Wine alcohol levels have certainly climbed. Elin McCoy’s survey of California wine labels indicated a rise from 12.5% in 1971 to 14.8% on average in 2001. Australian Wine Research Institute figures show the same trend for that country’s wines based on actual analysis: from 12.8% in 1975 to 14.5% in 2005.
In the 1970s, mind you, common practice was to take advantage of the federal leeway of 1.5% to print multiple years’ labels (with a vintage neck strap) for wines that had not even been made yet, so the label declaration was in many cases meaningless. Today the trend is to understate high alcohols, and often 14.8% is really 15.8%.
The trend toward riper fruit is even more drastic, since alcohol adjustment technologies now decrease 45% of California wines by an average of 1%, often to avoid the 50¢ tax bump at 14%.
Taking on the champ
What brought about this sea change in California’s alcohol levels? To begin with the obvious, the kind of wine California has come to specialize in today is hardly the low-alcohol Euro-style quaffables—the rhinewine, Chablis and rosés its wineries were dishing up in 1971, when our principal wine grape was Thompson Seedless.
High alcohols from California aren’t a new thing. The average alcohol was more than 18% in both California and Australia in 1950, when we drank almost entirely port, sherry and muscatel in tiny quantities at home and in church. The few drinkers of European table wines didn’t believe domestic stuff was worth considering. Today’s light off-dry table wines did not exist.
Blue Nun and its ilk created in the early ’60s an utterly new style of white wine. The post-WWII technological revolution supplied bubble-pointable sterile filters, inert gas and other innovations that opened for the very first time the possibility for fresh, low-alcohol sweet wines to be commercially available, igniting a table wine fever that spread throughout the world, dominated by European brands that made them well (Mateus Rosé, Soave, Frascati, Lambrusco), with American imitators clinging to their coattails.
In the late 1960s, a handful of pioneers—encouraged by the consistent success of BV, Inglenook, Louis Martini and Charles Krug—began to plant fuller bodied varieties in tiny quantities. Cabernet Sauvignon appeared all over Napa in addition to a microscopic bit of Chardonnay here and there. By the early ’70s, there were dozens of wineries producing serious wines. American drinking habits were moving away from hard spirits, and baby boomer consumers began opening their budgets to the affordable luxury these wines provided.
It didn’t take Napa producers long to figure out where their edge was: The Big Wine. The hapless French, by establishing Chardonnay at the top of the varietal pecking order and anointing the weighty Le Montrachet as the best of the best, had left a wide-open door to New World producers. Considerations of finesse and terroir
were on nobody’s radar. To Chardonnay lovers of the ’70s, bigger was better, end of story.
New tariff in town
Through the efforts of the World Health Organization, Americans decreased their per capita alcohol beverage consumption by more than 20% from 1980 to 2000. This was largely accomplished in a single stroke.
When the federal wine tax per gallon soared in 1984 from 17 cents to $1.07, gallon jug prices tripled overnight from $2 to $6. The big bottles immediately disappeared from the shelves as consumers shifted en masse to 750ml bottles.
We began drinking less and enjoying it more. How? We compensated by buying stronger stuff. In the 1980s, Cabernet and Chardonnay were generally picked at 23.5° Brix, resulting in wines around 13.5% alcohol. We had already bumped the octane in a glass of white wine by a point or better.
The shift from light, German-style wines to big French varietals is only half the answer to our puzzle. Today the average alcohol nudges 15% in the premium sector. Where is this alcohol coming from? Countless articles have recently emerged on this topic, each with its own novel slant. Let’s look over some reasons the popular press offers up for this trend, and then I’ll take us behind the scenes into the minds of today’s winemakers.
In its December 2006 issue article about the emerging Tulocay AVA, Wine & Spirits
magazine implicates global warming in the rise of Howell Mountain alcohols and the rush to the cool end of Napa. But studies at the Scripps Institute suggest the contrary: Southern Napa is actually cooling as interior valleys warm, due to the influence of fog from the Pacific.1
In reality, Tulocay wines are improving because of clonal research. As experimental plantings at Napa Valley College revealed, Clone 337 Cabernet loves the cold, ripening readily and delivering huge tannins and great color.
Are the new super-yeasts to blame? Yes and no. Yeast strains can’t change the conversion ratio of sugar to alcohol—at least not very much. The six carbon atoms in a sugar molecule have to go somewhere. Two atoms end up as carbon dioxide. The other four go to ethyl alcohol plus miniscule amounts of other flavors like glycerol and to the growth of the yeasts themselves. To change alcohol by 1% would mean 17 grams per liter of sugar were diverted to other byproducts—an enormous amount. And super yeasts make more cell mass, not less, thus lowering alcohol.
However, these ultra-vigorous yeasts do permit us to ferment to dryness musts that in the old days would have stuck sweet. So the new strains have indeed opened up the door for harvesting grapes with very high sugar content. But why would we wish to do that?
