Alcohol controversy

Blame global warming, blowzy American tastes, Robert Parker: alcohol levels in wine are rising.

As grapes ripen, they accumulate sugar—which converts into alcohol during fermentation. More sugar means higher alcohol. Today, grape growers produce riper, sweeter grapes than ever before.

Some grapes naturally have more sugar—Zinfandel beats Pinot Noir. Thanks to warmer climate (global warming effect), certain places ripen grapes more easily and fully. Many New World vineyards produce riper grapes with more sugar compared to those same grapes in France or Germany.

Whatever the reasons, table wines traditionally were 11-12% alcohol; today’s norm is 12-15+%.

Tax laws were set up under the old system. Wine with 14 percent alcohol or less (“table wine”) is taxed at $1.07 per gallon; wine with more than 14 percent alcohol (“dessert wine”) is taxed at $1.57 per gallon.

While Robert Parker favors higher alcohol, others foment a counter-revolution. They contend higher alcohol wines are unbalanced; 14% is their magic number. They feel more than 14% alcohol burns the palate, while traditional 11-12% wines are refined and permit you to savor subtleties.

Trouble is, alcohol tastes good. It is similar to fat in meat. Beef with no fat lacks taste, beef with a lot of fat overwhelms your palate, probably is bad for you. Trick is to find the sweet spot in the middle.

Enjoy a refined, lower alcohol Pinot Noir for its virtues. But a busty California surfer babe Zinfandel with 15+% alcohol and balancing acid and tannins has its place in your glass, too. Such is the glory of wine.


• Cline Live Oak Zinfandel. California sweet berries, spice, licorice; 15.5% alcohol. $29.

• Peter Franus Brandlin Vineyard Zinfandel. Raspberries, plums, spices; lush, supple. 15.6% alcohol. $38

• Hendry Block 28 Zinfandel. Berries, cocoa, black currant; full bodied. 15.3% alcohol. $33.

• Enkidu Fazekas Petite Sirah. South African: big dark fruits, chocolate, tar, dry tannins. 15.2% alcohol. $35

• Orin Swift Cellers The Prisoner. Berries and cherries; blend of six grapes, led by Zin. 15.2% alcohol. $38