California's big reds are coming on strong these days as winemakers pursue riper, fuller-flavored fruit.
A number of wines have been creeping past 14% alcohol and even into the 15% to 16% range, as opposed to the tamer 12% to 13% of years past. This is largely because vintners wait longer to pick their grapes. More mature fruit is thought to make tastier wine, but it also means higher sugar levels, which comes with the side effect of pumping up the alcohol. Warmer harvests only increase the phenomenon.
Some are calling for a halt to the so-called "hot wines."
"I just hate high-alcohol wines," said Randy Dunn, founder of Dunn Vineyards. He fired off an open letter last year urging consumers to demand wines of 14% alcohol or less.
Darrell Corti, president of Corti Brothers, a Sacramento wine and food market, is also in the less-is-more camp. He announced last year that his store wouldn't carry table wines with more than 14.5% alcohol.
Still, big reds, many of which are highly rated by critics, have their champions.
"They fill your mouth with flavor; you can chew on them. They linger on your palate when you're drinking them, and that's what Napa is known for -- its big, chewy cabs," said Doug White, director of operations for the Vintner's Collective, a Napa tasting room for boutique wineries.
For those who don't like the big wines, some have an issue with the style of higher-alcohol vintages and others are wary of the punch they can pack.
One definition of the "right" alcohol level is if two people can finish a bottle and "wish there was a little bit more," Dunn said. "You don't do that with a 15.5% or 16% alcohol wine. You'd be lying on the floor."
It's not always easy to tell how much alcohol is in a wine.
Wines containing 7% to 14% alcohol can be labeled just "table wine" or "light wine," as opposed to listing the alcohol content, under federal regulations. When a percentage is listed it can be off by as much as 1.5%, a tolerance granted because one batch of wine can differ from another, said Art Resnick, spokesman for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau in Washington, D.C. Wines over 14% alcohol, which fall into a higher tax category, must list alcohol levels with a tolerance of plus or minus 1%.
The higher-alcohol trend goes back about 10 years when growers started letting grapes stay on the vines longer to develop the full flavor of the fruit, said Kenneth Fugelsang, professor of enology and wine master of the commercial winery run by Cal State Fresno.
California seems to have been a leader, though higher-alcohol wines also are being made in other warm climates, such as Australia, he said.
One way to have ripe fruit without high alcohol is to use various technologies available to pull alcohol out of wine. But that's not something many winemakers want to talk about for fear of crushing the romantic vision of wine as an ancient art untainted by technology, said Clark Smith, co-owner and senior enologist of Vinovation, a company in the wine country town of Sebastopol that reduces alcohol levels through reverse osmosis.
The truth, he said, is that wine already has been affected by technology, such as stainless steel tanks and sterile filtration.
Unlike cooking, where chefs proudly show off new techniques made possible through innovation, winemaking has become more secretive, Smith said. "It's a shame, because winemaking's just cooking."
Vinovation's process works by using powerful filters that remove alcohol and water from wine. The two are separated by distilling and the water is then put back into the wine. To arrive at just how much alcohol should be taken out, Vinovation uses a method it calls "sweet spotting" to find the point where the wine is at a lower level of alcohol but still tastes good.
At Shafer Vineyards, a Napa Valley producer of highly rated reds, some coming in at 14.9%, winery President Doug Shafer won't use technology to reduce alcohol. "We like our wines. We like the fruit. We like the richness," he said.
Shafer is aware of the debate over how much is too much, but he says it's up to consumers to decide which style of wine they prefer. "I'm not forcing anyone to buy our wines -- we're selling everything," he said.
Industrywide, "the quality of wines from around the world just keeps getting better and better," Shafer said. "I think this is the golden age for the consumer."