Winemaker Randy Dunn:‘Higher alcohol wines should stop.'
by Alan Goldfarb
Reader Comments... [17]

Charles Becquet, Owner
Domaine Becquet Winery, Sierra Foothills, CA
How glad we are to see that such a movement is starting in California. In Europe, one can get no wine above 13.5% (most of them are under 12%) and our winery here in California has proposed lower alcohol wines for the past seven years. Fortunately, several other California wineries do the same and their number is growing. The consumer response is just great! Those who want alcohol should drink brandy, not wine!

Lucia Simmons, Director of Marketing
Linganore Winecellars, Mt. Airy, MD
Great article. Our winemaker Anthony Aellen has been producing lower alcohol wines for the past 28 years and with great customer appeal. I have personally found that some wines are just to "hot" for my palate. 13.75 is fine in some wine but for the most part if the alcohol is backed off to 12.5 - 13.5 the taster will find more fruit nuances which will enhance the wine’s body.

Don Brady, Winemaker
Robert Hall Winery, Paso Robles, CA
Three Cheers for Darrell [Corti] and Randy [Dunn]!!! These 14.5+% wines are a threat to our business. I have heard this class of wines called cocktail wines because that is their most appropriate use. A glass by itself taken in place of a Jack and Coke. This is a dangerous road to go down. I believe we will all be better served with a focus on vineyard balance to mature our grapes at reasonable sugar levels not using over-ripe flavors to mask the misery of poorly grown grapes.

Robert Rex, winemaker
Deerfield Ranch Winery, Kenwood, CA
The wines that are selling the best are all over 14% alcohol, whether we like it or not. The American public likes these wines because the flavors are fuller (driven by higher alcohol) and the wines are softer (due to higher R.S. and more glycerin.) People between the age of 28 and 48 are driving the growth of the wine business. The most popular breakfast drink in the US for people under 40 is cola. Americans have sweet palates and like full-bodied flavors. This is why these wines are popular. Rich flavors, forward fruit, soft tannins, low acid, big mouth feel. These are all synonymous with high alcohol.

What this push to lower alcohols will produce is not grapes picked at lower brix. What it will do is create a need for wineries to de-alcoholize the wines, currently one of the little secrets of the industry.

Check out the top wines in the current Top 100 from Spectator. Most of the wines at the top, particularly the California wines, are well over 14% alcohol. Does anyone really think that the winemakers will change these wines?

Most Americans don't drink wine with food. They drink most of the wine by itself, before dinner. Watch them the next time you have a dinner party. Your guests will drink a glass or two of wine before dinner, sit down to the meal with a glass of wine in front of them, take a sip and then start to eat. They will typically eat their entire meal before taking another sip of wine. They will finish their wine after their plates are empty.

Let's not forget whom we are making wine for. It’s not for a bunch of old guys like me who cut our teeth on French wines.

Jeff Hinchliffe, Winemaker
Hanna Winery, Santa Rosam, CA
The argument begs the question, one can't at once ask for consumers to speak up -- and tell them what to say. More importantly, Randy is trying to herald a trend that is well underway. Testifying to this is the fleet of tanker trucks in line at Conetech for alcohol reduction.

Jon Phillips, Owner / Winemaker
Inspiration Vineyards & Winery, Santa Rosa, CA
Very timely – Thank you, Mr. Dunn! I had just taken this same position in my July newsletter and had commented on this subject to one of my customers a few hours before seeing this article. The realities are some of the points made by Robert Rex [comment 4]. I have had my own accidents in making high alcohol wines that coincidentally are also the only wines that rate well in competition. I'm working hard now to try and develop a consistent style that is balanced, lower in alcohol and reflects the terroir of where the grapes are coming from. The heck with wine competitions, or 100 point subjective ratings.

Pete Hoffmann, winemaker, vineyard manager
Napa, CA

Doug Salthouse, Wine Merchant
Pennington, NJ
Dear Randy: Thank you, thank you, thank you. Finally, someone with the credentials and credibility to be taken seriously has spoken out on a subject that has been neglected for far too long. As a native Californian I have shunned buying and drinking the wines for nearly a decade. The reason? Too much extraction, too much wood, and too much alcohol. Sadly, many in Tuscany nearly went down that awful path as well, but recently there seems to be a return to sanity, with lower extraction, less use of Merlot and Cabernet and more homage to terroir and native varietals.

I feel that the overwhelming reason for the increase in alcohol percentages is the high scores given to wines that are high in alcohol and overly manipulated. In their zeal to please Mr. Parker and others, winemakers have sold themselves and their wines to the devil. As a wine merchant, I always suggest that people select wines to be enjoyed with a meal -- not as a cocktail. When Americans learn to make wine drinking a part of the mealtime pleasure, wine sales will go up, and Americans will learn the true pleasure of wine.

Bruce Coulthard, Pres/CEO, St. Helena, CA
Why do Napa grapegrowers choose to make big wines? "Because They Can". And they also have the option "Not To". How many other world class grapegrowing regions have that luxury? By the way Randy, I have started to appreciate lower alcohol wines and they are truly a more finely crafted enjoyable, delicate, sensual, gentle experience. And at the same time, I am able to enjoy a rather large, quite enjoyable full flavor high alcohol monster, all from the same valley. Options!

