Browse Tag


First we take Manhattan…

[sandra bullock takes a sniff]A scientist, an artist, and an artisan walk into a bar…

…and order a cocktail. Because they can actually have a conversation about that. Wine? Impossible. On that subject, the three shall never speak, nor (even more tragically) listen.

The long silence of this blog has been accompanied by a significant personal focus on cocktails both in concert with and in lieu of wine. There are more differences than similarities between the two disciplines, despite both being founded on the pleasurable boozification of daily life, and one of the biggest is that in the cocktail world, analytic inquiry is not relegated to — or worse, dismissed as being the unseemly meddling of — industrialists.

Some of the very worst biochemical travesties in the natural wine realm come from those who not only avoid science, but are actively hostile to it and whatever lab-coated hyper-globalist monsters stand behind it. This while their case-stacking and exceedingly wealthy counterparts in the mass-market realm dismiss not only the raving unwashed hippies at the other fringe, but any notion of wine being more than a soulless recipe custom-fit to a receptive demographic.

Cocktail folk, to their great credit, aren’t afraid to poke these monsters with syringes and pipettes, to see how and why they bleed. Witness this analysis, for example, which questions whether or not there are actual recipes — golden proportions, if you will — that transcend ingredient identity. The wine community will see no similar effort, because the Olivier Cousins of the world would never read it, and because Constellation Brands has already profited from it.

There are a few exceptions here and there. Some winemakers are actual technologists, like Clark Smith. Some are disruptively interrogative pebbles in the natural wine machinery, like Eric Texier. Though they start with completely different philosophies about wine’s essence, and their products evidence relatively oppositional goals, in actual practice they don’t let results stand in the way of inquiry and testability. Sadly, such people are thin on the ground in the wine community, and when they exist they tend to be gobbled up by the megacorps.

This somewhat depressive muse comes not as a result of the above-linked article, but after reading this brilliant thought experiment on the intersection between aroma, sweetness, and sense. Go read it; it is eminently worth your time.

I’m somewhat hesitant to respond to this terrific essay in the manner I’m about to, because I don’t want to give the impression that I’m in serious disagreement with it. I’m not. A great deal of its foundation is based on subjectivity (because it’s about taste), and with that there’s no fruitful argument. The rest is thoughtful, forceful, and challenging. I think it proposes some extremely penetrating notions, and even if they prove to be wrong or partially wrong (though I don’t know how one would “prove” such things), rarely is the starting point pinned so far, and so authoritatively, into the latter stages of the conversation.

Despite my now well-established cocktail enthusiasm, I don’t yet feel expert enough to respond to the spiritous specifics in the essay, so my responses there will remain general. Regarding the wine-related portions, however, I do have some reasonably-founded thoughts. This will be a somewhat scattered essay, on my part, but the source material filled me with knotty mental puzzle pieces, few of them neatly-knit into a cohesive narrative.

Let’s start with the lowest-hanging fruit:

This lesson was first mastered by port wine producers who created the 18×6 template. For port, 18% alcohol puts the wine at the minimum of preservation so as not to be a distraction.

I think it’s an easy but understandable error to attribute intentionality to such choices, at least with the confidence this essay implies. The fermentation-stoppage alcohol employed in the Douro has varied wildly over the years and across producers, with both innocuous and deformative effects on the organoleptics, the aromatics, and the perceived balance of the finished beverage. And it’s little use to speak of Port as a single entity, anyway; an aged Colheita and a baby-cheeked Ruby don’t express balance in the same fashion, nor do a White and a Vintage. It’s possible that there are known ratios for each category, but I submit that ratios are quickly superseded by house styles.

Further, Port is an interesting example in that its tinkering winemakers and marketers have (like their counterparts in Champagne) long exploited differing cultural responses to the beverage. Drier, more oxidative Ports are popular in one country, while tooth-decaying young-Ruby sweetness reigns in another. In a third, Port may be more or less unsalable as part of a wholesale rejection of “classic” sweet wines.

That said, Port is correctly identified by the essayist as, at its core, a procedural, “recipe” wine…in which category it is joined by Champagne and most other sparkling wines (save pet-nats), Sherry, and nearly the entire universe of fortified wines. To my knowledge, Port doesn’t have a Marco de Bartoli-style iconoclast (Infantado would be the closest I’ve tasted) working to reduce or eliminate all but the most necessary interventions and producing atypical yet incomparable results along the way, but it could. And then we might see whether or not the received ratios are actually all that golden.

Champagne, however, is currently littered with such iconoclasts, and what they’ve demonstrated amongst all the strict interventions and recipes is that there is a multiplicity of positive responses to the sugar/alcohol/non-sugar dry extract/ester quartet. In other words, subjectivity of form and response are a greater factor than the linked essay allows. Which is still very far from saying it’s wrong, only that if it indeed applies to cocktails, it still might not apply to wine. But if it doesn’t apply to wine, yet wine is being used to support the thesis…well, there’s clearly more work to be done.

Are there demonstrably successful ratios that fling wines from shelves into customers’ baskets? Maybe, but I’m deeply suspicious. I’m particularly uncertain that the market demonstrates the validity of such truisms. When’s the last time you laid down a case of Port?

I thought so.

Drinkers of dry wines complain that even alcohol contents as high as 15% can be distractions from aroma when there is not residual sugar.

That’s a massive simplification of an extremely vociferous debate, though I’m quite certain the author knows it. Response to obvious alcohol is variate and personal, but the crux is always balance-in-context. The most strident anti-alcohol ranters have likely tasted (for example) Ridge zinfandels far above their personal thresholds that seemed poised and appealing despite being only a few ordinals shy of actual Port. It’s almost never the number, though the number is a convenient whipping boy. It’s the imbalance and the entire set of corollary effects — fruit-sweetness to the point of overripeness, textural issues, structural abandonment — that form the entirety of the objection to high alcohol in dry wines.

