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Consumers Fired Up About Wine's Alcohol Percentages
By Robert Whitley
Dec 11, 2007
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When winemaker Randy Dunn aimed his broadside some months ago at colleagues who continue to push the limits, or in many cases exceed the historic limits, on the alcohol levels of table wine, my first thought was 'Good for Randy! It's high time a prominent winemaker said what so many of us have been thinking.'

Deep down inside, however, I wondered if anyone but me, or a few like-minded wine journalists, really cared. Wine consumers, after all, seemed to be lapping it up. Then I received a letter from an old acquaintance, a long-time wine collector and former winery owner, who urged me to follow the lead of wine merchant Darrel Corti and cite the alcohol percentages in my wine reviews.

I decided to put the question to the readers of my syndicated Copley News Service column. Would they find the alcohol percentage helpful in making their wine-buying decisions? Never in my 17 years as a wine journalist have I seen such an outpouring from readers on a single topic. I have been inundated with dozens upon dozens of emails passionately making the case for listing the percentages. Readers, my readers anyway, are fed up with these high-octane wines and, by an overwhelming margin, they want to know what the numbers are before they set out to find my recommended wines. Frankly, I was stunned.

A sampling of the letters, including a few that are on the other side of this issue. Some of the emails have been edited for brevity.

The Letters

Yes, PLEASE comment on the alcohol levels in the wines you review.
My wife and I are always interested in lower-alcohol wines. We view the change from 12.5% to 15.5% as not merely a "2.5%" increase, but really a 24% increase in the total alcohol content of a bottle of wine. We do not enjoy getting drunk, and really note the difference when we have a bottle of wine and often don't finish (it) if it has high alcohol. Many of our friends feel the same.
Much of this, it seems, is driven by Robert Parker's love of "fruit bombs" that require very ripe fruit;  and winemakers feel they must please him to sell their wine.
We are hopeful our son, who has worked in the industry making wine and is now a student in the UC Davis enology program, will not follow this trend to alcoholic fruit bombs with his wines. We certainly make the point to him and his nascent winemaker friends about lower alcohol when we can.

Bob Gagnon

Put the alcohol content of each wine right next to the price. This is important information for me.
Here is some background before I dump my opinions on you. I am a 53 year old married guy with two kids. Usually my wife and I will share a bottle with dinner on Sundays and sometimes on Saturdays as well.

Because I avoid high-alcohol wines, I haven't purchased any California, Washington or Aussie produced bottles in close to a year. Sometimes I venture into the California aisles, but the the numbers scare me off when I can read them. That brings up another point. Some labels have the alcohol number in such fine typeface that it is hard to find let alone read. I think there is a reason these producers don't want people to read their numbers.
The only bottles I have ever purchased (at my local wine shop) that disappointed me were from California. They didn't go with food and I knew that if I drank more than a small glass I would be feeling distress the following day. I don't tough it out with these kinds of wines anymore. They go straight down the kitchen sink.
Inexpensive table wines from France, Spain, Italy and South America are a delight.
I'm sure that U.S. wine producers will see the error of their ways in a few years when aging boomers like me stop buying their wines. I just hope that they don't come up with a quick fix like watering down their wines instead of making proper table wine in the traditional manner.
Steve Ramirez

Please give us all the information you have about a wine -- alcohol level included!   You tell us about the grower,  the winemaker,  the vineyard itself,  the types of grapes involved,  and all your tasting notes,  why not include alcohol level as well?

I am no wine expert,  just a student of wine working in the industry,  but I know that an 80's bordeaux such as you mentioned would have aging possibilities if the alcohol level is low, as long as there is sufficient fruit and tannin balance.  There are those of us out here who read your column for not just our own enjoyment,  but who work in the industry and need to know everything about that wine in case a customer asks about it,  even if it is something our store doesn't carry. Thanks for letting me put in my two cents!

Carolyn Dougharty

I  read all your columns and enjoy your work.  I sit on the California Grapevine Panel, which, as you know, meets weekly to
taste new releases.  All of us on the panel have been appalled by the alcohol levels in the wines we taste -- especially the Zinfandels. It has become regular practice for Nick Ponamareff  to read out the alcohol as he unveils the wines:  14+, 15+ and even 16% alcohol!  What are these winemakers thinking?  The wines feel and give the impression of Ports, an after-dinner treat to enjoy with heavy cheese and nuts, NOT any dinner menu I normally serve.

I resent it for many reasons. First, as a cook/hostess I don't want my guests to have to suffer through wines that do not complement the meal; second, because I don't want anyone to suffer illness because of the high alcohol; and third, because it
 takes all the joy and beauty out of a wine.  As you know, Darryl Corti will not sell wines over 14% alcohol. Perhaps a boycott is in order?

Edith Kodmur

Thank goodness someone is finally addressing the issue of percentages of alcohol in our wine.  I have found that anything below 13.5 is much more desirable.  One doesn't feel the effects as readily while drinking the wine and you feel much better the next morning. 

