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Big does not necessarily mean less wimpy.

Ironically, the Big Wines that result from a call for 'No Wimpy Wines' actually are wimpier than wines of better balance.

America (Country Appellation)

The Paradox of Unwimpy Wines:
Why Less is More

''In the quest to avoid what is seen as wimpiness, winemakers race past that sublime spot where it’s possible to make distinctiveness and regionality a positive factor. Cabernet Sauvignon is thus harvested so late that the resulting wine tastes as much like over-ripe prune juice as it does Syrah.''

by Dan Berger
August 7, 2007

Wine lovers seeking a more exciting wine than the “same old” thing should be thrilled with the results of the 2005 and 2006 harvests from California, partially because they deliver wines with a bit more of the mineral-y character that soil contributes to wine, and partially because acid levels are slightly higher than in past vintages.

A key to all of this is in the fact that, on average, sugar levels were a tad lower on harvest for almost all grape varieties, leading to better balanced wines with slightly lower alcohol levels - significantly lower in some cases.

And why is all this a Good Thing? After all, some reviewers rate bigger wines higher and “smaller wines” with lower points.

Since we here at APPELLATION AMERICA care naught for points, this issue doesn’t impact us at all, and in fact, the message of today’s sermon is that less is more. For those of us who are fed up with the hugeness that masquerades as greatness in almost all our wines (not only Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon but also Viognier, Pinot Noir, and a handful of other grapes), this is a message we are perfectly happy to deliver.

I am the biggest proponent of this belief and I realize that some readers may tire of the steady drum-beat of my quest for delicacy, harmony, and balance in all wines. But, hey, that’s the way I live. And I certainly understand that some people (most, actually) do not agree with this point of view; some may even think I am some sort of out-of-left-field nutcase to suggest such an against-the-grain viewpoint, at least this forcefully.

The Big Wine Seduction

I believe the Big Wine lovers are misguided, but I also know how seductive these wines can be to some people. I know that the temptresses are out there. I must have worn my anti-kryptonite suit all these years to be immune from the Circes who attempt to woo me in the same manner. But to no avail.

I have rarely been as insistent on a particular point as I am about bigness and the resulting lack of structure we
Were it not for the intervention of Mother Nature in ’05 and ’06,
we’d all be awash in yet more of this alcoholic goo they euphemistically call table wine.

see so widely offered in expensive wines today. Indeed, my latest Man of La Mancha quest far supersedes my once-popular complaint about excessive oak. Look, I’m perfectly willing to accept a good healthy wallop of smoke, toast, mocha, caramel, vanilla, chocolate or whatever else this oak stuff is called in the latest, newbie-buzzword-vinous dictionary if only there could be some semblance of harmony in the other components that make up a wine I am offered to drink.

I have stated my desire for better structure in wines for more than a decade, and I see little happening to encourage me. A few Pollyannas have written to me saying, hey, cheer up!, winemakers are lightening up on the alcohol, on the oak, on the tannins, and they are making a more balanced wine, and they are seeking better harmony.

Really? I still don’t see it. Were it not for the intervention of Mother Nature (in ’05 and ’06), we’d all be awash in yet more of this alcoholic goo they euphemistically call table wine.

So I rely on vintages like 2005 and 2006 in California to deliver a bit more of the grace that has been missing from the vast majority of wines, especially pricey ones, for lo, the last decade, or even more.

A few winemakers may have tried to compromise the acidity in 2005 and 2006. Those are people who have little faith that the American consumer could ever understand a crisp wine. But then something came to mind that played right into this argument. It was a bumper sticker I saw that said “No Wimpy Wines.”

No Wimpy Wines! Depends on Your Definition of “Wimpy”

This is the slogan for Ravenswood Winery, founded by fanatical Zin-o-phile Joel Peterson, who, I assume, came up with the slogan. No wimpy wines It’s cute and fun and Peterson, a terrific winemaker, has done much to preserve the concept of old-vineyard Zinfandel by making a lot of vineyard-designated versions of the wine that have a long and loyal following.

Alas, the phrase “No wimpy wines” doesn’t apply as much to Peterson’s best wines since I now see through that phrase and believe the word “wimpy” actually describes a lot of the ungainly monsters out there that are a lot bigger than anything Peterson makes.