Let’s get this out of the way first: this is an easily-manipulated response, manageable with tricks both crude and subtle. Clark Smith claims that “balance points” for a given wine exist at multiple alcohol levels, and while it is (or was) his business to use technology to bring wines to those points, I’ve no reason to believe he’s lying. But as the most volatile component of wine, alcohol can be trapped or shunted by a studied choice of tasting vessel. In fact, the entirety of the wine-tasting rigamarole is based around this and related concepts. Anyone who’s purchased a boozy domestic pinot tasted from a narrow stem and carted it home to their wide-bottomed Burgundy bowls knows what I’m talking about.

The more interesting consideration here is a utilitarian one. Is the wine being employed as a cocktail? Or is it a component of a food-centered ritual?

I submit that of all the differences between wine and cocktails, the greatest is that one is normatively intended to accompany food and the other is not. I say “normatively” because there is a very lucrative subset of wine consumers who do, in fact, drink wine as a cocktail. That they will perceive issues of balance, aromatics, and sweetness differently is immediately obvious.

Wine, even with residual sugar, can be (and in the majority is) intended as a companion. A supplement. An enhancement of the food, or itself enhanced by the gustatory accompaniment, but in any case only one element in a more complex work. Cocktails, however, are generally considered in isolation. To bend one context to the other, wine (as traditionally employed) is not the cocktail, wine is the vermouth in the Manhattan. (That vermouth is in fact wine seems massively apropos.) Whereas a Manhattan is not the wine, a Manhattan is the entire meal.

It follows, then, that wine-as-cocktail has a fundamentally different set of sugar/alcohol/ester relationships than wine-as-food-partner. I’d submit that the bifurcation of wine response is most profoundly expressed by that division. And thus, it inevitably follows that while the science of organoleptics and the personal art of sensorial response are theoretically the same, they are inevitably divided by utility. To speak definitively about balance in wine is to skip past the essential, first-principle “how.”

And perhaps also “where.” The structural theory of wine, as grounded by history in the Old World (and Older World), is based on a cuisine that increasingly exists as a cultural artifact and is fading nearly everywhere. Many of the truly paradigmatic wines, like age-worthy red Bordeaux, remain unconflicted only with the most restrained of dishes. The modern trend towards fusion-in-all-things and pan-national culinary polyamory has almost destroyed the traditions that support things like structure-driven cab/merlot blends, which is instead now a market almost entirely supported by icon-seekers in multiple cultures, and people whose diets somewhat inexplicably consist of steak after steak after steak. I don’t say this to criticize or judge — people should eat, drink, and buy what they want — but to point out how the field of play has shifted: the most dedicated wine consumers no longer consume a diet that supports most of the traditional assumptions about structure, aromatics, balance…and yes, sugar.

We have long been living in a gustatory world that should wholeheartedly embrace off-dry wines, as Asian influences permeate nearly everything we eat and even our driest, most animalistic dishes tend to employ some sort of sweet counterpoint. This while the Germans, who mastered the most brilliant wines to accompany this sort of eating, have fled such styles wholesale in the pursuit of magisterial dry rieslings (which they can now make with steady confidence, thanks to climate change). Certain umami wines, like Burgundy, have proven unexpectedly adept at marrying world cuisines, but there is an entire universe of bibulous assumptions that has been somewhat unquestioningly abandoned by the modern diner. To cheer or regret this movement is to miss the point; it is, and the wines must respond or be rendered antiquated.

But even as wine and food tastes bend inexorably to an unfamiliar horizon, is it possible that spirits confound this trend, falling into neatly predictable ratios that transcend the vicissitudes of the ages? Perhaps. And perhaps it is my natural cynicism that makes me doubt it. A moment in time is little more than a vivisection. Perhaps we can definitively characterize a given moment and support it with data, but I don’t know that our firmest conclusions will be of much use to the swillers of 2040. The very reasons for cocktails in their traditional forms have profoundly changed over the interregnum between creation and our modern revivalist fetishization. Their utility would be slightly more familiar, but even that cloth is fraying. Do I think that today’s answers will apply tomorrow?

Honestly, I don’t. They certainly haven’t in wine. It’s true that cocktails have a much more intensely-tended root system, and I think it’s entirely possible that the “core curriculum” of cocktails will be preserved for eternity, to be admired and learned and introduced by bartenders to curious stool-perchers until the heat-death of the universe. But is what I just described “cocktails” as actually experienced, or is that just a foundation on which many future and highly differentiated edifices will be built?

I don’t know.

The brash attentional nature of these Manhattans are thought to dispel anxiety and with that said we might have just found their motive. If the Manhattan simply becomes a vehicle for attentional therapy there quite a few ways to skin the cat.

In fact, this is where and how the wine world divides most neatly in twain. The largest cohort of drinkers most certainly seeks familiar and repeatable commodification. This is a hyper-competitive market obsessed with pricing, positioning, and marketing minutiae. The rest are the cornucopia of niches who must be micro-marketed to by a haphazard chain of producers, shippers, and outlets, but who consume the vast majority of labels and of media generated in service of those wines. The former are the wine industry as an industry, the latter are the the entire reason that the greater wine industry has persisted and blossomed for millennia.

Do people who order a Manhattan without modification want the edges pre-filed to fit neatly within expected parameters? That’s the assertion here, and it’s likely to be true for the mass of drinkers, but what of the enthusiast? Is the delicate propriety of a safe Manhattan what they’re after? Do they even order Manhattans? Or do they order something from a creatively-crafted list, or a more touchy-feely cocktail like a Sazerac? I can’t answer for the market, but I know that I prefer the latter; Manhattans I save for bars I can’t trust (a cruelty I bafflingly inflict upon myself given the pitiful “success” of the results) or home.

It may be that this is a significant difference between cocktails and wine, in that the creatively important segment of the wine market (in terms of sustaining interest in something other than a mere alcohol delivery system) is very much obsessed with “vehicles for attentional therapy.” Indeed, there seems little other reason for most non-commodity wines to exist. No one needs a hundred new natural wine labels any more than they needed hundreds of differentiated Burgundian lieux dits. But we have them, and we embrace them.

