“The Big Test for High[ly] Alc[oholic] Wines”

A few days ago, my older brother, Tad Parzen (a top-knotch lawyer who owns and runs a governmental/educational/legal consulting firm in San Diego, CA, and who has worked with a number of the state’s biggest school districts), introduced me — via email — to the wine program manager at Jonathan’s, a gourmet grocery and wine store in La Jolla where we grew up (and where Tad, his family, and my mother still live).

Since I had just read the recent article on Darrell Corti and “Zingate” in The San Francisco Chronicle, I sent him the link and asked for his perspective. Here’s what he wrote back:

“Hey Jeremy, The Corti Bros. are definitely stirring the proverbial wine pot out here, but the high alc wines just keep coming. I’m a fan of both old world rustic elegance and new world lush, lip smacking wines. The big test for quality high alc wines is their ability to maintain appropriate amounts of acidity and minerality. [italics mine] Obviously, balance is the key. When people ask me why domestic wines have more fruit and alcohol than the old world versions, my cliche’d response goes something like: when did you start drinking coca-cola and when they tell me, I generally say that is when europeans had their first glass of wine. Speaking of trends, for every 1 bottle of old world wine purchased at the store, at least six domestic bottles are purchased. Definitely stop by the shop next time you’re out here…

Happy drinkin,
Patrick”

I like his analogy about Coca Cola: Americans (and Californians in particular) want their wine to taste like soda pop and not like wine… and I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, as Patrick points out, “for every 1 bottle of old world wine purchased at the store, at least six domestic bottles are purchased.”

But I am disconcerted by the notion that a highly alcoholic wine can be balanced. With today’s technology (whereby fermentation is accelerated and whereby the water and alcohol in wine are separated — through “reverse osmosis” — and then blended back together), it’s easy to make wine with high alcohol content.

Minerality and good acidity come from nature, from the fruit and the land, and can only be achieved naturally (although many Californian winemakers, even high-end wineries, actually acidify their wines by adding acid! Why do you think that so many people complain of headaches after drinking fancy Californian wine?).

In fact, the highly alcoholic wines of California are by their nature imbalanced and don’t taste like wine. They smell like alcohol and they taste like “tobacco”, “chocolate”, “boysenberry pie”… To me they taste like cough syrup.

Californian wines can tend to have higher alcohol content in part because of the California wine country’s warm climate. But it is the Californian winemaking style — and not nature — that creates “new world lush, lip smacking wines,” wines that — in my opinion — have no business be served at a meal because they lack the balance that makes wine an organic element in the human diet.

Time for me to get off my soap box? Yes, indeed. There’s nothing inherently wrong with liking Californian and California-style wines and Patrick is right to sell and serve his customers wines that they like. De gustibus non est disputandum.

In all fairness, I have tasted many Californian wines that I like, notably older Cabernet Sauvignon from producers like Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Corison and others (Keens, my favorite steakhouse in Manhattan, has a wonderful vertical of Corison going back to the early 1990s). And Darrell Corti has introduced me to some excellent Sonoma Coast Syrahs.

It is a pity, nonetheless, that generations of wine lovers will not know the truly mineral flavors of a great Chablis or the tar and manure aromas of an earthy Barbaresco. But, then again, maybe I’m crazy to want my wines to taste like rocks and shit.

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