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the brief history of hedonistic fruit bombs

A question asked but not answered in an old topic: Is consistently producing high alcohol super extracted fruit bombs a relatively new development in the wine world?

Short answer: yes. They were pretty much unknown before the 1990s.

Recent article from Wine Industry Insight is kind of sketchy but has some good references:


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  1. Wines of the 1960s and 1970s were indeed much lower in alcohols than we saw in the years between, say, 1986-2000. But also yeast converted sugar to alcohol at a lower rate back then -- 0.50 in the 1970s; 0.55 in the 1980s; 0.60-0.65 in the 1990s. (This according to bojh text books and lab analyses that I have personally run.) This means that -- with no other factors involved -- grapes harvested at 24° Brix in the 1960s would have produced a dry wine at 12.0% abv; by the late 1970s and early 1980s, those same grapes would have yielded 13.2% abv, and by the late 1980s and 1990s, 14.88%. Add to that the whole "Parkerization" of making wines with "gobs of hedonistic fruit," the de-alcoholization of wines through RO and you enter a whole new realm of "manufacturing" wines rather than making them.

    3 Replies
    1. re: zin1953

      And, add to that, hardly anyone picks at 24 Brix anymore...

      1. re: Sam B

        But the data do not support that.

        Using the same report as Robert, the 2011 NASS charts say:

        The average Brix of all California white wine grapes was 21.8
        The average Brix of all California red wine grapes was 23.5

        USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service, California Field Office, Page 13. Grape Crush Report, Preliminary 2011 Crop

        Link: http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_b...

        Below is a screen shot of the white and red wine grape totals by district, and the average for 2010 and 2011.

        Even the Brix data for Cabernet Sauvignon for the entire state *and* for Napa show the fruit-bomb trend over:

        The average Brix of all 2011 California Cabernet Sauvignon was 23.8 -- nearly the same as 1994-5.
        The average Brix of all 2010 California was lower than the "century year" harvest of 1997.

        The average Brix of 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon by wine-growing district:

        Mendo 22.8
        Lake 23.6
        Sonoma/Marin 23.1
        Napa 23.8
        Solano 23.2
        Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, SF, San Mateo, Santa Cruz 23.8
        Monterey 23.7
        San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Venture 23.5
        Yolo 23.1

        Nothing above 24 Brix.

        None of the data support the premise that fruit-bomb wines are being grown widely anywhere in California. The data -- and the wines -- say the opposite, in fact.

      2. re: zin1953

        I know commercial yeasts are part of the problem. One "natural" winemaker I was talking with recently said that people from Gallo have been visiting his winery trying to figure out if they can reduce the amount they spend on yeast (I think he said $30 million a year).

      3. History's short answer seems to go the other way:

        "Like most wines in the ancient worlds, sweet white wine was the most highly prized wine style. The wines were often very alcoholic, with Pliny noting that you could bring a candle flame to a cup of Falernian and it would catch fire. Because of this strength, the wines were often diluted with warm water and sometimes even salty seawater.
        Roman wine was often flavored with herbs and spices (similar to modern Vermouth and mulled wine) and were sometimes stored in resin coated containers which gave it a flavor similar to modern Retsina.[2] The Romans were very keen on the aroma of wine and would experiment with different techniques in order to enhance a wine's bouquet."


        1 Reply
        1. re: RicRios

          The ancients talked a lot of nonsense, the classics are filled with firsthand observations of physical impossibilities. Falernian could not have reached much more than 15% alcohol.

          Wines in the area around Rome were sweet up through WWII and the old-school versions are still made. When I lived there in the 80s I'd occasionally come across a dive bar serving "er vero vino rosso dorce," real sweet red wine.

        2. This chart shows the average brix for California Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from 1976 to 2011. The pendulum started swinging out of the Parker zone with the 2009 vintage, but it has a ways to go to get back to historical norms.

          Zinfandel follows an almost opposite curve, which baffled me utnil I realized they lump red and white together.



          A good article on the super-ripe fruit fad:


          103 Replies
            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              I agree with you that there is a swing to the pendulum, but that chart might not be the ideal indicator. IIRC 09,10,11 were all growing seasons that lent themselves to lower sugar levels for Cal Cab. 09 had some rain around harvest, 10 was somewhat cool through summer, 2011 was cold in spring and the season just never caught up. So nature had a big role in determining the sugar levels as much as the divergence with the Parker zone. Winemakers are chasing physiological ripeness more than sugar levels so the harvest brix isn't something they set as the primary criteria. Again I agree though that there is a trend by some makers to less ripe wines.
              Btw, IIRC the legendary 47 Cheval clocked in at 14.5% alcohol, so it isn't like the the concept of hedonistic wines began with Parker even though he encouraged the practice.

              1. re: john gonzales

                Traditionally, 14.5% was an outlier. In the Parker era, it is or was practically the baseline.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  Very true. Just illustrating that, at least to the 14.5% level, great wines can be made.
                  What's your position on de-alc'ing or watering back?

                  1. re: john gonzales

                    I often water down wines I find overly alcoholic at the table. Sometimes makes them palatable.

                    I'm not necessarily against reverse osmosis on principle, but most of my favorite wineries practice minimal intervention.

              2. re: Robert Lauriston

                >>> Zinfandel follows an almost opposite curve, which baffled me utnil I realized they lump red and white together. <<<

                That has NOTHING to do with it, Robert.

                Zinfandel is the only grape that INCREASES in sugar content (n° Brix) while it sits in the fermenter. This is due to the fact that is raisins easily . . . AND significantly, and as fermentation starts, the raisins soak out and then add their almost 50% sugar to the must.

                One example I recall off the top of my head was the 1975 harvest from Bill Collins' vineyard (then-owner of Conn Creek in Napa). Being his first vintage under his own label, he still had contracts with other wineries to fulfill. He harvested his Zinfandel and half went to The Christian Brothers, half for himself at Conn Creek. The enologist at XBros recorded the load at 23° Brix, and Collins was paid accordingly (i.e. no "sugar bonus" points). The other half was sampled at the weigh-in and came in at 23° Brix, too. But once fermentation started, the daily reading of the fermenter went UP to 27°, before it started coming down . . . including all of the raisins, the grapes were probably up around 29-30°. I think the resulting wine was 15.3% abv.

                1. re: zin1953

                  How does that mean that white Zinfandel, which was introduced in 1975 and today outsells red by 6:1, did not bring down the average Brix of the Zinfandel crop as recorded by the state?

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    Not sure where your "1975" number comes from. White Zinfandel was first made in California in 1964 by David Bruce Winery. Sutter Home first made theirs in 1972. Zinfandel Ros´predates both, of course.

                    White Zinfandel is Zinfandel, and is not tracked as a separate grape variety by CASS.