Let’s be clear about this: Huge wines now infect the shelves of otherwise blameless merchants because it is clear that a new subset of wine drinkers, otherwise known as the Powerhouse Wine Seekers of America, demand these sorts of wines. (The PWSA is an unofficial club of which almost all newcomers to wine seem to be de facto members.)

Numerous winemakers believe firmly in the notion that a wine without “big” flavors is somehow less desirable and thus wimpy. These are winemakers who believe it to be their life’s mission to deal with wimp-atude by delivering nothing but the max as far as flavor is concerned. The maxier the better.

Oddly, I now see that the bigger a wine is, the wimpier it is!

Look at it this way: The bigger the wine, the more alcohol it typically contains. And the more alcohol a wine has, the less acidity it usually has. High-alcohol wines need more, not less, acid and a lower pH to balance the “sweet” taste of the alcohol. But with high-alcohol wines, we almost always get a higher pH, not a lower one.

This means that the consumer has to wade through aromas and flavors of alcohol that are less complex than the more mineral-y, earth-bound, herb-laced wines that are more a reflection of their soil than they are of the hand of man, and trees. Those kinds of wines are challenging, calling for someone who consumes such a balanced wine to reflect on the earth-y notes, the acidic crispness, how it works with various foods and other elements relating to terroir and the variety.

The bigger the wine…
… the less the earth plays a role.
The bigger the wine, the less the earth plays a role. Thus do consumers have a harder time analyzing wines. It’s harder to decide what is regional, what is varietal, and what reflects the intervention of humans. And thus the bigger the wine, the wimpier it is: wimpiness and simplicity are blood brothers! Those who seek to make big wines do so on the far edge of sound fruit. Indeed, much of this wine is made from unsound fruit. Ask any grower what he or she thinks of harvesting fruit at 28° or 30° Brix and see if he or she thinks this reflects what his or her vines do best. The quest for unwimpiness has created a gulf between wine (that which results from grapes picked earlier) and alcohol-infused raisin juice. Little is left that shows the character of what each region yields.

In the quest to avoid what is seen as wimpiness, winemakers race past that sublime spot where it’s possible to make distinctiveness and regionality a positive factor. <

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Reader Feedback

Reader Comments... [20]

Marilyn Sherman , Proprietor
Flying Wine Cellars, California
Less IS More, and those who are seeking harmony and grace in their wines are hand-crafting their own at Crushpad..... Marilyn Sherman Flying Wine Cellars www.flyingwine.com

Brent Jensen , Sales Manager
Classic Wines, Murphys, CA
Dan, I couldn't agree with you more! I have been preaching this to my sales people and customers for years. Balance and "Bomb" cannot be used in the same sentence, finesse and character can. Over ripe, over blown can only mean one thing, Over and out!

Ricardo Santos
El Malbec de Ricardo Santos, Mendoza, Argentina
Excellent, Dan!!
More wine lovers are going to drinkable wines, that they enjoy drinking, not smelling. They look for fruit, not red berries, peaches or plums; they look for grape!

Paul , District Manager
Centerra Wine Co., New York, NY
Great article Dan. I am on your page and agree, it is all about the balance and structure!!! To clarify Ravenswood's "No Wimpy Wines"...In 1983, Ravenswood faced a turning point. After 10 years of producing only small vineyard designate Zinfandel, solvency became an issue. Reed Foster, Joel’s financial partner, knows that the winery needs additional quick revenue to survive and asks Joel to produce White Zinfandel. Joel’s response: I don’t make that wimpy crap! This is how...No Wimpy Wines was Born. Joel recommends an easy drinking Zinfandel instead. He decides to make it in a very approachable style that is easy to drink. This wine takes less time in oak, is released earlier, and therefore will be much more cost effective. Vintners Blend is now THE LEADING ZINFANDEL in the market today!

Back to "Balance & Structure", I highly recommend you try a new release from Ravenswood, '05 Sonoma Chardonnay, not Vintners Blend Chard. You will see Joel is more than just a Zinmaster...and is all about balance & structure himself.

