Hedonistic fruit bombs: The battle over wine alcohol levels rumbles on.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
May 13 2011 6:58 AM

Hedonistic Fruit Bombs

The debate over wine alcohol levels is getting out of control.

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But the battle over pinot and alcohol rumbles on. Ironically, at just the moment Parker is quitting the scene, the same intolerance that he exhibited towards the Mondavi and Edmunds wines seems to have infected the other side. One writer recently lashed out at "prune-colored California pinots that taste like over-oaked top-heavy syrahs" and labeled them a "wine crime." Another declared that pinot's "reckless era of fame" was coming to an end; there'd be no more "de-Pinoting of pinot" as "pinot masquerading as zinfandel is properly kicked to the curb." A Central Coast winemaker described the grapes used to make higher-alcohol pinots as "raisined garbage." Judging by the rhetoric, you'd think these wines were being used to euthanize the elderly and poison children.

While it's fine to trash wines you don't like—I do it all the time, often with pleasure—I don't see what purpose is being served by these attempts to delegitimize a particular style. Aren't diversity and choice good things? California pinot is still very much in the trial-and-error stage. There are no right answers, just preferences, and there is no reason why Burgundy-inspired pinots can't exist alongside more zaftig renderings. Moreover, the alcohol issue is not as clear-cut as all this Sturm und Drang would suggest. Critics of higher-alcohol wines tend to frame the issue as a question of balance, the implication being that wines above a certain threshold are inherently out of whack. But balance is a wholly subjective—one might even say amorphous—concept; alcohol is merely one component that contributes to a sense of harmony or lack thereof; and some wines can deceive you. Setting arbitrary cut-off points, as some sommeliers and at least one retailer have done, strikes me as an especially bad idea.

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This last point was convincingly demonstrated at an event in March called the World of Pinot Noir. The weekend-long gathering included a panel discussion on the subject of alcohol and balance. Participants included winemaker Adam Lee of Siduri Wines, which produces pinots in California and Oregon, and Rajat Parr, a San Francisco sommelier who has a policy of not serving pinots that are above 14 percent alcohol at one of his restaurants. Unbeknownst to the other panelists, Lee had switched the labels on the two wines that he served. One had 13.6 percent alcohol, the other 15.2 percent. You probably know where this is going: Parr, a formidable taster, liked one of the wines so much he asked Lee to buy some, and it turned out the wine he liked was the 15.2 percent. Parr was gracious about the ruse, and I think Lee's stunt underscored the perils of litmus tests when it comes to the alcohol issue.

There's another thing to consider: A lot of people enjoy buxom wines, a fact that has largely been ignored in all the frothing over alcohol levels. One of the gripes about full-throttle wines is that they can be difficult to pair with food, which is true: The flip side of all that alcohol is that the wines are low in palate-cleansing acidity. But for many wine enthusiasts, this apparently isn't a problem: A recent survey found that most of the wine consumed in the United States is not drunk with meals. Instead, wine is mainly used as a cocktail beverage. The result seemed to shock some alcohol agonizers. But I think it reinforces the point: Diversity is good. We've just come through a period in which winemakers were under enormous pressure to conform to a certain aesthetic. With Parker no longer on the California beat, there's now a chance for a variety of styles to flourish. Let a thousand pinots bloom, I say.

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What kind of pinot drinker are you? Here's one way to find out. Go to your local wine store and buy two pinots with significantly different alcohol levels—say, 13 percent and 14.5 percent. Next, find someone who can open and pour the wines and serve them to you blind. Taste the two wines, pick a favorite and then ask your designated pourer to reveal which was which. Although I'm a paid-up member of the anti-flavor wine elite, I recently put my palate to the test with two California pinots. One was from the aforementioned Adam Lee; I tried his 2009 Siduri Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir ($26), which clocked in at 14.5 percent exactly. The other was the 2008 Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir ($21), which was 13.5 percent. If I show you my results will you show me yours? I'll post mine in the comments section, and I'd love to hear what you find.

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