                    If you look at the 2011 CASS report -- http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_b... -- and at Table 1 (page 7) specifically, you're see that the statewide weighted average Brix for Zinfandel was 21.1° Brix in 2011 and 21.2° in 2010.

                    Now look at Table 3 of the same report (page 13), and the weighted average per District:

                    1 (Mendocino Co.) -- 24.7°
                    2 (Lake Co.) -- 24.2°
                    3 (Sonoma & Marin Co.) -- 24.8°
                    4 (Napa Co.) -- 25.0°
                    5 (Solano Co.) -- 24.0°
                    6 (Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz Co.) -- 25.0°
                    7 (Monterey & San Benito Co.) -- 24.0°
                    8 (San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura Co.) -- 23.7°
                    9 (parts of Yolo & Sacto. Co., north to the Oregon border) -- 18.4°
                    10 (Sierra Foothills) -- 24.5°
                    11 (part of San Joaquin & part of Sacto. Co.) -- 23.6°
                    12 (part of the Central Valley) -- 20.5°
                    13 (part of the Central Valley) -- 18.6°
                    14 (part of the Central Valley) -- 19.0°
                    15 (LA and San Bernadino Co.) -- 24.3°
                    16 (Orange, Riverside, San Diego Co.) -- 25.3°
                    17 (parts of Yolo & Sacto. Co.) -- 20.7°

                    Where are most of the Zinfandel grapes for RED wine production grown?

                    Where are most of the Zinfandel grapes for WHITE wine production grown?

                    Don't know about you, Robert, but I see a pattern here . . .

                    1. re: zin1953

                      The geographical breakdown of Zinfandel tonnage and Brix seems to support my thesis that white Zinfandel explains the decline in overall Brix.

                      The 1975 number comes from the 1976 grape crush report.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        Robert, I am not trying to argue with you, and if I misunderstood your original post, I apologize. Your "blue" chart shows Cabernet coming down in sugar levels -- which, if I'm not mistaken, sort of proved Maria Lorraine's point. I thought you were saying Zinfandel is harvested at lower alcohol levels, and when I said that Zin increases in sugar content in the fermenters, I was -- naturally (well, naturally in MY mind) -- referring to those grapes destined for red wines. Zinfandel = red wine; White Zinfandel = blush wines which, regardless of variety,are (almost always) picked at lower levels of sugar.

                        If you compare like-to-like:
                        Cabernet -- Dist. -- Zinfandel
                        22.8° Brix -- 1 -- 24.7° Brix
                        23.6° Brix -- 2 -- 24.2° Brix
                        23.1° Brix -- 3 -- 24.8° Brix
                        23.8° Brix -- 4 -- 25.0° Brix
                        23.2° Brix -- 5 -- 24.0° Brix
                        23.8° Brix -- 6 -- 25.0° Brix
                        23.7° Brix -- 7 -- 24.0° Brix
                        23.5° Brix -- 8 -- 23.7° Brix

                        Zinfandel is consistently picked at HIGHER levels than Cabernet Sauvignon.

                        This is the reason why statewide numbers are very misleading, if not useless.

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          The 1976 report has the 1976 numbers . . .

                          1. re: zin1953

                            Some of the tables have 1975 numbers in the last column.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              Robert? The very last column to which you refer ALWAYS has the previous year's numbers listed for ease of comparison's sake. Every other column is for whatever the current year of the report is.

                              1. re: zin1953

                                You asked where I got the 1975 numbers. I got them from the 1976 report.

                    2. re: zin1953

                      Here's a chart comparing Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. The decline in Zinfandel's Brix pretty much corresponds to the rise of white Zinfandel.

                    3. re: Robert Lauriston

                      Another chart showing both the state average and Napa.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        One wonders why Melissa Hansen is 7 years late holding her ear to the ground to report on the trend away from high-alcohol wine. (It's really an old article that was just printed this year in "Good Fruit Grower.")

                        Ditto for Ilana Diamant, who writes this past July in her blog that the tide is beginning to turn away from "fruit, alcohol, and oaken bombs." Must've just come in over her telegraph wire.

                        As to what caused the tidal shift, Diamant doesn't dig deep enough or go back nearly far enough to see its true beginnings

                        The shift away fruit-bomb style wines began in the trenches in 2005, and hit a fever pitch by 2007. Almost everything in winegrowing and winemaking began changing by 2007 -- because of one man.

                        But first, 2005. The talk among wineries and winemakers everywhere was resentment over Parker's iron-hand influence on the style of wine that wineries and winemakers were forced to make in order to score high Parker points. Everyone recognized the system was gamed.

                        Pockets of resentment turned into organized rebellion, and the swing away from high ABV, out-of-balance wines began in earnest, Parker be damned. The shift happened first in the vineyards, in 2005, in the way grapevines were grown and trained. It takes two harvests for changes in viticultural practices to manifest as less-ripe grapes at harvest, but vineyards throughout Napa and Sonoma began making those changes in 2005. How do I know this? I was there, in the vineyards and with the vines; I saw firsthand.

                        By 2006, the ripple effect had made its way all through Sonoma and Napa, and the rest of California. Harmony was the new Holy Grail. Yeast selection became more precise -- away from efficient yeasts with high-conversion, and towards yeasts with slower- and lower-conversion rates and specific flavor-producing profiles, chosen with the same care as a cheesemaker selects a mold to produce a specific cheese. At the same time, studies reported that specific rootstock clones had the ability to boost ABV inadvertently; those rootstock were swapped out.

                        Then in 2007: the shot heard round the world. Nothing made more an impact in California than when the erudite Darryl Corti issued his fatwa: His Corti Brothers Sacramento store would no longer carry any wine above 14.5% ABV.

                        Suddenly, talk of Darryl and his edict was absolutely everywhere. Everyone talked about ABVs being too high and what to do about it, given Parker's wrench-like grip on scores. This was fall, 2007, just before harvest. Then winery owners issued their own edict to their winemakers and workers: Reduce the ABV or else.

                        Everyone jumped into action. Even more practices were employed to boost physiological ripeness but keep the sugars down. Everything got tweaked: rootstock, training, canopy, yeast, ferms, everything, and a few tech tricks were thrown in just in case what you did didn't work, or hadn't worked yet. By 2009, lower ABVs were the norm, not fruit-bombs.

                        Either early on in 2005 when the ABV decline began or when it was big news in 2007 would have been fine times for Hansen and Diamont to report on this "new trend" in wine -- but not now years later in 2012.

                        You might say the history of hedonistic fruit bombs is even briefer than you imply -- it's been over as a trend for years.

