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Monday Manifestos
The Great Drinking and Driving Debate

By Charles Olken

It happens to me all the time. Someone brings up the subject of “high alcohol” wines being undrinkable, not because of anything else with the wine but its alcohol level exceeds some magic number that someone told them is too high. I counter with the argument that balance is everything and thin wines at 12% alcohol will taste hotter than deeply draughted, balanced wines at 15%. I know this to be true because it plays itself out in the Connoisseurs’ Guide tastings again and again.

At some point in the conversation, the focus changes, usually at the point that the anti-over 14% forces realize that they cannot win the argument on organoleptic grounds. At that point, they haul out the big guns. Big Gun No. 1 is the argument that they cannot have a second glass of wine at 14% because they will (a) get tipsy (b) fall asleep in their plate of pasta and red sauce or (c) forget where they parked their car. Now we can all agree that someone can drink more volume of a wine at 11% alcohol than they can of a wine at 16% alcohol. No one is going to dispute that fact.

But where that argument falls down is that most table wines, and let’s specify that we are talking about California for the moment, run in the 13% to 14.5% range. Moreover, very few red wines of any consequence measure even as low as 11.5% to 12%, so the only choice for truly lower alcohols are whites, typically with some sweetness in their makeups. Nothing wrong with that. A fine Riesling at 10.5% made slightly sweet and built with plenty of natural acidity can go with all kinds of foods.

What happens, however, when one wants to eat pasta with red sauce or a leg of lamb or a rib roast? Then the choice is rarely going to be one of the slightly sweet aromatic whites no matter how good it is or even given the fact, for me at least, that my favorite grape in the world is Riesling. And if the choice is then a medium-to full-bodied red, the alcohol is going to be somewhere north of 12%, probably north of 13% and very often above 14%. I personally don’t choose wine by alcohol level but by taste. Good wine tastes good, and it will be in balance such that the difference between 13% and 14.5% (the range that is most seen at Connoisseurs’ Guide tastings and the most likely range for recommended wines) is simply not enough difference to worry about.

And then out comes Big Gun No. 2. “How often do you drive drunk?” I will be asked as if somehow not being willing to be limited to low-alcohol wines makes me and every one else who does not espouse that narrow line into inebriates.

So here is my stand on drinking and driving. With all the literature about body size, consuming alcohol with food and all the other considerations, I have a pretty good sense of what it takes to approach the legal driving limit. But, I have no ability to judge whether I am under or over that limit if I am close to it at all. And because there is no rule that says one has to drink half a bottle of wine with dinner, I have two choices. The first is to not drink a half bottle of wine, and the second is to let someone else drive.

The bottom line is that alcohol is alcohol but moderation is moderation, and there is precious little difference in what happens to blood alcohol concentrations based on the different levels of alcohol in most wines. Anyone who says he or she can drink three glasses of 13% wine and not be intoxicated but will get snockered on three glasses of 14.5% wine is simply fooling themselves. And the ultimate weapon in discussions of wine and alcohol is the drunk driving argument.

Now drunk driving or DUI or “drink-driving” as the Brits call it is a serious issue. But it is not the reason to shy away from a wine that serves your palate well. Moderation and designated drivers are called for regardless of the per cent alcohol in the wine. In rejecting the false notion that one can consume copious quantities of the one but not of the other, I come down squarely on the side of “you can’t drink a lot and drive regardless of the alcohol level”. So, please, keep talking about the issue of alcohol in wine, but also please, don’t raise the red herring of drinking and driving. Anyone who is smart about how much they drink and under what circumstances need not worry about what the label says. Anyone who thinks they do not have to worry about how much and under what circumstances because they are drinking wine with 12% alcohol is far more of danger than the rest of us.


by John
Posted on:2/28/2011 5:34:40 PM

Charlie the "no wines over 14%!" brigade cannot be swayed by facts. They know what they know, by gum - and if they give an inch they betray their principles.

It is only by endless repetition of their mantra that they can continue to believe. Nevertheless he foundation of their ideological edifice is faulty.

