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Thursday Thorns: The Report Card
Grading The Players In The Pinot Noir Kerfluffle

By Charles Olken

I would have thought that this tempest in a teapot would have gone away by now, but apparently it has longer legs than most of the participants would have wanted. And rather than let it go away so that the world could move on to the next vinous brouhaha, the whole thing is being kept alive by various writers and observers, some of whom were actually there and are either still writing articles about the event or are commenting on blogs where the issue seems to keep popping up. This essay will not end the debate, but it will make perfectly clear where CGCW stands on the issue.

Here are the facts as I know them in a nutshell. Two weeks ago at a seminar, a panel was assembled at the World of Pinot Noir event to discuss alcohol levels and Pinot Noir. Eric Asimov, the lead New York Times winewriter, moderated a panel of several noteworthy and knowledgeable persons. Somewhere towards the end of the discussion, Rajat Parr, one of America’s leading sommeliers and a proponent in general of moderated alcohol wines, commented privately on two wines from Siduri to Adam Lee, owner/winemaker for that brand. He said he particularly liked a wine that carried a label claiming 13.6% alcohol and suggested that he would like to buy some for a wine list at one of the 18 restaurants for which he buys wine. Mr. Lee then fessed up that he had switched the labels and that the wine Parr intended to buy was the one with 15.2% alcohol. Mr. Parr admitted that he was surprised by the wine and that Mr. Lee could, if he wanted, tell the seminar of that he, Parr, had chosen the higher alcohol wine. Mr. Lee then did exactly that.

Now, all of this would have amounted to next to nothing because winetasting is an inexact art to begin with and we all know it. Moreover, Mr. Parr made no pronouncement about alcohol levels. He simply chose to buy the higher alcohol wine and did not find it hot or out of balance or anything else that the bashers ascribe to such wines. It was not Mr. Parr’s choice that ultimately became the cause celebre here. It was the switching of the labels, and the notion in some quarters that Mr. Lee had played a dirty trick on Mr. Parr.

With that as a too-long introduction, here is my take on the key players in this inside baseball drama and what it all means.


Eric Asimov, Moderator: Mr. Asimov thought he was in charge of the discussion until Mr. Lee interrupted with his announcement of the Parr admission. This seems to have upset Mr. Asimov who feels like Mr. Lee was out of order. There are those who think Mr. Asimov has an oar in this debate on the side of lower alcohol wines, and maybe he does, but he has also chosen wines to recommend, including a Siduri wine, that were well over 14%. He is not an ideologue in that regard. He may have a preference for one style over another but he judges wines, not labels. If he stands guilty of anything, it is that he protests too much. Let Parr and Lee duke it out. But this is small potatoes and hopefully, now that he has had his say through his blog entry of yesterday, he will move on.

Rajat Parr, Sommelier and Wine Buyer for the Michael Mina restaurants, and partner in RN 74 at which he chooses to buy only California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay under 14% alcohol: Mr. Parr was somewhat blindsided by the switched labels, but he is a professional. Indeed, he is a professional’s professional, and since he was not trying to choose a wine based on alcohol content in the first place, he simply chose the Siduri wine that he preferred. That he preferred the 15.2% wine is not an indictment. It is a simple statement of preference in this case. He may generally prefer wines of a certain style, but he proved that he chooses wines by taste, not by label. And when he was apprised of the actuality of his choice, he invited Mr. Lee to make the choice public. I personally think his stand on alcohol is somewhat doctrinaire, but we all have preferences at some point, and he is as entitled to his as I am to mine as each of us to our wine. And full props to Mr. Parr for not running away from his choice at that point.

Mr. Lee, owner/winemaker and professor of the “balance is king” school: There are folks who are describing what he did as the “old switcheroo” and see it as some kind of dirty trick. And, yes, at some level, it is. But, Mr. Lee has a point to prove, and he is adamant, as are we at Connoisseurs’ Guide, that using label statements as some kind of pass/fail measure is a fool’s errand. One chooses wines by taste, not by label. One can prefer, in general, wines of a certain kind, but every time a wine professional tells us that he knows the answer, he gets proven wrong by the wines. Not always, maybe not even often, but we would all do well to remember the story most often attributed to Harry Waugh, the late and legendary English wine writer, “When was the last time you confused Burgundy with Bordeaux”, he was asked. “Not since lunch”, came the reply. Mr.Lee is on a mission to prove that assertions about alcohol levels over 14% having, a priori, deleterious effects on wine quality are a bunch of hooey. He has exposed his wines to this test before and every time he does it, the wine wins, not the label. Maybe what he did was not fully kosher, but, then, denigrating wine by label statement is a lot worse.


