The Debate on High Alcohol Wines Rages On

Which came first?

The Debate on High Alcohol Wines Rages On

Over the past year, I’ve reviewed many wines for my column "It's Grape" in the Tahoe Weekly, noting characteristics of look-smell-feel-taste-finish. But I also try to include an item I think is important: alcohol content.

Make no mistake – one glass of a wine that is 15-16% alcohol, and you are done. Better have someone drive you home, and if you serve those wines for dinner parties then make sure your guests are driven home or shown to the guest room for the night.

Good wines do not need to be high alcohol.

In my blog a while back, I had an expert write about high alcohol wines. Bruce Nichols, based in Naples, FL, is a Wine Consultant who provides professional wine cellar management, wine brokering for buyers and sellers, sommelier services, wine education and wine event planning. He is heavily involved in the world-renowned Naples Winter Wine Auction.

I can’t say it better than Bruce does, so here are some verbatim remarks from his newsletter, A Nichols Worth of Wine (

“High alcohol levels in wine is a subject that just refuses to go away. I’ve made my position on high-alcohol wines well known. I don’t like them. I find most to be one-dimensional - all fruit, no character. I find many can be overpowering and incompatible with the dining experience. I want to enjoy that second, and occasionally, third glass of wine over the span of a meal without the need for a nap between courses.

There’s also the concern of increased DUI enforcement. Many variables determine BAC (blood alcohol concentrations) currently set at .08%. Even factoring in body weight, gender, time, and food intake, two glasses of wine can push you close to or beyond this legal threshold.

Personal experience has taught me that a two-point swing in a wine from 12.5% to 14.5% can have a significant effect on acuity and I find it makes wines less compatible with food.

Assertions of vintners pushing hang time to the extremes to achieve ultra-ripe fruit just to please the critics' palates, and in turn garner higher ratings, are hotly debated. But I wonder if this isn’t a classic version of the chicken and the egg story? Which came first: the consumer’s taste for sweeter, full throttled flavors that the critics played into, or the consumer as lemming, hanging on to every 90-point score? Aren’t winemakers, for better or worse, simply producing a style the majority of wine drinkers demand?

These hyper-extracted wines come from ultra-ripe fruit with high sugars, which in turn raise the alcohol level. To combat this problem, many wineries resort to “dealcoholization,” literally reducing alcohol from the wine either through reverse osmosis or high-tech filtering. This in turn can require adding back in up to 15% water. The controversy between the purists and practitioners over this approach rages on.

Proponents, many of them winemakers, would argue that climate change has led to riper fruit, requiring adjustments in the winemaking process. The industry is quick to contend that as long as a wine’s components, acidity, tannins and flavors, are all in balance, then the higher alcohol levels are justifiable. To a large degree, this is true, but that does not address the DUI issue, or that these wines tend to overpower many foods. Opponents, a “natural, less-is-better” camp, contend this manipulation robs the wine of its character and structure and the wine’s terroir, or sense of place.

It is you and me, the consumers, who will ultimately shape the future on how much alcohol is in our wines. In the meantime, we consumers do have many options. Check out the mandatory posting of the percentage of alcohol listed on every label before your next wine purchase. There are many wines under 14%, although choices are fewer with California brands than the imports... for now.”

By the way, this writer really likes The Prisoner by Orin Swift… and it zips in at 15+% usually. So don’t expect consistency from me, wine is so individual! But I always have a designated driver…

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
© 2010 Barbara Keck

For more information on dining and the wide range of activities around Lake Tahoe, see the online version of The Tahoe Weekly. This article appeared in my column "It's Grape" in May 2010.

Watch for my forthcoming book:"Wineries of the Sierra and Its Foothills."Publication date early Summer 2011, Wine Appreciation Guild Publishing.


  1. I am successfully making wines in the 12-13% range and having a hell of a great time doing it too. Whether is delicate crisp dry whites, elegant Pinot Noirs and even Zin, our wines taste juicy and lively on the palate, rather than syrupy, oaky glycinery mess that many wineries are making. Is is any correlation that the guys and gals out there making the sledgehammers are also the number monkeys, scrounging around for medals or scores or puffs to adorn their websites and tasting rooms windows rather than using their own marketing and passion to move the wine.

    The grapes for these new style high octane wines are essentially left forgotten on the vine to shrivel in the hot October sun, brought to the crushpad at 27 brix or higher (knowing full well these will sugar up at least two full points more once fermentation begins), drenched in water to "rehyrdrate" the raisins at 10-20%, the 50 lb bag of tartaric acid is close by in attempt to revive the dead grape. These wines then see only 9-11 months in the mostly new oak because the ph is so high that the VA is nearly out of control from the get go. Prior to bottling many jet fuel wines are de-acled using reverse osmosis and yet the wines still contain alc levels that is obscene. This is not how it used to be.