                        But the real proof of the fruit-bomb trend being over is in the drinking -- in drinking A LARGE ENOUGH AND DIVERSE ENOUGH SAMPLE OF CALIFORNIA WINES OVER THE PAST SEVEN YEARS so that ONE IS INFORMED ENOUGH to know the fruit-bomb trend was over years before Hansen and Diamant wrote about it.

                        1. re: maria lorraine

                          Maria, I appreciate the amount of wine information you bring to this site. Clearly you are extremely knowledgeable.

                          That said I think the above largely overstates the change in ripeness seen in wine. It makes for a great article, but I don't think the change has been that drastic in wines that are made for and preferred by the broad public. I think that perhaps the champions of the "edict" like Corti, Parr, Jancis or Gilman have had some effect, but IMO it is not as widespread in application as stated. There are alot of producers (Rhys etc) that have established themselves in a lower ABV niche, but still much more production at higher ABV levels. Had an Aubert chard lately?
                          Corti's 14.5 threshold really doesn't mean a lot. IIRC labelled 13.9 can legally be actually 14.9%, and tax issues make it beneficial to labe below 14%. That's nowhere near pre 1980 levels. Is a bottle of 14.5% pinot ror chard really a low alc/ripeness wine? Also, as you stated absolute ABV can be tweaked downward via technology, without even modifying brix.
                          Just as an excercise, and in relation to Robert's early query, I would like to hear some examples of dramatically lower ABV Napa cabs that are widely produced/popular. I would also question whether regions like Right Bank bordeaux, or CdP have displayed a trend decreasing ripeness over the 7 year period. Also, as I noted above, the vintage conditions over a number of most recent vintages (at least in Napa) have lent themselves to lower brix levels.

                          1. re: john gonzales

                            <<That said I think the above largely overstates the change in ripeness seen in wine.>>

                            Not to me, because I've tasted it.

                            Were fruit-bombs still a consistent style, that would be evident in tastings everywhere across the State. What does stand out in all the tastings -- and I would never have arrived at my conclusion had the wines not told me so -- is how remarkably pleasing and in balance the vintages from 2007 to 2009 are.

                            The average Brix has dropped steadily and steeply over the last five years. So much so, It's unusual to see any winery allied with fruit-bomb winemaking, unless that is a style tied to brand identity or a single wine of a lineup.

                            But California wines will always be more fruit-forward than Europe's because This. Is. California. The mild temps, lots of sun and warmth play a large role in the style of wine a winemaker is *allowed* to make.

                            Combine the factor of climate/weather with a history of scientific fruit-growing expertise -- the apex of which is wine-grape growing -- are you have why California Brix levels will never fall back to 1990s levels. If you're hoping for that, it won't happen. The fruit can't even get there; the vines can't do that physiologically.

                            Give up on the idea -- if you have it -- that Euro wines should be grown and made in CA: Physical phenomena prevent that from happening. Drink wines from cooler climates with lower ABV instead, and stop insisting that a giraffe be a zebra.

                            2010 and 2011 were challenging harvests, again with lower Brix. But 2012 is an elegant beauty of a vintage, as close to Europe as you'll find in California.

                            So...you might circle back in about 2015 to the 2012 California vintage, to see that you think then. You won't enjoy even th3 2012 vintage if your only yardstick is Euro wines, or if you are deadset against liking any California wine.

                            IMO, if one wishes to draw a conclusion, and be credible, about the overall style of California winemaking or the general undesirability of the State's wines, one must have made a concerted effort to taste throughout all the regions of California at all price points. A large, informed picture emerges then. It's dangerous, meaning inaccurate, to draw conclusions about an entire State's wines based upon the wines in one's milieu.

                            1. re: maria lorraine

                              Ok, we may have to just disagree on the "drastic" nature of the change, and perhaps it is a matter of defining extent. You say fruit-bombs aren't being made unless brands are tied to the style or in the case of individual wines. That's quite a qualifier and can obviously encompass a ton of wines. Is one just to remove a producer like Kosta-Browne from inclusion in an anlysis of ripeness tendencies in winemaking simply because ripe is tied to their identity? That climate or plant physiology don't enable a return to pre 90s levels is also a reason, but in essence would lend one to believe we're not going to get to below 13% abv cab (eg). Both of the above points illustrate why there is a logical resistance to ultra-low abv, but neither show that there is a dramatic trend.
                              I will agree with you that one has to taste to be credible. Though it sounds like you might be making an assumption about my habits. Fwiw I drink and try a lot of wines. Perhaps not as many as some/you, but I surely try a 1500 wines a year and that might be a low estimate. Last night the total was 20+. I'm not in the wine biz but wine is my hobby and I've been collecting for 15+ years in addition to spending at least 2hrs a day on wineboards and/or reading one wine and attending about an event a week. I'm also good for at least four winetrips a year split amongst area, though Napanoma the most. My wife works for SWS in sales so between samples, trade tastings, account events I taste as much current release stuff (which often is outside of what I would buy) as anyone not in the biz. In actuality I find MORE ripeness in lower priced higher production wines then those I typically drink. Something like Cupcake comes to mind.

                              Anyhow, just trying to give some perspective on my "own world". I am sure you are more involved, but my take is not without some experience. Generalizing is tough and perhaps not real fruitful. I'd actually be interested in hearing what some of the most successful low alcohol Napa cabs are?

                              1. re: john gonzales

                                <<Ok, we may have to just disagree on the "drastic" nature of the change>>

                                I don't think the shift in Brix and ABV and towards harmony is "drastic" or "dramatic" -- those are your words. It's a solid, steady downward trend year after year after year. Both the data and the wines show that.

                                (FYI: Dramatic was what Darryl Corti did, but it took someone with Darryl's chops to take on Parker.)

                                <<You say fruit-bombs aren't being made unless brands are tied to the style or in the case of individual wines.>>

                                Yes. That's my belief. They're not being made as a sweeping style anymore, or chosen as the style of a new wine or brand. They exist mainly when an historical brand identity is attached to that style. Like Kosta Browne (your example).

                                But here's an oddball thing about KB, and it makes me want to ask -- before proceeding --
                                What constitutes a fruit bomb?

                                Is it a high alcohol, very ripe wine?

                                Does the wine have to have an in-your face level of ABV and fruit to be a fruit bomb?

                                Does a fruit bomb have to have low acidity to be a fruit bomb? What if it doesn't?

                                Are there ever elegant fruit bombs?

                                For example, Kosta Brown's Rosella's Vineyard Pinot clocks in at 14.5% +/- .2 ABV. Had this as one of the wines on my birthday, and have enjoyed it on other occasions. The wine is beautiful; the alcohol integrated and silky. It's an elegant wine, and never have I tasted anything like 14.5 % or 14.7% ABV.

                                Is it a fruit bomb?

