Perhaps Americans who care about wine romanticize the notion of a European wine culture. You know what I mean, the image we carry around in our imaginations that depicts a long table set outside under ancient olive trees — this would be in Provence, of course, or Tuscany — with three or four generations of the family partaking of utterly fresh and simple yet wonderful food while sipping from glasses of a tasty unpretentious local wine. The kids get a little wine diluted with water in their glasses, and the teenagers are allowed one glass and no monkey business, thank you very much! See, these people know that learning about drinking starts at the family table, with Grandma and Grandpa looking on benevolently as the youngsters are gradually initiated into the knowledge that so many Americans can’t comprehend: That wine is part of life and is inextricable from the enjoyment of food. Gosh, wouldn’t we like to be in that movie!

Because the truth is somewhat different. In Great Britain laws governing the consumption of alcohol have become draconian. Germans are turning away from wine and drinking more beer. The French — sacre bleu, the French! — have become almost hysterically puritanical about alcohol consumption, though now that their non-drinking prez has been booted out perhaps the atmosphere may lighten up a bit. In any case, America traditionally looks to Europe for its lessons about food and wine and life the way that an ingenue looks to a wiser, more sophisticated older man for instruction in love. Oops, not anymore! That’s a different motif from a different time and a different movie!

So, to the question “Could America become a country with a genuine wine culture, in the sense that wine is accepted as a foregone part of household and family existence, that wine is a natural accompaniment to food and belongs on the table, that wine, moderately consumed, is an enjoyable, even celebratory aspect of life,” I have to answer — “I think not.”

I’ll provide a tiny admittedly isolated though, I think, potent example of why I believe this is so. Here’s the background:

To the east of Memphis lie the smaller towns of Germantown and Colllierville, all these contiguous cities and towns running up against each other, so you could drive on Poplar Avenue from downtown Memphis, on the Mississippi River, east to the Shelby County line and seldom be out of a major shopping area. When I was in college, a drive from the center of Memphis out to Collierville felt like an all-day expedition; now the road is six lanes all the way and in a sense the drive is even more tedious.

Germantown and Collierville began as villages, and they each grew and grew, so that even these suburban towns have their own suburbs and malls and shopping centers and civic plazas. The heart of Collierville, however, is the old town square that retains a bit of original quaintness and a group of 19th and early 20th Century houses that surround it. Like many old villages that expanded into the era of urbanization and its growing pains, Collierville tries to hold on to its heritage, especially through an annual town fair that celebrates its history and its present.

Here’s the point of this preamble, quoting from a recent story about the Collierville town fair in Memphis’ daily newspaper, The Commercial Appealr: “It’s just part of Collierville. It is family-friendly, you know there isn’t alcohol served, and Collierville is all about family,” said Twentieth Century Club president Karen Ray. (Serendipitously, the article was written by reporter Chelsea Boozer.)

Anyway, there you have it: “Family-friendly” and alcoholic beverages are antithetical. The town of Collierville and its fair are “all about family,” and family values and alcohol don’t mix. (Though a good name for a cocktail would be “Family Values.” I’ll let you contemporary mixologists work on that.)

Now you may be saying, “FK, don’t get hysterical. This is one comment from one person.”

And while you would be right, I cannot help thinking that the statement epitomizes the attitude of a great deal of America’s conservative population regarding alcoholic beverages, whether we talk about beer, wine or spirits. The case doesn’t merely reflect a lack of sophistication; it’s more a matter of real apprehension about alcohol in its old-fashioned guise of Demon Rum. In truth, alcohol has been more and more demonized lately, not only in this country but, as we have seen, in Europe, the great home of vineyards, winemaking and food and wine culture. I would never downplay the real harm that excessive alcohol consumption can result in nor the devastation visited on some families and society generally by alcoholism; the physical, emotional and financial losses are tremendous. Alcoholic beverages, however, are designed to give pleasure, and used legitimately and with common sense they indeed impart a great deal of pleasure, yes, occasionally of a heady, giddy sort, to our lives. Americans, though, have historically fostered a love-hate relationship with alcoholic beverages, viewing their manifold pleasures as well as their deleterious effects with equal suspicion. Never will the dual nature of this contingency be resolved, because these suspicions, anxieties and alarms have been hard-wired into the consciousness of certain portions of the population for generations.

