Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Alcohol: what kind of buzz?


The alcohol level debate: Is it about “buzz” or buzz?

Posted by steve on Apr 27, 2011 in Wine CriticWine IndustryWine Writing 

First, kudos to Jon Bonné for a good primer on alcohol levels in wine in last Sunday’s Chronicle. I’m keeping it because it contains handy information, such as the official government regs on printed ABV numbers, which I can never remember even though I’ve looked them up dozens of times.
It was also really cool that Jon persuaded the [WARNING! Dated metaphorical reference alert!] green eyeshade types at the Chron to pay to have 19 wines analyzed for alcohol. What’s surprising was not how far off so many of the wines were in reality from what the label said (I assume as much every time I taste), as the fact that some of the readings were actually close. (Only one was dead-on accurate.) I’d love to send everything I review to a lab but that’s not financially feasible.
Now, about the title of this post: “buzz” or buzz? The “buzz” in quotes refers to getting high from high alcohol wines. This is the big gripe of those who don’t like anything over 14.0% or 14.5% or whatever their cutoff level is. They want to be able to drink 2 or 3 or (gasp!) even 4 glasses of wine without the room starting to spin. Personally, that doesn’t happen to me, but then, I’m a professional.
The second meaning of buzz is in the marketing sense. From Wikipedia: “Buzz: a term used in word-of-mouth marketing…which serves to amplify the original marketing message…a vague but positive association, excitement, or anticipation about a product or service.”
We all experience buzz all the time. It’s built into the release of movies, DVDs, cars. Every new product from Apple has buzz. A new Michael Mina restaurant has buzz. And guess what? Articles about alcohol levels in wine have buzz.
For some reason I can’t quite grasp, this ABV thingie has become the buzziest topic in the world of wine. Anytime anyone with any credentials weighs in, everyone goes all a-tizzy. (It might even happen here!) If you think about it, alcohol level in wine isn’t that big a deal. I mean, it’s not important enough for so many people to get so crazed by it; the emotional impact of alcohol level is far higher than it ought to be. If people are really in a debating mood, we might get worked up by, say, stoop labor conditions in the vineyards, or the free interstate shipping of wine (see my remarks yesterday about big government and the Tea Party), or why California wine is so widely perceived as being too expensive for the quality. We might even wonder why such ordinarily sensible people as Ursula Hermacinski, a longstanding friend of mine, say such silly things as “Would the wine industry come to a complete halt?” with Parker’s retirement from California, as Ryan Flinn reported two days ago in Bloomberg. (Memo to Ursula: No, my dear, it won’t. If anything, we’re liberated. Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we’re free at last!) There are so many more important things to get worked up over than ABV.
Personally, when I blind taste a Cabernet and give it 94 points in my head and then see that ABV is 15.4%, it not only doesn’t bother me in the least, it doesn’t even surprise me. I can give a Cathy Corison Cabernet an equally high score even though it has only 13.8%. The two extremes are not mutually exclusive, and in fact most lower alcohol Cabernets in California run the risk of being green and unripe. I’m glad that there’s a cadre of winemakers in California that’s focusing on under-14% Pinots, but that doesn’t stop me from loving a Siduri “Pisoni” that’s closer to 15%. I’ve tasted Williams Selyem Allen Vineyard Chardonnays that were high in alcohol and so rich, so opulent, they were practically food groups in themselves. If the low ABV crowd doesn’t want them, fine; more for me.
Anyway, a final congrats to Jon Bonné for convincing the Chron to publish alcohol levels in their reviews. Even though the actual number may be up to 1-1/2 points different, it’s better than no information at all.

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