In the not-so-distant past California made its greatest wines. Wines with alcohol levels around 12%. But then science intervened and the great traditions of winemaking were cast aside like so many tired, old, relentlessly dull wine writers ought to be. The great traditions of picking when the grapes looked kinda tasty, of managing the canopy with a weed whacker, of using marijuana as a cover crop, of ballyhooing massive tannins as the secret to a wine’s longevity at the expense of your dental work, of actually trying to figure out how to get some damned ripeness so the wine would actually taste good—science came along and destroyed all of that, and, along with it, the authentic flavor of California wine. But now, happily, there is a new wave of winemakers who want to return to that era, who foresee a demand for lower alcohol wines, wines that deliver less pleasure in the name of more terroir--and nothing tops terroir. Except hype.
“As I see it,” says Richard Splooge of the prestigious natural wine producer Splooge Estate Vineyards, “wine made from ripe, luscious grapes, the kind that yield 15% alcohol, isn’t appropriate for our times. We’re a Puritan culture going through tough economic times and we need wine to reflect that. Sure, times were good in the ‘90’s, and we wanted wines that were 'hedonistic' and heady. Now our lives suck. Every day is a struggle to put food on the table. And what sort of wine goes with very little food? Lean, austere, ungenerous, underripe, low alcohol wine! If your budget doesn’t allow you to purchase very much wine, you’re going to want a wine that doesn’t deliver too much pleasure, a wine that lasts longer in the glass, and a bottle that you don’t want to finish. Those are the kinds of wine we make here at Splooge Estate, and there are a lot of other wineries following our lead.” Indeed, my first taste of Splooge wasn’t very pleasurable, and that seemed to beautifully reflect my miserable, lonely life.
Another of these saviors of wine is Frank Lee Baloney of Shit a Brix Winery. Frank is a former crash test dummy who is now living his dream of owning his own vineyard. He purchased a ten-acre property in the Sierra Foothills that was once a thriving drive-in movie theater. All by himself Frank planted five acres of Abouriou, Rondinella and Gruner Veltliner in the harsh landscape of pavement, hypodermic needles and petrified condoms. His wines sell for less than $20 bottle, and include a free Slurpee. “The Slurpee is my idea of a joke,” says Frank. “So many wines from California taste like Slurpees these days. Not mine. Mine are raw and tight and hard to get rid of. More like Herpes than Slurpees.
“I pick my grapes as soon as they turn that funny color. And I don’t use any trellising either, nothing to expose them to the sun. They’re Veraison Wireless. I make my wines in what used to be the concession stand, and not with any temperature-controlled crap. That’s the work of the Devil. Fermentation is done in about six hours, as it should be. My natural yeast are redneck natural yeast and don’t screw around. My Shit a Brix wines usually end up being about 8% alcohol, but they are as perfect an expression of where they’re grown as is possible. I don’t want people tasting my wine and saying it tastes like ripe berries or jam or anything else delicious like that. I want them to taste it and say, ‘Hey, that tastes like Shit!’” And, indeed, they do.
Ann Hedonia made ripe, chewy, rich, high alcohol wines under her Ann Hedonia label, and received very high scores from the most prestigious critics. “But I got tired of that,” Ann told me, “and now I want to garner praise from the wine critics who have a lot to say but don’t really matter, like Ms. Feiring and that W. Blinky Gray hanger-on and Jamie Goodietwoshoes. And they’re all talking about lower alcohols, so that’s where I’m going.” Her Ann Hedonia Cabernet Sauvignon once received a perfect 100 point score from both Robert Parker and James Laube. She’s done making wines like that. “Too easy to sell, and for too much money.”
And now the Ann Hedonia wines reflect the name itself. “The thing about ripeness is it tends to eliminate terroir, and I drink wine for terroir, not pleasure or insobriety or joy. Those don’t belong in wine. And I want wine drinkers to understand that it’s not about being delicious, it’s about being authentic and natural, and appealing to the current obsession with our permanently disabled climate. I’m with the climate change deniers, and lower alcohol wines soothe my guilty conscience, make me feel like we’ve returned to the good old days when we burned fossil fuels guilt-free, as if it was Tibetan monks, and the seasons were predictable every year, and wines were lean and bracing, without the shame of ripeness and warmth. Low alcohol wines are my nostalgia for those days when we didn’t have to give a crap about the planet. It’s my way of pretending that now I do.”
Even renowned and admired wine expert Rudy Kurniawan, often known as Dr. Conti, told me, “When I faked those great old Burgundies with younger and simpler wines, I always tried to keep the alcohol levels low. I care about the people who buy my wines, and I think a wine with lower alcohol is more expressive and subtle, more revealing of its terroir even if it isn’t actually from that terroir. I drank a lot of Screaming Eagle also, for example, and when I refilled the bottles, I’d make sure and blend in some fake Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet, just a few ounces, to add some structure and lower the alcohol. It improved the fake Screaming Eagle, if I do say so myself, and made it worth the money to the fake connoisseurs who bought it and bragged to their asshole friends about it. It seemed to work wonders. Really, I think the future of fraudulent wine is in low alcohol wine.”