Some say today’s vines are grown so artificially that they fail to achieve the natural balance required to get ripe flavors at normal alcohols, and that our wines won’t reflect balance until we embrace organics. In his article “The Science of Sustainable Viticulture,”2
John Williams of Frog’s Leap reports that balancing soil fertility and abandoning irrigation now gives him flavors at 23.5° Brix that he previously didn’t see until 28° Brix.
I have no doubt that John is exactly right, but the unsustainable practices John decries were even more rampant in the ’70s than they are today. I’m afraid that at its root, ripeness craziness is more a mental disease than a reaction to some physical disorder. Like alcohol dependency itself, it’s a good thing pushed too far.
Silicone injections become the rage
By the end of the 1980s, the genius of Jed Steele had established Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve as the state’s benchmark Chardonnay through brilliant vineyard selection, consummate blending skill and shamelessly pumping up the wines with oak, malolactic butteriness and residual sugar. His stormy divorce with his employer left his replacement, John Hawley, with big shoes to fill. The secret weapon John presented Jess Jackson to add still more richness was—you guessed it—extended hang time.
Richness through hang time was an appealing formula for a corporate don trying to build an industrial machine independent of any temperamental artistic genius. It had the added advantage, since grapes are sold by the ton, that the shrinkage that bestowed extra richness came out of the grower’s pocket.
The ripeness enigma
In chasing the classics, you can’t just do what the French do. Emulating Bordeaux in sunnier climes has always been a brainy endeavor. It’s tricky to distill the right lesson out of their experience. When we fail to connect the dots properly, it’s often highly comic.
By Napoleon’s time, vignerons
in Burgundy and Bordeaux began boosting their modest Brix levels with beet sugar to about 13% alcohol potential to improve balance. In France, you pick on flavor and color, then fix the Brix.
California’s dry harvest weather seldom encumbers Brix, and our standard practice until the ’90s was to pick our Chardonnays and serious reds at 23.5° Brix. Nobody really picked on flavor and color, and the possibilities of enhanced ripeness were largely unexplored, with the exception of a few late-harvest Zinfandels, often as not stuck fermentations with residual sugar. So we didn’t have any notion that at 23.5%, our grapes were often not really ripe.
In the early ’90s, Conetech and my own company, Vinovation, introduced technologies for dealcing wine. Suddenly everybody could explore true ripeness and then readjust their alcohols to normal levels, taking advantage of improved yeast strains that made stuck fermentations less likely. California soon discovered that an extra week or two on the vine produced rich, “dark fruit” aromas and concentrated color and tannins at 25° Brix or so.
Now for the bad news: These massive, vigorous young wines misbehaved badly. These were big wines prone to aggressive, grippy tannins and closed-up, stinky aromatics that masked fruit and underlined green, veggie smells. Our wines were bigger, richer and truer, but they tasted terrible.
French-trained locals like Bernard Portêt and Christian Mouiex were quite familiar with these behaviors and knew them as marks of greatness. Reductive energy is strongest in the best wines, and the traditional cure has always been to age them. But the new wave of red consumers didn’t recognize these virtues. And our winemakers did not exit academic institutions trained in the suite of postmodern élevage tools they need to manage properly ripe fruit in the cellar.
Throughout the ’80s white wines led the market and little red wine was consumed. That all changed Nov. 17, 1991, when CBS televised “The French Paradox,” which projected a strong likelihood that red wine prevented heart disease. Hey, worth a try! Red wine sales increased 39% overnight. The swing to reds was cemented in 1995, when 60 Minutes reported a Copenhagen study that estimated optimum healthy consumption at three to five glasses of red wine per day. Trouble was, trend-following novices couldn’t stomach the kind of wines that won at Paris.
But the market that emerged as a result of the French Paradox wanted big, drinkable wines now
! They wanted rich, yummy reds with loads of heart-smart bioflavonoids and luscious fruit. Today, please.
Cabernet of normal ripeness is a bit on the chewy side for even the most health-motivated wine initiate. Do you have something a little softer? Every retailer’s answer—Merlot. Ah, that’s better. But does it have to smell so funny?
The roots of pyra-noia
When land prices in the North Coast began to skyrocket in the 1980s, producers looked south to Monterey and eventually the Central Coast to find new vineyard sites for premium wines. The Monterey Valley, salad bowl of the Western U.S., was utterly unlike anything California viticulturalists had seen before—a cold, sunny, windy desert. To this they brought their new scientific marvel: the first large-scale planting of disease-free, own-rooted vines.
This new, scientifically purified master race of Cabernet and Merlot vines were incredibly vigorous, and the resulting fruit shading played perverse genetic flavor tricks, compelling grapes to express strong bell pepper flavors called pyrazines, which grapes in the wild use to repel birds from fruit with immature seeds. The disaster that ensued left a pyrazine-paranoid imprint on California’s winemakers that persists to this day. Veg is bad. Like, don’t even go there.