    These are wines that will not age worth shit, will taste fucking awful at the nightly dinner table and are really nothing more than fancy California Cocktails.

    This overblown, out-of-balance style brought to you by your not-so-local NYC and Maryland corporate wine peddlers.

    If it weren't so sad, it'd be pretty funny.

  2. Wow, Randy, maybe if you partook of some high alcohol vino your mouth wouldn't be so dirty.

    Is this how you sell your wine? Bad mouthing the competition?

    There's got to be a place for every type of wine. I just think an informed and educated consumer will make the best choices for her/his self and come out a winner.

  3. I was at dinner with a friend and was saying no to every choice he made from the wine list. He stopped and asked what gives. Trying to stay diplomatic, I said the wines he was choosing were a bit big for me and I thought they would overpower my meal. I asked what appealed to him about the wines and he said he thought they were really tasty but he couldn't drink more than 1-2 glasses before he got tired! I asked if he ever looked at the alcohol content on the label and he confessed he never did.
    So-to answer the post from anonymous above-I don't think the public realizes what they're drinking. They just taste a jammy, sweet "cocktail" and think it’s good. I don't think most realize the level of alcohol nor do they realize the wine could have been just as delightful under 14%. The key is education of the public-especially, women who are by far the largest consumers. I personally will not buy anything over 14%-not because I think it tastes bad, it just limits my enjoyment. Why on earth would I buy a bottle of wine if I can only drink 1 glass. As a result, I almost exclusively buy and drink European wine-since it’s nearly impossible to find US wines under 14%-and yes, Randy, I had your wines! But you’re in the minority….

  4. Dear "Anonymous",

    Why don't you let us know who you are? If you feel so strongly about your wine style, let us know you. My "drty" attitude is in response to the awful state of this industry I see around me. Wines that are being made today are not made in a respectful state so why should I respect the people making them? I inform my clients daily about the disrespect to the fruit that happens each year. Leaving the fruit on the vine to shrivel is not how to make wine. I don't know any other agricultural prodct that is left on the tree, shrub, vine or bush on purpose. It's a farse and I'm simply letting clients know... There doesn't have to be a (large) spot for jet fuel wines... sorry.

  5. I've often wondered why wine lists and store shelf talkers don't make a note of alcohol content. I have to use a small flashlight and sometimes a flexible magnifier strip to even see the teensy typeface on a label. Alcohol content is an important info item for consumer consideration, just as important as the fact that you named your wine after your maternal grandmother who came from Slovenia... so what's this teensy print stuff about?

  6. Just out of curiosity, is the last line in the article "By the way, this writer really likes The Prisoner by Orin Swift… and it zips in at 15+% usually. So don’t expect consistency from me, wine is so individual! But I always have a designated driver" from you Ms. Keck? or from Mr. Nichols? I ask, not simply from morbid curiosity, but because it proves a point I'm about to make.

    The point is: hypocrisy - people screaming their lungs out about high alcohol wines and yet their "dirty little secret" is that they really like some high alcohol wines. The other dirty little secret: I pulled up Mr. Pitt's wines and all of his Zinfandels (at least the ones listed on the website) are over 14% - some close to 15% alcohol clocking in at 14.7%.

    Having said the above, I am not critiquing you or the style you like make, simply saying that the hypocrisy is so think you couldn't cut it with the sharpest sword. Mr. Nichols (or Ms. Keck?) like their "The Prisoner," Mr. Pitts produces Zins at an average of 14.5% alcohol; and Darly Corti - the famous wine retailer who claims he won't carry high alcohol wines reveals that he loves Ridge Zinfandel.

    Am I the only one who sees the hypocrisy here?

    Last, I have to respond to Mr. Pitt's colorful language - while I respect the point he was trying to make about high alcohol wines and them tasting like over ripe fruit bomb, cocktails, I wonder, (a) why he is making what would be considered high alcohol wines; and (b) ask if using terms such as "shit" and "fucking" in everyday language and on a blog post lends it any credence, respectability, or legitimacy? or simply makes him sound uneducated and vulgar. Certainly, for me, it only makes me think less of him and disrespect him.

    Would add here that I have met Mr. Pitts some years ago at his winery (sure he does not remember me), loved his wines at the time, and he was kind enough to take me out into the vineyard, show me the grapes etc. I don't recall him ever uttering such expletives at the time. So, I do not mean to start a fight or any disrespect, just seems that one can make ones point without resorting to this type of language.

  7. Mr. Pitts, curious to know how many bags of acid you have at the winery to achieve the pHs mentioned on your website. Pot calling the kettle black I'd say.

  8. Oh that hypocrite would be me... in my defense, I revert to my English major background and cite the famous quote that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. No no no, Bruce would never follow my bad example ... he is a real pro.

