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Explosive Claims of De-Alcholization of California Wines Debunked

By Stephen Eliot and Charles Olken

Those who would have us believe that California wines are on an increasingly slippery slope were recently given new fuel for their fires with the wholly inaccurate claims by ConeTech of Santa Rosa that 25% of all Chardonnay and Pinot Noir produced in California is treated with an industrial process to lower the alcohol levels of those wines.

It did not take long for reactions to set in with even the venerable Jancis Robinson tweeting without thinking that “¼ of all California Chardonnay undergoes alcohol removal. T’aint natural.” Obviously one incorrect report has produced another from a usually trusted source, and Robinson, of course, is not the only one to repeat the claim without examining it. The inherent falseness of the report and the failure to look at what really goes on has generated an unfortunate tempest that has escaped the teapot and has become fodder for those who, like Robinson, should have looked before leaping and for folks with axes to grind and who will tout this outlandish and incorrect claim as “proof” that furthers the stereotype of California wines being overly processed.

First of all, the numbers do not add up. As Siduri winemaker, Adam Lee, has pointed out, there were, in fact, nearly sixty million cases of California Chardonnay and Pinot Noir produced in California in 2012, and ConeTech officials said that over nine million cases of California wine of all types goes through alcohol reduction. In point of fact, Pinot and Chardonnay are just nine per cent of the total wine production of 662 million gallons in 2012. Thus, it is perfectly clear that ConeTech’s claims of twenty-five percent are a complete and utter exaggeration. They have patted their backs once too often.

Secondly, the discussion of “de-alcoholization” does not even begin to ask what kind of wines are being processed, and in so doing, it has given unwitting ammunition to the Jancis Robinson’s of this world who have uncritically and without a whit of forethought repeated those claims as if there were indicative of the industry across the board. And that is the second big sin here.

Because, given the enormous amount of cheap Chardonnay and Pinot that is packaged in big boxes and jugs of cheap, unrecognizable swill no matter what varietal label is attached , or offered in the typical 750 ml bottle at miniscule prices as low as two bucks and stacked in pallet-sized piles in supermarkets and outlets from Trader Joe’s to Safeway and Target, we have no problem believing that there millions of cases of highly processed wines making their ways to market. The problem, of course, is that consumers armed with false knowledge will warily assume that fully one-quarter of what they see on the shelves of better wine stores and on restaurant wine lists will be “tainted” wines that have been ruined by industrial insensitivity.

Last, but not least, the naysayers should have exercised a little thought and humility before buying into the idea that any wine whose alcohol has been reduced is somehow inherently failed. There are far too many folks whose near-luddite convictions lead them to be more concerned with process than results, and the truth is that there are a great many very fine wines that are made without adhering to strict minimalist standards.

As we have so often said and emphasize once again, the means by which complex, high-quality, deeply satisfying wines are made, save for those which somehow do harm to people and the planet, should be seen as irrelevant when looking for the very best wines that talented winemakers and growers can make. Wine quality is about what is in the glass, not about catechism, ritual, philosophical purity or divine inspiration.

As for the piece of very questionable journalism in The Drinks Business1 which started all this misdirected nonsense in the first place, we side with commenter and long-time wine biz person, Tom Heller, who responds “where do they get this crap?”


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Jumping Someone Else's Train
by Adam Lee
Posted on:12/19/2014 8:14:58 AM

Thank you Stephen and Charlie for the shout out here.  It is supremely disappointing to see otherwise superb journalists jumping on this "article" because seemingly they all want to denigrate California wine as overly processed, etc.  

When a company (any company -- wineries included) have a vested interest in inflating figures, it is vitally important to examine those figures with a skeptical mind.  Thank you for doing that here.

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

by Tom Clyatt
Posted on:12/19/2014 9:32:04 AM

I was involved in the de-alcholization of wine long before ConeTech set up shop. My take on the technology naysayers is that these people never had to save their financial butts using technology and therefore have no grounds to condemn its use. If technology makes a more palatable wine with no additives, who cares what the process is? Are they condemning the use of stainless steel tanks as well?

