The Dehydration of Napa Valley

Andy Beckstoffer is a pretty astute guy.

Andy is one of the largest growers in Napa Valley and maybe the most respected. And it was Andy who last year initiated an inter-industry discussion on the affects of long hangtime and hyper ripeness on the vines and on wines.

This is a  touch subject for a number or of reasons. Over the past decade or so vintners have been asking growers to let the fruit hang on the vine much longer than in the past. The idea is to get the grapes much more ripe in order to make a…a what…a "blockbuster", high alcohol style of wine that seems to be in vogue. The problem is that to achieve this level of ripeness, the grapes are forced to dehydrate. This means less tonnage and less money for growers.

Beckstoffer also wanted to make the case that this might also so stress the vines as to shorten their lifespan.

But as I said, Beckstoffer is pretty astute, not just a grower bemoaning a loss of income because his grapes are shriveling. Beckstoffer makes the case that if Napa Valley continues to make wines in this style, the region will get a reputation for making one kind of wine…high alcohol monsters:

"Napa wine is getting the reputation of being high alcohol and people
are saying they’re hot," he said. "Even the Wine Spectator used the
term high octane Zinfandel. Why anybody would put anything in their
mouth that said high octane, I don’t know."

Beckstoffer may be ahead of the curve on this one. But his point is a good one. Napa Valley is becoming known as a source of "high octane" Cabernet. However, I’m not sure those drinking Napa Cabernet are quite finished with this style of wine. Furthermore, those who only began experimenting with and regularly drinking this style of wine in the past 10 years probably don’t know anything different.

In casual conversation journalists and winery owners and retailers we usually come to the question of when will this high alcohol style of wine begin to lose popularity. Beckstoffer puts this issue in context:

"Right now the retailers seem to be following Parker and the Wine
Spectator and telling people to drink those wines," he said. "But, you
get a tipping point. If we have the situation where the retailers start
telling people not to drink wines that don’t go with food, where do we

John Intardenato has a good story in the St. Helena Star in which Beckstoffer is interviewed on the occasion of being named Grower of the Year. It’s a peak into his insightfulness and well worth a read.

7 Responses

  1. Steve De Long - May 4, 2006

    Beckstoffer is absolutely right. The short term fashion of high alcohol reds will probably dry up faster than the grapes that go into them. They don’t go with food, are very fattening, really suck in hot weather and get you stumble drunk when you just wanted a happy buzz. Give me a Gamay Noir from Andrew Lane instead!

  2. Steve T. - May 4, 2006

    I couldn’t agree more. Not just super-high-alcohol but super-precise. I see “14.9%”, “15.1%”, “16.7%” all the time now. I make a point of never buying any wine over 13.5% myself, and find I prefer the old-fashioned 12.5% wines, whatever the grape. Except you can hardly find them anymore, at least from Cali.

  3. Steve T. - May 4, 2006

    I notice all the reviews of Andrew Lane’s gamay, which is 12.9%, say “low alcohol”. 25 years ago that would have been a HOT wine, back when most Napa Cabernet Sauvignons were 12% or 12.5%.

  4. Doug - May 5, 2006

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t “hot” refer to a wine in which the alcohol is not simply high, but out of balance? I’ve had “hot” wine that was lower alcohol than balanced wine in the past.
    It certainly would seem that super-high alcohol wines are far more likely to exhibit this trait than others. But I wouldn’t simply classify all high alcohol wines as “hot” on the basis of their alcohol level alone.

  5. tom - May 5, 2006

    Yes, that is how the term is generally used. However, I think people are simply reaching for the right words to describe the trend toward big, higher alcohol wines that seem to be the vogue. My main issue with high alcohol wines is I simply can’t drink much…well, I could, but then I can’t drive, walk or talk.

  6. Doug - May 5, 2006

    Tom, The key is location, location, location. Take the bottle to a place with nice evening accomodations and enjoy. 🙂
    Seriously, I understand the high alcohol point. I just didn’t want to see it muddied with the “hot wine” thing, because they’re not quite the same.

  7. James Bateman - May 6, 2006

    Isn`t the broader issue that a lot of American`s perceive weak alcohol levels as meaning weak wines, or they aren`t getting their full monies worth? And yeh for those of us wanting to drink 6 glasses of wine and not be totally trousered 9% wines work really well and 15% is a disaster the next day !

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