Ask For that Sweet Caress
Do you know who Randall Dunn is?
For those of you who do, bear with me.
Dunn is one of the most respected winemakers in America. He built Caymus Special Selection. He defined the meaning of mountain-grown Cabernet. He helped put Howell Mountain on the viticultural map. He consulted for the likes of La Jota and Pahlmeyer. His Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain Cabernet was identified by Jim Laube as one of a very few produced at the time to be a 5-star wine and among the very best California has to offer. Robert Parker likes to give his wines 95, 96 and 97 points.
Randall Dunn also believes "The current fad of higher and higher alcohol wines should stop."
This was the message contained in an e-mail (read it HERE) Dunn sent out to the American wine media a couple days ago. Coming from a man as respected as Dunn, the result of the electronic shot across the bow of American winemaking and American wine criticism was to get LOTS of people talking.
That accomplishment alone gets this message from Dunn nominated for E-mail of the Year.
Very simply, Dunn is saying that the trend toward 14%, 15% and higher alcohol wines is 1) destroy the ability to taste terroir, making drinking wine with dinner less enjoyable and resulting in less wine being sold in restaurants. Though he believes its the wine media that is encouraging winemakers to producer higher alcohol wines, he lays it at the feet of consumers to stop the trend:
"It is time for the average wine consumers, as opposed to tasters, to speak up….Ask for wines that are below 14% when you are out to dinner. The reactions are fun, but the results are not good for United States wines. The sommelier usually comes back with a French or New Zealand wine….Consumers – wake up and get active. Reviewers -please at least include the labeled alcohol percentage in all your reviews, and try to remember that not everyone is spitting."
Dunn has taken a bit of a beating for his disparagement of high alcohol wines over at the e-RobertParker wine forums. What I glean from those who don’t like Dunn’s message is that he should understand that everyone has their own palate and it’s not right to say that high alcohol wines are bad because they simply are higher in Alcohol.
One of my favorite things about wine reviews and criticism and commentary in general is we get to see folks take a stand, which it strikes me is exactly what Dunn, and Robert Parker, are doing.
As it turns out, I really hate being left out of a good old fashioned piling on of opinion. So, allow me my 2 cents: Those who disagree with Dunn and who defend the high alcohol wines, particularly those in the 15%+ range are simply wrong. Unless it’s Zinfandel or Port, a 15.5% alcohol wine is not good. It may not be bad. But it’s not good. Though I can appreciate a firm slap in the face, that never feels nearly as good as a sweet caress on one’s cheek.
The defense of these absurdly high alcohol wines is amusing at best, particularly when you get to the point when the defender gets to the point of using the phrase "physiologically mature”. Start stepping away slowly, never turning your back on them, when you hear a defense put up with these words as the basis for the defense.
Here’s hoping that many more folks in the media and many more consumers take Dunn’s advice and start asking for a sweet caress rather than a slap in the face.
It would be much more convincing if folks like Dunn and Corti et al could provide firm evidence that high alcohol wines are not what the consumer wants; rather than foist their personal preferences on everyone. I’ve tried to find evidence that consumers do purchase based on alcohol content. There does not seem to be much data out there, although I did find the following from the WSTA.
Over 1 in 3 women (35%) and 1 in 4 men (27%) believe that lower alcohol wines are becoming more fashionable according to the May Consumer Intelligence report issued today by the Wine & Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) and Wine Intelligence. (Which implies that 65% of women and 73% of men believe that lower alcohol wines are not fashionable.)
WSTA also noted that:-
59% of all UK regular wine drinkers claim to read the alcohol content of a bottle of wine before purchasing, but only half of those say it is important when deciding what wine to buy. They consider seven other factors more important when choosing a wine including grape variety, promotional offer, brand, country of origin, recommendation by friend or family and region of origin.
Consumers also link higher alcohol levels with better quality and better value for money.
I don’t see any of that as evidence that that lower alcohol wines are preferred.
These guys are not arguing or even trying to argue that these high alcohol wines are not what the consumer wants. They are arguing that the consumer has been convinced that crappy wine is good wine.
