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.