We Need More From Wine Reviews

Can you spare 10 characters in your reviews of wine?

That’s really all it would take, a measly 10 spaces in a wine review to add the alcohol level of the wine under consideration. And by adding this bit of information the consumer would be served mightily.

I started thinking about this need for stating alcohol content in reviews upon reading Robert Parker’s reviews of Paul Hobbs wines on MSNBC.com. For example:

"2003 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 93 points. A dark ruby/purple-colored, full-bodied, impressively
endowed effort
offering up notes of charcoal, smoke, creme de cassis,
and toasty oak. A wealth of glycerin, concentration, and fruit suggest
it will provide ideal drinking now and over the next 10 to 15 years."

What’s not mentioned is that the stated alcohol is 14.7%. This means it could be as high as 15.7% alcohol based on the leeway allowed by law. Even at the lower end of 14.7%, that’s a lot of alcohol. But I’d never know it from the review unless I was able to read between the lines.

This is not an anti alcohol rant. Rather, it’s a plea to wine reviewers and wine publications to recognize the the alcohol level of a wine is critical to understanding the wine. Furthermore, the alcohol level of a wine is crucial to know in the context of how and when the wine might be drunk. The fact is, many people can drink far less 14.7% wine at one sitting than they can a 13.5% alcohol wine. A little difference goes a long way. Add to this that the higher the alcohol content the higher the calorie content of the wine.

So, we are talking about adding a mere 10 characters to a review of any wine. It could go right there at the end of the review right before the price: "14.7% Alc."

At the risk of moving into the world of rants, I’m beginning to glean a clear set of indications that there is a movement afoot to back way from high alcohol wines. It’s a movement that appears to be starting not with consumers but with restaurant wine buyers, retailers and even members of the media. Clearly this trend has already been in full swing when it comes to white wines. But no so much with reds.

Winemakers have been arguing for a long time that the difference between today’s higher alcohol wines and yesterdays lower (12.5 to 13.5) alcohol wines is that today grapes are "being picked for flavor" rather than just when the sugars at a certain point. The message here is that today’s wines are better.

There is absolutely nothing to validate that conclusion.

So, the plea is this: give consumers the chance to decide if they want a wine that is 14.7% alcohol. Put it right there in the review, before the purchase is made. There are a lot of implications to the alcohol level in a wine, not the least of which is the intoxication level that they can result in with fewer sips.

11 Responses

  1. Craig Camp - June 30, 2006

    What’s next pH, TA, a full lab analysis with each review? The trouble with all this data is that the press and consumers don’t really understand what the numbers mean – or more importantly, how they fit together to make a complete wine. Reviews that focus on statistics take our focus away from the most important factor – how does the wine taste to you? You are implying that alcohol level alone should be a reason to not buy a wine. If you follow this logic, you will miss a lot of great bottles. The issue should be if the wine is balanced, not its lab report.

  2. tom - June 30, 2006

    I’m implying…No..I’m saying…that it is one reason why you might not want to drink a wine. It is a fairly significant factor. What I’m not saying is that the review focus on this element of the wine, only that it include it. And, I do think that consumers understand the difference between, say, a 13.8% Zin and a 15.9% Zin.

  3. Steve De Long - June 30, 2006

    Yes, alcohol levels are a factor that most people understand — easily guaged through empirical research. . .

  4. Terry Hughes - June 30, 2006

    Amen, brother. Ten measly spaces but it’s important data everyone can understand and make judgments on.
    Most people want to have a nice time at dinner with their wine, and they don’t want to get f’d up after a glass or two. (Have I stated the case in too plebeian a fashion? Not sorry.)

  5. Jon - July 1, 2006

    let’s please be clear about one small thing: this is Robert Parker writing for BusinessWeek, reprinted on MSNBC. Parker doesn’t write for MSNBC (not yet, anyway.)

  6. tom - July 1, 2006

    Very true Jon. I wonder how far Mr. Parker will branch out into the regular print and INternet media. He’s done some work for Food & Wine and Wine Enthusiast. Now Businessweek. We’ll see.

  7. BoxWineGuy - July 1, 2006

    Thanks for the suggestion – I’ll start mentioning this in my tasting notes at Box Wines. I think differences of this sort can be overestimated, though, since wine alcohol content falls in a fairly narrow range. The difference in alcohol content between, say, a 13.5% wine and 14.7% wine is less than ten percent. The difference in alcohol consumed will be quite negligable, and would be easily offset by a slightly more generous pour. For example, a couple of 6 oz pours of the higher alcohol wine would be about the same as a couple of 6.5 oz pours of the lower one. Few of us are that careful when pouring, so we are likely to see bigger variations in alcohol amount from pour variability than wine alcohol content variability.
    Do you find consistent tasting differences betwee higher and lower alcohol content wines?

  8. Randy Pitts - July 2, 2006

    Brilliant!!! Yes… The reviewers should (or at least feel obligated to) mention the alcohol level upon a review. This will assist consumers in identifying the type of reviewers that fit their wine style. There are many jack-as__s who subscribe to the “bigger is better” mentaility when it comes to wine. For all those unwitting consumers out there, here’s a little hint about grape growing and winemaking… It’s much easier to “over do” a wine and get tons of aromatics and flavor profiles that to show some restraint in the winemaking process… If us winegrowers are to “over blow” it across the board, i.e. over ripen in the vineyard (to the point of extreme shriveling- maybe some of the oldtimers like shrivel, but not I 😉 )over extract in cellar- punchdown the must to a mouth-puckering state, and then OVER oak in the barrel room… BY DEFAULT, you are going to have TONS of stuff in the wine… glycerin, tannin and oak complimented by shades of cooked and stewed fruit reminents… We grow fruit, not oak..
    A soultion?- I think we should have “full-disclosure” wine labels. Alc within .5%, PH, TA (was there tartaric added or is it natural?), VA and MOST important r.s… yep… I wanna knowas a consumer (and winemaker) who’s dumping megared in my glass of wine!!! Cheaters!!!! I produce Zin and can tell you, there are many Zin producers who will barrel a lot of Zin dry for 12-20 months and then get it to tank and decide to dump in a bunch of sweetener (megared), sterile filter and a way you go.. This ugle little secret should be disclose on the rear label.. We as consumers are smart enough to handle the truth and we deserve it too!

  9. Mark Finley - July 3, 2006

    Mr. Pitts took the words right out of my mouth: <.5%, PH, TA. The megared is new one for me but I'm gained for that as well.

  10. Golly - July 4, 2006

    I’ve tended to include it, often with a comment on how it feels. I’m not a huge fan of wines that taste fortified even when they’re not. If I want a port I’ll buy one, rather than an overly alcoholic Zin!

  11. Mat Garretson - July 5, 2006

    The concept of adding alcohol content in reviews might seem to provide the consumer with something useful, but the reality is it’s not going to provide you with any additional info…at least from a wine appreciation standpoint.
    You’re presupposing that a wine with 13% alcohol is going to be more balanced/taste less ‘hot’ than, say, a wine that boasts a content of in excess of this %. That’s simply not going to be the case each and every time. I’ve had plenty of 13-14% wines that have shown their alcohol MUCH more than a wine that’s over 14%.
    While some folks might feel that alcohol statements (and pH, and RS and TA, etc.) might give a better ‘feel’ for a wine, it’s a fool’s paradise. Wine appreciation is a HEDONISTIC experience…not a formula or equation.
    If your focus on wine consumption or appreciation is based upon how much alchol you’re consuming, then having the alcohol percentage included in a review is for you. If you’re wanting to know how the wine TASTES the number is meaningless.
    Just my two cents. Great blog, by the way.

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