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Monday Manifestos
Names, Give Us the Names!

By Stephen Eliot

The high-alcohol debate regarding California wines is not only unlikely to abate anytime soon, it seems to be intensifying of late, and, as it was the topic of several CGCW postings last week, so again is it the focus of today’s rant. Anyone who checks in on our site is aware of our thoughts on the issue, and we will not go into a lengthy restatement and defense of our positions that 1) balance, not arbitrary alcohol limits, is the key to real vinous success; that 2) there are now and have been many hundreds of exquisite California wines over the years that do not fit the overripe, overblown, over-oaked model that is by too many being painted as the immutable norm for wines of the state these days; and, that 3) those winemakers who do, in fact, seek optimal ripeness and balance are far from being the enlightened vanguard of rethinking and will part the dark sea of California plonk while leading us to a bright, new promised land.

Rather, as I am increasingly curious at just what wines and wineries are the actual offenders that have led to so much ideological huffing and puffing. I would ask today of those true believers, give me names. Just who are the perverters of the winemaker’s art? In truth, the widening gulf between those that do and do not enjoy California wines, at least publicly, is not solely the result of heinous alcohol levels but all sorts of “unnatural” tricks and tweaks and manipulations of what is supposed to be a “natural” and “authentic” product. For examples, we hear of those who remove alcohol from their wines and then add it back later, and of ill-conceived practices of micro-oxygenation, cultured yeast fermentation and acid additions that are the devil’s work at the least. Who are they? Do not tell me that they exist, point them out and share what insights you may have.

The topic came up again a couple of days back during a wine-writer’s lunch hosted by Shafer Vineyards following a fascinating retrospective tasting of the winery’s proprietary Relentless bottlings that will be the basis of a special report in the days ahead. Now, Shafer will never be accused of making delicate wines, but it is hard to argue with the fact that they convey remarkable richness and complexity and have aged very well. After working our ways through 11 vintages of Shafer’s powerhouse blend of Syrah and Petite Sirah, casual conversation perforce led to the alcohol debate, and the question came up that the high-proof “fruit bomb” bashers never seemed to point out just who the offenders might be. They are never named, but inevitably a handful of exceptions are cited as having seen the light, and the rest by omission seem to be the villains.

That makes for a very big “rest” by the way, so big that wholesale condemnation of the California wine culture is implied, and that is why I want names. Without them, I am left with the uncomfortable sense that you believe some vast conspiracy of uncertain motive, although toadying to certain critics seems the villains’ usual character flaw. Do not just tell me who you like, tell me where the offenses lie, unless you mean to tell me that there are only a handful of producers (invariably tiny) that might be worth my time. If you prefer leaner, lighter, more subtle wines, I have no issue, and, in a given mealtime context, I am likely to agree. But, if those wines that are worthy can only be described with reference to what they are not, if their descriptions come with formulaic swipes at wines of other styles, then I begin to worry. There seems lately a need to be “right,” a need for vinous truth and true enlightenment, and, as a simple corollary, if there is a “right,” there must be a “wrong.” Saying that a wine is delicious and talking of its virtues, it seems, is no longer enough, but it must be seen as being “right” to have any credibility, and, when enjoying a good glass of wine, the need to be “right” is simply not on my agenda.


Hi Alcohol
by Marlene Rossman
Posted on:12/6/2010 8:51:08 AM

As I told Steve Heimoff, Dan Berger has been flogging this for what seems to be decades.  This is really boring.

Hi, Alcohol
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/6/2010 9:42:48 AM

And Hi Marlene--

What I finally see is CA wine lovers, writers, makers, etc, ready to offer intelligent counterarguments. You won't see a a lot of defense of pruny, gloppy, desiccated wines, but you will see people defending wines that have balance, taste of the variety from which they are made and reflect the place of their provenance.