                                Let's say the KB Rosella tastes like 12.5 and is really 14.5 ABV. Fruit bomb then? Put another way, can a wine be a fruit bomb because of its numbers and not taste like a fruit bomb?

                                I know I've been fooled by numbers alone sometimes.

                                Is that an ABV beyond which any wine
                                is a fruit bomb? 15 or 16% or what?

                                For example, the KB Keever is 16% ABV, and that ABV constitutes fruit-bomb-ness in my book all by itself. But even so, KB wines often don't taste as powerful as they are.

                                I'm sincerely wondering. No one has a clear-cut answer on what constitutes a fruit-bomb and what doesn't. I know it when I taste it.

                                <<I will agree with you that one has to taste to be credible. Though it sounds like you might be making an assumption about my habits.>>

                                No assumptions made of you whatsover, but I'm glad you taste a lot. You're into it -- I love it.

                                <<In actuality I find MORE ripeness in lower priced higher production wines then those I typically drink.>>

                                Ripeness or sweetness?

                                Ripeness can mean fruit, but it can also be backblending, especially in cheap wine.

                                Sweetness can be residual sugar, backblending or ethanol (ethanol is sweet).

                                <<Anyhow, just trying to give some perspective on my "own world".>>

                                Thank you. Appreciate it.

                                <<I'd actually be interested in hearing what some of the most successful low alcohol Napa cabs are.>>

                                Happy to oblige. Define what low-alcohol is, for you. Bear in mind -- and this is related to Jason's story about Jerry Luper's Cabernet wine experiment with no oak -- Cabernet needs oak, and to have oak it has to have ripe fruit. So Cab won't drop below a certain ABV and keep its classic Cab flavor profie. So another varietal might be better. Up to you.

                                1. re: maria lorraine

                                  Lot's to reply to.
                                  Indeed "fruit-bomb" is a subjective term. Personally I don't like the term. IMO wines can carry higher ABV% and still be excellent and balanced. That's why I think arbitrary limits on ABV as those promoted by Corti or Parr are silly. I think elegant and fruit-bomb are largely mutually exclusive terms.
                                  Fwiw, among a bunch of wines last night we had 98 Grange, 90 Tropolong Mondot, 02 Insignia, and 89 Beaucastel. The first three are of much higher ABV, but showed just as balanced as the Beau. I would guess the Grange was close to 15% but everyone in the Eurocentric crowd thought it was excellent.
                                  Since it seems that this discussion was based on ABV% and brix, it seems apropos to assume that high relative levels of either lend us to characterize a wine as fruit-bomb. People seem to take exception with the heat and surmaturite flavors. In that regard the Grange, and the Kosta-Browne qualify as fruit-bombs to me. Some other recent cabs, Schrader, Bond, Harlan, Lewelling Wight, Mondavi Rsv, Chimney Rock, R.Strong Brothers, Mondavi Rsv all qualify as fruit-bombs to me if one is going to talk ABV. I think the 07 RM Rsv is 15+%, and IIRC all of these wines exceed 14.3-5%. Considering that the RM Rsv was below 13% into the 90s, I'd say 14+% moves into the high alc range, and noted move to lower alc would have seeing a bunch of cabs in the below 13.5% range.
                                  I am using cab because it has consistently been a part of this conversation and brix levels have been tossed about. I would consider low alc to be below 13.5%. We know historically that it has been done in Cal. I notice that you've made reference to climate, but climate has not changed that much in 15 years. I am no expert on rootstocks, but assume that if it were of primary concern, one could use rootstock allowing for lower abv.
                                  All of the popular, big production players seem to be well above that level. I'm a big fan of Shafer Hillside and they've been in the high 14% range up through the current 2008.
                                  I just can't really think of all these examples of a significant trend you refer to. Ridge Santa Cruz Mountain is conidered lower alc, but that's not Napa and IIRC it's still coming in at almost 14 these days. Ditto Togni and Dunn. I do think we'll see some lower % cab out of 2010 and 2011, but those were very cold growing seasons and things were tough to ripen even if that otherwise would have been the goal.
                                  It there are some in that niche they aren't big and they aren't really able to push the higher price points. I'd still love to hear of those you'd refer to without switching variety to something like pinot. IIRC you agree with the consensus that 07 was an excellent vintage. It seemd like the growing was easy that year and most styles were easily doable. If one looks over what was made, there's alot of pretty high alc cab.
                                  Adam Lee, winemaker/owner at Siduri has some really good thoughts on the low alc craze. He seems to agree that there are going to be low alc years (and higher alc years) because good winemakers know to make what nature gives them. He also admits that they all need to sell wine, so in that vein when it's a cool year with finesse wines, their going to tout those virtues.
                                  He's also brought up the valid point that just as people claim that fruit-bomb producers chase a critical Parker score, it's also reasonable that a decidedly low alc producer chases the praise of contarian critics like Gilman or Asimov. It makes sense that the new producers tend to pursue a niche in a low alcohol regime, though they may also prefer those wines. As a business why go up against the established bigger players as opposed to filling a lesser supplied category. We will have to see whether the market responds and the low alc niche producers can last, profit and grab a large market share. It's great to read about the cutting-edge, young, new breed. It's another to repeatedly see them sell 1,000+ cases of below 13.5% cab, and if there is a sweeping trend in consumer's desires we'd be seeing it.

                                  1. re: john gonzales

                                    Two quick thoughts.

                                    You're not going to find many low-alc wines at the super-premium or premium price level which seems most of the wines you've described. Gotta drop to a mid-price level, where most CA wine is sold.

                                    Please note: I am not talking about poorly made wine or cheap wine.

                                    Second, you're not going to find lots of low alc Cabernet, except for those like Dunn. Cab loses its vegetal character only when its fruit flavors are ripe and dominant enough to eclipse the vegetal ones. So Cab fruit must have a minimum level of ripeness, minimum ABV.

                                    Also, Cabernet needs structure and spice from oak, and that also requires fruit flavors of a certain intensity and ripeness (I did not say over-ripeness).

                                    1. re: maria lorraine

                                      Wow Maria, either you're on a Euro junket, or stay up even later than I do!

