Pulling back just a touch

Are California wines over the top?. That’s the title of an interesting article published earlier this week in the Los Angeles Times, which I picked up on through the web site of A Donkey and Goat Winery. (Reading it requires a free registration)

The answer to the question? Yes, quite obviously. And it’s not me saying that. In the article, the main character is one Adam Tolmach, of Ojai Vineyard, on the Central Coast:

After 25 years, Santa Barbara’s original cult winemaker has had a crisis of conscience. “We got the scores we wanted, but we went away from what I personally like,” Tolmach says. “We lost our rudder when we went for ever bolder, riper flavors.” Specifically, he says, the alcohol levels of his wines, at 15% and higher, are too high.

(…) As he steps out into the sun, signaling to his crew to follow him up the stone steps to his house, where he’ll make them a lunch of grilled cheese and onion sandwiches, he says, “We have to do the right thing. I’d stopped drinking my own wines.”

That’s exactly the point, isn’t it? Tolmach is aiming to pull back to 14% alcohol levels (which is not remarkably low), even as blockbuster wines aim for 16% and more. Why? Because higher alcohol, even when combined with great fruit and concentration and structure, makes the wines less pleasant and less attractive, beyond the initial wow. They’re bottles you don’t want to finish at a meal, because they smother the food and they’re too rich. Here’s what another winemaker says in the article:

Winemaker Ray Coursen decided to dial back the alcohol levels in his Napa Valley Elyse wines because sales were slipping. “We found ourselves making wines that were 16.2% and 16.4% alcohol, which is very easy to do in California,” Coursen says.

“There is a lot to be said for these bigger wines. But one thing is certain, two people can’t share a bottle with dinner.” The wines overwhelm the meal, Coursen says. “We have to adapt. You are going to see more vintners change.”

I certainly hope so. But it’s not necessarily going to be easy. There has been as much pressure, over the years, to produce big, blockbuster wines in California as there has been pressure to lower taxes from the Republicans in Washington. And in both cases, such approaches can easily get things out of balance.

I’m not radically against high alcohol wines, as I’ve said in a previous post. But after discussing winemaking and comparing the drinkability of wines with Tom Lubbe, at Matassa, this fall, and drinking some True Sonoma Coast pinot noirs like Radio-Coteau’s La Neblina, I’m moving more and more towards lighter, more balanced styles. Call me crazy, but I like to feel thirsty, when I finish a glass of wine.

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