High alcohol: The controversy continues

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.

15 thoughts on “High alcohol: The controversy continues

  • By Julius -

    The alcohol level of the wine should be relatively irrelevant. Being high or low alcohol should not imply a pre-determined quality level, and should not influence anyone’s ability to enjoy it. Each wine should be measured on its own merits by the intended imbiber, and we should never lose sight of the fact that any “Wine Expert” comments are mere opinion and nothing more. I totally agree that there should be no secrets, so if a publisher wishes to list the alcohol levels bully for you but remember that eventually someone will want the next piece of the puzzle and just where should the over information line be drawn? Are there sulfites in the wine? Was water added? Was sugar added? Did fruit flies get into the wine? How many hands were the grapes touched by on the way to the tank? Did naked girls stomp the grapes? Were there any animal droppings in the vineyard? The list could go on & on.
    So drop the pretense and the snobbery, art is art and wine is wine and each should be enjoyed without excuse, external influence or apology.

  • By John Kelly -

    Jeff – you are not a philistine, you are just a guy with an agenda. And you know what agendas are like (hint: everybody has one). My agenda is to twit the noses of guys whose agenda it is to assert ad nauseum that “high alcohol wines” are somehow inferior to “low alcohol wines.” That’s patently false, and falsifiable.
    “…[N]o one has actually said, flat out, that a 15 percent wine tastes better than a 12 percent wine.” Really? If reviewers in “the Winestream Media” are to be given any credence – and they certainly are, by many, many people – that is EXACTLY what they have been saying with their ratings and scores, for decades.
    As for your assertion that “[m]ost wine drinkers want to know alcohol levels…” all I have to say is – show me the data. I have been selling wine for nearly 30 years and I can tell you from experience that the fraction of people who give a crap about the alcohol level in any bottle of wine is significantly less than “most” – much less than “few” even. Like, a fraction of a percent.
    BTW – the comment you pulled from the Chronicle piece (“If I wanted to get sh*tfaced, I could do it for a lot less than $50 a bottle.”) read to me – and, oh, probably everybody else – more like a guy who doesn’t really care about the alcohol level, either.
    I’ll let you know if your efforts to peddle this meme gain any traction with the consumers I interact with on a daily basis. I expect that most consumers will continue not to care, but I’ve got to ask – if they do start to, how does it make the world a better place?

  • By Joe -

    I think John and Julius have nailed it, if you are deriving quality based on alcohol than you are right, save your money and buy plunk. Because their is certainly a lot of bad wine that has lower alcohol (less taxes) and there is quite a bit of bad wine at high alcohol. BALANCE is the key and in great wine that should be the focus. I also think it would be very hard to quantify someone’s intoxication based on drinking a wine of 12 or 15% alcohol. I have a hypothesis that this obsession on alcohol has been perpetuated from the microbrew scene. Where, higher quality beers (domestically) tend to be in a slightly higher range in alcohol than mass produced beer. The range from maybe 3-4% on bud to 6-8% on microbrews is a doubling on the effects of alcohol and is more likely to demonstrate some measureable sensory statistics. I frankly think you are out of material and regurgitating opinions.
    “But high alcohol wines, even in balance, are more difficult to drink and more difficult to enjoy,” and what is this based on? I think the answer is, SOME have in the past for you just like there has been a lot of bad wine in general, regardless of alcohol.
    I think there are two sides to this argument: those who think quality wine cannot be high in alcohol and those who think quality wine is not dictated by high or low ANYTHING, whether we are speaking pH, ETOH, or TA. I think it is an issue for wine writers, bloggers, etc who do not understand the process well enough to get past black and white. Some of the best wines are those that break paradigms and do not fall in neatly organized categories.

  • By Tom Johnson -

    The argument about high alcohol in California wines has been going on for more than a century. Professor George Hussman, one of the founding fathers of the California wine industry, complained about high alcohol wines in 1898, saying, basically, exactly what people are saying now.
    I wrote about it here, but I can’t link to the whole text because it came out of a book.
    That’s right: I read books. Impressive, ain’t I?

  • By Puty -

    I just don’t understand why people keep talking, blah blah blah, about this and no one seems to do anything about it.
    If people really cared, someone would come up with an i-phone app where people could track this information.
    I, for one, agree with the rest of the comments here and find ABV a trumped up non-issue.

  • By Tom Johnson -

    Your comment section doesn’t speak HTML.
    My post was here:
    Also, I want to point out that not only do I read books, but I read books that don’t have pictures in them, too.
    That’s why I get all the babes.

  • By LarrytheWineGuy -

    I would like to offer perspective from beyond the blogosphere and erudite wine writers. I worked a very large consumer event last night in Las Vegas, 2500 attendees. I personally poured wine for at least 200 wine enthusiasts over a 3 hour period. In that time, not 1 person asked about the ABV of my 2 wines. It is my experience during a 20+ year career in the wine trades, the average wine consumer cares little for technical wine data. Rather, they quickly form thier opinions about wines based on visceral responses to aromas, flavors and textures.
    As noted above, this is the hot button issue of the moment for wine blogs and wine geeks (I proudly include myself as a wine geek) everywhere. The Raj Parr, Adam Lee controversy simply threw gas on a minor fire.