                                      I realize there is somewhat of a circular argument in using the super-premiums in that to some extent one could claim that they are artificially propped by the critics. However a number of these that are well regarded by Parker's "replacement" Galloni, Laube (ie WS), and even Tanzer who clearly has quite a bit more of a finesse palate than Parker. Fwiw, I recall Tanzer giving the 09 Cos d'Estournel a very positive review despite the fact that it comes in at a monstrous 14.7%. Their 2010 is not much lower and there are handfuls of Right Bankers currently going for very high levels. (Yes it's easy for them to ripen the Merlot).
                                      Beyond the reviews, since we're talking about broad appeal, it seems relevant to use brands that are able to sell through large productions and/or command enough demand to price at a premium. Anticipating a reply to that, I am not one that believes something like Mondavi Rsv sells through all of those cases at that price just because The Advocate tells its blind followers to buy it. If Parker scores were like the emporers new close, the Bordelaise would not be able to continue raising their ripeness levels and their prices in the era when there is backlash against Parker and so many other voices have emerged.
                                      At the other end of the price or production spectrum one MIGHT find some new small producers. However, as I said, the question is; in looking at the broad market how does one consider the small fry making 200 cases at $40 to the sea of larger production wines. While a Corison does well as far as price/demand with her cab at under 14%, that's a relatively small example, whomped by something like Insignia. For both "story" purposes and competitive purposes it behooves a start-up to be different. I realize that there is an increased demand, but IMO we'd really have to see a bigger demand/production/price shift to sing ding-dong the fruit bomb's dead.
                                      It's harder for me to speak about the mid-level wines, not because I don't try them via samples/tasting, but just that the numbers don't stick with me. As I said with the Cupcake example, lower level drinkers also seem to be fine with the thick wines. Yes, sweetness and ripeness aren't necessarily the same but both tend to characterize the genre of heavy, fruity, lower acid wines finesse drinkers decry. The 07 Mondavi Napa was an easily sold and well-received wine. It was over 15%. That shows what is chosen to be made in a classic vintage allowing it. The 2010 is significantly lower but still about 14.5%, and again that is largely to a cold vintage with winemaking/growing techniques undoubtedly used to make sure insure that it stayed above 14%. Faust might best fit your mid-level category. IIRC even the 2010 is around 14.2%, and to me while not hot it is a very fruity wine.

                                      I'm sitll curious as to what your specific examples are. I agree that there are reasons as you state above that Cabs come in at above 14%. People don't like green thin cabs. They have also taken a liking to a wines with a ripe (not rs) profile and a thicker mouthfeel. Also most wine is consumed in a cocktail setting as opposed to paired with a meal. But that there are reasons actually reinforces the fact that higher abv cabs are not gone and never going to disappear. Corti and Parr can pine all they want and exclude wines at over some arbitrary abv. It's dumb IMO and only serves to make a point, not provide someone that drinks cab with the wines they would like. It excludes a lot of excellent wines. Wine is about balance. Would you believe that the bottle of 98 Grange I had the other night is not a very well made wine at the very least? I realize that it is syrah, but IMO Syrah can be successfully vinified at an even lower abv than cab. A 14.5% limit might work with Bojo or German Riesling, but it sure doesn't work as well (or apply equally) to Cal Cab.

                                      I have come up with more examples of "lower" abv cab than you've chosen to, but even these are still at or slightly above 14%.
                                      Where are those at the pre-80 level below 13%? Rootstock argument aside, the option is there, and people aren't doing it. To me there's at least some revisionist history going on with the 60s, 70s cabs. I like Cal wine and Cab so have always made a point to try a lot of current and aged cabs. Some stuff like older Mayacamas are great. They definitely have an herbal spice complexity that bombs don't have. Some of them clearly have the balance and acid to have aged better than most modern cabs do. But across the board rather than now after-the-fact picking a handful of classics, there were a lot of junk wines. Most notably possessing the green, vegetal quality you note above. There are always going to be those that actually love that, but to most those are flaws in cabernet.
                                      Btw I do agree with you that we are seeing a trend in Pinot. Eg. Rhys, Kutch, Anthill Farms. Even Adam Tomalch at Ojai has toned down his pinots, but not dramtically. Even there wines like Kistler and Marcassin will still be well-received big wines. Syrah as well, esp from places like Bennett. Copain is making some lower abv wines with pinot and rhones.

                                      1. re: john gonzales

                                        Ok, so I guess no one/Maria has examples of something like a 13%, even 13.3 or 13.4 cab that demonstrates this change in scenery to low-alc wines. I've maintained that the topic is more popular in seeking a "story" and selling cold vintage wines, but that it really isn't THAT eveident in broad wine production.
                                        At least for Cab for which brix levels are stated here.
                                        Anyhow, when Maria mentioned that maybe looking at only premium was skewing the issues, I actually figured I'd do a little homework. I looked at a bunch of samples we have. I also thought of Clos du Val so looked for it and did a quick survey at a retailer.
                                        Before the list I would also venture to guess that, in knowing a higher acl% is anathema to some people and a "hot" topic, wineries have greater incentive than ever to use allowable ranges to understate their alcohol %. So here' the list of basic cab bottlings and abv%. Honestly, I did not seek out higher figures or eliminate any low ones.

                                        13.5%- Simi, Franciscan,Coppola Director's, Layer Cake
                                        14.4%-Etude, St. Supery
                                        14.5%-Atlas Peak,Provenance,Kenwood, BV Napa, Clos du Val, Beringer Knight's, KJ Napa, William Hill,Benzinger, Heitz Napa,Whitehall Lane, Charles Krug, R.Strong Alex
                                        14.6%-Roth,Atalon,St. Francis,Louis Martini, Clos dBois Alex.,Sterling
                                        15.1%-Arrowood Sonoma

                                        That's millions of bottles of the most popular brands. I did not find ONE that was labelled under 13.5%, and again a 13.5% label is very likely to be 14% these days. We all know that some of the old classics were around 12-12.5%. I notice that even the 6L empty of 87 Caymus SS from my wedding is 13.0%.
                                        Worth note is that even stuff like Martini, and Heitz are 14.5%. I agree that Heitz at 14.5% does not show like a complete bomb. But it IS saying something that, as longtime standards for classic ageable cabs who are touted as eschewing Parkerization, they have increased their ripeness, alc%, and use of new oak from the classic days of their 74,77,85 classics. As I said early, even Dunn, who rails against high alc is around 14% and he is known to R.O. some of his wines to get there. I'd say they do it because they know what MOST drinkers really want. It's easy to buck the broad demand and exist in a niche with 500 cases of wine to sell. Not so much when you have 30,000. Truth is, for every single Gilman-styled CAB-DRINKER out there, there are ten Parker-styled. I'm not saying which is better than ever, just that the fruit-bomb demand is not dead.

                                        As a total aside, I just looked for some of the 2007 Heitz Martha's which I've yet to try. $180. Yowza! I also wonder if perhaps Heitz is also able to go riper and higher oak and still shoot for ageability by doing more acidulation of their wines.

                                        1. re: john gonzales

                                          Which vintage is that list? Current releases of Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon are all 13.5. The only 14% wines I find on their web site are Syrah blends.

