Alcohol Levels and Balance in Pinot Noir: The Panel

I’m currently spending an idyllic weekend down on California’s Central coast attending an event called the World of Pinot Noir. It’s an event I’ve heard of for some time, but have never attended.

I got the chance to go this year, and completely lucked out with one of the warmest, sunniest weekends in recent months, not to mention a nicely put together event with some seriously great Pinot Noir.

Day one was full of seminars, and the first of two grand tasting events. I’ll publish my notes from the grand tasting at a future date, but would like to share another of my “pseudo-transcripts” of the panel that I attended at Wild Horse Winery, entitled Alcohol and Balance.

Chaired by Eric Asimov, chief wine critic for the New York Times, the panel included winemakers that are known for representing various sides of the “debate” over alcohol levels in Pinot Noir.

Joining Eric on the podium were Jim Clendenen, of Au Bon Climat winery; Adam Tolmach of Ojai Vineyards; Josh Jensen of Calera Wine Company; Rajat Parr owner of RN74 Restaurant and Wine Director for the Michael Mina group of restaurants; Adam Lee of Siduri Wines; and Michael Browne of Kosta Browne winery.

The group was an excellent assortment of incredibly talented and well spoken folks, and Eric had a set of great questions to ask.

Here’s my attempt to capture most of the exchange. I’ve edited out some of the discussion about the specific wines being poured, and as usual, wasn’t able to capture every word, but this is a fairly good facsimile of the discussion.


ERIC ASIMOV: People keep suggesting to me that this is a controversial topic, and that somehow this morning there will be fisticuffs between all of us here on the panel [joking]. I see no reason that we can’t discuss this civilly. I first wrote about alcohol levels six or seven years ago and it’s clearly a contentious issue. No subject I’ve written about has evoked a response in such an emotional way. I was called a hero by some, and a moron by others. Alcohol is crucial to the identity of wine, even though wine has historically been treated differently from other alcoholic beverages. Wine has traditionally been set aside as a cultural expression in France and elsewhere, something that is a part of life and very different than other intoxicating spirits. Sadly, in some ways that is changing in France as neo-prohibitionists try to move wine into the alcohol camp.

Historically alcohol levels haven’t been discussed, and haven’t been an issue except insofar as getting wines ripe enough to make enough alcohol. Table wines have always been in the 11 to 14 percent range, and there really hasn’t been an issue with that. Until recently in California, as wines have risen into the 15 and 16% range, and that’s not even talking about Zinfandel.

I filed a column last night about sherry, where alcohol starts at 15% for Manzanilla and up to 19% for Oloroso. Yet we have no one yelling about this. I wonder why, if alcohol isn’t an issue for Sherry, why is it an issue elsewhere?

Pinot Noir has historically been prized for lightness, finesse and grace. But our ideas of what Pinot is have changed in the last 10 years. We now see wines that are riper and more extravagant than the French style. A number of these have been critically acclaimed by some prominent critics. Is this a stylistic evolution or a fundamental aberration? Who gets to decide this?

Here’s how we’re going to approach the topic today. Each of the panelists is going to present their wines. Here are some questions to keep in mind as you taste through these wines. What is Pinot Noir? Is it a singular grape with stylistic variations, or a disparate group with little in common? What accounts for these different styles – where grapes are planted, the terroir, or is it a question of winemaker intent? What is balance? Is it that you don’t notice the alcohol or something more than alcohol? What is the role of alcohol in wine?

Jim, what was your inspiration for planting pinot noir?

[Editors note: Jim Clendenen talks incredibly fast. Unbelievably incredibly fast. It was quite difficult to take down his remarks, so please forgive me if they are less of a complete transcript than I might ordinarily deliver.]

JIM CLENDENEN: Well it’s a good question. My inspiration came from my contact in Burgundy. in 1973 and 74 I was in Bordeaux, I turned 21 living there, and that exposure to wine made me want to consume wine, to collect it, etc. But It didn’t motivate me to get into the wine business. From Bordeaux I saw that in order to make wine you had to be a count or duke, have a castle, and 300 acres of land. That was obviously not in my reach. So I never considered it. But I went back to France in 1977, stayed in Burgundy for 3 weeks, and discovered that actually, if you had passion, a tractor, a few rows of vines, and a basement, you could theoretically make wine as good as the next guy, and that was my inspiration.

