Who’s the loser in The Great Pinot Switcheroo?

Raj Parr is the wine director at Michael Mina’s restaurants and a partner at RN74, a Burgundy-centered restaurant in San Francisco. When RN74 opened a couple of years ago, Parr drew attention by saying that he wouldn’t carry pinot noirs or chardonnays over 14% alcohol.

So, as we mentioned earlier, it was interesting that Adam Lee of Siduri Wines (pictured, right, via Facebook) got up to a little skulduggery (as Jordan Mackay tweeted when it happened). The NYT details that at a recent panel discussion and tasting about balance in pinot noir, Lee presented a 13% and a 15% pinot noir of his to the audience. Parr apparently leaned over to Siduri and said that he’d like to purchase some of the 13% wine. Lee then told Parr that he had, in fact, steamed off the labels, so the wine that Parr had just requested to buy was the one over 15% alcohol. Ta-dah! With Parr’s permission, Lee told the audience what had transpired. (After speaking with someone who also attended, the audience wines appeared to be correct and untampered with.)

So, what to make of this? To me, dogma is the big loser here. Sure Parr got punk’d. But he has the confidence to immediately laugh off Lee’s ruse and let Lee share what transpired with the whole room. Further, even though Parr drew a line in the pile of pommace about alcohol levels a couple of years ago, based on a tasting with him last month, I’m inclined to believe that he’s not as dogmatic as the RN74 policy makes him seem.

What’s your take on what transpired?

“The Gadfly in the Pinot Noir” NYTimes.com

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39 Responses to “Who’s the loser in The Great Pinot Switcheroo?”

  1. I would like to drink one more glass of wine a day than I do. So the alcohol percentage does make a difference. If someone ‘punked’ me that the 14%+ wine was better, I would simply retrain my taste buds to prefer a 12%+ wine.

  2. No one loses and everyone wins!

    Challenging conventional wisdom is how we make headway as a culture, no matter what we are studying. All the better if what we are studying is delicious, like Pinot noir. I’d warn people not to look to much into this, however. Basing conclusions on a sample size of n=1 is not good science and makes for poor argument fodder. Everyone (!) should go home and repeat this experiment with their friends, as double-blind as possible, and learn for themselves. Do it over and over. It’s great fun and you get to drink the experiment.

    As a second point, it shows how important context and extrinsic clues are to how we evaluate our world. If after drinking 100s of bottles of wines you come to the decision that 13.5% if your cutoff for what you generally find to be an enjoyable wine, there is no reason for you not to use that as a guideline of enjoyability. It won’t hold every time, but it’s unreasonable to expect a matrix as complex as wine to follow bright line rules.

  3. The alcohol difference in 13 and 15 is negligible in reference to the total amount of alcohol in 2 or 3 glasses, so the only reasonable debate is between the taste difference in a 13 and a 15. I’ve always found that the alcohol content is not measured alone, but with the other factors of company, situation, surroundings, mood, et cetera. As always, the best glass is the one in your hand.

  4. I think the underlying point is two-food:
    1. If Adam Lee was supposedly to have switched the labels, and made it a point to make someone look stupid, can he be trusted that it actually happened? Were the samples tested? It seems that on many levels Adam likes to stir things up, for good or bad. I’m not sure this was beneficial at all.

    2. Raj purchases wine for many restaurants other than the “less than 14” RN74. The flagship Michael Mina and especially Bourbon Steak come to mind. I’m sure Raj enjoyed Adam’s company and wanted to do due diligence as he thought the wines were solid by placing a wine on a list. Raj never said RN74, it was just assumed.

  5. My take is not the same as Aaron’s:

    1. Seems to me like Adam Lee was just having a little fun and this is being turned by some into something much more devious than it should be, especially since he kept it to himself until Parr said he should disclose the ruse to the group.

    2. The experiment illustrated an important point that was relevant to the discussion. Alcohol levels are not the be-all and end-all in terms of balance and elegance of wine as some are now vociferously advocating. No one wants their wine to be “hot,” but you don’t really know until you taste. Simply reading the ABV off the label isn’t a reliable guide.

