Alcohol: the Devil is in the Details {So why won’t major American wine media run %s in reviews?}

When I teach wine classes, I make sure to announce the alcohol percentage stated on every bottle we sample. Why? Because it matters.

Let’s start with a simple reality. Alcohol is as much a part of a wine’s identity as the vintage and grape composition. It is the lovechild of fermentation. The whoopee in your grape juice. Alcohol is a pillar of a wine’s structure; it is a driving force in a wine’s body; it is a factor with food. It is also a regulated piece of data with is included in the packaging of every bottle, box and magnum we can buy.

So why do many established wine media deliberately omit alcohol percentages in their official reviews? It’s a question I believe deserves to be pressed. With alcohol levels in wine today reaching levels higher than in previous generations, this omission amounts a veritable abandonment of duty by wine critics who position themselves as consumer advocates.

FINE PRINT

The alcohol in a given wine is represented as a numerical percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV). It is often tucked inconspicuously in a corner, maybe running up a border, or in the tiniest print possible. But it’s there, it’s legal, and it represents important information about the wine itself. Indeed, he differences between wines that are 8% alcohol, and 10%, and 12.5%, and 14.5% are profound.

Here are three common arguments against the usefulness of alcohol % when assessing a wine:
1. People’s thresholds of perception for alcohol—as well as their reactions to it—vary widely
2. Wines can have higher alcohol and still taste delicious and balanced
3. The percentages stated on labels are inaccurate

Each of statement is true. Even considered together, however, these arguments don’t form a compelling rationale for excluding alcohol percentages from editorial reviews.

  • Yes, alcohol is experienced differently by everyone. Very well. However, for any given person, a 14.5% wine is going to deliver more alcohol than a 12.5% one. Knowing that in advance can be quite useful. 
  • The idea that wines can be big and beautiful is perfectly fine. Yay for full-throttle, balanced wines! In cases such as these, however, there is all the more reason to include the alcohol percentage in a review; alcohol is a prime factor in a wine’s body, or weight, so the % would tangibly support the full-bodied description.
  • As for the inaccuracy line of reasoning, the legal tolerance for imprecision on a label is plus/minus 1.5% for wines under 14% ABV, and plus/minus 1% over 14%. Granted, that’s real wiggle room. Keep in mind, however: 1) 14% is a firm dividing line for taxation purposes, meaning the precision above 12.5% is much more certain and tax penalties provide ample motivation not to underestimate; and 2) OK, so the alcohol percentage can vary… so can price—in fact, even more so—but you would never see a major wine magazine excluding retail prices from reviews. So why exclude the moderately slippery legal data for alcohol while including famously hard-to-pin-down pricing data?

It is my contention that wine media standing behind any or all of the above arguments as a reason not to list ABV % in reviews are simply being disingenuous. Aren’t wine reviews meant to helpful to readers? Statements of alcohol—while flawed—represent very useful information. Here are some examples of how knowing the alcohol level is key to certain wine situations:

Riesling. Alcohol is a clue to relative body and dryness, and this becomes more obvious and critical with Riesling because it covers a wide span. An 8% Riesling (like Loosen “Dr. L”) is at the sweeter, lighter end of the spectrum; an 11% Finger Lakes Riesling is likely off-dry; a 12.5% is apt to hit some palates as sweetish and some as dry, but either way it should be fuller-bodied. When I lead tastings and people absolutely adore a Riesling, I make sure they take note of the alcohol; it’s one key to finding other Rieslings they will like.

New World Syrah/Shiraz and Zinfandel. In my experience, I enjoy New World Syrahs and Zins less as alcohol and price go up. Think about it: more expensive (say over $20) bottlings tend to be more concentrated, inky, dense. Alas, my Mollydooker days are over. And I no longer reflexively believe that “old vine” means better. Sure, this is my palate; but I am not alone. And this is a simple example of how if you know your own preferences in alcohol, knowing the labeled percentages when reading about the wines is really useful.

With Food. Many wine pros believe that smaller-framed wines better display food-friendly acidity while bigger ones run the risk both of overpowering the dish and the diner. I do not consider high-alcohol wines by definition to be clunky at the dinner table. But considering alcohol can be critical in certain situations. For a picnic, you may plump for a mild Pinot Grigio over a fuller Pinot Gris. Picking a rosé for salmon, you’d probably want to go with a higher-alc one. For Osso Buco, if you go Super Tuscan, you probably want a heavyweight. And maybe even a Chardo-plainer might be swayed to sip on some barrel-buttressed 14.5% Chardonnay with some grilled corn and shrimp. Situationally, alcohol impacts a wine’s utility with food; knowing the % helps.

