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Monday Manifestos
My Running Argument With Dan Berger
   —In Which I Prove Him Wrong Again

By Charles Olken

Dan Berger is a friend of mine. Really. But sometimes friends can disagree, and that is how it is in wine and with Dan and me.

This time, he has written a column saying that he cannot tell red wine varieties apart anymore. I think he is wrong. I think his palate is far more discerning than that. In fact, I am sure of it. I have tasted wine with Dan plenty of times, and I have great respect for his palate—perhaps more than he does if one judges by his latest comments.

He writes, “In the 1990s as alcohol levels for most red wines rose in response to higher scores from some people who believed that the ‘best’ wines were the biggest. By the late 1990s, we were seeing red wine alcohols in the 14.5 percent to 16 percent range; previously most red wines were 12 percent to 13.5 percent, and most wine lovers had been fine with that. But newer consumers, notably those who read scores as facts, believed that the best wines had loads of alcohol.

Higher alcohols are the result of far more sugar in the grapes at harvest than previously, indicating that the grapes were harvested later than in the past. And the later that red grapes are harvested, the less they show the distinctive varietal character for which we once lusted”.

Let’s agree that there is some truth in what Dan says. There are wines whose ripeness levels obliterate the grape’s varietal character. No one would argue otherwise. But that is not what Dan wrote. Dan argues that wines over 13.5% alcohol, especially those above 14.5%, are not liked for their character but for their high ratings given by writers who apparently prefer alcohol to varietal character. This is not a new claim for Dan, of course, but it is so blatantly disprovable that it needs to be debunked.

So, let’s turn to one of my favorite winewriters for proof. I refer you, of course, to Dan Berger. You see, in the midst of his long treatises on riper wines, Dan has recommended plenty of wines with alcohol levels at and above 14.5%. My favorite was his full and complete backing for Shafer Merlot. Now, don’t misunderstand me. Dan was right about the wine. He likes it, and I like it. Shafer Merlot continues to be a well-defined, rich, supple, structured wine with very specific Merlot character—with alcohol levels approaching and extending beyond 15%.

In point of fact, every wine that Shafer makes has alcohols near to and above 15%, yet no one I know of who has a reasonably solid acquaintance with varietal character, and certainly not Dan whose palate is actually razor sharp, would mistake Shafer Merlot for Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon or for Shafer’s remarkable, precise yet powerful Syrah. Back in the day when Shafer was making a very fine and very ripe Sangiovese, a famous Italian winemaker from the Chianti region identified that it was an Italian while sitting in a Connoisseurs’ Guide tasting.

I like Dan Berger. Really. But I don’t get why he feels the necessity to make pronouncements that are so easily disproved. We could go on and on and on with examples—the various, very ripe wines from Dehlinger, the clearly distinctive varietal bottlings of DuMOL, the wines of Dierberg and Morgan and Siduri and Robert Mondavi and Ridge.

Sadly, this is just another in the string of “judge wines by its label statements, not by its character” arguments. I get Dan’s preference, but when he starts praising Shafer Merlot, a wine that clearly is high in ripeness and gets some of its character from that ripeness, then he disproves his own premise.

It’s a funny thing about wine. When we judge it by what is in the bottle rather than by what is on the label, we come to all kinds of truths. And if we would allow ourselves to know those truths, they will set us free.

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No Subject
by Patrick
Posted on:11/7/2011 11:50:35 AM

I think you guys are both right. High alcohol and heavy extraction CAN sap the varietal character out of a wine (as in certain Lodi wines, e.g.) but it does not always do so.  I wonder if the difference lies in irrigation, with dry (or drier) farming yielding more varietal character.

by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:11/7/2011 11:58:07 AM


I am always amazed that little attention is paid to what undoubtedly was an increase in alcohol levels in CA wine and the demise of AxR rootstock.  AxR was the most widely planted in rootstock in Napa/Sonoma and much of CA.  It generally produced a large crop and large amounts of leaf growth (which allowed this crop to ripen).  Higher yields slow down sugar accumulation and thus, when lower yielding rootstocks were planted, sugars tended to increase.  Certainly these wines also found favor with consumers and with critics....but to attribute their creation to a desire simply to kiss up to critics seems rather incomplete.

Much has been written about the changes that occured in France following phyloxera and replanting.....I am hopeful that a similar study of that might someday be undertaken in California.

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

Couldn't agree more
by Kathy
Posted on:11/7/2011 12:17:06 PM

...couldn't agree more.  I have tasted some very amazing wines over 15% and would have never guessed they were that high in alcohol.

