WSJ: “Alcohol delivers flavors”

“Alcohol delivers flavors.”

So writes Lettie Teague in her debut column “Wines that Pack a Little Extra” for the Wall Street Journal on Saturday. What does she mean by “alcohol delivers flavors”? She seems to be implying that higher alcohol translates into more flavor. But is that really true?

One of the hottest hot-button issues in the wine world is rising alcohol levels. Although alcohol itself is tasteless, elevated levels of it in wines often accompanies enhanced polyphenols, which can make for big, showy wines, such as a Martinelli Zinfandel that weighs in at over 16% alcohol. But high alcohol actually often crowds out flavors (or vineyard specificity), and, at elevated levels, its searing heat can dominate a wine’s aromas. Although Teague quotes Aldo Sohm, sommelier at Le Bernardin, to support her case in the story, in a follow-up email to me, Sohm said that high-alcohol tends to come at the expense of refinement and complexity. And that’s just it: does Teague really think that the wines of Christophe Roumier or Noel Pinguet (Domaine Huet) or Manfred Prum (J. J. Prüm) lack flavor compared to Martinelli zin or El Nido Clio? I would think not. So why does she present such a black-and-white view in her story, where “flavors” only arrive in the rarefied vapors north of 14% alcohol?

The piece also portrays sommeliers who champion low alcohol wines to be insufferable snobs. She even goes to far as to wonder if the word “balance” is “actually a code to keep out wines that they don’t like or styles that don’t fit their personal taste.” Teague then plays “gotcha,” discovering cabernets above 14% on the list of RN74, a San Francisco restaurant whose wine director is quoted in the piece against high-alcohol. (She also finds some some high-alcohol wines at a retailer who took a similar stand.) So what? At worst, that shows them guilty of inconsistency but it neither invalidates their point nor does it prove them wrong or snobs. Teague rummages around in her basement to find, lo and behold, that she has a bunch of “delicious,” high-alcohol wines. So she likes them, therefore they are okay, but when other people say they don’t like them, they are guilty of pushing their own personal taste and of snobbery. Who’s the hypocrite here?

It’s also worth noting that both on on Twitter and in a follow-up email, Rajat Parr denies making the claim that wines over 14% lack balance and suggests a more nuanced approach to alcohol. Sources often deny quotes especially on controversial issues, such as this. But Teague also recently had her account of the proceedings in another column publicly disputed by those who attended. And in a related blog post on alcohol levels, Teague states that the nebulous “anti high-alcohol crowd” says that high-alcohol wines pose health risks. I, for one, have never heard that argument.

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48 Responses to “WSJ: “Alcohol delivers flavors””

  1. It was a typo on Lettie’s part. She meant that alcohol delivers “Flava,” which was a reference to Flava Flav, pictured here, living the good life:

  2. I’m not qualified to comment on the points of alcohol/flavor or alcohol/balance, but I do wish someone would at least consider that the main consumer problem with higher-alcohol wine is you get buzzed faster. Because I want to remain unimpaired, I’ve eliminated wines of 14% and above from my weekday drinking. I aim for 13.5% or less. Since I drink mostly reds, this is harder than it really should be.

  3. Doctor, Thank you for once again translating “AARRGH!” into proper & well reasoned prose.

  4. Thanks, Dr. V, for answering the questions I had from reading the article.

    But on the bright side, at least the article was about wine. That is better than the WSJ had been doing with the new crew.

  5. Question: if Americans drink more highly alcoholic wines, will the consumer develop a taste for typically rich, bursting with fruit, sometimes ‘thick’ wine? Once addicted to them, will it be a hard habit to break?

  6. Blanket rejection of tasting wines by soms over a certain alcohol % seems dramatic to me, as I do think that big alcohol wines CAN be balanced with intensity. More often they aren’t. For me, too much alcohol overpowers the nuances and certainly doesn’t deliver flavour… unless of course you desire hints of rubbing alcohol and cough syrup. Definitely strange to see someone championing big alcohol wines.

  7. Seems WSJ is batting a thousand so far in these new columns.

    Did I just hear the sound of Asimov’s stock rising…?

