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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