Dining Out. When you’re at a restaurant with a group, people are eating different foods, and some people may be driving. This is an ideal time to go for lower-alcohol wines. I’ll never forget what importer Bart Broadbent told me in 2008 when I was researching an article about rising alcohol levels in wine: “When I’m out for dinner I’ll ask the sommelier for three recommendations,” he said. “Then I’ll ask him to bring the one with the lowest alcohol.” If the alcohol is important enough to be a consideration when deciding on a wine in a restaurant, certainly it is important enough to be included in the reviews that people use to make decisions. We are not always going to be in situations with sommeliers; being able to ascertain alcohol along the way when reading about wines would enhance any wine lover’s ability to deal with wine inreal-world situations, such as at a restaurant.

Vintage. In some years and in some places, alcohol becomes a signpost of a particular harvest. In 2003, for example, heat waves rolled across Europe over the summer. With their extra sugar at harvest, most French wines that year yielded higher than normal alcohol levels as well as a riper style. Let’s say you like a riper style, and you discovered you like the wines of a certain region from that 2003 vintage; moving forward, you might be inclined to seek out the higher-alcohol French wines from other vintages. Or, let’s say you are an old-school Old-Worlder; when it comes to hot years like 2003, you might still enjoy wines from that year which clocked in at the 13% or under level. Again, knowledge is power for wine consumers.

REALITY CHECK

Having laid out my case for why alcohol percentage is useful to wine lovers, I do want to turn back to the questions of why major wine media have been so resistant to listing this data in their reviews. On our way there, though, let’s step back and realize that there is indeed an alcohol “issue” at play in wine today.

In short, yesteryear’s rocket fuel passes as today’s norm. The average alcohol by volume in Napa Valley wines back in 1971 was 12.5%; thirty years later it hit 14.8%. Similarly, the Australian Wine Institute tracked 15,000 wines between 1984 and 2004 and saw alcohol levels in reds overall bulge from 12.4% to 14%, and Grenache and Shiraz reach 15% on average. Go into any wine shop… you have to search for red wines under 13% alcohol. It was not all that long ago that 12.5% was the golden standard of dry table wine (or at least dry European table wine); in today’s globalized wine market, 13.5% is commonplace.

There are multiple factors involved in the rising tide of alcohol… brix, hang time, improved yeasts that optimize fermentation… heck, we can even start into global warming. Not to be overlooked is the fact that critics—perhaps not consciously but quite instrumentally—have helped create this situation. How? By favoring riper, fuller-bodied wines and rewarding them with higher ratings. This trend accelerated into what is quite a vicious little cycle thanks to the 100-point scale as marketers and winery principals since the 1990s, eager to clear the magical 90-point bar, have pressured winemakers to work with riper fruit that naturally yields more potent dry wines.

No, I do not have any regression analysis quantifying the degree to which American wine raters favor full-figured wines. But anecdotally we are swimming in the evidence. Since the mid-1990s, when the 100-point scale started to ramp up, higher high alcohol has become one of the pre-requisites of American critics’ top-rated wines, period. Look at any Wine Spectator Top Ten—it’s perennially dominated by powerful reds. Look at the wines that get 94s, 95s and up: they get called “fruit bombs,” “hedonistic,” “full-throttle,” “bold,” “massive,” “opulent” and so on. I am totally fine with the idea that these upper-echelon wines are as balanced as an circus bear on a unicycle. The point is that “monsters” are being held up as the benchmarks of greatness by the points-wielding critics of our time. Meanwhile, consider why some iconic wines that are incapable of mustering big alcohol levels (Chenin Blanc, rosé, Muscadet, Beaujolais…) are also incapable of achieving high ratings from America’s “Flavor Elites.”

Does alcohol alone give wines an edge in blind tastings? Does 15% add two points to a wine’s score? No, I am not prepared to get that clinical. But, returning to the original question of this piece, I am contending that one motivation for magazines like Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate to NOT run alcohol levels with their reviews is to keep a cloak over the correlation between their highest critical acclaim and big, high-alcohol wines. In turn, the American wine-drinking populace has been led by these critics to embrace their standards of wine quality without the benefit of being made aware that, to a very real extent, those standards are built on a foundation of power over elegance.

