Category Archives: Alcohol Content

Napa Valley Cabernet, too high in alcohol?

Thanks to my father-in-law for emailing me this article in the Chronicle about Napa Valley Cabernet and it’s ascend to very high alcohol levels in recent years.

It’s no secret (as this article also states) that higher alcohol wines generally bring higher score from the critics. But if you’ve been following this blog, I’m pretty blasĂ© about wine ratings and critics. Why should anyone tell me what to drink based on their own evaluation? And why should I put effort into following what they have to say when their ‘high scores’ just lead to me and you paying a higher price for that now coveted bottle of fermented juice?

I’ve long said the only place ratings should come into play is when you have a specific wine in mind and specific price point and you are standing on the wine aisle. Ratings can help you decide between one wine and another. If the price point is the same, go with the higher rating, right? But I live in one of California’s areas for great wine and generally drink wine from these regions and can decide for myself what I like and don’t like.

Anyway, let me step down from my soap box for a moment (because I could go on for a long time about the above topic and that’s not what I specifically set out to write about, although I’m having fun!).

This article brings up so many topics, it’s almost impossible to cover with just one post. For starters, I love that Randy Dunn has stuck to his core values of making a certain style of wine. So many wineries change what they are doing based on consumer polls and data and swings in purchasing. How can we ever know what to expect in the bottle if the winery changes style and direction with every new trend? We can’t. There are many wineries I have grown to love because I know what to expect from them. Some of them have specific wines that I really like and others that I don’t. I just buy the ones I like. But when I get a wine from a trusted source and it has changed to suit what some marketing person decided was better for their customers that’s where I draw the line.

But see for the general wine drinking public (who by the way is only 14% of Americans on a regular basis) they often times don’t know that the winery changed direction or can’t tell for whatever reason. Or maybe they just don’t care. There are a lot of wine drinkers that just want a ‘glass of red’ and never really think about the wine. So this trend will continue. You can count on it.

I just love this quote from Randy Dunn:

“I’ve been in many conversations with people that have been selling their wines for $150 a bottle for 15 years, and I was at $65 or something. They go, ‘What are you doing? You’re making us look like fools,’….And I said, ‘You know, I’m quite profitable at this level.’ Here’s a concept called greed.”

Interesting, he’s making them look like fools. I’m all for capitalism though. If they can sell it at that price (and trust me $150 is starting price for many Cabernet wines in Napa Valley) good for them, but they are certainly past the price range I’m comfortable in. At that price I’ll buy a nice Irish Whiskey or Scotch and drink it over an entire year. I have heard people say, “What’s the difference between a $150 bottle of wine and a $50 bottle of wine? ….$100.”

There’s also this concept in here about how the higher alcohol levels have led to the wines all tasting the same. I think I’ll have to do some research to further discover the real answer on this, but it used to be that you could easily distinguish the different growing areas of Napa Valley – mountains vs. floor, east facing regions vs. west, Rutherford Dust comes to mind. I guess I could see how the higher alcohol could mask some of these unique characteristics by making it all about the alcohol and less about the sense of place. That terroir is so important to me. I want to taste, smell and hear (you mean you don’t listen to your wine?) and feel where the wine and grapes came from.

I’m very curious (and will keep following this story) what the research Mr. Dunn is doing will suggest about how to taste wines of lower and higher alcohol. It makes sense that if you taste a higher alcohol wine first, the lower one will taste watery, or at least lighter. If that is the case, if his wines are tasted alongside the higher alcohol versions from Napa Valley then he never will see those higher ratings. Either way, I look forward to tasting his commitment to a standard and ability to not conform with the ever-changing wants of the general public.


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Filed under Alcohol Content, Napa, Napa Valley, Wine, Wine Study, Wine Tasting, Winemaking

Alcohol thoughts from Sonoma

Alcohol content is a common topic in the tasting rooms I’ve worked in. Many of the guests are concerned about what they’ve heard about rising alcohol levels in wines, particularly from California. There’s a theory out there that winemakers in California are going after bigger scores with some popular wine critics that enjoy the bolder side of wine. I’m not convinced.

I do know that in most years California gets a lot of sunny and warm days. Sunny and warm means bolder wines with higher alcohol content. I think that some other growing regions in the world are jealous of the weather we are so lucky to receive.

What got me thinking about this was this article from Guardian News in the UK. It states that over half of the wines in the study had higher alcohol levels than was stated on the label. This came as no surprise to me, but I’m an insider. Most consumers don’t realize that there is a law that allows variation in the actual alcohol content and what is stated on the label. In fact, it’s a large amount.

In wines with labels stating alcohol content of 13.9% or less, they can have a variation from that number by 1.5%. With wines of 14.0% or more, the difference allowed is 1.0%. If you think that’s not a lot, it could be the difference between choosing one or two glasses of wine while out for the evening. I’ve had some wines that are in the 16.5% alcohol range. That means it could actually fall anywhere between 15.5 and 17.5%. That’s a big difference.

At 17.5 percent alcohol, the wine becomes a little controversial. The winemaker would have likely had to use alcohol resistant yeast in order to ferment all the sugar out….or….the wine may contain some residual sugar if a more conventional yeast was used during the alcoholic fermentation. To the same respect a wine that states 13.0% alcohol on the label, it could have as little as 11.5% alcohol. At that level, I worry about the grapes being ripe enough to produce the qualities and aromas I’m used to from California wines. Either end of the spectrum could be misleading.

There is also one more factor at play here. Wineries pay different taxes based on the alcohol percent. Below 14% and it’s cheaper. Above and it’s more expensive. If you see a bottle labeled 13.9% chances are the content is much higher.


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Filed under Alcohol Content, wine labels