I Really Like Adam's Subject Line
by Blake Gray
Posted on:12/19/2014 9:34:26 AM

The problem with interpretation of the story isn't in the numbers. It doesn't really matter if 16% or 33% or 27% of California Chardonnay is de-alcoholized.

The problem, as you address, is that some people conflate the industrial side of the wine industry with the artisanal. There's absolutely nothing wrong with de-alcoholizing a $10 supermarket wine, which will be sold in Safeway near products produced by factory techniques and packed with artificial ingredients. Supermarket wine is a supermarket product, and that's fine, most people buying it don't care.


But it's not fair to the artisans who carefully tend vineyards and use natural yeast ferments, et al, to lump them in the same category.

I think most wine trade people are smart enough to realize this. I wouldn't be at all shocked to learn 50% of California Zinfandel had alcohol reduced. It's *mostly* the other 50% that wine lovers are drinking.

De-alc wines
by Lisa Van de Water
Posted on:12/19/2014 9:46:37 AM

I'm glad that Eliot and Olken made the point that a wine that has undergone de-alcoholization is not inherently flawed or "ruined by industrial insensitivity". Winemakers de-alc wines because the alcohol is too high to taste balanced, and sometimes is too high to complete yeast fermentation.

The high-alcohol problem, endemic in California, arises because of a desire for ripe-tasting phenolics and intense flavors. Grapes very often arrive at the winery with sugar levels too high to make a balanced wine. Viticultural practices could deliver ripe phenolics at lower sugar levels (ask Cathy Corison and Michael Silacci) but many Napa Valley grapes reach sugar levels that get too high while waiting for phenolic maturity.

The water that wineries add (legally) to newly crushed grapes (not later, when it is wine!) does not dilute them, it just brings many musts back into balance to produce a flavorful wine not too high in alcohol. But sometimes their efforts are insufficient and alcohol needs to be removed.

Even after 40 years' experience in the California wine industry, this year I was not successful in bringing a much-too-sweet Merlot down during fermentation, and it is now almost 16% alcohol and 2% sugar. It will have to be de-alc'ed, and when the fermentation is finished, it will take its place among the high end of Napa Valley wines.

Thank you for - I hope it was your intention - explaining that what matters is what is in the glass, not whether it needed certain processing to arrive there in balance.

de-tox after de-alc
by John Skupny
Posted on:12/19/2014 10:04:51 AM

Thank you Charlie & Stephen - for a couple daze I thought that Fox news had taken over the wine world news feed -

I've always thought that one man's de-alc is another man's chaptalization!

Siduri and Adam
by Keith Webster
Posted on:12/19/2014 10:16:48 AM

As Adam Lee represents, the use of unsubstantiated and, in fact, false statistics is a rampant issue within the entire society, as can be seen in any reporting over the last decade. When it hits close to home, it does, by virture of proximity, become personal and should be "called out". Bravo Adam!! Thank you for your aggressive pursuit of truth and sanity.



No Subject
by Tom Eagan
Posted on:12/19/2014 10:33:13 AM

De-Alch........not really news, and if not spinning it off, watering down was always an option even amongst the finest of wine producers. 

My question is this; if you really want to get to physiological ripeness and the associated flavor benefits, why isnt "spinning down"  for larger production houses, say like KJ, or watering down  for smaller places like say Dehllinger a positive way to manage the end product??


False Claim
by David Vergari
Posted on:12/19/2014 10:34:12 AM

Say it ain't so, Jack (Ryno)! When I read Jack's claim my bullshit detector went crazy, which required some SERIOUS recalibration.   This simply did not pass the smell test, plus the reaction is much ado about nothing .  Kudos to you and Mr. Lee for pointing this out.  

