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Are Winemakers Doing Drinkers a Disservice?

Adam Lee rebuts critics of the new, riper style of wines.

Posted: Sep 25, 2008 8:36pm ET

By Adam Lee

Posted by Adam Lee

Currently, there is a movement in California backing away from the bigger, higher alcohol wines that seemed to become the norm sometime in the late 1990s. Some of this is due to a string of cooler vintages, but some of it is a deliberate decision by a number of winemakers to necessarily take a step back from always pushing the envelope on ripeness. All of which is fine and good, but I have a question about this movement. Are we winemakers doing American wine drinkers a disservice by moving blindly towards producing lower alcohol, better balanced, more food-friendly, more ageworthy wines?

That’s right—a disservice. Take a look at these figures on California wine sales in the United States. From 1997 to 2001, California winery shipments to the U.S. market went from 384 million gallons up to 387 million gallons. Less than a 1 percent increase in 4 years isn’t going to get anyone excited. From 2001 to 2007, those same shipments increased from 387 million gallons to 457 million gallons—an almost 18% increase. Certainly one can point to other factors in attempting to explain this increase, things like a growing economy or a certain movie, but I think the correlation between this new, “riper” style and the boon in wine sales is more than coincidental.

Now, I participate in enough wine forums to hear the cries of those who deride the new, riper style. They will scream, “How can you say that producing more balanced wines is doing the consumer a disservice? Wine is meant to be an accompaniment to food, and these new style wines overwhelm any meal. They are not true to the grape type or the terroir. They don’t age well. And people really don’t want a wine that will get them buzzed after only a glass or two.”

I understand these sentiments. And I would begin to respond to them by asking, “When did you forget what it is like to be younger?”

First off, I’m always skeptical when someone tells me what something is “supposed to be.” If the grape comes from the place, then isn’t the wine necessarily a reflection of the grape and the place, even if it doesn’t meet your personal taste? And the age argument has never impressed me tremendously, as most people drink their wines early anyhow.

But the food argument really strikes me as out of touch with reality for many younger drinkers. Quite frankly, I don’t think I have ever heard anyone with children younger than 13 years of age make the argument that the new-style wines don’t go with a meal.

Let me tell you about a meal in my house. We have 3 kids, ages 9, 4, and 2. We don’t sit down to a proper meal. Oh, we try. Dianna and I open a bottle of wine and end up drinking 30 percent of it before the meal even starts, about 60 percent of it after the meal while doing the dishes and getting the kids ready for bed, and only 10 percent of the bottle with a meal. And that 10 percent doesn’t even get the opportunity to pair with the food. It accompanies us trying to convince the kids to at least taste their broccoli, or us cleaning up the inevitable milk accident when we serve the kids in regular cups because we’ve run out of sippy cups, or trying to hide the kids-meal toy before the kids see them and forget about their food entirely. I tell you this: The new-style wine goes pretty well with this kind of meal.

I’m not trying to argue that there is only room for one style of wine— not just one style in the world, not just one style in California, not even just one style in one winery. What I am arguing is that the arguments often made against the “new style” of wine are out of touch with the reality of many Americans.

Instead of arguing for one style over the other, perhaps there is a better way to view things. Over the years, Dianna and I have discovered something after making wines from lots of different places. Certain vineyards, such as Pisoni and Keefer, do better for us if the wine is made in a bit bigger, a bit more extracted, a bit more “new” style. Other vineyards seem to perform better when produced in a somewhat more traditional style. Places like Sapphire Hill and Van der Kamp show their alcohol more readily and seem out of balance more easily if we push the “new style” envelope.

My point is that, as an industry in California, we should ultimately be figuring out which style, which winemaking decisions, make the best wine at each vineyard and then producing that wine. What we shouldn’t be doing is changing styles because of changes in trends or because of the comments of a certain group of critics or because of which way the wine wind decides to blow.

