I recoiled and pushed away the crystal stemware wondering if some savory syrup was masquerading as wine, and that maybe its destiny was to spread like jam on slices of peanut butter slathered Wonder Bread. This sensory collision with high alcohol and unrestrained ripeness was triggered a few years back cracking open a 2005 Mollydooker The Boxer screw top, a wine Robert Parker awarded 95 points to in a first release following the Marquis’ split with the Grateful Palate and Dan Phillips. The critical bandwagon for overly alcoholic wine and companion exuberance for more honest, restrained, varietally classic, and less alcoholic wines are firmly established and need little campaign expansion here.
My eyebrows rose just a bit further this week when a notable winemaker announced he stopped drinking his own critically acclaimed wines and when a mortgage consultant placed his industry’s root problems next to the wine industry’s alcohol death spiral in one kindred bucket.
After 25 years, Santa Barbara’s original cult winemaker has had a crisis of conscience. “We got the scores we wanted, but we went away from what I personally like,” Tolmach says. “We lost our rudder when we went for ever bolder, riper flavors.” Specifically, he says, the alcohol levels of his wines, at 15% and higher, are too high.
Tolmach doesn’t deserve public thrashing for his admission of intentionally, or unintentionally, making wines to please critics that can make or break his economics. Nor should he expect any excessive praise for his public shift in thinking on style and vineyard management. While he claims to no longer enjoy his wines, let’s also not forget background economics for the global wine market make it prudent to address overripeness and high sugar levels at harvest. Just look at the Australia wine market crash and the rejection of overly ripe Zinfandel as leading indicators. But whatever the motivation, wine enthusiasts are emerging as winners and you don’t have to look too much further than Tolmach’s very same article of admission to find that proof:
The goal is to produce 14%-alcohol wines with nuance, Tolmach says. He wants to avoid overripe prune and jam flavors and preserve acidity to allow the more delicate floral and herbal qualities to emerge. “I want to take the Eurocentric sense of balance and apply it in California. We add no acid. No water. It’s about picking at the right time and from cooler climate vineyards,” he says.
“By farming better, I can have full ripeness earlier,” he says. It’s a matter of spending more time in the vineyard to reduce grape yields in stages while increasing the leaf canopy to shade the grapes from too much sun. Naturally balanced wines produced naturally, he says.
Separately this week, Corky Watts, a professional in helping mortgage lenders increase revenues, control costs, and better manage risk (yikes), scribed a Mortgage Daily News post that opened this way:
During my work yesterday at the wine competition, I learned an interesting bit of information about a trend in their industry that sounded similar to a recent trend in the mortgage industry. Let me explain.
Twenty plus years ago, the percentage of alcohol in red wines was around 12%. Today, many red wines are 15% or higher. According to seasoned judges, wine with higher alcohol can mask the actual characteristics of the fruit, leaving little differentiation among wines. Not only does it compromise the taste of wines, wine enthusiasts can get intoxicated quicker. So why did this happen?
Wine sales are driven by the ratings of 3-4 wine publications such as Wine Spectator. A higher rating from these publications boosts the sales and profits of wineries. Over the years, the higher alcohol wines have seen higher scores, driving more and more wineries to produce higher alcohol content wines.
Check. Watts drew the comparison of greed by recapping:
As competition increased and margins declined for [30 and 15 year fully amortized fix rate loans that banks, savings & loans, and the GSEs provided the liquidity for …and borrowers had to qualify for …by documenting their ability to repay the loans], a few large mortgage bankers created exotic loan programs with compromising credit guidelines to help increase production and margins. These companies saw an increase in production and profits. Like sheep, other mortgage participants followed and began originating these products as well.
And we have seen where that ends up. With wine, the manifestations of greed are less economically cataclysmic resulting in a correction in preferences and sales volumes following a period where consumers ingest massive amounts of wine with little to no distinct personality. Watts, with a seemingly late hitch-up to the bandwagon, closes with outsider conjecture and urging:
I’m not an expert in the art of wine making, but I have found many wine enthusiasts frustrated that some wines taste more like a martini than a glass of wine. Is the higher alcohol wines really higher quality or is it the influence of a couple publications that just like high octane wine? Let’s hope wineries don’t make the same mistake participants made in the mortgage industry.
If you take Adam Tolomach’s recent comments at face value and as representative industry commentary, then the horses are well out of the gate and appear to be stumbling through the stretch.