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Tuesday Tributes: Best of the Blogs
SF Chron and Alcohol—Time For The Truth To Come Out

By Charles Olken

When a can of worms gets opened up, it is often hard to put creepy, crawlers back in—and that is what I hope will have happened here. Despite a solid effort on Sunday, the Chronicle article leaves more questions unanswered than answered. Try these on for size. This debate needs more airing, more light, more time and attention.

  • If one is going to test a bunch of wines, would it not have been better to test a representative sample of wines around the world to establish some kind of basis for future conversation. By testing only 19 wines, and why 19 for goodness sake, the Chronicle article simply begs for more and more testing so that we can know the truth about Chateauneuf, Brunello, Barossa Shiraz, Corton-Charlemagne, Silex, Amarone, Barolo, Chateau Pavie-Maquin.
  • The Chronicle is going to report alcohol statements from labels in its wine reviews, but it clearly has established that those statements, while within legal limits, are misleading at least half the time. Will this kind of reporting ultimately lead to more testing? Should it?
  • What master is being served by reporting stated alcohol? Is it the anti-alcohol forces? Is it the folks who get drunk too easily? Is it the anti-California army who started all this in the first place?
  • If stated alcohol is so important, why has the Chronicle not complained loudly and bitterly that such label statements are notoriously hard to read. Indeed, why has Connoisseurs’ Guide nto complained until now. Most are in tiny print and appear sideways on the labels, often in light type despite the requirement that they be in contrasting type. The wineries, with the collusion of our Government, are hiding alcohol statements more often than not. If this is such a big deal, then making the statement visible and legible is also a big deal. CGCW is now complaining. Will the anti-high alcohol folks follow suit?
  • It is time to examine the words of Raj Parr as quoted by the Chronicle. This famous sommelier, this brilliant winetaster has perpetuated the big misdirection about alcohol in wine. His comment that he wants to be able to drink two, three glasses and not get drunk may ring true enough, but its basis is pure nonsense. Parr is a self-confessed Red Burgundy fan. He knows that those wines, at the quality level he drinks, run around 13% with many much higher. The legal limit for such wines in 14.5%, but there are anecdotal reports that many of them exceed that limit. But let’s just go with 13%. Compare that to California Pinots that typically run around 14% to 14.5%. Parr says “I never said that there was anything wrong with that other style”. What style is that? 14.5%? The implication of his words are that he can drink three glasses of wine at 13% but less than two at 14.5%. Do the math, folks. This notion that you need to drink 13% alcohol wines or you will get falling down drunk is an intentional falsehood because it keeps getting repeated like some kind of mantra. It is pure poppycock.
  • Do the math. The difference at a half bottle of wine on the evening is one ounce. It would take 13 glasses of wine before you would need to pass one up to save on the alcohol. The Chronicle article, because it does not take on this nonsense directly, allows it to stand. It is the spoiler in a discussion that is otherwise reasonably without bias.
  • One final disclaimer. No one at any level is in favor of inebriation. But the concept of inebriation keeps getting drawn like a gun at the OK Corral as if the difference of one to one and half points of alcohol were going to make a difference. Do not drink to excess, please, but also do not stop drinking what you like because of misleading statements that lack fairness and, more importantly, are based on falsehoods. Know your limits, and if you like 14% alcohol Pinots, and you are worried about inebriation, drink one ounce less at the end of the evening.
  • CGCW, and I personally, applaud the Chronicle for opening up the can. Now it is time to discuss all the worms fairly, openly and without bias.


No Subject
by Chuck Hayward
Posted on:4/26/2011 10:35:40 AM

All this talk about inebriation is a bit of a buzz killer. (Burp...)

No Subject
by Chris
Posted on:4/26/2011 12:18:16 PM

It's that darn 13th glass that always puts me over the top.

by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:4/26/2011 12:38:31 PM

I have to strongly disagree Charlie. I am often in favor of inebriation.

by Mike Dunne
Posted on:4/26/2011 4:04:51 PM

Charles, you missed the point of the article: It's that you can get a buzz from most anything, regardless of what's on paper or in the paper. So, The Chronicle is to start providing readers with alcohol levels in wines. I've been doing this "routinely" in my column for The Sacramento Bee for more than two years. I just didn't put out a five-take press release about it when I started. But why do it at all? Because I sense some people want to know, and because I'm curious about alcohol levels and the responses they generate. Are alcohol levels in wine "inherently political"? No, though they could be capitalized on in that way, just as residual-sugar levels could be, but that's an issue for another day.