Timothy Perr
September 25, 2008 11:07pm ET
Adam, I love your contrarian blog, especially in these economic times. I absolutely agree with your general point ¿ there is no shame in making a great modern style wine, even if it is relatively riper and higher in alcohol than one considers ideal for pairing with food. I also agree that in order to make the best wine possible, each vineyard/vintage needs to be expressed independent of a preconceived house style. However, with so many brands out there fighting to differentiate themselves and to gain market share, there is bound to be pandering.
Steve Costigan
September 26, 2008 2:00am ET
Adam, right on. The food-friendly argument goes away when you simply match a wine to an appropriate food and most of us only consume a small percentage of our wine with dinner. There is almost a new political correctness being espoused that wine makers and consumers should somehow shy away from large-scale, highly extracted wines. I think the best results occur when winemakers take advantage of what nature gives them. The challenge is to make everything in balance, there must be enough to carry 14.5+% alcohol well and there are many examples that pull it off magnificently. Trying to make a Burgundian style Pinot from California grapes has resulted in some pretty ordinary wines. I have noticed a general trend of lighter Siduri Pinots after your 2001 vintage. Would you care to address where you would like to go with your California Pinots?
Kevin Harvey
September 26, 2008 12:31pm ET
Adam,I think you make some good points about the "new style" wines. Many people love them and probably enjoy them in a similar setting to yours.That said, it is important to note that many people do not love them. Personally (maybe because my kids are 12 and 14!!), I do not enjoy the jammy, overtly sweet flavors or bitter high alcohol that has been so lauded over the last 10 years. I know that I am not alone.So while there is certainly a place for the extremely ripe style, I think it is time for the media to acknowledge and embrace the tremendous demand for fresh, balanced, ageworthy and detailed wine. These wines are every bit as compelling as their extremely ripe counterparts and they have a strong audience as well.
Steve Ritchie
Atlanta, GA —  September 26, 2008 12:59pm ET
Great post! I too am taking a more and more contrarian view from the classicists on the topic of ripeness and approachability. There is room for a wide range of styles and I believe that ripeness and approachability should be seen as neither good nor bad, depending on the overall balance and quality of the wine. There are excellet ripe and excellent "restrained" wines, likewise, there are excellent wines that are approachable today and excellent wines that need serious age. Thanks for adding to the debate!
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  September 26, 2008 2:25pm ET
Kevin,I guess I would only ask two things.

First, is it really the media's job to "embrace styles"? I would think that for those who review and rate specific wines their job is simply to rate the wine fairly based on what they percieve to be its quality. For those who write about wineries in a more general way, it would be to write about wineries that have compelling stories without regard to the style of wine that they make.

Second, do you really think the media hasn't embraced the demand for other styles of wine? Jim Laube wrote up your winery as one of the "Hot New Labels to Look For" back in 2006, the New York Times did an entire front page Food & Wine section story on Rhys, folks like Allen Meadows and Steve Tanzer have been extraordinarily complimentary to your wines and to folks like Arcadian and Calera. So I'm trying to figure out what embrace you are waiting for. Seems like a lot of love.

Adam LeeSiduri Wines
Robert Kelly
Monte Sereno —  September 26, 2008 3:05pm ET
Adam, this is one of the best arguments I have ever read regarding bigger, high alcohol Pinot. I very much agree with your food friendly argument as well. I have no kids and am 62. We always open a bottle an hour before dinner, and drink most of it before and after. In a restaurant where more time is spent over the meal through various courses, then the importance of matching wine comes into play. Arguments of high versus low alcohol wines are interesting but getting old. If someone wants a less-alcoholic Pinot--fine, buy one. However, to say its better is way too subjective. Both have a place and by the way, I also love my Burgundies.
Alex Bernardo
Millbrae, CA —  September 26, 2008 8:39pm ET
With regards to Kevin Harvey's comment, I didn't see any reference there to Rhys. Further, I wouldn't conclude the wine media's singling out certain wines as already embracing their styles. A broad trend like constantly giving high scores to wines made by these group of winemakers you refer to would be indicative of an embrace.
Kevin Harvey
September 26, 2008 9:40pm ET
Adam,Since scoring is by definition very subjective, reviewers have to make conscious decisions about what styles they value (or embrace) more highly than others. Over the last 10 years, the highest scores California wines have been almost exclusively reserved for extremely ripe examples. I don't believe that this is a simple reflection of personal reviewer preferences but rather an editorial consideration that believes that only extremely ripe, "drink on release" styles will stand out for the greater wine consuming audience. I think this assumption may well reflect the tastes of some people but it vastly underestimates the number of wine drinkers that do not prefer the extremely ripe styles.California can make terrific, site specific and balanced wine and it is a shame that so many winedrinkers think they have to move on to European wine to find what they are looking for. California is better served when its wide diversity of styles are celebrated and the extremely ripe wines are just one of many styles that California is capable of producing.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  September 27, 2008 9:45am ET

No, there certainly wasn't any reference to Rhys in Kevin's comment - but there should have been. I think Rhys is a perfect example of how, if someone makes superb wines and does an outstanding job of marketing, one can achieve remarkable press. Let's face it, for broader exposure and growth of the mailing list a front page section article in the NY Times is fantastic.

