What kind of a stir would a food magazine cause if it said it was going to list the ingredients in its recipes? None at all.
But the wine business is not the food business. Only in wine would a controversy ensue when the San Francisco Chronicle and Decanter magazine, two of the leading members of the Winestream Media, announced each would start listing alcohol levels for the wines it reviewed. Said the Chronicle's Jon Bonne: ".. [W]e resisted printing them regularly because the act of bringing alcohol into the discussion of a wine is inherently political."
Which says a lot about how screwed up the wine business is. Bonne is right — unfortunately, reporting alcohol levels in an alcoholic beverage has become political, because much of the wine establishment has made high alcohol its cause. Winemakers have pushed alcohol levels to 15, 16 and even 17 percent, even in white wine, and have been rewarded with glowing reviews from Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator. Those of us who object, like the Wine Curmudgeon, are called philistines and told we don't understand the issue.
Most wine drinkers want to know alcohol levels. As one commenter noted in the Chronicle story, "If I wanted to get sh*tfaced, I could do it for a lot less than $50 a bottle." But that's of little concern to the people who make and write about these wines. They know best, and they're going to tell us what to think. More, after the jump.
The backlash started almost immediately after these decisions. The Daily Sip blog reprinted a Twitter conversation between Bonne and Spectator editor Mitch Frank, who offered the usual arguments in favor of high alcohol and asked Bonne when the Chronicle was going to start listing things like tartaric acid. Steve Heimoff of the Wine Enthusiast added this: "For some reason I can ?t quite grasp, this ABV thingie has become the buzziest topic in the world of wine. Anytime anyone with any credentials weighs in, everyone goes all a-tizzy. (It might even happen here!) If you think about it, alcohol level in wine isn ?t that big a deal."
Heimoff is being disingenuous. Twenty years ago, white wines had 12 percent alcohol and red wines had 13 percent, and that's when no one much noticed. Then, advances in technology in grape growing and winemaking over the next couple of decades made it possible to push alcohol levels to heights never seen before — 17 percent zinfandel, 16 percent merlot, 15 percent chardonnay. The Winestream Media couldn't praise the wines enough, and a new style was born.
To this day, no one is quite sure why winemakers pushed alcohol the way they did, since it doesn't necessarily make the wine taste better. Bake a cake with better quality flour or top-notch butter, and it tastes better. Make a wine with high alcohol, and it tastes different. It may be fruitier or richer or riper or some such wine adjective, but no one has actually said, flat out, that a 15 percent wine tastes better than a 12 percent wine.
The high alcohol types get around this with their balance argument; that is, high alcohol is OK as long as it is balance with the rest of the wine — acid, fruit, tannins and so forth. Maybe. But high alcohol wines, even in balance, are more difficult to drink and more difficult to enjoy. And wine should not be difficult to enjoy.
Plus, this still begs the question of why wines need high alcohol to begin with. Robert Parker gave 95 points to the 2003 Haut-Brion, and it was 13 percent alcohol. What was wrong with the wine that would have been improved with higher alcohol?
So a tip o' the Wine Curmudgeon fedora to the Chronicle and Decanter. Anything that gives wine drinkers more information so they can decide what to drink is a good thing.