  8. Great job, Tyler, much appreciated–and on one of my most favored themes, high alcohol in wines. I certainly Carmen about wines under 14%. Right now I am tasting garnachas and other high octane wines from Spain and battling the alcohol every night. Sometimes I taste a wine over dinner with my spousal equivalent. We generally have a third-to-a quarter of a bottle left on the kitchen counter when the meal is over.

  9. Nice analysis. I’d only add that her formulaic column from her Food & Wine days has changed very little at the WSJ.

  10. Alcohol delivers flavor?

    Would that people would write about what they know.

  11. I would hesitate to classify high alcohol wines versus low alcohol wines as better or worse than each other as a general class. I have tasted and enjoyed wines of both very high alcohol content (most California Zins and Cabs along with the very muscular Syrahs from Australia) and I have enjoyed lovely, balanced low alcohol wines (German reislings come immediately to mind), however, I readily admit that I consider alcohol content when I purchase wine and prefer lower alcohol wines.

    A high alcohol wine can be very well crafted to avoid angular, unbalanced flavors and be quite wonderful, but it still hurts the next day! Ultimately, I prefer the experience and the memories of the evening with an equally well crafted wine of lower alcohol content.

    Thank you for opening the topic again, I worry that the trend toward the (and forgive my apparent pejorative) “high octane fruit bombs” will take over wine making styles everywhere and wines of nuance and finesse will become an old fashioned memory.

  12. I think that taste sensitivity can also be an issue with the alcohol content in wine. According to Tim Hanni MW if you have a lot of taste buds on your palate you would tend to be more sensitive to the burn of alcohol vs. someone with fewer taste buds who might be much more tolerant to the taste of high alcohol. What the issue really comes down to, like everything else, is that it is subjective and a matter of personal preference. We need to point out the fact that there is a difference but why do we have to assign a value to the difference saying it’s either good or bad…it’s just different!

  13. Re Carol’s comment: I don’t think this has to be the permanent tasting preference. The U.S. as a whole is pretty new to wine variety – and big, fruity wines are easier to like when the only wine you’ve previously had is a casual cocktail-party glass or made from cherries. The key is getting the general wine-drinking population exposed to different kinds of wine. The rub is that so much of the country has relatively few choices – even from the U.S. Washington State has something like 600 wineries – trying finding any from the smallest 590 at a local wine retailer, even in a large metro area. Try finding a wide selection of Oregon pinot. And, if this pending federal legislation passes that lets states shut down shipping, I shudder to think about how much worse it will be.

  14. Love watching those teeth sink into the soft fleshy part of WSJ!
    Good work!

  15. I was actually glad to see Lettie take on this topic. I think winemakers should harvest when they think grapes are phenologically ripe and not have to concern themselves with whether the wine might end up being subject to some different labels and taxation (or worse yet, sommellier snubs) if the finished alcohol crosses some arbitrary threshold.

    Also, I would like respectfully disagree with your (or was it Lettie’s?) assertion that ethanol as no flavor. My understanding (via Emile Peynaud’s book if I recall correctly) is that ethanol even in a diluted solution lends a perception of sweetness on the palate.


  16. Doctor – what about this got you so hot and bothered? I think we can all stand to listen to a alternate point of view and I wonder –is it high time someone questioned standing mores that hold us back from enjoyment of certain wines? And who — if not very experienced and educated palates of those like Teague –will make us all revisit some questionable ideas.
    Within her signature tone and humor she successfully raises questions and gives convincing arguments and discussion – this will lead some of us to more consideration of the question – Should alcohol level eliminate certain wines from consideration? Isn’t this what good wine journalism is? I think this time maybe you missed the larger premise in this piece – and spent rather too much time re-interviewing her sources to find your own “gotcha” moment.

  17. I miss the Tastings column! There was never any pretense.

  18. Many low alcohol wines are green and lean, and many high alcohol wines are unbalanced and burning.
    Just one tip: don’t look at the alcohol content on the label before tasting the wine. That way you are surely going to follow your very personal taste.

  19. Alcohol delivers flavor in Penne a la Vodka. In wine, I’m not so sure. In sufficient quantity, alcohol reduces and then destroys discernment, which is what I’ve been led to believe is the basis of wine appreciation.

