The pinot heat debate

By Felix Salmon
May 15, 2011
It's a #slatepitch custom-made to warm the cockles of Jacob Weisberg's heart: In Defense of High-Alcohol Pinot Noir. And Mike Steinberger has delivered it.

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Mike Steinberger has delivered it. First, he explains the problem, as he sees it:

Critics of higher-alcohol wines tend to frame the issue as a question of balance, the implication being that wines above a certain threshold are inherently out of whack. But balance is a wholly subjective—one might even say amorphous—concept; alcohol is merely one component that contributes to a sense of harmony or lack thereof; and some wines can deceive you. Setting arbitrary cut-off points, as some sommeliers and at least one retailer have done, strikes me as an especially bad idea.

Check out Steinberger’s modifiers here: cut-off points are “arbitrary”, and the very idea of them is “especially bad”. But all cut-off points are arbitrary; that doesn’t make them all bad. Does Steinberger think that speed limits should be abolished just because they’re arbitrary and some people can drive safely at faster speeds?

Beyond being arbitrary, it’s not at all clear why Steinberger hates cut-off points so much. Any wine store or restaurant, no matter how big its list, is going to offer only a tiny fraction of the great wines out there. And so it makes sense, in some circumstances, to specialize. In my neighborhood, I have one store which sells only Spanish wines; another which specializes in Italy. Would Steinberger shun those, too? California has no shortage of restaurants and wine stores selling big, fruity, high-alcohol wine. What harm is done by one or two which shun it?

Besides, there’s a lot more to criticism of high-alcohol wine than simply moaning about “balance”. Alcohol is a way of hiding sins, of turning unpleasant juice into something big and sweet enough to enjoy. (I dislike grapefruit juice, for example, but I’m happy to drink a Greyhound.) There’s a certain purity to lower-alcohol wines: they’re better at expressing terroir, and they better at revealing subtlety and beauty than their high-alcohol cousins, in the way that you can appreciate the complex structure of a string quartet more easily than you can a loud rock group. And, they don’t give you nearly as bad a hangover.

In any case, Steinberger has proof of his thesis!

This last point was convincingly demonstrated at an event in March called the World of Pinot Noir. The weekend-long gathering included a panel discussion on the subject of alcohol and balance. Participants included winemaker Adam Lee of Siduri Wines, which produces pinots in California and Oregon, and Rajat Parr, a San Francisco sommelier who has a policy of not serving pinots that are above 14 percent alcohol at one of his restaurants. Unbeknownst to the other panelists, Lee had switched the labels on the two wines that he served. One had 13.6 percent alcohol, the other 15.2 percent. You probably know where this is going: Parr, a formidable taster, liked one of the wines so much he asked Lee to buy some, and it turned out the wine he liked was the 15.2 percent. Parr was gracious about the ruse, and I think Lee’s stunt underscored the perils of litmus tests when it comes to the alcohol issue.

That Steinberger considers this stunt to be a convincing demonstration of anything at all says much more about Steinberger than it does about high-alcohol pinot. This wasn’t a blind tasting, with all of the problems associated with those things — it was worse. Parr knew exactly what he was tasting, but he was deceived by Lee. If you’re told that the wine you’re drinking is 13.6%, and it says that on the label, why would you ever think that the wine was 15.2%?

Lee is perfectly happy with high-alcohol wines, to the point at which he serves them at his restaurants — including at the Mina steakhouses for which he wanted to buy that wine. Steak is one of the few foods which goes well with high-alcohol reds, including high-alcohol pinots. And if you can get some of that power in a wine with 13.6% alcohol, so much the better.

There’s no “peril” here. It’s worth going back to how Parr described his policy at RN74 when it was his turn to speak on the panel:

It’s the old name of the road through Burgundy, and it’s my dream restaurant. I was going to leave Michael Mina to start it, but Michael asked me to do it within the fold. I decided that since the restaurant was going to be an homage to Burgundy, I decided I would only list wines that were made in a style of Burgundy. For me that means balance. I picked Pinot Noir or Chardonnay only 14% or below. The reason I picked that was, if you don’t know, that Burgundy actually has a maximum alcohol that is legislated at no more than 14.5%. So I did that and there was a lot of criticism, mostly from producers. I was surprised. We’re this is one little restaurant, it’s not going to change the world. The rest of our restaurants don’t have this rule.

RN74 has many wines over 14.5%, just not pinot, since pinot over that level isn’t Burgundian, and the restaurant is an homage to Burgundy. Yet somehow Steinberger takes this fetching idea and turns it into a “litmus test” of quality — something it isn’t, and was never intended to be.

