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Wine's potent appeal may be at its limit

Alcohol content in wines around the world, but perhaps most notably from California, has been creeping up in the past 25 years.  Yet some winemakers and wine sellers are growing reticent of these powerhouses wines, often finding them overwhelming.

In all the high talk about wine, it's easy to forget this stuff can still get you drunk.

Alcohol content in wines around the world, but perhaps most notably from California, has been creeping up in the past 25 years.  If 12 percent was once average for red wine, it now sounds almost uncannily low; 14 percent is almost a baseline for reds, and whites are routinely climbing into the 13s and well above.

Assuming you're drinking for taste — which is to say, you're old enough not simply to choose beverages for their high-octane qualities — more alcohol can be a mixed bag. Jumping from 12 to 16 percent is like an extra half-beer with each glass of wine.

Higher alcohol often accompanies the full, ripe, deep qualities that grace some of the most highly prized New World wines. It usually results from ultra-ripe fruit, often picked late into the harvest season, that also yields a taste explosion.

Yet some winemakers and wine sellers are growing reticent of these powerhouses, often finding them so overwhelming, so "hot" in alcohol, they can only be enjoyed on their own. It is especially worrisome to those want wine as part of a meal.

"Wine is a complement to food. Those wines do not compliment food. As someone once said, maybe wild boar, preferably still alive," says renowned winemaker Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards. "It's a wine that dominates the meal. It's a food in itself. You don't need the food; it's superfluous."

Draper does not shy away from a healthy alcohol content. While Cabernet sauvignon can express itself just fine at 12 or 13 percent, he believes, zinfandel requires at least 14 percent to show its true colors.

Yet last year, for the first time in 38 years, he found himself splitting grape lots for his Geyserville zinfandel — using less ripe grapes with lower alcohol to make his usual style of wine, and bottling another version with the late-harvested powerhouse fruit.

Winemakers have several ways to monitor grapes in the vineyard.  They can measure brix, which dictates how much of a grape's sugar can be converted into alcohol. They can simply use their tongues, tasting to see if a grape is ready. Winemakers who produce these big wines often insist they simply pick to taste, seeking the fruit that best reflects the vineyard.

"I've always been baffled by the militant attitude that some people have ... that we're ruining the wine," says Ehren Jordan, winemaker at Turley Wine Cellars, which has achieved near-cult status with zinfandels in the 17-percent range.

Managing the grapeWhy are wines getting more potent? First, grape-growing has become a true science.  Excellent vineyard management has yielded grapes that are a model of health, bursting with flavor, with little disease to wither them.

And despite those hoary allusions between California and France, most of France struggles to ripen grapes in a temperate climate while hotter U.S. sites allow grapes to ripen far better. ("California's more like Tunisia," Jordan says.)

More influential has been the will of the market. Usually big and bold, high alcohol wines can be enjoyed within a year or so of release; that happens to be the very sort of wine many consumers, including collectors, are buying. The age of the 12-percent Bordeaux from barely ripe fruit, needing years in the bottle to evolve, is largely past.

The trend has been hugely accelerated by critics, most notably wine guru Robert Parker and Wine Spectator magazine, two pioneers of the 100-point rating system.  Bold, high-alcohol wines easily stand out in tasting -- even among varietal peers -- so it's no surprise many score spectacularly well.  Wine buyers often buy by numbers, so big fruit and high alcohol can be key to commercial success.

"It is completely a market-driven industry. It has nothing to do with what's in the bottle," says veteran Napa winemaker and consultant George Vierra.

Vierra was so frustrated by the trend he recently penned an essay arguing that wine should in fact be classified in two categories: "social wines," the high-alcohol bruisers that are often consumed by themselves, and "table wines," intended for food.

In fact, the government already considers anything below 14 percent "table wine," and wine above 14 percent need only approximate its alcohol content within 1 percent. A label saying 15 percent can front a wine with 16 percent alcohol.

'They think they're great wines'Vierra has charted the rise of alcohol levels in Napa grapes as they climbed from a low of 12.5 percent in 1971 to a 2001 high of 14.8 percent. But there was also a 14-percent peak in 1978, after which levels dropped sharply.

That previous high-alcohol era ended when drinkers shied away from more potent bottlings. Consumers and critics could again grow weary of a big, potent style.

Some winemakers and retailers suspect it might taper off as high-end buyers discover these wines often won't improve with age.

"My big gripe is with people who are chasing that elusive goal of the 100-point wine," says Mat Garretson, whose Garretson Wine Company turned out a 17.2-percent syrah. "It's pleasant, it's luscious, it's hedonistic. Will it age well? Probably not."

"On the other hand," Draper notes, "If Parker tells them they're 97 or 98 or 100 points, they think they're great wines."

The debate will continue. Vintners point to early high-alcohol vintages, like old David Bruce zinfandels, that still shine after 35 years. There is talk of which varietals are truly appropriate for California's hot climate, and murmurs of Star Trek-sounding techniques to artificially tweak alcohol levels: chaptalization (adding sugar); reverse osmosis machines and spinning cones that filter out alcohol while retaining flavor.

In the end, consumers may guide the way, depending on just how tipsy we want our wine to make us. Retailers are already noticing an impact.

"It becomes a little more physically tiresome to drink that kind of wine," says Michael Teer of Seattle's Pike & Western Wine Shop. "We're still selling the big monsters, but people are asking for something a little more managable, too."