This growing crusade is not a matter of pro-consumerism. It is a matter of advocacy. This is all ultimately subjective. Dunn, Corti, Berger, me and others are saying that these high alcohol wines amount to the Beverly Hillbillies when there is the potential to have the Sopranos. We are arguing that there’s no reason to vacation at a trailer park when Paris is available.
Lst night I had a 2004 AC Cote du Rhone @ 12.5 alcohol, and it was everything anyone would want in a wine. Luscious, fruity, aromatic, and extremely food friendly. I pulled a 2004 Napa Zinfandel out of my wine Fridge and saw it was a full 3% higher in alcohol, @ 15.5 % a full 24% more potent! In this day and age of zero tolerance for driver impairment; why would you drink something that has 25% more kick for the same amount?? I do admire the producers who regularly produce very good table wine in the 12.0-13.0% alcohol range, and manage to derive all the nuance, flavor, terroir, balance, acidity, fruitiness, etc. out of that wine. Must be the skill sets, huh?
Zinfandel is glorious with higher alcohol; it really helps to express the fruit. In Europe, especially France, higher rated wine must have higher alcohol than lower rated wines.
Since alcohol exposes faults in wine, this keeps the winemaker on their toes.
That said, 14% is high alcohol for most varietals. Cabs and many other grapes that venture beyond this point are in danger of losing their character and tasting like Zins.
The problem is that wine is a delicate balance. Raise the alcohol and you lose acidity, not only because there is a direct correlation between sugar levels and acidity in the grape, but also because alcohol is perceived as sweet on the palate.
Lose the acidity in the balance, and you lose the structure of the wine, and its ability to be paired with foods.
Terroir, general regional differences, and certainly varietal expression all tend to blur at alcohol levels above 14%. It may well be that the public enjoys the style, and it certainly seems the wine press does, but perhaps they would be happier drinking a nice rich Zinfandel!
Winemakers are making high-alcohol wines for one (or both) of these two reasons: (1) that’s what is selling or (2) that’s just what the winemaker wants to make.
It amazes me when an individual tries to project his own opinion on an entire market. Let the market decide.
“These guys are not arguing or even trying to argue that these high alcohol wines are not what the consumer wants. They are arguing that the consumer has been convinced that crappy wine is good wine.”
Do you really believe that?
The vast majority of the wine drinking public has never heard of Randy Dunn, let alone had a Dunn Cab. And I doubt that very many make note of what critics say. Most wine drinkers are not at that level of interest. The Wine Advocate has what, about 50,000 subscribers, and Wine Spectator less than 500,000. How many wine drinkers are there in the US?
The data from the UK seems quite clear to me. About 60% of regular wine drinkers check the label for the alcohol level but only half (that’s about 30% of the total) say it influences their purchasing decision. Seven other factors (count ‘em that’s 7 other factors) are considered more important when choosing a wine including grape variety, promotional offer, brand, country of origin, recommendation by friend or family and region of origin.
I don’t see wine critic, wine reviewer, wine publication in there. Do you?
Now I’m sure that the brief summary that is up on the net does not tell the whole story of the UK survey. But if you believe what you are saying then millions upon million of people (the world over) have been hoodwinked. It will make an amazing story, if its true!
Most wine is consumed within days of purchase, and only a very, very small percentage of wine drinkers cellar wine for any length of time. More importantly even fewer have the facilities to correctly store wine for years. In my experience most average wine drinkers prefer young wines that are full flavored and ready to drink rather than the youthful austerity (excess tannins and acid) of wines meant for aging. It comes as no surprise that most wine is rich and ripe in style, ergo, higher alcohol.
I wonder if any of the anti-high alcoholers have put their beliefs to the test? Has Dunn taken a group of wine drinkers and let them blind taste young wines below and above 14% to see which wines are favored? Darrell Corti’s store claims to “specialize in rare and unique gourmet foods and fine wines”. Does Corti have a program of educating the buying public by showing how the wines he sells match with the foods he sells? The fate of high alcohol wines in such contexts would be a useful contribution, as opposed to trying to force personal preference on the wine buying public.
“It amazes me when an individual tries to project his own opinion on an entire market. Let the market decide.”
At first I thought you were being sarcastic when you wrote this, but upon reflection I don’t think you are.
Dunn is playing the exact same role as Parker, Laube, Tanzer, Berger, etc… He is critiquing the wine marker. Or, put another way, he is projecting his opinion. I fail to see the problem with this.