The obsession about EtOH levels in wine is failing to see the forest for the trees. 

alcohol reduction
by Keith
Posted on:12/19/2014 10:35:10 AM

If ConeTech does 9 million cases themselves what about others that have the same machines(not many as they are very expensive) and also the numerous reverse osmosis systems (not so expensive) that are employed. I would likely say the numbers of alcohol reduction manipulated wines are much more than Jack Ryno metioned as that was just his company. Does not include the other systems of the same an other types. I beleive it is an understsatement when taken in context even if he may have been exaggerating.  They do 9 million cases a year just themselves (one comapany) according to Engelbrecht.  

Product Not Process
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/19/2014 10:56:04 AM

It is hard to say which is the biggest sin in this story.

Let's start with the process vs. product aspect. Aside from a few zealouts and Luddites (some folks are both), the issue for most wine drinkers is product. And, yes, Lisa, that is what CGCW has been all about for its four decades of existence. 

But, the implications in the original article and in the followups from folks who should know better like Jancis Robinson and JonBon are in some ways worse. These are journalists with intimate knowledge of the subject and large followings. For them to send this fallacious information around the world as if large numbers of wines were faulted is a journalistic sin in itself.

I agree that the numbers are really not the issue. The issue is wine quality. Plonk will always be plonk, but balanced plonk is better than unbalanced plonk. And fancy wine is still fancy wine as long as the process does not hurt the product.

If one goes back to the original report by ConeTech, one finds that large batches of Spanish wine are also de-alcoholized. Yet those wines are the very wines that the geeks are idolizing as low-alcohol example of balance and virtue.

I wonder if we could get someone from North Korea to hack the websites of the propaganda spinners. Ooops, just kidding.

by Albert Paul
Posted on:12/19/2014 11:02:02 AM

Liked your article and agree on most poiints, But, No need to call the lower segment of the wine market swill.  The people who are drinking that swill today are the people that will be drinking Siduri in 5 years.  That eletist mentality does not really help the overall wine industry.  BTW grandma and grandpa out there drinking some of that "swill."  

Friends Back In The Fold
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/19/2014 11:03:17 AM

One of the joys of this blog column, aside from the fact that it played right into our wheelhouse and was so easy to debunk, is that it brought old friends, Lisa Van de Water and John Skupny into to house.

Lisa probably does not know this, but I credit her and the classes that Earl Singer and I took early in our writing careers with turning us from enthusiastic amateurs who knew less than we thought we knew into something of students of wine. People ask all the time how CGCW came into being and how did we become wine experts. I always say that we had no idea what we did not know until we started writing. Then it became apparent that we had better get professionally educated and fast. Studying with Lisa was one of the most crucial and long-remembered part of that process.

As for Mr. Skupny and family, well they escaped from our tasting panels and went up Valley and founded their own winery specializing in Cabernet Franc.

And, David Vergari, your BS meter is always welcome here.

Alcohol Reduction
by Rusty
Posted on:12/19/2014 11:06:40 AM

I know that Conetech works with at least 1,000 wineries in California dealcing wine - in 2012 there were 3754 wineries - that works out to about 27% of wineries.  I also know they "do" a significant amount of Pinot Noir but the numbers of artisanal vs bulk not available. It will also vary greatly with the vintage. I believe it is a minor issue as the vast majority of wine consumers have no clue about dealcoholization since it is rarely openly discussed.  I have never ever seen it mentioned on tech sheets provided by wineries.

Swell Swill
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/19/2014 11:09:28 AM

Mr. Paul. Point taken.

People drink what people drink. Sometimes they don't know better. Sometimes they don't need to spend more to get a beverage that is consumed without the critical eye that gets applied to wine in this environment.

The other day there was a bit of a flap about a Gallo study that young people were adding fruit juice to their wine. Oh, the horror of it all.

I was asked by another writer to comment for a column he was writing. I noted that I used to drink fruit juice with bubbles that passed as wine when I was in my early twenties. It was called Lancer's.

