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Wednesday Warblings
High Alcohol Wines: Identifying The Culprit

By Stephen Eliot

There is no arguing with the fact that alcohol levels in premium California wines have been on the rise for a decade or more. But, the question is why, and those reasons, while I would argue are not clearly understood, remain one of the hot-button topics among avid wine lovers. Alcohol levels have become for many a litmus test whereby a wine is automatically rejected for being over some arbitrary line, and growing sentiment for a return to some dimly envisioned “golden age” has emerged. Opinions are plenty, but solid study and research are rare, and I confess some amusement with those who idolize a past about which they have little or no experience.

A new study, however, published in the Journal of Wine Economics now takes a more academic approach to the questions and brings a bit of real thought and balance to the conversation about rising alcohol content in fine California wine *. The full article is available at the URL listed below and has been insightfully summarized by Mike Veseth in his thoughtful blog, the Wine Economist **. Both articles are well worth a read, especially by those who have grown weary of invective, conspiracy theory and opinion born of ignorance.

The influence of powerful critics is regularly cited by those who would find conspiracies, and Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator are regularly given credit. It is claimed that such critics have perforce dictated style and forced otherwise unwilling winemakers into abandoning all principle and preference for style in the crass pursuit of profit. I can point to a suspect few that might be guilty, but I know far more winemakers that absolutely are not.

Global warming and the rise of vineyard temperatures are clearly in some part responsible, and there is data that unquestionably supports the hypothesis. Significant viticultural changes have had their influences as well from the proliferation of new rootstocks during wholesale replanting due to phylloxera in the 1990s to competing schools of thought on everything from trellising to pruning to vine density and spacing.

While the article in the Journal of Wine Economics does not come up with hard and fast answers and does not ascribe weighted influence to any of the factors above, it is significant in that it recognizes that there a number of causes to the particular effect of higher ripeness and consequently increased alcohols.

Yes, as a whole, alcohol levels are up, but wines high in ripeness have long been accorded high praise, be they from various regions of France or from California during its remarkable emergence as a producer of world class wines in the late 1960s and early 1970s...seen blindly by some as the “good old days.” I recall clearly, in fact, that in the days before Robert Parker, the Wine Spectator and even Connoisseurs’ Guide, some of the most collectable and ballyhooed California wines such as the 1970 Ridge Jimsomare Zinfandel and the David Bruce Chardonnays from the 1970s were well north of 15.0% alcohol. The point is that bold, very rich wines have been prized for a very long time, and while the critical press might further demand for such wines, it did not invent them and is by no means the overwhelming cause for the steady increase in alcohols.

As we have stated numerous times in the past, when evaluating a wine, we are little concerned with stated alcohol levels high or low. Is the wine balanced? Does it is involve? Is it complex…and, does it taste good? These are my questions. Hot and pruny is no better than shrieky and shrill, and however interesting it is to understand why the California wine scene has evolved the way that it has, such concerns do not enter my mind when raising a glass.

I suppose, however, that I will be somewhat relieved if conscientious wine writers might receive a little less scorn and blame from those who incomprehensibly hold that California has lost its way. In the meantime I will, as always, leave it to capable vintners to rise and fall as they will in their efforts to express their own visions of the winemaking art.




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Alcohol In the '70's...
by TomHill
Posted on:4/11/2012 10:04:17 AM


   I should like to point out that some of those wines you cite (Jimsomare '70, Occidental LateHrvst '70, David Bruce LH Chard '73, David Bruce Zin/Petite/Grenache/Carignane '70 & '71) were regarded by the colectors of that era (of which I be one of them) as aberations....attempts by winemakers of then to see just how far they could push the winemaking boundaries. They were certainly not the norm. Part of the attraction we/I had for them was to taste them and then shake our heads in awe as to what Dave/Paul and David had wrought w/ those grapes this year. Yes..indeedy...those wines were prized...but for their oddness as much as for their drinking pleasure. I remember when I first tasted David's LH Chard '73...blown away by its intensity & extract. I bought a bunch (well...some 6-8 btls), convinced that it would mature into something really amazing. I actually cannot recall drinking that wine at a meal with food. I wonder what I would think about that wine with a meal if I had it now?? I would probably taste it...then reach for the nearest btl of Friulian Ribolla I could lay my hands upon.

   Anyway...the perspective of someone who was there at that point in time.

   Jeez...can't believe I got, yet again, sucked into another discussion on alcohol in Calif wines.



How Ripe Is Ripe
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/11/2012 10:23:36 AM


Experience does have its privileges, and one of them is in adding nuance to the tales of the time. Steve was part of that era, as well, but we are all working from memories that must certainly have been colored by the passage of time.