    3. Agree that Parr is probably not as dogmatic as many have made him out to be and he showed what a good sport he was by encouraging Lee to disclose the label-switching. On the other hand, he is the implementer of a much-discussed and somewhat controversial policy re: alcohol content at his RN74 restaurant. Seems like he articulated a very reasonable defense of this policy of the conference but his notoriety on this issue made him the perfect subject for Lee’s experiment and made the episode all the more interesting.

    4. There is room for many styles of wine. Drink what you like and enjoy.

  6. Agree that dogmatic wine thinking is the loser here. Someone on the panel (can’t remember who) made the excellent point that one reason we obsess over alcohol is because it’s on the label. If acidity or brix or some other measure were there, we’d likely have just as heated discussions over what these mean and what the ‘right’ values to aim for are. This is a tricky topic because more information can put the wine into context, explain the causes of certain taste or aroma profiles, and help guide buying choices. But it can also create biases and prejudices like Raj’s that need to occasionally be tested. I think the experiment proves that drawing any kind of hard line on what you will or won’t buy inevitably leads to missing out on excellent wines.

  7. Tyler,

    Actually, all the wines Adam poured were switched, not just those for the people on stage.

  8. I agree that dogmatic thinking is the loser here–and that’s not a bad thing at all. But I was still disappointed with Adam Lee’s stunt, and the way that he was able to portray himself as the “winner” (at Parr’s expense) in a debate that shouldn’t have any winners and losers.

  9. Eric – Thanks for stopping by with that clarification. The person I spoke to said several of the somms serving were convinced that the labels of the wines served to the audience had not been tampered with. I wonder how hard it is to flawlessly steam off a label on a Siduri wine and replace it with another one?

  10. Tyler, Because Eric brings up the best point, I am curious what did the crowd think? There has been a lot of talk over the past few years that alcohol should have a cut off number. Purely and simply this is not the whole picture. What about the Ph? How about acidity and so many other factors? The listed alcohol on the label is an interesting # but really not the complete end all for whether this wine is great or simply good. Quite frankly, I usually don’t care for the high alc style, but in a double blind tasting I am often surprised by a wine with higher alcohol that wins…Each bottle is unique and there is not a recipe for pleasure. the loser is being rigid and dogmatic about the topic. Taste is individual and there are no right – wrong way. It simply points out that being to strident about this is a mistake.

  11. It seems like high alcohol is being used interchangeably with “the wine style usually associated with wines with high alcohol” and that may be the problem. Not every wine with a high alcohol content will be in the above-mentioned style and not every wine in the “high alcohol” style will have high alcohol. The alcohol value on the label is therefore used as a predictor of style more than a measure in it’s own right.

  12. I am just glad that we didn’t throw Clark Smith into the Shell Beach mix. We would still be there talking (or listening!) now!

  13. You know who looses in this mess? WINE. This is another great example of how the word “wine snob” came to be. A wimemaker switching bottles in a “gotcha” moment? Sales must be down at Siduri. Sigh.

    Sure, I can see some educational value in presenting two wines with alc. levels at the extremes, but to take the time to steam off the labels and reaffix them, seems, well, desperate. I might just charge Adam with premeditated wine snobbery.

    The ‘real’ issue with all of this is style of wine. California PN doesn’t have to be made in the 15%+ alc levels. This is false. The growing conditions in RRV, SC, AV are suitable for producing elegant PN. But when has an elegant low alc CA PN ever received a “high” score 94+?? The problem will never be fixed unless “critics” change or when the American public finally stops listening to them.

    Until then, you’re going to have these ‘sensitivities” about style……because it’s always about sales….$$$

  14. Adam Lee (Siduri) makes Pinot Noir with ABV levels that range all over the place. His objective is to let the vineyard speak. He naturally thinks that he has accomplished that objective–as do most winemakers.

    He has also very successfully challenged much of the dogma about high alcohol. For example, when another writer claimed that he could pick out the alcohol in wine simply by tasting it blind, Adam took up that challenge and proved that the writer could not do it.

    Our perceptions of alcohol level come, as has been said above, from a combination of factors. Not only do TA and pH play a role here, but so do tannin, depth of flavor, fruit vs oak, etc. In fact, our perceptions of alc are so complex that there is no hard and fast rule that can be universally applied. Wines at 13% can taste hot. Wines at 15.2%, as Raj Parr found out with the Siduri Keefer Ranch Pinot Noir (and really does know) will not taste hot when the balance is right.