I was a law student at the time,but I got a chance to work a harvest at Zaca Mesa, and then I did a couple vintages. I then went to Australia, worked in the Hunter valley, then worked in Burgundy in 1981, and that got me galvanized to do things selectively.

Now that I’ve answered your question, let me talk about alcohol. People have this confusion about me where they think that I’m all about making low alcohol wines and that I deliberately I pick grapes early. I pick grapes when they’re ready, and want balance not a specific target of alcohol level. I have no problem with alcohol. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I drink more than my fair share of Tequila. Alcohol plays a very prominent role in my life.

I’m not telling anyone what to do in their cellar, and I never would. I don’t care if people use concentration machines, mega purple, or the death star, I say go for it, but let’s be transparent. I would never think of telling anyone systematically what to do in their winemaking. Everyone should be free to make wine the way they want.

But just do not ever walk up to me and tell me bigger, darker, and heavier connotes anything but a stylistic choice. It does not connote or denote anything resembling success. It is a choice of style, and so many things in fashion and art just come and go.

Eric Asimov: Are there people who try to tell you otherwise?

JIM CLENDENEN: Yes, the same people that told you that you wrote a stupid article. My ex-partner and good friend Adam told me about the history of late picking in cooler climates, that I think is partially responsible for the overall belief that somehow longer on the vine adds complexity. The history lesson, if you look at it, is that big fruit and dark alcohol in wine generally means Spain, Australia, Italy, and North Africa. That’s what they do. There’s nothing wrong with it. The wines don’t cost a lot of money and have no relationship to quality.

I believe I have worked on an evolution of style.

I thought when I came back from Burgundy, I thought you could do California Pinot Noir that was elegant, that had transparency and delicacy. In 1982 it was impossible. What we could do was make artichoke, vegetal, bitter, wretched wines. We had to find the right sites, the right clones, the right density, the right exposition, the right canopy management, and the right rootstock. What we had to learn was how to ripen with balance. I did a lot of work from ’82 to ’90 with other people’s vineyards. Adam was there for some time. The wines we made were limited by the quality of what was possible in the vineyards and it took a long time to get it right.

But there was a point where we felt like we had learned enough. I started establishing our own vineyards in early Nineties. We planted 32 hectares in 1998, and I got in a position to make the first wine you have in your glass in front of you.

Here’s what I think about balance in wine. I’m going to use a metaphor because, what the hell, I like metaphors and they work. Here’s what balance is. Balance is a person that wakes up in the morning and does the New York Times crossword puzzle. They are motivate, educated, and they want a challenge. That’s balance. And then there’s the intellectually lazy, uneducated, unmotivated person who does the the USA today crossword puzzle.

There’s your gauntlet from one asshole on the panel.

ERIC ASIMOV: Our next panelist is Adam Tolmach from the Ojai vineyard. I think it’s pretty safe to say that you’ve personally gone through some stylistic evolution in terms of how you make your wines?

ADAM TOLMACH: Yes, but people misunderstand that a little. The criteria for picking has always been the same. We’ve been picking between 24 and 25% brix for a long time. We always wanted wines that are generous, rich, and when the grapes are at their ripest. But six or seven years ago, I had the revelation that these wines were a little too sweet for me. I found myself drinking other wines than those that I made. So we started experimenting with picking Pinot Noir just slightly less ripe. What we found when we picked them less ripe, was that they were more savory, racier, wilder, crazier. I prefer that, prefer the feel that this gives on the palate.

But it’s not just about picking less ripe. It’s not just like you say, OK, we’re at 23 brix, let’s go. You have to do everything right. You have to grow it so that it’s physiologically ripe at 23 brix. But it’s also important to know that there’s no absolutes, and no matter if your intended style for a wine, the weather trumps you.

ERIC ASIMOV: Some people say alcohol is just a number, but is it more than that? Is it an indicator of style? Of the flavors you can expect in a wine?

ADAM TOLMACH: Riper Pinot Noir is just a different animal, it is neither better or worse. It’s not inherently bad. There are good big wines and not good big wines. When you get to higher alcohol levels, you just get a different beast and, frankly it’s not one I like very much. The wines made from less ripe, or maybe I should say the wines made from grapes that are more perfectly ripe, are just more pleasing on the palate.

