The Wandering Wino Blog

Wine Alcohol Debate


The Garagiste Festival (Santa Ynez Southern Exposure)continues to shed light on smaller production winemakers. Many of these wine producers cannot be found on a wine map. In some cases, the wines poured cannot even be found in any bar, restaurant, or wine shop. The discoveries can be fun, interesting, and even stellar.

Preceeding the grand tasting in Solvang (Santa Barbara County), a panel of winemakers met to discuss the Great Alcohol Debate, The Elephant In The Bottle. This just might be a more inside or industry debate, but it can be a very hot topic in some circles.

Neither the topic discussed, nor the wines, showed heat. However, the dialog was very entertaining. Attendees had the opportunity to taste through the wines from the panel, while attempting to guess the alcohol content.


The wines poured included: (My alcohol guess is in ()

  • 2013 Zeppelin Winery Pinot Noir (SLO County)15.4% (14.7)
  • 2010 Flying Goat Pinot Noir, Salisbury Vineyard 14.7% (15.2)
  • 2011 Flying Goat Pinot Noir, Dierberg Vineyard 13.9% (13.9)
  • 2013 Cuilleron Syrah, Rhone Valley, France 13.2% (14.5)
  • 2012 Saarloos & Sons "Family Tree" GSM 14.5% (15.0)
  • 2011 Michael Gill Cellars Tuxedo Syrah, Paso Robles 16.5% (13.8) No salt or lime required, it was delicious.  


Garagiste Panel

Moderator Stewart McLennan opened up and addressed the crowd:


"Salesmen that are biased say they don't want something over a certain amount of alcohol. I personally feel that is completely ridiculous. Who is driving it? I don't know. Is it France?" 


"Because they can't get their grapes ripe, and they can only make 13% alcohol wines?"


"Is it because the tax on a wine below 14% is less than it is above 14%? Is because you want to make a wine called skinny girl?" 


Stillman Brown

 Photo Above - No known photos of Stillman Brown, and unknown what he looks like. 



Stillman Brown - (Red Zeppelin Winery/Paso Robles):

"Structure is completely complex. It is much more than the alcohol, but it is the only scientifically based number on most bottles of wine. I think it makes a too easy handle for an uninformed or nonsensical sommelier, or some consumer to talk as if they know more than they actually do. Having a sommelier of a restaurant chain say: 'We won't have a wine above a certain alcohol.' OK, so you don't want to serve foie gras, you won't servechildren, gay couples, or people in clown costumes." 

"This is the case where you have a sommelier that is a busboy that won't shut the F@#$-up."



 Keith Saarloos

Photo above - Right, Keith Saarloos. Left, Stillman Brown's palate.



Keith Saarloos - Saarloos & Sons (Los Olivos):  

"A farmer is pregnant every single year."

"That pregnancy of bringing a vine from bud to fruit set, all the way to dehydration, to the day we are actually going to pick this thing." 

"Our job in the winery now is not to screw up in one day what it took the 364 days of work in the vineyard."

"Getting just to that right point, where you can sit it (grape) in your mouth, and you are sitting across the picking bin from your dad or cousin, and you are like: 'This is it, this is going to be amazing!' We've never had to water back. Why would we work so hard in the vineyard?" 

"So when we come to this low alcohol thing...this dogmatic decision about what we should be doing previous to harvest...coming up with this alcohol question before harvest is like telling my wife what day she is going to give birth to my child."


"It's like, good luck. Who is really calling for these low alcohol wines? It's sommeliers, it's people who are inserting an importance. All of the sudden it's like I want ,to tell you how loud you should play your music."

"That's kind of like what we are doing with this low alcohol non-sense."


"The people who are telling you to have low alcohol wines always seem to be people who wish a customer would buy two bottles of wine, rather than one." 

"I can understand why it's important to them, but I can also understand - 'Who gives a $h!%?'."

"There is a certain sadness I have for someone who buys wines based on scores. They never will know what they really like. If you think of wine as a beverage, you are missing out." 

"Having the conversation about old world/new world, I think one of the most exciting things we have going for us now, like let's say you go to Texas or you go to Chicago, there is regionally specific cuisine. You go there, you get it, and you are really excited to get Creole, or Omaha steaks or whatever, but you are going there and you are excited about it. I find it interesting that the opposite is happening in wine now. We are trying to homogenize down to you need to do this and fit within this box, rather than lets celebrate these different regions."

"Let's see what is different here. Once you find a region you like, then you can find wines you like, and really dig down. That is what appreciation is. That should be our goal, to celebrate these differences, not homogenize and make a pulp orange juice or non pulp orange juice and who cares where you order it from."



 Norm Yost

Photo above - Norm Yost



Norm Yost Flying Goat Cellars (Lompoc Wine Ghetto):


"I have also worked with Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and some of the varietals in the right perspective, particularly Syrah and Zinfandel can handle those higher alcohols. I think they are appropriate for that type of wine-making." 

"It's about choosing site. It is about choosing flavors. It is a balance of a lot of what you want to achieve."

"For me, every harvest is an empty canvas."

"It's this bright white canvas and it's brand new. You can paint it how you want to. So it is how do you make your adjustments. How you do the nuances of your wine-making. That is how the canvas gets painted."

"We all (panelists) have different opinions about how we do things. Specifically for Pinot Noir, the way I go is for balance in flavors. We source from nine different vineyards. I have nine different terroirs I am looking at. Nine different fresh canvaes to look at and say these are the flavors I'd like to see, the components I am looking for in these specific sites."