                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                            Uh yeah, duh. They were one of the wines I went to specifically look at. I rechecked my notes. The 2009 Mayacamus is indeed listed at 13.5%. I think I got it transposed with the 07 Mayacamas (which is 14.5 and I also left off) when I tried to relist in a table form. I also left off Laurel Glen at 13.8%

                                          2. re: john gonzales

                                            <<Ok, so I guess no one/Maria has examples of something like a 13%, even 13.3 or 13.4 cab that demonstrates this change in scenery to low-alc wines.>>

                                            In my earlier post, i explained why Cabernet could never get below 13.5 or so [re-posting]:

                                            "You're not going to find lots of low alc Cabernet, except for those like Dunn. Cab loses its vegetal character only when its fruit flavors are ripe and dominant enough to eclipse the vegetal ones. So Cab fruit must have a minimum level of ripeness, minimum ABV.

                                            Also, Cabernet needs structure and spice from oak, and that also requires fruit flavors of a certain intensity and ripeness (I did not say over-ripeness)."

                                            1. re: maria lorraine

                                              You may have thought you explained why Cabernet Sauvignon could never get below 13.5%, but it can. The currently most popular one in California is 12.5%.

                                              I don't think any of the *best* ones made in California in recent vintages have been below 13.5%, but that's just a matter of fashion. Those wineries might have to change rootstock and yeasts if the fashion changes.

                                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                The 12.5 is an exception that proves the rule.

                                                Low ABV Cab requires a balancing act between the earliest point of physiological ripeness that can also stand up the necessary amount of oak that Cab needs to be varietally correct. That point is a moving target because the vegetal component is different in every vineyard -- dependent on viticulture, weather and the vine, among other things.

                                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                  Yep, Two Buck Chuck is about the only under 13% Cab I know of. It is obviously a dog wine and might be RO'd, but clearly it CAN be done. The 20 years of production from 1965 to 85 prove it as well. Climate or vine health have not made it impossible.
                                                  I agree that the desire for oak and no vegetal character tend to ask for ripeness/alc, but those are optional trade-offs and not mandatory characteristics. There were a lot of more vegetal cabs, and vegetal bordeauxs selling fine 20 years ago. Simply put Cab wines are still relatively ripe because thats what people like. The fact that no one's coming up with examples of dramatically lower abv cab just means that talk of lower alcohol in that genre might be de rigueur, but it isn't really happening in the wine as much as in wine blogs. At least until someone needs to sell that colder vintage 2011 and elects to tout their food-friendly, kinder Cab.

                                                  1. re: john gonzales

                                                    Most of the moderately priced Bordeaux blends I've had in recent years are still the same 12.5% they were when I first got into them 30 years ago.

                                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                      Seriously?? You must be a Canon and Figeac lover. Though those may even be above "moderate", and lower ripeness is found lower on the price-scale. Many, many of the classified are significantly higher now, expecially St. Emilion. and we know lots of them are using tech to reduce abv.. I looked up the 90 Tropolong from NYE and I think it was 13.7.

                                                      I read an article recently about the 2000 Figeac. Apparently it was picked very early to preserve freshness and maintain their typical profile. Even those that appreciate the style and the proprietor question whether it was picked too soon.
                                                      The thing about the "vegetal component", and yes it is varient with site etc, is that it is appreciated by a smaller percentage of people these days. To me it travels with some herbal qualities and some people like the complexity. To more people it's a clear flaw in cab. I like some herbal, but not that vegetal action, and will sacrafice the former to rid the latter.

                                                      1. re: john gonzales

                                                        It depends on the amount of "vegetal"-ness. A little is part of Cab's flavor profile -- a lot means a problem, either growing errors or ferm errors.

                                                        1. re: john gonzales

                                                          Canon and Figeac are not what I would call moderately priced.
                                                          I'm talking more like Côtes de Bourg.

                                                      2. re: john gonzales

                                                        << Two Buck Chuck is about the only under 13% Cab I know>>

                                                        But Two Buck Chuck Cab isn't Cab. Not varietally correct Cab. It's red table wine that's labeled Cab.

                                                        1. re: maria lorraine

                                                          Ok, I'm almost embarassed to argue semantics over 2 Buck Chuck. For name/label purposes it is Cab. Without knowing details of each, and the belief that the better wines are almost all cab, we don't know that some of the other entry level wines whose Abv I listed aren't blended as well. I don't feel like looking into the Chuck, but guess it might have 10% Merlot? Merlot isn't a later ripening or dramatically lower ABV grape than Cab, so I don't see that it's inclusion is allowing them to knock a point off the ABV.
                                                          You know wine chemistry better than I do, but it doesn't seem like with Napa's typical sun, heat, dry soil,and some moderate leaf removal, it's necessary to produce a 13.5% cab to get rid of the vegetal (I assume pyrazine) flavors. Clearly Cab from Bord, Santa Cruz area, or Long Island would have more of an issue and some of those wines are released with remaining green notes. Were they able to remove more of the vegetal notes in cab 30 years ago at 12.5%? I doubt it. The oak thing is somewhat circular. They didn't use as much new oak 30 years back and were fine. So there's a problem in saying they need ripeness to match the oak, when the oak isn't really an essential, or a balance can still be acheived with less oak (at lower ripeness) What has changed isn't the necessity for ripeness to reduce vegetal character or balance oak. People have just come to prefer the entire package of almost no vegetal notes, higher oak, and more ripeness. Tracking the style of even a wine like Heitz Martha's reflects it. Many people that say they want 12.5% abv cab wouldn't like it if they got it even though producers could make it.
                                                          As an aside I just read an article from a UK journal about the recent (last 15 years) trend for producers to intentionally understate their ABV for marketing purposes. They posit that doing so is trend that has really grown over that period due to the abv backlash. They tested 129,000 wines. 57% significantly understated the abv. Overall (of those sampled) the average label stated 13.2%, whereas the actual measurement was 13.6%. It's possible that some of the understating is a result of labels not being resubmitted each year, but that's not that difficult for a large production operation. Also there would not be such a large mean difference between stated and actual, as cases of over-stating would balance the under-stateds. Bottom line is there's a bunch of fibbing going on, and it's not just to avoid increased taxation above the 14% mark.

                                                          1. re: john gonzales

                                                            << it doesn't seem like...it's necessary to produce a 13.5% cab to get rid of the vegetal (I assume pyrazine) flavors.>>

                                                            It is. There's a minimum ABV at which Cab is physiologically ripe.

                                                            I'd put it at between 13 and 13.5% ABV. This is the exact ABV of the Heitz wines in the seventies.

                                                            It's not that you want all the vegetal flavors to go away in Cabernet -- you don't. Some vegetal flavors can serve as background flavor notes and are part of Cabernet's flavor profile.

                                                            But vegetal flavors go hand in hand with a lack of color and harsh tannins and all those are signs of physiological immaturity.

                                                            By the time the grape tannins have softened and the color is there in a Cab grape, you have a basic minimum ABV you cannot go below.

