Don't be afraid to do it; not only do you get the wine to the temperature you like, you might send a message to management.

Re California wines with character and less alcohol: You just need to shop carefully. Just had some delightful Cinsaults last week that you would like, one from Turley and one from Clos Saron. Try the Wind Gap Syrahs, Cobb Pinot Noirs, Chanin Chardonnay ... the list could really go on and on.

Man About Wine said...

But as Big Jim Slade said, you don't have to shop carefully in the world of European wines to find character. Just buy in the $10 to $25 range and voila, you get chapeaus, bonnets, berets, gauchos, bowlers, pork pies, and more. No twigs or splinters. I live in Calif. and learnt in Calif. But I get comments unsolicited at times, many Calif. wines taste all the same, and somewhat bland compared to Italy and France.

And Blake-Miller, thanks for the reply. So there is no actual connection between hi scores and long term financial success here in the land of the sun???

Big Jim Slade said...

WBG - thanks for the CA tips. And I have asked for a bucket of ice for red wines a couple of times before, but not since I've moved back to CA - we'll see if they think I'm crazy :-)

Frederick said...

Great article again, Blake.

I agree 100% (except for maybe the "hoax" sentiment).

I will send you some footage of this Spring's Banée de Meursault when I can get some time - where we drank plenty of under 14% wine together until 2:45 AM.

Rick Schofield
Port Ewen, NY

SteveinOakland said...

I want to thank Blake and all of you thoughtful commenters for a great educational dialog. More industry professionals should read The Grey Report and learn about the issues and where some of our brightest wine minds are headed in their thinking.

Ross said...

Thanks for the thread. It took me a bit to get caught up.

It seems like I am reading the history of European variety vs. terroir/ climate in a sped up version of wine history.

As a Sonoma Coast California native, I have spent the last 23 years in search of climates appropriate for "cooler climate" pinot noir and chardonnay, as have hundreds of other ambitious winemakers and growers.
We all agree that the hotter the climate, the faster the alcohol accumulation relative to phenolic maturity.
We are all discussing balance, including alcohol, pH, titratable acidity, tannin/ bitterness, etc..
Not all low alcohol wines are balanced or great, nor are all high alcohol wines out of balance and poor.
There is a clear correlation between degree day accumulation, light intensity, wind, fog and weather patterns, and their effect on the grapes in that season/ terroir.
I am not sure why we need to battle and defend the subjectivity or quality of our own and others wine.
If it tastes good, goes down smooth, pairs well with a wide range of food, sells out and doesn't give you a nasty might well be balanced.
I have spent many years discussing the Sonoma Coast and other cooler climates regarding its suitability to grow balanced pinot noir and chardonnay.
1) The first subject which is always discussed is climate and the suitability of the variety to the particular climate.
2) The next is the growers ability to deliver balanced grapes with moderate or no use of irrigation, fertilization, chemicals, and yielding moderate tons per acre.
3) The next is the winemakers ability to work with the grower, pick at an appropriate time, and not over-manipulate the grapes during the fermentation (additives) and aging process (oak barrels).

These are the three categories important in reaching balance and quality, in my opinion.
All of these variables are interwoven with the end result; the wine.
If the wine tastes good, goes well with food, etc., etc., then the wine is probably balanced.
High alcohol wines are over 14% and low alcohol wines are under 14%. Let's not reinvent the wheel.

Maybe the cutoff is 14.2% or maybe its 13.8%.
Maybe that depends on the climate or terroir of the particular vineyard.

I like to be able to drink 2-3 glasses of wine without my wife looking at me funny. 13% alcohol wines can be consumed with much physiological ease. Over 14%, and I get a bit slurry.
Not too complicated.

Can you "keep your balance" wine?


Carolyn Anavi said...

I love wine. My female friends and I love goodvexpensive wines. But, we consciously choose not to drink the wine we love because we want to be able to drink when we are spending a few hours together and dont want to end up drunk after two glasses. There is a big market for this product, make no mistake. And when you make it advertise the hell out of it so we know where to buy it.