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james laube's wine flights

Not Done Yet With Dunn

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Aug 2, 2007 1:04pm ET

Had I known yesterday that I’d be in Angwin at dawn today, I would have tried to make a breakfast date with Randy Dunn: the winemaker and owner of Dunn Vineyards lives in this Howell Mountain hamlet.

Dunn is one of my favorite winemakers. Aside from enjoying his chewy Cabernets, I like him because he's refreshingly candid and outspoken (see his letter in my blog yesterday), and not one to dodge a tough question. I’m sure he would have welcomed an arm-wrestling match to hash out our differences over a bucket of cowboy coffee and hardtack.

I drove to Angwin this morning because my son needed a lift to work. He’s part of the construction team building the new CADE winery near Dunn's place. CADE, an architectural gem, is part of the PlumpJack family, which also owns a namesake winery in Oakville, the Carneros Inn in Napa and some Wine Spectator award-winning restaurants, among other properties.

Had Dunn and I met, I'm sure we would have discussed how Americans drink wine. (I think we drink it before, during and after meals, so if we focus only on whether a wine is food-friendly we ignore its value as a cocktail or an after-dinner drink.) I'm sure we would have agreed that desirable alcohol and tannin levels are a matter of personal taste. Too much of either can be as bad as too little of either. (For more commentary on this subject, check out my columns on runaway ripeness and spinning cones.) Both of us would have probably also agreed that true alcohol levels on wine labels are desirable, and maybe should be mandatory.

In response to yesterday's blog, one reader suggested that Wine Spectator is afraid to print alcohol levels in reviews for fear that top-rated wines would correlate with high alcohol levels, and, well, that doesn’t fly. Critics who write hundreds or thousands of wine reviews are hardly afraid to take a stand. One of my all-time favorite wines is a German Riesling with 7 percent alcohol; I drink it as often as I can.

I’ve always been for full disclosure, truth-in-labeling on wine bottles. Most journalists and critics fall into that camp for the simple reason that it’s better to have more information about what you’re drinking than less.

It’s really up to the wineries, not the media, to publish accurate alcohol content on their labels. Years ago most table wines were labeled with 12.5 or 13 percent, irrespective of the actual content because people didn’t care that much about it. Now they do.

Then the industry adopted a “table wine” band-aid approach, which didn’t include any alcohol percentages. As it now stands, wineries have a lot of elasticity with what they're required to put on their labels. Vintners are allowed to have a 1.5 percent variation on wines under 14 percent alcohol and can be off by as much as 1 percent for wines over 14 percent. That means that a wine noted as having 13.9 percent alcohol can actually have 14.4 percent; alcohol levels noted at 15.5 can be as high as 16.5.

If we really want true alcohol levels printed, let’s start focusing on the wineries. If they were required by law to note each wine's true alcohol levels, it would be a lot easier for us to get the information we really want.

Justin Remeny
L.A. Cali —  August 2, 2007 6:41pm ET
James, A little off topic, but I have been meaning to ask you, are there any unknown "boutique wineries" that we should know about? I don't mean the cults - as those aren't affordable to most of us; but rather, small wineries with a truly quality product.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  August 2, 2007 7:20pm ET
Justin, not so much off topic as it's a book! We see lots of new wines each week. We try to fast-track reviews of new wines/wineries here, on the web, in blogs, and in tasting highlights. But I'll keep this in mind...In our next magazine issue, with Pinot Noir, we have snapshots of newcomers worth seeking.I've written blogs about Ovid, Four Vines, Native 9, Emeritus, Fort Ross, Kutch, Levy McClellan, Badge, Kapcsandy, Rhys and Alesia this year, which are new wines.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  August 2, 2007 8:23pm ET
I hope you do get a sitdown with Mr. Dunn and tell us all about it. By the way, someone posted on yesterday's blog that they expected to see 19% alcohol at some point, but isn't there a real limit at between 17-17.5%, above which the yeast actually dies and stops fermentation? Don't you have to fortify the wine after fermentation to go above 17.5%?

What's the name of that Riesling you so enjoy again?
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  August 2, 2007 9:59pm ET
Blame the critic !?!?! Blame the winemakeer?!?!? Blame the consumer ?!?!?! for the "problem" of too much ETOH. I say . If its good, it will be enjoyed regardless of the ETOH level (pardon the expletive but someone had to say it!). Winemakers of course, tend to fudge down on EOTH levels to pay less taxes. And Troy, native or cultured yeast will not ferment much higher than 17.5% as that level of ETOH, it tends to be toxic to them (maybe a lesson for us???) -- thus fotification is required to get to the 18-20% level of Port, etc
Bret Dublinske
Iowa —  August 2, 2007 10:53pm ET
In the prior thread, a common theme was that alcohol level, like many other qualities of a wine, is a matter of taste. Today you raise another point that takes the concept even further and which had occurred to me reading the prior thread: even one's taste may change based on context, occasion, pairing, etc. I recently opened a 2000 Martinelli Giuseppi & Louisa Zin. It had a little heat, but it was fairly balanced off by the dense, massive fruit. We were having a fun evening, and we greatly enjoyed the wine because of, not in spite of, its clear, exuberent over-the-top-ness. Would I want to drink that wine everyday? No. Was it a lot of fun and enjoyment in the circumstance? Absolutely. And other times a much lighter Oregon Pinot at several points ETOH less is a much better "fit." Sometimes I like Franciscan Cuvee Sauvage Chard; sometimes I like "naked" Chardonnay with no oak at all. Dunn is surely entitled to his view, and to share it with the world. My view is that I hope he is never so persuasive that he runs the big wines out of the market, but that he is just persuasive enough that big wines never become the whole game. In the end, variety, in wine like all else, is the spice of life. Vive la differnce and all that.
Tom Hudson
Wilmington, Delaware —  August 3, 2007 9:40am ET
Isn't there a 1% variance level (up or down) allowed in the US from the stated level of alcohol printed on the label? (ie, a wine with 14% on the label can have between 13 - 15% actual alcohol)?
James T Vitelli
Connecticut —  August 3, 2007 3:22pm ET
OK folks. Time for a math lesson. A bottle of wine has 750ml of liquid. If that wine is 13.5% alcohol, and you share that bottle over dinner with one other person, then you will have consumed 50.625ml of alcohol. If your bottle is 15% alcohol, you will have consumed 56.25ml, or a total of 5.625ml more. For those not well versed in the metric system, that is less than 0.2 ounces difference. Two-tenths of an ounce. The equivalent of one-third of a cocktail made with 1.5 ounces of 80 proof vodka. Do you really think, as Mr. Dunn proposes, that we are all getting

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