A Conspiracy of Dunces?

Yep…grape growers are getting screwed.

As this article points out, the trend toward higher alcohol wines (wait!…it’s not a trend, is it. What we have at this point is a paradigm.) means growers are getting squeezed. In order to satisfy an apparent desire among consumers for tutti fruiti wines, the grapes must stay on the vines longer, slowly dehydrating. In many cases, growers who do this to satisfy the increasing demand for high sugar grapes that turn into high alcohol wines, see a loss of 10-12% of their tonnage levels. They get paid by the ton. The really ugly thing is that often times the water that has been lost through dehydration is added back into the wine by the WINERY!! Water is a heck of a lot cheaper than grape juice.

The trend toward higher and higher alcohol wines is a very complex issue that speaks to consumer demand, changed growing conditions, the replanting of grapes int he 1990s after the phylloxera infestation, the ratings game and more.

We are going to see this trend continue.

It will come to a head I think sometime around 2007 when the bulk of the 2004 wines are on the market. The 2004 vintage in the North Coast was very hot due to a heat spike late in the growing season. Many growers had no choice but to pick grapes at ridiculously high sugars. This will translate into ridiculously high alcohol levels in wines that aren’t usually associated with high alcohol.

I’m no fan of high alcohol wines. I don’t think they are balanced. I don’t think they work well with food. and I don’t think they are attractive representations of what grapes are capable. However, they make for easy drinking, soft, simple stuff. Well, Yahoo!!

In the end, I see the trend toward higher alcohol wines as an indication that wineries and growers really don’t understand the dynamics of wine making with new clones and new plantings. And I see it as a shortcut to understanding the interaction between man and terroir.

If I were a grapegrower though, whose livelihood was based on, say, 50 acres of grapes, I’d see the trend toward higher alcohol wines as a conspiracy against me. I just might be right, rather than paranoid.

Posted In: Wine Business


7 Responses

  1. Craig Camp - May 11, 2005

    While growers certainly can be hurt by longer hang-times, you will find many wineries (including ours) buy most of their grapes by the acre (or rows), not by the ton. In this way it does not matter the weight of what they produce – just the quality. Also, going for longer hang-times is not the same for all regions and varities. In Oregon, with pinot noir, longer hang times is know as ripening the grapes.

  2. tom - May 11, 2005

    Great point. You hear more and more about growers and wineries who are striking contracts not based on tonnage but on other criteria. Clearly this is the direction growers should go if wineries are gonig to ask for 10% or more of their crop be lost to nature.
    Oregon is indeed a different story, as are some regions of California. But in general this is not the case in most west coast growing regions.

  3. Fredric Koeppel - May 11, 2005

    Tom, I think the tendency toward high alcohol wines came before consumer demand, because consumers wouldn’t have known to demand such a thing until they had experienced it. High alcohol came about because of the Californian (and generally American) idea that we are in charge of nature and not the other way around, that because we possess the technical muscle we can do anything in the vineyard and winery that we please (as Americans feel about most things). If the weather in California leads to super-ripeness and high alcohol, goes this attitude, well, so be it, we’ll make the biggest wines that we can; the result is, for example, pinot noirs that smell and taste like syrah. This attitude, of course, has been fostered for years by Robert Parker, who consistently champions California’s ability to push the limits of a grape, regardless of the authenticity or drinkability of the product, and who habitually dismisses elegance and balance in wines for the sake of power and obviousness.
    (Glad yer back and hope you had a good vacation.)

  4. Ryan Scott - May 11, 2005

    What matters to me is that the wine tastes good, has some depth and goes well with foods. The level of alcohol shouldn’t even come into the consumers’ mind. The alcohol level will end up at some natural level relative to a correctly grown grape.

  5. tom - May 11, 2005

    The problem with high alcohol levels comes into play when you want to have more than one glass of wine with a meal. There is a significant difference between 13.5 and 14.5 alcohol.

  6. Craig Camp - May 12, 2005

    When was the last time when a red wine with less than 13% alcohol really impressed you? Most exceptional red wines are around 14%, which has become the “normal” alcohol level for serious wine. The main reasons for this are vastly improved vineyard practices, non-diseased clones and more efficient yeast: not extended hang-times.
    In the past, only great vintages reached these levels and these were always the vintages most sought by collectors. A look back at the top rated wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy of the last 100 years will show that every vintage that is rated as great also produced wines with higher alcohol levels. In a way, this is not a new issue: just one that can be repeated more frequently.
    It is also worth noting that most wineries cheat a bit on the alcohol level so you can assume in many cases the alcohol level is actually higher than stated.
    For great wine the issue must be the balance of the wine, not the amount of buzz another glass will give you. Vintage, not the market should determine the alcohol level of the wine.
    Perhaps a greater reason for the great number of wines routinely reaching for the 15% mark (or more) is that winemaking and vineyard techniques now mean that very good wines can be made in hot climates that only offered dense, baked cutting wines in the past. The market is flooded with wines from California, Spain, Australia and southern Italy where the vineyards can produce wines with high alcohol levels every year. Twenty years ago, Hermitage and Brunello di Montalcino where thought of as massive wines. In today’s wine world they almost seem restrained.

  7. A Fool in the Forest - May 13, 2005

    If You Think That’s Bad, Wait Till You Hear What They’re Doing With Loaves and Fishes

    Anyone interested in the inner flywheels and clockwork of the California wine industry should follow the link (via Tom Wark’s FERMENTATIONS weblog) to a fascinating article from The Economist,

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