Adam LeeSiduri Wines
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  September 27, 2008 10:07am ET

I appreciate the feedback. Again, I have a hard time fulling agreeing with you on the basic facts. I believe you would acknowledge that there was this huge trend towards making what I called the "new style wines." If that is the case and everyone was doing it (as you have said before) then wouldn't it only make sense that the majority of high scoring reviews would be from that style? Seems just like a numerical thing to me. Combine this with the press' desire to find the "hot new thing" and it only makes numerical sense that those wines would be the most prevelant.

A couple of other thoughts -- 1) I think you are really trying to complain about the style of wines you prefer not getting enough press. I don't really hear you saying, "boy, I wish the New York Times would write an article about how great those big, ripe California wines are." 2) Specifically, why do you think the number of wine drinkers that do not "prefer the extremely ripe styles" is being underestimated? I gave you some statistics on the increase in wine consumption during the period that the "new style" came along. Do you have any numbers to back up your thoughts? 3) I don't think "site specific" and "extremely ripe" are necessarily antithetical. As I mentioned in my blog, we are discovering that certain sites are better riper and certain sites are not (and this changes somewhat given vintage conditions) and we are trying to make those adjustments.

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines
Jack Stoakes
Colorado —  September 27, 2008 2:34pm ET
Wow, your piece seems myopic, to say the least. This blog may be about California Pinot Noir, but doesn't take into account the state of current California Pinot ripeness in the greater context of the worldwide history of the grape. Balance has always been the name of the game when it comes to quality Pinot Noir - always - and the fact that you eschew the quest for California winemakers to produce more balanced wine is puzzling. Moreover, your statement, "I don¿t think I have ever heard anyone with children younger than 13 years of age make the argument that the new-style wines don¿t go with a meal" may be an indicator that you need to travel to more American wine markets. There is a significant groundswell of wine consumers in their early twenties who are very interested in wine and food pairing, and many are moving out of the nascent stages of wine discovery toward Old World and Old World-style wines that simply pair better with food. If you take the time to step into the market you can engage these people year-round in restaurants, at wine events, trade shows and retail stores - I've been encountering them on an increasing basis over the last fifteen years of my wine career. Go ahead and continue to make a ripe, high-alcohol, food-unfriendly modern styles of Pinot Noir for the next ten years and see how long it is before these 'trends' see you adjusting your style to avoid being swept into irrelevance. If one reads between the lines, and many Wine Spectator readers are bound to, it becomes fairly evident that this particular blog serves more to defend the style of wine you choose to make than to give a truly objective opinion about California Pinot Noir.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  September 27, 2008 6:07pm ET

Thanks for your post and thoughts. I do think it is useful to bring up these topics and do engage in this type of back and forth as we can all always learn something from the exchange.

As an history major in college, I have always found the history of wine to be fascinating. It seems to me that trends in the wine business tend to ebb and flo. Whether this be alcohol levels (Duvault-Blochet of DRC is quoted as saying that, in the 1800s, "exceptional, incomparable wines" are made when grapes are picked at potential alcohol levels of "14, 14.5, 15, and 15.5"), or barrel usage (in the mid-1800s the wines at Clos Vogeut were aged in all new oak), or virtually any other technique or style - things that used to be will become unstylish and then stylish again.

Do you think it was simply chance that wine has reached unheard of levels of popularity at the same time this "new style" of wine became popular? From the 60+ days a year I spend on the road selling wine, it seems more than coincidental to me.

As far as our own wines go, we make (I think) a fairly broad range of styles of wine. I tried to convey this in the next to the last paragraph in my blog - we are trying to examine each vineyard anew in the context of the vintage and our history with the sites, and are discovering (albeit slowly) that some places do better in a bigger style and others don't. That does make it difficult for my post to defend the "style" that we are making because we are also condeming the style we are making at the same time. :)

Adam Lee, Siduri Wines
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  September 28, 2008 2:10am ET
I disagree with Adam in that I find many of the newer, riper style wines to be very food friendly - it just depends upon the style of food you eat. I happen to prefer bolder flavors and spicy foods. The bigger, richer wines are perfect for the foods I eat. I do agree with Adam that they can also be great alone, and do fit with the lifestyle he describes.

