Monday, November 20, 2017

Alcohol percentages of Wine Spectator's Top 10 wines of 2017

Congratulations to fire-struck Napa Valley, which got some good news this week with a big honor for this vineyard
Wine Spectator releases its annual Top 100 Wines this week. The list often signals something about the high-end wine market: Does the Spectator think its readers should drink more Syrah? (Yes, apparently.) Has Pinot Noir arrived with Spectator readers? (Definitely not.)

I wanted to see if the much-reported backlash against high-alcohol wines has hit the offices of the Spectator, which for years was a bastion of the same old names boosting fruit bombs. I don't want to overly pick on the Spectator: I find its ratings more restrained and useful than those of the Wine Advocate, which probably can't do a Top 10 because it would have to sort through all its 100-point scores and announce that some wines are less perfect than other perfect wines. I like that the Spectator does a Top 100. I just thought I'd see if there's a pattern.

There might be, but without comparing to previous year's Spectator lists, I can't be sure. First, here is the alcohol percentage data, which of course Spectator does not provide:

No. 1 Duckhorn Napa Valley Three Palms Vineyard Merlot 2014 14.5% alcohol (Buy it here)
No. 2 K Walla Walla Valley Powerline Estate Syrah 2014 15% (Buy it here)
No. 3 Château Coutet Barsac 2014 14% (Buy it here)
No. 4 Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino 2012 14.5% (Buy it here)
No. 5 Château de St.-Cosme Gigondas 2015 14.5% (Buy it here)
No. 6 Domaine Huët Le Mont Vouvray Demi-Sec 2016 13% (Buy it here)
No. 7 Château Canon-La Gaffelière St.-Emilion 2014 13.5%! (Buy it here)
No. 8 (Hestan Vineyards) Meyer Vineyard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 (I don't know)* (Buy it here, maybe)
No. 9 Pahlmeyer Napa Valley Chardonnay 14.8% (Buy it here)
No. 10 Booker Oublie Paso Robles 2014 (a Rhone red blend) 15.0% (Buy it here)

(* If you have a bottle, please let me know; I gave up looking online. I got excited when at the end of Spectator's  promotional video for the wine they zoom in on the bottle, but then a little black curtain comes up as if to specifically cover up the alcohol percentage.)

Are those high? Maybe somewhat, but not egregiously. This wouldn't be a sommelier's Top 10, but people who take younger sommeliers' suggestions are not the Wine Spectator readership.

Parsing it a little bit, the K Syrah's 15% alcohol is on the high side for the region/variety, and one can make that argument about the Pahlmeyer Chardonnay. I might cut Booker, at 15%, a break for being in Paso: not much fruit gets ripe there at just 14%. The Coutet's a little rich for Barsac, and that's probably why it got the high rating.

The others, though, seem pretty reasonable for the regions/varieties. It's nice to see a 13.5% alcohol red wine (the St.-Emilion) in the top 10. For the No. 1 wine (the Duckhorn), 14.5% is a restrained alcohol level for Merlot from a fairly warm part of Napa Valley. At least half the Top 10 I would not call "high in alcohol," and maybe that does represent a philosophical change for Spectator, but again, I'd have to go back to previous lists to make that statement.

Here's why I don't want to do that. Looking up this simple statistic, the alcohol percentage on 10 wines, took me an hour and I never did find it for No. 8.

It's not just that Wine Spectator can write 867 words about Duckhorn Three Palms Merlot but can't spare five characters for the alcohol percentage. (Fortunately, Duckhorn gives the numbers on its terrific website.) NONE of the major critical organizations can be bothered to list the alcohol percentage, not even Decanter, which pretends to have European sensibilities. They all give us made-up numbers (this wine is a 93! No, I say it's a 91!) in bold type, and they're happy to tell us the wine tastes like muddled tea leaves or dried apricot, but they can't be bothered to report an actual statistic that affects the taste of the wine.

Most retailers don't give the alcohol percentage either, nor does the Cellar Tracker community site. You know who does give all the percentages? Gary Vaynerchuk's Wine Library. Thanks, Gary Vee.

Is it possible that consumers just don't care? Well, some consumers don't care, clearly. If people pestered Wine Spectator for alcohol percentages, the Spectator would provide them. I can also report that there's a militant forced-ignorance group who get angry when you list alcohol percentages with a story, as I usually do on Wine-Searcher. They not only don't want the information; they don't want anyone to see it.

All of that said, just looking at the numbers, I think that the lower-alcohol movement has even hit Wine Spectator. But if so, they don't want to admit it. Nothing to see here, folks.

Here's the Wine Spectator Top 100 page.

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Jack Everitt said...

I care deeply.

Zzzz said...

You made me go back and look at my print copies of Decanter and they do indeed list alcohol the majority of the time. I made the effort as in reviewing for them, on their tasting spreadsheet it needs to be listed so I would have been surprised to find it wasn't there.

Now, they are doing more sponsored articles in the magazine in the last year and in these, the information for the wines isn't as thorough so maybe that's what you were seeing?


ericlee said...

I'm sure you know this but I should also point out that the stated alcohol can vary a great deal by what's really in the bottle.