I've noticed this unfortunate trend among some writers to perpetuate a myth that a wine over 14% cannot be good, lacks the flavor of the varietal, and all tastes the same.  There seems to be no consideration paid to whether the wine is well made and balanced.  When your first glance at a bottle of wine is its alcohol percentage, I feel sorry for you. 

There is another possibility here too.  Perhaps all red wine does taste the same to Dan Berger and then he should consider whether being a wine reviewer/writer is the right path.

deliberately missing the point
by Morten
Posted on:11/7/2011 6:00:58 PM

Pointing at a couple of wines above 14 or 15 % alcohol is just another way of avoiding the debate.  While this trend in winemaking is most noticeable in California, it certainly happens in other parts of the World, most notably South America, Australia and, yes, even in France...

It is therefore most certainly not related to a poor rootstock selection, but rather a deliberate decision to produce a style of wine that in the past would readily be dismissed as overripe.

It is not a coincidence, that the issue of over-ripeness and lack of varietal character comes up with cool climate grapes planted in Mediterranean climates or warmer.  Nobody talks about over-ripe Grenache, Mourvedre or Aglianico!

Has anyone tried the delicious 1966 Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon recently and wondered what went wrong?

Everything Is Overripe?
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/7/2011 6:51:02 PM


I just exchanged emails with my friend Dan on the very point you make. Not surprisingly, he and I continue to disagree. But I would ask what difference it makes that wines around the world, including France, are riper in character if they remain in balance.

Wines at 14% in Bordeaux and Burgundy are not considered out of balance, so why are they in CA?

And, since the issue at hand is identifiable varietal character across various grapes, the question is whether ripeness has destroyed varietal character more or less universally. Riper Cabs from Rutherford still tastes of Rutherford. Riper Zins from the Dry Creek Valley still tastes of DCV Zin. They have both VC and location-driven character and thus, to my way of thinking, disprove Dan's assertion.


deliberately missing the point
by Morten
Posted on:11/7/2011 7:38:32 PM

Actually, there are some very high profile wines that have come out of the Medoc region over the last few years that were widely found to be out of balance.

The fact that it seems to have started on the West Coast and has spread all the way to bordeaux and Burgundy strongly suggests that certain influential wine publications play a critical role.

Sadly, in an effort to make wines "stand out", it is only too convenient to produce wines with high alcohol, low acidity, plenty of oak but lacking in nuances. Balanced wines simply aren't showcase wines.  They typically require significant bottle age and are more likely to complement a meal than dominate a cocktail party!

Producing balanced wines, built on nuances and subtleties requires more patience and persistence, than is typically found in "new" wine regions

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/7/2011 10:53:01 PM

The funny thing about nuance is that, like varietal character, it is not necessarily destroyed by increased alcohol levels.

Nor are all wines with alcohols over 14% without nuance, balance or extended ageworthiness. In the last few years, CGCW has tasted long verticals of Pride, Spottswoode and Shafer Hillside Select Cabs and all of them have shown the ability to live for far beyond twnety years and to acqurie beauty and layering in the proces..

Merlot 2008?
by Marc Hinton
Posted on:11/7/2011 11:17:50 PM

Great article and it is encouraging to see disagreements among friends where the antagonist compliments his adversary albeit a back handed compliment the genuine respect comes through loud and clear. 2008 Merlot from Napa and Sonoma clearly has some flavor profile differences from the wines we drank from those AVA’s a couple of decades ago. Is it ABV? Yes to a certain degree, but between weather changes and what the buying public expects from Merlot I think a lot of producers have confused the issue as much as Dan has. A lot of people get lost on the long journey; it is not surprising that you have stayed steadfast when others have veered onto a different path. Your guidance and reflection is appreciated and even if Dan does not tell you so I am sure he appreciates it just as much as the rest of us.

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/8/2011 12:08:17 AM

Hi Marc--

Your kind words are very much appreciated by me. I am not sure how much Dan "appreciates" my willingness to take on some of his more far out premises in public, but we do seem to be able to maintain our friendship regardless of our many vinous disagreements.

Willamette 2011
by Marc Hinton
Posted on:11/8/2011 2:29:12 AM


Hope you are enjoying your evening as much as possible. I am finishing up mine with some Kopke 1979 Colheita Dried Cherries, Hazelnuts and a wonderful Stilton. All the temperance I mean low alchohol advocates who have convinced themselves the attributes of wines they are nostaglgic for will retun when alcohol levels subside should be happy soon. They will have that opportunity in a couple of years as the harvest here is still not complete in some areas. Brix 20-21 we will be producing some of the lowest alcohol Pinot Noirs in 15 years. I look forwrd to seeing if these wines are really a style that will be well recieved.