ERIC ASIMOV: So the evolution you went through was a personal taste evolution, right? Not in response to some critics?

ADAM TOLMACH: Bob Parker is a fine guy, and he has a certain idea of what’s right and wrong, and I have a certain idea of what is right and wrong. He always liked the wines that I made that were a bit riper than I could tolerate. After a while decided I wanted to make wines differently.

ERIC ASIMOV: Our next panelist is Josh Jensen, of Calera Wine Company. Josh, you’ve been making wines up there in the mountains for 36 years now. You asked a question in the earlier seminar about how global warming and climate change are affecting winemakers. How has that affected the way you make wine?

JOSH JENSEN: Let me talk about the two wines in front of you, and then I’d like to talk about global warming. The two wines we picked to bring here were the wines that had the widest differential in alcohol from the same year. One of these wines is 13.5% and the other one is 14.5% If you want to have a little fun with that, see if you can figure out which one is the lower alcohol. The answer will be revealed when our esteemed moderator wants to tell us.

Right now we have a total of 83.6 acres, high in the Gavilan mountains. These mountains are the range that divides the Monterey and San Benito counties. Mills vineyard was planted in 1984 on its own roots, and is now 27 years old. Ryan was planted 4 years later in 1988.

I’d like to step back in time 7000 years and the reason that Neolithic man decided that he liked wine when he stumbled on it — this heat generating, foaming, funky smelling mystery. They decided to store some grapes for the winter, and they found when they stored it, they got something funky, but if you drank this stuff that fermented in pots or in stone pits in 5000 BC, it would carry the nutritional value of that fruit through the Winter. it would keep the fruit alive and would keep the tribe alive through Spring. The other interesting feature of the origins of wine is why did cavemen first start making wine from grapes and not from other things? Why not from apples strawberries, and pears? The answer is straightforward as anyone who has tried to make wine from other fruits knows. Grapes are the only fruit that can produce high enough concentrations of sugar. Other fruits cant get anywhere close to that.

So alcohol is necessary for wines. The reason I asked the question about global warming this morning, is that I think the higher alcohol wines we see in CA can be attributed to the phenomenon. In terms of our vineyards 1997 was the watershed year where we saw alcohol levels going up. We had a very talented intern that year, named Rajat Parr, who claims that the quality of wine that year was entirely his fault. Since then our alcohol levels have been going up, however. When we saw we got to the point where we normally picked at 24.5 brix or so, we thought the wines tasted green. We thought, well, should we pick at 24.5 and have herbaceous green wines that no one is going to buy? We saw this choice arise in many subsequent years. Each time we opted for the fully ripe flavors. The wines are higher in alcohol as a result. Certainly there’s a movement today where consumers and health experts decry the move to higher alcohols. I personally don’t like higher alcohols . The sign of great wine is complexity, not horsepower. I didn’t like the trend. Before the 2005 harvest, I called the team together and told them that we’re going to pick less ripe. We were inching up a bit each year, got in the habit, and I decided to stop. I’ve always decided when to pick and I decided to change. We picked at lower sugars, and that means living on the edge a little. And sometimes I went too far. I went over the edge on two important batches of wine. Half of the Selleck vineyard I chose to pick early was too green. I was wrong, and it didn’t go in the blend. Same thing happened with a quarter of the Mills vineyard one year. I picked too early, and it didn’t have balance and maturity. You can go to far, but my position is that global warming has definitely changed the picture. If you want ripe flavors, they’re coming with higher sugars, and it’s a changed world. We’re not going to get back anytime soon to ripe flavors with 24.5% sugar. Mr. Bichot said earlier that the average pick date is 9 days earlier, and if the Burgundians, who tracked these things for thousands of years say there’s change, it’s real.

ERIC ASIMOV: On those years you picked later, do you look back and wish you picked earlier?

JOSH: No it’s not like that. I rebelled against the trend. I didn’t like the trend, it wasn’t about specific years.

ERIC: Do you change vineyard management techniques to deal with climate change?

JOSH: We try to do leaf pulling, but not extreme. We try not to expose clusters to direct blasts of heat. 2010 was very cool year but two heat spikes baked a lot of fruit, and those without good canopies got fried. It’s dangerous. We now tend to do fewer irrigations but larger amounts to drive roots deeper.

