Every week, as part of my WSET Diploma Program (less than 14 weeks until exam day, tick-tock), we write practice essays on various topics. This week’s question was to consider the factors that have contributed to the rise of alcohol levels in California wines over the last 20 years. I’ll spare you my full, TL;DR academic response, and hit the highlights for you.
One of my online classmates posted this quote, from Australian wine writer, Huon Hooke, and I thought it was fantastic:
The rising level of alcohol in California wines is a somewhat controversial topic. The controversy isn’t around whether or not it’s true. It’s true. Table wines used to come in around 12% ABV. Now, it’s almost rare to find them below 13%, and entirely normal to see 14+%. The debate is around whyit’s happening. And what (or who?) is responsible. No one factor is singularly culpable. The explanation lies in a combination of climate change/global warming, wine critic scores, winemaker choices, and ultimately, consumer preference, or fashion.
In 2011, the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE) published a working paper that examined the rise of alcohol levels in wines compared with actual temperature increases in their regions of origin. The basic conclusion was that global warming only accounted for a small portion of the increase. They found the rise in alcohol levels was “primarily man made, with the main causes more likely being expert wine ratings and changing consumer preferences.”
Or . . . fashion.
The 1970s were all about Mateus, a medium-sweet, slightly fizzy rosé wine made in Portugal. In fact, Mateus was the most popular wine in the world in the 1970s. I only recently tried Mateus for the first time (I was five-ish in the 1970s; I was a Tang connoisseur). Verdict: I didn’t hate it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I liked it, but I didn’t hate it.
And then there was the White Zinfandel craze. White Zinfandel was actually an accident created by Bob Trinchero at the Sutter Home Winery in 1975. It happened when about 1,000 gallons of red Zinfandel refused to ferment all the way to dryness, becoming “stuck” with a significant amount of sugar remaining. They ended up bottling the stuff, and well, the rest is pink history. By 1986, Sutter Home’s White Zinfandel was America’s most popular domestic wine.
The 1976 Judgement of Paris was a transformative event for California wines. The now famous blind tasting, pitting California wines against their French counterparts, was arranged by British merchant Steven Spurrier to honor America’s 200th birthday. The competition was held in Paris, and graded by French judges. California wines, specifically the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars SLV Cabernet Sauvignon, beat out a first and second growth Bordeaux, and Premier Cru and Grand Cru Burgundy, respectively.
California exploded onto the world wine scene, and Chardonnay became its signature grape. Investment poured into California and Chardonnay was planted everywhere. But the Chardonnays of the 1980s were made to be fruit bombs — lush and tropical, with heavy doses of oak flavors like vanilla and butter. By the early 90s, fashion began to shift toward lighter whites and reds, resulting in a backlash movement known as ABC (Anything But Chardonnay).
The 1980s was the decade of the wine cooler. Think Bartles & Jaymes and California Cooler (damn, I could go for an orange California Cooler right now). By 1987, wine coolers represented 22% of all American wine consumption. But, in 1991, the US government quintupled the excise tax on wine, and most wine cooler manufacturers switched to making malt-liquor (think Zima), which rendered wine coolers virtually extinct.
Expert wine ratings have had a profound effect on wine prices and demand, as well as contributing to the rise of higher alcohol style wines. By 1984, Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate had become the source for wine ratings. A high RP score could literally make your wine. Parker’s wine scores, with his preference for wines that were “bigger”– higher alcohol, with softer tannins, and lower acidity, translated into a consumer preference for this style of wine. This resulted in the somewhat controversial winemaking practice of longer “hang time” (postponing harvest, and letting grapes “hang” in the vineyard longer, to get riper flavors and more sugar, which translates into more alcohol).
And then, in 1991, 60 Minutes aired a segment called, The French Paradox. Americans exercised more frequently, and ate fewer fatty foods than the French, but the French boasted far fewer cases of heart disease. Annoying, right? The conclusion? Moderate consumption of red wine could be healthy. Between 1991 and 2005, sales of red wine grew by more than 125%.
As more Americans made the switch from white wines to red, Merlot emerged as the grape variety of choice. Merlot tends to be fruit-forward with soft tannins, which made it very popular with wine lovers. In 1985, California had a total of 2,000 acres of Merlot under vine. By 2003, there were close to 60,000 acres.
But, that would all change. The 2004 movie, Sideways, had an immediate effect on Merlot’s popularity. In the movie, the wine-obsessed protagonist, Miles Raymond, is a Pinot Noir aficionado (read as: crazed lunatic). And he hates Merlot (supposedly because it was the favorite wine of his ex-wife).
In the three years following Sideways, Merlot sales declined by about 2%, and Pinot Noir sales increased by 16%. Behold, the Sideways Effect.
By 2010, the fashion for “big” wines had retreated in favor of lower alcohol, higher acidity wines. That said, most American wine consumers remain steadfast in their preference for semi-sweet, smooth, and fruity style wines. Three of the top four most popular brands in the US are Barefoot, Sutter Home, and Franzia.
I’ve never been much of a slave to fashion. Just ask my teenage daughter, who routinely rolls her eyes and asks if I’m really going to go out “in that”. Ultimately, big, high-alcohol wines are a fashion. Some California winemakers subscribe to it, others don’t. As a wine consumer, I’m far less concerned about how much alcohol is in a particular wine than I am about how it tastes. As long as the wine is balanced, higher alcohol levels don’t make any difference to me.
The bottom line: Find a wine style that’s right for you. But be willing to try lots of styles, lots of fashions. And when you find a style you like, own it.