CULPRITS OF THE CULT (& SOME ONLINE HEROES)

And let’s not think for a Bordeaux minute that the wine-raters are unaware of their propensity to give high scores to high-alcohol wines, reds in particular. I give Robert Parker credit for never denying his fondness for vinous fireworks; his “hedonistic” is one of the signature positive tags he applies to 14%+ reds. Others are not so eager to admit their complicity. Back in 2006, for instance, Wine Enthusiast {which I edited from 1988-’98} ran a cover story decrying “wine on steroids” without naming a single perpetrator of the supposedly dangerous trend; the WE buying guide, mere pages away, featured loads of high-proof 90+ pointers.

Wine Spectator toyed with the issue back in 2007 after Napa Valley Cabernet specialist Randy Dunn called them (and others) out in an open letter. Dunn, who had made but one wine over 14% alcohol in 28 vintages, wrote: “Most wine drinkers do not really appreciate wines that are 15 – 16+ percent alcohol. They are, in fact, hot and very difficult to enjoy with a meal.” He added: “These new wines are made to taste and spit—not to drink.” His letter implored consumers to ask for wines under 14% alcohol when they dine out, and directly challenged wine writers to include the labeled alcohol percentage when reviewing wines. Dunn was dismissed like a wayward child by Spectator critic James Laube in a blog post on the magazine’s website, however. Ignoring Dunn’s contention that wine critics have led “score chasing winemakers/owners up the alcohol curve,” Laube deflected the point with the errant reasoning {debunked above} that alcohol labeling is imprecise.

Longish story shorter, being a Spectator online subscriber at the time, I asked Laube, in comments to his blog post, why WS would not run alcohol percentages in their reviews. I also hypothesized—quite civilly, mind you—that the reason was to conceal the fact that his highest ratings were being applied to wines at the high end of the alcohol spectrum. I apparently never got the memo about WS blogs being habitable only for members of the choir to whom the Great Infallible Critics preach; the Spectator brass revealed some Gamay-thin skin and promptly evicted me from the comments sections entirely {a moment I now see as a true emancipation}.

Bottom line: I am not the first to raise the heady issue of heady alcohol in wine. {Quick shout-out here to Darrell Corti, the prominent wine merchant and grocer in Sacramento, who decided in 2007 to stop carrying any table wine with alcohol over 14.5%.} But I think the time has come to raise it again, specifically with respect to its glaring omission in wine reviews by the major American wine magazines. So Messrs. Parker, Laube, et al, I suggest that you follow the example set by your English peer, Jancis Robinson, MW, who includes ABV % in reviews at her Purple Pages site. Ditto some respected American bloggers: Enobytes, Drink NectarWannabe Wino; and Wino sapien. And there may {I hope} be more.

Personally, I am not much of a wine reviewer, per se, but I am planning to be even more conscious of the stated alcohol for wines I write about, making sure to include the stated percentage when it exceeds 14.5%. And in classes I teach, I will continue to to announce the alcohol percentage of wines I pour, even if that means having to enlist the aid of someone under 35 who can find and read the fine-print % faster than I can.

28 Comments

  1. Posted May 10, 2010 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    Well, not knowing your first name, I’ll call yo Mr. Tish…
    I can’t believe you were evicted from the comment section at Spectator…wow! I’m a firm believer that as much information as possible should be provided in a wine review from oak %, type, malolactic fermentation, AND ABV %. It makes a HUGE difference and not including it at the Spectator, W&S, Advocate level is pure bull sh^t.

    Well written post – great research!

    Josh

  2. Posted May 11, 2010 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    Thank you for highlighting why, essentially, the influence of CERTAIN INDIVIDUALS on the wine industry has led to an ugly situation in which only one characteristic of a wine’s flavor matters and, given that, the industry has gone to the (wrong) lengths to maximize it.

    Counter-point: I don’t care much about the alcohol level of the beer I drink – I focus on the flavor.

  3. Posted May 11, 2010 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    That was a phenomenal diatribe well supported by facts. You’re absolutely right, and the fact that you got ousted from the comments section of WS just shows that you’re hitting a little too close to home.

    Luckily, as the wine industry moves toward the digital world, there are many more outlets for the less heady, more nuanced wines to get their fair share of attention. And, though I don’t always include all the facts that Josh notes above in my blog reviews (which is a knock on my part), I do always include the alcohol content. It’s more important than residual sugar, total acidity et al in terms of consumer knowledge, and leaving it out of a review is just shoddy work.

  4. Posted May 11, 2010 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Excellent post, Tish. Comprehensive, rigorous, and convincing. I would add one observation. Higher alc levels have led to greater manipulation of the juice in the winery. From reverse osmosis to industrial yeasts and tartaric additions, winemakers are increasingly forced (choose?) to rely on terroir-frustrating technological practices.