    Mr. Parr’s preference for Chard and PN under 14% applies only to restaurant RN 74, and not to the other 17 Michael Mina restaurants. He told me, in an interview after the fact, that he bases that preference on the most likely ABV levels for Burgundian wines. And as Adam Lee has said several times now, he (Lee) has no argument with Parr over Parr’s individual preference.

    I do have a small procedural argument with it because of the way that Parr’s pronouncement was made and with Jordan Mackay’s subsequent article attacking wines over 14%. Please note that Jordan is the co-author with Raj Parr of the very popular book about being a sommelier released last year. The overall effect was to paint both Parr and Mackay into a very tight corner while essentially painting a fair bit of CA wine as beyond acceptable limits.

    What Adam has been doing, and I fully agree with his goals, is to prove that there can be no such thing as “one size fits all” and that there is no a priori goodness possessed by wines under 14% ABV but not by wines over 14%. Mr. Parr agrees with that. But his stand on the issue has made him into a spokesperson of sorts for the “under 14% is godly” crowd.

    Eric Asimov’s blog yesterday reiterated the point that taste and not labels determine how a wine is perceived. Parr has reiterated that point. It is Adam Lee’s point.

    We have not delved very far, in this discussion into the effects of higher alcohol wines on blood alcohol, but they are not nearly so dramatic as people would suggest. The difference in effect between two Pinot Noirs, one at 13% and one at 14.5% is about an ounce of wine at a half bottle’s worth of consumption. It is not, as was suggested above, the difference between having an extra glass of wine or not.

  15. What you have here is an exception that proves the rule. 15% alcohol Pinot Noir can be in balance, but they very rarely are. Alcohol content can be a great preliminary way of judging style, but region, vintage, and producer will also plan into this story.

  16. I think Jeff hits the nail on the head here. We’ve elevated this kerfuffle into something MUCH larger than that it is and with more meaning than it should have. Ultimately this is no big whoop but instead we’re talking about it like it’s a big deal, and probably scaring the sh*t out of average wine drinkers who will yet again be afraid to like what they like – or, god-forbid, will think that someone might be switching wine labels on them!

  17. Tyler,

    You’ve touched on an important point here: how exactly do you steam off wine labels?

    Adam’s next gig should be speaking at the Wine Label Collector’s Conference.

  18. 1WineDude: The good news is no “average wine drinkers” are reading any of this, so they won’t be effected. Re: Jeff, he may have hit some nail on the head, but it’s a bit shocking to me that his interpretation of the whole thing is that Adam Lee is a wine snob!?!? At a meeting full of wine snobs he helped illustrate a point that should help to end a very snobbish debate.

  19. There is yet one other point that needs to be addressed re Jeff’s comments. He writes in part, “The ‘real’ issue with all of this is style of wine. California PN doesn’t have to be made in the 15%+ alc levels. This is false.”

    It seems to me that a winemaker like Adam Lee, whose wines range in ABV from the 13s to 15 on occasion, has shown great sensitivity to what the vines do and do not produce. Suggesting that there is something “false” in his wines or Dehlingers or Benovia’s or anyone else’s is far too much of a generalization. And it is disproved by the wines that are successful and still have ABVs above 13%.

    He also asks, mistakenly it turns out, “But when has an elegant low alc CA PN ever received a “high” score 94+??”

    How about Dutton Goldfield? How about Marimar? How about Williams Selyem? How about Freestone? How about the old Gary Farrells or the new Gary Farrells under Alysian? Can we listen to the critics who like those wines? If so, send my your money.

    When conversations bog down in broad generalities, they lose their value. There are no absolutes when it comes to making every CA wine at 13% ABV. Raj Parr would be the first to agree–and it is his comments that started all this.

    The problem will never be fixed unless “critics” change or when the American public finally stops listening to them.

  20. The last paragraph above should have appeared in quotation marks as it was part of Jeff’s comments. Obviously, as a critic (who has given high ratings to PNs both below and above 14% ABV), I am happy to have the American public listen to all my PN ratings. Ratings have to do with wine, not what is on the label.