I like to mention Dehlinger Pinot Noir in these discussions because somehow that wine is accepted as meeting the above criteria even though it runs near 15% ABV year in and year out. Why a critic could praise Dehlinger and then, without tasting, simply hammer all RRV Pinots over 14% ABV is beyond me.

My friend, Mr. Berger, recently praised Shafer Merlot. OK, I like Shafer Merlot. But that wine is around 15% ABV, and thus violates every tenet of the Berger dictums about how wine should be made.

Lots of others do the same--which is why the firestorm erupted last week here and over on Steve

The problem is not only that these people like wines that violate their expressed standards. It is that they judge by category rather than by bottle and then have to backtrack or make excuses or otherwise paper over the fact that they have encountered wines that work and that are not made in the limited image they have proclaimed as "the truth".

A Few Names
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:12/6/2010 1:14:51 PM

Okay I'll bite. Carlisle Syrah, Opolo Zin, Orin Swift...everything, Turley, Marcassin Pinot, Caymus Cabernet, Alban Reva Syrah, Brochelle Zin off the top of my head....

No Subject
by Charles E. Olken
Posted on:12/6/2010 1:42:25 PM

Ah,my Samantha. You have made a good start. And you are right. Those wines are ripe to the point of excess, although certainly not always.

But, I think Steve's point is that the discussions always mention a few outliers as if they were the only exceptions to the rule.

Certainly, anyone reading CGCW on a regular basis has seen our reviews of wines too big for their britches. They exist. No question. But what also exists are long lists of balanced wines--wines that have been around forever, and are not newcomers.

"hi, alcohol. hi, oak."
by John
Posted on:12/6/2010 2:18:31 PM

Stephen you won't get me naming names - because I agree with you that the stereotype of the demon "California high alcohol fruit bomb" is largely a fiction. More than a widespread reality, this near-mythical creature is rarely encountered, but has been set up as a straw man that a coterie (or cabal?) of producers, marketers and writers flogs endlessly in order to brand a narrative that "we are fighting against this!" "Mr. Kelly, are you now or have you ever been a member of the high alcohol fruit bombers and manipulators?" "F**k off, Sen. McCarthy." "Sir you are in contempt!" "Indeed I am, Senator."

That's not to say wines that fit the profile don't exist - like all myths, this one has a basis in reality. It is just that these wines are (as you suggest) the exception rather than the rule. And the style is anything but new. Like all warm grapegrowing regions, California has always been able to produce very ripe fruit. Back in my undergraduate days I kept stocked a case of mid-1970s Conn Creek Zinfandel in my closet that was labeled at over 15% abv.

Maybe that's where this started - port-like Zins? Then someone figured they could do Cabs that way, then Pinots, Syrahs, etc. And consumers bought these wines - I believe the style had found its market niche before the style started garnering high scores from some reviewers. As I have stated before, no amount of whinging or criticism of the style can change the fact that a segment of consumers LIKES a wine that has higher alcohol, higher pH, softer tannins, lots of recognizable fruit and oak. Parker (and others) did not create wines in this bigger style - they validated the spending habits of the small segment of consumers who want that instant hit of obvious gratification.

No Subject
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:12/6/2010 2:38:47 PM


I'm not sure it is a fiction, as I have encountered my share of over the top nonsense wines, but I don't think it is as big a deal as the continuing argument seems to amke it. I'm with Marlene: the subject has reached the boring stage.

In fact, these discussions are like religion and they generally end in what I call the negative persuasion field of conversation, on both sides.

Wines that suck, suck. Wines that don't suck, don't suck. We should make it our business to seek wines that fall in the latter category--to our palates, that is.

Further thoughts...
by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:12/6/2010 5:53:22 PM

Well, plenty of good commentary today, which, after all, is the point of these kinds of forums.