                                                            The winemaker actually has fewer options than you think in regards to Cab's minimum ABV. Sure, he can always pick later, but he really can't go below a minimum ABV.

                                                            <<So there's a problem in saying they need ripeness to match the oak, when the oak isn't really an essential>>

                                                            Nope. Cab needs oak, a minimum amount of oak. Not a lot of oak or too much oak or the wrong kind of oak, but it needs oak or it doesn't taste like Cab. The fruit flavors have to be of an intensity great enough to not be dominated by whatever amount of oak you hit them with, so again there has to be a minimum ripeness level.

                                                            That's why if we want to discuss minimum alcohol levels, we should really talk about other varietals than Cab. Cab's minimum ABV is locked in.

                                                            And, it sure would be easier to read your thoughtful posts if you would use paragraphs. ;>))

                                                            1. re: maria lorraine

                                                              >>> Cab needs oak, a minimum amount of oak. Not a lot of oak or too much oak or the wrong kind of oak, but it needs oak or it doesn't taste like Cab. <<<

                                                              Does anyone (besides me) remember when Calaway first started and they aged their Cabernet Sauvignon in German Spessart oak . . . definitely the wrong kid of oak! ;^)

                                                              1. re: maria lorraine

                                                                The 1966 and 1974 Krug were only 12% and they sure did not suck.

                                                                The 1961 Lafite was 12.5%.

                                                                The 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1998, and 1999 Mayacamas were all 12.5%.

                                                                I've had a lot of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon from 1990 and earlier and 12.5% was the most typical number back then. Heitz was an outlier:

                                                                "David Heitz is quick to point out that his father Joe was always one of the latest harvesters back in the old days, and when many California cabernets would routinely top out around 12.5 percent in alcohol, the Heitz wines even back in the seventies were typically labeled at 13 or 13.5 percent."


                                                                1. re: Robert Lauriston


                                                                  How do you KNOW that the 1966 and 1974 Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignons were only 12 percent? Have you seen the lab analysis reports?

                                                                  As I have said before, the LABELS are *not* accurate. Charles Krug pre-printed their labels the same as Louis M. Martini, and as long as you were within ±1.5%, your label was perfectly legal. Going by the labels -- while, admittedly, the only thing consumers can go by -- is notoriously INACCURATE.

                                                                  The same can be said for ANY label, domestic or import. Going by the number on the label and claiming accuracy is useless. This is but one reason why I've always been a big fan of using the alternative alcohol statement.

                                                                  You can pretend that the numbers are "spot on," but they never were . . . .

                                                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                    <<The 1966 and 1974 Krug were only 12% and they sure did not suck.

                                                                    The 1961 Lafite was 12.5%.

                                                                    The 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1998, and 1999 Mayacamas were all 12.5%.

                                                                    I've had a lot of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon from 1990 and earlier and 12.5% was the most typical number back then. >>


                                                                    That comparison shows a huge miscomprehension of why California wines are the way they are, or why wines grown anyplace in the world taste the way they do.

                                                                    A minimum ABV and most of the flavor of California wine is "hard-wired" -- the winemaker has nothing to do with it nor can he change it.

                                                                    Robert criticizes the ripeness of current California wines, pointing out, as he does above, that earlier vintages of Cab were harvested at a lower ABV.

                                                                    But that shows a striking lack of knowledge of how wine grapes grow and ripen physiologically.

                                                                    California can't go back to an earlier time because weather and climate have changed since that earlier time, and the rootstock is different -- more active metabolically.

                                                                    Climate, weather and rootstock will zoom the sugars to a certain minimum ABV before physiological ripeness happens.

                                                                    This is HARD-WIRED -- unchangeable.

                                                                    Robert needs to understand this, before he insists that California do things differently to suit his palate.

                                                                    The winemaker is actually dealt a very limited hand -- he couldn't change certain basic things about the wine if he tried, like minimum ripeness levels.

                                                                    For Cabernet, the grapes are not physiologically ripe at less than 13 to 13.5%.

                                                                    One CANNOT go lower with California's climate/weather and rootstock. It's set in stone. That's true for quite a few varietals. Robert misses this.

                                                                    Without question, the winemaker can let his grapes hang longer for an extra-ripe or over-ripe wine, but again, that's a matter of sugar levels, far different from physiological ripeness.

                                                                    There are so many factual misunderstandings in Robert's text (examples, his initial post about tannins and oak sweetness) that it's quite clear he hasn't learned the viticultural reasons why wines have a pre-set minimum ripeness/ABV or why California wine grapes taste the way they do, even before the winemaker enters the room. Or why wines grown in California or anywhere else taste the way they do.

                                                                    1. re: maria lorraine

                                                                      Robert and I have different takes on things.
                                                                      However I don't think he's as "lost" as you do. I just think he fails to realize that the overwhelming majority of people don't want what he wants.
                                                                      Where you and I differ, is to whether wines that approach what he describes CAN be made. I am curious about a couple of the reasons you state that it can't be. First off, I (think I) have a basic grasp of physiological ripeness. However even that seems that it can be subjective and that the flavors associated with a ripeness scale (vegetal/pyrazines, tannins, glycerin etc) seem to continually vary along a scale themselves. That there just isn't a definitive flawed-beneficial breaking point for any of them. I have friends that really love vegetal and herbaceous cabs from cool, wet vintages/sites. I like them far less. So who decides if/where the cut-off exists?
                                                                      Climate? If we were to take a 3-4 year period from say 1987-90 vs 2010-2012, how much of a climate change could you substantiate? We're not talking about looking as far back as mid-40s Bordeaux. I don't know the answer or even know what the best index would be, but have a feeling that using any measure the climate has not changed that much in Napa over that short period.
                                                                      I don't know rootstalks well. I do know that places like Ridge are using different rootstalks within the same vineyard. So I would assume that there are some options. Is it not possible to utilize one rootstalk which can be managed to yield a wine of lesser ripeness than one that might make it more difficult, even if the difference is not large? Seems to me that like many viticultural decisons, there is always some reverse engineering starting with the wine they WANT to make.

                                                                      In a nutshell, my question is this. If I were to have a start-up with the mandate to make a cabernet at 13% (cognizant of the fact that I would have SOME more of the hallmarks in my flavor profile) and followed all of the site, planting, management, and winemaking techniques; could I? Put another way, what is stopping me from making a wine that tastes more like the early era Montebello?

                                                                      Lastly, if one were to accept your contention that adequate physiological ripeness is at a minimum of 13% abv, where are the 13% cabs being made?

                                                                      Btw, notice the paragraphs. I am a notoriously lazy writer on the web and rarely proofread or spellcheck

                                                                      1. re: maria lorraine

                                                                        I suppose I'm the last person who should criticize someone for phrasing their prejudices and opinions as statements of fact, but at least my hyperbole is a conscious choice, and I don't deny actual facts when they're inconvenient for my argument.