  21. Not many California labels since the late 1990s, at least, can be steamed off or even soaked off. These aren’t anything like the old labels that you could probably peel off with your fingernail anymore.

  22. A couple of thoughts:

    1. If you’re a small woman, the difference between 13.5% and 15% is a glass, especially if you’re driving. I started paying attention to alcohol levels because of ending up accidentally buzzed. There are some high-alcohol wines I enjoy, but I have them at home.

    2. Is it possible that the tasting at this event might be like other tastings: Big alcohol/flavor wines tend to taste better when consumed on their own than at a meal?

    3. I’m not sure if you can steam a label off, but you can get labels off one way or another, and presumably a winemaker might have additional labels available. It seems like the explanation for how it was done was oversimplified.

  23. Christine–

    No matter how big or small one is, the difference in what 13.5% ABV does to blood alcohol versus what 15% does is one ounce in half a bottle.

    No one wants you or anyone to drive “buzzed”, but it is not the difference in ABV that is getting you buzzed. It is the total amount you drink. Go ahead and have that second glass, but leave a little in the bottom when you are done. That is all it takes to wind up with the same blood alcohol.

  24. Yes, soaking the labels off is effective – warm water, bottles standing upright with the water level covering the labels – and then one scrapes off (and destroys) the label. Patience is rewarded in this procedure – you’ll recall those forgotten bottles in last night’s ice bucket that have ghostly labels afloat and completely detached the next morning…

  25. Charlie:

    Since people come in a range of sizes and also metabolize alcohol differently, there are multiple factors in play.

    It would be typical for me to split a bottle with one other person over a 90-minute dinner. At half a bottle, I walk away fine at around 13.5%, but feeling the alcohol with more potent bottles (say 14.9% and up).

    What’s the tipping point between those two ranges? I have no idea, but I’m not inclined to start ordering by the glass, so, for me, the difference in alcohol is material.

  26. I’ll never buy another wine from Siduri. This kind of showboating usually presages something worse.
    Stay tuned.

  27. A gentleman wouldn’t have pulled that stunt.

  28. If I may just make a couple of remarks in response to the blog and some of the subsequent comments:

    1) As Eric correctly pointed out, all of the labels were switched. The labels were not steamed off, and not really soaked off either. You can spray them with a glass cleaner and then scrape them with a razor blade. You then relabel them. There were only 8 or 9 bottles of each (I don’t recall which) and two of the guys at the winery did it during what is a slower time at the winery (between bottling runs).

    2) Aaron, I told a couple of people about the switch beforehand….just in case anyone questioned whether or not it happened. If you want to email them yourself, just drop me an email to adam@siduri.com and I can put you in touch with them.

    3) Scott, I am not really sure how or where I have portrayed myself as a “winner.” Can you please elaborate? You need to remember, that I also produced the 13.6% alcohol Pinot Noir that apparently came off as less balanced than the 15.2% alcohol Pinot. Not exactly a situation where one “wins.”

    4) Jeff, sales at Siduri are actually quite good. If you’d like year over year numbers, drop me an email.

    5) Raj is one of, if not the finest taster I have presented my wine to. I once tasted him on a Syrah and he asked if some of the wine in the blend had finished fermentation in the barrel. I asked him how he knew that, because it had in fact done so. He said that he often picks up a slight salinity in Syrahs that have finished fermenting in barrel. I was blown away.

    6) Raj was also the most gracious person in the room, as he was the person who told me that we should reveal that he wanted to purchase what proved to be the higher alcohol wine. He didn’t have to do that.

    7) My point in switching the wines was simple, to show that a 15.2% alcohol Pinot Noir could be balanced, to show through that exercise that judging wine simply by what is printed on the label is foolish, and to show that preconceptions can play a huge role in how we judge a wine. — I certainly had no idea that Raj would ask to purchase one of the wines, nor how the seminar would transpire. It certainly could have turned out differently.

    Thanks for letting me post.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  29. I think this thing has gotten way overblown. The contention that Adam was trying to set up Raj Parr is more fitting in the political arena than in actual truth. Adam has clearly stated (in his many postings about the situation) that the wines were switched for everyone and the intent was to make a point about perception with everyone. Time ran long on the panel discussion (when do they not?) and he simply did not have the opportunity to execute what he had intended. Then we all know what happened after Raj asked to purchase the wine.