First I don’t think that Dunn, Corti, et all are speaking to the Yellowtail drinkers. I think they, like Parker, Laube, Tanzer, you and I are talking to sophisticated wine drinkers.
What needs to be understood is that the critique of high alcohol wines is no different than the critique of violence on TV. Many folks don’t think it’s a good thing, don’t think it makes good tv and think people should watch other things. The anti-high alcohol brigade is simply making a critique of wines.
It doesn’t matter if the average consumer cares about this issue. It doesn’t matter if the critique effects the market.
It will be interesting to see if these calls for lower alcohol wines have any affect on the market. I think they will. But I don’t think it will be the average drinker of Yellowtail that forces the change. It will be winemakers, media and drinkers of $40+ bottles of wine that make the change. These folks all know Randy Dunn and Darryl Corti.
“At first I thought you were being sarcastic when you wrote this, but upon reflection I don’t think you are.”
Sorry for the ambiguity, but you’re right. I am not being sarcastic.
“Dunn is playing the exact same role as Parker, Laube, Tanzer, Berger, etc.”
I disagree. Parker, et al, tell us what *they* like and what *they* think. Dunn is trying to tell *us* what to like and think.
“I disagree. Parker, et al, tell us what *they* like and what *they* think. Dunn is trying to tell *us* what to like and think.”
While I don’t think this is much different than what the critics do, I’ll grant you there is somewhat of a difference.
However, I still don’t see what the problem is with telling someone what they should and should not like.
OK Tom, lets talk about sophisticated wine drinkers.
If you survey the following three groups (ZAP members; HFZ = High Frequency Zin drinkers (only a small % of whom are ZAP members); and WO panel representing the core involved wine consumer) what do you think each would choose as descriptors they associate with Zinfandel?
Descriptors such as “heady, high in alcohol”, “heavy, full-bodied” and “jammy flavors and aroma” are more likely to be associated with Zin by Zinfandel fans than by the typical core wine consumers. Zinfandel is not particularly associated with these characteristics by the average core wine consumer.
Now its true that we are talking about zin, but one of the reasons the survey was done was because wineries rate the perception of Zin as high alcohol and ultraripe as their number one concern.
Zin fans don’t appear to be in agrement with that! They seem to expect high alcohol and ultraripe character. Of course, the question that remains is whether ZAP members are sophisticated wine drinkers. 😉
“…I still don’t see what the problem is with telling someone what they should and should not like.”
Ok Tom, if we take your argument that we can tell people what they can or cannot like, then take this scenario: You should like apples but not oranges. Oranges are evil, and you are crazy to like them. They have too much sugar, could cause diabetes. We need to stop people from eating oranges!
I guess it’s fine to say this, just seems like I’m being told what to like? I HATE the high alcohol monsters coming out of California, and I laugh to think that people enjoy them. But that has very little effect on me. I choose other wines to drink. Simple. Don’t you think the market WILL correct for this if we both are proven right, and high alcohol wines are a fad?
I think some very important details are being gleaned over. Randy Dunn pioneered ‘Mountain Farming’, and likely did so because it was cooler at those elevations. Cooler tempetures result in, and prepare yourself, lower sugar levels at a given degree of physiological maturity. Mr Dunn has managed to do what so many other wine brands do, point to something they have ( mountian vineyards ) that others don’t and say ‘ this is the way or style that matters ‘. If all of Napa had high elevation vineyards then this would be a mute point.
By demanding low alcohol wines, without considering a wines balance on a wine by wine basis, you put pressure on producers to resort to heroic measures such as the ‘spinning cone’ to reduce alcohol. You spend a lot of time gushing about ‘traditional’ and ‘authentic’ wines but you are making the case for ‘industrial’ wines. Could you please clarify your position? How is buying a wine based on %ABV without assessing the wines merits any different than buying a wine based on scores?
Of course I am anticipating your next response which would be something like; “Pick earlier and forget about physiogical maturity”. Clearly Tom you and your camp have it all figured out. In your communications offices you have somehow found the secrets to making the perfect wine. Perhaps you can share with all of us winemaker/growers how it is that our knowledge and experiences don’t mean shit and that you have the answer… pick green fruit!