And nevermind that any LEO will tell you the vast majority of the DUI's they pull over are drunk on beer - even here in wine country. "No beer over 5%!!!"

drinking and driving debate
by mike dunn
Posted on:3/2/2011 12:03:29 PM
I think the issue should focus on the accuracy of wine labels. Wines that are labeled 14% have been tested as high as 16.5%. Legally there is a fudge factor for alcohol, but a surprising number of producers exceed that. Imagine if we had to put nutritional analysis on the back label like other food products because we wine makers don't comply with the regulations? Regardless of your preference for low alcohol or not, and all the verbiage concerning the issue, it would be nice to actually go off the label to find your preferred level. Perhaps testing the alcohol levels when you taste flights might illuminate your preferences as well.
Truth In Labeling
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/2/2011 12:45:06 PM

Sounds great on its face. Got any idea how to do that?

We had a winemaker on our tasting panel last night who saw us testing for RS on a popular Cab (came in a 0.25-0.30 when bone dry is closer to 0.10-0.15).

He said his winery has a machine that does test for all the major numbers. It costs $35,000.

We test RS with a $1 test tube and Clinitest tablets at about 50 cents apiece. I don't know of a cost-effective (for us) way to test for alc. The real issue is not having writers test for alc, but having labels tell the truth.

drinking and driving debate
by mike dunn
Posted on:3/3/2011 9:12:16 AM

We send samples to ETS labs.  Sample vials are free, and there is a discount for 10 or more tests.  A lot cheaper than buying the equipment and performing accurate tests.

I think consumers are being deceived when alcohol levels are not clearly stated, especially concerning potential DUI's.   Still, one's perception of 'heat' in a wine is still the standard of balance for one's own palate.  Accurate labeling might discourage consumers from buying a wine due to perceived bias concerning alcohols both 'high' and 'low'.  There is no question that wine producers are aware of the perception that 16.5% is 'too high' for a Cab.  It might be surprising to some how well that alcohol is integrated in a highly extracted wine.

Obviously i differ somewhat from Randy's views on alcohol levels, I tend to like higher levels that he when we trial taste our wines.  Higher alcohol dilutes varietal characteristic, and lends a sweetness and viscosity to the mouth feel.  His issues have more to do with how wines in flights are scored, that high alcohol wines get better scores because they stand out in these flights but aren't necessarily the best wines to enjoy with dinner.

Truth in Labeling
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/3/2011 10:05:47 AM


Randy is partly right, of course, there are times when ripeness simply destroys varietal character and tastes too sweet to go with some dishes.

The wine we tested the other night was a new Napa Cab under the the name, Treat. We tested it at about 0.2. The winery says its tests come in at 0.1. Either way it is dry as far as sugar is concerned, but obviously, it tasted sweet to us and that is likely the glycerol in the wine,

The wine also did well in the tasting, and wines that are simply overripe and pruny do not. We are going to bring the wine back in a different flight and see what happens. We did take that particular wine on to dinner after the tasting (we had New York steaks au poivre with a reduced brandy sauce) and were not bothered by the sweetness. But, a different preparation might have not worked as well. This one needs to be seen again in a different light before we publish a review.

um, chemistry
by John
Posted on:3/3/2011 6:27:12 PM

Charlie: don't rely on the Clinitest to give you an accurate RS for red wines. The color reaction develops with anthocyanins. More extracted wines will always show as "sweet" by Clinitest, and there is no way to compensate accurately. In the lab we test for residual glucose and fructose by an enzymatic method.

If you want to explore the effects of glycerol on mouthfeel, you might buy a small bottle of ultra-pure from Aldrich Chemical and invest in (or borrow) an accurate micro-pipette. The results will surprise you. I don't know how glyceol ever got blamed for "sweetness."

Far more responsible for the perception of sweetness are the barrels used for aging. The toasting process breaks down the structure of the wood to produce sugars that are extracted into the wine (extra geek points: these sugars are called "pyrans" - from Greek for "fire"). You can buy a bottle of pure methoxypyran from Aldrich that smells exactly like cotton candy.

I doubt the brotherhood will hunt me down and kill me for revealing this, but we talk about which barrels - whose toasting regimes - give more or less of this character. Next time you are chatting up your favorite cult Cab producer, ask him/her what they think of the "sucrosity" imparted by Darnajou barrels.

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