If our motive is to thwart complacency it might make sense to have a formula forced upon on us through random old school free pouring where we will just learn to love it. Many people enjoy this randomness, but we are quick to chalk it up to a lack of understanding their options. Free pouring and random recipes are cocktail movement blasphemy but they may not have been without positive effects.

…and this gets to the very crux of the issue. Historically, we have “learned to love” all manner of contradictory things. We would not now drink Port with steak and Sauternes with roast game birds, even though to do otherwise would once have been to challenge long-settled wisdom. We do not tend to drink hyper-sweet wines as apéritifs if “we” are Americans, fearing them destructive to the dry whites or reds that are sure to follow, but the French ritualize that very behavior. We do not love resinated wines, unless we are a certain sort of Greek traditionalist, and we have abandoned aromatized wines to the cocktail folk for their blending experiments…only to have them turn around and offer those wines unadorned as breezy, delicious alternatives to cocktails. Apparently, the simple act of adding a citrus peel transforms something that is very obviously wine into not-wine, a categorial exclusion that is based on shifting cultural appreciation of aromatics and approaches to balance. Why do we consider Dolin Blanc a cocktail beverage and Conundrum a wine? Because we’ve decided so, whether via choice, marketing, or acculturation. No better reason.

Whether or not we are naturally inclined towards any aspect of wine (like sweetness) or require assimilation (as we likely do with tannin), it’s fairly clear from the multiplicity of wine styles that we are a constellation of opinions regarding balance. The industrialists have chosen recipes (and there are many) that are, by and large, repellent to enthusiasts. A cloudy Riffault Sancerre is predictably shocking to a Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc drinker, but it isn’t any more likely to appeal to a regular buyer of Vatan Sancerre. And what of the late-picking Cotats and their ilk, who occasionally lose their AOC privileges despite the historical precedent for off-dry Sancerre? Or the opposing camps in Marlborough: one favoring enzyme-enhanced pyrazines and the other off-dry fruit salad from their sauvignons, while a third wave skirts the perimeter with uninoculated, texturally dense alternatives? There’s a strong and opinionated market of enthusiasts for all these wines, and in fact it could easily be argued that “learning to love” not just what is, but what is developing, is a foundational motivation for a very large number of wine consumers.

I often think that this trend is almost exactly reversed in the cocktail realm. The “new/now/nextness” in the wool-vested world frequently comes from adulterating vodkas and whiskies that are almost entirely rejected by the cognoscenti. Want to get cocktail geeks excited? Resurrect a lost formula. “Unimprove” a modernized product, like Lillet. Convince the Amer Picon folks to export to the States. Want to bore a room full of wine geeks to tears of indifference? Tell them you’re going back to Hermitage-ing classed-growth Bordeaux, just like they did it in the old days. The deafening silence of crickets and empty bank accounts will follow. But tell them you’re kveri-fermenting and skin-macerating a white from some Latvian grape they’ve never heard of, and the wine nerds shall flock.

“Thwarting complacency” is the raisin d’être (sorry, I apparently never tire of that pun) of wine geekery. As for “randomness,” it’s the very essence of the natural wine movement. Is there a “lack of understanding their options” at work? Perhaps among some of the most indifferent True Believers, but the majority understand their options very well, and have specifically and deliberately rejected complacency in favor of its opposite.

Though I still don’t know if they’d prefer free-poured cocktails.

It’s fascinating to consider the intellectual and emotional tension between the two worlds, actually. That the scientific perfectability of a Manhattan could be seen as desirable makes sense from the perspective of my inner cocktail enthusiast. My longer-time companion the internal wine enthusiast finds the very idea tedious, at best. I wish I had a verifiable explanation for how these fields have arrived at opposite conclusions regarding irreducibility. I don’t. I can only speculate that the difference is that cocktails are, by design, multivariate complexity unified by craft, whereas wines are singularities that must express both authenticity and complexity with, preferably, as little resort to craft as possible. (Here, of course, I speak only of non-industrial wines.) But this is only a contention, not a demonstration.

Some of the most fascinating work in the linkedy essay revolves around the tension between aroma and sugar. For example:

Among people with well entrenched acquired tastes, when we flatten a path to olfaction by holding all the the other senses at their most innocuous (a sweet drink) the aroma presented must be extraordinary or the experience will be seen as unharmonic.

Again, there is a clear difference when the subject is wine rather than cocktails. Industrial exemplars of the category — Blue Nun, Apothic, and so forth — don’t really have any aromatic extraordinariness at all. The current vogue for moscato certainly highlights aromatic explosiveness, but are the painted-whore charms of muscat really extraordinary? Rarely. Industrial wines that rely on sugar to sell themselves, of which the once-triumphant Kendall Jackson Chardonnay and its usurper Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio are the exemplars, are severely aromatically muted compared to their non-industrial brethren.

Yet I definitely agree that an overtly sweet cocktail must work harder for my attentions…proportionally along a continuum of same… than a drier cocktail. If I’m to truly adore a muscat, I need more than sugar and a flower shop/fruit salad detonation, yet access to those organoleptic realms is only hindered by muscat’s lurid varietal signature.

Again, I wonder at the reason for this separation. Wine lovers appreciate lavish aromatics, certainly — witness the rhapsodies writ with the ink of Burgundy or Barolo — but there is hesitation when it comes to overtly sweet wines. Instead, adoration usually only comes when the wines sugars have retreated; not in measure, of course, but in comparison to the maturing varietal, terroir, and winemaking signatures that blossom with age, rendering the wine “less sweet” to the palate. There are people who drink young Layon for the overwhelming sugar, certainly — most of them are French — but no serious aficionado reaches for their corkscrew until the decades-long process of drawing forth chenin’s elegant, earthen complexity has at least begun.