No Subject
by randy
Posted on:11/8/2011 10:14:03 AM

I'm in agreement with Dan Berger's premise about the wines between 13.5 and 14.5%... Now while there are always exceptions to the rule, that range is tough for the variatel characteristics to truly shine.  

What happened to elegance in wine?  When exactly did "bigger is better" winemaking become the popular norm?  Maybe with the current, "going back to America's roots" movement will help swing the pendulum back to wines that age well, don't have excessive oak flavoring (or oak tannins) and wines that have fresh, natural acidity due to their on time harvesting...  

There are two wines being made currently in CA...  World-class wines described above and the "restaurant ready" wines which the corporate wine peddling gatekeepers are apparently in love with.

While both are important amongst the ever increasing wine consuming population, the restaurant ready wines do not have a proper seat at the table of world-class dry red wine.   The soda pop wine vs the real deal stuff...  this is the conversation we should be having in Wine Country. 


alcohol bashing
by PaulG
Posted on:11/8/2011 10:35:08 AM

There are no absolutes, as we all know. I review thousands of wines annually; I have no problem giving a high score to a wine with alcohol at 14.5 or even 15% – IF it is balanced and does not burn in the finish. But over 15% and I'm with Dan – goodbye varietal character, especially with merlots and cabs. And even if you like your 16% zin, who can drink it and not fall over after the first glass? The current vintage should tell us a lot about who can make a good, balanced, true to varietal wine at lower brix.

Alcohol/No Alcohol
by Richard
Posted on:11/8/2011 10:48:15 AM

   This alcohol, no alcohol debate will never be resolved.  I have had more than a few conversations with Mr. Berger about his opinions on wine, which I respect, but when one judges the wine from the very beginning on the alcohol level w/out even tasting, it seems we've gotten a false start out of the gate.  There are several other wine writers/critics who go off on the high alcohol bandwagon as well - and while I generalize, most will not be kind if they see the alcohol is over a certain percentage.  I think this is grossly unfair - taste the wine, don't look at the alcohol level first!  And thank you Mr. Olken for attacking the message (alcohol levels) and not the messenger (Mr. Berger) and continuing to have a nice civil discourse about wine (mostly!)...

by Donn Rutkoff
Posted on:11/8/2011 10:53:18 AM

Adam, I am much more interested in knowing more from you (and anybody else in the dirt or in the tank) about rootstock.  Much more intersting than re-hashing again the palate squabble.  Have you done any root side by side comparions, any trials, and data collection?  I find this to be fascinating.  I often wondered, that 50 or 100 years from now, we will have found a way to get riper but not as high sugar, in the grapes we love.  Whehter by cloanal selection, breeding at UC DAvis & Adelaide, or gradual changes over time in the plant characteristics, or yeasts.  Wish I could live to be 120.  I am not a grower either, jsut a salesman, not in a position to do root trials in the dirt and winery.

No Alcohol = No Wine
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/8/2011 11:02:11 AM

Paul, you and I share the same vocation and the same view that we taste wine, not labels. It is not that Dan is right or wrong (OK, it is that he is wrong) but mostly that it is the wine that must speak in our writings, not the labels. We do agree that the higher the alcohol, the more likely it is that the wine will have given up some part of its varietal and site-driven character. I just refuse, however, to put a label on the level at which those characteristics are lost.

Richard, I am with you all the way. And I am happy to say that Dan and I maintain our friendship. We have, however, been known to breach the bounds of civility at times, especially face to face. But, we also always find our ways back.

No Subject
by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:11/8/2011 11:18:20 AM

Touche, Charlie -- thanks! 

But to be fair to Mr. Berger, his points are well taken.  High alcohol, ultra-ripenss and pursuit of scores to sell wine can certainly be detrimental to quality.  Our winemakers can do better than that.

Mr.  Berger's perspective is, of course, extremely California-centric.  Granted, California produces tons of important wine, but so does, say, Washington, the vast South of France from Languedoc to the Rhone and Provence, and huge chunks of Spain and Italy that have this in common:  production of "high alcohol" wine (as arbitrarily defined by today's anti-alcohol camp as anything above 14%) that nonetheless are quite distinct in either varietal or terroir relatied characteristics, as opposed to indistinctive "ripeness."

Why anyone would persist on holding up alcohol levels as a pervasive marker is beyond me.  Alcohol contributes to a sense of "body," and beyond that, it's the grape, site and hand of man that determines sensations and qualitative assessments (as subjective as the latter may be).

