Pulling back just a touch – take two

The LA Times story about Adam Tolmach, from Ojai Vineyards, saying that he would reduce the alcohol content in his wines to move away from the world of Parkerized wines, which I had mentioned in my previous post, has been gathering a fair bit of steam. The original story was picked up by many on the blogosphere and in the media, including Decanter and The Telegraph in the United Kingdom, often with a sort of glee from people who obviously think that the higher-alcohol trend is just plain wrong.

Yet the shocker comes from Eric Asimov, of the New York Times, who found the characterization of Ojai vineyards’ wines as “over the top” rather strange, since he (and others, like Allen Meadows of Burghound, who is a harsh critic of high-alcohol wines) tends to find Tolmach’s wines rather balanced and elegant. Asimov called Tolmach, who told him he was misquoted, and that his reference to his own, over the top wines pointed to a particular series of pinots he produced from 1992 to 2001.

Still, even though he disagrees with the particulars of the article, he is quoted by Asimov as agreeing with the general argument that California wines (could someone talk to Australia too, by the way?) should seek more balance:

“I really do feel that the advantage of drinking European wines is that there’s a sense of balance in some of those wines that is a useful lesson for California winemakers, for me,’’ he said. “We have this big bold rich fruit that ripens fully, and how do you get that into wine with balance? I’m looking to take California grapes and make California wines that have some of the sense of European balance.’’

What is interesting is to see how much reaction Asimov’s post has generated, mostly in favor of his arguments, but sometimes radically against the lower-alcohol worldview. And it’s not the first time that’s happened either.

In this whole high-alcohol debate, I had an interesting discussion with my father, over the holidays. He pointed out to me that, when he was younger, sherry was considered as “strong stuff”, too rich to drink with dinner, with its 16% alcohol content. Today, table wines regularly reach that territory – with zinfandels at 17% feeling more and more like port. When you look at it that way, pulling back a bit doesn’t seem like an outlandish idea.

What bugs me a bit about some interventions is that this push for greater balance is sometimes presented as coming from the “privileged few”, a snobbish set that is supposedly trying to spoil ordinary folks’ fun. The argument for lower alcohol is certainly not quite mainstream yet, after years of the wine industry, worldwide, pushing towards fruitier, riper, higher-alcohol wines. Yet the voices are growing louder, asking for more restraint, especially in regions where heat and sunshine make it very easy to go for broke on alcohol, sugar and ripeness. And in the Telegraph article, a wine technologist for Marks and Spencer is quoted as saying that the chain of stores would be looking for more 12% alc. wines in the future. That’s beyond the “privileged few”, I would say.

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