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Winemaker Randy Dunn:‘Higher alcohol wines should stop.'

Randy Dunn's wake-up letter to consumers and wine reviewers is a result of his frustration with market-driven high alcohol wines.

Howell Mountain ~ Napa Valley (AVA)

Winemaker Randy Dunn:
‘Higher alcohol wines should stop.'

Did you hear the one about what one wine bottle said to the other:
“Boy, it’s sure getting hot in here!”

by Alan Goldfarb
July 27, 2007

The other day Randy Dunn had just gotten through blending his Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2004 vintage. It came in at 14.1 percent alcohol. More precisely, make that 14.11. It was the first time in Dunn's 28 years of making wine in the Napa Valley that one of his wines broke the 14-point barrier.

So, what did Randy Dunn, the owner of his eponymous Dunn Vineyards do? He sent out a letter (Click here to read letter) in the form of an e-mail to the media calling for a cessation of all wines that have alcohol levels over 15-percent.

Dunn, who said it took him more than a year to finish the letter, began his diatribe thusly: “It is time for the average wine consumer, as opposed to tasters, to speak up. The current fad of higher and higher alcohol wines should stop. Most wine drinkers do not really appreciate wines that are 15-, 16-plus percent alcohol. They are, in fact, hot and very difficult to enjoy with a meal.”

Further he wrote: “Influential members of the wine press have led the score-chasing winemakers/owners up the alcohol curve and now I hope that it soon will lead them down.”

Dunn, 61, who has been making wine since 1979, insists that his Howell Mountain Cabernets, in spite of the 14.11 anomaly, which he calls “an accident,” have “consistently come in between 13.2-13.8 percent alcohol since 1979.” But he says his colleagues are making what he describes as “cigar wines,” which he Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2003.jpg says are “made for standing and not sitting down with a meal. I hate to see the whole industry cater to that segment of the population and there’s a whole bunch of the population that likes to drink wines that are not just sipping and sitting wines,” is the way he puts it.

So, what caused him to write such a letter, which is sure to get some of his colleagues’ backs up; not to mention those critics who he thinks have driven the market toward high-alcohol wines?

“It was prompted by a conversation that I had with a wine writer, who asked point blank, “How do you keep your alcohol so low?’ I said, ‘You led the consumer up the alcohol curve and like puppy dogs, you’re going to lead them back down.’”

Dunn isn’t the only highly visible critic of such wines. In recent weeks, Sacramento wine merchant Darrell Corti has ceased selling wines in his grocery that are higher than 14.5 alcohol.

With regard to Corti's stand, Dunn says, “I think it’s great” and confides that he called to read a draft of his letter to Corti. In turn, he said Corti approved of his letter. “I think he wants some company,” laughs Dunn, commenting on their mutual opposition to the wines that have been so trendy in recent years.

Will that trend ever come to an end; and will winemakers ever go back to making wines that are more in balance and therefore, lower in alcohol? Dunn believes he has an idea, which might be the underlying motive for his missive. He thinks that there is a place for those wines in question, but that critics should separate them out and place them in a kind of category of their own.

“Splitting the reviews would help out everybody,” he contends. “It would help those who want guidance for their lower alcohol wines and it would help those that would want higher alcohol wines. Where would that number be? I don’t know, maybe before 15. “My letter was not at all attacking any reviewers. It was for the industry. …”

When told that it’s a belief that many consumers couldn’t give a fig about wines with food, and that they want wines to sip and taste; and the higher the alcohol the better, Dunn responds, “I have heard that there are some people (that) for that very reason are misstating the alcohol level on their labels, and cheating upwards.” What else are his colleagues up to? What does he mean when he writes about the “vogue for physiologically mature” wines? And is “physiologically mature” a rubric for allowing the sugar levels to climb?

“It’s a stroke. People want to make wines of high alcohol, and now they’re walkin’ the walk and talkin’ the talk and they’ve invented this ‘physiological maturity’ term to help them justify it,” he declares. “… Now ‘physiological maturity’ is at a higher level than it used to be.