I understand you want lower alcohol wines to drink and I think most producers would like to make them but it is not as easy as picking earlier. This is the sort of armchair winemaking that I think puts critics and writers at odds with producers. Stylistically, you know what you want but you have not the faintest idea what it would take to make that wine. You are asking producers, in many cases, to put square pegs through round holes.
“I guess it’s fine to say this, just seems like I’m being told what to like? I HATE the high alcohol monsters coming out of California, and I laugh to think that people enjoy them. But that has very little effect on me. I choose other wines to drink. Simple. Don’t you think the market WILL correct for this if we both are proven right, and high alcohol wines are a fad?”
Indeed, if we are right, the fad will fade.
However, who doesn’t like a good old fashioned crusade? I know I do. And that’s what we are talking about here.
“Mr Dunn has managed to do what so many other wine brands do, point to something they have ( mountian vineyards ) that others don’t and say ‘ this is the way or style that matters ‘.”
This is sort of cynical. Dunn sells every bottle of wine he can make. So, if the implication is that Mr. Dunn is just trying to rally support for what he’s got, I suppose you could make that argument, I just don’t think it’s a very good one.
“You spend a lot of time gushing about ‘traditional’ and ‘authentic’ wines but you are making the case for ‘industrial’ wines. Could you please clarify your position? How is buying a wine based on %ABV without assessing the wines merits any different than buying a wine based on scores?”
Primarily the difference is that I know what 13.2% alcohol means. I don’t know what 88 points means.
“Of course I am anticipating your next response which would be something like; “Pick earlier and forget about physiogical maturity”. Clearly Tom you and your camp have it all figured out. In your communications offices you have somehow found the secrets to making the perfect wine. Perhaps you can share with all of us winemaker/growers how it is that our knowledge and experiences don’t mean shit and that you have the answer… pick green fruit!”
It’s not a matter of having figured out what makes the “perfect” wine. It’s a matter of figuring out what makes a “better” wine. Now you are free to argue that your definition of “better” is better than mine and I’ll support your right to do that. This is not a life or death discussion. It’s a discussion about who likes what and who can hold the field.
Also, I’m not sure what you mean by “green fruit”. You seem to suggest this is a derogatory term. If “green fruit” means picking at something less than 28 brix then I’m all for green fruit.
“I understand you want lower alcohol wines to drink and I think most producers would like to make them but it is not as easy as picking earlier. This is the sort of armchair winemaking that I think puts critics and writers at odds with producers. Stylistically, you know what you want but you have not the faintest idea what it would take to make that wine. You are asking producers, in many cases, to put square pegs through round holes.”
I know a Little something about winemaking. Not the most. But a little something. I understand the consequences of new closes, vertical trellising, efficient yeasts, etc, etc. However, I also know that picking fruit at 28 and 29 brix, as OFTEN happens these days, is simply unnecessary. It’s a stylistic choice. And that’s what’s being talked about around the net: Style. I say high alcohol wines do not make for better wines. I’m not wrong about this. I’m absolutely correct. Of course since we are talking about my palate, I might not be correct for your palate. But I’m equally sure that CA Cabernet does NOT need to be 14.8 and 15.3 percent alcohol to be good…and even to be really yummy. It’s a choice.
wow..the dunn email and a great 13.5%, judiciously oaked chardonnay from wente all in the same week. I might have to start looking at California again. I dont know what the reaction would be in the states to lower alc wines, but I know that it would definitely help your exports!
I am not making any sort of cynical statement regarding Mr Dunn. He has my absolute respect as a winemaker BUT there is this tendency in this industry to draw lines and assign value to either side. Mr Dunn has mountain vineyards and makes low(er) alcohol wines. Would he be making the same claims if he were farming different terrain? Is his winemaking any more honest than some one farming warmer ground?
” I know what 13.2% alcohol means.”
I do think you are right in this regard, much information can conveyed by an %ABV, but it seems to me you are dismissing the wine before tasting it. Balance is a relative thing. 13.2% might be low for a CA Cab but quite high for a riesling. Alcohol has less of an impact on balance in washington cabs as compared to CA. By pulling out an arbitrary % to qualify as high or low alcohol are you really doing yourself or other consumers a favor?