That is to say:  I like, and agree with, what Dan is saying, but in doing so he over-simplifies it to the point where it is easily misconstrued by pedestrian readers.  Even many of our wine professionals end up inanely echoing remarks like "high-alcohol-bad, low-alcohol-good."  Writers of influence not only have the responsibility of making points, but also of making points responsibly.


by Kurt Burris
Posted on:11/8/2011 12:06:39 PM

Yes there can be good, balanced wines with higher alcohols but I find as a general rule I don't like 16% Lodi Zins.  I happen to prefer lower alcohol levels.  Am i right?  For me I am.  For everyone else out there, not so much.  But I like to say, "If everyone liked the same wine, it would all be made in Modesto, and we would be out of a job."

Once More Into The Breach
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/8/2011 12:27:09 PM


I agree with you about responsbility. Overgeneralization makes us all look a little suspect. "Here are the rules, folks. I have spoken", is not a particularly good approach for most writers.


I get that Lodi Zins at 16% are not liked by most folks who have grown up with palates of a more classical bent. I may not drink many of them by choice, but I do understand why people like them. Some writers would condemn the wines and their fans. Like you, I can choose not to drink them, but unless they are prune juice with no acidity or fundamentally flawed, they are legitimate alternatives and they will succeed or not based on people's preferences. On the whole, I have learned that the market knows more than I do.

by John Kelly
Posted on:11/8/2011 12:42:40 PM

Adam has a good point about rootstocks and yields. AxR was a grower's panacea, which is why its incomplete resistance to phylloxera was ignored.

I have been involved in some side-by-side rootstock trials - which did not include AxR because who would plant it now? - but did include St. George and all the commonly used stocks of today. There <b>are</b> differences in rates of ripening.

With precocious stocks (those exhibiting the tendencies of the <i>Vitis riparia</i> parent) I have taken to doing extra work removing leaf area in the vines after veraison to balance the canopy to the crop load. It costs more, but the payoff is slower sugar accumulation.

No Subject
by Kurt Burris
Posted on:11/8/2011 12:56:07 PM

Charles:  I completly agree that the market drives the industry. I think you might know a bit more than the market though.  Don't sell yourself short.  Dr Ann Noble, one of my professor's at UC Davis, always stated that the only criteria for determining if a wine was "good" was if it was microbiologically sound, you liked it and felt it was worth what you paid for it.  Even if it's 16%. 

What *do* writers know?
by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:11/8/2011 1:21:19 PM

Kurt, I don't think Charlie sells himself short any more than Dan Berger does.  Critics like these are obviously influential, and their opinions matter -- which is why I say they also have to say things in responsible ways.  You can overly sensationalize matters of wine the same way with any news reporting.

However, anyone who's worked directly with customers (restaurants, retail stores, etc.) also knows that there's no real telling customers what they like or dislike.  I don't think many wine professionals, for instance, enjoyed selling customers fruity styles of White Zinfandel all those years, yet customers spoke and expressed their love of that for well over a decade and a half.  C'est la vie, say the old folks,it goes to show you never can tell...

It's like the film industry:  sure, everyone reads the critics' reviews, but ultimately, who really pays attention to critics when choosing what films to see?  We like what we like, whether it gets one dot or four or five. 

Of course, Americans are less comfortable making up their own minds when it comes to wine because, unlike films -- or (especially) books, music, and most forms of art -- we don't grow up appreciating wine, we come to it eventually as adults.  But once most wine lovers find what they like, nothing a critic says matters.  They say this is especially true with Millenials, but I'm not certain if this generation is any different than previous ones, since basic human behavior dictates a pervasive amount of independent thought.

No Subject
by Kurt Burris
Posted on:11/8/2011 1:29:07 PM

Randy:   Do you really think retailers thought that Sutter Home White Zin wasn't that great?  Be still my beating heart.  After 30 odd (some very odd) years in the wine/restaurant trade I have learned one thing.  Whether I like a wine or not, the commision check cashes just the same. 

Selling Short
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/8/2011 3:05:07 PM

I appreciate the thought. I think I view what i do and say somewhat differently. The old saying " there can be no disputes in matters of taste" leads me to a guiding principle. Wine wrtiers, and indeed all makers of opinion, need to approach their craft with a good dose of humility and giant dose of paying attention to methods of understanding.

I disagree with Mr. Berger. I even think he is wrong at times regardless of the "no disputes" dictum. But, I try not to belittle his opinions.

But, it is necesary, at times, to call a wine by its unpleasantness no matter how much respect I have for the attempts of the winery to do better.

