Saturday, March 28, 2015

Colossal philosophy: thoughts on high-alcohol wines

     The recent reputational suicide of the critic Robert Parker, known for his love of high-extract, high-alcohol wines, has freed some of us to produce in this style without opening ourselves to charges of pandering to the Noseless Emperor, and I am one of those - though unlike Mr. Parker I didn't spend my college years dropping candy bars into tumblers of Everclear and slamming them down at parties.  During my New Mexico enological sideshow in the '90's, I made a few wines under 12% in alcohol, as it seemed what the variety, chemistry, and ripeness required, and most of my best California wines of the last century (!) were under 14% ABV, though primarily Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

     Upon devoting my overtime oenological energies to California (I'd never stopped making wine here;  our New Mexico harvests were in July leaving me free to return west in mid-August) and more importantly, moving to the Central Coast, I noticed that Syrah in particular often did not flavor-ripen until higher potential alcohols were reached, and in the case of the west Paso hills and mountains, the best examples were often over 16%.  (Saxum is perhaps the prime example;  I can say I was present at their creation while claiming no credit.)  The La Mort Du Roi and Colossus wines, which have ranged from 16.1 to 17.5, have I think been in the same league, or ballpark to abuse the metaphor.

     The percentage of alcohol by volume is usually the only scientifically derived number on a bottle of wine, and thus offers an easily misunderstood measure of its other features. The pretentions to expertise of wine writers being what they are, ignorant opinionation on the subject has multiplied like yeast cells in rich must over the last decades, and show no signs of stopping, though some of us smelled the off aromas of bad fermentation a long time ago.

    "As is well known" the alcohol in the bottle is the result of the sugar in the grapes;  without intervention the conversion rate is in the .55-.62 range, and so by reading the number on a label we can deduce a general idea of the ripeness of the grapes at harvest, remembering that Buellton is not Barstow nor Sonoma Sacramento, and of course accounting for the variety.  The complicating factors make assumptions unreliable, to say the least: in wine as in so many other things, exceptio probat regulam: the exception probes the rule, puts it to the test, it does not prove or confirm it.  (A different kind of 'proof' though related.)  So to the anti-high-alcohol pontificators, let me offer the following:

    If you're getting too buzzed from a glass or three of 16% alcohol wine, drink a bit less or add an ice cube.  I won't judge you - much.

    Some high-alcohol wines are 'flabby' - low in acid, low in tannin if red, and/or low in C02.  That's not because of the alcohol.  (Repeat.) This goes for other faults as well, all of which can be found in lower alcohol wines.  Balance between structural elements is complex!

    High alcohol wines aren't food-friendly?  Who has a huge Shiraz with trout?  Would you have a dry Rose of Grenache with a BBQ glazed tri-tip?  If your sommelier suggested those pairings, he's just a busboy who won't shut the fuck up.

UPDATE: Several hours after writing this, one of my wines won a 'shootout' tasting at a swanky event in Solvang (Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara) - over two dozen winemakers were asked to bring their 'best' wines, which were then tasted blind with each judge - the aforementioned winemakers, for the most part - being asked to vote for one wine.  The winning wine was 17.5% alcohol, and the vote wasn't close.  (It was a fraternal twin sister of the Colossus under one of my client's labels, different barrels being the only distinction.)


Sunday, December 21, 2014


Six months since my last post, really?  And to think I've spent my pithy wit on the ephemeral FB (I don't Twitter, and Instagram keeps self-deleting on my iPhone).  Below, one of my newer creations, though the wine is identical to the Pink Zeppelin with the Swilly Idle label.  I couldn't resist.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

One of the ten best red wines I've made in thirty years, but I like it too!

Behold, the amazing 2013 Stillman “Zeppelin” Pinot Noir, San Luis Obispo County.