Here’s where I come around to a conclusion, of sorts, regarding the Boston Apothecary essay. Do I think there’s value in the search for a paradigmatic Manhattan? Yes. Immensely so. There may even be one, though I harbor more doubt than the essayist. But as is so often true, it’s quite possible that it’s the search that provides more value than the conclusion.

Mostly, I regret the lack of similar inquiry into the science of wine’s sensorium. Not because I want a One True Sommerberg Riesling, but because I think the people who would most benefit from a robust examination are leaving the questions (and thus the answers) to people who make wines they hate. Personally, I abhor artisanal wine’s too-frequent rejection of science, and hope for a day in which both the most vapid industrialist and the most committed naturalist can agree that biochemistry is an important tool.

And now I’m going to make a Manhattan. Because I’m thirsty.

Turning up the heat

[alcohol removal system © Vinovation]I know I promised a longer, more proactive post on the issue of alcohol in wine, but this will have to do for now. A while back, blogger (and winemaker) Craig Camp entered the fray, claiming that alcohol is not the problem. It’s a fine post, and to the extent that (as he argues) elevated alcohols are a primarily a symptom of a different cause – that of ever-escalating ripeness at harvest – he’s right. But he goes awry here:

The issue should not be the alcohol level of the wine, but if the wine tastes balanced and still reflects the 3 V’s of great wine: variety, vineyard and vintage. It is here that higher alcohol wines often fail, but the reason is not the alcohol level itself. The faults often blamed on high alcohol come not from alcohol itself, but the fact that the grapes were harvested super-ripe, which is just another word for overripe.

Camp makes one of the same errors – well, let’s instead call it a misstep – that Alder Yarrow made in conflating these issues. It’s absolutely true that alcohol levels are inextricably linked to the modern search for concentration and more powerful fruit. But what’s not true is that the flaws are inseparable from an organoleptic standpoint. Sure, some consumers may not be able to tell the difference between prune-like fruit and alcohol. But I can, Camp can, and I suspect most competent tasters can…especially once they’ve been trained to do so.

The work of controversial consultant Clark Smith (of Vinovation) rather neatly demonstrates that alcohol is a separable component. Tasting the same wine at a long series of alcohol levels (one of Vinovation’s techniques is the removal of alcohol using reverse osmosis), tasters regular come to the same conclusion as Smith: wines simply taste different at different alcohols, even when that variable is isolated…and not in a way described a simple bell curve, either. Instead, tasters find appealing but contrasting qualities at several different alcohol levels, which Smith calls “sweet spots.” (For more on this subject, I recommend the combo issue 73+74 of Ed Behr’s The Art of Eating, in which one finds a profile of Smith and his methods.)

So if alcohol is a separable variable, it makes sense, when opining on the organoleptics of finished wine, to treat it both in its proper context (as an outcome of ripeness) and as a unique, discernable component. In other words, to borrow and recompose a quote from legendary winemaker Henri Jayer: if a wine tastes too alcoholic, it is too alcoholic.

Earlier, I noted that competent tasters can identify alcohol in wine. Certainly, most successful winemakers and oenologists are trained tasters; often, they’re some of the most incisive tasters one will ever meet, because their jobs depend on their palate and decisions made from the information it provides. So why do they produce wines that others identify as too alcoholic?

There can be only three answers. One is that they simply don’t notice it; this is what’s known as “cellar palate,” though the term is usually applied to winemakers who use more and more wood because constantly tasting wine from within fresh new wood renders the palate numb to its effects, like a chef who loses her sensitivity to salt. But as I noted before, winemakers are, as a group, very good at tasting the components and potentials in their grapes, must, and wine. So while it’s possible that some can’t – certainly there’s plenty of flawed wine out there, wine that suggests not all winemakers are good tasters – it seems unlikely that most can’t.

The other two are related: either it’s what they, themselves, like, or they think it’s what the customer wants. On this dual justification, a suggestive passage from the above-referenced The Art of Eating article:

A recent Vinovation client, tasting through his de-alcoholized wines, said of one sweet spot, “This is the wine I’d like to make,” and of another, “This is the wine I have to make.”

Though some will vociferously deny it, winemakers can and do make wine for the market. And not just the mass-market brands, who transparently do make wines to please popular tastes, and for sensible economic reasons. Among the artisanal set, I don’t think that most subject their palates to those of their customers, but some certainly do (at least in part); many have admitted it to me and others, and some have even allowed the notion to appear in print.

Once this objection is dismissed, discussion of this issue usually devolves into an argument about whether or not people truly prefer high-alcohol wines. I think this misses the point. It’s not necessary to demonstrate that everyone, or a majority, prefers these wines; it’s necessary to demonstrate that an audience for such wines exists. And obviously, it does, else the wines would not sell.

Where does the preference come from? I think two suggestions are relevant here, though this is speculative. First, it’s useful to look back into history. At one time, many wines had to be fortified for stability, as the biochemistry necessary to achieve stability by other means either didn’t exist or was still nascent. Wine was popular then, which demonstrates that people can and do embrace wines in which the alcohol is a prominent, or even dominant, component. And second, it’s helpful to understand where many modern wine drinkers come from, especially in the New World. Not from long traditions of cooler-planet, lower-alcohol wines made in the image of those consumed by their ancestors, but from the world of spirits. It’s no surprise that, for this crowd, wines with “extra” alcohol would hardly bother them, but in fact would rather appeal to their previous organoleptic paradigm. We see this being replicated more obviously in the world of microbrews, with the current fetish for ales aged in used whiskey casks that rather overwhelm the beer in favor of spirituous and woody aromas. (I wonder if some of the modern love of new wood is not also related to a move from wood-aged spirits to wine?)

