03 April 2008

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.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant Thor.

thor iverson said...

Thanks, Craig. I haven't gotten up such a good head of steam in a while. But I'm now fully vented, and much more pleasant to be around. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Oy. Wow. Well played, sir.

thor iverson said...

Thanks, Jake. Which reminds me: I owe you an email.

Anonymous said...

Ooh, I'm waiting with baited breath. Or bated breath. Hopefully not abated breath.

Anonymous said...

Wow is right - a well-reasoned and entertaining response to a rather offensive post.

Also, it's "funny" that about a week after publishing that post he won the Wine Blog Awards for Best Writing and Best Overall Wine Blog.

Anonymous said...

I see he's already been taken to task by plenty of respondents for his attitude, although no-one's quite demolished his particular arguments as thoroughly as this. Nice rant.

thor iverson said...

Jake, if you have bait on your breath again, please remember our conversation about herring and take preventative steps soon.

Michael, how I missed your blog up until now I can't imagine, but I won't make that mistake again. As for Vinography and the awards it garners, I don't want to be overly critical of anyone who blogs, especially under the "pressure" of Yarrow's very high profile. We all write things that are perhaps not our best work, and I think that's a case of Yarrow's preferences getting in the way of his reasoning (which is something many of us have fallen victim to). In any case, it's an interesting debate, and to the extent that it gave me an opportunity to vent a little bit, I can't really complain too much.

Graeme, thanks. What I need to do now is move past the point/counterpoint and make a more positive case for moderation in alcohol levels. But of course, reasoned moderation is as hard in writing as it is in wine. ;-)

Thad W. said...

Well done, Thor.

One topic left uncovered in all of this is the lack of disclosure amongst the wine press (old and new media alike) when it comes to alcohol levels of the wines being reviewed. It's time folks started including this in their reviews, whether positive or negative. I've recently blogged about this issue.

Comments are welcome and efforts to disclose are appreciated.

thor iverson said...

All true, Thad, but it's hard to be revelatory about alcohol when so many of the percentages are outright falsehoods.

That said, when a listed alcohol is unusually high, I try to make note of it. For better or worse, however, this ends up looking like California zins are the prime culprit, since I drink so little of other Californicated grapes (with a few exceptions, of course) Had I accurate levels on, say, CdP, I suspect the data would look a little different.

I'll try to be more consistent about this; I won't note normal-seeming numbers, but will note those out of the ordinary. Thanks for the reminder.

Anonymous said...

Good read as always, Thor. I'm saving a few Turley's for your next trip to the southwest.
- Bill

thor iverson said...

Thanks Bill. And I'll bring some fine Massachusetts merlot for you. I know how much you miss it.