                                                                        Obviously you're in the industry. What's your job?

                                                                    2. re: maria lorraine

                                                                      "Cab needs oak, a minimum amount of oak. Not a lot of oak or too much oak or the wrong kind of oak, but it needs oak or it doesn't taste like Cab."

                                                                      I've had a lot of unoaked Cabernet Sauvignon from the Veneto. It's a simple wine meant to be drunk young, and I prefer their Cabernet Francs and Merlots, but it's good and definitely tastes like Cabernet Sauvignon.

                                                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston


                                                                        I am glad you've found some unoaked Cabernet Sauvignon you like. Granted, it's from that world-renowned area famous for their Cabernet Sauvignons, the Veneto, but -- hey! -- glad you like it. To my palate, those wines are -- how shall I put it? -- less than thrilling. And I generally am *not* a fan of most California Cabernet Sauvignons, and vastly prefer European wines to those from California. But Cabs from the Veneto? Feh . . . .

                                                                        1. re: zin1953

                                                                          Of course at this point we can't be positive about the exact ABV numbers of most wines. Yes the labels can be and were inexact. But I have read details of actual analysis on some old wines, and heard/read accounts by winemakers. So there is a way to make educated guesses.

                                                                          Jason, beyond the obvous that the label does not tell all, what do you believe about the ABV in 60s,70s cabs like the Martini, Mayacamas, BV, Mondavi, Ridge etc.??
                                                                          I believe that plenty of them were in the 12.5-13% range. and that the average was clearly below 13%. Maria cited the 74 Heitz, but I believe Robert is correct that Joe liked to harvest later and riper than many of his counterparts, thugh still below current standards. They certainly had less reason in th 70s to intentionally understate abv. Once you come up with a guesstimate as to that historical abv average Jason, can you think of specific Cabs being made at that level now?

                                                                          While we're going for best estimate Jason, what do you think the average ABV for Napa cab is now. Labels would have us believe it is around 13.7%. I would guess that 14% is more accuate.

                                                                          I also think there is no doubt that the amount of oak (esp new) has increased over time. So what is being used now clearly exceeds what was deemed adequate 30 years back.

                                                                          So why is it that a wine like the 2007 Mondavi Rsv Cab clocks in at 15+% wth 100% new oak? It isn't because the winemaker COULDN'T make a 13.2% abv cab with less oak, that wasn't flawed. It's because that different taste might well be like a 70s cab, but would not sell as well.

                                                                          We could switch varieties and talk about all the ripe Merot being made still too. I hardly think the fruit-bomb is dead there either.

                                                                          1. re: john gonzales

                                                                            >>> Of course at this point we can't be positive about the exact ABV numbers of most wines. Yes the labels can be and were inexact. But I have read details of actual analysis on some old wines, and heard/read accounts by winemakers. So there is a way to make educated guesses. <<<

                                                                            MY point, John, is that I was working in Napa Valley in the late-1970s. I don't recall any of the Cabs being 12%, regardless of what the labels said. Most of the Cabs were I was then working were around 13 or so. BUT . . . wines like Mayacamas and Ridge "don't count" in the discussion, in that mountain-based vineyards frequently came in at lower sugar levels than valley floor vineyards.

                                                                            Remember the "Monterey vege"? Even Napa could have the "Monterey vege" if/when Cabernet Sauvignon grapes were picked too low.

                                                                            And as I've said previously, Ridge would use fractions on their labels when they were lying and hoping ATF wouldn't catch them; decimal points when being accurate.

                                                                            Robert is correct about some things, and Joe picking late is certainly one of them. The 1974 Martha's is an exception to the rule because Joe got hurt in a winery accident, and David made the 1974.

                                                                            My problem is with opinions stated here as if they were indisputable fact, when -- in fact -- they are VERY disputable.

                                                                            With the exception of a recent trip to NYC to see a relative (who drinks nothing but high-end California Cabernet Sauvignon, and has a cellar-full to prove it!), I never drink that stuff. Indeed, I had more high-end Cal Cab on that four-day trip than I've had in probably five years . . . some were rich, opulent, and delicious; some were hot and alcoholic, and over-oaked. That's why I don't drink them.

                                                                            I believe that, regardless of label readings, the average abv for California Cabernet Sauvignon is now >14.0%, especially among those sourcing fruit in the flats (e.g.: Napa Valley).

                                                                            There were wine producers using 100% new oak 20, 30, and 40 years ago and more; and there are wine producers using 100% new oak today. That hasn't changed. What HAS changed is the *number* of wineries who use all new oak. That has gone up, you're absolutely correct.

                                                                            Let's presume -- since neither one of us works for Robert Mondavi -- your numbers are accurate (no "fudging"). So the 2007 Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve is all new oak and 15+% abv. Contrast this with the 2007 Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains Proprietary Red Table Wine -- all new oak, 13.1% abv.

                                                                            Why the difference?

                                                                            Well, part of it is certainly "house style" -- no one will/should confuse a Robert Mondavi wine with one made by Ridge -- but part of it is also location (both in terms of terroir and climate). Between the cooler climate, poorer soils, etc., etc.


                                                                            As far as Merlot is concerned, I have a significant preference for those Merlots from Washington State over those from California, but I still don't drink them very often. ;^)

                                                                            1. re: john gonzales

                                                                              <<So why is it that a wine like the 2007 Mondavi Rsv Cab clocks in at 15+% wth 100% new oak?>>

                                                                              That's Genevieve's decision. If Genevieve wants the flavor and structure of oak -- she must have fruit of a specified intensity or ripeness to take on that oak.

                                                                              The amount of oak correctly used is always calibrated to the ripeness of the grapes, to its Gestalt of flavors, and to the wine's body.

                                                                              Bear in mind that the oak in the RM Cab takes a while to resolve. This is not a wine made to be drunk upon release -- another factor that goes into Genevieve's decision on the amount of oak.

                                                                              1. re: john gonzales

                                                                                <<Maria cited the 74 Heitz, but I believe Robert is correct that Joe liked to harvest later and riper than many of his counterparts, thugh still below current standards. >>

                                                                                I cited all the 70s Heitz Cabs -- all were in the 13 to 13.5% alcohol range.

                                                                                As to the lower ABV of Cabs back then, climate and weather was different then. Rootstock delivered a lower ABV then.

                                                                                And BTW, wineries have always lied about their ABV.

                                                                                Yes, the use of new oak has increased since the 1970s. But it's also decreased since 2000 -- used less in general, or for a shorter amount of time. More precision on barrel-toasting also. Large format neutral casks are the new rage.