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Thursday Thorns: The Report Card
The Berger Discussion: Who’s Laughing Now

By Charles Olken

One does not make fun of Dan Berger, even with kindness, without making a lot of his fans upset. We all know that Dan takes himself seriously, but these folks take him even more seriously than he takes himself. Frankly, I am jealous.

I wrote an editorial the other day about intolerance in wine discussions. I had to mention my brothers just to guarantee myself an audience. Contrast that with what happened when I wrote about Dan’s odd claim that “the blanding of American wine is nearly complete”. His followers came out of the woodwork in numbers that drove my brothers back into hiding.

My New York brother, the one who never met a debate that he did not like, wrote to me this comforting advice, “Charlie, I thought I told you not to piss off the pope. You got yourself into this, and I can’t help no matter how many times you mention me in print”. OK, Jonboy, I get it.

The funny, odd thing is that my initial comments had nothing to do with Dan’s body of work over his lifetime. But in questioning the hyperbolic reaction that led from a Tweet by a know-nothing into the near-denigration of all wine made in America, I apparently invited defense of everything Dan has ever written. Before turning to some of those comments, I need to add this one other note. I actually sometimes, on occasion, especially when I am in a good mode, agree with Dan. The rest of the time I find him somewhat over the top and narrowly prescriptive for my taste.

But it is just that attitude that has earned Dan his legion of followers. He tells it like he sees it, and he has the ability to convince others that he is right. That is why the world needs more of “My Running Argument With Dan Berger”—because someone has to set the record straight.

I do owe some of Dan’s people thanks for pitching in. I think I understand more now. Consider these comments.

“Dan Berger is one of the remaining wine reviewers who offers consistant (sic) praise to winemaker's striving for wines made in yesteryear”

“I think Dan has a point that you've forgotten to talk about. His big issue isn't so much with high alcohol wines, but the high pH that's goes hand-in-hand with those wines.”

My comment: This was the first of many columns under the rubric, “My Running Argument With Dan Berger”. No need to examine each of his positions at once. Besides, while high pH is certainly not going to produce longevity in wine, who ever said that every wine needed to age twenty years. And besides, acidity can at least bring some high pH wines into balance.

“. . . blandness corresponds to high alcohol, and approaching 4 x 4 on the acid and Ph.”

My comment: Have you tasted the wines of JC Cellars, Dehlinger, Shafer, Staglin, Ridge, Rubicon? By the way, one of the notions upon which Dan and I agree is that balance is the key to success, and there is nothing about high alcohol that, by itself, makes wine bland, dull, soft, out of balance.

“Let the old man rant, it's all just opinion.”

My comment: Careful, buddy. I’m older than Dan--chronologically.


by Arthur
Posted on:1/27/2011 10:04:52 AM


Unleass I'm not understanding you mean when you say "And besides, acidity can at least bring some high pH wines into balance." then I think you just made a huge gaffe.

pH is a measure of intensity of acidity. You can have a solution with a lot of acids (high TA) of low intensity (high pH) and vice versa but generally speaking (in the context of wine chemistry) high pH means low acidity.

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/27/2011 10:48:21 AM

Arthur--I never make huge gaffes. :-}

What I mean is that acidity can be added, often lowering the pH, but there are wines in this world with pH approaching and at 4.0 whose TA gets high enough to at least keep the wine from being ponderous, thick, dull, soapy-textured, gloppy and even down-right unpleasant.

Our good buddy, Steve Heimoff, once suggested that I was part of the problem when it came to recommending overweight wines. Then he went out and gave 95 points to a Huge Bear Cabernet with 15.5 alcohol and a 3.95 pH.

Aside from a little personal satisfaction at catching him out, kind of the way I get a smile when Dan Berger recommends a Shafer Merlot, it was not a gotcha moment because I too rated that wine highly. The reasons are there to see in the notes, but mostly it had to do with the fact that the wine was in balance, had plenty of recognizable varietal fruit and used its latter palate tannin for grip and balance as well. It may not last 20 years, but whoever said that wine had to last 20 years or it was disqualified.

The point is this: wines at 4.0 pH do not come with one universally specific acidity level. Many wines at that level simply cannot be acidulated into balance, but depending on all kinds of factors, including the TA when the grapes come in, it is possible to make wines at 4.0 pH that are not dead on arrival.

acid comments
by John Kelly
Posted on:1/27/2011 11:29:43 AM

I recall having the opportunity to run some lab analyses on several vintages of Petrus in the 80s and 90s. Many of these wines - even from well-regarded vintages - had surprisingly high pHs and relatively low acid levels. Since then I have "thrown out the book" on acid/pH-longevity - especially the Davis book which states that pH on reds needs to be under around 3.5 for the wines to "age well" (whatever that means). That may be true of Central Valley fruit, but it is clearly not true across the board.

High levels of acid can accompany relatively high pH, in full-malolactic reds especially - high levels of lactic (and succinic, to a lesser extent) taste poorly to me. In my experience a wine with a tartaric/lactic ratio of 1.0 or more, low levels of succinic, and adequate levels of well-resolved phenolics can exhibit balance, structure, finesse and food-friendliness in spite of having pH near 4.0.

Well resolved phenolics are easy for me to spot but harder to describe, much less to explain how they are achieved. Seed ripeness at harvest is critical, as well as sufficient oxygen during feremntation. Over-extraction does not make for well-resolved tannins, and protein fining will not fully resolve poorly-strucutred tannins. Wines with a higher mannoprotein content (derived from yeast cell walls) seem to me to show "better" phenolic structure on the palate.

The Chemistry Lesson
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/27/2011 12:40:10 PM

Gee whiz, John. That is enough to drive me back to economics. :-0}

But, somewhere in the note, I get the idea that it is possible for wines of high pH to be sufficiently in balance that (a) they can avoid being sloppy, heavy messes (b)they can age and (c) that they can even be highly regarded by the "quality wine at any cost" portion of the wine cogniscenti.

by Arthur
Posted on:1/27/2011 1:04:25 PM



Can you comment on the idea that pH over a certain level (say, 3.8) is perilous from a microbiological stability standpoint?

by John Kelly
Posted on:1/27/2011 5:04:29 PM

Charlie - wine chemistry theory and conjecture are a little more fun than economics? I hope, anyway. My comment was only intended to suggest that most discussions of acid, pH and wine sensory characteristics are incomplete.

Your takeaways are spot-on, though I would say that c) there are a lot of high pH wines (that aren't Petrus) that are widely well-regarded - hard to tell just by tasting.

As much trouble as Blake Gray and Adam Lee had guessing the alcohol levels of Adam's wines, I expect they would have had even more difficulty guessing the pHs.

Arthur - molecular SO2 matters at very low pH. Phenolics are antimicrobial (re: wood cutting board). Levels of peril are negatively correlated with the care and cleanliness exercised in thew winemaking.

No Subject
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:1/28/2011 7:12:51 AM

John gives good analysis, even if some readers will scratch their heads, but John should know--he does this for a living.

Many people confuse total acidity with separate acids like tartaric. Each acid in wine has its character and does its work, tartaric just happens to be a dominant one.

As for pH; yes indeed, I've seen high acid/high pH, especially in wiens thta are "handled" by winemakers. But so much matters that it is dangerous to make general assumptions about pH levels without knwoing the way the wine was handled.

Having said that, I abhor wines that try to amke up for their potential insipidness by making sure the alcohol is at levels to mask as much as possible. High pH and high alcohol also has a life span of some sort, but not because it atstes good ;)

No Subject
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:1/28/2011 7:14:05 AM

Forgive the typos. Trying to get out of here in a few minutes--rushing.

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