Unleash the flying monkeys
In the late ’80s, wineries in California, Chile and the South of France turned to Australian expertise that they believed held the keys to marketable styles. Their technique was simple: Push for even greater maturity. Crop left long enough on the vine loses its reductive strength and mean-spiritedness and softens into fruit-forward, user-friendly wine that “makes itself” in the fermentor. This practice gave rise to the “flying winemakers” who revolutionized winemaking in the value segment.
Recent Davis studies indicate that hang time has no effect on pyrazines. Yet in a sense, the fix works because raisiny aromas mask other flavors including, unfortunately, varietal and terroir
expression, making Cabernet, Zinfandel, Syrah, what-have-you, taste pretty much alike.
These wines fit the bill precisely for a rapidly growing, unsophisticated market interested in rich, fruity wines for immediate consumption with no surprises under the cork. Pretty soon, cult producers were hanging $100 price tags on Cabernets left and right, and moneyed consumers were paying those prices as long as the wines delivered a big punch.
The hang time cure is a way to destroy the vigor and structure of a red so it behaves like a white wine: simple, fruity, easy drinking and pointless to age. But by the late ’90s, the practice had spread to the ultra-premium segment where it created some scandal. The 1997 Bordeaux, Barolos and Napa Cabernets receiving high initial scores fell apart in the cellar. But so what?
With each successive vintage, size has become more and more important. Type cast as blockbusters, California wines began a wet T-shirt contest, eventually morphing into cartoon caricatures of their well-balanced progenitors. Today’s blousy, forward Napa cult Cabernets often weigh in above 17%, and when I encounter them, I’m often reminded of Jack Nicholson’s choice to risk his reputation as a serious dramatic actor while enhancing his bad-boy image by accepting the role of The Joker.
We have discussed in past articles3,4
the essential role of unpolymerized color in structure, texture and longevity. Ripeness is valuable in optimizing production of anthocyanins and the cofactors that help extract them into colloids as well as aiding extraction by liquefying pectins. But monomeric anthocyanins helpful to structure decrease during later stages of maturation, and high alcohol destabilizes copigmentation colloids, thus inhibiting extraction. The field oxidation associated with extended hang time deprives wine of depth, energy, soulfulness and longevity in favor of early drinkability.
Even for wines of identical ripeness, elevated alcohol levels accelerate aging, promote oxidation and both mask and diminish volatility of fruit aromas. Carole Shelton’s experimental trials with the same Zinfandel barrel aged at different alcohols showed that higher alcohol lots lost freshness and developed raisiny aromas faster. The lower dielectric constant5
of high-alcohol solutions destabilizes tannin complexes, leading to graininess, precipitation and accelerated browning.
At first it seems reasonable to say, “What the heck? Let the lovers of minerality and terroir
drink French and continue to ignore the New World.” But the emergence of California’s niche as the source of Big Wines has a downside. We are not really making Le Montrachet. The greatest French wines combine both styles: incredibly broad and
Californians are impressed by those who bulk up—we even elected one governor. But it didn’t hurt Schwarzenegger’s popularity when he turned up as an articulate spokesman for his odd but intriguing point of view. We can make big wines that have something to say; I just hope consumers won’t write California wines off before we get around to it.
Naming the devil
So there you have it. The real root cause is the consumer appetite we seek to serve. Just like Colombian coke dealers, we make high-alcohol wines because our customers have communicated with cash that’s what they want. Quoth Walt Kelly, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
But hold on. Is this story really the calamity it’s portrayed as? Most writers on this subject indict these changes in California wine as some kind of scandal. Wine is the second-sexiest of businesses, and exposés sell lots of magazines. But rising alcohols are almost entirely good news.
California is crowding the shelves with more and better wine than ever before. The Grey Rieslings and cheap Chablis of the ’70s simply weren’t as good as today’s offerings. We’ve gained incalculable knowledge since then about what to make and how to make it, finding our best niche in a global marketplace. Dialing in proper maturity has been a key field of inquiry.
Are we there yet? Not on your life. But you can bet that every producer will keep dialing until his viable niche gets formulated. Initially, I quite liked the first few oaky butter-bombs I tasted decades ago, but after a while I just got bored, and I’m confident that American consumers will follow suit as their palates mature.
It is possible to make wines that offer both richness and finesse, with profundity as well as the power to lift you off your feet. California winemakers have recently begun to get smarter at romancing their tannins while protecting depth and integrity.
A month on the vine doesn’t substitute for a decade in the cave—what did you think? This is where the French have us. But we can make those wines too, and some of us will, because ultimately they will offer the best expression of our terroir
Clark Smith is winemaker for WineSmith and founder of the wine technology firm Vinovation. He lectures widely on an ancient yet innovative view of American winemaking.