ERIC: Our next panelist is Rajat Parr, the wine director for Michael Mina restaurants, with a special responsibility for RN74 in San Francisco and soon to be in Seattle, and also a winemaker now, putting into practice the rigorous training he got at Calera. Jim Clendenen has alluded to a column that Lettie Teague wrote a few months ago criticizing you and your policy at RN74. Tell us the policy and how it came about.

RAJAT PARR: We have 18 restaurants around the country. It’s the old name of the road through Burgundy, and it’s my dream restaurant. I was going to leave Michael Mina to start it, but Michael asked me to do it within the fold. I decided that since the restaurant was going to be an homage to Burgundy, I decided I would only list wines that were made in a style of Burgundy. For me that means balance. I picked Pinot Noir or Chardonnay only 14% or below. The reason I picked that was, if you don’t know, that Burgundy actually has a maximum alcohol that is legislated at no more than 14.5%. So I did that and there was a lot of criticism, mostly from producers. I was surprised. We’re this is one little restaurant, it’s not going to change the world. The rest of our restaurants don’t have this rule. Surprisingly, the clientele really never questioned it. A few people have asked for things we didn’t have but it was pretty well accepted.

ERIC ASIMOV: Does that 14% standard apply just to Burgundian varieties?

RAJAT PARR: Yes, Pinot and Chardonnay only.

ERIC ASIMOV: So you have Rhone wines that you’re not monitoring?

RAJAT PARR: Absolutely. In general, however, I don’t really like wines that are too rich. Since this one little restaurant is my restaurant, I decided to do what I want. But everyone else we have, the wines are 16% on down.

ERIC ASIMOV: Is the intent of that alcohol level so that the wines go with the food, or is that where you find balance and pleasure?

RAJAT PARR: Yes, it’s about balance and pleasure. I won’t say that high alcohol wines won’t go with food. It definitely has a contrasting effect with delicate food. It’s harder to match a higher alcohol wine with food. But balance is not alcohol, it’s tannins, acid, fruit, a whole combination of things. You can’t say a wine is not balanced just because it has 14.5% alcohol. There’s a big battle saying that low is better. It doesn’t matter. Make the wine truthfully, and present the wine you make to the guest. Let them decide.

ERIC ASIMOV: Does alcohol level play a role in the wines you make?

RAJAT PARR: Well, I learned all my stuff at Calera in 1997 and hanging out with Jim [Clendenen] for 10 years. I made a little wine in ’04 and some in ’09, mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Santa Rita and Santa Maria. I did a lot of whole cluster for the Pinot, and I pick mostly in 22s rather than 24s [brix]. I’m trying to make delicious wines that I want to make.

ERIC ASIMOV: I just want to bring up the question of ripeness for a second, as it’s such a moving target. When you’re trying to pick, is there only one point of ripeness or are there a spectrum of times that there grape will be ripe? People, especially winemakers, tend to talk with the public that there is a point of ripeness and if you’re not picking at that moment you’re wrong.

RAJAT PARR: it’s very personal. I’m not the most qualified person on this panel to answer that question. I got to Burgundy 3 to 4 times a year and taste at Jim’s cellar . That’s it. It’s my palate, it’s my idea, it’s what I learned. My experience for tasting in ripeness is in Burgundy. I know what I like — freshness and vibrancy. I look for fruit components — I like more of the cool fruit, not cooked fruit. I am on the extreme. That’s just my perspective.

ERIC ASIMOV: I think my next panelist Adam Lee, from Siduri, is a good person to ask this question. You probably make or buy grapes from more places than anyone else on this panel, up and down West Coast and not just California but also Oregon. How do you answer the question for ripeness?

ADAM LEE: There are many different ways to judge ripeness. If the leaves are falling off, it’s time to pick no matter what. If the grapes are at 22 brix and there’s going to be 6 inches of rain tomorrow, it’s time to pick. I’ll give you an example, though, of how the brix number, which everyone likes to focus on, isn’t everything. A couple of years ago we had these two vineyards. We picked one vineyard at 21.6 and then another 33.3 brix. The first one had a PH of 4, the second one a PH of 3. Why? The first vineyard’s rootstock wasn’t watered properly. The 33.3 brix wine maintained more integrity. The 21.7 brix wine was overripe, and 33.3 was not.

