What if a scientific study found that increases in wine alcohol levels were not related to global warming, but were a choice made by winemakers? How would that change the debate about high alcohol?
We're reasonably close to finding out. Julian M. Alston, the director of the Robert Mondavi Institute Center for Wine Economics at the University of California-Davis, is in the middle of research -- perhaps seminal research -- that could answer that question. Alston agreed to talk to me about his work with two caveats: First, that I emphasize that this is an on-going project, and that he hasn't reached any conclusions yet, and second, that he couldn't be too specific about the project because he has promised an exclusive interview to the Wine Spectator when he is finished.
Still, we had plenty to talk about. More, after the jump:
The high alcohol controversy is not only bitter and vicious, but there aren't a lot of facts to go around. Which is, of course, why it can be bitter and vicious, as I have seen on the blog -- and which I expect to see in the comments for this post, even though I'm not making a judgment either way.
That's why Cain winemaker Christopher Howell can say that winemakers are the reason for high alcohol wines, while noted wine writer Charles Olken can rip my pal Dave McIntyre for daring to suggest the same thing. And, contrary to Olken's assertions, Dave does know what he is doing, has a fine palate, and deserves better than the cheap shots Olken took at him.
Though there are many theories about why alcohol levels have increased, little research has been done in the area. That's what makes Alston's work so important. His preliminary report, which was presented to the annual meeting of the American Association of Wine Economists last month, noted the alcohol level on the label is often wrong, and that there doesn't seem to be a statistical relationship between high alcohol levels and global warming.
I was more interested in the second point, while Alston was intrigued with the first. Since wine is taxed by alcohol level, he asked, why doesn't the federal government do a better job of policing label alcohol levels? In fact, he had to get the alcohol label information for his research from the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, which tests every bottle it sells in provincial stores. And why Ontario? Because the U.S. agency that regulates wine labels doesn't have that information.
To the second point: Alston and his colleagues used 91,432 wines from around the world, dating to 1991, that were listed in the Ontario database. Then, they compiled climate data for the growing season in the world's wine regions, and looked to see if there was a statistical relationship between the increase in temperatures and the growth in alcohol levels. What they found was stunning. "[I]t it would take a whopping 20 degree Fahrenheit increase in the average temperature in the growing season to account for a 1 percentage point increase in the average alcohol content of wine." Which did not happen.
Which brings us, once more, to the caveats. Alston has no opinion about whether high alcohol is good or bad; this is research that doesn't make judgments. Also, this is preliminary research, and the findings could change.
Finally, Alston's work has been generally well received. The comments from his colleagues have been favorable, and he has heard almost nothing from the cyber-ether. That's an irony the Wine Curmudgeon appreciates.