  9. Well, Ms. Keck, I don't see that you specifically said you were against high alcohol - that was the implication! I suppose that my point is, I try a lot of wines and even make some myself - as a consumer, if I like the wine, I don't care what the alcohol level is; if I don't like it, I don't care what the alcohol level is.

    As a wine person (I won't say winemaker), the wines I make would qualify by today's standard to be "mid-alcohol" range at 14.5%-14.8% (I make a Cabernet and a Zinfandel). But I don't do anything specifically to make the wines high alcohol or low alcohol. Yes, one can manipulate fermentation, etc (I won't go into the boring details of wine making) to achieve a higher or lower alcohol wine, but I make mine to my taste and smell - the Zin is a bit higher alcohol than the Cabernet. Having said that, I am nowhere near the expertise level of Mr. Pitts. And, as a disclaimer and as I said previously, I actually like his wines - just not his language...

    So, I suppose my comments on hypocrisy should be "if the shoe fits, wear it..." I just really don't get what all the fuss is over high alcohol unless a wine, is, as Mr. Pitts contends, so manipulated that it loses the entire process of winemaking (I paraphrase, of course, and didn't require any expletives)... Having said that, I do know winemakers (some of them high end Pinot makers) who manipulate their wines by taking alcohol out to get it in under 14% - and to me, this is just as much a degree of egregiousmess as those who manipulate to get high alcohol.

    And, to add to the controversy! - I think anyone who has anything to drink should have a designated driver. I mean, I hate to say this, but even one glass of wine - no matter what the alcohol level, will cause some slight impairment (in most people). I know this because I used to work on commission that studied the effects of drinking on driving. Even one low alcohol beer will have a slight affect on most (most) people's reaction - they will not be "drunk" or DUI by most barometers and will likely register under the .08 law (in most states), but will still be impaired. So, think about driving even after one glass of wine, even with a meal... Oh, wait? does that sound extreme? Well, yes, almost as extreme as the high alcohol nay sayers.

    Perhaps, since drinking high alcohol wine is soooo dangerous, we should simply go back to Prohibition. After all, the fanatics back then (the primary Prohibitionist was a guy named Wayne B. Wheeler) referred to any alcohol as "demon alcohol." How about wines with no alcohol? Oh, wait, that's called grape juice...

  10. Whoa! One glass of wine >15% abv equals either a designated driver or sleeping in the guest bedroom??? Does the consumer weigh 50 lbs and is drinking said glass of wine on an empty stomach? What a load of nonsense.

    Richard's post regarding hypocrisy is spot-on. During a recent work-with, the rep asked if he could include another winery's Syrah. Fine with me...I had only Pinot Noir to if he can sell more wine, more power to him.

    I tasted the wine at the first account. It was sound and balanced with a v. good aroma. I did not check the label for details. Later that day, I had another pour to check its progress at which point the buyer exclaimed: "It has 16.2% alcohol??? I won't taste it!" Selecting wine by the numbers is bad enough, but this was over-the-top.

  11. The comments about my lack of proper English are appropriate and I do apologize for bloggin' with such foul language. It really isn't my style. however I am very passionate about grape growing and making lower alcohol wines and for that my mouth got the best of me. I rarely use these words and certainly not to market my wine esp upon my first visit to Again, my apologies for inappropriate language.

    No hypocrisy here. I actually put my wines where my (big) mouth is. My zins for the past 3-four years have hovered around 14.5% which for zin is pretty low. I harvest my zin at 22.8 brix knowing there's at least one full point of sugar up so I end with a 23.8 brix juice which converts to 14.7%. Moreover, if you checked out the Gewurzt, Pinot and Cab programs, one would noticed they were in the high 12 and low 13% range.

    With Pinot we might add a bit of tartaric acid because even at 22.5 brix, the ph can still be high. I've never added an once of acid to any of my zins or Cab.s Growing in the RRV, we have beautiful acid in our grapes when harvested on time.

  12. To "Anonymous",

    First off, identify yourself or remove yourself from this conversation. I'm interested in conversing with a human and name, not someone who hides.

    re: PH levels: Ever harvested at 22 brix from grapes growing in the foggy Russian River Valley? Guess what, the ph is in the 3.2-3.3 range which, post ml bumps up a bit but not much. So please do not accuse of adding acid when 1) you hide behind an anonymous status and 2) don't understand perhaps the science or chemistry involved with lower sugar, high acid grape grown in a foggy region like the RRV.

  13. Randy,

    Thanks! That is the Randy I remember meeting many years ago... Also hear you on the Zin - think my point and contention was that some people are railing over any wine with 14% alcohol which, as you know, is almost impossible for a Zin. And I just recently pulled one of your Pinot's from my cellar? A 2004? maybe? I don't recall - and also don't remember the alcohol, because, again, the wine was excellent, so I didn't really care about the alcohol...

    Really appreciate your comments and your comments on wine making - it helps me as a budding winemaker.