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MR: I think about this issue constantly, the alcohol levels in wines, both in wines that I make and in those that I drink. And I think back to the wines in my granddad's cellar that he poured for me — California wines from the late '70s and early '80s, around 11-12%, very rarely over 13%. I've seen the change; there's certainly been an increase in alcohol, on the average. Interestingly, though, I feel like it's actually going in the other direction right now. We've pushed it to a certain limit: "Oh, look how ripe we can get things! We can pick at a ridiculously high brix and make this wine that's monstrous and hot!" Some winemakers are still doing that and will continue to do so. But I think a lot of winemakers are now saying, "Hey, I don't need to leave the fruit out there [ripening] that long; I don't want to constantly worry about those high alcohol levels in my finished wine. And as a matter of fact, even when I pick them a little earlier, the grapes end up not being underripe!" Sure, there's a certain segment of the consumer population that likes a particular profile in their wines — really big and ripe and high in alcohol. But there's a growing segment, too, that's re-emerging and that likes wines a bit more restrained.
RM: Definitely. The trend is reversing from what I see; alcohol levels are coming down. But this all goes back to that pack mentality I mentioned earlier. Someone in the To Kalon vineyard might have previously picked their fruit at 24 brix, but then the next year someone else picks theirs at 25, then the following year the guy next to him picks his at 28, then the year after that someone picks at 30 — and then pretty soon everyone is picking at over 30 brix! That's all well and good if it's all done in balance. But pretty soon people realize, "Well, I can still make the wine at this [higher ripeness] level, but I preferred it five years ago when I picked at a lower level. So I'll return back to the style I really like."
"I've seen the change; there's certainly been an increase in alcohol in wines, on the average. Interestingly, though, I feel like it's actually going in other direction right now."
NM: Assuming that the trend is, in fact, reversing and alcohol levels are coming down again, how far in that other direction will the pendulum swing? Will we see a return to California wines at 12% alcohol?
EV: No, I don't think so.
SJ: No, it's too hot here.
MR: But, wait a minute, is it hotter here now than it was in the '70s? If anything, we're supposed to get colder here before we get hotter, because of the increased onshore flow…
EV: I just think people were modeling their wines after Europe, where the climate is different. They were picking here to match the profiles of a lot of European wines.
TM: But also look at the rootstock choices, the vine choices, the virus freaks of nature. There are many other input changes that have occurred. I've asked a lot of people who have been in the business for thirty, forty, fifty years who have been trying to solve this question. I'll hear, "You modern winemakers pick your fruit way too late, it's way too ripe, the alcohol's too high, and so the wines are out of balance! What are you guys doing?" Okay, so what are we doing differently? Well, the rootstocks all changed about twenty years ago when people replanted with rootstocks other than AXR-1 and St. George. So, that's one massive change. The other massive change is that most of the new vineyards that were replanted were mostly virus-free. In the older vineyards, the viruses were slowing down sugar accumulation, because that's what AXR did for you — at five and half tons to the acre, at 24 brix, picked on October 28th! But that's the same time frame we have now; it hasn't changed in fifty years. So, it's not that we should be picking in September; it's that we've got lower croploads, smaller vines, different rootstocks, different clonal material that's also cleaner, and vertical shoot positioning (which produces an extremely efficient solar panel) — all of these things are contributing to the higher alcohol levels. It's not one single factor! Plus, there's the fact that many people actually want super-ripe flavors and soft tannins.