I admire Darrell Corti for the stand he took on this matter, but my palate nevertheless often finds wines with more than 14.5 percent alcohol that are balanced and enjoyable. Granted, I may not have a second or third glass, which I occasionally will do with a wine of 12 percent or 13 percent alcohol. Incidentally, I never saw Darrell's position referred to as "Zingate" before this article; as the Chronicle chart makes clear, no laws are being broken here, however loosely the standards may be interpreted.

Like you, I wish a broader selection of wines were chosen to be analyzed, but in reading the reasoning I find the choices were smart, fitting and even bold.

And I also wish alcohol levels on labels were easier to read. Many may abide by the letter of the law, but certainly not the spirit.

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/26/2011 6:21:25 PM


Hi Mike--

If the point of the article was that one could get a buzz from anything, then I missed it. I thought the point was to make a big deal out of the fact that the Chron is going to follow your lead and the lead of everyone else who has been stating alcohol levels in their wine commentaries.

But, Mike, I have good news for you. You can have a second glass of 14% alcohol Pinot Noir because it makes virtually no significant difference to your state of mind than having a second glass of 13% alcohol.

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/26/2011 6:26:23 PM

On the subject of courage, I agree that calling out what purports to be exact alcohol levels does reflect a level of courage. But, there is a real question about why the Chron tested five west coast Pinots but only one cheap, low caste Bourgogne Rouge or why it tested one admittedly high alc Chardonnay but not one French example. There is a suggestion in those choices that CA wine are the major transgressors. That may or may not be true, but the inference is left by the absence of comparable wines or a wider choice of wines. I have to guess that we have not heard the end of this testing story, however.

ITB perspective
by Sherman
Posted on:4/26/2011 9:44:33 PM
As a sales rep for two different wine distributors, I'm out every day, working my territory and presenting 4-6 wines a day to 6-8 accounts for their consideration. As part of my presentation, I prepare a tasting sheet which delineates relevant facts and information about the wines being presented -- grapes and percentages, barrel treatment, length of fermentation and a listing of the stated alcohol by volume (ABV) percentages.Many accounts aren't concerned with the ABV levels but many are. My perspective is that it's my job to provide information that may be relevant to what that person wants to know and let them make a decision as to what is best for them and their customers.It perplexes me when any professional wine reviewer does NOT include such info, especially to the consumer who might want that information. Why wouldn't that tidbit be just as important as how the grapes were processed or where the wood for the barrels originated?
by Adam Lee
Posted on:4/27/2011 5:05:39 AM



As the only person with 2 wines in the SF Chronicle story (ask yourself why that would be), let me add a couple of things.

1)  Jon Bonne quotes me as being "opposed to focusing on alcohol levels."  That is certainly true.  it does leave out the fact that I told him if he is going to print alcohol levels provided by the winery, I think he should also print pH, TA, and % new oak numbers provided by the winery. 

2) I also think that focusing on lower alcohol French wine rather than looking at Bordeaux or CdP seems odd. 

3)  My own personal view is that I am fine with wine writers using the same methodology to point out excessive alcohol as they use to point out excessive or deficient tannins, excessive or deficient acidity, excessive oak, etc......taste the wine and then tell us what stands out.  Including the alcohol number places undue emphasis on that factor. ---

4) For Mike you think people want to know if a wine is oaky or not?  I have often heard, in the tasting room and in notes online, people say that a wine of ours is too oaky...actually, more often than people say that a wine is too alcoholic....why not print new oak percentages if people want to know that?

Just a few random thoughts.....

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines


by David Rossi
Posted on:4/27/2011 8:07:06 AM

What was the biggest highlight for me was the shock (you decide if it was feigned or not)of some of the winemakers confronted with the disparity of the %s and some of the excuses. Clearly there is tremendous pressure on winemakers to conform to the "wine is made in the vineyard" schtick and present a story that matches what the media want's to hear.

They won't talk of the work that happens in the winery for fear of being labeled wine manipulators, and they can't share honest alc % because of the preceived negatives that it might generate on the part of the consumers and more importantly some(not all) reviewers.

This dynamic has created the milktoast world of wine communications that we have now.  It happens in other fields as well like sports reporting where every cliche in the book is used over and over again(I just want to win, one game at a time).  I'm not vilifying anyone just pointing out what I see the situation is.

I'm betting that the time ripe for a more honest message and I think we should open up more as wineries.  And hopefully the media will be more open minded and let's see if we get some interesting conversations going.  If not we will just have more of the same old blather that can turn off consumers to being engaged in our products. Winemakers are passionate people and I want to hear the real issues on their minds.

