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Friday Fishwrap
The Great Pinot Noir Kerfluffle-—Let The Wines Speak

By Charles Olken

Perhaps you’ve heard this story already. World-famous sommelier refuses to put California Chards and Pinot Noirs over 14% alcohol on his wine list, then, when presented with two wines, one under 14% and one over 15% with the labels switched, chooses the one with the higher alcohol. Well, there is more to this story than the simple switching of labels.

The sommelier is Raj Parr, head of wine for the Michael Mina chain of 18 upscale restaurants, and, in truth, Parr only follows that policy at his personal location, RN 74 in San Francisco. But regardless of the openness of his other lists, there is an underlying suggestion in some of his comments that California Chards and Pinots over 14% have a cooked character while wines under 14% have a fresh character. He has denied that he means that in any doctrinaire fashion.

Here is the quote in which he explains that he uses Burgundy as a model, “I know what I like -- freshness and vibrancy. I look for fruit components -- I like more of the cool fruit, not cooked fruit”. Some would conflate that comment with his preference for lower alcohol wines and find something sinister in it. More on this later together with what I take to be agreement of sorts among all parties.

This incident and the seminar at which it occurred has been widely reported. Today the moderator of the seminar has now commented to noted English writer Jancis Robinson. Ms. Robinson picked up the story based on the very complete reporting of the seminar by blogger Alder Yarrow, over on Vinography. Apparently, Mr. Yarrow can type almost as fast as people talk because he often brings us nearly complete transcripts of occasions like this.

Here is the added comment on Ms. Robinson’s blog. “Moderator Eric Asimov has contacted me to point out that in fact no-one in the gathering was asked to identify which of Adam Lee's (Siduri) wines was which, so that no definitive conclusions should be drawn about what (happened) “.

So, where are we? I have spoken with Adam Lee, who told me that no one who has reported on the event, aside from those who were there, had bothered to talk to him. I have had exchanges of emails with Alder Yarrow, whose reporting, I will repeat, is amazing in itself. And I have exchanged emails with the New York Times’ Eric Asimov. And, now I have tracked down the famous Mr. Raj Parr, and, frankly this is a bit of a tempest in a teapot.

There appears to be agreement that the event happened. There is less agreement about what it means. To Adam Lee, who has been arguing that alcohol is not the culprit by itself and has engaged other wine writers in proofs of his theory, the choice of the higher alcohol wine was another data point, another anecdote that adds to the body of evidence that supports his theory. Clearly, neither Mr. Asimov nor Mr. Parr agree with that interpretation. Parr explains it as “I never intended the wine for RN 74. It was always going to go to another restaurant in the chain”.

Messrs. Parr and Asimov agree that it was all very casual, and that even with the choice of the higher alcohol wine, there was no orchestrated study of the wines nor any attempt to discern where the higher alcohol lay. That is the basis for the Asimov suggestion that no definitive conclusions should be reached based on the event, and Mr. Parr concurs in that.

Mr. Parr, in conversation just a bit ago, also made clear that the RN 74 policy applies only to Burgundian varieties and not to other varieties and types at RN 74, and he also made clear that no such policy or selection criterion exists at the other seventeen Michael Mina restaurants. And when pressed, he absolutely concurred that the best method for choosing wines in by tasting them, not by reading the labels.

Adam Lee will still insist that Parr chose the higher alcohol wine and that this is proof that balanced wines can exist at 15.2 alcohol. Connoisseurs’ Guide agrees with that argument. So does Raj Parr, in fact, even if wines with higher alcohols are typically not classically Burgundian. He is, after all, the wine man behind a chain of fancy West Coast restaurants. And, while I hope I am not putting words in his mouth, I am guessing that Eric Asimov agrees as well. In his Pinot Noir article published yesterday, he lists Marcassin, Williams Selyem, Rochioli, Merry Edwards and Kistler among his California favorites and Ken Wright, up in Oregon, as among the tops there. These are not producers of low alcohol Pinot Noirs, and some would argue that a few of those producers offer over the top styles.

Adam Lee will feel somewhat vindicated by what happened, and the rest of us have had a lesson in taste reiterated for us. Alcohol above 14% is not the culprit in this drama. Unbalanced, heavy wines are. There is no longer any deep controversy here, unless you feel that Mr. Lee pulled a fast one. The bottom line is that the incident stands as one more proof of something that has been the watchword for Connoisseurs’ Guide from the day that Earl Singer and I first conceived of it early in 1974. “Let the wines speak”.


by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:3/11/2011 5:26:03 AM


Sleep Walking
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/11/2011 8:19:09 AM

Mr. P--

I started out to write a snarky editorial about the falso prophets who tell us to trust them, not our palates, but it turned out that everyone involved understands the issue.

That may not be dramatic news, but it does seem to me that this kerfluffle will put some of the "dont drink wines over 14%" debate to bed as the red herring that it is.

There is always the question why CA folks react strongly when folks say things like that, It is not all that hard to understand why. Often those kinds of comments are simply thinly veiled put-downs of CA wine. And in some instances, not even so thinly veiled.

by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:3/11/2011 11:20:19 AM

If a wine is cooked, it isn't because of the alcohol content; it may be because the grapes that were so intensely sweet were cooked on the vine and so the raisin-like quality comes through. The alcohol is simply a reflection of how much sugar was in the juice.