  20. Wow, Tyler’s got a personal beef with Lettie Teague. Go figure. Seriously, you should both stick with what you know, and ask for some expert advice when you get out of your depth – as you both are here. And I’m not volunteering.

    It takes a doctorate in flavor chemistry to get to where both of you want to go here – more or less. And so far as I know the somms at Le Bernardin and RN74 don’t have one.

    My own understanding is relatively superficial, but here’s the deal: ethanol has no flavor, but is dry on the palate. And it is NOT hot – that character is down to alcohols with more carbons than ethanol.

    In the complex matrix that is wine, alcohol solubilizes more than polyphenols – it enhances the solubility of all sorts of aromatic (and otherwise water-hating) smelly compounds. So while some could argue (with success, IMO) that high alcohol results in lack of balance and sense of place, there is no question that more alcohol can deliver more aroma and flavor.

  21. I think alcohol can DRIVE flavor, and that may (or not) be what Lettie Teague had in mind. It certainly drives certain aromatic characteristics in some wines, and adds amplitude, and some strength to the aromatic profile of some wines. It’s completely independent of whether a wine is made from grapes that are properly ripe vs. overripe.

  22. It seems that there is a confusion as to the definition of a “balanced” wine. Balance is not a mathematical equation written and read by numbers on a label, but rather how the wine moves on the palate. “Does the alcohol compliment the fruit?” or “Is the acidity high enough to carry the fruit and the alcohol?” Balance is not defined by an alcohol content but rather by the person judging, the taster… that would be you. The balance of a wine is extremely important to sommeliers, who choose their wines- in the majority of cases- to compliment the food of their establishment. In the case of RN74 high alcohol pinots and chards would be in contrast to the food that they serve, being a restaurant that is dedicated to burgundy, and its style. High alcohol wines would no doubt obscure the delicate flavors of a Loup de Mer. As for Ms Teaugue, its appears that she is continuously penning “Wine 101” and “How to Taste” pieces. With such an impressive resume you would assume that her work would be more intelligently directed to somewhat experienced wine drinkers. Apparently not. Maybe the downturn in the economy has found the WSJ with new readers searching for answers to where their money as gone and somehow stumbling across another subject that they have no understanding of. Back on track now: Alcohol does NOT deliver flavor, it counteracts it. The subtleties and nuances of the vine and land are easily lost in high octane wines that leave their trust in a bit more residual sugar to carry the alcohol to the judges table. As the author clearly noted in her piece she already has a palate geared towards high alcohol “fruit bombs”, as her cellar selection proves.

    RE John “the chemists” comment: You have no idea what you are talking about. Stay in the lab.

  23. “. . . there is no question that more alcohol can deliver more aroma and flavor.” Yeh, and reduction sauces deliver more flavor, too, but they have gone out of fashion because, like too much alcohol in wine, they are just too much. If being hit between the eyes with a brick is what you are looking for in wine, by all means, go for it, there are plenty of wines like that out there, but if you are looking for balance, drinkability with food, elegance, charm, grace and sense of place, high alcohol doesn’t deliver it, plus high alcohol table wines do not age well, if that is a consideration.

  24. People tend to give this debate an overly simplistic view. I like low alcohol wines that are good and I like high alcohol wines that are good. I don’t like certain wines with high alcohol (Gewurztraminer, roses) and I don’t mind it so much in others (red wines particularly). I much more prefer drinking lower alcohol wines because of the physiological effects of alcohol, but to compromise a wine on these grounds does not sound right.

    I get to do sweet spot tastings all the time and taste the same wine with different alcohol levels; sometimes from 15.5% down to 12.5%. Alcohol definitely affects the fruit character and perceived sweetness on the palate. Generally, wines with higher alcohol can have riper more cooked fruit flavors and the same wine at a lower level may show fresh berry or tropical fruit flavors. Some wines can be balanced at 15%, and others at 14.2%; below this point the wine may taste green and too tight. Every wine has it’s own personality and it is up to the winemaker to allow it to express itself in its best form.

  25. Gerry – please don’t construe my comment as a defense of higher alcohol levels in wine, nor as a criticism of anyone’s personal definition of “balance” in a wine – not Raj’s nor Aldo’s nor anyone else’s.

