Friday, July 27, 2007

Do Wine Drinkers Prefer Lower Alcohol wines?

It would be much more convincing if folks like Randy Dunn and Darrell Corti et al could provide firm evidence that high alcohol wines are not what the consumer wants. I’ve tried to find evidence that consumers do purchase based on alcohol content. There does not seem to be much data out there, although I did find the following from the WSTA.

Over 1 in 3 women (35%) and 1 in 4 men (27%) believe that lower alcohol wines are becoming more fashionable according to the May Consumer Intelligence report issued today by the Wine & Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) and Wine Intelligence. (Comment: Which implies that 65% of women and 73% of men believe that lower alcohol wines are not fashionable.)

WSTA also noted that:-

59% of all UK regular wine drinkers claim to read the alcohol content of a bottle of wine before purchasing, but only half of those say it is important when deciding what wine to buy. (Comment: If that means half of 59% then less than 30% of these consumers consider alcohol important in their buying decision.) They consider seven other factors more important when choosing a wine including grape variety, promotional offer, brand, country of origin, recommendation by friend or family and region of origin. (Comment: I don’t see the wine press listed there. And that’s strange because Randy Dunn points the finger directly at the wine press: “Influential members of the wine press have led the score chasing winemakers/owners up the alcohol curve……”)

Consumers also link higher alcohol levels with better quality and better value for money.

I don’t see any of the information from the WSTA as evidence that that lower alcohol wines are preferred - and let's face it in the UK they have access to a LOT of cheap (supposedly lower alcohol) European wines.

Does anyone know of similar surveys of US wine consumers?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The High Alcohol Debate -continues

Because of all the high octane involved the debate on alcohol levels has flared to an even higher degree than usual. Here in the US it resurfaced when Darrell Corti of Corti Brothers, a retail store specializing “in rare and unique gourmet foods and fine wines" decided that he will no longer sell wines with alcohol above 14.5%. Others have jumped onto the band wagon including Robert Parker Jr.’ biographer, Elin McCoy. Even Ric Einstein (TORB) has posted on the subject.

Now Randy Dunn, of Dunn Vineyards, has added his personal opinion in a letter to the media in the US. Comments that include “The current fad of higher and higher alcohol wines should stop. Most wine drinkers do not really appreciate wines that are 15 -16. +% alcohol.” are clear, rational arguments against high alcohol wines; and if you believe that then there is this bridge I know about……..

The argument that wine should be below 14% in alcohol shows a lack of understanding of the buying public. Most wine is consumed within days of purchase, and only a small percentage of wine drinkers cellar wine for any length of time. More importantly even fewer have the facilities to correctly store wine for years; no, a cupboard in the kitchen is not the correct place. In my experience young wines that are full flavored and ready to drink are preferred to the youthful austerity (excess tannins and acid) of wines meant for aging. Its not surprising that most wine is rich and ripe in style, and its even less surprising for those wines to have higher alcohol.

To appreciate (non-dessert) wine of different alcohol levels all you need is a little commonsense. Earlier this week I drank a 1998 Cape d’Estaing Cabernet Sauvignon (Kangaroo Island, Australia). A beautiful wine that will live for many more years. The alcohol? Below 14%. Last night I opened a 2003 Carlisle Sonoma County Zinfandel that was bursting with flavors and palate appeal but not the 15.8% alcohol.

I wonder if any of the anti-high alcohol league have put their beliefs to the test? Has Dunn taken a group of wine drinkers and let them blind taste wines below 14% and above 15% to see which wines are favored? Darrell Corti’s store claims to “specialize in rare and unique gourmet foods and fine wines”. Does Corti have a program of educating the buying public by showing how the wines he sells match with the foods he sells? The fate of high alcohol wines in such contexts would be a useful contribution, as opposed to trying to force personal preference on the wine buying public.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Help, there is alcohol in my wine

The discussion of alcohol levels in wine rages on. It would be nice if there was unimpeachable evidence that high alcohol wines fail to please the drinking public, but I don’t see substantiation of that. If anything the reverse is true. What I do see are individuals trying to impose their personal preference on others. Darrell Corti is a good example with his statement that he will no longer sell wine with more than 14.5% alcohol. But Corti has been inconsistent, and his statement that "I made the rule, I can break it." highlights that inconsistency.

Elin McCoy, the writer of Robert Parker’s biography, has now stepped into the same fold with a piece in Bloomberg. She calls her dumping of a 15% alcohol Merlot down the drain a “personal rebellion against the latest wine-fashion craze”. I’m not sure I’d call increasing alcohol levels in wine the latest wine craze; its probably been going on for at least the last few decades. McCoy quotes the numbers herself, “In the Napa Valley, the average climbed to 14.8 percent in 2001 from 12.5 percent in 1971.” And I’ve noted a similar trend in the flagship Aussie Shiraz Penfold’s Grange over its 50+ year history.

Unlike Corti, McCoy does add to the argument in a constructive way by tasting a 2005 Amador County Syrah that Clark Smith had subjected to reverse osmosis to change the alcohol content. The resulting wines had alcohol levels of 15.4 percent (“seemed hot and super- rich”), 14.2 percent wine (“jammy, with a fresher nose and brighter flavors”), and 13.75 percent (“spicier, with fruit and leather notes, more Rhone in style”). Subjecting these wines to personal sensory evaluation is a worthwhile endeavor, and it’s a pity this was not done with a larger audience in a blinded fashion. The results would have been certain to be interesting.

There are no prizes for guessing that McCoy’s favorite alcohol modified Syrah was the 13.75% wine. But was she looking for the wine that gave her the most pleasure, or one that reminded her of a Rhone? Help me a little here, as an Australian who has lived in California for 20+ years I’m confused. Amador County is in California, right? That is part of the USA, correct? I thought the Rhone Valley was in France? Should Amador County Syrah be Rhonish in style? Amador County is divided into two appellations, Shenandoah Valley and Fiddletown. Amador County is Zinfandel territory, but it has been having success with Syrah. Shouldn’t they be allowed to develop their own style of Syrah?

The alcohol argument is unlikely to go away soon. We have all tasted low alcohol wines that have survived decades beautifully. But it’s a little early to be passing judgment on the longevity of high alcohol wines. I’ve got a bunch of Shiraz/Syrah from Australia and California sitting in my cellar waiting patiently for a decade or so to pass before I see if they have fallen to pieces. And therein lies the problem, I have to let them lie there rather then drink them sooner, like tonight! After all as one of the exponents of high alcohol wines Sparky Marquis of MollyDooker (and Shirvington, Parson's Flat, Henry's Drive, Marquis-Philips) says “People are always asking me, When should I drink this wine? How long should I cellar it?" "And you know what I say to them? I'm making another one next year! When should you drink it? How long will it take you to find a corkscrew?!! Or now that we're going screwcaps, How long will it take you to get a glass?!!"