  5. Posted May 11, 2010 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Though I do not always publish alcohol percentages in my newspaper reviews, I have often done so, knowing that what is listed may be off by as much as two percent. Lower alcohol levels, even if accurate, may simply indicate that a generous amount of “Jesus Units” (water) were added – not necessarily doing the wine any favors. On their free online database, Wine Enthusiast (your one-time employer) has a category for listing alcohol percentages. So this seems aimed strictly at Parker and Spectator, but let’s not tar all critics with the same brush.

  6. Posted May 11, 2010 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    I’m with Josh- The more info the better.
    Since Alc% is required by law, why not list it? As important as Alc% is knowing the residual sugar. I feel this tells as much or more than just Alc%.

    I would also like to see the larger pubs run their own tests (consumer reports style)- I ran one test on a 15.2% wine that came in at 17%… That’s crazy stuff.

  7. adam
    Posted May 11, 2010 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    umm, who cares? if WS rates higher alcohol wines higher, again, who cares?
    if they don’t list the alcohol percentage, so what, they don’t list the sugar content either. What’s your point?

  8. Randy
    Posted May 12, 2010 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    High alc wines are for silly people who don’t really respect the grapes coming from the vineyard nor do they care about balance.

  9. Don R.
    Posted May 12, 2010 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    I agree 100% with the author, and add my thoughts:

    1. Informing the consumer is a good thing. Period. Misinforming, misleading, etc. are not good. The more a consumer, or a POTENTIAL consumer, knows about wine, the more likely the person is to be a larger, more frequent, consumer. Longevity, continuity, frequency, ought to be the goal of the winery, not a single flash high score. I can’t drink much Turley. I can drink a lot Bordeaux.

    2. Drinking is very different than tasting. You taste, you spit, you write a score, you move on, 30 seconds. Maybe a minute. When you drink, you spend 30 to 60 minutes with the same bottle. Big difference. How long before your mouth hurts at 15%? How long before your palate is fatigued at 15%? How long before you enthusiasm for wine goes away? How long before your budget is exhausted chasing the 15% $50 wine, versus drinking the $15 13% wine?

    I suggest that the reviewing magazines main goal, especially Wine Spectacle, is to sell advertisements, not wine. Newlsetters mostly function the same, to sell more subscriptions. Drive the reader toward tulips. More, better, bigger tulips. But look at the state of the industry now. Profits are hard to come by, aren’t they? Huge volumes, no profits.

  10. Posted May 12, 2010 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    All table wines with alcohol over 14.5 percent are bad? There is a danger in stereotyping. Show us some diligence.
    Here’s an idea: Sit down to dinner over the next few weeks with blind bottles – some higher alcohol, some lower alcohol. Rate the wines. Then reveal the alcohol percentages and decide if it really is so cut and dry.
    I pick for flavor. I don’t even know brix until I get into the fermentor. I really don’t care. If I picked for brix … or acids, I’d be compromising on flavor. Come see me and we’ll taste my 07 and 08 Chardonnays side by side. The 07 actually tastes more balanced, but it is 14.5 abv vs. 13.5 for the 08. The 07 is a beautiful, austere(!) wine.
    My 07 pinot was 13 pct., my 08 pinot 13.5. I’m not a serial offender. None of my wines that are on the market have added acid, are watered-back, have more than 20 percent new oak, or experienced anything else in the cellar that is being vilified these days. Although I eschew intervention, and I try to avoid high alcohols, I don’t condemn wines or winemakers who are trying to make the best wines they can. And I won’t rule out making a 14.5 or even 15 percent pinot in future vintages.
    It is trendy these days to complain that wines are high alcohol or manipulated, but in the next breath everyone will admit that today’s wines are far more reliable and generally much better than wines from 20 years ago. You gotta pick one or the other.
    I agree that blind tasting panels have their receptors dulled after the third, sixth …. or fifteenth wine – but where is *your* diligence?

  11. Tim Olson
    Posted May 12, 2010 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    I contiune to be amazed at the near obsession certain people have with alcohol levels in wine. I have read the comments and thoughts (not just in this post) but still find it amazing. When you look at a great painting in a museum, is your first thought, “Gee, I wonder what kind of oil based paint he used?” or do you simply appreciate the art and beauty it represents?

    Wine is a beverage that is meant to be enjoyed and hopefully enhance the quality of one’s life. Cetainly like all alochol based beverages it should be enjoyed responsibly. But can’t you just enjoy it and leave it at that? Where does it end? Do you need all the gory details that went into making the wine? In a recent column, Matt Kramer, railed about alcohol levels as well as demanding that all the processes and techniques used to make a particular wine be listed on the label. Ironic that one of the very people that instills the romance into the wine business also seeks to take it away by inundating wine drinkers with too much information.

