Darrell Corti is mad as hell and he isn't taking it anymore. Table wine with more than 14.5 percent alcohol, that is. He's vowing to no longer stock them at his family's 60-year-old Sacramento grocery store, Corti Brothers.
California table wines with more than 14 percent alcohol, sometimes even exceeding 17 percent, have become not only increasingly popular but increasingly controversial, and Corti is sure to stir up the debate with his decision, quite possibly unprecedented in the world of wine.
Corti's breaking point came recently as he and his staff tasted through several wines they were thinking of adding to their inventory. Six of seven zinfandels had more than 14.5 percent alcohol, with one hitting 17 percent. "This is stupid," says Corti. "And people say they don't buy sherry because it has too much alcohol." Sherries, however, are fortified, and even then some won't have more than 15.5 percent alcohol, notes Corti.
Table wines aren't fortified, and traditionally haven't exceeded 14 percent alcohol. In recent years, however, an increasing number of winemakers have subscribed to the notion that riper grapes yield more intense flavors in their wines. But with riper fruit comes more sugar, and with more sugar comes more alcohol. Though some winemakers use methods to reduce alcohol, others don't, with the result that the alcohol content of table wines has been trending up. Some longtime students of wine believe that the more alcohol a table wine has the more likely it is to be off-balance and harsh.
What's more, questions have been raised about how well higher-alcohol table wines will age. California's first high-alcohol zinfandel, says Corti, was made in 1968 by Mayacamas Vineyards in Napa Valley. It had 16 percent alcohol, he recalls. "Today, it tastes terrible," he adds.
Corti says his decision applies to all table-wine varietals with more than 14.5 percent alcohol, not just zinfandel. "We will not taste them. If we don't taste, we don't buy," Corti says. Winemakers long have looked upon Corti Brothers as a choice outlet for their wines. Once a month or so, Corti and his crew taste through more than 100 wines that winemakers have sent him or wine sales representatives have dropped off at the store in hopes they will pass muster and be added to the market's shelves.
Corti will continue to sell any wines he already has even if they contain more than 14.5 percent alcohol. However, "once they're gone, they're gone," Corti says.