High-alcohol wines are controversial. But blaming critics, or even worse, consumers for buying and enjoying these wines misses the mark.
That’s why I find Randy Dunn’s recent letter (below) baffling: Sent to various media outlets and others in the wine industry last week, the letter urges consumers to, in effect, stop drinking wines they apparently like. The timing of the letter, well, better late than never?
Having known Dunn, the owner and winemaker of Dunn Vineyards, in Napa's Howell Mountain appellation, for nearly 30 years, I don’t doubt his sincerity and concern about riper wines and higher alcohols. That he doesn’t like this style of wine is apparent.
But it’s not as if critics are forcing consumers to buy these wines. Ripe wines, irrespective of where they’re from, have a solid base of fans as well as detractors. The popularity of ripe wines is clear; if consumers didn't like this style of wine, it wouldn't sell.
It wasn’t all that long ago that some people would have accused Dunn’s Howell Mountain Cabernets as being too tannic and too aggressive and not the style of wine that goes with meals.
If you substitute the word tannin for alcohol in Dunn's letter, it underscores that the enjoyment of alcohol or tannin is a matter of personal taste and preference. Alcohol and tannin levels in wine will drop when people stop drinking those styles of wine.
"It is time for the average wine consumers, as opposed to tasters, to speak up. The current fad of higher and higher alcohol wines should stop. Most wine drinkers do not really appreciate wines that are 15 -16. +% alcohol. They are, in fact, hot and very difficult to enjoy with a meal. About the only dish that seems to put them in their place is a good hot, spicy dish.
"I don’t believe the average person is so insensitive to flavors and aromas that they must have a 15% Cabernet, Chardonnay, or Pinot Noir to get the aromas and flavors. Influential members of the wine press have lead the score chasing winemakers/owners up the alcohol curve and now I hope that it soon will lead them down.
"Winemaking is not really much different than cooking. The end product should be enjoyable to consume—not just to taste. Hopefully most who read this don’t think it’s a novel concept that we should be making wines to consume. Would you want to sample a soup, meat dish or other course that is so overpowering that you cannot enjoyably finish what is in front of you? These new wines are made to taste and spit—not to drink.
"This is all linked to my views on the ever evasive and vanishing terroir; the subtleties of terroir in wines have been melted together in a huge pot called “overripe” or the vogue “physiologically mature” grape. Gone are the individualities of specific regions, replaced by sameness—high alcohol, raisiny, pruney, flabby wines. Likewise, the descriptor “herbaceous” was often used in a positive sense when describing Cabernets. Now it is the kiss of death. Voluptuous—I do remember seeing that only occasionally, but not on the aroma/flavor wheel.
"So I would like the consumers to take the lead for a change, rather than being led. Ask for wines that are below 14% when you are out to dinner. The reactions are fun, but the results are not good for United States wines. The sommelier usually comes back with a French or New Zealand wine. On the restaurant level, high alcohol wines have reduced the number of bottles sold. It is very simple arithmetic; % alcohol times volume equals satisfaction. If % alcohol goes up, volume must go down for satisfaction to stay the same—or else we all get plastered.
"Consumers—wake up and get active. Reviewers—please at least include the labeled alcohol percentage in all your reviews, and try to remember that not everyone is spitting."