    Tell me, would knowing the alcohol level contribute to your enjoyment? Would you drink two ounces less each night because that wine had a little more alcohol in it or drink a little more if there was less alcohol? The Puritanical sentiment is, alas, all too alive in our modern culture.

    I suggest that the next time you are enjoying a glass (or bottle) of wine, instead of obsessing with its alcohol level, use the nice mellow effects of the wine (and alcohol) to put your creative juices in gear to create a solution to the poor quality of education in our country or come up with a solution for world peace, or use the time you spent to write this blog to instead write your congressman/congresswoman about better financial laws that would prevent the very few from grabing all the gold and leaving the American public to bail out a failed financial system and suffering the effects of a world wide economic crisis. Screaming about alcohol levels in wine is not the best use of your time or talent. We have larger problems in life to deal with and if all you “alcohol complainers” would redirect your energy into solving more important problems, maybe the world would be a better place.

  12. ALEC WHITE
    Posted May 12, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Can someone direct me to a site where one can find out the actual, no bulls___ ABV for any given wine?

  13. pete
    Posted May 12, 2010 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

    Well said, sir.

  14. wrtish
    Posted May 13, 2010 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    Appreciate all the comments, folks. And apologies for some of them rattling around a section of my Wordpress dashboard before I saw them.

    @ Alec – Twitter has answered your no bull____ plea! … “@Philip_James: @TishWine we’re soon to launch that on @snooth I believe” That will be interesting.

    @ Tim – I fail to see the obsession with alcohol that you apparently do. The topic is under-reported in my opinion. And, as a conversation, it is getting louder before it goes away.

    @ Todd – No, as I thought I said in the post, I do understand that wine can be big AND balanced. And of course there are plenty of 14+% ABV wines I like. But I didn’t want the post to go there. I probably coulda/shoulda been clearer: there are many excellent wines that have high potency in the alc dept.

    @ Don – Love the tulip analogy.

    @ Hardy – 17%? Now that is wack.

    @ Paul – Not sure what you mean about WE including alcohol in their online database. (And yes, I used to work, back when red wines routinely checked in at 13% — a long time ago.) Maybe there is a category for alcohol percentage in the database that you put reviews INTO, but it’s apparently not coming out the other end…. In fact, here is an example of one of your reviews where I think seeing the % would be very informative:
    < < Buty 2006 Columbia Rediviva Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah (Horse Heaven Hills) Columbia Valley, Washington, US. This first estate-grown bottling of Rediviva is 55% Cabernet Sauvignon and 45% Syrah. Amazing aromatic complexity grabs you and leads you into the dark interior of the wine, a riot of red and black fruits, moist earth, smoke, anise, herb and toast. Power and elegance combined, with the structure to age for a decade or more. - P.G. >>

    And to be clear: this is not just about Spectator and Parker. I do not see why ANY wine media outlet that purports to be consumer would deliberately omit such relevant information as a matter of policy. And the basic issue of “how much alcohol is in there?” is more vital than ever in today’s rapidly expanding market. I’ve made my points and now aim to be more conscious of alcohol levels in the wines I write and talk about. Hoping others will do the same.

  15. Richard
    Posted May 14, 2010 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Tish,

    I completely agree with Tim Olson and think your response “I fail to see the obsession with alcohol that you apparently do. The topic is under-reported in my opinion. And, as a conversation, it is getting louder before it goes away.” is complete denial! The “high alcohol” controversy is wide spread and has many, many supporters and advocates – just do a google search of “High alcohol” and “wine” and you will be overwhelmed. Lettie Teague just did an article in the Wall Street Journal about “so, what’s the big deal with alcohol?” and was practically crucified by Tyler Coleman and others (that wasn’t actually the title of her article but if you search on Teague and high alcohol, sure it will pop up). Daryl Corti, wine retailer extraordinaire, says that he won’t sell high alcohol wines. So, your comments are disingenuous at best – do you read the blogs? and articles?

    In any event, my initial comment, prior to reading Mr. Olson’s and yours was that the answer to your long, well, thought out, article, was – the reason they don’t put the alcohol content down, is, well, because, outside of you and a few others, nobody cares! Sorry, but that is just the sad fact – nobody cares. You are like the prohibitionists – oh, oooh, ohh! alcohol – deeeeeee-mooooon alcohol – demon, demon, demon alcohol! oh, it will corrupt us all. I mean no offense, but I don’t look at the alcohol level, I go by if the wine tastes good – if it does, I do not, do not, care about the alcohol level, if it is 17% or 10%.