I don't mean to carp about today's fuzzy-cheeked youngsters, but when they start telling us "experienced" tasters about the old times, they are simply repeating what they have read in the observations of folks like us.

I am particularly amused by the notion that CA wines are overripe. That canard was heard when I first came into collecting forty years ago. Of course, the wines were them about 13% alcohol and their European peers about a point less. That same relationship exists today, but no one calls Burgs or left-bank Brdx overripe.

It is that kind of false message that drives folks like Steve and me to write articles like this. That, and the fact that blind tasting, not label reading, is the way to determine whether a wine is in balance or not.

No Subject
by Chuck Hayward
Posted on:4/11/2012 1:29:54 PM

In the good old days, grape growers were farmers. They picked early to ensure that rains and molds and fungi would not destroy their crops. Their yeasts were less efficient. Fermentations were wild and unpredicatble. There was less accumulated knowledge available at universities and their agricultural extension services. Cellars were a bit funky to be kind. Same goes for the vineyards.

Today, we have dedicated yeasts that focus on specific varietals. Doppler radar allows growers to time their picking precisely. Aircraft pictures show the irrigation needs of specific blocks. Clones are selected that are best suited to specific climates. Viticultural and winemaking understanding has increased immensely. We drink wines from across the globe and have learned from them. Vineyards are healthier and grow more efficiently thanks to appropriate use of pesticides, nutrients and organic practices. Trellising has changed radically to allow grapes to ripen easily. In short, yesterday's farmers are today's viticulturalists and vineyard managers.

Oh. There's that global warming thing.

Basically, we grow better, cleaner and riper grapes today. When you have riper fruit, you get higher alcohols. Seems pretty logical and easy to figure out. To me.

Easy But .....
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/11/2012 1:50:49 PM


So true. So true. And higher alc is not a CA phenomenon.

Let me ask you about the flip side of the coin. If we assume that ABV (alc by volume) is not the problem in and of itself but then can agree that there are excess levels of ripeness, how would you then feel about viticultural and vinicultural workings to reduce alcohol when it rises to excess.

We agree, I think, that wines can be in balance at 15% ABV, but do we not also agree that some wines at that level or even at 13.5% are too hot and thus out of balance at times?

And, if so, what are the acceptable versus unacceptable gambits.

I will offer that green tasting wines are not an improvement just because they are low alcohol. Got others ideas you care to add?

No Subject
by Chuck Hayward
Posted on:4/11/2012 3:16:18 PM

I think you and I are in complete agreement about the who-ha regarding alcohol. My post was trying to bring up some real reasons why alcohol has increased to fight the conspiracy theories that abound out there. I am not going to follow you on whether there are or are not excess levels of ripeness. But I do like your observation that viticulture can be used to reduce ABV and have just witnessed exactly that.

I just came back from Bordeaux where I had an interesting discussion with the winemaker at Pontet Canet. They are making some killer wines lately. He is the leading practitioner of biodynamics in Bordeaux and has noticed that the fruit ripens earlier and alcohol levels have dropped noticeably. I have heard that from other bio-d adopters in different countries as well. Interestingly, he is adopting a more hands off approach in the vineyard of late--less leaf pulling or hedging in an effort to slow down the ripening process that occurs when fruit is more exposed. Going backwards to go forwards as they say.

Jimsomare Zinfandel
by Dennis Winter
Posted on:4/11/2012 6:46:09 PM

My god, this is a flash from the past. I had completely forgotten this wine, but my 40 year old memory is that it was good. I don't remember if I had a couple bottles or a case or more, but I choose to remember that it was very good wine.

"The Culprit"
by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:4/12/2012 5:46:28 AM


I must confess to being rather disappointed in the Journal of Wine Economics report and their choice to focus on what they term as "the Parker effect" and on global warming, while only giving passing mention of the effects of phyloxera and the massive replanting and almost complete change in rootstock (away from AxR).

AxR was known as a heavy bearing rootstock and, as is well documented, heavier yields generally lead to slower ripening.  If one were to look at Napa Cabernet as a prime example:

1985  21,239 tons of Napa Cabernet were picked off of 4455 acrres for an average yield of 4.76 tons per acre

2007  58407 tons of Napa Cabernet were picked off of 18208 acres for an average yield of 3.21 tons per acre

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that this is a dramatic reduction and one that would lead to higher brix.

Interestingly, the Wine Economics report mentions that Zinfandel barely rose in average brix and attributes that to White Zinfandel, and ignores the fact that much of the Zinfandel planted in California was planted prior to the widespread use of AxR and thus there was no need to replant it due to phyloxera.

I think there's a great book out there waiting to be written about the various consequences of phloxera on the California Wine industry and this would be one of  the main chapters.

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

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