ERIC ASIMOV: It strikes me that if you’ve got 21.7 brix on ripe grapes and PH over 4, isn’t that the wrong rootstock?

ADAM L: Absolutely. But the main thing I think was that there was an irrigation issue there too, not having enough water. So was it the wrong rootstock? Yes, for that year. I’ve got all sorts of things to say on this subject, can I move to some other things? We’ve been quite civil and generous with each other here, but I want to leave here having talked out what we’re talking about here. Some of my great inspiration is here on the panel, namely Adam [Tolmach] and Jim [Clendenen]. But I think they’re being a little disingenuous. I want to ask them something: do you really believe that people are letting things hang longer for Parker?

JIM CLENDENEN: Yes. Adam and I were invented by Robert Parker, but when he invented us, the wines were 13.2%. Something changed, and his tastes moved to the richer, higher PH, sweeter wines. I’ll take you out anytime you want, and you can see vineyards being left to hang until they’re ugly little raisins because people think they will get Parker scores.. .shall I name names? OK I will. There was a radical change in the wines of Fess Parker when Parker started to sleep on the property some time ago on his trips to the region, and the winemaker there now makes the highest alcohol wines in Santa Barbara county, and the most late picked stuff you can imagine.

ERIC ASIMOV: I think we can stipulate that no one on this panel is pandering. But you can’t disagree that people are making wines for Parker.

ADAM LEE: I wouldn’t have the temerity to think that I could…

[some chaos breaks out on the panel with lots of people trying to talk over each other]

ERIC ASIMOV: I want to finish up with you, Adam. Tell us about your wines.

ADAM LEE: I Have have two wines here, I think they’re both in balance. One is 13.7% and the other is 15.2%

ERIC ASIMOV: I want to get to Michael on the other end of the panel. I kind of want to hear Adam go for it but we need to get to Michael. This is getting good.

MICHAEL BROWNE: We started making wine in 1997 and we knew nothing. I really fell in love with wine and fell in love with making it. I had no background in it, didn’t got to school. How you made a pick decision — the most important decision you make as a winemaker? I had no idea in the early days… how did you do that when you knew nothing? I didn’t know, so I went with flavors. What is ripe? What is flavor? I just tasted the grapes and when they tasted good, I picked. I didn’t know what the brix was.

ERIC ASIMOV: What led you to Pinot in particular?

MICHAEL BROWNE: I had an epiphany one night tasting a 1992 Allen Vineyard Pinot from WIlliams Selyem. It blew my head off. I was instantly turned on to Pinot Noir. It was the best wine I’d ever had. This was in the early 90s to mid 90s. At the time I wasn’t turned on to Pinot and that wine was fantastic and it made me want to go for it, and when I started making wine I was trying to make that.

I thought I’d be a craftsman, that making wine would be a challenge. The challenges were like a tidal wave. I have the least experience and knowledge about winemaking of anyone at this table. At the beginning I was most interested in what the fruit tasted like. There were sugar levels and acid levels, etc. but I really just cared about the taste. Very early on I let things hang too long. It wasn’t by design. It’s just what happened. We just made them and hoped for the best. Those wines are out of balance. They’re good, but they’re out of balance. Since that point we’ve idled it back a little. Not like going from 16% to 13%, but the alcohols have come down. For the last 10-12 years I’ve been trying to dial in that ripeness. I like wines in the mid 14s. If it’s a wine that has good fruit, good tannin, that amount of alcohol adds something to the wine, it’s a benefit.

ERIC ASIMOV: Can you describe what it adds?

MICHAEL BROWNE: It adds mouthfeel and texture. This debate is polarized, people insist 13% or they say 16% is fine. Some people say 14.5% is high alcohol. I don’t find that, but as wine producers, we need to make a wine that we like, we can’t make it for someone else. You have to make what you like. And you may never hit it, you may go your entire life and not make a wine you think is perfect. We try to make a wine that we like, and hopefully that enough consumers like it too. If a producer makes what they like and likes what they do, and if there are enough consumers to buy it at a price point to stay in business, that’s what success is.