I wish American families could take as their models the Reagan family on the CBS dramatic series Blue Bloods — re-signed for a third year — in which three generations of New York police officers, centered around the police commissioner portrayed by Tom Selleck and including his long-retired father and his two sons, one a beat policeman and the other a detective (a daughter is an assistant district attorney), along with spouses and children, gather for family dinners at least twice during each broadcast. And there on the table always stands a bottle of wine, and there on the table stand wine glasses from which the adults sip throughout the meal and pause to refill those glasses. No one ever mentions the wine because there’s no need to; wine goes with food and is obviously a natural part of their daily life. It’s so damned refreshing!

Some of my readers may say, “Oh sure, and the Reagans are Irish Catholic, and we all know about them.” All right, then, perhaps it’s time that a whole lot of Americans should learn a lesson from these very loving and family-oriented Irish Catholics.

Al fresco dining image by Alexandra Rowley for Collierville town square image from Blue Bloods image from

Antoine Favero, winemaker for Mazzocco, specializes in risk-taking, by which I mean that he fashions wines, primarily zinfandels, that are very high in alcohol, usually towering at 16 percent and higher, while trying for some kind of sane balance and a revelation of single-vineyard characteristics. In the wines he produced though 2005, I was on board for this agenda; many of Mazzocco’s Dry Creek Valley vineyard-designated and reserve wines were thrilling in their combination of broad dimension and fine detail. The Mazzocco Maple Reserve Zinfandel 2005 was on my list of “50 Great Wines of 2008.”

I’m not quite as convinced by the renditions of Mazzocco’s zinfandels from 2006. Evidently nothing has changed in the winemaking process: the barrel regimen is still 18 months in French oak, the alcohol levels still hover from the mid 15 to upper 16 percent, and each zinfandel usually contains a dollop of petite sirah, that is, perhaps three or four percent. Despite that consistency, however, and despite some admirable qualities, I find that the Mazzocco zinfandels from 2006 do not embody, as the ’05s did, the principle of power balanced by elegance that has always been Favero’s rather paradoxical goal, by which I mean that creating a balanced, poised table wine at, say, 16.9% alcohol can be a Herculean task. The alternative is making a wine whose primary attributes reside solely in the “bigness” of its elements, that is, bigness for its own sake: big alcohol, big tannin, big (over-ripe) fruit. I’m afraid that a few of these wines fall into that camp.

>Mazzocco Warms Springs Ranch Zinfandel 2006. 16% alcohol. 450 cases. About $32.
Spice cake, dried currants and plums, cigar smoke, tobacco leaf; big, rich, jammy; port-like; wet dog, bacon fat, roasted and fleshy; very dry, austere finish. Serious and alluring. Excellent.

>Mazzocco Stone Zinfandel 2006. 15.9% alcohol. 600 cases. About $29.
Raspberries and blueberries covered with bittersweet chocolate; smolders with exotic spice and potpourri; pencil shavings and granite; inky, broad, strenuous tannins. 2010-’12. Excellent.

>Mazzocco Pony Zinfandel 2006. 16.1% alcohol. 500 cases. About $32.
Wheatmeal, fruitcake; pure, intense, concentrated; big, juicy, luscious; very dry, big, assertive, austere finish; pretty hot, fairly raisiny. Over the edge. Very Good, if it’s your style.

>Mazzocco West Dry Creek Zinfandel 2006. 16.3% alcohol. 150 cases. About $32.
Pure blackberry pie and blueberry tar, um, tart; very intense and concentrated; daunting tannins and minerality; very dry and austere, a real smoky afterburn of lead pencil, potpourri, bitter chocolate. 2010-’13. Excellent.

>Mazzocco Lytton Zinfandel 2006. 15.7% alcohol. 900 cases. About $29.
Very pure, very intense and minerally; rich and jammy, plangent acidity; granite, iodine, sea salt; luscious but amazingly clean; ripe and vibrant black fruit flavors. Like a beautiful wooden ship with a metallic keel. Through 2012 or ’13. Excellent.

>Mazzocco Maple Zinfandel 2006. 15.8% alcohol. 300 cases. About $40.
Bright, bold, brash blueberry and boysenberry, bitter chocolate and mocha; huge, dry, tannic, forbidding austerity on finish. Very Good.