    Why oh, why, should anyone care? Can you give me a valid reason? If so, I’m willing to listen – your article is well-written, and yet, nowhere does it say why you are against high alcohol? Because you can’t have two glasses of wine and get in your car? This is a well-worn argument – but if we get into this, the short answer is: you shouldn’t really be drinking and driving anyway. Because high alcohol wine isn’t good with food? oh, my! isn’t this a matter of personal taste and opinion? So, again, I say – give me a reason – a valid one, and I will listen.

    Having said the above – in no way am I saying I think all wines should be high alcohol – quite the contrary. But I am saying to each his own. Generally, I enjoy wines that are from about 13%-15% alcohol. This does not mean I cringe in horror if someone serves a nice crisp 10% wine or a 16% Turley Zin… Why this “fake outrage” over alcohol.

    Rich.

  16. Posted May 17, 2010 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    I think that if the readers began to see that most of the best scoring wines were all high octane, than they would also start to wonder about the Homogenization of wine. This “Parkerized” Style of wine is the reality tv of wine. It was something different at first but now it has just become tired and dull. Thankfully there are plenty of talented winemakers, including Randy Dunn, who still prize balance and sense of place over power.
    Cheers

  17. wrtish
    Posted May 18, 2010 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    @Richard THanks for taking the time to leave a comment. Here are two reasons why I care about alcohol levels: 1) I have found, based on my personal experience, that I most often prefer certing wines when they are below a certain alcohol level — Zinfandel and Syrah/Shiraz, most notably. In turn, knowing the ABV % in certain wines when reading about them is very helpful to me. 2) Most of the wine I have is NOT in a controlled tasting-and-spitting situation. I DRINK wine. The alcohol level in a wine is a factor in how much I drink. It’s that simple.

    Now, those two reasons are, admittedly, personal. They are based on me and my palate and my drinking preferences. However, the larger point here is the public awareness of alcohol levels. In my experience doing lots of wine events, and interacting with lots of regular wine drinkers (along with assorted wine geeks, traders and collectors) is the for the most part, the general public is unaware at how widely alcohol levels can vary. Whatever you want to call this — ignorance? lack of awareness? — it is part of the reality of the moden American wine scene. Most people who like wine are simply uninformed about the actual alcohol levels in the wines they drink. THAT is what I am hoping will evolve. The fact that alcohol’s head has been reared periodically in trade and grape-nut circles has, in my estimation, had little impact on the general public.

    As a wine-event leader I am constantly encouraging people to try to hone their own tastes by paying just a little more attention to the attirbutes of wines they loike and don’t like. Alcohol is an important attribute. Having that ABV% in wine reviews would be a boon to any reader who is trying to “get” what a given wine is about. Again, alcohol is an essential aspect of a wine’s identity; why should other essential label information (vintage, grape/appellation, producer) be included in reviews while alcohol is left out?

    I am perfectly happy to have everyone form their own attitude toward alcohol levels in wine. The real travesty here is that the major U.S. wine media seem intent on keeping ABV % out of the conversation by omitting it from their reviews. And I am still waiting to hear one good reason for this deliberate omission.

  18. Posted May 18, 2010 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Tish
    I believe this a good drum to beating. Perhaps another step would be to partner with your local police and local taxi company to show the effects of wine with varying degrees of alcohol.

    Put together a focus like group of men & women of varying body sizes -recreate a cocktail like experience and maybe a dinning experience – capture the effects of alcohol over time via breathalyzer and video camera and show the results.

    It is rare for the industry to go beyond the minimum statements for responsible enjoyment of beverages that contain alcohol – I think this is the missing message and the one that is more important than balance or food pairings. I certainly am finding that wines closer to the 13% are becoming more enjoyable at home – they tend to be wines that we get close to finishing the bottle.

    The industry just might surprise themselves and find an increase in people enjoying more wine with this kind of message.

  19. Mrs Gabriel
    Posted May 18, 2010 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Many novice wine drinkers use the point system to learn about wine. The higher the number the better the wine is thier reasoning, thinking that it will taste great. With no understanding of palate, food pairing etc. I’ve seen a lot of wine dumped down the drain,(and that’s just wrong) Hot wines are for the tough of tounge.
    Wine in Napa/Sonoma has become somewhat homoginized because of the ratings system. I used to like to stop at 5-6 wineries on a Saturday outing. Not anymore! 3 is my max, because I get palate fatigue, and I get to tipsy to fast.
    As an aside, I like going to brew pubs that post the alc% in the beers. I can make a descision on what I like and how many beers I can safely have.