“Why do you have to call it mature when it’s overripe?”

Dunn, who says he usually picks his grapes between 23.5-to-25 Brix, is asked why so many of his fellow winemakers seem obsessed about getting the herbaceous-ness out of their wines, when that characteristic was a favorable one in the 1970s and ‘80s and not a pejorative as it is today?

His response has more to do with terroir and appellation differences. “In those days it was relatively easy to distinguish Dunn Caberneta Rutherford Cab from a Stags Leap, a Howell, or a St. Helena. It wasn’t rocket science. Now, because they pick so ripe, the wines all have melded together and the nuances are gone. That’s why the whole terroir business and sub-appellations are getting very diluted. The only way they’re going to get back to differences is get back to lower alcohol wines.”

But some think that Dunn is casting stones when he has been notorious for making wines that are not approachable at an early age because they are high in tannins. What’s the difference?

“There’s a big difference because the flavors are different, the age-ability factor is different,” he contends. “The people who appreciate my wine appreciate the fact that it has some years of bottle age on it and gives them something special in years to come.”

And what about the critics such as those at the Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate. who have given him high scores over the years. Will he continue to be their darling after his letter generates the debate it’s sure to engender?

“It will be interesting to see,” he says matter-of-factly. “(But) they know its true (his contentions); that’s something that they have to deal with. …”

Does he really believe consumers, who he calls on to respond to those high alcohol wines, will become proactive in this debate?

“It’s worth a shot,” he says adding, “if they don’t like what’s going on and they don’t do something, it's their own damned fault.”

Finally, does he have any regrets that he sent the letter?

“I’m glad I did it,” he retorts. “Whether or not I can say that in six months, I guess we’ll find out. … I think that everybody can win, which is the important part.”
The following is the e-mail Randy Dunn sent to media members:
Date: July 24, 2007 1:06:11 PM PDT
Subject: Letter from Randy Dunn regarding alcohol levels in today's wines

It is time for the average wine consumers, as opposed to tasters, to speak up. The current fad of higher and higher alcohol wines should stop. Most wine drinkers do not really apprec

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Reader Feedback

Reader Comments... [17]

Charles Becquet , Owner
Domaine Becquet Winery, Sierra Foothills, CA
How glad we are to see that such a movement is starting in California. In Europe, one can get no wine above 13.5% (most of them are under 12%) and our winery here in California has proposed lower alcohol wines for the past seven years. Fortunately, several other California wineries do the same and their number is growing. The consumer response is just great! Those who want alcohol should drink brandy, not wine!

Lucia Simmons , Director of Marketing
Linganore Winecellars, Mt. Airy, MD
Great article. Our winemaker Anthony Aellen has been producing lower alcohol wines for the past 28 years and with great customer appeal. I have personally found that some wines are just to "hot" for my palate. 13.75 is fine in some wine but for the most part if the alcohol is backed off to 12.5 - 13.5 the taster will find more fruit nuances which will enhance the wine’s body.

Don Brady , Winemaker
Robert Hall Winery, Paso Robles, CA
Three Cheers for Darrell [Corti] and Randy [Dunn]!!! These 14.5+% wines are a threat to our business. I have heard this class of wines called cocktail wines because that is their most appropriate use. A glass by itself taken in place of a Jack and Coke. This is a dangerous road to go down. I believe we will all be better served with a focus on vineyard balance to mature our grapes at reasonable sugar levels not using over-ripe flavors to mask the misery of poorly grown grapes.

Robert Rex , winemaker
Deerfield Ranch Winery, Kenwood, CA
The wines that are selling the best are all over 14% alcohol, whether we like it or not. The American public likes these wines because the flavors are fuller (driven by higher alcohol) and the wines are softer (due to higher R.S. and more glycerin.) People between the age of 28 and 48 are driving the growth of the wine business. The most popular breakfast drink in the US for people under 40 is cola. Americans have sweet palates and like full-bodied flavors. This is why these wines are popular. Rich flavors, forward fruit, soft tannins, low acid, big mouth feel. These are all synonymous with high alcohol.