Steinberger’s on a roll now:

There’s another thing to consider: A lot of people enjoy buxom wines, a fact that has largely been ignored in all the frothing over alcohol levels. One of the gripes about full-throttle wines is that they can be difficult to pair with food, which is true: The flip side of all that alcohol is that the wines are low in palate-cleansing acidity. But for many wine enthusiasts, this apparently isn’t a problem: A recent survey found that most of the wine consumed in the United States is not drunk with meals.

Well, the survey actually found that just 25% of wine was drunk without food; 56% was drunk either at dinner or while preparing it. At weekends, when most wine is drunk, 89% of wine was drunk before, during, or after a meal.

None of this means that there aren’t people who enjoy hot wines, or that winemakers shouldn’t make them if they’re so inclined. But the fact is that no one’s making that case: Steinberger is tilting at straw men here. Those of us who like lower alcohol and more acidity aren’t trying to deny the fact that if you drink those wines without food, or in a blind tasting, they’re likely to taste less good than their fuller-bodied counterparts. You want to drink a glass full of overripe drunken blackberries? Go right ahead, be my guest. But it would be great if I had the choice of a few more lighter options.

Which brings us to Steinberger’s grand finale:

What kind of pinot drinker are you? Here’s one way to find out. Go to your local wine store and buy two pinots with significantly different alcohol levels—say, 13 percent and 14.5 percent. Next, find someone who can open and pour the wines and serve them to you blind. Taste the two wines, pick a favorite and then ask your designated pourer to reveal which was which. Although I’m a paid-up member of the anti-flavor wine elite, I recently put my palate to the test with two California pinots. One was from the aforementioned Adam Lee; I tried his 2009 Siduri Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir ($26), which clocked in at 14.5 percent exactly. The other was the 2008 Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir ($21), which was 13.5 percent.

This is astoundingly silly. For one thing, the difference between 13.5% and 14.5% is not all that great: it’s within the margin of error for reporting the alcohol content in the first place. Try comparing a 12.5% wine with a 15.5% wine instead.

Secondly, if you’re tasting these wines blind, without food, you’ll probably prefer the heavier, sweeter one. That proves nothing. There’s really no reason to believe that the kind of wines which you like in artificial, food-free blind tastings are the kind of wines you’re likely to prefer when sitting down to a nice meal with friends and family.

Steinberger’s a wine writer who is fully invested in the idea that if you simply taste a wine, raw, in the glass, and then spit it out into a bucket, that’s all you need to know in order to make a concrete determination as to its quality. He’s wrong about that. Wine is a living, organic thing, and it’s highly context-specific. It flowers best with great company and great food, in a setting where no one is trying to trick anybody else or think too hard about which of two wines they might prefer.

So here’s my test: live your life. Go to restaurants. Cook dinner. Have meals with friends. Enjoy yourself. And at some point in the evening, glance at the alcohol level of the wine you’re drinking. When you find a wine which really makes the whole experience sing — which enriches the evening in ways subtle and profound — my guess is it’s going to be lower in alcohol. And when you find a wine which bullies its way onto your palette, by contrast, and shouts rather than sings, it’s going to be higher in alcohol. But don’t take my word for it, work it out for yourself. And then start buying more of the wine that you love, for the contexts that you love it in.

My method isn’t as simple as Steinberger’s, and it’s a lot more time-consuming. But it’s less artificial, and much more reliable. Just remember: it’s only the high-alcohol partisans who retreat to the world of blind tastings to make their point. And no one, in the real world, tastes wine blind for pleasure.


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looking forward to low alcohol Amarone :-)

Posted by hansrudolf | Report as abusive

Somewhat off point, but thank you so much for your comment on blind tastings. I thought there was something wrong with me; but I hate tastings–I am only interested in what a wine taste like with food–and I cannot determine that in multiple wine tastings without food. BTW, my very favorite wine is a Cote d’ Nuits red Burgundy; but I haven’t had a good one in years. And don’t get me started on American pinot noirs, the movie “Sideways,” warped a generation of American wine drinkers.

Posted by bmz | Report as abusive

In defense of Steinberger’s argument, arbitrary constraints rule out fascinating exceptions to the rule.

I have a suggestion for you, track down a few bottles from Abe Schoener’s Scholium Project, particularly one of his skin fermented whites or his 2009 Androkteinos (Union Sq wines and Brooklyn Wine Exchange carry them at times, or just go to his web site) and follow your own prescription.

Posted by framed | Report as abusive

> Parr knew exactly what he was tasting, but he was deceived by Lee. If you’re told that the wine you’re drinking is 13.6%, and it says that on the label, why would you ever think that the wine was 15.2%?

In what way is this relevant? The point isn’t that he thought that it was 13.6% wine; it’s that he very much liked what turned out to be 15.2% wine, so that his litmus test was excluding a wine that he quite enjoyed.