I disagree with Kevin's implication that the newer style wines aren't fresh, balanced, or detailed. IMHO, those are very subjective things, and I personally find those qualities in a lot of the bigger wines that I enjoy. And as for ageworthiness, I think that a wine that doesn't have to be aged for many years to provide an optimal drinking experience is far more consumer friendly than one that needs 10 years in the cellar.

I'm sure Adam was pondering winemaking decisions when he wrote this blog. I would guess that most winemakers constantly review what they've done in the past and consider any changes they might want to make in the future - in an attempt to make the best wine possible. There's always external pressure to change what you do, since everyone has their own idea about what's best. While I happen to agree with Adam's specific example, I would also say that conceptually it speaks to a greater issue... that winemaker's should follow thier own tastes and beliefs. Critics will voice their opinions, but the buying public with ultimately be the judge. And if enough people like what you do, you stay in business.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  September 28, 2008 2:23am ET
Kevin, regarding:Over the last 10 years, the highest scores California wines have been almost exclusively reserved for extremely ripe examples. I don't believe that this is a simple reflection of personal reviewer preferences but rather an editorial consideration that believes that only extremely ripe, "drink on release" styles will stand out for the greater wine consuming audience.

I'm not sure where you got this impression. I've never heard any reviewer state anything like that. What would be their incentive? Especially given your statement that there's a tremendous number of wine consumers that think differently?

I think the non-conspiracy theory reason why the wines scored the highest is simply that the reviewers thought they were the best wines.
Tyler Mcafee
Houston, TX —  September 28, 2008 6:52pm ET
Let me start by saying that I've had and ENJOYED wines from all of you guys (Siduri, Loring, Rhys/Alesia) as well as others on opposite ends of the ripeness spectrum (Kosta Browne, Arcadian, etc). We'll stick to pinot since that's really what we're talking about.What should be obvious but unfortunately hasn't been discussed is that whether or not you prefer new-style or the "old-world, traditional, Burgundian" style it would be difficult to argue that traditionally made pinots show as well on release as the new style of pinots. I believe this effect is magnified in a marathon tasting setting such as the ones Laube routinely goes through. The older styled wines just have a hard time standing out. It's like comparing a flower in full bloom to one that has just started to unfurl its petals.When you combine the recent trend of producing big, ripe, fruit forward wines that show well early on and the release of Sideways during this trend - a movie that brought a new army of young wine drinkers into the picture you're talking about the perfect storm. All these new wine drinkers rush to publications like Wine Spectator to find out who makes the best pinot in California. Open the pages and what do they see? Kosta Browne, Loring, Siduri, A.P. Vin, Sea Smoke. There are others like Rochioli and Marcassin, but they are for the most part unattainable.So everyone jumps on the new-style pinot bandwagon and the guys doing it the old fashioned way get the short end of the stick. A few years have gone by now, and I think what you are starting to see is the pendulum swing back. I think having the 2005 vintage show everyone a completely different perspective than 2004 really accelerated this. These new wine drinkers are becoming more educated, they're tasting a broader range of wines and styles and they're learning what suits their palate. Some have started seeking out older vintages to see what secondary flavors are all about and they like what they are finding.
Tyler Mcafee
Houston, TX —  September 28, 2008 7:07pm ET
There are great wines to be had in both styles, and we have pinot for nearly every drinking occasion now. It's a good time for wine lovers. I think consumers and producers should all try to avoid from getting caught up in the moment and instead be honest with yourself. Forget about what's popular or what's getting the highest scores and just trust your palate. If you're a producer, make the best wine you can make with the resources at your disposal and treat your customers well. Doesn't matter what style you choose - if you do it well, you'll get the attention you deserve.
Bill Hargrove
Bellaire, TX —  September 28, 2008 11:03pm ET
Although I rarely post, this thread definitely caught my attention. I, too, have enjoyed wines from Siduri, Alesia/Rhys, Loring, and many other California producers (Melville, Clos Pepe, Cargasacchi, Dunah, Kistler...). I also enjoy Burgundy. Tonight I shared a bottle of 2006 Siduri Pisoni Vineyard pinot with my daughter (alas, Adam, my children are older than yours) over dinner. What did I pair it with? Green salad, spaghetti with meat sauce, and garlic bread. Guess what? It was a terrific match! Like Brian Loring said, I like spicy, bold flavors. The bold wine pairs well with it. In the week following Hurricane Ike, when I was without power, I grilled a chicken with thyme and rosemary and drank a bottle of 2002 Nicolas Rossignol Volnay Clos des Angles - definitely NOT a bold, highly extracted wine. Guess what? It was a terrific match! Who says one style is good and the other isn't? By the way, Adam, thanks for the Pisoni. It was excellent.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  September 29, 2008 1:28am ET
Tyler and Bill - great comments! I agree with both of you that's there plenty of room in this world for all styles of wine. And that no one style is better than another - and that no one style is perfect for all circumstances.

