John Cesano of John On Wine

John Cesano of John On Wine

John On Wine ­ Alcohol: enough is enough!

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal on December 26, 2014 by John Cesano


Alcohol; it’s why we buy wine instead of soda, right? More alcohol must be better in a wine than less alcohol too, I mean it just stands to reason, don’t you think?

This question came to mind after I read a review of San Francisco Chronicle wine editor Jon Bonné’s new book The New California Wine. The review was written by Wine Spectator magazine’s senior editor, Napa, James Laube. Where most every review of Bonné’s book was complimentary, Laube seemed to almost have the knives out as he wrote his piece, “(Bonné)’s hardly enamored with much of (California wine),” is how the piece begins and it doesn’t get much nicer.

Why would one professional wine writer be so uncomplimentary, so unkind, so border-line rude? Wine Spectator reviews and rates wines on a 100 point scale, made famous by wine critic Robert Parker, and like Parker seems to award more points to fruit jam bombs made of Napa fruit with high alcohol levels. By contrast, Bonné seems to prefer wines of greater balance, greater drinkability, more food friendly wines, with lower alcohol.

Before I go on, I abhor numbers. Alcohol percentage, residual sugar, volatile acidity, the numbers that describe a wine only tell a small part of a wine’s story. Residual sugar alone, without a lot of other data may be suggestive of sweetness, but actual perception when tasted may be something different altogether. Wines must be tasted to be judged.

Okay, that disclaimer aside, I agree with Bonné. Many wines have alcohol levels that are just too damn high. Please, I would so much rather have a lighter styled wine that balances fruit and acid, and has a lower alcohol, so I can enjoy it with friends over a nice dinner than have to suffer another painfully hot, high alcohol wine that is so dense with flavor, so big and overpowering that it ruins the food it is paired with.

Whether an Anderson Valley Pinot Noir over 15 percent or a Dry Creek Zinfandel over 17 percent alcohol by volume, there just isn’t a good reason for these wines to be so hot, unless the winemaker was pandering for a high score from Spectator or Parker. Big alcohol wines also tend to garner high medals, I suspect, because judges’ palates are quickly blown out by high alcohol fruit bombs and are unable to fairly judge wines of greater subtlety and reserve, but upon tasting another monster wine break out the gold.

I worked for a winemaker who used to make gorgeously flavorful wines, good bodied wines, gold medal winning wines, and rarely did she produce a wine at or above 14 percent alcohol by volume. These were the easiest to sell wines I’ve ever experienced. People ordered, but most importantly they reordered, and in quantity, because the wines were so good.

Sadly, she has turned to the dark side, and is putting out some wild beasts, up and over 15 percent alcohol today. More attention, higher ratings, easier golds; From some quarters, anyway.

Joel Peterson, a few years back suggested the three most common flaws of Zinfandel were too much alcohol, too much oak, and too much sugar. As the big boss man behind Ravenswood, a famous Zin house in Sonoma, Peterson should know. That said, both Peterson and his son Morgan Twain Peterson crank out some pretty huge wines.

The wines of inland Mendocino County are not uniformly low alcohol, but many are. Whether from cool climate Russian River adjacent or mountain shade properties in or near Hopland, or the higher altitude fruit grown at the north end of Potter Valley, there are some absolutely delicious wines grown and produced in our area. Zinfandel, and Coro Mendocino ­ the Zinfandelcentric blend I mention often, under 14 percent alcohol; Pinot Noir without a barnyard funk or filled diaper aroma; Chablis-like bright and unoaked Chardonnay; and Cabernet Sauvignon that you can take your time getting to know instead of a Cabernet that is so forward you feel like pressing charges. This is some of what we do so well here, and what some folks – notably the wine critics who seem to get a little too much wood over wines with a little too much wood and alcohol – don’t seem to get.

Wine Enthusiast magazines’ Virginie Boone visits inland Mendocino more often, and perhaps familiarity breeds understanding, because she rates many of our wines about two to five points higher than the folks who don’t visit as often over at Wine Spectator.

Jon Bonné tastes wines from all over, often, and has placed a light, low alcohol, almost Beaujolaisesque Zinfandel made entirely from inland Mendocino grapes on one of his annual Top 100 Wines lists.

I get a chance to taste a lot of our wines, and I may have developed a strong preference for what we do, because on a recent visit outside the county, I found wine after wine just too big for me to enjoy. I love Wine Spectator magazine for the articles, but personally I prefer Wine Enthusiast magazine and Jon Bonné’s San Francisco Chronicle reviews of our wines. I find I am more often in agreement.

Want high alcohol? Go to a bar. Want a food-friendly wine you can enjoy with food? Consider a wine from the area, with under 14 percent alcohol for a start. As always, the best way to find out whether you like a particular wine or not is to go wine tasting. Many local winery tasting rooms offer complimentary wine tasting and are open up until New Year’s Eve – although a few that sell bubbly will be open at least a half of that day too.