    I’m only referring to the physical action of alcohol in solubilizing aromagenic compounds, mannoproteins, tartrates, polyphenols, etc. The issue of how different alcohol levels affect our individual perceptions of these compounds is a different matter altogether.

    In my own winemaking I’m striving for the lowest alcohol level I can achieve (without direct manipulation) and still get physiologically-ripe fruit. I personally find high-alcohol wines fatiguing to drink, and I would prefer my customers in general to be able to enjoy a bottle of our wine with dinner without becoming impaired.

  26. While not being as hard and fast as other about the 14% mark, very few wines for me hit the mark above that level. Perhaps it is that the varieties I drink do not do well at high levels of ETOH…a Cab at 12.5 or 13% has a very different flavor profile than one at 15.5%..just the nature of the grape. It is even more obvious with Pinot Noir and other more delicate varietals.

    On the other hand, some wines can handle high alcohol such as the native Portuguese and some Spanish grapes…but I rarely drink them.

    Wine is not a place for absolutes, but tends to attract absolutists!

  27. I’m beginning to think that John and Dorothy may have been a bad editorial idea in the first place. I didn’t always agree with what they had to say, but they had the integrity thing down. Jay and Lettie, not so much.

    And one more thought on alcohol levels: Some clever person at Decanter once divided the world into “wines for standing up” and “wines for sitting down.” A chardonnay at 14.5% strikes me as more of a “standing up” as in “cocktail” wine; one at 12.5% more of a “sitting down” as in “served with a meal” wine.

  28. Let me amend that: I meant a bad editorial idea for the WSJ, since John and Dorothy’s replacments seem rather vulgar in comparison.

    Not that I have anything against vulgarity.

  29. Seems like a lot of over-reacting here, especially – and surprisingly – by Tyler. And it amazing, and concerning, how strident and reactionary the wine blogosphere seems to be getting.

    I read the article, and honestly I did not get a sense for defending high alcohol wines. Rather, it seemed to be a reasonable challenge to the notion of dismissing a wine based only on one factor – a number – its %ABV. Is that really so outlandish?

  30. Maybe we would all be better off if we remembered that wine is a product to be enjoyed by the consumer. How the wine writers and sommeliers reached a place where they feel the need to tell us what are preferences need to be in order to best enjoy consumption of what is in essence a food product is disturbing to me. The best rule of thumb I can offer is “If you like it, it must be good.” Consumers should be encouraged to trust themselves and believe their own tastebuds. Or do we need our Government to come to the rescue and legislate what makes a good wine in order to protect the masses from drinking bad wine? Take a step back, pour yourself a glass and enjoy it for what it is. Easy on the over-analysis.

  31. Right, “Consumers should be encouraged to trust themselves and believe their own tastebuds.” The problem is that the most powerful arbiters of wine taste are touting this high-powered reds (and a lot whites) that are overripe, overoaked and loaded with alcohol and, of course, most retailers are selling wines off these reviews. It’s as if hip-hop or hard rock were the criteria for judging all music. Good look getting light relief in most stores and restaurants these days. I am talking to a client I am consulting with on a restaurant project about putting the alcohol levels with each wine listing. At least we might be able to judge what the average wine drinker’s preference is, not be subjected–by many restaurateurs to an endless parade of overblown Pakerista wines.

  32. Tyler

    I think you acted a bit irresponsibly here. I understand you used my comments on Bezerkers, both with respect to Rajat’s comments and her write-up of our dinner in Chicago as example of the errors that she made in relating what her sources told her. I don’t think you paid careful enough attention to my comments regarding what Rajat said as I was very limited in what I said was at issue. I related that Raj was saying that he didn’t say (which could mean “mean”) what was written in Lettie’s column. Only he and Lettie know for sure. What I did say, is that he claims there was a mis-communication and notwithstanding that, it was my belief (meaning my opinion) that there was no way that Raj believes are wines north of 14% alc are out of balance. It was a pretty narrow comment and to use that as a defense to Lettie for your inappropriately pointed attack seems irresponsible to me. As well, if you had bothered to read my clarifying statements I don’t see how you could continue to think what you said. As well, you seemed to have made a similar mistake in your interpretation of my comments regarding the wine dinner in Chicago. I think I made it pretty clear that them impressions that some took away from that piece were very different from what I believe Lettie felt, thought and intended to write. I have never said that she misrepresented anything, I just took issue with how some her readers interpreted what she wrote, that is a big difference. It would not have cost you much in effort for you to read the entirety of what I wrote on both issues and/or ask me directly. I think you may have stepped over the line in your aggressiveness towards Lettie’s piece here. To quibble on one point, the idea that “alcohol delivers flavor” does not mean that flavor comes from alcohol, but rather that alcohol is one of the components of the wine that deliver the components of flavor. Not unlike acid.

