High-Alcohol Wines Risking Backlash, Taxes as Gooey Soporifics

It seemed like a good idea at the time. I had just enjoyed a glass of white wine with some seafood and the next course was lamb, with which a big red Chateauneuf-du-Pape was served. Trouble was, this was lunch, and I spent the rest of the afternoon asleep.

True, the older one gets the less one should drink at lunch, but the real culprit was the red’s 14.5 percent alcohol, a level made popular by the sun-burned Napa Valley blockbusters and California cult wines that emerged in the late 1970s and have delighted many U.S. wine critics since.

Robert Parker, publisher of The Wine Advocate, raved about big “plummy” high-alcohol red wines with “gobs of fruit,” encouraging California winemakers to go for higher and higher alcohol levels. Some labels now list 17 percent, which may actually be a degree or higher in the bottle -- closer to Port than wine.

In fact, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives only labels wines between 7 percent and 14 percent alcohol as “table wine.” Above that, even if the level of alcohol is reached naturally, they are categorized as “fortified” and, with some leeway, are taxed at a rate four times higher.

While higher alcohol rates do occur naturally in warmer climates, winemakers can boost the level by letting the grapes hang longer to achieve phenolic ripeness and build up sugars that ferment into alcohol. The result is wines with a richer, slightly sweeter flavor that do well in competitions, where deep color and big aromas count.

Red ‘Parkerization’

Now, with the economy crippling high-priced, high- alcohol wine sales, there is a backlash against what the industry calls the “Parkerization” of red wines.

“If you want to get drunk, booze is cheaper and quicker than wine,” wine writer Gerry Dawes said in a phone interview. “High alcohol destroys the balance wine should have. You need acid, not high alcohol, to go with food. After a single glass these wines are tiresome to drink and people will leave a very expensive bottle half-empty on the table because they can’t finish it. Nobody can convince me these are good wines.”

More wineries now seem to be paying attention to what Randy Dunn of Dunn Vineyards said in a public statement in 2007 after being horrified that his 2004 vintage broke the 14 percent barrier.

“The current fad of higher and higher alcohol wines should stop,” Dunn said. “Most wine drinkers do not really appreciate wines that are 15 percent to 16 percent and more alcohol. They are, in fact, hot and very difficult to drink.”

Refused to Sell

Another wake-up call came from Darrell Corti, president of the Sacramento wine-and-food market Corti Bros., who announced that he would not even sample any wines above 14.5 percent and refused to sell them.

Yet many winemakers still persist in producing the kind of powerhouse wines that made California’s reputation. I recently opened a bottle of 2007 Chappellet Mountain Cuvee ($29), a Napa Valley blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, cabernet franc and petit verdot. The alcohol was 14.9 percent, its color very dark, its aroma somewhat medicinal, its flavor more like grape jam than wine, with a blast of alcohol.

I put the glass down and shook my head. The next day, to see if it had mellowed, I tasted the wine again. It was still inky, plum-like and heady.

Unpleasant Taste

“Frankly I don’t think you see that many really great California wines with low alcohol levels,” Chappellet’s winemaker Phillip Corallo-Titus, 53, said in a phone interview. “Leaving the grapes to ripen longer lowers the vegetative, green taste of wines, which can be unpleasant. I get very few complaints about alcohol levels. I think maybe people’s tolerance is going up.”

Corallo-Titus thinks that 16 percent to 17 percent is too much.

“Those wines tend to get so overripe we call them ‘gooey,’” he said.

While one man’s gooey may be another man’s plummy, I’m betting the in-your-face California style will give way to a restrained refinement that makes wine a lot easier for the consumer to love.

(John Mariani writes on wine for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: John Mariani at john@johnmariani.com.

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