Whether the result of the manifest destiny archetype that seems to be burned into their collective minds or the sheer primal urge to make things bigger, Americans have a unique and peculiar logic that permeates through everything they do: Why drive a Geo when you can drive a Ford F-350? Nowhere in the wine industry is this sentiment causing more controversy than in the heart of California wine growing country, where wines are clocking in at 16% alcohol by volume or higher. In an international market place where wines rarely break 13%, the California-sparked trend towards higher alcohol in wine is upsetting the foundation of wine traditionalists.
On the surface it doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but when you consider that a 15% alcohol by volume wine has 25% more alcohol in it than one labeled 12%, it puts the debate in perspective. If people want to get inebriated, after all, they can always move on to vodka, scotch or everclear. A wine brought to the dinner table at that level will go to the head noticeably faster than what many people are used to.
However, it’s important to realize that the producers making these high-octane wines are typically smaller vineyards interested in a high-quality product. Sure, the alcohol is higher, which means there was more sugar when the grape was picked, but the acid in the grape and the grape skin also have time to mature to offset that high alcohol. The California producers releasing these wines are determined to make sure they remain balanced, so they cultivate the acidity and the tannin to match the alcohol. As a result, many of these wines are $25 or more, and it’s not rare to see them priced at $100 a bottle.
For the most part, the producers claim that they are merely falling in line with the nature of the California climate, which is hot and can support a long growing season. Opponents are concerned that the wine will overwhelm food and will lose its elegance. Whether you personally prefer the soft and subtle elegance of a Burgundy that clocks in at 12.5% or the driving boldness of a 16% blended red, surely you can appreciate that in this world, it takes all kinds, and aren’t we better off with more options?