” However, I do know that picking fruit at 28 or 29 brix…” “…CA cab does not need to be 14.8 and 15.3% alcohol to be good…”
I certainly am not making the arguement that any wine should be 14.8 or 15.3%. I am trying to pin you down to a range of %ABV that you consider excessive. Too often I feel your camp ( others who agree with you ) uses ranges that are insensitive to varietal and region. In my experience Pinot Noir picked at 24.5 brix ( and physiologically mature ) could very well result in a wine over 14% ABV and would, in terms of alcohol, be dismissed as if it were a wine picked at 27.5 brix and dealc’ed to just over 14%. However, in terms of style, these wines could not be more different. It seems to me that what you hate is ‘over ripe ‘ wine and though these wines are often high in alcohol, it doesn’t mean all wines high in alcohol (14%) are over ripe. Most of your criticism seem to be pointed at CA wine and I would argue, because of the wide spread use of ‘heroic measures’ there, that if you are drinking ‘over ripe’ wine at 14.3% ABV ( or under ) you are drinking ‘treated’ wines. I also KNOW that dry farmed vines, in a hot year can give wines with undesirable ‘green’ characters and be 14.4% ABV ( picked under 25 brix ). Again, the issue is much more complex than simply picking earlier.
In short I agree with you, 15% wines are not better. I do believe that black and white thinking falls apart when we talk about wines that hover around 14.5%. We should give the wine a chance.
INteresting how much emotion this topic generates. WOuldn’t we all be better off if magazines that printed ratings and reviews ALSO printed alcohol levels? Isn’t that what Randy Dunn was asking for? Makes sense to me. That would simply enable everyone to be better informed. -Tish
I couldn’t agree with you (and Dunn) more about publishing alcohol levels in their reviews and ratings. It would a total of 5 characters in all. The information it would provide would be very useful, in a number of ways. It really would be nice to know if that Pinot you are reading about and ready to buy is actually 15.6% alcohol.
Again, as you point out to Tish it would be great to know if a wine is 15.6% ABV but with labeling laws as they are it could be labeled as 14.6%. This is part of the point I was attempting to make, that looking at ABV provides relatively little information. I would argue that the difference between a Pinot at 14.6% and one at 15.6% is as drastic as the difference between merlot and pinot. Also an actual 14.6% Pinot could also of once been a 15.6% Pinot but was put through the ‘spinning cone’. Listing alcohol in reviews is a fine idea but unless a reviewer has a lab, it can be as ambiguous as a score.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to taste the results of an interesting experiment conducted by Sea Smoke Cellars, the Santa Barbara Pinot producer, at the request of fellow wine writer Jordan Mackay. Sea Smoke chose two adjacent rows in the same vineyard block, and picked one at 23.5 Brix and the other at around 25.8. Other than the picking dates, the grapes and wines were treated identically. When we tasted the two Pinots side-by-side, it was obvious that the “late” picked wine was rounder, and more enjoyable to drink. The “early” wine had an odd aroma, and tasted more acidic (though not unpleasant to drink). The real difference came when we tasted the wines with food. The “early” wine was clearly a better match; the “late” wine tasted hot, and off-balance. The winery didn’t analyse the wines for alcohol content, but it was obvious that the “late” wine had a higher AC. It appears that each style has its place: one at the table and the other at the bar. Giving consumers accurate info about AC (note, I said “accurate”) would help them make better choices about which to serve w/dinner vs. which to drink during cocktail hour.
This sounds like a great experiment to taste. However we are sort of assuming that the two wines are identical except for the %ABV. There is one other difference; physiological maturity. I know that, for whatever reason, on this blog physiological maturity is some sort of profane term but I think it is important to consider. Suppose we had a wine with the ‘maturity’ the 25.8 brix wine with the %ABV of the 23.5 brix wine? I am not trying to discredit your thoughts I am only trying to point out that a wines balance is much more complicated than just looking at %ABV.
Quit staring at my legs
One of the things I will encourage you NOT to comment on when it comes to wine is legs. Nice legs is a phrase best used in private, only with your beloved partner whom you think has attractive lower limbs and wants to hear your opinion …
Good afternoon. Nothing is so good for an ignorant man as silence; and if he was sensible of this he would not be ignorant.
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