It seems that most domestic wines have a much larger percentage, while wines from other countries have less percentage.  American winemakers better wise up or they may find their wine sales diminishing as the public becomes more aware of the effects of the higher alcohol content of their wine.

Connie Campbell

I am an amateur oenophile, limiting my wine experience to meals almost exclusivly.  I have done some reading and the occasional tasting at wine bars, vineyards and wine stores.  My emphasis is food friendliness.  I don't collect, but do buy cases of wines I have tasted and like.  My "cellar" consists of 5 cases (all reds) in various states of emptiness, plus a catch-all case of "special occasion" bottles.  I really don't pay much attention to the alcohol level of any given wine.  Zins tend to be a bit higher than other reds, but that doesn't bother me much.  In fact, one of the nicest food parings I have had was a Hanna Zin with roast goose.  It really complimented the bird, and the alcohol was 15.5, if memory serves.

Mike Renfro

I don't want to see alcohol levels in wine reviews. It's not something I am interested in reading nor do I want it to bias what I am reading. In the age of the internet it's easy to look up if you are really interested, and if you're old-school, just read the darn label!
I think there is too much over-alcohol wine on the market, particularly Zins (which I love). I understand why and I have even fallen victim to it at wine tastings, where the huge wines stand apart from others. But when you get one home alone it's not so great.

Craig A. Nelson

Since I like as much information as I can get in a review, knowing the alcohol level might help (as does knowing the reviewer's wine preferences).  Being a fan of more earthy, subtle, food-compatible wines, I tend to avoid high alcohol (but not always!), tannic, fruit-forward styled wines that seem so popular among the California producers of "cult" wines.

Eric Blau

I certainly want to know the alcohol content of wine for high alcohol can spoil an otherwise nice bottle of wine.  Seldom can the fruit cover high alcohol.  And very few people can drink more than one glass of high-alcohol wine without being adversely affected. 
Chuck Barany

My husband and I want to express our opinion about whether mentioning alcohol levels is relevant or important.  For us, it is important to know the alcohol level of the wine.  We don't enjoy drinking the really high-alcohol-level wines, and prefer wines 14 percent or lower.  For us it would be beneficial to know the alcohol level before going out and trying to find the wine to find out it is a higher level of alcohol than we prefer to drink, which then the trip became a waste of our time.  For us, we do prefer to know.
Becki and Peter Yeomans

Just a note to say that we 'forget' we are not the only wine producers in the world and as such, there must be a standard range of alcohol content for each varietal. It would be wise to stick to such a standard and stay in league with vintners the world over.

It is not the intent to become intoxicated from drinking wine, but to complement the food being served. Let's not go there, otherwise it may no longer be a table wine but a bar drink.

L. Tarrance

Not two weeks before reading your column on the alcohol-level debate, my husband wrote to Gaiter and Breecher (wine columnists at the Wall Street Journal) to ask them to include the alcohol content of the wines they reviewed. It makes sense to do so. Without knowing the alcohol content, we might make an effort to find a particular wine, only to discover that its high alcohol level disqualifies it for us. We want the wine to complement our food, not overwhelm it. And, as a woman, I want to be able to drink a generous glass without experiencing a slight high.  So count two of us in favor of publishing the alcohol content.

Patricia Campbell

I for one would like to see wine writers give the alcohol level with their review of a wine. Please keep it in your tasting notes.

Lance Gillett

I thought your article was right on and we wine soldiers are talking about this and the fact that Robert Parker seems to have moved up the alcohol chart. He seems to love the big fruit-and-alcohol bombs that don't age that well. I think it is a very good idea in a review to give the alcohol content.

John Messner

I am in favor of you (and other reviewers) listing the alcohol levels of the wines that you review.  I prefer wines that are relatively low in alcohol because they pair so much better with food.

When in Italy recently, I noticed that virtually all of the bottles I purchased in restaurants were somewhere in the 12.5-13.5 percent alcohol range, whereas here in the U.S. it is difficult to find wines as low as 13.5.  While also in Italy I visited a winery and was told that although most of the wines they distribute in Europe are in the 13-13.5 range, the wines they distribute to the U.S. are considerably higher in alcohol content because "that's what Robert Parker likes, and what Parker likes Americans buy," or something to that effect.
Mike Lewis

I find myself rarely buying wines low in alcohol content, except for Sauvignon Blanc and Champagne. I do not drink Spanish, Italian or French wine because they usually have lower alcohol content around 13%. I prefer Cabs, Syrah, Zin and blends. I will rarely buy a red wine that is less than 14% because I find wines low in alcohol have a lighter body and a weaker finish than wine with an alcohol content pushing 15%. One of my favorite wineries is Tobin James. Their wines and big, and the alcohol tends to be 14% to 16%.
Wine is all about preference, and I prefer full-bodied wines with higher alcohol content. When it comes to buying wine, the alcohol content is a good indicator of what you should expect.
Shawn Higgins

Email Robert at whitleyonwine@yahoo.com.