I repeat, point taken, because what is swill in the CGCW context is what large swathes of the consuming public enjoy on a daily basis.

by Margaret Davenport
Posted on:12/19/2014 11:31:56 AM

Unfortunately, most wine writers DO NOT have an intimate knowledge of the art, science, and technology of wine making.  It's very sad to me that some folks in the industry who should know better try to confound the issue by dividing California wine making into 2 groups:  artisanal and industrial.  Thank you for your comment, Lisa, about the Napa Merlot.  Whether it's a stand alone varietal or a necessary blender for a Napa Cab, I'm certain the fruit wasn't cheap.  We get one chance a year to begin the wine making process, using whatever tools, intelligence and experience we possess.  To ignore the economic necessities of using technology is ridiculous.  Also, has anyone thought about ConeTech capacity in California?  My first thought was that Mr. Ryno has no idea. 

Artisan wines have higher alc
by Luke Bohanan
Posted on:12/19/2014 12:21:49 PM

The truth is that bulk wines typically are NOT dealced as they tend to ferment to about 13%.  Remember, fruit needs to be harvested earlier in the central valley to maintain acidity levels, and varieties that are used (all those Olmo breeds) were made specifically to ripen in that area to maintain good acid around 12-14% alc in a hot environment.  

The "Artisinal" guys certainly do dealc, if not by machine, than by watering back.  If anything high pHs and acid adds are what bother me the most about whats being done by todays "artisinal" winemakers, along with Velcorin because they are afraid of filters.  

by Peter Bourget
Posted on:12/19/2014 1:26:13 PM

Some winemakers can make excellent wine at lower alcohol levels than others. Some have to dealc for various reasons. I think there should be more transparency about it, put some info on the label about what you did and what you added. Consumers can decide how much of an engineered drink they want and the industry will see what is preferred.

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/19/2014 1:37:57 PM

Philosophically, I am in favor of greater transparency in all walks of life. I want to know what my govt is doing. I want to know more precisely how much alc is in my wine, which, of course, means not just tighter standards and doing away with the artificial 14.0 barrier that has become some kind of weird bargaining chip for some folks, which means alc percentages on labels that are a actually readable, which mean AVAs that actually mean something, etc.

It is not just alc where we lack transparency or de-alc or anything else.

But what stops me with wine is when the folks who want transparency have an axe to grind such as thinking that they are holier than thou and see any process as "engineering" said in a sneering tone. 

And, of course, the bottom line for me is taste, not process. Any argument that focuses on a process, when that process is not bad for people or the planet, is more often than not self-serving. Those arguments are not cries for transparency for transparency sake but for political or marketing purposes.

(It's) Friday I'm in Love....
by Adam Lee
Posted on:12/19/2014 2:10:43 PM

....with this discussion.  Really good thoughts.

I have a couple of thoughts as well:

--  Rusty, you say Conetech works with over 1000 wineries and there are 3754 wineries in California.  Certainly there are that many bonded wineries in CA, but there are a bunch more labels.  So, for example, we have 9 labels coming out of our place, but only 3 bonded wineries there.  Does Conetech work with 1000 wineries or 1000 labels?

--- Peter,  Transperancy.  I am less thrilled with ingredient lising on labels, but am very happy with transperancy.  We've started putting QR codes on labels which leads you to a website where we then talk about how the wine is made in great detail (for those who care).  And, yes, sometimes that includes watering back. --  We prefer that way of doing things because it allows us to explain what we did and why we did it.  It allows us to avoid states looking at and perhaps rejecting each label (it isn't just the Feds we deal with but each state also).  And yet it also gives the consumer the information.

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

This calls for a blind tasting
by Blake Gray
Posted on:12/19/2014 6:09:12 PM

Reading Lisa's story of a high-end Napa Merlot that will have to be de-alcoholized makes me wonder: will that wine taste good? More to the point, could it be great?