>Mazzocco Reserve Warm Springs Ranch Zinfandel 2006. 16% alcohol. 200 cases. About $50.
Very ripe boysenberry, blueberry, blackberry; very spicy, rich and warm; balsamic complexity, ancho chili; a massive wine, combo of tannins and alcohol overwhelming; very dry, titanic finish. Very Good to Very Good+.

>Mazzocco Reserve Maple Zinfandel 2006. 15.8% alcohol. 170 cases. About $60.
Cigar smoke and tobacco, spice cake & plum pudding; intensely aromatic; penetrating tannins and minerals. 2011 to 2013 or ’14. Very Good+

>Mazzocco Reserve Smith Orchard Zinfandel 2006. 16.2% alcohol. 500 cases. About $50.
Rich, warm & spicy, but staggering immensity of tannin and minerals married to sweetish alcohol; finish is both cloying and Olympian. Difficult to judge. Perhaps for masochists. Very Good+ with a Big Question Mark.

>Mazzocco Reserve West Dry Creek Zinfandel 2006. 16.7% alcohol. 250 cases. About $50.
You have to push through the alcohol here, as if you were wading through it as toward a shore; there you find an intensity and density of black and blue fruit so wild and ripe, jammy and port-like that it’s almost bizarre; tannins are mossy, briery and bountiful, the alcohol feels flammable. Maybe Very Good to Very Good+ but not to my taste or palate.

>Mazzocco Reserve Pony Zinfandel 2006. 16.1% alcohol. 170 cases. About $50.
Smoke and ash; jammy, plummy steroidally-ripe boysenberry and black cherry; powerful fruit cake component; throbbing, brooding tannins. Forget any concerns about the mythical balance of power and elegance; this is all leather boots and tire-burned asphalt, and if that’s what you want in a table wine, well, freakin’ good for you.

>Matrix Zinfandel 2006. 16.1% alcohol. 225 cases. About $45.
Matrix is a sister winery to Mazzocco, where Favero also makes the wines.
Big, heady whiff of alcohol; very jammy, very dry. The alcohol makes it difficult to judge except on that point.

My favorite of the Mazzocco wines that I tried recently is the Mazzocco Petit Verdot 2005, Monterey County. Coming in at a relatively mild and certainly more rational 14.5% alcohol, this is earthy and minerally, fleshy and meaty; flavors of black currants, black cherries and plums, flecked with mocha, are permeated by briers and brambles, dusty, cedary tannins and polished granite. The texture is dense and chewy, resonant with lively acidity. Best from 2010 through 2014 or ’15. 150 cases. Excellent. About $35.

First story: We go to a little Greek restaurant, oops, there’s no wine, so back into the car we get and drive about a mile to a good wine store where I shop frequently and know the people and they know me.
Clerks: Hey, Fredric!
Me: Hey, guys!
Clerks: Whaddaya looking for?
Me: Something to go with Greek food. That little restaurant doesn’t have a license.
Clerks: Hey, we love that place! But right, no wine. So, we’re thinking Rhone grapes, maybe grenache, we have this great Spanish grenache, maybe the best grenache in the store, but it’s like $24.
Me: No problem, I’ll take it.
The wine is the Alto Moncayo Veraton 2004, from Spain’s Campo de Borja region. Heavy bottle, deep punt, fancy label, obviously 90340l1.jpgintended as a wine to be taken seriously.
Back to the restaurant, waiter opens the bottle, pours the wine, out comes this stuff that looks like motor oil. The wine is incredibly oaky and toasty and spicy, with super, over-the-top ripe black fruit, strident smoky, spicy and vanilla qualities. It’s like a late-harvest zinfandel channeling an Amarone, with the hotness and faux sweetness of high alcohol. I look at the alcohol content; 16 percent. What the hell does this have to do with grenache? And who in their right mind would make a wine like this monster in Spain?
What’s interesting, or dismaying, or discouraging, is that this model of exaggeration and lack of balance received rave reviews all over the place. Please, ladies and gentlemen, let’s stop the madness.
Second story: I’m in a wine store near my house, everybody there knows me well and knows that I like odd and out-of-the-way wines, I’ll try almost anything. So the clerk, a longtime wine acquaintance, picks up this Battely Sojourn 2003, 126_thumb_lp.jpgfrom Victoria, South Australia and says, “Whoa, now this is really interesting,” which could mean, “Whoa, this is fantastic” or “Whoa, this is weird.” It’s $35, but I take the plunge.
The blend on this wine is 60 percent syrah — ok, shiraz — and 40 percent durif, a hybrid grape created in France in the 1880s by crossing syrah with the obscure peloursin. In the South of France, the grape, while resistant to disease, produced wines of no distinction whatever, though in California, most of what’s called petite sirah is actually durif; in the Golden State, the grape makes wines of rusticity, robustness and exuberance.
Anyway, the Battely Sojourn ’03 sits around the house for a few weeks, and one day I pick it up and check the alcohol. Get this: 17.5 percent. This is really close to the alcohol content of port. One would open such a table wine with trepidation, but I wait a few weeks and finally pop the cork.
Whoa, like, no joke, this wine takes hyperbolic ripeness and the heat and sweetness of soaring alcohol to ludicrous extension and stridency, though, once again, here’s an Incredible Hulk of a wine, which I found overdone and unbalanced and actually unpleasant, that received all sorts of rave reviews for its “bigness.” Ladies and gentlemen, please, let’s stop the madness.