Marlene and Thomas, I wholly agree that the debate is boring, but it simply will not go away. What’s more, the “let’s dump on California” cadre seems to have gained traction lately, and “discussion” has given way to a succession of blows to the stomach in the national media. Charlie has referred to several authors and articles recently and there are a good many more, but as he has stated, our comments are not meant to call out individuals, but to talk about the issues as we see them. Yes, there are those that have over the years beaten the horse until it is quite dead, but there is also a class of new Mandarins with more substantial media platforms from which to preach the new gospel. I hear/read very little by way of reasoned dissent and felt like another comparatively experienced voice need to be heard.

Samantha, thank you for your response, and it may surprise you to know that I am pretty much in agreement with your views. But, I hardly think that your nominees for the dumpster are representative of all winemaking hereabouts, and, even if they may not be my particular cup of tea, I would never suggest that those who enjoy them are ignorant fools. I know that you look for and find real joy in the intangibles of a great glass and abhor the “grading” of wine by the numbers or most any measure, but isn’t that is exactly what is going on when ripeness and ABV percentage become the singular scale of success or failure? And, yes, as Charlie points out, the biggest burr under my saddle is the tactic of citing a handful favorites and explaining their worth principally because they are not like the rest…a very big “rest” as I said that is damned by such logic.

John, I think I must side with Thomas to the degree that I do not believe that over-the-top wines are a myth. There are plenty. Charlie and I go through thousands of California wines each year, and overblown bottlings are not rare. And yes, high-alcohol monsters are not a creation of the 1990s designed to please one critic or another any more than balanced, well-crafted wines are a sudden atonement for the excess that some see as the singular theme of past years. I recall a real clamor back in the early 1970s for the high-ripeness, high-alcohol wines of David Bruce and Ridge to name but a few (anyone remember the 1970 Ridge Jimsomare Zinfandel?), and, at the same time, the balanced bottlings of Chalone, Mount Eden, Heitz, Mayacamas and Stags Leap Wine Cellars, again to name but a few, signaled just how good California wines could be. What I do not recall, however, is heated argument about what is right and who is wrong…with perhaps the exception of some French folks in 1976.

…and, finally to your comments Thomas; no, this not religion. I believe that is exactly what I am arguing against. This is not an issue of us and them, but one of staying clear of a new catechism that reduces wine down to a few simple, easy-to-understand commandments such as “thou shalt not exceed 14% alcohol”.  You are right that wines that suck, suck and those that don’t, don’t. But, and this is a very big but, those in our business, who write and teach, have some responsibility regarding the criteria for each. It isn’t just what we as individuals think. We are speaking to a large audience, and unless there is some common understanding of terms and values that we can meaningfully communicate to and with our readers and students, you and I are out of business. Unfettered subjectivism is no more the answer than the litmus tests that worry me so. I am not mad as much as I am worried.

by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:12/7/2010 1:02:59 AM

Stephen, thank you for your response to my comment. You asked for names and I gave you a handful of wines that just taste and feel so out of whack for my palate. I would never say that people that like those wines are ignorant, not ever. That is far too, "I know more than you do" for me and when it comes to matters of taste...well I can't argue with anyone's palate. Plus as a retailer that would be a massive fail, people like them, they sell and in the end that is what matters.  I do have an issue with grading wines because I think that attaching a number to a wine that has likely been tasted with a bunch of others, without food or "situation" does little to represent what that wine has to offer...what the end user will get from it, so I have no use for those numbers. My goal is and always has been to give each one of my customers a fantastic wine moment, if I know they love rich, ripe, oaky wines well, I'm going to give them one, may not be my cup of tea but who cares, it's not about me.

No Subject
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:12/7/2010 5:51:02 AM



I am in overall agreement with your last paragraph. The problem that I have is that the "religion" aspect of the situation is what gets the coverage.

Maybe the paucity of reasoned debate that you seek stems from the general paucity of writers that apply reasoning instead of religion. Some of the writers (print and online) who receive an awful lot of attention these days fall into that camp...and maybe that's why they receive the attention. There's no disputing that truth and sense often become difficult to locate in a dense fog of voyeuristic controversy.