And on the part of winemakers? What so frequently gets forgotten in discussions of alcohol is that, as I’ve noted before, alcohol is the primary component of body, and thus a major contributor to mouthfeel. The “size” of a wine is directly correlated with the amount of alcohol it carries. Whether winemakers are crafting oversized (compared to those of yesteryear) wines because they like them or because they think the market demands them – or both – is irrelevant; what matters is that, of all the ways to manipulate a wine’s overall heft, alcohol is the least problematic. The equation is simple and, in the absence of adverse weather, replicable: let the grapes hang and the sugars rise, and the alcohol will follow.

That services like Vinovation exist is, in itself, evidence that unchecked alcohol is not considered a universal good by warm-climate winemakers. It’s also evidence that there exist winemakers who recognize the problematic relationship between the different forms of ripeness in grapes grown in such climates, in which sugar ripeness can race ahead of other, more crucial elements. De-alcoholization is a technical solution to a natural problem: grapes planted in places where a balanced wine (in the opinion of the winemaker employing such techniques) cannot be made with the raw materials nature provides. In this, it’s no different from chaptalization, though it addresses the opposite problem: excess, rather than insufficient, alcohol for the winemaker’s purposes. (Of course, winemakers are in no more agreement on the definition of “balance” than wine drinkers are, which is why not everyone de-alcoholizes who could, and not everyone pushes their grapes to the limits of their yeast’s abilities even though their terroirs would allow them to.)

In any case, I hope I’ve demonstrated that while alcohol is a subset of a larger philosophical debate on ripeness, it is also, by itself, a mutable and thus isolatable component of wine.

Whining about whining about high alcohol wines

[upended bottle]Alder Yarrow, the respected blogger behind Vinography, recently issued a broadside against…well, a lot of people. His argument? That there’s too much whining about elevated alcohol levels in wine.

Now, it’s true that there’s probably too much whining about pretty much everything in the world of wine. We can thank the explosion of wine fora and blogs (like Yarrow’s, or this one) for that. And it’s also true that a lot of the complaining is not founded in an understanding of the conditions under which winemakers work, or of the market, or of oenology. But there’s a lot wrong with Yarrow’s thesis, and a lot to disagree with as well.

Let’s start with what he’s written:

Along with so called “green” wines, this bandwagon of opinions is the topic du jour for wine journalists and wine personalities around the country

Is it? Observers have been complaining about rising alcohol levels since at least the seventies, when extreme, high-octane zins were all the rage. Maybe Yarrow is only recently aware of this body of opinion, or maybe he’s reached his own personal breaking point with the subject. But it’s hardly the topic of the day. More like the last few decades.

Alcohol is Not a Sensation

Oh, dear. When making an argument against what one perceives as the prevailing wisdom, it’s usually best that the very first thing you say not be nonsense.

Among wine’s tactile sensations, the most important and encompassing is body. And what’s the key component of a wine’s body? Alcohol. The spectrum of wine sensations from light through full is in direct proportion to a wine’s alcohol level, first and foremost, with other factors playing a supporting role. So for Yarrow to assert that alcohol is not a sensation is 100% wrong. In fact, it’s the primary sensation.

most people seem to be complaining about alcohol levels in wine as if the percent of alcohol by volume %ABV is directly correlated to a wine tasting good or not […] Of course many put subtler points on their arguments and mention words like “balance” and “heat” but at the end of the day, most people seem to be blaming alcohol levels in wine for characteristics of wine that are only correlated with alcohol levels, not caused by them.

This is sophistry. If a wine is imbalanced due to its alcohol, it’s imbalanced and alcohol is the culprit. What other conclusion is possible? Yes, dry extract can be elevated to compensate, but this doesn’t fix the problem of an alcohol-imbalanced wine, it simply sets up a source of competitive attention, like trying to drown out a neighbor’s yapping dog by turning up the volume on your radio. As for correlation, I think that while advocates of more balanced wines (if I can be allowed to use that word without being accused of “subtlety”) would indeed identify parallel problems of elevated alcohol and overripe, jammy, “dead” fruit as symptoms of the same general cause, it doesn’t follow that those same advocates cannot separate the problems on their palates or in their arguments.

Of course some people dislike wines with a “hot” finish, or that are unbalanced in favor of ripe fruit. But that is not the fault of alcohol levels.

A “hot finish,” which indicates the presence of excessive alcohol, is not to be blamed on alcohol? Really? That’s a fascinating assertion. And again, 100% wrong. Yarrow introduces his own confusion on the matter by talking about “ripe fruit,” but while the shifting definition of “ripe fruit” is indeed a matter of great controversy in the wine world, the issue here remains alcohol. That’s not about fruit ripeness, that’s about pre-fermentation sugar, which is a different facet of ripeness; the most physical, measurable one, with all others being at least partially matters of personal taste.

In fact, it’s quite possible to have those characteristics in wines that don’t exceed the “sanity” threshold that so many “anti-high-alc” advocates set somewhere (you’d think all these people who are so religious about this issue could agree) between 14% and 14.5% ABV.

Where to begin? First: yes, it is certainly possible to experience excess heat in a wines with relatively low alcohol levels. (And again, this is the fault of the alcohol, despite what Yarrow states.) Second: I suspect Yarrow has no actual evidence or survey data to peg his made-up threshold at any level, merely an occasional anecdote. Those complaining about alcohol are a contrary bunch and don’t agree on anything except that excess alcohol is too frequently a problem, and why should they? Taste in wine is a personal, subjective matter. Some may find their reliable threshold at 14%, others at 16%. And third: is it really necessary to bring religion into it? Cannot people simply dislike excessively hot or body-enhanced wines for justifiable reasons without being identified as a member of some sort of cult?

There are plenty of excellent, balanced wines being made by great winemakers that exceed the 14% alcohol levels that many deem too high for “good” wine. I’ve reviewed a lot of them favorably. So have a lot of other critics — even those who are now complaining so loudly about alcohol levels in wine.