    As an aside, I tend to prefer lower alcohol wines. I believe, through experience, that there is a higher probability of getting a hot or out of balance wine with those having higher alcohol levels. Those are characteristics that I do not personally enjoy. While I think no one, including Raj, would say that all north of 14% percent wines are out of balance, I would agree with the statement that there is a higher probability of observing that character with those north of that level (which is arbitrary but convenient). In other words, I am less likely to take a flyer on a wine sporting something well north of 14% on its label. I believe that is what Raj was effectively saying when he uses that as a barometer, despite of how it may have come across (I wasn’t there either0.

    As a journalist, I think you were exercise some circumspection when accusing another journalist of misrepresentation, which I understand to be a serious accusation.

    This is what I wrote on Beserkers: “According to Raj, what he said and what was communicated weren’t quite the same… he knows wine, that much is clear… but he would never say that all 14% wines are unbalanced….

    (just to clarify, I am only talking about the idea that ALL wines over 14 percent are unbalanced. While I don’t know what he said, I am certain he doesn’t believe that. I am also not suggesting Lettie mis-reported anything, just to be clear)”

    That is clearly so narrow and I made it clear that I wasn’t suggesting a misrepresentation, but merely and ex-post difference of opinion of what was meant by what was said. I can’t help but think you were looking for a story and I am frankly disappointed that you would use my words, inaccurately, to defend yourself.

    Lettie deserves and apology.

  33. Hi all,

    I do not have a bone to pick with Teague. She just presented an overly simplistic and misleading view of the high-alcohol issue. She said that alcohol delivers flavors, which clearly implies that more alcohol means more flavors. I dispute that.

    For the record, I do think that different grapes can carry different alcohol levels well. For example, I think a 15% alcohol riesling would likely be vile. But many grenache under 14% probably aren’t so great.

    As to some of Manlin’s points, I encourage those who are interested to go and read the thread about this article on wineberserkers. I did not “use” Manlin’s comment on berserkers. I, in fact, contacted Raj and asked for a clarification. He tweeted his response to this post. And for those who are interested, I encourage them to read the lengthy thread about good vs great wines on berserkers.

  34. Tyler

    Perhaps it is you who didn’t understand the point being made by Lettie? I believe Aldo clarified it for you as well. As I wrote above, I read the same words you did but had a completely different take away. Perhaps you got it wrong and in your zeal to “get” somebody; you over-stepped.

    I still believe you owe Lettie an apology.

  35. Scott –

    No apology will be forthcoming because none is owed.

    I do find it richly ironic that you are now getting so worked up about this when you are the one who launched the topic in the first place, posting in a public forum that she misrepresented Parr’s views. After throwing your friend under the bus, I guess you are trying to make amends. But you are not going to get very far suggesting that Teague wrote a smart, coherent piece and is now receiving unfair criticism.

    Judging from comments on this thread and Berserkers, a lot of people had trouble understanding what she was saying or didn’t swallow it. The piece was misinformed and misleading–“balance” is a code word used by snobs to throw their own heat back on high-alc wines?? Please. The criticism is nothing personal; she just got called out on it by you and many others and is now unhappy about it. If she wants to explain what she meant, she certainly could devote a post to the matter on her new blog.

    And while she’s at it, she could also identify who in the “anti high-alcohol crowd” thinks high-alcohol wines pose health risks–and what exactly those risks are–as I have never heard anyone make that claim.

