July 24, 2007
From Howell Mountain, A Howl of Protest

In an email dispatched this afternoon to wine writers, seasoned Napa Valley winemaker Randy Dunn appeals to consumers to do what they can to pull in the reins on galloping alcohol levels in wines.

And what consumers can do, says Dunn, is simply ask the sommelier for a wine with less than 14 percent alcohol when they dine out. The wines they will be shown, predicts Dunn, will be fun to drink but their appearance on the table will be sobering to the California wine trade. "The sommelier usually comes back with a French or New Zealand wine," says Dunn. "They definitely come out with something that isn't Californian," adds Dunn, who has been doing this exercise for about four years. Too many American table wines, he suggests, are being made with an alcohol content of 15 percent or 16 percent rather than the customary 13.5 percent to 14 percent.

High-alcohol table wines, he says, are "hot and very difficult to enjoy with a meal." He adds: "I don't believe the average person is so insensitive to flavors and aromas that they must have a 15 percent cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay or pinot noir to get the aromas and flavors."

The run up in alcohol levels generally is attributed to winemakers who believe they can squeeze more intense flavors from their grapes if they leave the fruit on the vine to develop exceptionally high concentrations of sugar. With higher sugar, however, also comes more alcohol. "These new wines are made to taste and spit - not to drink," Dunn says.

He also frets that the mass and heat of high-alcohol wines suppresses the expressions of individualistic terroirs, their place of origin. "Gone are the individualities of specific regions, replaced by sameness - high alcohol, raisiny, pruney, flabby wines," Dunn says.

He also calls upon wine writers to include in their tasting notes the alcohol content of each wine they review. Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti, who recently stirred up debate when he said he no longer generally would stock table wines with more than 14.5 percent alcohol, is to start including the alcohol level of each wine he mentions in his newsletter.

Dunn has been making expressive cabernet sauvignon on Howell Mountain since establishing his winery in 1979. The wines generally have ranged from 13.2 percent to 13.8 percent alcohol. He recently bottled his 2004 cabernet sauvignon, the first to exceed 14 percent, and it registered just 14.09 percent alcohol. "It was a mistake. I thought the blend would come in less than that," he said in a phone interview.

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