And eliminating high-alcohol cancel culture
Talking about “balanced wine” used to be perfectly acceptable—until about ten years ago, when the term suddenly became politicized. People started taking sides, and (at some point) the notion became that wines over 14% alcohol, or grapes picked slightly “overripe,” are somehow inferior or less “balanced” than wines picked at a lower Brix, and finished closer to 12 or 13% ABV.
This is in spite of the fact that the vast majority of mainstream American varietal wines (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot) are now produced at over 14% alcohol. The choice which wines consumers drink is purely aesthetic; and aesthetically, most Americans prefer full-bodied, richly fruited wines. If they preferred light, lean and tart wines, then most wines would be made like that.
Wine consumers make choices the same way they choose to listen to Justin Bieber rather than Beethoven, or read Harry Potters instead of Ulysses. In matters of taste—it’s all good.
The point of systems like France’s AOC, for example, delineate the best winegrowing regions, but do not define which regions are “best.” Thus, it is no more valid to say a Côte-Rôtie is superior to a Cornas or Saint-Joseph than it is to say a Saint-Joseph is better than a South Australia Shiraz or Lodi Syrah. It’s a silly argument because different regions produce wines of different terroir-related distinctions, often at extraordinary levels of quality that transcend arbitrary conceptions like alcohol, perceptions of “ripeness,” or even a sense of “balance.” One man’s ceiling, as they say, is another man’s floor.
Charles Olken, publisher of Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine, once said: “Every new generation of wine commentators suddenly discovers that California wines are a little bit riper than their European counterparts. A few of them genuinely like the pert, tighter, high acids they find in Europe, but others simply adopt Europe as a ‘classic’ and thus dismiss all that is different.”
Olken shared those thoughts back in 2012, around the time that the loose-knit yet much-discussed movement “In Pursuit of Balance” reached an apogee. Olken added, about those times, “If someone pointed out that balanced wines do, in fact, exist at levels above 14%, that person is branded a ‘high alcohol apologist’ by people who should know better, but who themselves often recommend wines as high as 15% based upon their own blind tastings.”
It isn’t so much a commonality of blind tastings, but a case of people putting on blinders. Let’s not forget the incident at the 2011 World of Pinot Noir, when Siduri winemaker/owner Adam Lee switched a 15.2% ABV Pinot Noir with a 13.6% ABV Pinot Noir—resulting in the higher alcohol wine being described as “better balanced” by a fellow panelist, one who happened to be one of the higher profile proponents of “In Pursuit of Balance.”
Blind tastings make fools of us all.
Even experienced wine professionals (who should know better) often cannot reconcile the fact that sensory perception is always altered by scale and context—no matter what your avowed preferences or intellectual persuasions. Quite often a 15.2% ABV Pinot Noir does, indeed, taste much finer, and better balanced, than a 13.6% ABV Pinot Noir, and it has nothing to do with alcohol.
The best wines are so much more than just one technical component.
I, for one, have always preferred a lighter, gentler, finessed-style of Pinot Noir. Line up any two Pinots, and I’ll always pick the more restrained, sharper style over the big, “opulent” or “hedonistic” one. But that’s a personal predilection. Yet I’ll never forget another World of Pinot Noir event, when I tasted a stunning wine that I thought was one particular winemaker’s finest Pinot Noir ever.
“This was probably our most difficult Pinot Noir to make,” he said. “We experienced a sudden late season heat spike, and grape sugars soared out of control… the alcohol ended up over 15%.” Needless to say, I hadn’t checked the alcohol content on the label. Does this make me a lousy judge of Pinot? No. It just means it was a damned good wine and very much a product of its vintage and the savviness of the winemaker.
Still, I can’t help but think: All that talk about “balance” smacked of self-indulgent conceit. These days it’s called “cancel culture.” In retrospect, some segments of the wine industry were actually trying to cancel-out the types of wines most consumers clearly prefer—that is, full bodied, generously fruited wines.
That didn’t stop a few retailers, and a good number of sommeliers, from jumping on the In Pursuit of Balance bandwagon, making a point of rejecting wines above 14% alcohol, and embracing leaner alcohol wines, whether they were appealing or not. No wonder so many folks still wince at the sight of sommeliers. All consumers want from sommeliers is a good wine list and an occasional recommendation — preferably something in synch with their taste. No one’s interested in being judged.
Ultimately, a sommelier’s mission is to steer a guest towards the ideal wines for dishes, regardless of alcohol levels, because the better a wine tastes with a dish the better the impression of a restaurant. This is where the democracy of wines comes in. It doesn’t matter if a Côte-Rôtie is better (or better “balanced”) than a Cornas or Saint-Joseph. What matters is which pairs with the food the customer orders, like grilled or roasted red meat.
But take that same grill or roast and finish it with a Port-infused demi-glace, plus beds of onion marmalade, and I’d wager that a humongous Australian Shiraz might actually fare better than the leaner, earthier wines of the Northern Rhône. Incorporate exotic ingredients like star anise, hoisin, black beans or chocolate mole, and then lavish, sweet toned, decidedly warmer climate American Syrahs.
The “In Pursuit of Balance” movement eventually puttered out. We’re back to living in a world where we taste a wine first, before peering at a label to see if it finished at 12.5% or 15.5% alcohol. Either way, it’s okay if it tastes great. Which was always the way it was supposed to be.
This is especially good because there’s too much good winegrowing going on to dismiss anything because of arbitrary standards like alcohol level, someone’s conception of varietal character, or personal definition of the word “balance.”
Randy Caparoso is a full-time wine journalist/photographer living in Lodi, California. In a prior incarnation, he was a multi-award winning restaurateur, starting as a sommelier in Honolulu (1978 through 1988), and then as Founding Partner/VP/Corporate Wine Director of the James Beard Award winning Roy’s family of restaurants (1988-2001), opening 28 locations from Hawaii to New York. While with Roy’s, he was named Santé’s first Wine & Spirits Professional of the Year (1998) and Restaurant Wine’s Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 and 1998). Between 2001 and 2006, he operated his own Caparoso Wines label as a wine producer. For over 20 years, he also bylined a biweekly wine column for his hometown newspaper, The Honolulu Advertiser (1981-2002). He currently puts bread (and wine) on the table as Editor-at-Large and the Bottom Line columnist for The SOMM Journal (founded in 2007 as Sommelier Journal), and freelance blogger and social media director for Lodi Winegrape Commission (lodiwine.com). You may contact him at [email protected]