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.