What this push to lower alcohols will produce is not grapes picked at lower brix. What it will do is create a need for wineries to de-alcoholize the wines, currently one of the little secrets of the industry.

Check out the top wines in the current Top 100 from Spectator. Most of the wines at the top, particularly the California wines, are well over 14% alcohol. Does anyone really think that the winemakers will change these wines?

Most Americans don't drink wine with food. They drink most of the wine by itself, before dinner. Watch them the next time you have a dinner party. Your guests will drink a glass or two of wine before dinner, sit down to the meal with a glass of wine in front of them, take a sip and then start to eat. They will typically eat their entire meal before taking another sip of wine. They will finish their wine after their plates are empty.

Let's not forget whom we are making wine for. It’s not for a bunch of old guys like me who cut our teeth on French wines.

Jeff Hinchliffe , Winemaker
Hanna Winery, Santa Rosam, CA
The argument begs the question, one can't at once ask for consumers to speak up -- and tell them what to say. More importantly, Randy is trying to herald a trend that is well underway. Testifying to this is the fleet of tanker trucks in line at Conetech for alcohol reduction.

Jon Phillips , Owner / Winemaker
Inspiration Vineyards & Winery, Santa Rosa, CA
Very timely – Thank you, Mr. Dunn! I had just taken this same position in my July newsletter and had commented on this subject to one of my customers a few hours before seeing this article. The realities are some of the points made by Robert Rex [comment 4]. I have had my own accidents in making high alcohol wines that coincidentally are also the only wines that rate well in competition. I'm working hard now to try and develop a consistent style that is balanced, lower in alcohol and reflects the terroir of where the grapes are coming from. The heck with wine competitions, or 100 point subjective ratings.

Pete Hoffmann , winemaker, vineyard manager
Napa, CA

Doug Salthouse , Wine Merchant
Pennington, NJ
Dear Randy: Thank you, thank you, thank you. Finally, someone with the credentials and credibility to be taken seriously has spoken out on a subject that has been neglected for far too long. As a native Californian I have shunned buying and drinking the wines for nearly a decade. The reason? Too much extraction, too much wood, and too much alcohol. Sadly, many in Tuscany nearly went down that awful path as well, but recently there seems to be a return to sanity, with lower extraction, less use of Merlot and Cabernet and more homage to terroir and native varietals.

I feel that the overwhelming reason for the increase in alcohol percentages is the high scores given to wines that are high in alcohol and overly manipulated. In their zeal to please Mr. Parker and others, winemakers have sold themselves and their wines to the devil. As a wine merchant, I always suggest that people select wines to be enjoyed with a meal -- not as a cocktail. When Americans learn to make wine drinking a part of the mealtime pleasure, wine sales will go up, and Americans will learn the true pleasure of wine.

Bruce Coulthard , Pres/CEO
Genesis-Soils.com, St. Helena, CA
Why do Napa grapegrowers choose to make big wines? "Because They Can". And they also have the option "Not To". How many other world class grapegrowing regions have that luxury? By the way Randy, I have started to appreciate lower alcohol wines and they are truly a more finely crafted enjoyable, delicate, sensual, gentle experience. And at the same time, I am able to enjoy a rather large, quite enjoyable full flavor high alcohol monster, all from the same valley. Options!

John MacCready , owner/winemaker
Sierra Vista Winery, Placerville, CA
As another proponent of lower alcohol wines I have maintained low alcohol style in my wines for 30 years regardless of the current fad. At Sierra Vista Winery we have customers who appreciate our style while those that want 15%+ wines go elsewhere. Our Zins are always close to 14% while Cab and Syrah are often less than 14%. Those wineries that let the grapes hang long past the time necessary to produce 14% wine also reduce the terroir effect, even if they end up with a 14% wine somehow.

The other day when I was working the market in the East Bay, almost every buyer I talked to talked about not wanting high alcohol wines. They said the public is getting fed up with hi alcohol, sweet, non-food wines. I'm glad I stuck to my own style and did not join the fad because those that did may be stuck with unmarketable wines.

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