Yes, there are most certainly wines with very high alcohol that are nevertheless excellent wines, and which exhibit their own form of balance. This is indisputable. Though I’d suggest that Yarrow, who based on his body of work does tend to be much more embracing of the fruit-forward, full-bodied…and yes, higher-alcohol…style than many other critics, and certainly the critics likely to mention obvious alcohol in a negative way, is more likely than some to deem such wines good. On the second point, Yarrow should name those critics and the wines on which they’ve changed their tunes, or he should withdraw the assertion as unsupported. Because, I suspect, he can’t support it, and instead that he’s making it up. Certainly it does not match my reading of any major critic; those that like high-alcohol wines tend to keep liking them, and those who have long-expressed concerns tend to hold to those concerns. But even then, a critic happy with alcohol X may justifiably begin to complain at X+1.

The idea that wines “clocking in” at 14.6% or even 15% alcohol are all “monstrosities” is patently absurd, and also insulting to hundreds of talented winemakers around the globe.

The only patent absurdity here is the straw man wielding a broad brush. Yarrow should identify the source of the “monstrosity” quote as applied to those specific alcohol levels, or he should withdraw the contention, lest he be suspected of simply making up arguments, putting them in the mouths of unidentified and unidentifiable others, and then contradicting them for his own sport. Also, it is only “insulting” to winemakers if it is not true. If a wine exhibits, to a given taster, offensive levels of alcohol, the taster should say so, just as a taster should note excessive acidity, or tannin, or insufficient fruit, or whatever aspect of the wine the taster wishes to highlight. And Yarrow, who has occasionally run afoul of the targets of his criticism (like any other writer), should also probably avoid telling others which words they should and should not use in the course of their observations.

Everyone also seems quick to slam high alcohol wines as not age worthy. Frankly, I haven’t seen anyone provide definitive data on this subject, and there are plenty of higher alcohol wines (Ports, Sherries, etc) that might prove otherwise.

Here we see one of the great fallacies so often trotted out by high alcohol advocates. Port and Sherry are fortified wines, and made in ways (both before and after their fortification) that is only marginally related to the construction of dry (or “dry”) table wines. One cannot extrapolate from these categories any more than one can conclude that because Yquem ages for a very long time, so must all dry sauvignon blancs. No one would find that argument sensible. Yet Yarrow parrots it here in another form (though let’s be fair: he’s hardly alone) and expects traction.

Furthermore, it simply isn’t true to say that Port and Sherry age. Some do. Some don’t. Some styles are quite fragile, despite their alcohol. In fact, many fortified wines (think of the myriad alcohol-enhanced muscats from France, Spain, Italy, and elsewhere) age very poorly indeed.

The truth is, alcohol is a preservative. But not a permanent one, nor does it do more. A wine ages, or doesn’t, based on its structure and its specific chemical composition. Alcohol helps preserve the wine through its aging curve, but it does not create that curve, and more alcohol does not mean more ageability. (As always, the distinction between aging and lasting is a crucial one to recall.) Alcohol provides duration only, and knowledgeable critics know this; when they criticize wines for their high alcohol and refer to aging, they mean that, 1) the high alcohol will still be present, and perhaps even more obtrusive, as the primary fruit fades in intensity and the structure erodes, and 2) the fruit conditions that often parallel elevated alcohol have a problematic aging history. There are exceptions – there are always exceptions – but they are, as yet, few.

A better analogy than Port/Sherry would be to the various dried-grape wines of Italy. Amarone, Valtellina sforzato, and the like – while still not sufficiently identical to high-alcohol table wines for a detailed comparison – at least have a familial resemblance. And while some of these wines age beautifully, others fall apart in rather spectacular fashion; this is high-risk winemaking. If there’s a lesson to be drawn from the greater world of wine about the possibilities of high-alcohol aging, this might be it.

Yarrow is correct that no one actually knows how these wines will age. Unfortunately, this area of debate is rife with the potential for improper extrapolation from anecdote. Not that Yarrow would do this…

Not to mention what some consider to be the single greatest wine in the world. The alcohol level of the “ageless” 1947 Cheval Blanc? 14.4% ABV.

OK, I guess he would.

Several points on the ’47 Cheval Blanc. First, the accuracy of alcohol measurements from this period was not up to modern standards, as many have acknowledged. Second, I think it’s very instructive to actually read tasting notes on this particular wine. I’ve looked at a lot, over the years, and I’ve even tasted the wine myself (sadly, in micro-quantity). One thing the majority of the notes have in common is an explicit comparison to, or implicit description of, dry Port. No, really…look for yourself. Is that really what we want from dry red Bordeaux? As a delicious and standout anomaly, a bit of magic barely to be repeated no more than a handful of times each century, why not? As an regular diet? No thanks. If I want Port, there are plenty of wines to fulfill that desire. Starting, of course, with…oh, you know, Port.

Third, 14.4% isn’t all that high anymore. The alcohol levels about which many people complain aren’t just those topping 14%, they’re the ones creeping past 15%, 16%, even 17% or more. De-alcoholization can and does help some of these wines, but with the new super-yeasts that can take alcohols beyond 20% (I’ve only heard of them employed for beer, but their use in wine is almost inevitable), there’s no reason to assume that the upward trend will abate. Will Yarrow will be assiduously defending these wines as well? If 20%, why not 21%? Think of the possibilities! The 2047 Cheval Blanc may surpass its centenarian ancestor, coming in at 21.5%, tasting of berry-infused bourbon, and impressing critics well into the 2400s.

I’d bet good money that most (say 95% of) wine consumers, even those who buy wines in the “super premium” $20 and above categories pay absolutely no attention to the alcohol levels in their wine when they buy it. And furthermore, they couldn’t possibly tell you, if tasting a bunch of wines, which ones had higher alcohol and which ones didn’t.