“From (a) chemical point of view, wine is an acidic aqueous ethanol solution with aroma compounds.” Gosh, that sort of takes the glass_012.jpgthrill out of your $12-glass of Sonoma-Cutrer Les Pierres Chardonnay 2005. Might as well define Uma Thurman as a carbon-based, water-logged uma_011.jpgmammalian sack of DNA.

The truth is — ready? — all material things are composed of chemicals, and a bottle of great wine, about which we might rhapsodize so lyrically and which we may elevate to sensual, cultural and economic pedestals, is naught but a glass container filled with about 85 percent water (more or less), 12 or 13 percent alcohol (more nowadays) and 2 or 3 percent highly complex chemical compounds. It’s those minute traces of chemicals that give wines their most desirable characteristics. Well, we need the alcohol for the buzz.

I know, you’re thinking, “Jeeze, this killjoy is fixin’ to take all the fun and magic and romance outta wine.”

I wouldn’t do that, being a firm believer in the fun and magic and romance of wine, but I also think that we who love wine — consuming it and writing about it — ought to know more about what wine really is, whence its attributes derive and how it makes them known.

To this end I have been reading — well, reading isn’t the correct word because much of this book is impenetrable to the normal person with an advanced degree — reading at a collection of papers called The Chemistry of Wine Flavor, edited by Andrew L. Waterhouse and Susan E. Ebeler, published by the American Chemical Society Symposium Series in 1998 and distributed by Oxford University Press ($35).

We learn, for example — and there will be a test — that when we swirl a glass of wine and unleash its inimitable aromas into the air and into our noses, our sensing agents are being stimulated by 600 to 800 distinct volatile compounds, the primary source of which is the fermentation process. These compounds may be divided into five groups: alcohols; esters; carbonyl compounds (aldehydes and ketones); sulfur-containing compounds; and organic acids.

The particular flavor of a varietal wine — and don’t forget that most of what we describe as flavor is actually aroma — whether sauvignon blanc or chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir, is the result of a very complicated series of transformations that begin at root-level in the vineyard, continue through the maturing and ripening of the grapes and speed up exponentially during the relatively violent and energy-releasing processes of crushing, maceration and fermentation. I mean, imagine if you were an innocent little grape that came to the big city and all that happened to you; you would probably turn out to be a cheap, scuzzy muscatel, living in the gutter, and blame it on your childhood.

The hint of herbaceousness that sometimes characterizes cabernet sauvignon and merlot wines? That derives from the volatile short chain aldehyde called 3-Methyl-1-butanal, other wise known as isovaleraldehyde, which I guess is the name-brand version. The cocoa or coffee-like undertones we sometimes detect in red wines? That’s 2-Methyl-1-butanal. What a difference a molecule makes! The more pronounced herbaceous elements of sauvignon blanc, that bell pepper, green bean, gooseberry quality, comes from methoxypyrazines, actually from three methoxypyrazines, but we won’t go into that except to say that one of them, the most abundant, of course, is responsible for the canned asparagus nature of sauvignon blancs that have crossed over to the dark side. This is why canopy 24683-00-92.gifmanagement is so important in the farming of sauvignon blanc vineyards. Look, there’s an isobutal-methoxypyrazine now! Cute l’il fella. Simple and elegant.