That's not to say that all wines of high alcohol are cooked, nor is it to say that all cooked wines are high in alcohol, because there are other reasons for cooked wine.


thanks Charlie
by John
Posted on:3/11/2011 2:39:50 PM

Gee - these days it's so hard to wrap my head around an issue that does not have two diammetrically opposed viewpoints presented in a "fair and balanced" manner. Well done sir for taking the time to track down the players and dig deeper into the story, revealing nuances.

thanks Charlie
by Christian Miller
Posted on:3/11/2011 6:41:06 PM

"'s so hard to wrap my head around an issue that does not have two diammetrically opposed viewpoints presented in a "fair and balanced" manner."

That's why they don't allow Charlie on those Sunday morning political talk shows.

by Jeff
Posted on:3/12/2011 3:28:22 PM

I shouldn't be entirely surprised by Mr. Asimov's selection of Ken Wright Cellars Pinot Noir.   I wonder if Mr. Asimov knows about that expensive vacumn concentrator owned and used by that particular winery?

To continue with the machine theme, I also wonder what effect RO Machines, Spinning Cones, and Ultrafiltration might have on the alcohol content in finished wines?  Is that still called a "balanced" wine?  Is that still allowing for "letting the wines speak"?

The alcohol question is an important one, but it isn't as simple as stating under 14% Good, over 14% Bad. Certainly, that 1% lee way that is allowed on TTB approved lables can be misleading.

Since there is no guarantee about what the actual alcohol content is and/or what it should have been (provided machines were not used), then suspicion is justified. 

by CharlieOlken
Posted on:3/12/2011 4:10:06 PM

Interesting question: If a winery uses a machine to adjust alcohol one way or the other, does that mean that the winery is not letting the wine speak.

I am hopeful that some winemakers will also take a shot at this question. Here is my answer.

Consumers and critics, of which I am both, drink/evaluate finished wines the same way a restaurant critic tastes food presented at the table. I expect restaurants to do what is legal, healthy and advantageous in getting to that final product.

The corollary in wine is that wineries can do whatever is legal, healthy and advantageous. Otherwise, they would be limited to making wines with indigenous yeasts and with no sulfur dioxide. Some do, but I don't expect them all to follow those regimens and most do not.

As for Ken Wright, I must admit that I am not a fan of his 15%, over the top Oregon Pinots.

I see there is now also a comment on the Correction above. If it is yours, you now know that it was not Asimov but Howard Goldberg, his colleague at the NYT whose article contained the recommendation of Ken Wright Pinots.

Thanks for writing. My apologies for the confusion about the authorship of the referenced article. It came up on a search for Eric Asimov Pinot Noir reviews but is not his.



100% Pinot Noir?
by David Vergari
Posted on:3/14/2011 9:28:14 AM

The 800-lb gorilla in the room sitting in the room the whole time is the issue of whether a winery is blending other grapes--Syrah, for example--into its Pinot Noirs.  I was at a Burgundy seminar a few years ago where the moderator asserted that "certain wineries in California do this".  When pressed to identify them he became rather flustered and was unable to come up a single one. 

Syrah and Pinot
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/14/2011 9:55:52 AM

It is certainly urban myth that this is a prevalant practice in CA. Winemakers everywhere claim it is not true, but since there are hundreds and hundreds of Syrahs coming from all over CA in various styles, at various price points, with various colorations, there is no way that a Russian River producer can have complete knowledge of what is coming out of other areas--or evfen down the street.

I, for one, do not think that adding legal amounts of one variety to another is cheating, is somehow verboten, is an insult to Bacchus or is in any other way nefarious, underhanded or unacceptable.

This is not France, and regardless of the wonderful purity that Pinot Noir can produce on its own, there are probably Pinot Noirs in this world that could be benefitted by a small additioin of Syrah. Lord knows that there are several Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah blends in CA and elsewhere that are attractive.

The real 800 lb. gorilla for me is not blending but lousy wine. I am a lot more upset by a tasting a flight of unrecommendable Pinots or Cabs or anything else than I am by wines that might not have the purity of a great RRV Pinot. Varietal character is an important consideration in judging the greatness of wine. It is less important when judging the usefulness of a given wine, especially at lower price points.

If the addition of Syrah muddies the waters for Pinots pretending to be great (see price here), then that is, I agree, a big bother, but it is the character of the wine, not the addition of something other than Pinot that is the real issue. Man cannot live by $50 Pinot alone. If a $12 Pinot has a bit of Syrah, but it still has good texture and reasonably recognizable Pinot focus, I think we can all raise our hands and sing "Hosanna" for that wine.

No Subject
by Eric Asimov
Posted on:3/18/2011 7:12:51 AM

I would like to point out for the record that I have never written an article stating "Marcassin, Williams Selyem, Rochioli, Merry Edwards and Kistler among his California favorites and Ken Wright, up in Oregon.'' Mr. Olken grudgingly concedes this in another post. A sense of professionalism ought to compel him to correct it right here, rather than allow his error to stand unmarked.

by Charles E. Olken
Posted on:3/18/2011 8:32:27 AM

Not grudgingly, Eric. Not conceded, Eric.

Stated openly and forthrightly, and stated in its own posting so that it would be on the CGCW home page instead of hidden at the end of a string of comments on a blog entry that had already been seen by thousands who were not going to come back to reread the same blog again.

Instead, it got its own air on the Home Page. You are the New York Times winewriter for goodness sake. Stop whining.

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