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The How Ripe is Right Battle Heats Up Again

By Stephen Eliot

The debate, or should I say argument, about ripeness, what constitutes balance and the “right” way to make wines has become a fixture whenever and wherever wine is discussed these days, and usually it all boils down to equally intransigent thinking that one extreme or the other is the one and only true path. “Thin and characterless” cries one faction while the other decries high ripeness as a mortal sin, and there’s damned little thought for the ground in between. Ground, I would argue, that the lion’s share of very good wines occupies.

The latest topic of focus in the circus that the wine-blogging world has become is the oft-visited one of Pinot Noir, and the usual cast of characters is noisily mounting their soap boxes anew. Richness and ripeness versus restraint and refinement are again being championed as the only two choices, but are there not wines, very high quality ones, in fact, that manage to bridge the gap in interesting and deeply satisfying ways? My experience leads me to answer with an emphatic yes. And, it is the grand spectrum of style from one extreme to the other that makes fine wine so endlessly fascinating. Now, I no more want a Pinot whose acidity will painfully remove tooth enamel than I want one that approximates Ruby Port, and, while I will occasional run into those that do, they are happily a scattered few.

When two sides gear up for battle, there is usually some line drawn in the sand, some distinct demarcation that separates the sides, but there is no clear line that I can see. Does virtue lie above or below 14.0% alcohol? Maybe 13.0 or 12.0? I recall attending a gathering of avant garde vintners where several seemed intent on besting each other with regard to just how low in alcohol they could go as if that were the ultimate measure of worth. Scholasticism lurks dangerously in the wings.

Now, there is no question that there is a welcome “lightening up” going on in California winemaking these days after an era of “bigger is better,” but I am uneasy with the notion that it signals some return to a pristine past for which the self-impressed disciples of balance can claim. I very much like Adam Lee’s musings that, as science and technology will allow for ever more mastery of winemaking and viticulture, we are perhaps seeing a move to something “different” rather than a return.

I am most put off by the fact that many of those who so rabidly revel in the debate seem to believe that no one should like or have access to wines of one style or another, and they are too quick to engage in name calling and an unpleasant brand of internet bullying. I would never accuse them of apostasy or being lemming-like followers of critics and cannot think for themselves because they happen to like what they like, so why are they so intent on doing just that to others? Maybe that what comes when you get religion and become part of a movement. There is no more room beneath the bus, so please stop trying to throw each other under.

Of course it all comes down to drinking what you like, and what you like it with. Just don’t call me names for choosing this or that bottle with this or that dish, because I am man of many moods, and I delight in the fact that I can find a good bottle to match most every one. But, I am never in the mood to be called a fool by fools far bigger than I. Do not forget that there is a lot of self interest to all sides because ultimately it is not a battle for hearts and minds as much as it is for dollars. Whether on the part of makers or sellers, “rightness” still comes down to attracting buyers and rarely to altruistic education.

The battle will go on, maybe for a very long time, but more importantly, the endless refining of the winemaker’s art will go on as well. Fashion, changing tastes and new knowledge will likely push the pendulum of style back and forth, and I can’t help but seeing this all in the light of the dialectic. How wine is made, where and how which grapes are grown must surely change in small and great ways, and a new synthesis will always await. Who knows, if the world keeps heating up, 17.0% alcohol might someday become the rallying cry of the new faithful.


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