Cheers, Paul

Diego Riley
BBWC, Edna Vally, CA
It is reasonable that as Dan likes less ripe wines, he likes more oak because no one likes veggie wines. And oak fights veg. Side points to this interesting article.
1.) Cool climate viticulture is only possible in modern times because of fungicides, organic or not.
2.) Balance has less to do with a wine writer telling us what it is than what the climate is doing.

I like 15.5% Zins from warmer climates but 15.5% Pinot Noir from Santa Rita or Russian River is nasty. Balance exists not just in every AVA, but in every site. Growing these over the top wines in cool climates can kill acidity bringing the winemaker to perform an unheavenly acid adjustment to the wine. But over the top Cab From Napa with good natural acidity is one of the best types of wines in my opinion. My point is every site has a balance point, why not try to enjoy it for what it is?

Michael Sarro , Grapemaster
St. Martin's Grapeschool, Shaker Hts, OH
We live in the Pepsi generation, and most folks base their flavor sensations on the assaults of colas. So naturally, on that night once a month when Jack and Coke don't quite make it, they'll pony up a hard earned $20 to buy a big assed wine. One with junk in the trunk, not some thin little Paris wine. These are my poorest students at the Grapeschool. They flunk French, Spanish, and Italian. German comes a little easier for them, but generally they respect the saggy pants wines of the street. The thug wines. The wines who win the gang fights of wine tastings. The wines that go by only one name, like Merlot or Cab. Wines without homes, that are born from stainless orphanages. Too ethnic are the earthy tasting wines like Cahors or Cairanne that would leave their socks firmly in place. No, they must get their Oprah Moment in Wine from somewhere other than a numerical rating or a label with a dog on it. The moment can occur at anytime where a good experience is had with wine involved, be it a love affair, a good dinner with a matched wine, or a vacation where the wine grows wild. Then maybe the flavor base of Pepsi will seem crude, and perhaps later, so will the Big Frankenwines.

Rachael Smith , Mostly pro...
St. Rose, CA
Indeed, your tirade is rather quixotic in nature but you have a good point. There is such a thankfully wide assortment of wine producers that we shall never want for what it is that delights us each individually. Personally, I think it takes that "knock you over the head” biggie to give perspective and contrast which helps us better appreciate wines with balance. That means that in the end, I think the better educated your wine brain is, the more you will wrap yourself around juicy, balanced bottles of wine.

Becky Zelinski , Chief Operating Officer
Precision Ag, Inc., Paso Robles, CA
Hi Dan,
We are a viticultural consulting company on the Central Coast and of course, avid wine drinkers. I couldn't agree MORE with everything you say and in fact, have been waving the same banner in my small circle of friends and colleagues for a long time too. I often wonder how so many people have been duped by this misguided concept for so long -- especially winemakers. Could it simply be that the masses have been waiting for someone to tell them that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes? If so, I hope that your article will help to open their eyes. I intend to forward it to everyone I know -- especially those who I know that revel in their love of the high-priced prune juice they call wine (I even have a hard time calling it wine).

I would also like to suggest that you start a ‘Bring Back Balance’ or ‘No More Fruit Bombs’ wine club (or something like that) and sign me up. And don't forget the shirt! I would wear it proudly. I get so tired of hearing people defend the marketing of fruit bombs by saying: "well, at least it's getting more people to drink wine." Quite honestly, since I don't believe it's wine they're really drinking, I say: "let them drink jug wine," or whatever else makes them mistakenly feel like they've transcended to a more sophisticated level of beverage consumption until they're truly ready to drink the nectar of the Gods formerly known as "good, low-alcohol, balanced wine!"

Lorne Mews , National Sales Manager
Benton-Lane Winery, Monroe, OR
Very nicely worded, Dan. This is an excellent article on a very timely and controversial topic!!

Adam , Wine Director
Santa Barbara, CA
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! When will the world wake up and realize that balance, complexity, and soul sing a much more beautiful song than flashy, arrogant, and here today gone tomorrow wines? Imagine that it was a person and not a wine. Would you want to dine with someone who was loud, flashy, and arrogant? Or would you rather dine with someone of substance. When will the critics and main stream wine drinkers wake up?

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