John MacCready, owner/winemaker
Sierra Vista Winery, Placerville, CA
As another proponent of lower alcohol wines I have maintained low alcohol style in my wines for 30 years regardless of the current fad. At Sierra Vista Winery we have customers who appreciate our style while those that want 15%+ wines go elsewhere. Our Zins are always close to 14% while Cab and Syrah are often less than 14%. Those wineries that let the grapes hang long past the time necessary to produce 14% wine also reduce the terroir effect, even if they end up with a 14% wine somehow.

The other day when I was working the market in the East Bay, almost every buyer I talked to talked about not wanting high alcohol wines. They said the public is getting fed up with hi alcohol, sweet, non-food wines. I'm glad I stuck to my own style and did not join the fad because those that did may be stuck with unmarketable wines.

Dr. Richard Grant Peterson, owner/winemaker
Richard Grant Wine, Napa, CA
I agree with Darrell Corti and Randy Dunn and am telling everyone I know about the folly of 15% alcohol in what otherwise is intended as "table wine." Those wines aren't easy to drink -- with or without food. One other thing: most of these wines have very high pH levels as well, which is a defect even more destructive to table wines than too high alcohol levels. Unless the winemaker is lucky, his table wine, bottled at pH levels near 3.9 will not age well in the bottle. In fact, most pH 3.8 or 3.9 wines will taste old, over the hill and oxidized within a very few years -- regardless of how much SO2 is added at bottling.

Reynold Weidenaar, consumer
New York
We are wine drinkers who do a lot of entertaining, and we purchase many cases of wine per year. We no longer buy California wines. This is especially sad because we used to love them and even honeymooned in Napa. We returned to Napa a few months ago and were appalled by the high-alcohol wines everywhere. We asked about it at winery tastings, and the typical response was a sheepish grin, a shrug of the shoulders, and the reply "Everybody does it." We find them hot, thick, and mushy. They taste like boiled prunes. They are food-hostile and can only be tolerated with a couple of ice cubes. Nowadays we find ourselves drinking more cocktails--a mojito or a margarita has far more zest and snap and flavor and balance than any high-alcohol table wine. We drink Burgundy and Muscadet at 12-13%. Sometimes we will decant a 15% table wine for 12 hours to evaporate out some of the alcohol. An inconvenience to say the least. For at least a century the average alcohol in a table wine was 12% to 12.5%. We hope that sanity will prevail and that this level will be restored. Otherwise, maybe the neo-prohibitionists could pass a new wine-labeling law requiring excessive alcohol content to be displayed in LARGE print. Certainly it is a health danger. Or perhaps there could be a revision to the tax system, and wines will be taxed according to their alcohol content. Just when the health benefits of moderate wine-drinking are being publicized, the wine industry is shooting itself in the foot by changing its product to an alcohol-delivery system. What a boneheaded shame.

Joyce Weidenaar, consumer
New York
I agree, with one exception: I'd opt for wines under 13.5% or even 13%, not as high as 14%. I am forced to look outside the US for wines that enhance my meal. When I want an alcohol delivery system, I'll look to hard liquor. What I seek in a wine is a magical complement to fine food (even if the fine food is a burger and fries) that mass-produced soda can't provide. California's high alcohol wines are not only too overwhelming, they're all tasting the same. How is it that we've come so far in winemaking techniques only to have lost the uniqueness of each winemaker?

Arthur, Founder, California
As Clark Smith points out in his recent post ("Some Like It Hot"), California wines were, at one point in the not-too-distant past, made with potential alcohol in mind. At that time, just as it is now, wine was made in the vineyard: spacing, irrigation, yields, fertilization, trellising and canopy management were adjusted to reach the desired flavor/physiological ripeness while keeping potential alcohol in mind. I may be wrong here, but didn’t wines grown and made that way win the 1976 Academie du Vin tasting? I defer to Clark Smith’s and Dan Berger’s articles for the history of how wines changes since then. However, if one were to review the farming and vineyard practices of 1997 and 2007, you would see that there are differences in the vineyard that indicate the type of wine desired by the producer. Spacing, trellising and canopy management are part of the equation, obviously, and they are intended to produce highly-extracted, very ripe (overly ripe in some cases) wines. I have proposed a project that will be a collaborative experiment: project23 ( The project challenges winemakers (in California and any others who want to participate) to make one barrel of wine from grapes harvested at sugar levels not exceeding 23.5 Brix. I welcome all participants both to the project and the discussion.

Giovanni Pagano, Sommelier
Sociale Restaurant, San Francisco, CA
Wine and food go hand by hand. Grapes and terroir go hand by hand like a marriage. Mr. Dunn is right about keeping lower alcohol levels and maintaining tannins, acidity and "herbaceous" flavors, and his wines scream terroir but take time to develop to become something magic and special. I recently served a 1995 Magnum Cab from his Howell Mountain vineyards that blew me away: The wine was alive with flavors and aromas that I only get from French or Italian wines: Powerful but not hot, smoky and leathery, packed with blackberries and spices, Tannic but agile. He is right and the new generation of winemakers should just listen, thank him, and drink his wines.

Skip Fleshman, Consumer
Palo Alto, CA
Well done Randy! I agree with all your comments about terroir and about enjoying low alcohol wines with food.

For the past two years I've asked about wine alcohol levels before I've made any purchase in a restaurant or from a merchant. The Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate should really list alcohol levels for every wine they review. Parker does it on occasion, but it's far too infrequent.

You can almost assume that ANY Shiraz, Syrah or Zinfandel Uncle Bob gives over 93 points to, has over 14.5% alcohol – perhaps Cabs too.

Great article! Thx for that...