Here’s an interesting fact: 87.924% of all statistics are made up on the spot. Like that one, and Yarrow’s as well. I would say that my experience does not match Yarrow’s, and not just among wine geek crowds. When I teach wine classes, I receive regular and, sometimes, quite strident complaints about the highest-alcohol wines from complete novices. Even those that, to me, are hefty but in balance. Anecdotally, I think many people can absolutely tell the difference between higher and lower alcohols, even if they don’t know what artifact they’re identifying. And even if they can’t, teaching them to read the “legs” on the interior of the glass, by which trained tasters can often identify the actual alcohol level of a wine to a reasonable degree of accuracy, is trivially easy. Of course, this has nothing to do with whether they’ll like the wine or not, but I just don’t see Yarrow’s dismissal of the tasting abilities of the masses borne out by the evidence. Perhaps he has some that he’d like to share.

Now, is it true that many consumers don’t look past the cute animals on the label and the price tag? Certainly. Similarly, they may be blissfully unaware of the addition of Mega Purple, or the “accidental” inclusion of a few liters of kirsch liqueur, or wholesale appellation fraud. But, as I think most would recognize, this is not really an argument in favor of any of those practices.

Which is to say that 99% of the time, they wouldn’t even notice that a wine they happened to be drinking was 15.2% alcohol.

So which is it: 95%, or 99%? Why doesn’t Yarrow just admit that he’s making up statistics as he types, and that in fact he has no idea what the actual percentage is, any more than his made-up average taster knows the actual percentage alcohol in their wine?

As far as I can see it, a large part of this “issue” consists of a minority of wine lovers proselytizing their own preferences for low alcohol wines (which they have every right to) on the rest of the world who, frankly, have about as much idea what they are talking about as I do when the Jehovah’s Witnesses stop by my house on a Saturday morning.

Nice. And again, anyone who disagrees with Yarrow is now both ignorant and to be associated with a cult. Talk about offensive. Yarrow is doing what he’s decrying from others: “proselytizing” in favor of the high-alcohol, New World-style wines he apparently prefers. And that’s fine; let a hundred flowers bloom, etc. But those of us who do not share his preferences could easily do without the insults.

And note the transparent rhetorical trick: this “minority” of wine lovers nonetheless makes so much noise that Yarrow is moved to respond (why, if they’re such a minority?), yet, “99%” of people cannot identify elevated alcohol to begin with. (If so, then who is this tiny but incredibly vocal minority? The 1% of people who can? Is it really likely that they really have so much power?) He contradicts himself at every turn, and doesn’t seem to notice.

Have you ever noticed how many people drink martinis and mojitos and cosmopolitans with their food?

And here’s the next common fallacy. Sure, people enjoy hard alcohol with their food. Thus, as Yarrow would have it, people must be open to high alcohol wines with their food. Except that, more people drink beer with their food. Does this mean that, given a choice, people prefer lower-alcohol beverages?

Of course, neither assertion means anything of the sort. People drink what they prefer, which should be self-evident, or what is available, which should be equally self-evident. And sometimes they drink what they think they’re supposed to drink. Not that there’s anything wrong with that either, though it’s too bad if that’s the only reason for choosing a beverage. Conclusions from anecdote are…risky.

Plus, don’t get me started on all those who say high alcohol wines don’t pair with food, and then drink port and sherry with their dinners

No, please, get started. “All those” who? Name them. Name just one who drinks fortified wines with their meals on a regular basis but simultaneously complains that table wines are too alcoholic with food. Again, I fear Yarrow is constructing this straw man from materials found solely in his imagination.

Those who say they need wine to be less alcoholic so they can drink more wine need to simply stop buying higher alcohol wines. It’s as simple as that. I have to scratch my head when I hear people complaining that they’re drunk by the end of the bottle. If you don’t want to get drunk people, the best way is to drink less alcohol.

On this we agree…to a point. And Yarrow’s actually missing one of his most powerful potential arguments here, because the fact is that the elevation in alcohols among wines of a specific category is rarely enough to make much of a difference in intoxication. Mosel kabinett to Port, yes. Edmunds St. John syrah to Alban syrah, no.

But: bottles are sold, especially in restaurants, under an increasingly traditional assumption that one bottle will serve two people over the course of a meal. One can certainly argue whether or not this is sensible (and there are advocates on both sides; Radikon thinks the two-person bottle is too parsimonious and should be upped to one liter, lawmakers concerned with public safety have a different opinion), but one can’t sensibly argue that this is not the modern expectation. However, if a single bottle leaves one or both parties intoxicated or legally unable to drive, the entire industry (from bottle-maker to restaurant) will have to change. Again, one can reasonably advocate for or against this, but it does seem a high price to pay for ever-escalating alcohol levels.

Alarmists like to cite the globally rising alcohol levels in wine. Some studies from Australia apparently pinpoint the average alcohol levels in wine there to be around 12.8% in the 1970s and now around 14.5%. Anyone used to consuming older wines, even occasionally, will certainly have anecdotal evidence that this is true.

I love how Yarrow cites facts that support a contention and then calls them “alarmist.” No, sir, they’re facts. They can’t be “alarmist” without their recipients becoming, you know, alarmed. Were I interested in spinning alarmism of my own, I’d suggest that Yarrow has a problem with the facts because they rather strongly support a position opposite to his: that alcohol levels are rising and that a rather large number of commentators have identified it as an issue worth debating.

The idea that the 1970’s was the golden age of California (or any other New World region) winemaking is ridiculous, as anyone who actually tasted a lot of those wines will tell you.

Again, the unfounded generalization. I know of very few who would argue against the contention that, for example, if one considers every single available California wine, the average level of winemaking is much higher now than at any point in the past. On the other hand, I know a great number of tasters, with both broad and deep experience of both era’s wines in their youth and (from the eras where this is possible) in their maturity, that rather strongly disagree with Yarrow, and think that the best wines of the seventies were superior to those of today. I’d accuse him of parroting received wisdom here, but he may well be able to support this contention with his own extensive tastings of seventies-era wines from California. (I haven’t seen those tastings, but that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t done them.)