  36. Tyler

    What is rich is that you are now telling me what my intent is/was. First of all, I did not say that she misrepresented Rajat, I said that Raj had commented that what he says he said and what was printed were different. My comment was specifically focused on the comment that ALL wines over 14% were unbalanced and that I opined that even if he had said it, there was no way he could mean it. That statement is ludicrous. That is not to say he didn’t say it and if Lettie say he did, who are we to question that? THAT was the extent of my commentary. Every thing else was extrapolated and my subsequent comments were related to how I interpreted what she wrote vis a vis others. In your response you are suggesting to me what I meant by what I wrote? Your position takes a leap the facts do not support. I also said in that thread that I disagreed with her premise (I am not a fan of high alcohol wines, on average) but I liked the piece. That, again, doesn’t quite comport with your takeaway.

    Throwing her under the bus? That is just more of your pre-disposed bias to find a “story.” I am not throwing anyone under the bus, I am suggesting regardless of what he said, Raj cannot possibly believe THAT ALL wines over 14% are not balanced.

    As for the health claim, seems to me that it is basically a simple argument, pass a certain level of alcohol (depending on which study you believe) the benefits of alcohol consumption diminish at an exponential rate with increased consumption; which stands to reason that if 3 glasses of “wine” is the inflection point, then three glasses of 15% wine is worse for you than 3 of 13%. Doesn’t seem very controversial to me.

    Balance, however is purely subjective. RMP feels many high alcohol wines are “balanced”, many of those wines that he feels are balanced, to me, are not. There is no right or wrong, but to my palate, I find more unbalanced wines north of 14% than I do below, but your mileage may very.

    You seemed to have dug in with respect to your interpretation that “alcohol delivers flavor.” If she meant that flavor comes from alcohol, why wouldn’t she or Aldo have said that? The idea of delivery suggests that it is the method by which flavor is carried, not the source from which the flavor comes. But with anything, there is likely a point at which the presence of more alcohol diminishes the ability to deliver flavor as other flavor are dominated by the alcohol characteristic themselves… to wit, out of balance. That point is likely different for everyone and there is no fast rule. That said, when trafficking in probabilities, you need to pick a spot where you are indifferent between the over/under, 14% seems “rule of thumb” reasonable to me from a probability distribution standpoint.

    While you don’t feel the need to apologize, for someone who is trying to establish themselves as a wine journalist, you have, in numerous instances created the impression with those that ARE established as someone trying to make a name for yourself by attacking others. That says more about your approach than what you write. Personally, I would would rather be known in that space for what I write, not how I go about it.

    Best of luck to you.

  37. Ummm…

  38. Jarrod’s link is pretty funny. Allow me to be the “lazy activist” in that schema (I think).

    Scott Manlin may be rising to the defense of his longtime friend, which is sweet, but let’s be honest: Sloppy terminology and/or misrepresentation is a standing pattern in Teague’s writing. This is just another example.

    Neither Teague nor her defenders have cited or linked to a person in the “anti high-alcohol crowd” who actually argues for “the health risk that is posed by these wines.” Even if that risk were an uncontroversial conclusion to draw from the higher number, then why attribute it to the “anti high-alcohol crowd”? Seems unnecessarily confrontational. If this were a real argument, then Teague should have linked to someone who actually makes it. As it stands, what she did was as valid, journalistically, as the WSJ publishing, “Some people feel the earth is flat” and then writing a strident defense of earth-roundness. I believe that’s called a straw man argument. And it’s shoddy journalism.

    But the defense of Teague is no surprise. Scott has risen to her defense in the past, for example on this thread at WineBerserkers:

    And then there’s this link from a few years back on the Parker boards, where, again, Teague comes out with a published article that people challenge, and Manlin rises to her defense:

    So to see Teague making sloppy (or even misrepresentative) arguments, and then to see Scott chivalrously defending her, is no surprise. The fact that he’s ignoring the nuanced arguments against her non-nuanced writing isn’t surprising either. Tyler, don’t waste your breath here. His criticism is the equivalent of someone pounding the table shouting, “How dare you!” over and over again, hoping you’ll pay attention. Disengage.

  39. Jarrod

    I get the “nuanced” comments as you describe. But Tyler has failed to address both of principle points I have made, nuanced if you will.

    And if you think my responses have been “table pounding” then I really have nothing to say to you. I have done nothing of the kind and perhaps you or Tyler can respond to my nuanced arguments with respect to the carelessness and innapropriateness of his entrenched position.

    When you are unfairly treated, I will come to your defense as well.