And I applaud Adam's courage to point out that despite the vocal protests of a group that would prefer to limit options in favor of what they view to be "correct", that choice and diversity are good things.
David Barksdale
Henderson, NV —  September 29, 2008 1:47pm ET
Adam & Brian, As an Appalachian American, I probably don't have the sophisticated palate that most of your writers share. As evinced by my preference for California and Oregon Pinots over those from the hallowed Burgundy, I don't even know what good Pinot is supposed to taste like . However, as an alternative to letting those who profess to know what good Pinot should taste like be allowed to define the production, how about we allow all of the winemakers to make what they feel to be the very best wine possible given the vineyard, weather and ultimately the grapes. Then, as consumers, we can pick and choose the wines that we like based on our own preferences, leaving the correctly made bottles of juice to the genuinely sophisticated and what will ultimately be the good stuff to the plebes. Writers and retailers that seek to limit wines to certain distinct styles and tastes are only the first step. Next they will move to limit gentlemen's clubs to only one type and size of entertainer. David H. BarksdaleHenderson, Nevada
Mark Horowitz
Brooklyn, USA —  September 30, 2008 11:02am ET
Adam: Let me respond to the only point in your post to which I am qualified to respond: the issue of parenting. I remember fondly when my kids were your kids ages and we were lucky to even get to open a bottle of wine between preparing a meal, feeding the kids, cleaning up, etc. Now that my kids are older, nearly 50% of each bottle is consumed with the meal.And, that includes a few sips for each of the kids (my son, a college junior, prefers microbrewed beer and my daughter, 18, loves the Rhones, particularly Gigondas...I've joked that, with her knowledge of wine, she should save me $200,000 on college and just go to a sommelier program).All this to say that you should enjoy each day with your kids, regardless of how much wine is consumed because, I know it's cliche, they grow up verrrry quickly. Soon enough, Dianna and you will be enjoying your entire bottle, while you reminisce and think about how you're going to pay for three tuitions!!
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  October 1, 2008 1:15pm ET
I feel there are right styles for everything as long as your retain the characteristics of the grape. Some winemakers that strive to make any varietal tastes like a cab, it is those "new" styles that I don't agree with. There are certain houses out there where all of their varietals taste exactly like each other, why bother making varietals then?
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  October 1, 2008 1:25pm ET
Adam,Great post . . . and obviously a good job of getting a discussion going (-:

For me, ALL wine is about balance . . . but balance is somewhat defined 'individually' . . . This goes back to the age old argument - can a wine over X % be truly balanced? The answer, of coures, is YES . . . as long as you have an open enough mind not to presuppose what that specific wine 'should' be like . . .

I also agree with Brian that I have had tons of great 'bigger' pinots and other varieties that went wonderfully with food - not delicate fish dishes, mind you, but more hearty meals . . .

And as you know, I am in the same boat - 3 kids ages 9, 8, and 6 - and therefore can truly appreciate your and Dianna's dinner time 'regiment' . . .

Keep up the great work - and looking forward to getting together again soon!

Mr Damian Zaninovich
Bakersfield,Ca —  October 1, 2008 1:54pm ET
Adam, for my taste I feel that many new world wines are too sweet, or with contrived vanilla flavors, that's why I purchase mostly French and Italian vino. They have enjoyable balance without elevated alcohol levels but even many of these are caving to the current international style as well.

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