The previous paragraphs merely skim the surface of a fount of knowledge that grows ever deeper as more research is done into the physical mechanics of wine. We haven’t mentioned color, the result of a range of anthocyanin pigments and pigmented tannins (created by the interaction of anthocyanins with catechins, proanthocyanidins and ellagitannins), nor have we touched on the chemistry of tannin itself, the proanthocyanidins, while the bitterness and astringency associated with large amounts of tannin derive from flavonoid polyphenolic compounds. And those polyphenolic compounds, oh my god, what a rich stew of influences they bring to the color and texture of wine! And I haven’t mentioned the broad range of glycosides, a two-molecule linkage of which one molecule is a sugar and the other, well, isn’t, but may be our old friend the anthocyanin. The point is that in their many combinations “grape glycosides are of fundamental importance to wine flavor,” as one of the essays in Chemistry of Wine Flavor states, affecting such elements as apple, floral notes, honey, dried fig, chocolate and tobacco.

What’s actually important about this dizzying array of chemical compounds and their almost infinite sway of interactions and transformations is that the more that scientists delve into the inner workings of grapes and the fermentation process the more tools they acquire for learning how to analyze and gauge the potential to influence through chemistry the quality of the wine while the grape is still on the vine. Already the “glycosyl-glucose assay,” introduced in the late 1990s, is being used in vineyards and wineries to test such theories and practices.

So, keep all of this information in mind the next time you tiptoe down the winding stair to your cellar, extract a dusty bottle of Cheval-Blanc ’49 from its niche and guide it, like Orpheus tenderly leading Eurydice, back to the light. Whatever people have said or written about the wine, it’s just a bottle filled with water, alcohol and more seething chemical compounds than you could shake a stick at or even want to think about. Forget about drinking the stuff and send it to me instead. I’ll run a few tests for you, have a sip or two, let you know how it works out. Oh, and tell Uma.

The image of isobutylmethoxypyrazine is from
The image of the glass of white wine is from
And the image of Uma Thurman is from — and I’ll provide the link here; many of you will thank me —

Guess where San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom is after admitting to and apologizing for having an affair with his re-election campaign manager’s wife, Ruby Rippey-Tourk? demonrum.jpg
In alcoholic rehab, of course!

“Demon Rum Made Me Do It” has become the “Twinkie Defense” of the 21st Century.

What about former U.S. Representative Mark Foley (R., Fla.), who resigned at the end of September after admitting to exchanging sexually explicit email messages with former Congressional pages?

You guessed it: straight to rehab, and not just any rehab but Sierra Tucson, which costs more than $40,000 a month. A week after he signed up for the clinic, where horseback-riding and mountain hiking are agenda items, Foley’s family told the Palm Beach Post that “he appears to be recovering.”

Actor and film director Mel Gibson, who spewed anti-Semitic comments to a police office who pulled him over for driving erratically last July? Right again, rehab for that potty-mouth. Gibson promised that he wasn’t an anti-Semite, that “I’m not that person.” Who, then, was that Mr. Hyde? Why of course, an alter-ego created by alcohol.
At least Joe Biden didn’t step up to the mike and say, “I was drunk when I called Barack Obama articulate.”

Now it’s true that Newsom, well-known as the founder of Plumpjack winery in Napa Valley and a stable of successful restaurants, said that “my problems with alcohol are not an excuse for my personal lapses in judgment,” which comes about as close to owning up to responsibility as any errant politicians and celebrities do these days. Usually they admit to no more than making a mistake, the definition of “mistake” being “something I did wrong and got caught at.”

Let’s admit that one of the points of alcoholic beverages is that they are intoxicating; being a little high, getting a little buzz can be pleasant. Getting knee-walking drunk and plunging your car through the window of a convenience store and taking out all the snack shelves is not pleasant. Nor is getting drunk and beating up your spouse or cheating on your spouse. Alcohol abuse, as we all should know, can exact a terrible price on individuals, families and communities. But the number of people (outside of the Super Bowl) who, it seems to me, consume wine, beer and spirits moderately — and this conclusion is based only on my own decades of experience, observation and reading — far outnumber those who abuse alcoholic beverages.