    I personally appreciate Adam’s frankness when tasting wines. His wines are clearly more driven by place and what the fruit presents than any agenda or formula. Adam approaches his opinions about wine the same way I like my religion. The same way I want my minister to ask me to challenge and reaffirm my faith on a regular basis, I want my wine experiences to force me to reassess what I think I know. I don’t want to take the easy way out and just accept that I should believe this or drink this just because.

    I have taken a chance on some of Adam’s wines (first vintage from a vineyard, a slight change in approach to a vineyard or vintage) and I have usually been the beneficiary of some really great wines.

    The only winners or losers in this discussion are those who need find one.

  30. […] about extensively by far better wine writers than myself; see Alder Yarrow here and Dr. Vino here for further insight and excellent commentary. To summarize, the panel was debating the topic of […]

  31. Adam, points well made.

    Thank you for clearing that up. When you were in KC last I attended the tasting with you and Pisoni. While there were many wines that I didn’t key in on, many others were solid.

    Much ado is being made about this because it involved many notable wine personalities. I do believe that balance brings far more to the table than acid and booze. I am also of the belief that high alcohol (15%+ PN/CH, 16%+ Bordeaux varietals) tend to not fit my palate nor gain complexity over time no matter the price point. The wines tend to be more primary and I lose tertiary notes in them.

  32. Aaron,

    If you want, drop me an email to adam@siduri.com and let me know which wines you thought were solid at the KC tasting and which you didn’t key in on and we can see what the alcohol levels were on them, as well as pH and TA levels. Might be fun to see if there was some correlation between the factors.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  33. Anybody who has followed Adam Lee’s serial internet postings over the years knows that he most definitely has an agenda.

  34. Adam raised a valid point at WOPN, showing that every wine should be based on it’s own merits (including balance) after blind tasting.

    Raj is clearly not consistent in refusing wine for its alcohol level alone, but then saying: “You can’t say a wine is not balanced because it has 14.5 percent alcohol.”

    Eric misses the (above) point completely and in doing so, gives Adam great publicity; in my opinion, good for Adam. he’s a great guy.

  35. This episode reminds me of the “liar’s paradox”. The “paradox” can be epitomized in a sentence that most grad school math teachers tell students in class: “Everyone in this room is a liar”.
    Can you affirm that the sentence above is true? According to Godel’s “incompleteness theorems” it is neither true nor false: it is NOT PROVABLE.
    The same reasoning applies for the high alcohol vs. low alcohol, Lee/Parr issue. CA law states that wines under 14 ABV can have a margin of error of 1.5 percentage point. Above 14% the margin shrinks to 1 percentage point.
    Hence, a 13.5 ABV Pinot might be, in fact, 15.0. And a 15.2 Pinot might be 14.2. This observation raises an indisputable doubt whether Mr. Parr’s assessment was consistent or not: i.e., Mr. Parr’s verdict is NOT PROVABLE.
    Moreover, since Mr. Lee openly admitted to have deceived the audience by swapping the labels, who can guarantee that, in reality, he did not swap the labels at all, and was only playing a (self-serving) trick.

  36. Peter,

    Unfortunately, your information is not accurate. While CA law does allow a 1.5% leeway at 14% alcohol and below….and a 1% leeway at 14.1% alcohol and higher….in neither case can the 14% line be legally crossed in this leeway. Thus any wine labeled in the 12 or 13% alcohol range must be below 14%…and any wine labeled in the 14.1%+ range must be over 14%.

    As far as a guarantee goes, as I mentioned in my comments earlier— please feel free to email me for the ETS numbers and for a list of people that I told about the switch before hand. My email is adam@siduri.com.


    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  37. So, in the future, should people who are shown Siduri wines by Adam Lee trust him? Or should they be suspicious that he’s playing some sort of “gotcha” game? You know, to prove a point.

  38. Dear Wino,

    Perhaps, in the future, people should taste the wine in the glass and judge it for what it is.

    I can’t speak for Adam. But, in my opinion, he did what he had to do in order to make a valid point in an otherwise bland discussion.

    The more people that taste for themselves, rather than being lead by the critics the better.

  39. You missed my point completely.


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