100% Clone 777 Pinot Noir, alc. 14.9%, $60 retail – for strangers, which you are not.  (Vastly preferable club price via email, with mention of the Secret Password, at the bottom of this post.)  The vineyard is extremely cool-climate and very low yielding,  1.6 miles from the Pacific, above the town of San Simeon;  I've had my eye on it for several years but only picked twice.

This is a very powerful but balanced style of Pinot Noir, both very ripe and deliciously tart.  Denser and riper than almost any other example of the variety, with very ripe red cherry, blackberry and pepper, and a moderate amount of once used French oak.  The nose is blatantly Pinot Noir; the structure is rich, full and balanced with minimal tannins.  It’s definitely one of the ten best red wines I’ve made in my thirty years of enological malpractice.  I’d be happy to prattle on and on, and may write a long blog post about the wine, but it’s time to share it:  $209/6 bottles, $399/12 bottles, temperature controlled shipping included.  Orders and questions, email me at
The secret password is:  lignification

Monday, June 9, 2014

Wine competition judges and critics explained by an actual expert?

As I thought it might, the 2014 Orange County Fair Commercial Wine Competition gave the 2013 Chateau d'Abalone Verdejo a silver medal;  I received the notice by snail mail today.  Having judged this California-only event since 1990, and other judgings open to international entries as well, I didn't take it too hard.  The OCF is not a consensus judging, where assorted winemakers, chefs, sommeliers and writers bicker and bargain over what to give, say, PN#105 in price class M.  The OCF has winemaker-only judges who score wines independently without discussion;  numerical scores are crunched in a non-smoke-filled back room and medals are awarded later.  At lunch, I overheard a judge on the panel that tasted the Vermentinos admit that she'd never had one before:  not exceptional, but unfortunate, as she certainly judged a wine I made for a client who'd entered several.  (Just found out that it actually did get a gold medal, so I really shouldn't complain.)

The Syrahs and Tempranillos I've done for this client have done exceptionally well in the last few years, by the way, and the Syrah, Tempranillo, Counoise and Vermentino did in fact win a gold medal at this same competition - the excellent Viognier only got a bronze despite that category being judged by my panel!  If the other three judges gave the Verdejo 92 points and she gave it 82, it gets a silver - in a consensus judging it gets a gold.  Oh well...

I only entered the wine at the direct request of the organizers, who guilted me into it.  Making very small amounts of wine means running out, and regretting giving it away for unneeded hype when a customer wants a few bottles and there's none left.  Critics ask for fewer bottles than competitions, but they naturally expect you to subscribe to or advertise in their publications, and that adds up too, and some of them are prima donnas who hold grudges against their betters for mocking them.  (Some of them are even more arrogant than winemakers.)  In the words of the great Rik Mayall (who passed away extremely recently) as Lord Squadron Leader Flashheart in "Black Adder": "Right! Let's dig out your best booze and talk about me till the car comes."

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A flying V dream of acid rain?

Of the great wine varieties*, I have the least knowledge and experience of Riesling in growth and production; learning by osmosis is another matter.  In fact, this is only my second, the previous being the softer if not sweeter 2007 Red Zeppelin, also from Monterey.  I did not grow or purchase these grapes: the fraction of the wine that was picked and fermented which bears my label was the result of what I am pleased to call consulting;  my advice is worth its weight in copper sulfate.  (Which was not needed here, should you wonder.)  I wound up with barely more than a barrel's worth, though utterly unoaked;  those wishing a few more details about the wine should read my email offering it for sale.  The wine is acidic, and the vines didn't see a drop of rain from flowering until harvest.

'Fliegentraum' means 'flight dream' though the Germans don't make a single word of it;  considering the language it's a miracle there's only one more letter for the same meaning, instead of a full paragraph.  A hallucination would be another basis for the label's artwork, though in fact it started out as a different idea, was modified by a friend of the artist (and mine) after the piece was commissioned, and only named after the art was finished and the wine bottled.  If it makes sense to you, please explain it to us.