Alcohol is such an easy target. Even after the heady freedoms of the 1960s and the prosperity of the ’80s and the indulgences of the ’90s, we still teeter (and perhaps titter) at the squalid boundaries of puritan guilt. The forces that brought the notorious decade and more of Prohibition, that disaster, to America still hover in the background. We are still not a nation of naturally accepting wine-drinkers and perhaps never will be. Alcohol may be (mainly) legal, but it carries woeful baggage, and The Culture of Blame and Apology recognizes how convenient a punching-bag alcohol is.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if some sinning politician or celebrity stood before us and instead of saying, to the phalanx of light and cameras, “I’m sorry if I brought disgrace to my family, my friends and many fans, and I’m checking into an alcohol rehab center to evaluate my life and learn to be more positive about myself and my future,” said, “Look, she was a babe, I was hotter’n a pepper sprout and when I did what I did I was stone-cold sober.”

Image credit:

The issue is high alcohol levels in California wines, a phenomenon increasingly noticeable over the past decade. Winemakers are certainly allowing more hang-time for grapes so they achieve greater ripeness and higher sugar levels, resulting in more alcohol, perhaps in an effort to produce wines that make an immediately super-ripe and powerful simi3_01.jpg impression on critics and impressionable judges. On the other hand, some producers assert that high alcohol levels in California wines are the result of global-warming, hence, there’s nothing they can do but go with the climate.
Routinely now we see alcohol levels of white wines in California reach 15 percent and higher, while the scale for red wines, even pinot noir, can soar to 16 percent and higher. How do those figures compare to ages past?

I happen to have, sitting on my desk, a notebook from 1983 in which I kept labels from the wines I tasted; I had to give that up soon after, of course, because there were too many wines and the whole effort was too much trouble. Look at the alcohol level on some of these wines: Silverado Sauvignon Blanc 1982: 12.8 percent. Acacia Chardonnay 1982: 13 maya_01.jpg percent. Simi Cabernet Sauvignon 1979: 13 percent (lord have mercy, what a great wine that was!). Simi Pinot Noir 1974:12.5 percent (still one of the best pinots I have ever tasted!). Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc 1980: 13.5 percent. Inglenook Cask Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1980: 12.5 percent. Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 1981, Mendocino: 12.9 percent (and it cost $10!).

Perhaps we should mention, briefly, what alcohol does for wine.

Alcohol gives wine its heady, intoxicating (and potentially dangerous) qualities. Alcohol is the flavorless essence and spirit of wine, “the genie in the bottle” (as Hugh Johnson and James Halliday say in the dedication to The Vintner’s Art), the invisible factor. But a high level takes alcohol (in a table wine) out of invisibility and may turn it into an intrusive element, making the wine taste sweeter than it is, making it “hotter” on the finish and, ultimately, clunky and unbalanced.

Notice that I say “may.” I thoroughly sympathize with the backlash that is mounting against high alcohol levels in California, and I agree with the notion that balance is the most important element in the overall character of a wine, but I think we need to be careful not to issue a blanket condemnation; after all, over-oaking wine is at least as serious a problem in the Golden State.

I would encourage an attitude that accepts what seems natural to California, that is, climate and geography, at least in some of the state’s grape-growing regions, that allow slightly higher alcohol levels to occur naturally, without the manipulation of extended hang-times that strive for cloying super-ripeness. There’s nothing wrong with using Bordeaux as the model for cabernet sauvignon and merlot or Burgundy as the example for chardonnay and pinot noir — in fact I would endorse that proposition to a great extent — but there’s also nothing wrong with letting California be what it is. It’s simply untrue, as I read on a response to a blog post last year, that “any high-alcohol wine is unbalanced.” More factors than alcohol are involved, namely fruit and acid, oak and tannin.

And I deplore the idea that sophisticated wine-drinkers insist that they have a “European palate” or a “California palate” and never the twain shall meet. How parochial and provincial can you get? Surely it’s best to develop a palate that appreciates all legitimate types of wine, from a subtle and nuanced Bordeaux from St. Estephe to a full-throttle Dry Creek Valley zinfandel made from 100-year-old vines. That’s called — how shall I put this? — being a grown-up.

Anyway, here are reports on the five bottles I mentioned briefly in a post last week-end about high-alcohol wines.

*Logan Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay 2005, Monterey County. 14.7 percent alcohol. Well, this was just flat-out lovely. Yes, it’s bold and bright, rich and spicy and lush, but these elements are balanced by a flood of crisp acid and logan_char_shv.gif undercurrents of limestone and shale. The only oak it sees is neutral — that is, used barrels — so the influence is quite subtle. The wine is so beautifully balanced that if you didn’t look at the label, you would never think, “Whoa, man, this is 14.7!” Logan is the second label of Talbott Vineyards. The suggested retail price is $18; I have seen prices that go up to $25.