The same argument can be, and is, conducted over nearly every major wine region…and not just those in the New World. There are those for whom Bordeaux has never been better, and those for whom Bordeaux has never been worse. Ditto Alsace, where escalating alcohol has long been a problem, and a parallel rise in residual sugar has not only failed to stem the trend (by indicating a prematurely-stopped fermentation to preserve “normal” alcohol levels), but has actually made the wines even more controversial; some adore the rich, ultra-late-harvested style despite alcohols that frequently top 17% (though you won’t see this on the label), others are nostalgic for the balanced, reputation-creating wines of old. Ditto Barolo and Barbaresco. And the list could go on.

Chief among these, I believe, is simply the fact that most people (i.e. the market) actually are buying higher alcohol wines more, because…. wait for it… they like the way they taste

And winemakers are making them because they like the way they taste. Sure, of course. Add global warming and modern farming technology, plus inoculated yeast with a higher tolerance, and you’ve got your reasons all in one convenient location. But what does this have to do with Yarrow’s original point? Winemakers may choose to make, and customers buy, wines with yak saliva in them at some future point, and if unidentified people start “whining” about that trend, will Yarrow deliver a similar denunciation of their opinion? More relevantly, alcohol levels may plummet as major wine-producing regions make it impossible to enjoy anything other than a low-alcohol bottle of wine with dinner and drive afterwards – as France has been doing for a while now – and then what? Will people be drinking them because they like them, or because they have no other choice? Or, to get to the actual point, why does it matter?

As Smith correctly points out in his article, Parker rates low alcohol wines very highly as well

But that isn’t the question, and rather spectacularly misses the issue. Which is: do higher ratings for wines within a given peer group correspond with escalating alcohol levels? I don’t believe anyone has this data, and thus, again, Yarrow is drawing conclusions despite a lack of evidence.

Which is why winemakers whose wines are “big” (and often higher in alcohol) tend to sell better.

I trust Yarrow has data for this assertion. But I rather suspect he does not.

Many of the best-selling wines in the world are de-alcoholized, because the grapes that go into them are grown in terrifically hot, fertile places like the Central Valley. Would they sell better in their original form? The companies who make them must not think so, else they wouldn’t be de-alcoholizing by the tanker-full. They must know something about the consumer base that Yarrow does not.

And if winemakers want to feed their families and be able to afford health care in retirement, they need to make wines that sell.

Oh, dear God. Now this is a plea for the well-being of winemakers? “If you don’t buy this 16.8% chardonnay, a winemaker dies in Napa, and somewhere an adorable little bunny is tortured. Please, for the love of humanity and Heidi Peterson Barrett’s continued employment, won’t you help?”

Ah, the joys of capitalism. Wine lovers complaining about all those high alcohol wines in the world are sort of like smokers who like to bitch about the fact that they can’t smoke on planes anymore. When the market demand gets high enough, things shift.

First, those who dislike escalating alcohols were whining. Then, they were in some freakish religious cult. Then, just plain ignorant. Now, they’re bitching, and probably some sort of commie besides. Man, it must suck to be one of those people, eh? Despite the fact that among them are numbered a rather large collection of the world’s most accomplished writers, tasters, and winemakers, whose lives don’t appear to be quite as miserable as Yarrow makes them out to be.

Also, Yarrow really needs to take a remedial course on analogies. For example, an apt analogy would work like this: discontented wine lovers are like soda consumers complaining that the 12-ounce sodas of a decade ago are now 20 ounces, or more, and that they have twice the high-fructose corn syrup and even more caffeine than in the past, forcing a consumer who wishes for less of any of those things to forgo soda entirely, take in quantities that they don’t want, or waste both product and money when they reach their point of satiety.

But that doesn’t mean that just because there is preponderance of demand in the marketplace for bigger, boozier wines, low alcohol wines with finesse are somehow under threat.

First, Yarrow doesn’t know that there’s a “preponderance of demand,” he’s making that up. But to the point, how does Yarrow figure? If, in year X, there are 500 wines and 50 of them have alcohol levels over 14%, and in year X+2 there are 550 wines and 300 of them have alcohol levels over 14%, where does Yarrow think those higher-alcohol wines are coming from? The Twilight Zone? They’re wines that used to carry lower alcohol levels, and now carry higher ones. Thus, the number of lower-alcohol wines is decreasing. And this is not a “threat” how, exactly? No, lower-alcohol wines are not an endangered species (at least not everywhere, though they’re approaching that status in certain specific regions). That doesn’t mean that they’re not disappearing, and quickly. But hey, let’s not hear any “whining” about that, OK? Everyone suck it up and drink what you’re given!

To suggest as much would require you to also believe that just because the most popular wine in America is White Zinfandel that all those Cabernet producers in Napa are in danger of being pressured to make pink wines.

Really, for the love of The Flying Spaghetti Monster and all his noodles: analogy class. Please, Alder, consider it for the good of your readers and your own well-being. Talk to zinfandel growers who survived the height of the white zin craze. What did its popularity do to the production, reputation, and sales of red zinfandel? That’s right: it sent all three into precipitous decline.

Also: white zin is not the most popular wine in America.

Also: does anyone – say, Yarrow – know what caused the initial downturn in zinfandel sales, the one that left old-vine plots unwanted and untended until blush versions came along and “saved” the grape from oblivion? Hey, guess what? It was…wait for it…excessive alcohol levels. The irony is too delicious to go unmentioned.

No, people just need to stop whining and go out and buy the wines they love. And expect everyone else to do the same. Trying to “educate” consumers by telling them they’re wrong to like big wines is as stupid as trying to tell winemakers they’re wrong for making wines that they (and consumers) love.

What Yarrow clearly does not need is a remedial class in irony. After lecturing his readers at length about how they should embrace the New World Order and just shut the hell up if they feel otherwise, he’s now of a mind to criticize this very practice. How…Alanis of him.

Later, when I’ve recovered from this breathless rant, an actual defense of moderate alcohol in wine.