The Flying V guitars in the upper right look something like the XB-70 Valkyrie bomber, said by some to be the loudest aircraft of all time;  the Flying V guitar in the foreground is modeled after one owned by one of the members of the late great rock band, Meth Leppard.**  They were pretty loud, too.

*I shouldn't have left out Chenin Blanc.
** No relation, cover, or tribute to Def Leppard; Meth Leppard was an outstanding band in their own right, with one of the most outlandish and only partially misleading names since Dread Zeppelin.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Apres moi, le deluge!

Perhaps you've heard that California is experiencing a drought, which is true - Paso Robles got less rain last year than Death Valley does in some years.  (Parenthetically, I am quite confident that I could make excellent wine there as well, if not on the salt flats.)  So you ax, what does drought do to vineyards?
Generally, not a lot;  Vitis Vinifera is quite drought resistant, most vineyards are drip-irrigated to optimize, according to the desires and knowledge of the management, the delivery of water to the vine, and old dry-farmed vines have roots that go deep into soil and rock.  We're having a different problem - our water tables are down, and older, shallow wells are drying out.
One extremely well-financed (vanity) winery on the west side of town dug big new wells and drenched their hillsides with two feet of water last summer (irrigation can be measured in hours applied, and/or depth of the water used if conceived as a horizontal sheet coming down all at once) - though a wine grapevine in this area needs no more than ten or twelve inches a year, these people were in a hurry, wanted to plant new vines in the heat of the summer, and poured on the water to soften up the rocky hillside soils.  A neighboring small winery and vineyard, which has been there for decades, saw their well go dry soon afterwards.  
Other vineyards on the east side of town, some very large, are pumping major gallonage to sustain big yields from the vines - more water, more fertilizer, more leaves, more grapes, less flavor, coming to a grocery store near you.  First the Flood, then the Ziggurat of stacked cases!
As this is California, the water lawsuits and politics will go on for decades, with one certain outcome:  there will be more attorneys and politicians planting vineyards and building wineries with their cut of the loot.  So you need a consultant?  Well, let me interview you first.

Friday, November 22, 2013

No closure on closures - Elvis' wine list?

If you don't want to read about corks, skip down to the picture! 
A semi-brief technical matter before the entertainment, kids:  some of you may have noticed that I have discontinued use of screwcap closures and have been using agglomerate corks of various shades and decorations as closures for the past few years, but not so-called 'natural' one-piece corks (except in one special circumstance which is immaterial to this discussion of materials).  I am still supportive of screwcaps despite their physical vulnerability to a 'rim strike' on the bottle, but my mobile bottler has five lines with varying schedules, and only one has a machine that applies screwcaps.  
The producers of agglomerate corks have made tremendous progress over the last decade, after some false starts and one persistently flawed product, the "1+1" - identifiable by the relatively large (2-6mm) and irregular cork chunks that make up the bulk of the cork cylinder, and the thin disc of 1-piece cork at either end.  The modern agglomerates, on the other hand, consist of small and relatively uniform cork pieces (under 2 mm) that have been carefully washed and purged of TCA and other contaminants.  They may look cheap, but they can cost 2-5 times as much as a one piece 'natural' cork.  (Of course, there are some very expensive "natural" corks available, and some producers of $100+ wines use them, but as there's no way to wash, purge, or reliably test one piece corks, they're playing Moldy Lotto.)  My quality control method is simple - I get a sample bag from a producer whose website says the right things about the specifics of their production technology, and then I bite a cork in half.  Sniff.  Repeat until I get a bad one, or the bag's empty.

Something to drink while the King sweats?   Chapoutier Tavel Rose, $12.  Puligny Montrachet, $22.  Two Cold Ducks!  Printed only two years before his death; it's a shame he didn't ask a lovely young thing in the front row for one of these.  
"Hey Charlie, get me one bottle of everything on this list, and I'll see what I like best.  These damn pills are killin' me."

Band practice

Band practice