  40. Poor, innocent Jarrod, getting dragged into this. I think you meant me, Scott.

    I can’t speak for Tyler, but I have honestly lost track of your points. (If you’d like to summarize them in a sentence or two, be my guest.) I just re-read the WSJ article and Tyler’s retort, and I still don’t understand why you’re so worked up over this.

    To remind you and others (who might still give a damn), here’s a snippet from the Teague piece:

    That’s one thing that the alcohol-haters leave out: Alcohol delivers flavors. “It’s like the fat in the meat,” as Aldo Sohm, wine director of Le Bernardin in New York, once said to me. (I wasn’t sure if he meant it as a good thing, but I decided to take it that way.)

    Lots of the wines that I own seem to have plenty of this flavorful fat, like the fat whites (mostly California Chardonnay), California Cabernets, Châteauneuf-du-Papes and lots of “unbalanced” New World Pinot Noirs. And though this last confession will likely earn me the unending scorn of those sommeliers, they’re wines that I love and look forward to drinking soon.

  41. oops…apologies to Jarrod, I should have written Ben.

    To summarize:

    Alcohol, similar to Fat (as Aldo mentioned) is a carrier of flavor, not the source of it.

    Not all wines over 14% are “unbalanced”

    The last paragraph that you quote suggests that Lettie has a higher pleasure tolerance for wine with higher levels of alcohol than do some somms (and me). As I have noted previously, I tend to find higher alcohol wines less pleasant that others. She like them, that is her point. She doesn’t find them unbalanced (though others do, note the quotes). That is subjective, stated as such, and not controversial.

    You don’t think there is an anti-high alcohol crowd? There are lots of us. I generally avoid those wines, for the reasons that I have listed above. But there are lots of people that like them. There isn’t a right answer, she just framed the debate. How is that inappropriate? I believe she did link that to two people, Corti and Parr.

    As far as the health risk linkage goes… let’s concede she didn’t develop that point well, but is that really argument that you want to hang your hat on? Frankly, I think it is irrelevant and a bit of a red herring. A quick google search will source numerous peolle talking about the ill effects of higher alcohol and it wasn’t even germaine to her premise. To me, THAT is grasping at straws.

    Tyler hung his had on the meaning of deliver, I say he didn’t understand it and if it was intended to mean what he suggests it means, that flavor comes from alcohol, then she would have said that, not imply that it was a driver.

    Hopefully that clears it up for you and apologies again to Jarrod.

  42. Tyler,

    Generally, I agree with you, on this one, I have to disagree. As a disclaimer, I do not know you and do not know Ms. Teague except I have posted comments here previously and exchanged and email or two with you. I don’t have an opinion one way or the other either on high alcohol wine, low alcohol wine, etc. I think people should drink what they like, try to educate their palates, and decide for themselves what they like.

    Having said the above, your comments, to me (and again, I am not trying to start something here far from it) seem to be a bit of a personal attack. There are ways to better demonstrate one’s point. And I am not trying to defend Ms. Teague – don’t know her, but I read the article in WSJ and did not get out of it what you did. There just seems to be a lot of personal hostility in your comments. And, please, I am not trying to start something, or say you are wrong about high alcohol vs. low alcohol – just that the comments directed at Ms. Teague seem personal.

    Just out of curiosity, did you discuss the issue with her and get her comments too? Apologize because I am not trying to be confrontational. I just think that in this age of so called “social media” sometimes people get carried away. And, I believe you say above it wasn’t a personal attack, but it does seem like one to me, one of your general readers.


  43. Unfortunately, in service of a political argument, some folks are picking and choosing bits and pieces of a well written piece of reportage about a non issue (as far as the vast majority of wine consumers are concerned). An “issue” created and mined by a group of industry people out to make a “case.”

    Alcohol in wine is measured and perceived. There is no hard fast rule that correlates the two. How many times have we tasted a wine with low measured alcohol and perceive “high” alcohol? and vice versa?

    Pulling the measured alcohol level out of context of a very complex beverage and attempting to make a case is IMOP idiotic (and on both scientific and perception levels–impossible). Who would argue with the piece’s opening” Bottles with more than 14% alcohol have a bad reputation–but they can be delicious.” ??????