David Rossi

Fulcrum Wines

Information To The Trade
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/27/2011 8:43:34 AM


Information to the trade, to the consumer, to the media should be able to be open and honest. But the current focus on alcohol has a bias and that bias scares folks away. It is the kind of bias that leads competent professionals in the wine biz to say stupid things like I can't drink a second glass if the wine is over 14% but I can drink three glasses if it is not. And believe me, that fiction is not the work of one person. It shows up all over the place when the discussion of alcohol levels comes up.

I want honesty in all discussions, including alcohol level, and that specifically includes people talking about the impact of alcohol in honest, not in nonsensical ways. Given the incessant mantra about the 14% level these days, it is no wonder that winemakers might use the legal range to describe their wines.

And why would alcohol be singled out when wine reviews also do not list RS, TA, pH, SO2 and all the other measures that impact the organoleptic evaluations that go into wine descriptions. Clearly, the impact of alcohol on taste is assessed by any competent reviewer, but it is not needed for every wine--especially if based on the inaccurate alcohol statements on wine labels.

Why Test Two Siduris
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/27/2011 8:59:54 AM


Thanks for stopping by. I was doubly perplexed by the Siduri numbers. The Chron lists two from you, and says they are 2007s in the article, but shows the Amber Ridge as 2008 in its chart. Which one is correct? Aside from that, why two Siduris except for the fact that you are being targeted because you have deigned to speak out about the alcohol Inquisition.

It is not that alcohol is irrelevant, but what you want and what I want is for alcohol to be treated as part of an overall assessement of a wine and not part of some fictitious pass-fail parameter that uses falsehoods about inebriation as the standard.

Questions: How do you feel about reducing the allowable variance on labels to 0.5%? How do you feel about eliminating the 14% differentiator for tax purposes by either taxing all wine the same or by adopting some kind of sliding scale? To do so and average it all out would raise the tax by two cents on wines under 14%, but it might eventually eliminate 14% as the artificial delimiter of the anti-alcohol folks.

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/27/2011 9:12:04 AM


How right you are. We celebrate chefs who freeze "air" and who make olive oil ice cream with nitrogen, but too many people talk about winemaking as if it were a hands-off business. Nothing could be further from the truth. While many wineries try to do minimal treatment by using indigenous yeasts, gravity flows, etc, very few of them make wine or bottle without SO2, many adjust acidity to bring their wines into balance (just like the French add sugar), put water on their vineyards (the French do not except with Govt permissiion in drought or overheated years like 2003), etc.

But, all of those arguments fall on deaf ears with me. I want the chef to present me the best possible meal, and if that involves brining a pork chop for three days, cooking it sous vide and than finishing it on a grill instead of just throwing it under a broiler, then that is what I want. Why would I want a winemaker to avoid techniques that make better wine? I am a wine consumer first, and I want to drink better wine. As long as the techniques are legal and not unhealthful, why should I care if a winemaker reduces alcohol if the process and winds up with a better wine? Why would I care if a winemaker uses different yeasts for each variety?

All of the "natural wine", "authenticity" arguments come down to philosophy, and that is OK with me, but they never come down to wine quality. The same with the low-alc arguments.

by Adam Lee
Posted on:4/27/2011 9:16:32 AM


I was told by Jon that the Amber Ridge was the 2007 and so I sent him numbers from 2007.  I did see the 2008 in print, so not sure which wine it actually was.  I believe we submitted both the them.

Personally, I have no difficulty reducing the variance to .5% either way (plus or minus).  It would certainly cost us some more $$ is state registrations....but it is something we could do.  It is certainly getting close to the level at which variation occurs based on testing methodology used so there would need to be some standardization on that level, I think.

I am also fine with getting rid of the 14% differentiation line.  Seems rather arbitrary to me.  I am also fine with taxing Sparkling wine at the same rate rather than the higher rate at which it is currently taxed. 

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

90% under 14%
by Charmion
Posted on:4/27/2011 12:02:33 PM

Charlie, why are you insisting that those of us who promote drinking wines that are in the lower tax bracket, are anti-California, when 90% of Calif. wine (or was that 90% of all US produced wine), is in the lower tax bracket?    Most US wine is consumed not by wine snobs, wine geeks, or magazine readers, but by ordinary people.  They pay $10 or less per bottle.  They are very happy drinking 13% or 13.9 % wine, so don't denigrate us.  If you like higher abv, bully for you. 

Here is something to research:  how many high scoring, high abv, low production wines have come and gone in the last few years?  Disappeared, failerd in the marketpalce despite 15 seconds of fame?  If a brand does not have staying power, no annuity flow of consumers, it is a failure.  And if 90% is in the low bracket, does that say anything?