  20. Posted May 19, 2010 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Richard, nobody cares, except for maybe self promoting Wine Cloggers. It is an interesting harangue but at the end of the day, it won’t amount to a hill of beans, or grapes, to anyone outside the small audience that reads wine blogs.

  21. Kathy
    Posted May 19, 2010 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Do you know what the ABV stats are for online reviews? (wine websites/blog/Facebook/Twitter etc. ).
    It is a shame TTB gives a 1.5% +/- on the label (similar for spirits – thought TTB survey says spirits usually come in below stated ABV on label, within whatever range).
    Many other countries do +/- .05 (EU, Japan..). Maybe label should be more correct or say “14.0 +/-1.5% unless over 14%, then +/-1%.” After all, there is the govt warning, the sulphite warning…
    Shouldn’t TTB, a government public agency, publish continually updated list of all wines and their basics, such as name, real name, and ABV? Or maybe this needs to start with the controlled states. Does nice NH already do it? Does anybody ever actually check the ABV?
    Shouldn’t this extend to beer and spirits? There are beers that can’t be sold in some states due to high ABV level.

  22. Posted May 30, 2010 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    One thing that has bothered me for a while now is the reality of Dunn’s comment, “…new wines are made to taste and spit—not to drink.” We are so far behind the idea that wine was meant to be enjoyed with food.

  23. Cheryl
    Posted June 3, 2010 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Re: Name a reason why people should care about alcohol levels.
    Wrong question. People don’t have to have a reason that meets any other person’s criteria. If a significant number of consumers are interested in the information, wine reviewers and others who cater to consumers should provide it. Period. If it isn’t useful to you, you don’t have to take it into account, nor do I have an opinion about whether you should. By the same token, I have the right to set my own priorities for wine selection. I drink wine every day. I like both high-alcohol and low-alcohol wines, but I’m not going to pop open a 15% Sineann Cab Franc on a work night. It’s more likely going to be a 9% Dr. Loosen or a 12% Italian red. I buy a lot of wine online and having to guess at this is irritating. I don’t understand why some seem to feel this information should be hidden from me and others who want to know it.

  24. Posted June 19, 2010 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Great… so now I’ll have to try to squeeze ABV into my twitter mini-reviews? I’m running out of space as it is… and after typing in the names of German wines, I only have about 10 characters out 140 to use for the review anyway…

    ;-)

  25. Posted June 19, 2010 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    Tish,
    First off, I think we should consider when and why alcohol levels were listed on wines in the first place. It is actually a fairly recent phenomena. Go back and look at old labels from French producers, California producers, and others and you don’t see alcohols listed. It also seems that it was much more common in CA than in France (not surprising given our Prohibitionist past). Your emphasis (in bold) that it should be listed in wine reviews because it is regulated on labels seems to imply that this is something that has extra special meaning and yet it is rarely new.

    You also mention that alcohol levels have been rising in recent years – certainly the case. They were sometimes as high, if not higher, in the mid-1800s. Check out Olney’s Romanee-Conti book about the alcohol levels in those wines in the mid-1800s and you see numbers in the 14 and 15+ alcohol range. Alcohol levels will come and go over the passage of time and as vines age I think you will see them get lower (because young vines can sustain higher yields and still produce quality wines. Higher yields lead to lower alcohols).

    I’d also point out (as an aside) that while you say the Chenin Blanc is incapable of high alcohols the Joly Savennieres that came in first in the NY Times recent blind tasting had a listed alcohol of 15%. And, as another aside, that Randy Dunn picks as ripe as many, but uses reverse osmosis to get the alcohols where they are (and IMHO, over-ripeness is a problem in the taste of the wine – not necessarily related to alcohols).

    My problem with listing alcohol levels in reviews is that, by doing so, it places undue emphasis on one part of a wine’s make-up, while ignoring equally important elements such as pH, TA, residual sugar, etc. People will focus on this element while ignoring all others (we have seen that with sulfites already which effect a tiny percentage of the population). Doing this does a disservice to wine consumers.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  26. wrtish
    Posted June 21, 2010 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    @1WineDude – German wines definitely were not made for Twitter-length reviews.
    @Adam – I really appreciate your input; I stand corrected re Chenin. While I see your point about RS, TA, pH, those are numbers consumers can not see on their own. But ABV is already something public. I can’t see how adding the ABV information to reviews skews a reader any more than including price. THe mutual goal of reviewers and winemakers alike should be to help wine enthusiasts find wines they enjoy. Those who pay attention to the wines that hit their sweet spot, so to speak, CAN, in my experience find some patterns to their taste preferences related to alcohol. As stated above, in my case, I prefer Zins that are more claret-like, and these are usually under 14.5%. Raising awareness of alcohol is not meant to bash any one type of wine; it is meant to better equip wine lovers to navigate the vast wine sea. I simply think that reviewers whould accept the reality that including ABV information in their reviews is a responsible policy.