EDITED TO ADD ONLINE: I received the following comment tacked on to another recently archived column in response to the newspaper version of this week’s column:

“This is regarding your UDJ article published today (12/26/13). I was going to email you but didn’t see an email listed. In any event, I have to agree with your general assessment of the multitude high alcohol wines out there. Which is why I drink mostly sparkling! I have worked for Roederer Estate for six years and have learned that sparkling is incredibly versatile with food as well as being on the lower end of the scale at 12%. One last thing, in reference to Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 of 2013, did you know Roederer’s 2004 L’Ermitage is rated number one? I believe it’s the first time a California Sparkling has garnered the top spot, so worth mentioning.
Cheers, Julie in Ukiah”

I could not agree more. Fantastic comment, great observation, and well deserved acclaim for the 2004 Roederer L’ Ermitage, and yes, you are right, this is the first time that a sparkling wine has topped Wine Enthusiast magazine’s annual Top 100 Wines list.

I had just written for Destination Hopland that there are bubblies to be tasted at Graziano, Jeriko, McFadden, Nelson, Rack & Riddle, Ray’s Station, and Terra Savia; but county wide Roederer, Scharffenberger, Yorkville Cellars, and Elke over on Hwy 128, and Paul Dolan up in Ukiah, all have to be added to the list. As a county, we may have the nation’s greatest concentration of premium bubblies, and they are indeed both enjoyably lower in alcohol and spectacularly food friendly when paired with the right foods. Taste this week, choose a favorite, and stock up for New Year’s Eve!


I do love bubbly, and I would love to have them all to taste for a future column, maybe in advance of Valentine’s Day next year.

7 Responses to “Alcohol: Enough is Enough”

  1. Mike Jasper Says:

    I rarely disagree with you, but I prefer high alcohol wines. My favorite one is called brandy.

    1. John Cesano Says:

      There are many who prefer high alcohol wines, brandy, cognac, and grappa included, over low alcohol wines.

      I enjoy brandy at home, after a meal, as a digestif, after dinner is over, but I love a well balanced wine, fruit a plenty but not overpowering, with dinner.

      Judging by the comments left in response to the Laube piece, most of Wine Spectator’s readers would rather have wine as a meal, a big high alc monster.

      My take is not universal, and i am totally fine with that. They aren’t wrong to make me right, we are each right for ourselves, wine is that subjective.

  2. Stephen Pasternak D.D.S. Says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Back when we moved to Ukiah in 1977 high alcohol Zin was all the rage; 15%, 16% even 17% wines that were totally unbalanced, even some with residual sugar! One glass was more than enough. Certainly didn’t go with a meal. After a while the pendulum swung the other direction and more food friendly wines with lower alcohol became the norm. In recent years the alcohol levels have racheted up again for many California wines. Having moved here from Switzerland where we drank the local whites and French Bordeaux where the alcohol level was usually around 13% I find the big fruit bombs very unpleasant. I have many French wines in my cellar going back 20 to 25 years that are drinking beautifully; interesting aromas and flavors that are delicious and go great with a meal. I enjoy your column, keep up the good work.
    Dr. Stephen Pasternak

    1. John Cesano Says:

      Thanks for the kind words. This column seemed to strike a chord. I had a wine club customer stop by the tasting room today, and she told me she read today’s column and agreed too.

      I’m equally fine with folks who think I’m off base, who disagree. I’m glad to elicit response, evoke thought.

      There are bigger wines I do like, but they have balance. That is why I said numbers don’t matter as much as taste but, more and more, I find the wines I enjoy more often are lower in alcohol too.

      Having a glass of something that drinks hot, with pruned, fig, raisoned, burnt sherry notes, from the ultra high sugar that led to brutally high alcohol, that just isn’t my thing. That said, I think there are more fans of monster wines than wines of restraint and finesse.

      Anyway, thanks for reading and for your comment.

  3. Regarding ABV, sugar, etc. you might abhor numbers, but without them, I think part of the story is missing. I prefer to give as much information I know about a product—then let the consumer decide what they take and throw away!


    1. John Cesano Says:

      Thanks for reading, and thanks for writing.

      My problem with numbers is that having provided some, a tasting is often prejudiced by irrelevant nonsense.

      Okay, this Riesling has 1.25 residual sugar, and that one has an RS of 1.46, so the second one will drink sweeter. Folks who drink numbers, not wine, will choose the first if they don’t like sweet wines, but absent the pH and acid numbers, does RS by itself tell you which wine will be perceived as sweeter?


      Numbers lie, or certainly mislead, because I haven’t read many reviews or ratings that include pH or TA or VA numbers, and even if those numbers were included, how many folks would know what they mean relative each other, outside of a very select group of winemakers?

      Precious few.

      Numbers can help, and by all means keep providing all you can so those who know what they all mean can make informed guesses about what a wine might taste like, prejudging that wine, before tasting.

      My favorite line about numbers and wine was either written or stolen by the incredibly talented Ron Washam: What does an 89 point wine taste like? Failure.

      I recognize that it is as unfair to prejudge a wine based on a high alcohol percentage on a wine label, especially as that number can be 1-1.5% off! as it is to suggest that a wine shouldn’t be prejudged on residual sugar alone, absent additional information rarely provided; which is why I made my plea that wines actually be tasted to be judged.

      That many wines I am finding unpleasant happen to have pretty big alcohol numbers printed on their label, wines from producers that in the past showed some restraint, struck a chord here, and since this piece ran in the paper last week, I received a ton of comments from readers (I live in a small town and am out in public a lot).

      Agree, disagree, I’m thrilled folks are talking, and writing (thanks again Pamela), and drinking wine.



      ps: enobytes.com is well worth a viit and a bookmark. -JC

      1. I think we probably agree more than we disagree John!

        Wishing you a glorious 2014.


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