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Monday Manifestos
The San Francisco Chronicle and The Alcohol Controversy

By Charles Olken

Was the Chronicle's Sunday article an exposé or a red herring? Were its thousands of words illustrative and thoughtful or another in the long string of jeremiads about the style of wine that is accused of spoiling just about everything that gets produced here?

I will admit that I feared it would turn out to be the latter. The Chron often refers to overdone California wines. But, upon reading the whole article and not just its titillating intro, it is clear that the article does a good job of laying out the stakes and justifying the choice the paper has made to include alcohol levels in all recommendations.

There is a couple of areas in the article that I find very misleading, however. The first is the suggestion that modest differences in alcohol level have a lot to do with how much wine a person can or should drink to maintain an acceptable level of sobriety. There is no argument to be made that the difference between a Riesling at 9% and Zinfandel at 16% is significant. But, the more likely comparison is between a more moderate red at 13% or so and a balanced wine at 14.7%, which is at the relatively high end of the normal range. In that comparison, and assuming that a person would drink a half bottle of wine, the difference in equal levels of blood alcohol comes to about one to one and a half ounces.

The Chron has done a real service in testing a bunch of wines to see how accurate their label statements really are, and it found that most of the stated alcohols in its sample of 19 wines were understated on the label. Most however were at or very near a difference of ½ of 1%, and the Chron and Connoisseurs’ Guide, both of whom have now called for tighter range limits on the required alcohol statement than the 1 to 1½ leeway currently allowed, accept that a ½ of 1% range is about as tight as the regulations can reasonably become. My problem is not that the Chron tested a bunch of wines. Good for them. It is a task long overdue. Rather, I worry about the wines it chose to test. While I can applaud the choice of French and California Sauvignon Blancs each with stated alcohols of 13%, it is harder to be happy with California Chards in excess of 14% without comparable French wines. The same is true of Pinot Noir where every one of the California wines carried stated alcohols over 14% while the one French sample, and cheap one at that, carries a listed alcohol of 12.5%. It was seemingly not intentional, but the implication is that California wines are simply higher in alcohol for those varieties. That may be true, but perhaps not so true that more apt comparisons could not have been chosen.

Every article that takes on a controversial subject is going to find itself held up to scrutiny. The Chronicle article is no different, but it does deserve to be complemented again for a mostly evenhanded and unbiased laying out of the situation. High alcohol is a legitimate concern, but it should not be turned into a standard of judgment. The Chron earns high marks for presenting the view of winemakers who make wines that some would judge as very high in alcohol but whose wines are also generally well-balanced. It is balance, not stated alcohol, that determines how a wine tastes. And one final kudo to the Chron. It also reported that alcohol measurements using several existing techniques can yield varying results.

So, what have we in this long and involved article? To be sure, it does have a tilt towards lower alcohol levels, but that tilt does not attempt to disqualify wines over 14% in the manner that some have tried to do lately. And more than that, this is more of an article about science than organoleptic evaluation, and, as such, it does have plenty of grist for the continue millings of the alcohol in wine arguments. It is well worth a read. The article is available online at Scroll down to the “Food” and find it there.


analytical accuracy
by John Kelly
Posted on:4/25/2011 4:53:12 PM

Yeah this is not a subject that is going to die the death it deserves, is it? I do think John Bonne did a better job of it than others have, but still he made a few errors.

To me the most glaring is his acceptance of the analytical results they received as gospel. I chided him for it in the comments on his piece. Bottom line - every analytical method has a tolerance, a range of instrumental plus operator error that the actual value being measured falls within. The TTB ranges were established not for wineries to game the system, but in recognition of these errors.

Depending on the method used to measure the alcohol level, a true and scientifically correct reporting of the value would be X.X% /- 0.X% rather than just X.X%.

analytical accuracy
by John Kelly
Posted on:4/25/2011 4:57:21 PM

Not sure why the page is not rendering my "plus or minus" symbols correctly, but what I mean in that last line is that the alcohol reading on a bottle should be read as, for example: 14.5% plus or minus 0.9% - due to the uncertainties inherent in any analytical technique.

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