No Subject
by Mike Officer
Posted on:12/7/2010 10:18:26 AM

So Samantha, since you named me as one of the poster childs for high alcohol CA wines, which syrah did you have that made you come to this conclusion?

where is the line?
by John Kelly
Posted on:12/7/2010 10:21:53 AM

My intention was to suggest that the stereotype of the California fruit bomb as a universal is a myth, not that wines that fit the stereotype don't exist. They do. But where does one draw the line?

My personal Rubicon is not based on alcohol level alone, but on overripe flavors and excessive oak. Again I'm not pointing fingers, but when I was working at the wine services lab I encountered wines where part of the block had been harvested at "normal" sugar, fermented and de-alced down to 4% so that the rest of the block could be harvested at 30 °Brix. The de-alced wine was blended in to give the over-ripe bit a chance to complete fermentation. I got these wines when the protocol failed, and the ferments stuck. Even when the process was a success I never cared for the taste of the result.

More recently I have seen a number of wines where the ferments are conducted in small new oak fermenters, the wine pressed and racked into 100% new oak, and then racked to another set of 100% new barrels for a second year of aging - because if 2 changes of new wood are good, three MUST be better right? To my taste, wrong.

But the very idea that this is a universal trend is ludicrous. There are just so many economic factors working against wide adoption of these methods that the fraction of wines arising from them will FOREVER be minuscule.

No Subject
by Mike Officer
Posted on:12/7/2010 10:26:03 AM

Oops.  I should have asked you Samantha which Carlisle syrah did you have that led you to your conclusion.

Poster Child
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:12/7/2010 10:59:54 AM

Mike I listed Carlisle as one of quite a few wines that are just too aggressive for my palate. I recently tasted the 2008 Dry Creek Valley and to my very French leaning tastes it was not my cup of Syrah. And to be honest I almost left Carlisle off my list as of all those I listed I find your wines the most balanced...perfect that I would and you see it. As far as poster children go Rombauer should be at the top of everyones list, unlike your wines those do in fact make me gag. I can assure you that your wines have a huge following in our store with both our customers and many of our staff. Bennett Traub, our domestic wine buyer is a huge fan of yours and he is the one people go to when looking for new world wines, not me. I'm just a freaky old world wine lover, one that it is even finding the wines of my beloved Rhone (the South mostly) too fruity, alcoholic and aggressive as of late. I'm sorry if you took my comment as an insult, was not intended to be. Just weighing in for those of us that prefer wines that are more rustic, lighter and more often than not below 15% alcohol.

No Subject
by Mike Officer
Posted on:12/7/2010 12:25:14 PM

Thanks Samantha.  We make many different syrahs, 7 in fact in 2009.  Dry Creek is the warmest AVA from which we source and hence typically our biggest syrah.  Also, it has a fairly high TA and is loaded with tannin.  As a result, I don't consider it anywhere near ready unless you plan on giving it a long decant (8 hours) and serve it with a fatty piece of grilled meat.  In our drainkability chart, I recommend not opening this wine until 2013.  I'll revisit it in 2012 and may extend it even beyond that.

If you prefer leaner styles of syrahs, then I suggest you try our Cardiac Hill.  It's from Bennett Valley, a much cooler area.  I recall the 2007 was 14.1% and the 2008 14.2%.  The 2009 is also 14.1%.  This is comparable in alcohol to a Guigal Hermitage.  Or if you're not adverse to mourvèdre, try our Two Acres.  The 2007 is 13.7%.  The 2008 is 14.1% while the 2009 will be 13.8%.

I do not produce wines "ripe to the point of excess" as I do not like to drink those kind of wines.  My only goal is to produce wines I like to drink.  If that's at 10% alcohol, wonderful.  If that's at 15% alcohol, wonderful as well.  I work with whatever Mother Nature provides in a given vintage and don't believe in making wine with target numbers in mind.

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