And even when I suspect that the very occasionaly disgracefully flawed bottle has been put out on the market in a cyncial fashion, I have no proof of that and thus do not state my concerns publically. Writers are not cheerleaders, but I absolutely agree with Randy that we need to be responsible.

high alcohol
by dan
Posted on:11/8/2011 3:25:43 PM
If alcohol is such a negative how come Burgundy and Oregon add so much sugar to the must?The book "the taste of wine" by Emile Peynaud has some well documented evidence of the positive role alcohol invariably adds to wine. The only reason these above mentioned wines aren't higher alcohol is because of the increased tax rate of wines over 14%, not because of sensory issues.
high alcohol
by Morten
Posted on:11/8/2011 6:29:43 PM

You obviously need to look at different grape varieties separately.  Certain grape varieties"handle" high alcohol better than others; nebbiolo, grenache and mourvedre come to mind.  It is not a coincidence that these are varieties of Mediterranean descent.  Cool climate varieties such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon naturally reach their balance at more modest alcohol levels such as 12 -13%.  The fact that cool climate regions chaptalize to reach these levels does not change the underlying fact that these rarely ever find a balance at higher levels

high alcohol
by rucrazy
Posted on:11/9/2011 9:33:51 AM

Man talk about selective memory..... the last chapter of Dan's article: Are varietals losing their character?

And it was then that I recalled my friend's remark about all red wines tasting the same. Not all red wines, of course . But for the most part any wine listed as having more than 14.5 percent alcohol has a sameness and a simplicity that can be rather boring.


Dear Mr. Crazy
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/9/2011 9:46:56 AM

Please reread the very last sentence in your posting. It is that sentence, that sentiment that I find to be wrong and wrong-headed. I have listed a large body of wines that simply are not generalized amorphous messes of the type that Dan thinks rule the 14.5% and above world.

The nonsense that most "any wine listed at 14.5% alcohol" will be indistunguishable and boring must be countered at every turn because it is so patently wrong. I have proven it wrong with specific examples and there are hundreds and thousands more in the wine world.

I am not telling you or Dan or anyone else what to drink. I am telling you and Dan that all red wines at those alc. levels are not all the same. He says they are for the most part. He said it right in the passage you quote. Please reread that passage and then reread my column. I think you have missed the point.

dan berger
by buntmarker
Posted on:11/14/2011 11:31:30 PM


   Dan's so right.

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/15/2011 12:13:02 AM


How can that be true when there are hundreds of examples that prove his general thesis wrong.

Anyone can be right if we are talking about cheap, common denominator wines, but he is simply and demonstrably wrong for a very large body of wines.

Those are the wines that show up as rated highly by CGCW. We can tell those wines apart. We can oftern, not always, also have a pretty good idea of the wine's provenance. The problem is that Dan lumps hundreds and hundreds of very good wines in with the less well-regarded wines and, in so doing, denigrates every wine with alcs above 14.5. Please read the list of examples I gave. Dan can tell Shafer Merlot from Shafer Cab from Shafer Syrah from Shafer Sangiovese.

We all can if we have educated palates. That is why Dan is not so right in my opinion.

Rootstock "revolution"
by AaronB
Posted on:11/15/2011 2:19:51 PM

I have to concur with Adam Lee's comment. In fact I would go as far as to say that he hit the three pointer from half court with that one. Winner winner! Chicken dinner!

Viticulture in the North Coast of CA went through a sea change from 1986 through 1996. AxR was not an option anymore and many "new" faces (rootstocks) replaced it. It made winemakers have to re-evaluate the idea of ripeness and where the new flavor targets expressed themselves.

Understanding this change requires us to look back through the opening of the bottle, past the label, and to the "root" of the issue. It dictates so many of our choices in picking calls now. Understanding this point leads to understanding why we have the wines we have now. The sitaution may have been propelled by some members of the wine media but the cause is the same.

Alcohol in wine
by Eric Stern
Posted on:11/15/2011 7:19:06 PM

If you really want to have a scientific discussion on this topic it would be necesssary to analyse each wine's alcohol, not rely on the label.  The law allows a fairly wide range of values, up to 1% I believe, for wine over 14%, and as much as 1.5% for those under 14%.  Remember all those imported wine labels that state 12.5% Alc./vol?

overripeness, particularly of Cab
by Charlie Cohen
Posted on:11/17/2011 3:17:21 PM

It is wonderful that Dan wrote what he did.  Taking an extreme stand is a great way to start a discussion.

At this time I am SICK of overripe wines that reek of stewed fruits and am disappointed that traditional standards of judging quality have been pushed to the curb.  Delicacy has been replaced by a sledgehammer.  

I am particularly curious as to when the flavor of plum became acceptable in cab.  In many cabs of today that flavor overpowers any sense of the traditional cedar, tobacco, cassis, etc. and even sometimes oak.

I love big fruit forward wines but look forward to a swing back to more subtlety.

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