Who's got the courage and contacts to arrange a blind tasting of high-end wines seeded with half wines that have had the alcohol reduced? I want to attend that tasting.

I'll admit to pre-test bias: I think it would be hard for a de-alcoholized wine to reach the same heights. For Parker, certainly -- it's probably even better -- but for people who like balance, I find it hard to believe. Competent, certainly. But great? But I'd like to see it tested.


Herring--Red or Just Pickled
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/19/2014 6:44:52 PM

I like herring, Blake, but I am not all that fond of red herring. And that is what your challenge is, at least in part.

First, let me agree with you on one point. The idea of such a tasting is certainly of interest to me because I want to know the answer. But it is not a complete or instructive answer by itself. It is, to me, sort of a sidelight.

Another question would be: whether the wine would have been better if it had not been de-alcoholized.

And the corollary to that question is whether the same grapes picked less ripe would have made better wine than being allowed to ripen to the point that the finished wine needed to have its alcohol reduced.

And the final corollary is this: how well do dealcoholized wines do in blind tastings anyhow?

And, then, Blake, there is this. Do you have the same untested bias against wines in which water is added to keep the alcohol down?

You have posed an interesting question, but it is not the finite question, and that is why it is a red herrring of sorts--because it takes away from more germane points.

Now, the next challenge is to figure out how to test each of those questions. Or we can just taste wine out of the bottle and react to it as wine and not worry about process. 

I see all this as a little like biodynamic farming. I have no bitch with those who adhere to the teachings of Rudy Steiner. I frankly don't care one way or the other because the wine is the issue, not the process.

It's not that complicated
by Blake Gray
Posted on:12/19/2014 7:08:48 PM

Charlie, there's no need to complicate the question. Can de-alcoholized wine be great? That's all.


The Essence
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/19/2014 7:19:49 PM

Now, we are in agreement. The thing is that a taster of your competence does not need a measured trial to know the answer. 

Just taste the wines and decide for yourself. The only missing ingredient is in knowing which wines have and have not been de-alced. 

I think that the subject is so volatile at this point that one would need to do something with a neutral referee. Possibly Lisa VdW.

Conetech DeAlc
by Rusty
Posted on:12/19/2014 8:13:59 PM

I have it from a VERY reliable but unnamed source that 25% of PREMIUM Pinot Noir and Chardonnay "is being processed" by Conetech.  No really cheap stuff is part of this ($10 and up only).

In answer to your inquiry Adam - that is 1,000 or so wineries  use Conetech to process their wines, not labels, so number of labels processed by Conetech is undoubtedly higher.

who cares?
by Angela Soleno
Posted on:12/20/2014 1:12:56 PM

This sounds like arguing.  Why can't we all just get along?  How about if you are worried then go to the source and ask?  If you are buying from a grocery store then you are missing the conversation with the producer and probably just buy based on other emotional factors.  Drink what you like and everybody else stop fussing.

de-alc wines can be great
by Lisa Van de Water
Posted on:12/21/2014 11:36:31 AM

Blake, the answer to the question of whether de-alc wines can be great is: Yes. I am not at liberty to say which wines I base this comment on, but they are usually in the high end of Napa Valley wines. They always taste much better once the unbalanced alcohol is removed.

Winemakers are not stupid enough to use expensive processes when they are not needed. They do not de-alc wines if it is not necessary. The Merlot I have written about was picked at the same time as the small winery's Cabernet, but by that time the Merlot was over 30 Brix. Would you like a Merlot at 2% sugar? I don't think so.

Why do you care, anyway? Can't the wine in the glass just be there for you, never mind its history? If nothing illegal or harmful to the taster has been done, why do you focus on one aspect of processing grapes into wine?

After 40 years in the winemaking side (winemakers routinely lie or withhold information from sales people or wine writers, by the way, this is a given), I allow the wine to speak for itself in the glass.

How it got there is irrelevant. I believe that many people would do better to consider how their own wines could be even better instead of trying to be their "brother's keeper."

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