The paragraph after the first blockquote is even more inane, which might be less annoying if you didn’t successfully refute his argument in the two paragraphs that followed it. I’m not sure whether you think making all possible arguments, even the stupid ones, strengthens your point, but it really doesn’t.

Posted by dWj | Report as abusive

The glorious thing about wine and beer is that there is so much variation that there is something for every occasion. We tend to open different bottles up for casual drinking versus meals. We don’t necessarily follow the normal red-white food rules, but have found specific wines of both types over the years that we like with various types of food. The alcohol content is rarely a deciding factor in the end on whether or not we like the wine when we are drinking it.

The difference of drinking with and without food is striking for both wine and beer. I had an experience last summer where a variety pack of beer had one type flavored with ginger. I tried it just sitting out on the deck on a nice warm day and it did not work at all so I didn’t finish it. However, I cracked open another bottle a few nights later (had to use it up) when we were serving a spicy dish and it was the perfect pairing.

Posted by ErnieD | Report as abusive

@framed, I LOVE all the Scholium Project wines I’ve drunk, which I think is exactly two. I was quite disappointed to find out a couple of weeks ago that the otherwise-amazing Hi Time Wines in Costa Mesa didn’t have any.

@dWj, my point is that Parr’s policy in one of his restaurants is NOT a litmus test. I don’t believe he’s ever said that there’s no such thing as a good 15% pinot.

Posted by FelixSalmon | Report as abusive

bmz, please be aware that talking about “American pinot noirs” is like talking about “European fashion” or “Asian food.” I invite you to try out a few Willamette Valley, Umpqua Valley and Columbia Gorge wines to see what I mean. None of which wine countries are in California, and none of which wines are typically super-hot. Just like Oregon chardonnays typically are not oak bombs (although I’m no partisan of Oregon chardonnay).

In fact, my first reaction to this brouhaha was “There go those Californians again, trying to define their way as the best and only way, even though in this case the problem is that most wine regions in California are so sunny that the pinots come out high-alcohol compared to Oregon and Burgundy.”

Posted by SelenesMom | Report as abusive

Selenesmom: I’ve only had one really good American Pinot Noir: an Erie from Oregon– many years ago. I recently went to a wine tasting of Oregon Pinot Noirs most in the $20-$35 range; they were all typical American Pinot Noirs: thin, tart, and with zero Pinot Noir fruit. The great Cote d’ Ore reds(all the Premier and Gran Crus) all used to have that wonderful Pinot Noir nose and fruit, with excellent body (lighter, of course, towards the south) and balance, that none of the American Pinot Noirs I tasted (excepting that one Erie) have. Of course, as I noted at the outset, none of the French red Burgundies I’ve had recently, have had that either (I can no longer afford Grand Crus, but even the Premier Crus are but a shadow of their former selves).

Posted by bmz | Report as abusive


This is such a spectacular display of hackery that I couldn’t resist the temptation to respond.

The fact that you start your post by completely, willfully distorting something I wrote should suggest to readers that you are playing a very weak hand or have a serious axe to grind. Where did I say that all arbitrary cut-offs are bad? Where did I say that I hate all arbitrary limits? My comment regarding cut-off points was clearly in reference to this one issue, alcohol levels; there is simply no other way to read it, and it is comically mendacious of you to try to portray it as a denunciation of cut-off points in general. And just for the record: I am in favor of speed limits.

Regarding the Rajat Parr-Adam Lee incident, you write, “Parr knew exactly what he was tasting, but he was deceived by Lee. If you’re told that the wine you’re drinking is 13.6%, and it says that on the label, why would you ever think that the wine was 15.2%?” So in other words, because Parr was deceived, there is no lesson to be learned from this episode? Here’s a thought experiment for you, Felix. Let’s say I profess to hate turkey and refuse to ever touch the stuff. You invite me to dinner, and serve me what you claim is chicken. I eat it, and I like it so much that I ask you for the recipe, whereupon you inform me that the chicken was actually turkey. So according to your logic, I shouldn’t reconsider my feelings about turkey because I didn’t know that it was really turkey on my plate?

RN74 is indeed an homage to Burgundy, but Parr chose 14 percent as his cut-off point for pinots, not 14.5 percent, and he did so because he personally believed that balance becomes a problem above 14 percent. If he had set 14.5 percent as the limit and said that this was simply to remain true to the Burgundian theme, I doubt there would have been any controversy. But he instead established a 14 percent limit and made clear that this was a statement about balance. Here’s what he told the Wall Street Journal’s Lettie Teague about his policy at RN74: “I won’t taste wines over 14% alcohol, because I want a balanced wine, and I think 14% is the threshold of a balanced wine.” He later tweeted that he didn’t mean to imply that wines above 14 percent were bad or unbalanced, but the notion of balance was a major factor in his decision to impose that 14 percent ceiling. Your effort to obfuscate here (“Steinberger takes this fetching idea….”) is really something to behold.