*Tablas Creek Grenache Blanc 2004, Paso Robles. 15.3 percent alcohol. Tablas Creek is a collaboration between the tablas_01.jpg Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel, in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and the importer Robert Haas of Vineyard Brands. This opens as a perfect California rendition of a southern Rhone white, all roasted lemon and lemon curd, dried spice and camellia, slightly astringent yet generous, but from mid-palate back it feels a little blocky, and the finish is heavy, a bit awkward. One longs to know what the wine would have been like at 13.5 percent alcohol. 560 cases made. About $22 to $28.

*Grgich Hills Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, Napa Valley. 14.7 percent alcohol. This level of alcohol is scarcely radical for a red wine from California nowadays, but what actually worries me here is the wine’s excessively earthy nature. I opened this and tasted it at 5:30 this morning and, while writing. kept the glass on my desk, working with it for an hour. It never lost that quality of uncouthness. Frankly, I’m worried about this venerable winery. The white wines are glorious; the Fume Blanc 2004 was one of my “50 Best Wines of 2005,” and the Chardonnay 2004 made the list for 2006. But the red wines I have tasted recently, including the Zinfandel 2004 and the Merlot 2003, showed similar signs of excessive earthiness. I don’t know where the problem lies, but it needs to be fixed. About $58.

*St. Clement Oroppas Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Napa Valley. 15.6 percent alcohol. This huge wine is the most syrah-like cabernet I have ever tasted. (The blend has 15 percent merlot.) Or it’s the most zinfandel-like cabernet I have ever tasted. Whatever the case, the towering alcohol content does this wine no good and actually turns it into a parody. About $55.

*Mazzocco Vineyards Stone Ranch Zinfandel 2004, Alexander Valley. 16.9 percent alcohol. Yep, that’s right, 16.9 percent, meaning that it’s about two degrees shy of a fortified Port. This is made in the classic, old-fashioned, Sonoma County fashion, with its incredibly ripe, spicy black fruit flavors and amazingly voluptuous texture balanced by walloping tannins, ringing acid and a backbone of iron. No, darling, it ain’t elegant, but it somehow manages not to be exaggerated. Pure California. On the other hand, what do you do with it? About $24. Read a full review of this wine and three other zinfandels (and a chardonnay) from Mazzocco at

On Wednesday, Tom Wark at “Fermentation: The Daily Wine Blog” — — referred to a recent article in Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar newsletter in which Tanzer, a highly respected and astute wine reviewer and commentator on the wine industry, said that he thought that alcohol levels in California wines were coming down.

It would be good if that tendency were true. High alcohol levels, the result of long hang times for the grapes so they achieve a sort of monster ripeness, have produced a whole generation of hot, sweet, unwieldy and one-dimensional wines. We have seen alcohol levels soar to 14.5 percent, 15 percent, 15.5 percent, not only for zinfandels, many of which have a reputation for hugeness, but for cabernet sauvignon, syrah, petite sirah and even pinot noir. Even white wines commonly now top out at 14.5 percent alcohol. The notion that a wine ought to be balanced, that a wine ought to reveal integration of all it essential qualities seems to have been forgotten. The typical alcohol levels of the past — about 11.5 to 13.5 percent — now seem almost naive.

So if Tanzer, who tastes thousands of wines a year, is correct, I would rejoice.

But look at the alcohol levels of these wines that I plucked from my shelves and the refrigerator this morning:

*Logan Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay 2005, Monterey County: 14.7 percent.

*Tablas Creek Grenache Blanc 2004, Paso Robles: 15.3 percent.

*Grgich Hills Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, Napa Valley: 14.7 percent.

*St. Clement Oroppas Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Napa Valley: 15.6 percent. (For a cabernet!)

*Mazzocco Stone Ranch Zinfandel 2004, Alexander Valley: 16.9 percent.

Not exactly a representative sample, perhaps, but enough to tell me not to hold my breath until alcohol levels in California wines really start to tumble.

On the other hand, it’s unfair to dismiss these wines merely because of the alcohol content. I’ll try them and post another entry in a few days to tell you how they perform.