  27. Posted June 22, 2010 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    You and I have exchanged private emails on this topic, and I have given it further thought since then. I like the idea of greater information as opposed to lesser information. As a critic, I make note of every bit of information I can get my hands on. Sometimes that information is useful but sometime it is less so. Nevertheless, I like it and I therefore have to assume that my readers will like it.

    But that brings me straight on to the dilemma. Alcohol statements on labels are notoriously misleading, and because they are so misleading, they are next to impossible to use to draw a line in the sand of any meaningful value.

    Here is why. In the first place, as you state so clearly, the amount of leeway offered to wineries is enormous. Even the under 14%/over 14% line which you rightfully point out is a legal barrier, is now not honored. 13.9% often means less than 14% but not always.

    But even if 13.9% means close to that, it has very little bearing on how wines show up when tasted blind. That is because there are so many other factors that come into play. There are 13% labeled wines that taste both hot and fleshy and there are 15% labeled wines that are wonderfully balanced and energetic. Body is not determined by alcohol but by perception. Balance is the same way. Even sweetness can be hidden by other factors. Go look at Champagne. Wines with over 1% sugar taste tart to most of us because their acidities are so high. And that is before we get into discussion of winemaking techniques like reverse osmosis to reduce alcohol in wines that nevertheless smell and taste of desiccated grapes.

    When a Riesling, my favorite grape by the way, arrives with a notation fo 11% alcohol, I ahve no way of knowing whether the wine is 9.5 or 12.5 per cent. It helps more to know the producer than the alcohol notation.

    Thus, using alcohol as a determinant is simply not reliable enough for me to post it for my readers for every wine tasted. Better that I comment on balance, heat when perceived, fruit or prune juice, perceived acidity and balance, etc, than posting unreliabel alcohol numbers.

    You may like Zins under 14.5%, and frankly, that generally puts you in the hands of certain producers whose names you already know and prefer. But, taking Ridge as the most obvious example, do you think that a 14.7% notation on a Ridge wine makes it out of balance or hot? Not in my experience. But, wineries like Rosenblum, now under Diageo, are going to make 14.7% stated alcohol wines that have very different ripeness, fermentation, acidulation and oak regimes and taste very different. They might also use alcohol statements differently. Neither you nor I know the truth here, and that is why, when we get to numbers like 14.5% alcohol in Zinfandel, the line in the sand is not worth the energy it took to draw it.

    I would argue that words, not numbers are the things that wine reviewers owe their readers, especially since numbers are not reliable.

    Thanks for letting me play in your sandbox. I think the day may come when we get reliable alcohol numbers, reliable sugar numbers, reliable acidity numbers and the like and we are then able to educate our readers/students to what those numbers might mean–knowing, for example, that a Chardonnay from the eastern part of the Russian River Valley is going to taste more open than a Chardonnay from the western, coastal part of that AVA even when the numbers are virtually identical.

  28. Posted September 20, 2010 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    Most winemakers would pay to know the acid levels in reviews rather than alcohol. In California, which is basically the only place where you can do anything – you can acid and deacidify, you can add water or dealcoholize and chaptalize through concentrate addition, you can add Mega Purple and add sugar right before bottling sussreserve style like so many do for their Sauv Blancs and Muscats to improve aromatics. At this point knowing the CLAIMED alcohol level in a world of so many manipulating possibilities really does not mean much. Some grapes that we don’t really think of as being high alcohol have a long history of 14+ – Sagrantino and Nebbiolo come to mind – Barbera as well. You can find labels online of Puglian Primitivos that were 15% thirty years ago. Like most say, it seems the more information the better. But California wine is essentially ruleless, and if you think the CLAIMED alcohol level is really giving deep insight, that is only because the reality underneath has not even been brought to light. Here is to full disclosure, a la Randall Grahm : acid adjusts, concentrates, finings, oak regimens/chips/staves. Oh by the way – if you really want to know about evil adjustments, do some research on gum arabic additions. It is an even bigger and more manipulative adjustment (pure thickener additive masked as colloidal stabilizer) than anyone knows. When I see pallets of gum arabic going to a winery, I know to never try their wines. – A concerned winemaker.

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