You write, “None of this means that there aren’t people who enjoy hot wines, or that winemakers shouldn’t make them if they’re so inclined. But the fact is that no one’s making that case: Steinberger is tilting at straw men here.” Felix, read my piece again. I quote one writer describing high-alcohol pinots as a “wine crime,” and another saying that they should be “kicked to the curb.” It sure sounds to me like they don’t think these wines should be produced. One of the writers was Elin McCoy of Bloomberg, the other was Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle. I am friends with Elin and Jon, have great respect for both of them (even though I disagree with their rhetoric on this one issue) and can assure you that they are both made of blood and bones, not straw.

I have no idea why you would try to misrepresent the findings of the food and wine survey that I cited. The results were unambiguous: most of the wine consumed in this country is drunk in cocktail situations, not with meals. Your attempt to spin a different conclusion out of these numbers is almost Rove-ian in its brazen dishonesty. Just out of curiosity: are you this slippery with financial data?

(And one minor point: 41 plus 14 equals 55, not 56.)

As for that taste test, which you found “astoundingly silly”—have you tried the Siduri and Au Bon Climat wines that I mentioned? If not, you really should have done so before chiming in on this particular matter: the two wines have strikingly different taste profiles. But let’s grant your point that the difference between a 13.5 percent pinot and 14.5 percent pinot is “not all that great”. Surely, then, you would agree that the arbitrary limit that Parr imposed was silly? If the difference is negligible, why set 14 percent as the cut-off?

You go on to say, “If you’re tasting these wines blind, without food, you’ll probably prefer the heavier, sweeter one. That proves nothing.” Actually, I much preferred the lower-alcohol Au Bon Climat in my blind tasting. I, too, have mixed feelings about blind tastings, and even did a column a few years ago expressing my reservations. But I have to say that my preferences are pretty consistent whether I am tasting blind or non-blind, with food or without. Whatever the circumstance, I invariably gravitate to lighter, more elegant wines. So I completely disagree with your point about preferring heavier, sweeter wines, and I also disagree with your assertion that it proves nothing. I would gently suggest that if you find yourself consistently favoring heavier, sweeter wines in blind tastings, perhaps your preferences aren’t really what you think they are.

You write, “Steinberger’s a wine writer who is fully invested in the idea that if you simply taste a wine, raw, in the glass, and then spit it out into a bucket, that’s all you need to know in order to make a concrete determination as to its quality.” It is true that I don’t need to taste a wine with food, or in the company of friends or loved ones, to reach a judgment about its quality. I’ve never known a bad wine to become good in the presence of those things, or a good wine to suddenly stink because it was being tasted without them. Bad wines are made more tolerable by great food and great company, and good wines become even better. I strongly believe that food and wine belong together and that wine is best enjoyed at the dinner table. But the quality of a wine can certainly be judged independent of food, family, and friends.

With regard to “concrete determination”: I’ve written many times that wines evolve in the bottle and the glass, that palates are fickle, and that our judgments should be rendered in a spirit of modesty. When it comes to wine appreciation, there is no such thing as a “concrete determination.” With your “fully invested” comment, you seem to be implying that tasting “raw” (whatever that means) is the sum total of how I think wine should be experienced. If that’s indeed what you are suggesting, can you point to anything I’ve ever written that would indicate that this is my attitude?

And finally, after all this huffing and puffing over my argument in favor of diversity and choice, you conclude your screed by…coming out in favor of diversity and choice! You urge readers to “live your life…buying more of the wine that you love, for the contexts that you love it in.” Felix, now that you’ve read my column a second time, go back and read it once more—I’m basically saying the same thing. In fact, you don’t even have to read the whole piece; in the first paragraph, I write, “Taste is personal, some wines hold their alcohol better than others, and there are plenty of wines to suit every palate. Whatever happened to just agreeing to disagree?” Contrary to what you assert, I’m not a fan of high-alcohol pinot noirs; I made that abundantly clear in the article. But I also don’t think that there is one right way of making pinot in California, and I see no purpose in trying to delegitimize a particular style just because I happen not to like it. Do you disagree with that? If not, then what exactly was the point of this rant?

Lastly, Felix: it is “palate,” not “palette.”

Posted by MikeSteinberger | Report as abusive

Felix, please do not quit your day job. We do not need any more not-ready-for-prime-time wine writer wannabes, and sadly, you decided to take potshots at someone who has forgotten more about wine that you appear to know. And he is a better writer in the bargain. Slow day on the financial desk at Reuters?

Posted by klapp | Report as abusive