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Wednesday Wanderings
Trench Warfare In The Low Alcohol Debate

By Stephen Eliot

The debate about alcohol levels in wine has become a journalistic staple of late, and the gladiators are at it again.

Most recently, W. Blake Gray1 and Steve Heimoff2 have climbed into opposing pulpits and are waving the banners of truth and lies at one and other, and, not surprisingly, Alice Feiring3, the low-alcohol “Maid of Orleans” herself, is again drawn like a moth to the limelight. The push and pull of either side of the argument is constant, and battle lines are indelibly drawn with opposing sides digging in deeper and deeper. While I do pay passing attention to each new attack and defense, I confess more to boredom than anything else. I am not hearing new insights, and conversions are few. The stalemate of trench warfare seems to have set in.

What I suppose bothers me most is the claim from the evangelical, born-again champions of the low-alcohol stuff is that there is a serious, almost revolutionary “movement” afoot and that those unrepentant winemakers who have not seen the light are feeling defensive and beginning to worry. I hope that is not the case, and I have seen little evidence to make me believe it is so.

I happen to live fairly comfortably in what we might call “no man’s land”, that place between the two lines of combat. I can comfortably watch each side lob its incendiary missives overhead and otherwise go about my business unfettered. My worry is that if one or the other is successful in some broad offensive that I will have no choice but to live under the winner’s rules. I am beginning to feel like the peaceful denizens of 19th- and 20th-century Alsace wondering what color uniforms will be marching through town next.

I have said it before, and I will say it again; please, let’s stop talking about numbers and go back to talking about wines one at a time. Variety, it is said, is the spice of life, and, given a particular mood or meal, I will religiously gulp down wines of most every stripe providing that they are well made. My fear is that we may reach a point where my choices have been precipitously narrowed and one or another catechism is the held to be THE way.

My suspicions are that the market will be the ultimate arbiter in the war, but I cannot quite shake the memory of when “food wine” mentality was broadly embraced by influential California producers; not that rich wines were suddenly gone, but they were harder to find. Others will scoff at the validity of anything defined by the market, and, indeed, there is strong element of smarter-than-thou, wine-geek esoterica at the heart of the conflict.

Now, I never thought that the world of fine California wines was principally defined by its excesses. Yes, a fair number of wines check in with high alcohols, but 15+% has never been the norm hereabouts, and, even the most vocal and influential champions of restraint and nuance still recommend some such bottlings with gusto. Witness the gushing endorsement of Chappellet’s heady, very ripe 2009 Pritchard Hill Cabernet by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonné.4

While I would not argue against the notion that California wines are ripe and fruit-forward in style, I do not see the need for and thus and question the wisdom of remaking ourselves in the image of France and Italy. The last time I looked, there were plenty of “classic” European bottles to be had, and, while I find real pleasure in them, I am not about to forego the sheer sensuous joy of great Cabernet from Napa Valley or Pinot Noir from Sonoma’s Russian River Valley or Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel.

For now, to use Ms. Feiring’s words, I do think there is an “anti-cult cult” aspect to the debate. The new producers most often held up as icons by the low-alcohol cadre leaders of a “revolutionary” movement are making wine in such limited quantities as to be rarely seen. “Revolutions” are the stuff of enormous change and depend on a certain critical mass for success.

Alas, the dialogue or, rather, the two opposing monologues, seem destined to continue. A new organization calling itself “In Pursuit of Balance” is making a name for itself in promoting lighter wines. I can only hope that all of us who sell and write about wines pursue balance in our thinking as well.



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fine wine
by robert
Posted on:6/26/2012 4:31:49 AM


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