Educating the consumer one piece of information at a time is better than no education at all.  I applaud the SF Chron.

I reserve my opinions and criticisms of the wine reviewing world for another letter.

90% of CA Wine
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/27/2011 12:19:03 PM

If you read the full writings and commentary of the "under-14% is the only right way crowd", yu begin to notice that they cannot make a comment about their preferences without taking a broad-brush, derogatory swipe at CA wine as if all CA wine were over 14%.

There is no magic to the 14% number. If you are happy drinking wine at 13.9%, then you will be hard pressed to present any useful argument that wine at 14.1% is to dismissed, yet you have made that very argument in your comments.

I am suggesting that people drink wine that tastes good, goes with the foods or the setting and suits their pocketbooks. If you go back and read the essays of the last two days and all of my comments, you will find that my point has to do with the total artificiality of the 14% barrier. It is complete and utter nonsense to dismiss wines on the high side of that barrier without tasting them. I have said it before in this space, so please forgive my repeating this comment.

Let the wines speak, not the labels.

Educating the Consumer
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/27/2011 12:35:44 PM

Educating the consumer is an interesting catch phrase, and you have noticed, I hope, that I have applauded the Chron article several times for taking on this topic, but I am wondering just what "education" you think was contained in the Chron article. I suspect that you see the article as another member in the low-alcohol Inquisition. It has aspects of that character, but is more geared to discussing the issue, than to taking an editorial stand one way or the other.

It may be thet the author has a preference for low-alcohol wines, but the first wine tested was the a Pepper Bridge Cab, and my memory suggests that he recommended that wine. You can't fault a guy for testing his own preferences.

the 14% barrier
by charmion
Posted on:4/27/2011 1:18:19 PM

Sure, not a big diff. between 13.9 and 14.2.  But big diff. with wines at 15.5 and more.  I agree re:  bigger letters and readable print should be mandated by the TTB.  Absolutely.  And for better or worse, the 14% tax bracketing will probably be around for a while.  I would vote to kill or change it, only if the readability of the abv issue were improved.


Will you address this issue: for casual consumer, the difference between a 13.9 (actual) and a 15.3 (actual) shows up in the mouth, on the palate, after 10 or 15 minutes.  And they don't finish the 2nd glass due to palate fatigue.  Remember, I am talking about the non-geek, non-wine-sophis drinker.  Thanks.

Palate Fatigue
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/27/2011 1:46:26 PM

Thanks for your thoughtful response.

One of my great joys in life is being the wine supplier for our neighborhood events and for several local fundraisers. Frankly, I have seen zero evidence of palate fatiguea at eny of these events. How doea a balanced wine at 15.3% fatigue the palate when a balanced wine at 13.9% does not? That amounts to an ounce of wine over half a bottle. It is the second half of the bottle that is the problem.

We can agree that 12% versus 16% is significant in terms of impact, but those differences are not really the kinds of choices that face most consumers. Even wines like the Chasseur Chard in the Chron article that tested out at 15.8% only makes two ounces difference over half a bottle in comparison to a Chard at 13.8%.

Look at the effect on blood alcohol levels because that is important. An increase in alcohol from 13.8 to 15.8 would imcrease blood alcohol from .06 to .07, as an example. Situations vary: time duration, body mass and food consumption all matter but the overall increase is only legally significant at the margins. And my preference is that people not approach the margins or that they do not drive if they have.

But palate fatigue towards the end of a second glass of balanced wine? Not in my experience.

Honesty is the best policy
by Randy
Posted on:4/28/2011 3:35:10 PM

How about a discussion on the sheer number of wines in CA labeled exactly 14.1% alc.. Why 70-80% of RRV Pinot Noirs and Chards are between 14.1-14.2%.  Either most are harvesting on or around the exact time frame or they aren't bing honest with their labeled %'s or a combo of both.

In the 70's, most dry reds were 12-low 13% and now it's out of control.  I encourage those making/marketing the 14.1% thing to continiue to do it as it makes my job easier and more fun.



by Charlie Olken
Posted on:5/2/2011 8:35:06 AM

Randy, both our comments and the comments by the SF Chron have addressed the issue of inaccuracy. It is high time for labels to become far more accurate. We have mobile bottling lines so that folks do not need to make the big investment in that equipment. Why not have some form of available alc analyzer owned by groups of wineries, or trade groups, etc? And then the range of difference for stated alcohol can be made much tighter.

But, Randy, in your call for honesty, you fail the test by claiming that all wines over 12-13% are out of control. Not even the low-alcohol acolytes make that kind of absurd claim lest it also damn their favorite Burgundies and Bordeaux.

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