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Monday Manifestos
DEMON RUM and WICKED WINE: The Great Alcohol Debate

It is still going on, and it is hardly a debate. The degree of hand-wringing, journalistic posturing, oh- so righteous indignation and downright damnation regarding the higher alcohol levels in California wines has not abated and, in fact, the naysayers are beginning to fling their nets further as the wines of Australia, South America and even France (mon dieu!) come under fire. Our thoughts? We actually find it all a bit silly even if perhaps we should not.

Yes, there is no question but that alcohol levels have been on the rise over the past ten or so years, and, no, we do not find that a virtue. While neither we nor any sane voice we know of has championed high alcohol for its own sake, we nonetheless do not see high-alcohol offerings as some sort of sinister crime against nature. Indeed, we are heartened by what seems to be a new trend on the part of conscientious winemakers to pull back from the brink. What rankles us most is the notion that there is a some finite alcohol standard, some sort of cut-off for what is good and what is not. Certain retailers, writers and sommeliers have claimed, with almost religious certainty, that when wines cross a certain level, say 13.5% for example in some cases and 14.5% as the seemingly allowable upper limit, they are they are unacceptable, out of balance, for drunkards only and should be ignored.

We do not believe that American wine drinkers are little more than mindless sheep easily steered into the abyss by conspiratorial, score-hungry winemakers, and we do believe them to be an increasingly savvy lot. We are uncomfortable when we see them being told that they are wrong for liking what they like The summary dismissal of those who happen to enjoy ripe, richly oaked wines that taste of the fruit from which they were made strikes us as being both demeaning and somewhat elitist. We are particularly amused by those who decry higher-alcohol wines for causing drunkenness after but a couple of glasses. Do the math. There is roughly the same amount of alcohol in 12 ounces of 13.5% wine as there is in 11 ounces of one that checks in at 15.0%. If the sobriety scale is indeed tipped, then just pour a small amount less.

There are brilliant wines to be had in a broad range of styles, and balance is always the key. We almost never reach for those bottlings that are singularly defined by jammy overripeness, yet there are more than a few stunning, genuinely complex offerings whose alcohols approach and occasionally exceed 15.0%. It is about what is in the bottle, not about numbers on the label. One of our favorite winemakers, Randall Grahm as been quoted in saying “in the new world, quality is generally associated with saturated color, soft tannins, new oak and overall power . . . sort of like evaluating music on how loud it is played and how big a horn section one is able to deploy . . . someone has to stop this madness.” Madness? We think not, and we would say to Mr. Grahm that there are times when music needs to be loud and times when it does not. Those willing to listen will quickly find that the broad sweep of fine California wines is better seen as a symphony not a solo, and there are varied voices of great quality and beauty in the brass section, not just amongst the fiddles.


You will recognize the theme of today’s sermon in the tasting note below. But, it is not so that we can reiterate, or re-rant if you will, but because Dehlinger Pinot Noirs and the low-alcohol convinced have somehow found a way to like each other. Two stories.

Back a few years ago, well maybe more like fifteen years ago, when we were moderating the AOL wine discussion boards, we remember a debate between an AOL poster named Burghound and a friend of his. Burghound alleged that he could always pick out California Pinot Noirs because they are over the top. His AOL friend asked him if Burghound had ever confused California with Burgundy and he said that he had not. So his AOL friend reminded him that he had done the very thing with a Dehlinger Pinot Noir just months before.

Second story. A very close and dear friend in the retail trade just straight out has a preference, oft and loudly stated, for Burgundy as opposed to California wines. But this rather brilliant taster also admitted recently to liking Dehlinger among California offerings. So, with those two true stories now on the table, we offer the following evidence that balance, not alcohol level, should be the standard that is used in determining when a wine works and when it does not.

95 DEHLINGER Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2007 $48.00
Tom Dehlinger has never been one to hold back on Pinot Noir and leaves the making of delicate wine to others, and his style can be no better seen than in this bold and deeply filled effort. When, as in such stellar harvests as 2007, all the pieces fall into place, even the naysayers who cannot see past alcohol content are bound to be taken with the kind of richness and wonderfully concentrated fruit that this deep, remarkably well-balanced bottling shows. It will hold and improve for many more years, but whether drunk now or saved for later, it needs to be paired with appropriately rich foods.


by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:9/13/2010 7:45:46 AM
I most definitely have a French leaning palate but for many other reasons than alcohol levels. The only time I look at the alcohol level on a bottle is when I can taste of feel heat on the wine and I will confess there have been times that I have felt heat on wines that were labeled under 14.5%. For my palate "hot" wines are a true turnoff but I get that some people are not at all sensitive to it so as I always say, "whatever creams your Twinke" not my place to tell anyone what they should drink, like or how they should make their wines...I just don't drink them.So funny story, I was once given a bottle of 2003 Dehlinger Pinot Noir, a gift from a dear friend that was trying to make me understand that there are some California Pinot Noirs worth drinking. I adore the wine for all of its succulent and juicy upfront fruit...liked it so much that I even did a blog post about it as a matter of fact. It was pointed out to me that the alcohol level on that wine was in fact pretty high but you know what, I wouldn't know because the wine was balanced so I didn't even bother to look for those tiny little numbers on the label. Not being familiar with Dehlinger I'm not sure if it was the six years on the bottle that had softened the perceptible alcohol or if Dehlinger is just making truly balanced wines. Going to assume the latter is true as some very cool cats I know seem to dig the hell of them. So weird that we would have such a similar story Charlie....
Alcohol levels
by Christian Miller
Posted on:9/13/2010 8:39:04 AM
I believe that Clark Smith (among others?) has pretty well established that there is not a linear relationship between alcohol levels and "balance" or enjoyment of the wine. Nor is there a single alcohol level beyond which the alcohol perception jumps or detracts from the wine's flavor. High alcohol levels can be a warning flag for raisined or pruney fruit flavors from too much hangtime. But the widespread use of de-alcoholization processes confounds this. I completely agree that Dehlinger Pinots are very fine wines; and they age well too.
Dehlinger Pinot
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:9/13/2010 9:05:48 AM
Those Dehlinger Pinots, the ones that violate the "rules" that otherwise smart and knowledgeable tasters employ without bothering to taste the wine, routinely run up to 15% alcohol. As Christian Miller and Samantha Dugan both point out, they are not the outliers in this discussion. There is a parade of such wines--deep in character and beautifully balanced. Just last night, I was writing up some Chardonnay tasting notes. The wine that most obviously showed heat in the finish came with 13.5% alcohol while wines like Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch (14.8%) showed virtually none because fruit and buoyant acidity carried the day.
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:9/14/2010 6:06:01 AM
Just a few days ago, my wife and I were sipping a wine by the glass at a restaurant (the name of which I can't recall, because I hated it and didn't get through a glass of it).It was way hot to the taste. But when we asked the waiter its alcohol level, he brought the bottle over to prove that it was 13.5%.Moral of the story: even at 13.5, a wine can be so out of balance as to taste hot.Balance is always the issue.Having said that, I agree with Christian regarding the potential implications of a wine sporting 15.5% and above alcohol. I am always on the lookout for the dried out, burnt qualities that might be in that bottle.

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