The subject is alcohol, and to introduce it to you I want to point out that the grape is the only fruit that I know of that, when ripe, produces a minimum of sugar plus available natural yeast to ferment to between 8 % and 14 % alcohol by volume, and it can do this without human intervention.
~Last week a California winemaker named Randy Dunn issued a blanket letter to consumers bemoaning what he sees as a terrible trend toward high alcohol wines.
~Generally, I am in agreement with Dunn and those who believe that high alcohol wine is not only a trend, but a bad one. But Dunn left himself open to ridicule with statements like this one: “Most wine drinkers do not really appreciate wines that are 15-, 16-plus percent alcohol.”
~As the buzz heightened on myriad Internet wine bulletin boards, that sentence was brought up a few times to prove that Dunn is simply a wine ‘Jihadist,” a word that an illustrious wine critic sometimes uses to belittle anyone who disagrees with him. (I really don’t understand why someone of his stature does that kind of stuff.)
~Anyway, the quote above did make it easy for those who disagree with Dunn to consider him to be standing on quicksand, since he couldn’t possibly mean that people really drink what they don’t like.
~Fact is, those high alcohol wines are selling. For that to take place, a lot of people would have to be drinking what they don’t like. I suppose it’s possible, but I surely wouldn’t bet on such a premise.
~Dunn went on to make a better case by saying that he doesn’t believe average consumers are so insensitive to flavor and taste that they need a lot of alcohol to carry it to them.
~There, he gets at something that bothers me.
~There was a time when a cup of espresso or cappuccino hit the spot and was also hard to find in America.
~Not any more. Now, a certain coffee purveyor is rich for having not only provided espresso and cappuccino but for having notched up the cappuccino and called it a “latte,” available in multiple flavors and combinations, plus a humongous size cup. (The company once tried to remove the “boring” espresso from its list. You can’t do much to make more money on a good cup of espresso.)
~There also was a time when a plain bagel with some butter or maybe some cream cheese smeared on it was an early morning delight.
~Not any more. Now, a bagel is incomplete if it hasn’t been gussied with cinnamon or raisins or chocolate and smeared with pounds of various substances that may or may not even be real.
~The point being, simple, subtle pleasures don’t seem to be enough. We want more—we want to ratchet all tastes and experiences to the limit, and then we want to exceed that!
Ratcheting is a sickness that cannot be cured; it can only be tended to with more ratcheting.
We keep piling on and our noses and palates become desensitized so we have to pile more on.
I believe this is why alcohol levels, along with a general ratcheting of wine intensity, have been creeping up.
~Dunn points out that high alcohol interrupts the pleasure of food.
~Again, I agree—although I disagree with his example. He says that the only dishes that pair well with high alcohol wines are hot, spicy dishes. I find that combination to be near lethal on my palate.
~To me, too much alcohol interrupts most food pairing. There are of course exceptions: Port and Madeira come to mind. But I am talking about table wine and dinner.
I consider a wine high in alcohol at about 15 % by volume.
It’s tricky, however, to determine this alcohol level since wine labels don’t usually accurately report alcohol.
Producers are given 1.5 % leeway on the label. If a table wine is labeled 12 % by volume, the alcohol can be as low as 10.5 % or as high as 13.5 %.
After a wine technically reaches 14 % alcohol by volume, the leeway is dropped to 1 % plus or minus. I don’t know what happens after that and I am not sure I care to know.
~Because I can’t trust the label, I measure alcohol by what I taste and feel. If the wine is hot, I’m going to be concerned, even if the rest of the wine is in balance with the high alcohol. In fact, if the rest of the wine is in balance with the high alcohol, it likely has way too much intensity for me to enjoy it with food, which leads to another of Dunn’s points.
~Dunn claims that people who like high alcohol wines (beyond 15%) enjoy tasting rather than consuming—they like to sip, spit and wax philosophic over the wine’s merits or maybe to be more accurate, they love to discuss their knowledge or their perspicacity.
~The part of the previous sentence after the dash are my thoughts, not Dunn's. I have met many wine geeks who are on that wavelength, and since they are the ones who seem to buy the high alcohol, high intensity, high priced wines, they likely drive the production of these products—wine critics seeking “gobs of fruit” in their wines, whatever that means, seem also happy with high alcohol wines.
~There is, however, another possibility that Dunn did not bring up and that might have some bearing in the discussion.
~High alcohol wines interrupt food and generally are too hot. They also get you drunk quicker.
~Maybe those people who don’t seek wine for the pleasure it gives when paired with a meal simply want to get drunk!
Incidentally, in some parts of the wine world (California, Australia, etc.) winemakers specifically gear their wines toward high alcohol by leaving the fruit on the vine until the grapes are nearly dripping with ripeness and sugars—higher sugars creates more alcohol during fermentation, and specific yeast strains have been designed to accommodate the high alcohols that natural yeasts cannot.
Here's the weird part: after having reached the level of alcohol they seek, many winemakers then add water to the wines, to lessen their intensity.
I suppose the winemakers start with truly excessive alcohol levels, since adding water would also lower the alcohol by volume. But adding water to wine is something I never dreamed of doing when I produced it.
In fact, many in the wine industry used to deride the large producers who routinely added water to “ameliorate” their cheap products. Now, I suppose winemakers charge more money for all the work that is involved in adding water!!!
Three Web site discussions concerning Dunn's letter:
July, 2007. All Rights Reserved.