There are plenty of people who are out there chasing points from Parker, and if you do that you’re going to miss something. Say for example you’re making a high end guitar, are you going to make something like everyone else, are you going to make something with soul? You need to go after what is unique to you. What you’re uniquely capable of.

I can’t drink 16% Pinots, but its also worth pointing out that a wine at 13% can be hot. Why are we so focused on alcohol? I think the point of view that Pinot needs to be 13.5% or it’s an aberration is bullshit. PH is something much more important for balance. Let me suggest this: if PH was on the label we’d be talking about it instead of alcohol, but it’s not so we don’t talk about it. We’re hyper focused on alcohol levels, and it’s about maturity.

Picking and maturity is a personal thing. What Jim might think is ripe, Adam might not. Wine has to taste good. Wine is a sensory product. I like a wine to sound good. It needs to sound good on your palate.

My main point is about live and let live. If you can sell your wine, good. And another thing — there are so many different types of palates out there, so many different types of consumers out there, there’s space for a lot of different interpretations.

We’re trying to evolve as winemakers, to think about how to get things riper at lower sugars. But It’s all about the grapes. When those flavors in the vineyard pop, it’s like nothing else. I want to make wine out of that. Hopefully it comes out perfectly.

ERIC ASIMOV: I think it’s really interesting that everyone here has said that they feel they ought to make wines the way they want to, but everyone here feels like they’ve been attacked for the wines they’re making at some point.

JIM CLENDENEN: I’d like to make a comment about that. That’s what’s happened in the last five years. It was on a panel a while back when I think it really first appeared. After 10 years personally of being thrown out like the baby with the bathwater, there was a style change in the appreciation of lower alcohol wines. Before then I felt attacked, and was personally attacked, and had been kicked out of vineyards, all because I was working for the balanced alcohol, and european orientation in my wines. But five years ago, at this seminar, it seemed out of the blue, people started asking about high alcohol wines, and why they were high alcohol, and why they weren’t lower. Greg Brewer really felt attacked. He had never heard a negative word about powerful, rich, alcohol Pinot. This was a radical change, it seemed to me.

None of us is getting free passes anymore.

ADAM LEE: One interesting thing I would like to point out is that if you go back and look at the inspiration for making wines here on this panel, everyone else here was Burgundy, but for Michael and I we were originally inspired by California Pinots, rather than Burgundy. That’s not bad, or different, but it is quite interesting.

* * *

At this point the panel was opened up for questions and they only had time for a couple. The most interesting one was:

QUESTION: I’ve been drinking California Pinot Noir since 1979. Everyone always says they’re still picking at 24.5 but we’ve gone from 12.5% alcohol in 1979 to roughly 15% now. What’s going on.

JOSH JENSEN: I’d like to thank you sir, for that slow, underhand pitch right over the middle of the plate. In 1981 (and I’m not normally a name dropper by the way) but in 1981, Aubert de Villaine [owner of Domaine de la Romanee Conti] came to our winery. Just so you know he hasn’t been back since, so this is not a regular occurrence [laughter]. He tasted, and asked what ripeness we were picking at. I said 22% sugar, and the final wines were 12.2% alcohol. Then in his stately way he told me that wasn’t too good. He said “You’ve got to pick for 13.5% alcohol at least. These wines are just too small. Pinot Noir needs more than that.”

It wasn’t overnight that wines went from 12% to 15% it was over 36 years. And we’re riding this runaway horse of global warming and trying to do the best we can.

* * *

And then, right as things were about to break up, Adam Lee took the mike and said something. In order to understand this last point, I’ll remind you that Adam had brought two wines to show, a 2008 Cargasacchi Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Santa Rita Hills at 13.6% alcohol and a 2009 Keefer Ranch Vineyard Pinot noir, Green Valley in Sonoma at 15.2% alcohol.

ADAM LEE: So I want to share something with all of you. I have Raj’s permission to do this, but I want to let you know that he just leaned over to me and asked me if he could buy some of the Cargasacchi Pinot from me for his restaurant. But it’s important that I share this fact. Before I came here I personally took all the bottles of these two wines, and steamed off the labels and re-glued them on the other bottles. The wine that Raj just asked to buy was not the Cargasacchi, it was the Keefer Ranch pinot that is 15.2% alcohol.

* * *

Presumably, he won’t be able to serve it in RN74. That was the end of any organized activity.