Randy Dunn has been one of California's most vocal opponents of high-alcohol wines. About a month ago, we met to talk about the trend toward riper grapes and rising alcohol levels.
He's in the camp that believes wines shouldn't exceed 14 percent alcohol and went so far as to suggest wine reviews be split by alcohol, with 14 percent the line of demarcation. In a playful manner, he suggested that critics (i.e. me) had lost their way by praising wines he found too heavy to drink.
Me, I told him to get over it and that he should get off the mountain once in a while. Most people don't much care about alcohol levels per se. But agreed that most of us know when a wine is too big or too small for its own good.
It was a good exchange, as Dunn hasn't lost his sense of humor or iconoclastic nature, and he offered to show me a lineup of wines that had been altered by reverse osmosis to lower alcohol. He says he's never released a wine over 14 percent. But that may change.
We met last week, over a flight of six variations on a reserve version of his 2007 Washington state Cabernet, which Dunn is making under the Feather label (as part of Allen Shoup's Long Shadows project). All four vintages of Feather from 2003 to 2006 have earned outstanding marks in Wine Spectator blind tastings; I think the 2007 should be every bit as good.
The wines Dunn poured ranged from 13.7 to 15.1 percent alcohol, with stops at 14, 14.3, 14.7 and 15 in between. To demonstrate a point, the original 15.1 wine had been doctored to lower the alcohol levels, using reverse osmosis rather than a spinning cone (you can read about different ways to remove alcohol here). I thought all of the samples were excellent. You could taste the fuller body of the higher-alcohol versions. But I didn't think they were superior to the lower-alcohol ones.
In my book, alcohol isn't a factor in a wine assessment. A good wine is a good wine, period, and Dunn's showed the kind of deft balance I've come to appreciate in his wines. I've been a buyer of his Napa Cabernets for many years, though he no longer submits his Howell Mountain or Napa Valley Cabernets for review by me because he thinks I'm prejudiced against wines under 14 percent—which isn't true, but another story. The Dunn wines do age exceptionally well.
After some debate with his partners, Dunn adjusted the alcohol on the Feather Cabernet to around 14. Dunn being Dunn, I was surprised to hear he was even considering the 15.1.
Mike Drash — Napa, CA — May 3, 2010 6:24pm ET
Brian Byers — Winnipeg, MB — May 3, 2010 8:04pm ET
Scott Oneil — Denver, CO — May 4, 2010 9:53am ET
Don Noone — NYC, USA — May 4, 2010 12:10pm ET
Christopher Dunn — Hawaii — May 4, 2010 3:26pm ET
Russell Bevan — Sonoma Mountain — May 4, 2010 3:33pm ET
Hoyt Hill Jr — Nashville, TN — May 4, 2010 3:59pm ET
Roach Mack — San Francisco — August 15, 2011 8:55am ET
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