    I have no problem with a sommelier (or a critic or a writer) tasting a wine and believing it to be not to his/her liking. I have a huge problem with sommeliers who arbitrarily select some line of demarcation–is it 14%, 15%??? (let’s not ignore that what’s listed on the label is often not very precise to begin with) and wield it to establish the wine’s quality (or flavor profile). The silliness of this is right there in the piece. Is that 14% for New World pinot and not for Old World or Zins and cabs or what about Amarone or?…. It leads to flailing and floundering in attempting to apply a rule that just doesn’t work. period.

    That “rallying cry” of some professionals” Ms Teague aptly notes–is the result of a misguided wine war between good wines and evil wines. It is wrongheaded and boring. Wines from cooler climates (read Northern Europe) tend to have lower alcohol levels (less ripe) and wine makers often resort to chaptalization to get sugar levels up to minimal standards. Wines from warmer/hotter climes tend to have higher alcohol levels–wine makers have another set of problems to overcome. Is a tart, under ripe, thin tasting wine any more or less

    The result is a wide range of wines with varying flavor profiles. And yes–if alcohol as measured is important to you–there is a wide range there as well. Technological advances in grape growing and wine making have offered wine makers in all sorts of climates more flexibility to male the wines they want to make.

    I often wonder why the proponents of wines with lower alcohol levels (measured and/or tasted) simply do not make the case for their favorite wines. Encourage others to try them. Why must these folks create some grand battle rife with world wide conspiracy’s and “old World” vs “New World”–it has always escaped me how people who are adherents to the notion of terroir seem to expect wines made thousands of miles apart to have the same characteristics and flavor profiles.–

    But I digress! Why must the people who love a certain style of wine advocate for their wines at the expense of other wines. Using “fruit bomb”, “Franken wines” and my favorite “spoofed wines”–the implication being–if you happen to like some wine style they don’t, you are an uneducated heathen, a barbarian a supporter of the global conspiracy.

    The truth is–there are more wines from more types of grapes made in more styles from more places available today than ever before! A great time to be a wine drinker–no matter what style you like!

  44. To John Lahart,

    Bravo, well said. I think that anyone who rules out wines because of alcohol content – whether high or low – is showing a certain amount of ignorance about wine. Of course, it’s about winemaking, style you like, region you like, but to say a wine is bad or good because it has “15% alcohol” or good or bad because it has “12% alcohol” seems to be a silly and non-scientific argument.

    And, in my opinion only, I think that the people who rule wine out based on alcohol content only are hypocrites of the first order. Even if you look at Ms. Teague’s article (which started this inane discussion), the naysayers of high alcohol break their own rules. Darrell Corti himself is breaking his own rules carrying a high alcohol Zinfandel he happens to like. Parr breaks his rules when it comes to Cabernet. So, think this entire argument is much ado about nothing.


  45. Ms. Teague is partially right. Ripe grapes contain more sugar which is thus converted into higher alcohol. Ripe grapes tend to make more flavorful wines than not-ripe grapes. Mr. Parr has it pretty wrong though. 14% is a random number associated with a tax level in wine and to my knowledge has never been shown to be a threshold of balanced wine. What everyone ignores here is acidity, which in the end, has more to do with balance than alcohol.

  46. I guess then, some dessert wines, port wine for example, must be the most flavorful according to that simplistic alcohol “rule”? Ahh, if wine was just such an easy thing. Turns out that in the region I spent a lot of time when growing up (and nowadays too), Côte du Rhône and specifically Châteauneuf du Pape, there are wines with lots of alcohol often with more than 13°. Their fame and complexity, however, does not stem from the alcohol content. Actually, when they go beyond 14°, I just don’t appreciate them much. Sorry, I don’t want an aperitif but a table wine. As for the Bordeaux or Burgundy, Barolo or Rioja, they are often low in alcohol. I wonder whether some people would really find them inferior to alcohol-loaded Californians???

  47. […] línea atribuida a uno de los sumilleres más respetados de Nueva York, les refiero a mi amigo el Dr. Vino, quien también trató recientemente sobre el debut de Lettie Teague en el Wall Street […]

  48. […] that there’s a notion that “alcohol delivers flavors” in wine, this is a useful contribution to the […]


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