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Wine + Grape Expo: Panel to Discuss Role of Vineyards in Lower Alcohol Wines

Napa Valley Grapegrowers' Wine + Grape Expo will take place Thursday, Nov. 14.
by Paul Franson
November 04, 2013

“Mastering Balance and Vineyard Expression Through Lower Alcohol Wines” is sure to be a lively seminar at the Napa Valley Grapegrowers’ Wine + Grape Expo on Thursday, Nov. 14.

Steve Matthiasson of Premiere Viticulture and Matthiasson wines will be the moderator. He manages viticulture for vineyards from Carneros to Calistoga in Napa Valley, as well as at other sites in Mendocino, Sonoma and the Central Valley and also produces his own wines.

Other members of the panel are Jon Bonné, wine editor of The San Francisco Chronicle, Duncan Arnot Meyers of Arnot-Roberts Winery in Sonoma, winemaker Nick Gislason of Screaming Eagle Vineyard and Paul Draper, CEO and winemaker of Ridge Vineyards.

Many critics have complained that California wines, notably those from Napa, are getting too alcoholic. The San Francisco Chronicle recently started listing the alcohol level of wines it reviews. “I know my role on the panel is to talk about consumer acceptance," says Bonné. “I'll talk a little bit about how there is more interest in the classic style of Napa Cabernet than there was three years ago.

“When vintners complain about how difficult it is to sell their wines in certain markets (i.e., New York), I'd argue in some ways that's the result of 15 years of deliberate marketing that led to a view among many in the trade that Napa's signature was big, ripe and expensive. It need not be that way.”

He continued, “Our readers don't seem to give a lot of feedback on their wine preferences – at least to us – but they're definitely happy that we're including the data. I suspect those who don't care don't pay it much attention, and those who do are glad for it.”

He commented, “The only ones who don't much seem to like it are a certain subset of winemakers. You can no doubt surmise why.”

He feels that ripeness in Napa is very much a conscious choice. “When vintners determined the market wanted wines at 13 percent, they harvested to achieve it. When they became fearful, critically, of making wines under 14.5-15%, they harvested to achieve that, too.”

Bonne commented, “We'll certainly get to the matter of how improvements in viticulture have made it possible to farm to 27 or 28 Brix and beyond – whether that's wise, or sane, is another matter – but I'd argue it's disingenuous for a vintner to assert that those ripeness levels are simply what nature gives them.”

Steve Matthiasson confirmed that the panel will discuss ways to hold down alcohol levels in the vineyard, He states, “It’s more a winemaking decision of when to pick, but we can take steps to achieve lower alcohol in the field.”

Matthiasson said, “Among the steps the grower can take are to leave more fruit on the vine and hold back water. To tame ‘greenness’ that was once characteristic of Cabernet, you can watch nitrogen levels.”

Another controversial factor to reduce sugar and alcohol is viruses, which used to be widespread. “In the ‘90s, some winemakers said a little virus was a good thing, but no one says that anymore. Now the only virus is a bad one.”

Since few people have tasted expensive Screaming Eagle wine, many winemakers assume that wine is an alcohol and fruit bomb, but winemaker Gislason says that isn’t true. “It hasn’t been like that since Heidi [Peterson Barrett] first made it.”

Gislason says it was very fresh and in the high 13s in 1992 when it was introduced, and the alcohol crept up in the late ‘90s. “Now it’s typically 14.8 or 14.9%, but not high some Napa Cabs. It has big, black fruit, some fresh with traditional dried herbs and, cedar and sandalwood.” He adds, “That’s why I’m here. It’s the type of wine I’d like to drink. It’s a fresher style.”

He says, “We don’t get hung up on alcohol levels. We pick when the fruit is in a vibrant stage of development. The optimum alcohol level is dependent on the site, and that’s the best level in its vineyard in east Oakville.”

Paul Draper takes a philosophical attitude to alcohol levels, as befits his education. “One of the great things about wine is that it can be made in such a range of styles. This allows consumers to choose what they most enjoy.”

Like Gislason, Draper says, “I've been able to make the style of wine that I most enjoy.” He continues, “I'm most interested in fine wine, a term I would define as wine from a single vineyard that consistently produces high quality and distinctive character. A fine vineyard provides this quality of wine without the need to make use of the modern additives and concentrates and modern processing available today.”

He feels that those tools allow the winemaker rather than the vineyard to create the style and character of the wine. “I don't believe that the site dictates the choice between a 13.5% Cabernet and one at 15.5%. That is the choice of the winemaker or the owner. For us, careful attention to color and tannin extraction during fermentation is essential to having fine tannin that is in balance and does not require over-ripe fruit to make the wine appealing.

He mentioned that the 1971 Monte Bello won the 30-year repeat of the Paris tasting by 18 points over the second place wine. “It was 12.2% alcohol, 35 years old and as beautifully balanced as it had been from the start.”

Draper does have some kind words for the Napa winemakers in the audience. “I have been a great admirer of Napa Valley Cabernets. My earliest experience was in the early 1980's when I had the chance to taste a vertical of Inglenook Cabernets from the thirties made using traditional techniques just after Prohibition. Several of those vintages could rival the great First Growth Bordeaux made from 1945 to 1949.

“A few years ago tasting a group of 1996 Napa Cabernets blind, again confirmed for me how many fine vineyards there are in Napa Valley. The complexity and depth of a number of them made them clearly world class.”

It’s sure to be in interesting session.

The Napa Wine + Grape Expo will be held at Napa Expo on Thursday, Nov. 14. It will include a trade show as well as seminars. Get details and register at

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