Should wine producers make wine for a critic’s palate? High alcohol wine commentary.

This past year has seen many discussions on alcohol levels in wine and there has been ample criticism of “high alcohol” wines perceived to haCritics and Their Criticsve been made to suit Robert Parker’s palate (among others’).  It strikes me that some have argued tacitly (if not explicitly) that wine OUGHT NOT to be made to suit so-in-so’s palate.  Yet in advocating for what they see as a better style, aren’t they implying that wine should be made to suit their palate?   I think so.  Can we find a moral imperative for how wine ought to be made, and how it ought to taste?

Let’s review the discussion thus far.  The most commonly held assertion suggests that 1) alcohol in wine has increased in the last 10-15 years and this is 2) beginning to push wine into an uncomfortable and less tasteful realm AND 3) this alcohol rise produces jammy, ripe, unstructured, and exhausting wines.  There is merit to the first assertion: that alcohol has increased over time as reported by the American Association of Wine Economics (Alston, J.M. et al., WP82, May 2011).  Examining reports from Canada’s LCBO, the authors found that the average alcohol by volume has increased across all countries by 1.12% over an 18 year span[1].  Alcohol has increased in nearly every country examined by AAWE.  But while alcohol has increased, I would argue that the rise in alcohol cannot then be directly linked to the second and third points I mention above.  That is, increased alcohol is not itself responsible for the shift in wine style, but is instead a consequence of winemaking directives[2]: later harvest dates to achieve darker, richer, and fruitier flavors, thought to result in higher scores from certain critics.

The next argument that consumers are growing tired of these “higher alcohol” wines was recently challenged by Steve Heifmoff (Low alcohol trend in California? I don’t think so).  Consumer exhaustion for these wines often lacks any evidence of consumer preference trends.  I rarely meet wine writers out on the road hawking their own wines and therefore feedback on what is selling and what is not from writers who cite no evidence of sales trends seems dubious.

We shouldn’t assume that because we don’t like to purchase or drink those “high alcohol” wines that others are trending away from them.  I think Nielsen data on restaurant and retail sales suggests ripe, fruit forward, soft (read lower acid) wines still rule the day (see also Winemetrics On Premise 2009-2010).

The last point has been made more implicitly: the types of wines in question have largely been produced to satisfy a small but influential group of wine critics who seem to desire “high alcohol” wines.  And while I hate the focus on alcohol because as I said above I think its more winemaking goals than a target alcohol number that is the problem, for now I’ll use the moniker “high alcohol wines” for clarity.

Producers have undeniably geared their wines toward the perceived desires of certain critics; but can we locate a moral imperative to do otherwise?  What if those critics represent a majority of normally distributed palate diversity in the American population? Wouldn’t winemakers then simply be making the wine for the majority of their potential customers who happen to be represented by a given critic’s palate?  (Yes including our brethren across the pond who likely have noticed that we now drink more wine than anyone in the world).  Would this be offensive to some who have a distaste not only for these “high alcohol” wines but also for the idea that one would make their wines to suit someone else’s palate?  Is a wine made for someone else a soulless wine?

Here lies my biggest bone of contention in this discussion.  It would seem to me that the critics of these high alcohol wines (and who happen also to be critics of the critics who like those wines) have painted producers into a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t position.  Do you see the problem?  Wines made for a critic’s palate are soulless to those who have stylistic differences with the critics in question.  Doesn’t this imply that making wine for someone’s palate other than the winemaker’s violates some tacit ethic or code of winemaking?   Don’t such detractors thus necessarily imply that wine should be made to suit their palates instead, or at least a palate they agree with?  And what if a winemaker makes the wine to suit their own palate, and their palate happens to align with a critic that other critics disagree with?  Has the winemaker still violated some code if they make the wine they like but that you don’t like – which happens to be the wine that another critic you don’t respect likes?   Isn’t this a very slippery slope?

I contend artisan wine producer’s “ought to” is to produce wines they like to drink[3]. Wines they want to share when they go to a party.  And if they fall into a style that one critic or another disapproves of, so be it.  We all must do well to remember that the end goal is pleasure, and what pleases some is different than what pleases others.  And while I don’t believe this means we have license to make whatever we want and call it grand, I do think there is a range of palatable styles where we should humbly consider the producer’s end goals and whether they achieved said goal.  For wine producers, they had better hope they can identify customers who share their palate preferences because if you can’t sell it, you won’t be able to continue to make it!

For more information on the Donelan approach and for whom we make wine (spoiler alert, its vineyard driven!), check out our winemaking and vineyard philosophy.

[1] This is an increase on an initial mean of 12.7%.

[2] There is little research to show that “high alcohol” causes “ripe, jammy, soft wines.”  While often coincident they are not necessary conditions of one another.  We need to beware of the guilt-by-association fallacy: mistaking coincidence for causality.

[3] I say artisan producer because I think there is a different goal for larger volume producers.  I also use producer instead of winemaker because it is ultimately up to the owner of the brand, not the winemaker him/herself who decides how the wine ought to taste.  The winemaker serves at the pleasure of the owner, and it is the owner’s role to determine how success will be defined in the wine.  And a large producer’s aim is to make mass market wines and the winemaker’s goal is entirely different in these scenarios.  They would be poor winemaker’s if they didn’t coordinate with their marketing departments, owners, etc.

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