W. Blake Gray said...

Miquel: I was looking online, not at the print product, and I was looking specifically at these wines, several of which Decanter reviewed without listing the alcohol percentage. Whether there's a reason for that, I don't know: maybe they don't list the percentage for California wines, or they later add it in print. Not sure.

Eric Lee: Yeah, it's a pet peeve of mine in US alcohol law. But it's still a data point as 14.5 vs. 15 vs. 13.5 still tells me something. That said, check out the link:

Bob Henry said...

Accessing Hestan's website . . .

. . . I find no 2014 vintage listed.

Is that a sign that the wine has sold out (either before the Wine Spectator Top 10 tout, or because of it)?

The website does not provide data sheets on the wines, which would list the ABV percentages.

guren said...

Bob, under the header to "Join the Hestan Vineyards Club", you can see a message to "Please call the Tasting Room for 2014 Meyer Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon purchases.

Also, if you click on the 2011 and 2013 links from the URL you posted, the ABV is listed. The 2011 is 14.8% and the 2013 is 15.4%.

Greg said...

The problem with listing the alcohol number is that it doesn't really tell you much about the wine quality. As everyone knows, there are wines that carry 15% well and don't show any heat or roughness. Shafer manages with the Hillside Select for example. And there are others that seem hot and yet they're only 13.5. I look at the stated alcohol when I open a bottle, but really wouldn't make too many judgments based on that alone. It would be similar to list dry extract, total acidity, etc. - those numbers can seem like they give information that they don't really give, at least regarding taste and overall quality.

Francly Speaking said...

Off topic of the conversation but I did note that there were no wines in the TOP 10 over $100/btl.. and four of them were under $50/btl. A closer look reveals that there are only
three wine over $100/btl in the TOP100 and they do not show up until the 90's!

Jim Gordon said...

Hey Blake, Good topic! FYI Wine Enthusiast does list alcohol percentages on all the online reviews, available at

Bob Henry said...


Thank you for the clarification.

These post-midnight comments sometimes lack the full "due diligence" of waking hours comments.

Dan Berger has written often in his Napa Valley Register wine column on escalating -- and underreported -- ABV levels.

From the Napa Valley Register Online
(January 22, 2010):

"The Collapse of Cabernet"


By Dan Berger
"On Wine" Column


"For more than a decade, I have hoped for a miracle. Then last week I realized the worst: Cabernet sauvignon has changed so appreciably that I fear we’ll never see it in the way we once did.

. . .

"The most telling — and damaging — aspect of today’s cabernets is what I hear from wine makers, and always off the record. The phrasing may differ, but the sentiment is the same: 'I may make cabernet, but I don’t drink it any more.' "

-- AND --

From the Napa Valley Register Online
(March 21, 2013):

"Blind Tasting and Alcohol"


By Dan Berger
"On Wine" Column

"The comment was unsolicited and surprised me by its bluntness — and notably because it came from a respected Sonoma County wine maker who makes a well-regarded cabernet.

"'I don’t drink my cab,' he said. 'I just make it. It has too much alcohol for me.'

"His remark was uttered about eight years ago in the midst of a blind tasting of 12 cabernets, one of which was his, and was followed by knowing nods from the other wine makers in the tasting.

"More alcoholic wine sells better than better balanced wine, said a few of the wine makers, 'and we have to make what sells,' said one."

-- AND --

From the Napa Valley Register Online
(October 23, 2014):

"High alcohol and diminishing wine styles"


By Dan Berger
"On Wine" Column


"With wines whose labels say they have alcohols of more than 14.1 percent, the law says the statement carries a 1 percent leeway factor, so a wine whose label says it has 15.2 percent alcohol, in theory could be in compliance as low as 14.2 percent and as high as 16.2 percent. Remember that phrase 'in theory.'

"Some years ago, I determined that the government has no penalty whatever for wines with more than 14 percent alcohol that are out of compliance. As a result, for all practical purposes, government officials do not analyze most expensive, high-alcohol wines. If they did, they might be shocked.

"A good friend and wine-maker not long ago was curious about this, so he sent samples of six expensive California wines to a lab for analysis. Each of the wines had labels that said the wines had alcohols in the high 14 percents. The lab results came back weeks later. The alcohols on all the wines were about 17 percent."

~~ Bob

Tom said...

I’m late to the party. My copy of the 2014 Meyer lists 14.7% alcohol.

Unknown said...

If you haven't seen it, Andrew Jefford wrote an compelling argument for remaining ignorant of abv when tasting:

I share your frustration with regard to finding this critical piece of information. is good to include the abv. They confirm Tom's 14.7% for the Meyer.

W. Blake Gray said...

Kent: Such a European point of view from Jefford. He writes, "The idea that a wine with an alcohol level of 14.5% or 15% might be intrinsically ‘unbalanced’ is now unthinkingly accepted by many wine tasters."

You couldn't judge wine in California if you believed that, especially about wines at 14.5% alcohol.

Unknown said...

Not so European, I seem to recall a high-profile California Sommelier who refused to include any wine over 14% on his restaurant wine list.

W. Blake Gray said...

Yes, but he never claimed those wines weren't balanced. I interviewed him on the issue more than once. He said they didn't fit his restaurant's cuisine.