by Pamela Heiligenthal
Posted on:3/25/2011 8:13:06 PM

I haven’t been following the brouhaha but I’m curious none-the-less. What are these various writers and observers trying to prove/solve here? That label information means nothing to the consumer? That we need to change label information? That those who include ABVs in wine reviews are wasting their time? That ABVs don’t matter as long as the wine is balanced? Or...was it simply to make a fool out of Parr?

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/25/2011 8:55:02 PM

Pam, snce Parr himself does not see it as an attempt to embarrass him, I suspect that was not Adam Lee's motive.

I have written extensively above about Adam's intent as I see it. In a nutshell, he is trying to prove that ABV in itself is not the culprit. He is doing us all a favor by asking that people focus on the wine, not the label.

He makes wine at many ABV levels, and he feels, and I agree with him, that the folks who make negative generalizatons about ABV are missing the central point. Balance is not determined by label statements. It is determined by organoleptic assessment.

Brouhaha once again
by Pamela Heiligenthal
Posted on:3/25/2011 10:18:30 PM

I am a supporter of tasting wine to determine balance as one cannot judge by its cover. I’ve run the same [Adam] experiment on friends and came up with the same results. What I’m really questioning here is why, as you mention, we can’t let it go so that the world can move on, e.g. “the whole thing is being kept alive by various writers and observers”. Who is keeping this subject alive (excluding Asimov) and why?

Living and Breathing
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/25/2011 11:44:09 PM

Have a look at the Dr. Vino blog from yesterday. Not only was he two weeks late, but both Eric Asimov and Adam Lee weighed in.

I blogged about it yesterday because (a) it amuses me and (b) because there is far too much doctrinaire nonsense being spouted, especially by the anti-alcohol forces who make up much of their theories on the matter.

And, of course, much of what is being hidden by anti-over 14% rhetoric is, in fact, anti-California wine. I don't care what people like or don't like. That is there business, but when those choices are based on false logic, then I also get involved.

If you look back a week or so in the CGCW blog, perhaps in the archives (see the right hand column), you will see that I talked directly to Raj Parr and Adam Lee at some length and found out that there is basically no disagreement between them. Asimov's unhappiness, as I read it, is that he finds Lee's actions to be indecorous, and further that the nature of the event was such that no conclusions should be drawn. I could not get him on record about judging by taste, not label, but he did, as I found out, choose a Siduri wine with something over 14% alcohol first in a Pinot tasting some years ago, and thus I have attributed judgment by taste as opposed to label to him as well.

The bottom line for me is that Adam is standing up for a principle that all of us in wine writing should hold dear. You have said it well yourself and it is really so simple. Yet, a whole seminar of wine industry luminaries was convened to discuss the issue.

still snoring
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:3/26/2011 5:56:02 AM


You are correct: the debate is silly. One either prefers or does not prefer a particular wine, for whatever reason.

If I were still making wine, I'd ignore those who make blanket statements and sell my wine to those who prefer it.


Because you hardly ever can persuade a closed mind and if you want to stay in business, you should cultivate customers not critics.

by Pamela Heiligenthal
Posted on:3/26/2011 1:06:06 PM

This puts it all into perspective, thanks Charlie.

Liar's Paradox
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/26/2011 1:16:49 PM

Did Mr. Lee give us a liar's paradox. Consider the statment, "Everyone in this room is a liar. True or False. It is an unprovable proposition. Did Mr. Lee create that situation?

I have received an email suggesting that he did, but I don't see the relationship. A wine under 14% ABV cannot be labelled with a number over 14% for practical reasons and a wine over 14% cannot be labelled with a number under 14%. The supposition that an unprovable paradox exists would not exist under current laws.

And even if it did, no winery in its right mind would label a wine at 15.2 when it was 14.2.

More than that, as I understand it, Siduri labels all its wines with specific ABV content based on lab tests.

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