There's a debate playing out in the press, and in the wineries, over how ripe is too ripe. The critics' favorite targets are wines from California and, to a lesser extent, Australia, especially the reds.
The chief criticism is that these ultraripe, high-alcohol wines don't work at the dinner table. They clash with food. The critics prove this by pointing at the lack of California wines on many restaurant wine lists. Exhibit A for the prosecution is that in the San Francisco Bay Area, restaurants that are otherwise devoted to showcasing local products avoid the local wines.
It's a fair critique, even if it's more like a big pillow fight than real hostility, where it's fun to swing and hit, but no one gets hurt. Critics are simply stating what kinds of wines they like
Most of the time people gravitate toward the wines they're most familiar with. Those who grew up drinking Italian reds or Loire Valley whites have a hard time—make that nearly an impossible time—finding comparable Sangiovese-based reds or Chenins from California. They exist, but only barely. But in the grand scheme of things, you can find wines with pretty much any alcohol level you want, from pretty much anywhere around the world.
My observation is that the trend toward riper and riper wines has more than reached its saturation point. Winemakers have been picking grapes earlier and dialing back alcohol levels in recent vintages. But soaring alcohol levels are still an issue for many wines, and by that I mean some winemakers can make bigger, expressive wines that are balanced and enjoyable, while others clearly can't. Moreover, there are simply too many copycat wines being made and sometimes the market can become saturated with similarly styled wines. No wine style dominates forever. Probably we will see more wines, even from California, aiming at lower alcohol levels in future vintages.
Restaurant wine lists respond to many influences—the style of the menu, the tastes of the proprietor or sommelier, the demands of the clientele. San Francisco is one of the world's most diverse and sophisticated markets for food and wine. That some restaurants prefer European wines, or wines with lower alcohol levels, to go with their cuisine just make sense.
On the other hand, completely dismissing or ignoring California wines because there aren't any wines that measure up to the cuisine certainly makes a statement, albeit a narrow-minded one.
When visitors come to Napa or Sonoma they expect to drink local wines. In fact, they demand it. Wine country restaurants that have tried to emphasize a broader international selection on their wine lists have often failed. Usually there's a compromise, with a balance of choices. That makes sense to me. Some restaurants can succeed as expressions of philosophy or principle. Most need to please their customers, too, and a diverse clientele will look for a wide range of wines.
One issue I think sometimes gets lost in this debate is how people actually enjoy wine today. The low-alcohol proponents act as if wine's only place is at the table, as an accompaniment to food. But American wine drinkers enjoy wines of all sorts and styles in all kinds of different situations. So while a big Zinfandel or Syrah might clash with delicate or spicy cuisine, those same wines are perfectly enjoyable, even preferable when relaxing to watch a ball game which, by the way, is exactly what I plan to do after work today, with a glass or two of Paso Robles Syrah.
Chris Haag — vancouver, bc — November 4, 2009 5:39pm ET
Johnny Espinoza Esquivel — Wine World — November 4, 2009 5:44pm ET
Steve Kirchner — huntington beach, ca — November 4, 2009 6:25pm ET
John B Vlahos — Cupertino Ca. — November 4, 2009 6:57pm ET
Mark Nickerson — Vallejo, CA — November 4, 2009 7:24pm ET
Thomas Schaal — CA — November 4, 2009 10:06pm ET
Dan Kosta — Sonoma County, CA — November 5, 2009 7:23pm ET
Tim Martin — Napa County, CA — November 5, 2009 10:53pm ET
Sandy Fitzgerald — Centennial, CO — November 6, 2009 10:32am ET
Don Rauba — Schaumburg, IL — November 6, 2009 11:40am ET
Brian Loring — Lompoc, CA — November 6, 2009 12:09pm ET
James Laube — Napa, CA — November 6, 2009 12:29pm ET
Jay J Cooke — Ripon CA — November 6, 2009 1:58pm ET
James Rego — Redding, Ca., Shasta County — November 6, 2009 2:41pm ET
ROBERT MILTON — Newbury Park, CA — November 6, 2009 2:43pm ET
James Laube — Napa, CA — November 6, 2009 3:05pm ET
Bill Hargrove — Bellaire, TX — November 6, 2009 6:46pm ET
Andrew J Walter — Sacramento,CA — November 6, 2009 7:06pm ET
James Laube — Napa, CA — November 6, 2009 7:37pm ET
Andrew J Walter — Sacramento,CA — November 7, 2009 2:07am ET
Dennis D Bishop — Shelby Twp., MI, USA — November 7, 2009 6:00am ET
Jason Adams — Florida — November 7, 2009 10:30am ET
Joshua Kates — Indiana — November 8, 2009 9:15pm ET
Hugh L Sutherland Jr-m — miramar beach, fl — November 9, 2009 12:32pm ET
Ross Layton — San Francisco — November 9, 2009 4:51pm ET
Don R Wagner — Illinois — November 9, 2009 11:44pm ET
Tom Blair — Little Silver, NJ — November 10, 2009 11:06am ET
James Zalenka — Pittsburgh PA — November 10, 2009 11:17am ET
James Laube — Napa, CA — November 10, 2009 3:55pm ET
Burgess Cellars — Saint Helena CA — November 12, 2009 2:45pm ET
Thomas Reiner — Berlin, Germany — December 23, 2009 5:07pm ET
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