  • By Randy -

    Truth: In order to get to 15% alc in a wine the grapes are left on the vine for longer than usual. If clients knew the actual condition of those raisy, pruney clusters, I’m positive they’d object.
    Moreover, those who leave the fruit on the vine dehydrating out what precious water that IS in the berry are the same one’s who claim to respect and love the fruit plastered all over their silly websites.
    There seems to be a wide consensus in wine country that bigger is better… that the super-size me ideals coming from fast-food and other corporate industries have permeated the very core of wine country. I personally have abandoned any whites, Pinot Noirs and Cab’s over 14%. Once the label says 14.1%, we all know there’s funny business to be found. Therefore, keeping the alc in the bottles under 14% is the best case for me and my wines. 13.5% is an honest number… 14.1% is total BS and most of us in this industry know and even laugh and joke about it.
    There’s no reason to drink high octane wine. Very few can age worth beans, they certainly don’t pair well with many dinners, esp weekday type of dinners. Most high octane wines have been tweeked and engineered with water additions after the grower leaves and crap ton of fake granular acid dumped into the vat at an alarming 4-7g/l. There was plenty of citric, tartaric and malic acids in there but these clowns are mising the boat of ripeness and heading on a one way ride to the island of misfit toys. I am explaining to every single client who walks in my doors about the farse of a joke we’re experiencing right now in WC. They are appreciated and passionate.
    The guys and gals who make these insipid, syrupy sauces are NOT making world class wine rather simply a California Cocktail meant to drink with in a few years… other wise out sticks the glycerol and then the wines start tasting sweet. These are the same people who all the moron corporate wine peddlers love and respect and taut their bs stories for all to hear. What a joke. Someone should post a pic of what the clusters look like in order to make a “cult” wine. I think consumers would not be happy to know they’re making wine from complete raisins.

  • By LarrytheWineGuy -

    I see. It is the truth according to Randy. I am impressed by your self-appointed position of arbiter of wine quality and wine style. I am no fan of frankenstein wines produced from dead grapes, chemical engineering and dimethyl dicarbonate, but when I deal with clients I listen to them and respond accordingly. It is not my job to judge their tastes. It is my job to sell them wine. So let me ask you Randy, would you not sell 2 cases of Schrader if requested by a client? Let me reiterate that the average consumer does not consider the state of the grape prior to conversion to wine, naturally or otherwise, or your opinion about the good, the bad and the ugly. Further, cult wines do not drive the wine business. Rather, it is the lowly $9 bottle that keeps most of us employed.

  • By Colorado Wine Press -

    I think many of the commenters are missing Jeff’s point. He’s not trying to claim that
    “high alcohol wines” are somehow inferior to “low alcohol wines.” as John K. claims. He’s simply supporting Decanter’s and the SF Chronicle’s decision to publish alcohol levels. It shouldn’t be a controversy. Alcohol is printed on the label, why shouldn’t it be in a review? I put abv in my reviews because as Jeff states, “[a]nything that gives wine drinkers more information so they can decide what to drink is a good thing.”
    John K. – don’t you read the Chron quote as meaning that the commenter wants to know about alcohol so he/she doesn’t buy an expensive overly alcoholic wine? If he/she wanted a lot of alcohol, he/she could buy cheaper distilled beverages.
    Julius – you compare wine to art, and I mostly agree with you. But why do art galleries put an explanation of medium next to the pieces? How is listing alcohol levels different?
    Randy – Your truth is not as true as you seem to think it. While many wineries/vineyards do this, more rigorous selection processes also remove underipe grapes. The alcohol levels produced from every single grape (ripe, overripe and underripe) will be lower than only using select grapes or bunches (ripe and overripe).
    Jeff – nice piece. Sorry many of your readers didn’t seem to get it. Or maybe I’m the one who didn’t. Please let me know!

  • By Jeff Siegel -

    Thank you, everyone, for keeping the comments and the discussion about this topic mostly civil, which we strive for here on the blog. All views are welcome.
    And yes, Kyle, all I was doing was recapping the high alcohol controversy and noting why Decanter and the Chronicle had such a hard time deciding what to do. No axes to grind here or agendas to push — the Wine Curmudgeon believes everyone should drink what he or she wants, and if that is 15 percent chardonnay, so be it. Just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean that the rest of the world should dislike it as well.

  • By Bella Vino Vita -

    Hanzell Vineyards in Sonoma has been producing Chardonnay & Pinot Noir since 1957. Their wine are extreamly age worthy and have always hovered around 14+%. They are Beautifully Balanced wines with rich acidity and soaring fruit. Hanzell may be the exception that proves the rule, but it is sad that anyone would dismiss a wine over 12/13% without tasting it. Furthermore, an adjenda that says, “I know better than you do, what you should and should not drink”, goes against the very concept of customer service. IMHO

  • By Kurt -

    @ Randy:
    I’ve been making wine in California for 15 years and I think your comment on grape condition for high alcohol wines is ignorant at best.
    Final alcohol percentages vary based on a lot of different initial conditions in the fermenter. Sugar concentration is one of them and must with 26 brix (percent sugar by weight) will easily yield 15% – 15.5% alcohol in most cases. I’ve rarely seen significant raisining in grapes with brix levels lower than 28, and usually the 26 brix grapes look pretty perfect, and taste great too.

  • By David Vergari -

    Much ado about nothing…
    Methinks that some people ITB–be they sommeliers, buyers, writers/critics et al–are looking for another way to say “no” or be noticed, so the ABV controversy [sic] is a godsend.
    How long will this last? The Over/Under is 3 years. I’ve got the under!

  • By Randy -

    @ kurt.
    What’s so wrong with making wine the way it used to be made… when 12.%% alc was PLENTY for world-class dry red wines. I’m not doing anything different that my grandfather’s generation of winemakers… It’s those making “cult” wines or wanna be “cult” wines who are the wine freaks.
    I’m noticing every day people describing their dislike for the syrupy, oaky high octane style and I for one am really encouraged to hear this.

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