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Why Has Alcohol Become A Dirty Word

By Charles Olken

Let’s accept this one fact: Wine has alcohol. We cannot change that fact. And when we run around with our heads in our hands bemoaning this alcohol level or that, we encourage the world to think that alcohol is a dirty word.

Lately, of course, there is an even dirtier word, and it is screamed from the highest rooftops as if some crime against nature had been committed. That word/phrase is: Over 14% alcohol. It gets as silly as this. One poster on a popular blog complemented the writer for posting alcohol levels in the various wines he was reviewing. Never mind that stated alcohol levels on bottles may or may not be accurate given the latitude allowed the wineries and greater latitude taken by wineries in the absence of any action by any governing body to determine whether or not those stated alcohols are true, almost true or way beyond the allowed tolerances.

Having thanked the blogger for his openness about alcohol, she then went on to say that she was a small person and she no longer drank any wine over 14% stated alcohol because she would get drunk on one glass whereas she could consume half a bottle of lower alcohol wines. Well, we all know that the difference to our bodies between wines at 13.5% and 14.3% is fairly negligible since it amount to less than an ounce of alcohol in a half bottle’s worth of consumption.

It’s easy to tell ourselves that she was wrong, a victim of the dirty word campaign and to dismiss her as a small blip. But it less easy when one reads the newest issue of Decanter Magazine. In it, Steven Brook, who has made himself into their English expert on California wine, has penned an article lambasting (and not all that incorrectly) the issue of alcohol labeling and the problem, as he sees it, of alcohol levels in California wine. Now, Mr. Brook, who is a fine man and esteemed colleague, is certainly entitled to his opinion, especially since so much of what he has written is unassailable.

But consider this. Decanter, in the same magazine, reviews a large swath of 2006 California Cabernet Sauvignons and comes up with recommendations for wine as high as 15.6% alcohol. I frankly can’t find much fault with a set of recommendations that include, among other items, the Staglin 2006 and the Chappellet 2006 Pritchard Hill Estate Vineyard bottlings. Both are superb, deep and have alcohols that Steven Brook and the alcohol-level doomsaysers would find damnable.

So here is what I have concluded (again, thank you). The “it must be under 14% crowd” talk a good game, but they are not tasting wine when they spout their dirty word lyrics. Because, when a crowd of them, including the snooty English who have often spoken unkindly of California Cabs in the past, come up against a balanced, nicely rendered set of wines, they like them. And they like them because they are tasting the wine, not looking at the label.

It is not alcohol level by itself that is the dirty word in wine. It is the lack of balance. It is the loss of fruit in the search for intensity. It is the prunes and raisins. You will get no argument from me if you criticize those things in wine. But alcohol at 14%? Stop talking and start tasting.


well said, sir
by John Kelly
Posted on:2/20/2011 8:37:29 AM

Charlie, in a reality-based world yours would be the last word on this tired subject. Unfortunately it seems to me that the “it must be under 14%" crowd are determined not to let facts like balance and taste preference pollute their ideological purity.

I'm SO bored with this bulls**t I want to hang up winemaking and take up watercolor every time I see another high-aclohol bashing article. But that's not going to happen - so instead, those of us who actually care how wine tastes have to keep wrestling a share of the mediaspace away from these knuckleheads.

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/20/2011 10:31:40 AM

Thanks for the comments, John.

The myth that there is significant difference between wines of 13.5% alcohol and 14.5% is being perpetuated by people who have not put their palates to the test.

The recommedations of Chappellet and Staglin 2006 Cabs by Decanter and its staff of dilettantes who have spend years lambasting CA only to run up againt a bunch of wines of fairly high alc that they liked now proves the point. Balance is key, not alc level.

And while I am surprised that this essay did not cause more heated debate, I am wondering if most tasters are simply ignoring the Raj Parrs and Randy Dunns of this world and are choosing their wines by taste, not by artificial formulas.

Maybe there is hope for us after all.

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