Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What real wine consumers think about alcohol in wine

Steve Heimoff gets off his rocker and takes a stroll around the crazy ward quite often over on his blog, especially when he is trying to drive traffic. Of his usual group of controversial topics, alcohol in wine is one that tends to get the 50 people in the U.S. that comment on wine blogs riled up. Alcohol is the second biggest component in a bottle of wine and relatively small changes (roughly +/- 10%) in its concentration seem to cause a large debate in the wine community. There is a large group of wine aficionados that scoff at wines that exceed 14% alcohol by volume (abv). This group claims that too much alcohol causes a wine to be unbalanced and "hot" (not Paris Hilton "hot"). On the other hand, many California-centric wine cognoscenti tend to not care if a wine exceeds 15% or even 16% abv. These high-alcohol wines tend to be low in acid but full of fruit flavors. Those with this purely hedonistic point of view, led by über-critic Robert Parker, tend to refer to members of the low-alcohol party as Anti-Flavor Wine Elites.

Steve was mostly correct in his assertion two weeks ago about the "anti-high alcohol revolution," or lack thereof, and I commend him for that. He claimed that "there is no trend against high alcohol in California." He may be technically correct, but he failed to acknowledge that there are more than a handful of winemakers in California that are intentionally making wine with lower levels of alcohol than they had been. However, California is known for its big, bold and fruity wines and that is not going to change because a small minority of wine consumers don't like those types of wines. There is a reason California wine is so popular.

This whole idea of a low-alcohol winemaking revolution is an interesting conversation piece amongst wine writers and the most devoted wine enthusiasts as we love to quibble over the minutia of pH, total acidity, residual sugar, rootstock and percent new oak. However, most of the wine buying public don't give two hoots about any of those details. The real question we should be asking is, do regular wine consumers think about alcohol levels in wine?

So that's what I asked. I emailed 14 of my friends that drink wine on a regular basis, but who aren't part of the industry or even so much as members of a regular tasting group. I asked them the following questions: Do you look at alcohol percentage on a bottle of wine before you drink/buy? Do you care what the alcohol percent is in your wine? How much is too much as far as alcohol percent? Eleven friends responded and the other three have been removed from my contacts list and de-friend on Facebook (just kidding).

Unanimously, the first two questions were answered in the negative. Not a single respondent looks at the alcohol content of their wine nor do they care what that number may be. With respect to the question about too much alcohol in wine, two individuals affirmed the need for balance in wine and that too much alcohol is a problem "only when it jacks with the rest of the flavor" or "unless it tastes too much like alcohol." A more hedonistic respondent simply stated, "having too much alcohol is like having too much sex." Only two individuals actually gave a number for what they thought was too much alcohol: 15% and "I suppose 20%." Clearly, details like the amount of alcohol are not much of a factor in the purchase decision for this group of intelligent and beautiful (and possibly drunk) people. Austin, Katie, Stefeni, David, Brian, Mietra, Amanda, Brett, Angrith and Chanthy, thank you for your help and I assure you that your non-sober identities will remain secret (mostly because only four people will read this post).

So, what does this completely non-scientific (though it was peer-reviewed; thanks honey!) study mean? Probably nothing. But, I suppose I will infer anyway that most regular wine drinkers (those 99.9% of the public not afflicted by the posting on online wine forums and wine blog disease) really don't care if there is or isn't a low-alcohol wine revolution. They don't care that Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Rajat Parr are on the AFWE 2012 ticket (with Alice Feiring as Secretary of Biodynamism) running against Parker/Heimoff-led Hedonist party. The few of us that actually care if a wine has 13.9% versus 14.7% abv can continue to bicker online, but I doubt much is going to change in the industry as a whole. Bronco Wine Company sold 600,000,000 bottles of Two-Buck Chuck over the past 10 years. I'm guessing the alcohol content on very few of those bottles actually made eye contact with anyone other than a Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) employee. To put that into perspective, those of us that argue about these types of things are discussing wineries that produce more like 0.0001% - 0.001% of the number of bottles compared to Two-Buck Chuck. Majority often rules and those of us that care about alcohol percentage in wine are not in the majority; in fact we are not anywhere close to it.


  1. CWP: I don't doubt a word you've written; it's sensible perspective. Most consumers don't pay attention.

    BUT it's worth noting that those 600 million bottles of Two Buck Chuck -- they're all under 14% alcohol, to take advantage of the lower tax rate. And not just TBC: almost every supermarket wine from California is under 14%.

    People might not be paying attention, but it's entirely possible that if you slip in a wine with a very different alcohol percentage, in this case higher, they'd notice. Quite possibly they'd like it better, at least at first. In any case, if you bring in the "not paying attention" crowd, it's worth noting that they're mostly not drinking Heimoff/Parker wines.

  2. You're absolutely correct, Blake. People might notice that the higher alcohol wine tastes a bit different, but they probably still wouldn't care what the abv was. In fact, they probably would just say that it is sweeter when in fact it might actually have less RS. The debate of high versus low-alcohol wines is not part of the general wine consumers' discourse as it is with the few, the proud, the wine snob (and yes, I am card carrying member with you).

    Also, the reason that the supermarket wine crowd is not drinking Heimoff/Parker wines is cost - not necessarily alcohol. Though Heimoff will argue everyone buys wine because of him... We wine writers can continue to write and argue about alcohol in wine, but very few people really couldn't care less about that topic.

    Thanks for reading and posting! Cheers to good wine.

  3. Nice post...I do personally look at the %age most of the time, but that probably doesn't surprise you. I have become a big fan on lower alcohol wines as my tastes have changed (matured?) mainly because I really appreciate how much easier they pair with food. Especially if you are going with anything spicy, the alcohol really gets blown out. I would second though that as long it is in balance, I really don't care if it's 16%, etc. and if the wine is the main focus (rather than a partner with the food) say while I'm cooking or just hanging out, I'll happily drink a higher alcohol Cali.

  4. Will - yeah, balance is the key for those of us paying attention to that sort of thing (snobs...). Just as with anything, I think it would be great if everyone paid more attention to things we consume and things we do. But, as with most things if it makes us feel good we do it. So if people are happy drinking unbalanced alcoholic wines then more power to them and more balanced and enjoyable wines for us snobs.

    Can't believe your marquette is at veraison! I didn't get any berries on my plants... :(